Tolkien Essay - Critical Context

Humphrey Carpenter

Critical Context

Carpenter’s biography is written with a tension derived from the contrast of whether the life of Tolkien and his activities were actually dull, as he would have claimed, or whether the apparent dullness covers an academic and personal routine wherein inner creativity prevailed. This tension becomes more noteworthy when the self-announced similarity of creation and creator is made explicit: Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit (1937) is J. R. R. Tolkien. Moreover, the shire of the hobbits was none other than that portion of England ancestral to his mother’s family, which Tolkien loved as it had been while he was depressed by what it was becoming.

The story of The Hobbit brewed and took numerous trial forms from before 1930 prior to reaching publishable shape. The biographer’s effort to ferret out its origins passes from written versions, including one shown to Lewis in 1932, into oral tradition remembered by the older sons, John and Michael, from impromptu tales told them in their childhood. Tolkien referred to the growing mass of literary fragments as “private and beloved nonsense” or merely “stuff.” He consistently affirmed that he disliked “allegory in all its manifestations” so that the reader must more carefully dissociate any apparent hints emerging from The Lord of the Rings from those times and events precipitating World War II. The Lord of the Rings, though written to satisfy the publishers of The Hobbit, was not its sequel but that of The Silmarillion, which was published in the same year as Carpenter’s biography.