Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tolkien's Bio: The Carpenter Benchmark

JRR Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, expected to live beyond the 81 year 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 has been written since. Not until John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history. (I hope to review Garth's book in the coming months.)

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 jumped out at me as I re-read this book: Tolkien's faith, his affection, and his perfectionism. Each of these affected how his imagination was put down on paper.

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. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is the camaraderie of friends and companions. 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. 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.


Anonymous said...

That is too cool! Thanks for the background info! I love Tolkien; he's one of my all-time favorite authors, and he definitely has some Christ-symbolism in his works (i.e. "The Return of the King") :)
Thanks again!

God bless,
Taylor J. Beisler

Mark said...

Thanks for taking time to leave your comment, Taylor. I'm glad this was helpful to you.