Wednesday, November 26, 2014
A Look Back At "Tolkien: A Biography"
After a panicky consideration of the usual suspects, I thought of my paperback Tolkien resources, lately made more accessible by my winter cleaning and shuffling arrangements. I opened the drawer (I have a huge, battered old dresser topped with a re-purposed china hutch to house my Tolkien Archives) thinking perhaps to peruse The Tolkien Reader again, but the only version I saw was my original copy, which for sentimental reasons I do not care to subject to further wear and tear. Then my eye lighted on my paperback copy of Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. Bingo! I slipped it into my coat pocket and hurried out to my ride.
This is the same book I bought back in 1978, and is one of the few books out of my thousands that I actually scrawled my name in, back before I developed a reluctance to mark up any volume. To put it into some historical perspective, it was just a few years since JRRT had passed away, and The Silmarillion (1977) had been published not too distantly. The Rankin/Bass Hobbit (1977) and the Bakshi LOTR (1978) were hanging in the air, and all and all it was a sort of Tolkien Renaissance --if a somewhat cheesy, 1970's sort of incarnation. My own personal interest, though strong, was still in its infancy, and I was eager to have this authorized, in-depth look at this enigmatic man's life.
It is an unusual experience to be reading this book again, and in the same copy. Although I have dipped into it many times (mostly in the hardback copy I acquired, and often to just look up some facts and quotes), this is the first time I am giving it a complete reading once more, probably since the early Eighties. Bringing to it not only an expanded knowledge of Tolkien's history but also a wider experience of life and a more critical eye, it is like reading a whole new book. But still, the idiosyncrasies of the paper, binding, and print evoke the time for me, and I am filled with nostalgia. Even the cover has the familiar, ubiquitous Ballantine Books portrait photo: the grinning, pipe-clutching Tolkien in a hugely collared coat.
One thing it has sparked in me are a few thoughts about biography, authenticity, and time. Early books about JRRT, like William Ready's The Tolkien Relation or Daniel Grotta-Kurska's Architect of Middle-earth, are necessarily scattered with inaccuracies and assumptions. A certain amount of hagiography (and even caricature) of popular figures and the personal biases of the biographer creep into some accounts. People who have actually known the person (albeit in one specific--and limited--aspect of their life) and those who have researched what the paper trail reveals have different takes on that life.
After personalities die down and sensationalism passes away, a more complete and perhaps clearer perception of the subject of the biography emerges. So, early does not necessarily equal authentic, and later does not perforce imply legendary. In the future we might well have a version trimmed to fit our own social expectations and prejudices; in fact, a book has already been written focusing on Tolkien as eco-warrior, and there is beginning to be what I can only call legends about what some perceive as his misogyny and racism.
A deeper and more thorough examination of Tolkien's life (as well as a closer literary and philosophical analysis of his works) does much to dispel those legends. I find, though, that however much I learn about the man, there is something about him that is completely elusive, perhaps only to be glimpsed in what is revealed in his actual writing. Since he was not a big fan of "biographical literary criticism," I wonder what he might think of that.