Tolkien Biographies and Biographers

All about J.R.R.Tolkien's life, his beliefs and philosophies, and his interests
Merry
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Postby Merry » Sun Jul 18, 2010 10:09 pm

Just read that Carpenter was one of the people who were upset that LOTR was voted best book of the century. Traitor! :evil:
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Iolanthe
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Postby Iolanthe » Tue Jul 20, 2010 10:36 am

Really? I'm shocked. I expect he would have been asked for comments at the time but I'm still surprised that he wouldn't stand up for Tolkien :( .

Somehow I've completely missed this book - I remember thinking I should read it but never got around to ordering it. I'll have to get it!
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Merry
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Postby Merry » Tue Jul 20, 2010 3:48 pm

More on Carpenter--

Pearce quotes Patrick Curry, who quotes Carpenter: 'Even Tolkien's own biographer (Et tu, Brute?) has fatuously opined that "he doesn't really belong to literature or to the arts, but more to the category of people who do things with model railways in their garden sheds."'

Carpenter said this on the BBC's 'Bookshelf' in 1991.
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Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

marbretherese
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Postby marbretherese » Wed Jul 21, 2010 10:13 am

Merry, although Pearce chose to regard that quote of Carpenter's as an insult, in one way I think that's quite an accurate description of what Tolkien did, and could be regarded as a compliment. He took a very personal obsession with languages and ancient invented culture, and as a by-product happened to write two of the most successful novels of the 20th century. He wasn't an author by trade - he was an Oxford Professor, writing in his spare time. In many ways this makes his achievement all the more remarkable.

One of the things which makes LOTR unique is that it comes from a different path to traditional artistic and literary works. It breaks all the rules - in many ways it's revolutionary. That's why it's so popular and that's why the literati can't forgive it's success. So many of them can't define it, or analyse it, without opening themselves up to depths they would rather not contemplate.
Last edited by marbretherese on Wed Jul 21, 2010 2:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Riv Res
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Postby Riv Res » Wed Jul 21, 2010 11:28 am

So ... am considering a ritual burning of my copy of Carpenter's book.
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Merry
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Postby Merry » Wed Jul 21, 2010 4:07 pm

I understand your point, marbretherese, but I'm with RR on this one. I do think it's very poor form to make one's reputation off of an author and then turn one's nose up at him on TV!

As I said, though, I see your point: LOTR is different. But I do not think that Carpenter meant his remarks as a compliment, but rather as a sneer.

I've read somewhere that the Tolkien family authorized Carpenter to be the official biographer. I wonder why they did this.

I finished the Pearce biography last night. As a convert himself, Pearce focuses on the Catholic and spiritual dimensions of Tolkien and his works, which I like, even while admitting that there are other dimensions that have been adequately covered by others. I've always thought that Tolkien was trying to do many things with LOTR and included everything that he loved in the books. Pearce's book includes many excerpts from personal letters and a reading of LOTR that lead one to the conclusion that Tolkien was either deeply depressed or he saw the world in deeply spiritual terms, especially as he grew older. I think the latter is true, of course. While he continued to enjoy greatly his family and friends and the simple aspects of life, he also became very clear that this world is not our real home and became focused on the eternal. Pearce includes several passages from letters in which Tolkien describes experiences in prayer that can only be described as mystical.

Quite remarkable, really. I feel that I know the Professor much better now--sort of like a grandfather!
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Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Lindariel
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Postby Lindariel » Wed Jul 21, 2010 4:32 pm

I don't know, Riv. Don't think I could bear to burn my copy of "The Letters of JRR Tolkien." The Tolkien Society describes him as a "friend" of JRR Tolkien. I'm not quite sure how to take his comments. I can see marbretherese's point, but at the same time feel that it really might be stretching things to see the statement as a compliment rather than a sneer. The sneer is certainly the first and easiest assumption to make and is the most direct reading of the statement. The compliment requires kindly interpreting the statement in several ways.

I wish we could HEAR how he delivered the statement on BBC's "Bookshelf." Was the comment delivered sneeringly or affectionately? Was he describing Tolkien rather like an unlikely inventor pottering around in his workshop and coming up with something astoundingly brilliant and completely new and different, or was he relegating him to the neighborhood crackpot who accidentally mixes together the right chemicals and blows up his garden shed?

I agree with Merry that it if the comment was meant sneeringly, then it is particularly despicable of him since he made his career as Tolkien's biographer. Too bad he's dead, and we can't insist on a corroboration.
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“Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be.”

Merry
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Postby Merry » Wed Jul 21, 2010 5:17 pm

Whether or not we interpret the analogy to the garden shed kindly, Carpenter did say that LOTR wasn't 'literature' or 'art'.

(As an aside, I'm not a big fan of model trains, but I do enjoy it when I run into displays of miniature gardens with trains running through them. I think the Professor would have enjoyed them, too. It does baffle the mind to think of all the hours that go into such a thing, but usually they are done by retired people and I suppose that there are worse ways to spend one's time!)
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Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

Lindariel
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Postby Lindariel » Wed Jul 21, 2010 8:13 pm

Actually, I think Tolkien's accomplishment is BEYOND 'literature' and 'art,' in the sense that the Bible and the Koran are also BEYOND 'literature' and 'art.' I think Tolkien's tales of Arda are genuine mythology/pre-history. That is why they resonate so strongly with so many people of so many different backgrounds, languages, faiths, ideologies, etc. He has transcended mere 'literature.'

But I'm not sure this is what Humphrey Carpenter meant with his unfortunate statement.
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“Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be! And I will send forth into the Void the Flame Imperishable, and it shall be at the heart of the World, and the World shall Be.”

Iolanthe
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Postby Iolanthe » Wed Jul 21, 2010 8:14 pm

I think context is everything with this quote. On reflection I can't imagine Carpenter sneering at Tolkien, but I can imagine him trying to convey his belief that what Tolkien has done is more than standard literature or art (rather than less, or not meeting that standard). He said that Tolkien didn't 'belong' to literature, not that what he wrote couldn't be classed as literature. Perhaps he put it clumsily. As Marbretherese said, Tolkien wasn't primarily an author and so couldn't be said to just belong to literature or the arts. He sort of transcends it in a way that is incomprehensible to most literati who like people to stay in neat boxes. Something I expect Carpenter understood very well!
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Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
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Iolanthe
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Postby Iolanthe » Wed Jul 21, 2010 8:14 pm

Cross posted with Lindariel :lol: .
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Now let the song begin! Let us sing together
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Merry
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Postby Merry » Wed Jul 21, 2010 8:41 pm

I wonder if the clip is available somewhere. In any case, both Curry and Pearce clearly think Carpenter is guilty here. 'Et tu, Brute?' is pretty funny! This interview happened in 1991, when the literati were attempting to distance themselves from the movies.

I won't burn my Carpenter books, but I might stick some pins in them!
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Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.

marbretherese
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Postby marbretherese » Thu Jul 22, 2010 11:45 am

Biographers aren't obliged to hero-worship their subject. Some do a hatchet job - which Carpenter did not. He met and clearly liked Tolkien. He says in the intro to Tolkien's biography that he doesn't want his opinion of Tolkien's literary output to colour the book at all, which might well mean he wasn't a fan of it - but was too discreet to say so. That doesn't make the biography any less "true". It's a factual, objective account of Tolkien's life and well worth it's place on the bookshelf, along with the Letters, which he edited.

The Tolkien family would not have given Carpenter access to his letters and papers if they had not trusted him to do a "proper job", and as Lindariel has pointed out, the Tolkien Society regard Carpenter highly, some members even showing visitors to the Oxonmoot Enyalie Carpenter's grave at Wolvercote Cemetery, just a few yards from Tolkien's.

Carpenter was the son of an Anglican cleric and an Oxford man through and through (many traditionalists at Oxford looked askance at Tolkien's non-academic writing). Pearce takes up where Carpenter left off; he is able to write from a Catholic perspective, with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, thanks to the huge amount of writing by and about Tolkien now extant.

There's a lot to like in Pearce's book; as you say, Merry, he gives insights into Tolkien's spiritual life, amongst other things. But in seeking to "follow on" from Carpenter, Pearce has given the impression that Carpenter's biography isn't a good one. Which is simply not true. There's always more to say, if you know where to look and what to look for.

As for whether Carpenter's remark was a sneer or a compliment, it's quite possibly neither, although as I've said, I tend to regard it in a positive light. There's a great English tradition of eccentrics tinkering away in their sheds (or in Tolkien's case, his converted garage - and he did tinker, again and again, with his legendarium) - and turning out to be geniuses. Tolkien was an amateur in the true sense of the word (loving what you do) rather than today's perjurative connotation. Perhaps Carpenter just meant that. :D
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"Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back.
But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy."


http://www.marbretherese.com
http://marbretherese.blogspot.com/

Riv Res
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Postby Riv Res » Thu Jul 22, 2010 1:08 pm

Can I implore one of you who has done more in depth reading on the subject than I, to please give me some bullet points on the Tolkien criticism. I have read some of the things Shippey says about Tolkien's writings being incohesive and rambling and a bit hard to follow ... you have to be patient, but all things are revealed in time. Is this why the critics continue to diss the Professor's works?

If Tolkien would have benefited from a good editor, would we have lost many of our favorite passages in the process?
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Merry
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Postby Merry » Thu Jul 22, 2010 4:51 pm

Pearce's biography has a great collection of criticisms. I can report on them tomorrow, but the main one, from many sources, is that LOTR is not realistic. Many say that it is a world of boys, that there is no sex, that he knows nothing of women, etc. Many claim that it contains archaic values. Pearce devotes an extended argument to whether or not Tolkien is a fascist, which has been claimed. Many think the vast invention is just silly.

More to come---

marbretherese, I think I agree with you that a biographer is not required to hero-worship his/her subject. This is a good thing, I suppose, since there are biographies of Hitler, etc. But I do think that, if the subject is respectful, the biographer needs to be at least respectful as well. I don't think the remark we've been discussing is that.
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Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.


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