Thursday, August 29, 2019

In Praise of Raymond Edwards

So, I've finally finished reading Raymond Edwards' biography of JRRT, which I first dipped into back in 2016 (reading roughly the last third of the book in Marquette Library's copy)* and returned to this summer with a copy of my own, working my way through it in starts and stops. I conclude that it has to be the most under-appreciated work on Tolkien in years: a major work that everybody seems to have ignored. This is what Tolkien biographies should be like, not another rehash of Carpenter but a rounded account that takes into account the wealth of information in the Scull/Hammond CHRONOLOGY and other resources not available when Carpenter was blazing his trails. Edwards is particularly good on Tolkien's academic milieu (just how much time Tolkien spent at his day job), his Catholicism (of great importance, but not the end-all and be-all of everything he wrote), and the difficulties he faced when trying to complete THE SILMARILLION.

It took me a long time to work my way through it because it's one of those books that starts the reader thinking -- I literally stopped every page to consider some point, or go look up some connection. The result was that it was a very slow read for such a reasonably sized book (300  pages not counting the Notes/Bibliography/Index).

An example of the sort of thing Edwards does well can be found in the section titled 'English at Oxford', part five (of seven) of Chapter Two, wherein Edwards follows his previous section's account of what Tolkien was up to during his student days at Oxford with a history of the men who were the philology and literature dons at Oxford, both while Tolkien was a student there (including which ones taught him what) and in the half-century or so before he arrived, setting the stage. Names which tend to swirl by in most accounts here emerge memorably: Richard Rawlinson, Joseph Bosworth, John Earle ('poor old John Earle' Tolkien called him), John Josias Conybeare, Arthur Napier and his sidekick Kenneth Sisam (Tolkien's tutor), Henry Sweet (rumored to be the model for Shaw's Henry Higgins), Walter Raleigh (who championed literature against the dominant emphasis on philology) and his assistant David Nichol Smith (who endured long enough to be an older colleague of Tolkien's), W. P. Ker (known to most of us primarily as a foil in 'The Monsters & the Critics', but so energetic and well-regarded as to have been a don at University College London, and Oxford, simultaneously), and most importantly of all Joseph Wright (Tolkien's hero).  All this, and more, in about eight pages, and judiciously written by one who is himself a philologist and wholly sympathetic to Tolkien's academic endeavors.

I would have thought a book this good would have won all the major Tolkien scholarship awards and become one of those rare books that everybody agrees ought to be ready at hand on your shelf. And I confess myself puzzled that instead it seems to be slipping into obscurity. Is it a case that so many books on Tolkien come out each year now that even a book this good can get lost in the crowd?

Anyhow, a great book: Highly Recommended.

--John R.
--current reading: just resuming a book begun and abandoned in June, when I was on the road.

*I think on the recommendation of Bill F. If so, thanks Bill.


Paul W said...

This is going on my want list at once. Thanks for the suggestion!

Ed Pierce said...

It's a really great biography, offering new information and emphasizing different things from Carpenter. I read it a couple of years ago, and I think I first found out about it from your 2016 blog post about it, so thank you!

David Bratman said...

I did not ignore it. I reviewed it, quite favorably if not with wild enthusiasm, in Tolkien Studies.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Paul: hope you enjoy.

Dear Ed: do you know, I had entirely forgotten about my earlier post. thanks for the reminder. luckily my opinion of it hasn't changed in three years.

Dear David: now that I've gone back and checked the comments on that earlier post, I see that the book was mentioned favorably by folks whose judgment carries weight, like yourself. Yet the book seems to me undervalued. I conclude that we may have reached a saturation point in which even really good books fail to resonate the way they should.

--John R.

N.E. Brigand said...

Since you reference it, here's a link to your June 2016 post, for those who wish to read your earlier comments:

pinglis said...

I must say this book had passed me by, and at first glance it appeared to be out of print. However, a new paperback edition is due in April 2020, so I have pre-ordered it based on your glowing review.


-Paul I.