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Tolkien Biographies and Biographers

Posted: Mon Aug 22, 2005 8:57 pm
by Riv Res
Becky Carter-Hitchin

Tolkien Biographies and Biographers

Professor Tolkien undoubtedly would have thought that it was exceedingly strange that anyone would have wanted to write his biography, since he thought of his life as utterly ordinary and unremarkable. Most of his adult days were spent grading student papers, tending to mundane domestic duties, and sneaking a few precious hours away in his garage study to write a few more pages of his long sequel to The Hobbit.

All of this is true. It is also true that he was born in South Africa, orphaned as a child and reared under the guardianship of a Catholic priest, fell in love with the only woman in his life at the age of seventeen, fought in the Battle of the Somme, was a cornerstone of a literary circle called The Inklings, and found by the end of his life that he was, by some accounts, the most celebrated author of the twentieth century.

Who was this ordinary man with this extraordinarily creative imagination? Several biographies try to help us find out. Notable among these is the 1977 Humphrey Carpenter volume, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, which is the account approved by the Tolkien family. Carpenter also published an account of the Inklings in 1978. There have been other biographies, but some of them tend to suffer a bit from lack of access to the Tolkien family for interviews and letters.

However, the more recent Tolkien and the Great War, by journalist John Garth, has brought new excitement to Tolkien studies. Garth matches the history and written accounts of World War I with Tolkien’s activities during the war, as well as compares poems and prose from recognized World War I writers to passages in Tolkien’s legendarium to form a stunning argument for the ‘realism’ of those works:
What he would have written had he not been ‘pitched into it all’ is difficult to imagine. The war imposed urgency and gravity, took him through terror, sorrow, and unexpected joy, and reinvented the real world in a strange, extreme form. Without the war, it is arguable whether his fictions would have focused on a conflict between good and evil; or if they had, whether good and evil would have taken a similar shape. The same may be said for his thoughts on death and immortality, dyscatastrophe and eucatastrophe, enchantment and irony, the significance of fairy story, the importance of ordinary people in events of historic magnitude, and, crucially, the relationship between language and mythology. If we were lucky enough now to survey a twentieth century in which there had been no Great War, we might know of a minor craftsman in the tradition of William Morris called J. R. R. Tolkien; or we might know him only as a brilliant academic. Middle-earth, I suspect, looks so engagingly familiar to us, and speaks to us so eloquently, because it was born with the modern world and marked by the same terrible birth pangs.
So, who was Tolkien, the man? Here is the place to discuss Tolkien’s life and the biographical accounts of it, always, of course, respecting the House Rules for such discussions.

Posted: Sun Oct 23, 2005 10:17 pm
by Merry
Well. Kind of quiet in here! So maybe I will try to start a discussion by repeating a startling claim I found in one of the unauthorized biographies I read recently: that Tolkien suffered from depression.

What say you?

Posted: Mon Oct 24, 2005 1:20 am
by Varda
Merry~ who made this claim and on what did they base that?

Personally I have a hard time buying that idea, but would need more detail on why this claim was made. I can't see it in his writings... :?

Posted: Mon Oct 24, 2005 3:48 am
by Merry
Daniel Grotta, J. R. R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1992), writes in the preface that Tolkien didn't publish very much, for several reasons, among them "bouts of depression and what could best be described as a lack of domestic equilibrium." The only other reference in the whole book is this: "For Tolkien the war years proved especially taxing, both physically and psychologically. Rationing became a bitter way of life, and Tolkien, used to liberal amounts of beer, food, and especially tobacco, experienced great anguish and deprivation. His wife Edith suffered greatly from arthritis and migraine headaches, and Tolkien himself was frequently plagued by severe ulcers and bouts of depression" (p. 109).

It seems strange that I've never read such things anywhere else. Sure, the war years were difficult, and there were many reasons for sadness. But this puts it rather more strongly. I guess it's possible that the Tolkien family has protected his memory by not letting evidence of this leak out. But I think that Grotta is, as Riv Res has been known to say, smoking his socks!

Posted: Sun Oct 30, 2005 4:09 am
by Riv Res
Merry, perhaps Grotta is indeed smoking his socks, but in Tolkien's letters he does mention being ill quite a lot. "Being ill" can have broad definitions. Maybe Grotta is assuming...or maybe everyone else reveres the Professor's memory too much to pry too deeply. :-k

Posted: Sat Nov 05, 2005 3:49 pm
by marbretherese
Riv Res wrote: in Tolkien's letters he does mention being ill quite a lot. "
Yes, I get the sense from the letters that in daily life Tolkien experienced quite a lot of struggle with illness , which seems to have disrupted his paid work quite a lot and brought progress on his books to a standstill at various points.

Tolkien had served in the Army during the First World War and fought at the Somme in 1916. It seems quite possible to me that his experiences in the trenches might have sown the seeds for depression in later life. An entire generation - Tolkien's generation - were devastated by WW1 - and the tendency of those who survived not to talk about what they endured (that famous British stiff upper lip) was by current day standards extremely unhealthy. This was the "War to end all Wars", so imagine how they must have felt when their sons and daughters had to go off and fight in WW2!

This is speculation, of course, but not (I hope) too far-fetched.

Posted: Sat Nov 05, 2005 4:26 pm
by Merry
I don't think it is too far-fetched at all, marbretherese. There was certainly cause in the World Wars, as you say, to cause depression.

I guess I wonder, though, if Tolkien was your typical veteran. I imagine that he was your 'stiff upper lip' type, but then he had this secret way of working through his emotional pain: his writing! which, I might add, is shot full of such hope and beauty that I can't believe that its author was depressed. It seems to me, also, at least possible that his 'illness' was physical. Medicine was not as advanced in those days.

Posted: Sat Nov 05, 2005 7:04 pm
by bruce rerek
From the recollections of George Sayer, he did mention that prior to the publishing of the Lord of The Rings, he oftend found Tolkien in a depressed state. One would have to ask if this was clinical depression or just the result of living a life that had more than its share of hardships. His was not an easy life and pain was no stranger to him. But he struggled on and did craft a most beautiful creation of art.
The artist is afterall a human being and it demands a sensitivity that is vulnerable to being wounded. Are we surprised that our beloved aurthor had feet of clay? Haven't we all had to adibe during the darkest hour of the longest night?

Posted: Sun Nov 06, 2005 12:36 am
by Merry
Bruce, you call our attention to a good distinction between the occasional low or sad state and clinical depression. I can see him being sad and anxious about the wars and about whether or not the books would be published.

I'm not arguing that he didn't have 'feet of clay'. I'm just saying I haven't seen evidence of clinical depression. I have known people who suffered from this illness. The constant hopelessness and lethargy which makes it impossible even to get out of bed, the desire to take one's own life, the feeling that one's gifts are worthless: sorry, I just don't see it in Tolkien. In fact, he seemed to have had a rather healthy appreciation for his own worth!

And although the Tolkien family controls his letters, I don't think they could keep it a secret if this had been his real life. Too many people knew him--just think of all those students.

The Lord of the Rings, moreover, expresses such a joy in places that a recent modern filmmaker wouldn't even try to film those scenes. Glory and trumpets! Is everything sad going to come untrue! Here is a man who lives in hope.

Posted: Mon Nov 07, 2005 1:28 am
by Riv Res
Merry wrote:I guess I wonder, though, if Tolkien was your typical veteran. I imagine that he was your 'stiff upper lip' type, but then he had this secret way of working through his emotional pain: his writing! which, I might add, is shot full of such hope and beauty that I can't believe that its author was depressed. It seems to me, also, at least possible that his 'illness' was physical. Medicine was not as advanced in those days.
What kind of man sits in the trenches and begins a mythology for England while there, and comes through the Somme and loss of friends still having the ability to avoid the morbid and the hopelessness. There are so many factors that make up Tolkien's psyche, and he is able to create this glowing myth. It is a wonder.

Also...he kept at it...may have abandoned it for a time...but always reutrned to it...well before the publishing days. What does that say about the man's stamina, or was it a need to escape to this world he created?

Sometimes I get the impression that the story of The Lord of the Rings would have wandered about much like the Sil...without conclusion...had it not been for the publisher's demand for a 'finished' story.

Posted: Mon Nov 07, 2005 5:49 am
by Merry
You ask some great questions, RR. I think that one thing that propelled LOTR was sending chapters to Christopher. Maybe providing an escape for him was even stronger motivation that escaping himself.

Being a teacher myself, it's amazing to me that JRRT accomplished so much on top of a regular academic schedule and his civic and familial duties. Even so, I can't see how The Sil could ever be 'wrapped up'. LOTR had some potential for essential unity from the beginning: a quest plot. But I'm not sure about The Sil.

Posted: Wed Nov 09, 2005 5:14 pm
by Philipa
I think the Sil would not have been 'wrapped up' ever. Tolkien is he were immortal would have kept writing and rewriting all this work. I don't think the man was capable of saying 'That's it, I'm done!'

Riv I totally agree with you when you wrote it was the publishers who hounded him the next chapter. If I'm not mistaken he and his publicist were long time aquantances? Perhaps the man knew Tolkien all to well. :wink: :D

Posted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 2:26 pm
by marbretherese
To return briefly to our earlier discussion Tolkien and depression: I am currently reading John Garth's "Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle Earth". It's fascinating stuff, and I'm only a third of the way through, but this sentence leapt out at me:

"Tolkien had been prone to fits of profound melancholy, even despair, ever since the death of his mother, though he kept them to himself."

There's heaps of stuff not just about the war but about the TCBS, Tolkien's early poems, the stories he wrote and languages he invented that eventually became the Sil etc. I can thoroughly recommend the book!

Posted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 5:25 pm
by Iolanthe
Sounds like another must to add to the growing pile under my coffee table!

Posted: Tue Jan 24, 2006 5:53 pm
by Merry
The Garth book really is a masterpiece: I've seen LOTR in a whole new light since I read it. In fact, I no longer think of LOTR as fantasy, but more as part of the body of WWI literature. I would recommend it to everyone!

I still dispute the idea of Tolkien as suffering from depression, which I understand to mean clinical depression. Yes, there was much in his life to be sad about, including being orphaned at a young age and two world wars. Yet he seemed, for the most part, to face life with hope.