19 January 2017

Review: Tolkien

Tolkien Tolkien by Raymond Edwards
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This biography is much better on Tolkien's scholarship than Carpenter's. Edwards is perceptive, often witty, and definitely not shy about sharing his opinions. On Charles Williams, for example, he is quite scathing (p. 186):

"Williams was given to ... overuse of abstract nouns and to prolonged flirtations with impressionable young women. Williams clothed these flirtations, which in a couple of cases were prolonged over years and involved hundreds of letters, with a pseudo-mystical flummery borrowed from Dante, Swinburne and the whole overripe Blavatskian-Hermeticist tradition; but to all but dedicated fans, this stuff reads like transparent special pleading for what has aptly been called 'moral adultery'."

Now, really, who does not know that the young and impressionable must avoid the overripeness of the Blavatskian-Hermetecist tradition? I should think it goes without saying, but what does not go without saying is the source of borrowed judgements. By whom these 'prolonged flirtations' -- as as Edwards points out twice in so many words in two sentences -- were called 'moral adultery', we are never told. Not that I necessarily dispute the aptness of the opinion.

Nor is his lack of a citation here an isolated incident. For example, at one point Edwards cites Tom Shippey but gives no source (p. 303 n. 23 -- the nearest previous reference to Shippey is 15 footnotes earlier). At another (p. 83) he says that Robert Graves made a statement 'somewhere', and leaves it at that, but Google was able to locate that 'somewhere' in well under a second. Playing fast and loose like this with details undermines my confidence in the author. God and the Devil both lie in the details.

Despite faults like these, I enjoyed this book. I will consult it and find it useful. It does represent an advance beyond the hagiographic biography of Carpenter, and has profited by the research of the last 4o years. What we really need, however, is a new authorized biography based on much fuller access to Tolkien's letters, diaries, and papers.

As of this writing, the page count listed in Goodreads for this book is inaccurate. This edition has 336 pages, not 256.

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