If you were asked to imagine a perfect biographer of Tolkien, a Catholic, Oxford-trained philologist would surely be high on the list. The parts of Tolkien’s daily life which Humphrey Carpenter characterised as ‘dull’ and lacking interest are fascinating for Edwards for their own sake. He treats Tolkien’s academic career, faculty politics, syllabus reform campaigns and all, with just as much care and interest as the professor’s imaginative life – indeed, the difficulty is getting Edwards to stop discussing thorny issues of academic politics.
His approach will satisfy detail-oriented readers who prefer to know the complete facts behind the different aspects of Tolkien’s life – or as completely as they can be constructed. This is the great advantage that this book has over Carpenter’s Biography. The latter gives a highly readable overview, but the task Carpenter set himself, and the conditions he was working in led to him summarising events, and eliding whole years of Tolkien’s life, sacrificing detail for overall clarity. Edwards’ painstaking, academic approach, together with the wealth of secondary resources he has access to gives him the chance to give readers a much fuller understanding of incidents, events and the ways that life and myths fit together. His background – as a philologist and as a Catholic gives him sympathy and understanding of his subject – he is particularly alive to nuances of the anti-Catholic prejudice that affected Tolkien, for instance, and manages the rare feat of relating Tolkien’s works to his religion without being overly reductionist.
Edwards’ desire to give events their full context does sometimes combine with his idiosyncratic style in unfortunate ways, leading to passages such as a long and unnecessary explanation of the origins of the First Word War, among other oddities. The curse of the academic who longs to put everything into complete context!
Raymond Edwards writes of Tolkien’s life with an odd sense of poignancy, as though despite Tolkien’s robust, active and fruitful life, which encompassed successes both hoped for and undreamed of, there was still something lacking. He never wrote the great scholarly Edition that the academic community had hoped of him since the 1920s, and nor was he able to finish a publishable Silmarillion, with full narratives of the four Great Tales. From the student who, upon transferring to the English Faculty, procrastinated from his studies of Old Norse with Finnish and medieval Welsh to the rich old man whose retirement meant – theoretically – that he would have ample time to devote to writing, his output was halting and took great pain and effort.
There were various unfortunate factors at work that meant that Tolkien’s academic career, although distinguished, never quite reached the dizzying heights of research that had been hoped of him. The combination of his own perfectionist yet easily distractible temperament with the fact that for most of his career he had, at minimum, the responsibilities of two full-time jobs in the English Faculty – to say nothing of the extra work he took on due to financial pressures, such as the exam-marking from which the first ‘In a hole in the ground’ sprung into being.
The book is particularly engaging when discussing CS Lewis and the Inklings. The wealth of material published on the group perhaps makes this an easier thread to trace than most, but Edwards does have the benefit of access to the same Oxford communities whose later paths were very much influenced by the group. He follows the path of Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship with sympathy and insight, from the first meeting (after which Lewis recorded in his diary “No harm in him: only needs a smack or so”), through their joint battles to reform the English syllabus at Oxford, Lewis’s conversion and emergence as a popular religious writer and the gradual divergence of their paths. Tolkien disagreed with fundamental aspects of Lewis’ theology, and what he saw as an insidious anti-Catholic bias. He could find little positive to say about Lewis’ published works; an attitude that the latter, who had moved mountains to encourage Tolkien’s own literary output (it would not be unreasonable to say that without him Lord of the Rings would never have been finished) was sincerely hurt by.
On Lord of the Rings and the Legendarium, the author is both meticulous and understanding. He takes care to identify and comment on Tolkien’s influences and sources where appropriate, and to set out the writing process clearly. I particularly appreciated Edwards’ discussion of Tolkien’s early vision of ‘filling in the prehistory’ and seeing oddities in the works he studied as remnants of an earlier, greater story.
Humphrey Carpenter was an experienced biographer when he wrote his life of Tolkien, working with all of Tolkien’s life within living memory, and the full cooperation of his friends and family. Raymond Edwards, however, has the advantage of greater distance, and his work often benefits from it. Without access to the letters and private papers still unavailable in the Bodleian, this is the fullest and broadest account of Tolkien’s life that can be written. If there are aspects I would wish for more of – Edith in later life, for instance – or less of (certainly I think readers’ tolerance for bizarre parentheses will vary), this is nevertheless an excellent account, which really understands, and is able to communicate, Tolkien’s work and passion.
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