Monday, July 6, 2009

Private Eye piece on Tolkien

So, for the last few days I've been hearing about an article on Tolkien that appeared in the rather snarky British magazine PRIVATE EYE. Now a friend in England has sent me a scan of the relevant page (thanks D.) and I've had a chance to read it myself. It's a relatively short piece --only a little over two columns-- that starts out as a review of SIGURD & GUDRUN but at mid-point abruptly pivots, so that its second half is a call for a new biography of JRRT.

The anonymous reviewer then briefly what he considers "the two contenders": Carpenter, whom he finds worthy but too constrained by its need to get family approval, and Michael White's much later effort, which he dismisses outright as too obviously derivative from Carpenter to have any standing as an independent work (a judgment which quite overlooks White's biographical fictions and sheer inventions, such as the infamous hole-in-the-carpet story). For some reason, he ignores Grotta-Kurska entirely (odd in that while filled with inaccuracies Grotta-Kurska's is much better known that White's) and, even more surprisingly, John Garth's account of Tolkien during the War years, which has been highly praised on pretty much all sides since it first appeared.

Where it really gets interesting, from my point of view, is in the basis of its call for a new biography: that "it's time for one of the great literary figures of the English-speaking 20th century to get a decent memorial". Indeed, he finds it "extraordinary" that "in a literary landscape where even minor figures get twice or thrice appraised" a major figure like Tolkien hasn't gotten more attention, "a decent memorial".*

Twenty years ago, anyone trying to make such a claim would have been pilloried. Sometimes the world changes in a good way.

--John R.

*one thing the many years of essentially having only one standard biography, the Carpenter, has done is that it's established a consensus view of Tolkien's life that is both fair and largely favorable -- as opposed, say, to the trash 'em biographical style of a Goldman or a Kelley. Imagine if the only bio. of JRRT had been something along the lines of the Dorothy Sayers biography SUCH A STRANGE WOMAN? Brr.

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

"while filled with inaccuracies Grotta-Kurska's is much better known than White's"

I'm not sure if, at this stage, it's still true that Grotta (he later dropped the -Kurska) is a better-known book than White's. What is certain, though, is that - while, as you say, filled with inaccuracies - it is a much better book than White's. The inaccuracies, at least of the revised edition, are largely sloppinesses, not phantoms of the author's imagination as White's are; and Grotta actually did a little original research in minor corners of Tolkien's life that Carpenter did not cover.

And the new biography? We have it; it's Garth's. It doesn't cover all of Tolkien's life, to be sure, but in some ways what it covers is the most important part, and it's a very different book from Carpenter and wholly original. Carpenter suggests that Tolkien's later life was rather dull. And for the details of it we have the Scull-Hammond Companion & Guide, and the "History of Middle-earth" and other books, including your own, amply covering his inner creative life.