J. R. R. Tolkien was always suspicious of biographies of authors—he thought they added little to our understanding of their works. At least partially in deference to those suspicions, Humphrey Carpenter, the author of Tolkien: A Biography, says little about the great works of imagination that have insured his subject’s reputation. This biography provides the reader chiefly with the dates of the important events in Tolkien’s life, and some indication of Tolkien’s feelings about those events. Enthusiasts will find the book helpful and informative, but Tolkien has not found his Boswell.
Tolkien: A Biography was authorized by Tolkien’s heirs. Carpenter therefore had access to family records, diaries, letters, and unpublished papers of all kinds. The profusion of records might have been put to better use by more experienced hands, but Carpenter is a novice at the task. Tolkien was a novelist, a poet, a professor, and a student of languages; Carpenter is none of these. He is a television producer for the BBC, and his previous publications consist, apparently, of a book titled A Thames Companion, which he co-authored. He has not had experience in writing biography, especially the biography of an important literary figure, so perhaps wisely he avoids the form and paraphernalia of a scholarly work. The book is designed for a popular audience: in its nearly three hundred pages, there are less than a dozen footnotes, most of them intended to explain British terms and customs to an American audience, such as glossing the name of the card game Patience as the more familiar Solitaire.
Not all transatlantic difficulties have been ironed out. One of these footnotes, clearly in error, concerns “The Book of Mazarbul,” a battered volume that the members of the Fellowship of the Ring find in the Mines of Moria. As a decoration for his work, Tolkien made a facsimile of some pages of The Book of Mazarbul, and he wanted them reproduced in the first volume of The Lord of the Rings; the publisher refused because of cost. Carpenter tells us that some of those pages did finally see publication in the Tolkien Calendar for 1977. That may be so in England, but anyone who buys the 1977 Tolkien Calendar in the United States will search for them in vain.
A more noteworthy difficulty faces the serious student of Tolkien and his writings who is forced to rely on the Tolkien biography for information not available elsewhere. As pointed out above, Carpenter had the advantage of access to a large amount of unpublished material, and he very frequently quotes Tolkien himself. Yet he does not cite the source of a single one of these quotations throughout the book, believing that references to unpublished material will be of no interest to his readers. These words are certainly an honest confession, but they show a complete misunderstanding of the practices of literary biography. In a discussion of his sources, Carpenter goes on to say that he has omitted material within the Tolkien quotations without using the marks of ellipsis to indicate the place of the omission. He states that he has very often omitted material, but that he finds the practice of marking ellipsis irritating. The consequence is that anyone who finds Tolkien expressing himself on some subject in Carpenter’s biography, and suspects that the quotation comes from an unpublished source, has no assurance that the quotation includes Tolkien’s complete remarks. On the contrary, there is a very good chance that the quotation gives only those parts of what Tolkien said that a British television producer thought relevant.
If the book is not of much use to the scholar, it may still have other virtues. The general reader may not worry about sources and attributions, but may simply want information about the life of his favorite author, and much of this information is provided by Carpenter. The key dates—marriages, births, deaths—are all there, and there is no reason to suspect their accuracy. Carpenter has done his work in outlining the chief events of his subject’s life. But even the most undemanding of readers will appreciate skill at storytelling. Unfortunately, the initial reviews of Carpenter’s book were almost unanimous: critics considered it sound but dull. Carpenter has no natural flair for telling a story, and this lack sometimes leads to strange omissions in his recounting of important relationships. For example, Tolkien and his brother Hilary were orphaned by the death of their mother when the boys were twelve and ten years old. (Their father had died eight years before.) In her will, Mabel Tolkien has appointed as their guardian Father Francis Morgan, a Catholic clergyman at the Birmingham oratory. Tolkien grew up with an immense respect and affection for Father Morgan—even as a young man, he stopped for a period of years seeing the woman he later married in obedience to the priest’s wishes. After Tolkien came to his majority, Father Morgan had no objection to their marriage, and even baptized their first child, whose second name was “Francis” in honor of the priest. Father Morgan continued to visit the growing Tolkien family at least until the early 1930’s, but despite his importance to the protection and formation of Tolkien in his early years, Carpenter does not...