Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tolkien Biography: The Carpenter Benchmark

The following was first published on this date in 2016 on the now-defunct Examiner.com. It is reproduced here for posterity. 

George Allen & Unwin 1977 (Fair Use)
Tolkien: The Authorized Biography

JRR Tolkien, the author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," expected to live beyond the 81 years he was given. His ancestors had lived much longer. But, although death surprised him in September of 1973, he had long since prepared to hand over his literary legacy to his son. Christopher, who had long collaborated with his father about his mythology, spent the next few years editing "The Silmarillion" for publication.

It is also evident that Tolkien knew that a biography would be forthcoming, and he prepared “a few pages of recollections” and made notations on a number of old letters. Humphrey Carpenter, a friend of Tolkien’s children, was given access to the family’s private papers, and interviewed family, friends, and Tolkien himself. 

This biography has been the standard since it was published in 1977, and has been the basis for virtually every Tolkien biography that was written in the twentieth century. Not until John Garth’s "Tolkien and the Great War" (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history.

Tolkien himself did not think that much could be learned about an author’s writing by looking at his life. But it is evident that his life and interests had an influence upon his imagination. Three details in the book show how Tolkien's imagination was influenced by his personal life: Tolkien’s faith, his affection, and his perfectionism. Each of these affected how he wrote.

While Tolkien’s works are not overtly Christian, they are framed with the Christian worldview, and based on Christian morality and ethics. The God behind Middle-earth is clouded from our view in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," but is a little more obvious in "The Silmarillion." Middle-earth is not about his faith, but his faith certainly is ingrained within it.

Tolkien had a genuine affection for people. Companionship is a recurring theme in Middle-earth. A major theme in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" is the camaraderie of friends and companions. And his deep love for his wife is seen in "The Silmarillion"’s story about Beren and Lúthien.

Tolkien’s perfectionism helped create what he would call the verisimilitude of the story. The painstaking detail he went through to make sure the details have continuity is extraordinary, and much of the reason it took almost two decades from the time he began writing "The Lord of the Rings" until it was published. This desire to get every bit of minutia just right was many times a hindrance to completing the task, but we who read are blessed with the “suspension of disbelief.”
And we are blessed that Humphrey Carpenter was able to take up the task of writing about Tolkien’s life. There is something for everyone in this volume. The Tolkien novice will find the text easy to follow, while experienced aficionados will find an opulence of detail, including background on some of Tolkien’s more obscure works. There are also helpful appendices with a genealogical table, chronology of events, and bibliography of Tolkien’s published works.


The "Authorized Biography" is a valuable resource that every Tolkien fan should have in their personal library.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A definitive Tolkien biography for a new generation

The following was first published on this date in 2016 on the now-defunct Examiner.com. It is reproduced here for posterity. 

Lion Hudson 2012 (Fair Use)
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend

What does war do to a person? For many of JRR Tolkien’s generation, the “Great War” left them jaded, cynical, and agnostic. Tolkien, on the other hand, came through it with his faith strengthened and his imagination stirred toward creating a Legendarium anchored in a morality based upon his faith. His was not merely an ethereal faith, but was well grounded in everyday life. He understood the importance of the ordinary. As Colin Duriez comments in his biography, 'J. R. R. Tolkien: The Making of a Legend' (p. 81):

In a curious way, the climate of war was having an invigorating effect upon Tolkien’s imagination. Perhaps it was because war heightened the importance of ordinary life. Elements like love, friendship, enjoyment of art, and the free pursuit of knowledge, worship, and leisure, even if hard-won in poverty, in representing peace stood in contrast to war. … Tolkien’s creativity arose out of the ordinary, which is why the Shire, and its protection, is at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, standing for the wider protection of the human itself.

Arguably, part of what has made 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' so great is the “everyman” character of Bilbo, Sam, and, to a lesser extent, Frodo. For Tolkien, war and heroism are on the periphery. They are part of the story, and a catalyst for change in his protagonists, but they are never the main focus.

If “ordinary life” is what was important for Tolkien, and what is important in 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings,' it would be helpful to know a bit about the author’s life. What was “ordinary” for this “everyman?” While it is always a dangerous thing to make too much of an author’s life when interpreting his works, a good biography can help us gain insights, and perhaps help us understand what he was trying to say. There is no shortage of material about Tolkien the man, but some volumes are more helpful than others. Until the twenty-first century, the definitive source had been Humphrey Carpenter’s 'Authorized Biography.' Not until John Garth’s 'Tolkien and the Great War' (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history.


Garth’s biography is a great source for information surrounding the first World War, but no comprehensive biography on Tolkien had come forth until now. Drawing from a variety of sources, including letters and memoirs of those who knew the Professor, Duriez’ biography should stand as the definitive source for this generation. The novice will find the book very readable and accessible, while the aficionado will benefit from a strong refresher, as well as a few new tidbits and ideas to chew on. The Select Bibliography and Index should prove helpful for scholars and devoted fans who want to explore deeper or find that bit of information they are looking for.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

ABC LOST's final season and the Narnia connection

This article was originally published on this date back in 2010 on Examiner.com. I reproduce it here for posterity.
Charlotte Staples Lewis - promotional photo

Next Tuesday, February 2, the ABC Series LOST returns for its sixth and final season. There is a definite connection between the ABC show LOST and The Chronicles of Narnia.

In February of 2008, LOST introduced a new character named Charlotte Staples Lewis. The name is obviously derived from Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia series of seven children’s books.

C.S. Lewis was called “Jack” by his friends, and it has been speculated that the character Jack in LOST somewhat represents C.S. Lewis’s journey from Atheism (man of science) to Christianity (man of faith).

The first episode of Season 4 (”Confirmed Dead”) was aired on February 7, 2008, and was rebroadcast the following week in an “enhanced” version with clues and tidbits added to the bottom of the screen. In this episode, we received confirmation that LOST’s C.S. Lewis is indeed related to both the author and his books. The bottom of the screen reads:

This is Charlotte Staples Lewis… she is an anthropologist. Her name is inspired by C.S. Lewis… author of The Chronicles of Narnia… a story of an unlikely passage… to a most unusual place.

Charlotte is then seen in a flashback in a desert in Tunisia. She has learned about an archaeological dig there, and identifies some bones as that of a polar bear.

We’ve seen polar bears on the island… now here’s evidence of the furry creatures… in another unlikely location.

Charlotte does some digging through the sand near the bones and finds a leather strap.

A DHARMA logo from the Hydra Station… the discovery is very important to Charlotte.

Although there are no polar bears in the Narnia books, the Walden/Disney movie based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe does show the White Witch being pulled by polar bears in a chariot during the battle scenes. Could that scene have been an influence for the TV series?

The reference to C. S. Lewis was quickly picked up by the media after this episode appeared. Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly was reminded of a scene from one of the books. When Charlotte first arrives, she is seen splashing around in the water. In Prince Caspian, the Pevensie children play in the ocean when they are returned to Narnia.

In the LOST episode “This Place is Death,” Charlotte reveals that she had indeed lived on the island as a little girl, and had been warned not to return. Her mother had taken her off the island, and had convinced her over the years that the island was just a child’s game—it was just make-believe. The sounds like Susan’s attitude toward Narnia as she grew older. But her discovery of polar bear remains with a DHARMA collar in the desert had rekindled her belief in the island.

Charlotte dies from the adverse effects of time travel, but the references to Narnia are not finished. In the sixth episode of Season 5, “316,” we are introduced to a DHARMA  Station, not on the island, but in Los Angeles. It is called the Lamppost, an obvious reference to the Lamppost (near the entrance to the Wardrobe) in the Narnia books. The Lamppost is used to “find” the island.

The title of the episode, “316,” is the flight number they must take to get back to the island, but it is also an apparent reference to John 3:16 in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Jack is compared to Thomas, whose fame is that he doubted the resurrection. Jack must become a “man of faith” instead of the “man of science” he has been (in contrast to Locke) since the beginning of the show.

But where will the series now go now that we have seen that Locke’s “resurrection” was apparently a ruse perpetuated by Jacob’s nemesis? And will there be more references to Narnia in Season 6?
For more information about LOST and the Narnia connections, see Preview to the Last Season on HollywoodJesus.com, and check out the provided links.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The order of the Narnia Chronicles

On this date in 2010, I wrote the following article for Examiner.com about the reading order of the Chronicles, and the order of the movies. Just over a year ago, Douglas Gresham made some comments about the movie order in a clip posted on the official Chronicles of Narnia Facebook page. You can view his comments here: The Chronicles of NarniaEmbedded at the bottom of the article below is a 2007 YouTube video by Brian Carnell, known better in online Narnia circles as Glumpuddle. More recently, Brian has published three new videos on the subject. I have included these below, also.  
The Chronicles of Narnia - HarperCollins box set



Why is it that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is numbered as book 5, but the next Narnia movie is only the third one? Why did the moviemakers skip books 1 and 3?

Actually, the present numbering of the books began when HarperCollins became the publisher in 1994. MacMillan/Collier used the publication order to number the books. For those who read the series before the numbering was changed, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first to be read, and it became the best known and favorite book in the series.

It was only natural that Walden Media would choose the best known of the series to make a movie. And since the Pevensie children (as children) are key to Prince Caspian, it was only natural to use the four actors they already had before they got too much older.
Walden was also following the published order of the books. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first of the series to be written, and the first published, in 1950. An additional volume was added each year in the following order:

1.      The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
2.      Prince Caspian
3.      The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
4.      The Silver Chair
5.      The Horse and His Boy
6.      The Magician’s Nephew
7.      The Last Battle

The new numbering system is based on the chronological order of the books. (The Horse and His Boy actually takes place before the end of The Lion, etc, while the Pevensies are still in Narnia the first time.)

1.      The Magician’s Nephew
2.      The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
3.      The Horse and His Boy
4.      Prince Caspian
5.      The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
6.      The Sliver Chair
7.      The Last Battle

Many Narnia aficionados recommend that the Chronicles be read in the published order, at least for new readers. C S Lewis wrote each book with the previously published works in mind, although they are self-contained well enough to be read independently.

Months before Prince Caspian came out in theaters, there were a series of videos about the movies and the books uploaded to YouTube by “glumPuddle.” Episode #17 about “The order Debate” is embedded below. Here are some other great articles on the subject:







Monday, January 2, 2017

Is Narnia drifting from its Christian message?

The following is a news article I published for Examiner.com on New Year's Day, 2010. Although it is dated, it has some relevant facts (and personal opinion) which I think are worth preserving. (Examiner no longer is publishing to the web and has deleted all its content.)
Michael Apted Wikimedia

A New Year’s Eve (December 31, 2009) article in the Washington Times by Julia Duin expresses concerns by some in the Christian community about the direction the Narnia franchise is taking with its third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The article is rather confusing on several points.

The paragraph describing the various changes in dates for the release of Dawn Treader makes it sound like the delays only happened after Disney decided to pull out. Actually, some delays, due to the writers’ strike in 2008, and to the children’s schedules, had already been announced while Disney was involved. Problems with the drug wars in Mexico also prompted a change of filming venue to Australia.

That paragraph aside, the article causes further confusion by making certain unsubstantiated speculations.

First of all, Duin expresses doubt the “will and determination exist to finish the seven-part Narnia series.” This conclusion is reached from what she says are “weird remarks uttered by directors and producers of the first two films.” What remarks she is referencing are not specified.

On the contrary, since the success of the first movie, the filmmakers have continued to express that the series would continue to be produced as long as it received adequate support. The willingness of Walden to continue, even after Disney decided to discontinue its partnership in December of 2008, is also a strong indication of their intent.

The article goes on to reference C S Lewis step-son Douglas Gresham’s recent interview (citing a third-hand report) in which he is "ambivalent" to some changes made to the Dawn Treader script. (See "Douglas Gresham interview on Dawn Treader causes stir and discussions" on NarniaFans.com, and HollywoodJesus.com.) It seems doubtful that Douglas Gresham’s comments mean that he “caved” to intense studio pressure. He does not express any animosity toward the studio for the changes they made, and indicates the themes of the book are still well conveyed.

Duin then quotes from an interview with Michael Apted by a New Zealand Christian radio station. She fails to mention the interview was conducted in the summer of 2007, just after Apted had signed to be director for Dawn Treader. (Transcripts are available in the NarniaFans archives and at WaldenFans.com.)

Apted talks about the challenges of making a film that is directed at both the conservative Christian base and the public at large. She and some in the Christian community object to this “even-handedness,” and are also concerned about the activist stands of some involved the project.
The article concludes with a quote from Ted Baehr, the publisher of the Christian magazine Movieguide and president of the Christian Film and TV Commission. A former script advisor had reportedly told Baehr the movie “was drifting from its Christian vision… not expressing the intent of C.S. Lewis…”

She also claims Baehr told her that an early script of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had “veered in a bizarre direction” and Dick Cook (President of Disney at the time) had to keep things from getting out of hand. However, this all seems to contradict what Baehr said in an article for WorldNetDaily last January. In comments about Disney pulling out of the franchise, he concluded

The Associated Press took my words out of context in an interview on this subject to make Disney's decision look like one of the parties in Hollywood was concerned about the movie's faith content. The fact is neither Disney nor Walden has hesitated from including faith in their movies. The book "Dawn Treader" has the least amount of time with Aslan, who is the Jesus figure in the series by acclaimed Christian author C.S. Lewis. It is much more logical that the economics of the movie did not make sense than that there was a concern over the Christian content of the book.

As “secular” as Walden and the other parties involved in this project may be, they are not afraid of the Christian faith. In fact, they seem to show much less prejudice toward Christianity than some Christians show toward them.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Narnia and Christmas celebration: have we forgotten the joy?

The following was originally posted as a two-part article on the now defunct Examiner.com December 24, 2009.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe book cover

There is a painting by Pauline Baynes that graced the front of the paperback version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for years in Great Britain. (This cover was not available on American editions until recently. See picture.) The scene is just after Aslan is resurrected and Lucy and Susan are dancing with him.

This passage in The Lion (near the end of Chapter 15) is reminiscent of the New Testament account of the resurrection, as well as other events in the life of Jesus Christ. The loud cracking of the Stone Table is like the earthquake and splitting of the Veil in the Temple. After realizing Aslan is real, Lucy and Susan “flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.”  In Luke 17 a woman anoints Christ’s feet and keeps kissing His feet. On Easter morning, Mary clings to Jesus when she realizes He is not just the gardener. (John 20:17 NKJV, NASB)

After Aslan tells the girls about the Deeper Magic, the “romp” begins. Chasing, leaping, scrambling – “whether it more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind.” The romp only takes up one paragraph, but it would have taken up a few minutes on film, if the writers of the Walden/Disney adaptation of the book had chosen to put it into the movie. They probably felt that the film needed to move on at that point. After all, a battle is going on, and Aslan has work to do.
So the movie bypasses the Romp and goes straight to the Roar and the restoration of the Narnians at the witch’s castle. (Aslan’s Roar is used in both The Lion and Prince Caspian to indicate he is about to act and restore things to what they were.)

Aslan’s Romp in Prince Caspian takes up much more than one paragraph. It begins after the Roar which restores the trees. Strangely, after the trees are awakened, Aslan is joined (in the book – not the movie) by an exotic group led by a young boy with a wild face, who is followed by “wild girls” and a fat man on a donkey.

Lucy and Susan soon recognize that the boy is Bacchus, whom they had learned about from Mr. Tumnus long ago. The fat man is Silenus. (If you've seen the original 1940 version of the Disney movie Fantasia, you may recall the scene of the fat man on a donkey during Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Disney basically morphs Bacchus and Silenus.
Sivenus and young Bacchus from Feast of the Gods (Bellini) Wikipedia

Why is Lewis introducing the Greek god of wine and his drunken teacher into Prince Caspian?

At the very end of Chapter 11, Susan makes the comment she “wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.” The inclusion of Bacchus was an attempt at “redeeming” the pagan myths, as Lewis often did in his fictional works.
As he explains in his autobiographical book, Surprised by Joy, mythology was one of the things that awakened a sense of Joy in Lewis during his early life. Lewis defines this “Joy” in Chapter 1 as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” It is a desire for something other and outer, that he later finds only to be fulfilled in a relationship with God.

Prince Caspian is perhaps the most personal of the Chronicles for Lewis. Devin Brown asks in the title of an article for Christianity Today Movies, “Is Caspian Really C. S. Lewis?” The parallels between Lewis and Caspian are striking. The relationship of Lewis and his nurse, who told him Irish folktales, mirrors Caspian’s nurse, who told the Prince about the Old Days of Narnia.

When we leave Lucy and Susan at the end of Chapter 11, we follow the boys and Trumpkin to Aslan’s How. “The Sorcery” must be dealt with. Lewis believed that sin is trying to fulfill legitimate desires in an illegitimate way. The desire for restoration of enchantment to Narnia was a good thing. But will the Narnians trust Aslan and wait for him, or seek power elsewhere? Lewis had a fascination for the Occult, which he had to deal with in his personal life. The Specter of the White Witch must be dealt with at Aslan’s How.

Lewis was also concerned that the ideals of chivalry had been lost in the modern world. Thus we have Peter’s challenge to Miraz to monomachy – a fight to the death to establish who will be the rightful king. Peter demonstrates the chivalrous attitude throughout the fight, but the Telmarines are intent on treachery. They did not count on the awakened trees, however, and are soundly defeated. They have to throw down their arms as they try to flee back across the river and find the Bridge of Bernuna has disappeared.

The last half of Chapter 14 tells about how Bacchus helps destroy the bridge and then goes on another Romp through the town. As people join them, the group is described by Lewis as “divine revelers.” This is not the drunken debauchery usually associated with Bacchus, but a celebration of the liberation of Narnia from an oppressive regime.

The freedom extends even to the schools in town. Students are freed from the “sort of ‘History’ that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule [which] was duller than the truest history you ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story.”

A girl from one of the schools joins the group, and they “helped her take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes she was wearing.” Lewis is not here promoting lasciviousness, like Bacchus of old would have. The girl is not being lewd, but is breaking free from the stuffy uniform that was worn by students in that day, including “ugly tight collars round their necks and thick tickly stockings on their legs.” In Chapter 2 of Surprised by Joy (”Concentration Camp”), Lewis describes what a school uniform was like for the boys.

Now I am choking and sweating, itching too, in thick dark stuff, throttled by an Eton collar, my feet already aching with unaccustomed boots. I am wearing knickerbockers that button at the knee. Every night… I am able to see the red, smarting imprint of those buttons in my flesh when I undress. Worst of all is the bowler hat, apparently made of iron, which grasps my head.

Part of what Lewis is trying to convey is that committed Christians can have fun without having to be drunk – or worse. You don’t have to be a “stuffed shirt” in order to follow Christ. There is a liberation that Christians know which allows us to celebrate life. Unfortunately, many who call themselves Christians have not discovered that freedom in Christ. With all that Christ has done for us, the Christian life should be one of celebration.

As you gather around the Christmas tree this year, note (or, if there are no children present, remember) the joy on the children’s faces as they open their gifts. Their enthusiasm might even be seen in a little romping. What a wonderful way to celebrate Christ’s birth.


Especially at this time of year, we could all use a little redeemed Bacchus in our lives.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Lessons from Saruman and Count Dooku

Christopher Lee passed away June 7, 2015. As soon as the news broke on the internet, I published this article (originally posted on the now defunct Examiner.com on July 11). I was reminded of this article earlier today, and I felt the occasion of the final presidential debate would be a good time to re-post it. Its themes, I feel, go to the heart of this year's election. I'll leave it to the reader whether you agree what I wrote over sixteen months ago speaks to our national decision this year.  
















The internet is flooded today with the news Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93. Although the famous actor passed away Sunday, news of his departure did not surface until early this morning. (See a list of links at the end of this article.) Lee is famous for his portrayal of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels. Older fans may remember him as Count Dracula in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The Internet Movie Data Base lists some 281 total acting credits.

Science Fiction and Fantasy buffs will ever remember Christopher Lee as a turncoat. Count Dooku became Darth Tyranus, in part because of some lees-than-blameless actions ordered by the Jedi Council. This is reminiscent of Anakin Skywalker being drawn to the Dark Side after being recruited to spy on the Emperor. We learn in the prequel films the Jedi Order was run by people with feet of clay. The power of the Force causes temptations for even the Light-Siders. Being one of the "good guys" doesn't exempt people from questionable acts and decisions.

JRR Tolkien has been criticized for a world which is too "black and white." But the Middle-earth written about in Tolkien's books is not exactly a "black hat" verses "white hat" universe. The temptation of the One Ring involved more than just the desire to control others. Gandalf describes the more subtle allurement in The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, "The Shadow of the Past."

...the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good.

Gandalf's temptation was to become strong enough to be able to do the most good. This is the insidious nature of power. We feel powerless when we see those suffering around us, and are tempted to obtain and use power to "set things right." We fall into the same trap Anakin Skywalker fell into. In Revenge of the Sith, he tells Padme:

I won't lose you the way I lost my mother. I am becoming more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed of, and I'm doing it for you: to protect you.

How many atrocities have been done in the name of protecting loved ones and the weak? It's like what King Arthur says in the television series Camelot (episode 4):

...if you have to fight dirty to protect your cause, then so be it.

"The ends justify the means," they say. But we forget the byproducts which grow out of those means. What we teach others by our actions often destroy the benefits of what we accomplished.

In the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, Saruman is coerced to join Sauron when he believes the Dark Lord cannot be beaten. But that is not how Tolkien wrote the story. In the book version, Saruman is attempting to deceive Sauron and get the Ring for himself. Saruman wants to set himself up as ruler of Middle-earth. His motives probably were well enough to begin with. The wizards—the Istari—including Gandalf and Saruman, were sent to Middle-earth to help the people in their struggle against Sauron. However, they were told not to dominate the peoples of Middle-earth.

But Saruman's desire to help protect was corrupted as he began to lust for power. In our modern world, too many politicians have gone down the same path. Be careful your desire to help doesn't become a lust for power – to the detriment of those you desire to help.

Links to articles about Christopher Lee's death: