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  • Obituary:Humphrey Carpenter (1946-2005)
  • Douglas A. Anderson (bio)

Humphrey William Bouverie Carpenter died of heart failure at his home in Oxford on 4 January 2005. A prolific and versatile writer, broadcaster and musician, he was only 58 years old.

Born on 29 April 1946 in Oxford, he was the only child of the Right Reverend Harry Carpenter, the Warden of Keble College (who was appointed the Bishop of Oxford in 1955, and who, in November of the following year, refused to sanction a church marriage between C. S. Lewis and the American divorcee, Joy Davidman), and Urith Monica Trevelyan, a graduate of Somerville College, Oxford. He was educated at the Dragon School in North Oxford, Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and at Keble College, Oxford, where he read English. He worked full-time as a radio producer and broadcaster for the BBC from 1968-74, after which time he worked free-lance, both as a broadcaster and as a writer. He married Mari Prichard, the daughter of the Welsh writer Caradog Prichard, in 1973. His first book, A Thames Companion (1975), was co-authored with his wife. From then on he published a large number of books, ranging from children's stories (including the dozen-plus volumes of the very successful Mr. Majeika series about a kindly wizard schoolteacher) and reference books like The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (1984), also co-authored with his wife, on to, most significantly, a series of biographies, including J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977); The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (1978) which won the Somerset Maugham Award from the Society of Authors; and W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981), which was nominated for the Whitbread Award for biography. In 1984 he received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. His A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (1988) was honored with the Duff Cooper Prize. Later biographies aroused some controversy with their various revelations, including Benjamin Britten: A Biography (1992), which garnered a Royal Philharmonic Society Award; Robert Runcie: The Reluctant Archbishop (1996); and Dennis Potter: A Biography (1999). His Spike Milligan: The Biography (2003) was especially successful, and the history of the publishing house John Murray that he was working on at the time of his death was reported to be in the final stages of revision. In his early fifties he was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and his health worsened progressively. He is survived by his wife and two daughters. [End Page 217]

Carpenter's involvement with Tolkien is a long and complex story, one of shifting views over a period of many years. He quietly withdrew from Tolkien scholarship soon after his edition of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien was published in 1981, and by the mid-1980s he had begun distancing himself from the Tolkien field with often contentious public remarks. With his passing it is time to begin to assess his changing perspectives on Tolkien and on his own Tolkien-related work, as evidenced by comments in his lectures, interviews and published writings.

Carpenter first read The Lord of the Rings around the age of ten, a few years after it had been published, checking out all three volumes together from the library and reading them in four days. Around 1964, when he was eighteen, he reread it, considering this to be "his first real reading of the book" (Noad 13).

His personal connection with Tolkien began in the spring of 1967 when, through his parents, he called on Tolkien and obtained his permission to script an authorized stage-version of The Hobbit to be performed by the preparatory school boys at New College School in Oxford. His friend Paul Drayton wrote the musical settings to Tolkien's verses. His recollections of this meeting with Tolkien comprise the first section of his Tolkien biography. Several months later, in December, Tolkien attended the final performance of the stage-play. According to Drayton, Tolkien "seemed reasonably content with what he saw and heard" (Drayton and Carpenter 16), while according to Carpenter, who was playing double bass in the...