Saturday 10 September 2011

Humphrey Carpenter and Tolkien


I have been re-reading Humphrey Carpenter's authorized Tolkien biography, which I have read many times before - but not for quite a while.


Although more than 30 years old, Carpenter had access to private papers (such as diaries) which has not been granted to anyone else; and the biography therefore remains essential, indeed definitive.

HC also edited Tolkien's letters (with Christopher Tolkien) - an exceptional job of work; and published the definitive study of The Inklings (very enjoyable, but deeply flawed by permeating assertions of the triviality of the group).

In sum, the Tolkien connection launched Humphrey Carpenter on a successful career as a man of letters, and he naturally became regarded as a Tolkien and Inklings expert (which indeed he was) - yet he never seemed comfortable in this role, and he is most memorable for his carping and sniping remarks than his for his insights or enthusiasm.


Carpenter's greatest achievements in the Tolkien biography are technical: he is completely in command of the information and imposes shape on it, he compresses a lot of facts into a small span, and he does this with an easy and readable style.

And, as it turned out, HC became (more or less) a professional biographer, turning his hand to a wide range of subjects, always producing something factual, well-organized, understandable and readable (and doing so remarkably quickly).


But there are problems.

The main is that Carpenter was no more than lukewarm about Tolkien's work, and as a person was not on Tolkien's wavelength. Tolkien was a reactionary even among reactionaries - but HC was a very mainstream, flexible, left-liberal intellectual pundit - often to be heard on the radio as a presenter or interviewer, comfortable in  the fashionable world of The Arts.


Humphrey Carpenter was highly competent and professional, but he didn't really have anything distinctive to say - or rather his own views were simply those of his class and time, hence come across as shallow and predictable.

(For instance HC wrote Secret Gardens a 'group biography' about the authors of children's stories, terribly disappointing, a book which harped on the note that the characteristic feature of children's book authors was that they never grew up...)

The HC Tolkien biography is therefore always at its weakest when it moves away from facts to their interpretations.


Like many or most modern biographers, Carpenter tries to explain enduring adult traits in terms of childhood events: distinctive childhood events are causally linked with distinctive adult traits.

e.g. HC asserts that the death of Tolkien's mother left JRRT a pessimist. This sounds reasonable, but is nonsense; HC has no way of knowing any such thing, and there is no 'scientific' evidence for a link between maternal death and pessimism and plenty of exceptions (not least CS Lewis).

Then again - due to his being deeply leftist in assumptions - HC tries to explain things which should be assumed.

For instance, Tolkien's delight in all-male company in The Inklings is normal in global and historical terms, and it is the modern tendency for mixed sex groupings at work and in leisure which is a first time experiment.

Mystifyingly, much is made of Tolkien's 'ordinaryness' - and HC tries to excuse this, or explain it. The solution to the mystery is probably that moderns have developed an expectation that 'writers' should have sensational biographies - but it is precisely this 'post-romantic' expectation which is at fault, and there is no reason at all why writers should have vivid lives (and many reasons why they should not).


These faults in Carpenter stem, ultimately, from his insufficient sympathy and liking for Tolkien.

The mammoth labour of working with difficult primary sources, the years of note taking, the difficulties of collation, the relentless focus on a specific individual - all this will swiftly become a hated drudgery - a job of work - unless sustained by genuine interest and affection; a commission done for money and career is just not the same thing at all.


The process of writing a full scale, official biography of somebody whom you do not actually love therefore tends to produce in writers a growing resentment against the biographical subject; which leads to petty (or not so petty) acts of revenge - or at least to using the subject as a means to advance the biographers career (by false emphasis and distortions (rather than trying to write the best possible biography).

The most extreme example is Lawrance Thomson's biography of Robert Frost; and Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien and Inklings books are very mild by comparison - but there is animus at work, albeit in the background.


The Inklings biography has distorted scholarship for decades because it continually asserts that the Inklings were nothing but a group of Lewis's friends who met for a while. This is contrasted with the straw man (apparently derived from a writer called Charles W Moorman III) of a group of homogeneous and selected people self-consciously and strategically engaged on some activity such as Christian evangelism.

Both alternatives are false. Carpenter's Inklings biography is absurd in its self defined task of writing a book about nothing but the ephemeral and trivial; a book trying to prove there is nothing to write a book about!


Carpenter regards the Inklings primary concerns as either absurd or mistaken, and simply cannot believe that serious people could believe or want what Tolkien, Jack Lewis or Williams believed or wanted - but if he did believe it then he would loathe it.

So HC can therefore only explain-away or excuse or ignore the core features of Tolkien, and of Lewis and the other Inklings.

And after he has done this, there is indeed not much left: just a group of Lewis's friends meeting to entertain each other. Nothing more. Silly to mention it really...


On the other hand, people such as myself recognize and want to understand what was going on in that last generation of strong and distinctively British Christian spirituality and major literary achievement.

Williams remains enigmatic, but Tolkien and Jack Lewis are towering giants that are for many moderns our main link with a lost world of honesty, beauty and virtue; the world of myth; the world of real Christianity.


But for Humphrey Carpenter this was not the case. He was a pleasant and likeable personality; a well adjusted member of the intellectual and arts elite; he was clever, hard-working and efficient; but not a man of great insight, nor of heroic stature, nor of great integrity.

And HC was a man whose motivations, life and ideology were essentially hostile to Tolkien and the other Inklings.

So despite his crucial contributions, Carpenter's position among Tolkien scholars is modest: and the real exemplars are deep and non-mainstream writers with a positive personal affinity with Tolkien, enabling them to attain to major interpretations and insight - Christopher Tolkien, TA Shippey and Verlyn Flieger.



Troels said...


Would it be fair to call this an attack on Carpenter?

I have never been much of a student of the Inklings as a group, nor of any of the other individual members than Tolkien, and so I have never read Carpenter's book on the Inklings, but the strength of this attack(?) surprises me. The only thing that strikes me here is that one must be careful to distinguish between what is the goal and purpose of a group as a group and what personal goals and interests may be shared by more than one of the group's members. Even if more than half the group's members have roughly the same goals with their participation, and attach to their personal participation similar purposes, that doesn't necessarily make this purpose and these goals the purpose and goals of the group as a group. I have no way of giving even a semi-educated guess at what might have been the situation with the Inklings, and so I merely offer this as a distinction that should be observed.

Speaking solely about the Tolkien biography, I do agree that Carpenter does not seem to be at every point sympathetic to Tolkien's very personal ideas about ethics and aesthetics, but I don't get the impression that he is disloyal to his subject as such. Instead, I rather appreciate that he he lets it shine through that he disagrees, since that allows us to take that into consideration, whereas if the author were to appear to agree with Tolkien about everything, I might (depending, of course, on the circumstances) suspect that the author was rather turning Tolkien into his own mouthpiece rather than the other way around.

Carpenter, in my opinion, does a good job at portraying a person whose claim to greatness is in the works of his mind -- and I think it is only right that he leaves the interpretation of that greatness (and of any intention or project associated with Tolkien's art) to others.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Troels - I think Carpenter has very serious limitations in his writings of Tolkien and the Inklings (which derive from his limitations as a person, and I have read and heard a lot of HC's work) - so I am 'attacking' the idea that he is a core interpreter of their lives and work - which (quite naturally) tends to be the impression of outsiders, or of those first tackling the secondary literature.

I hope I gave him credit for his abilities - after all I have read his Tolkien and Inklings books many, many times with considerable enjoyment - and the Selected JRRT Letters is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I'm considering buying Carpenter's biography of Tolkien. I've heard it's the best. But now I'm rethinking. So my question is: is there a better Tolkien biography out there?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - There isn't really any other full biography of Tolkien except Carpenter - the others are just rehashes or incomplete - so you pretty much have to start with that. The alternative would be to read through the Chronology volume of the JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide by Hammond and Scull.