Tolkien by Raymond Edwards (review)
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Reviewed by
Tolkien, by Raymond Edwards. London: Robert Hale, 2014. 336 p. 978-0-71980-986-6. $39.95.

This may be the Tolkien biography we’ve been waiting for for thirty years. While C. S. Lewis has attracted many independent biographers, Tolkien biography has tended to be a thinly-covered ground. The standard biography has always been Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien (1977). It brilliantly captures Tolkien’s personality and literary nature, but its brevity, succinctness, and some errors of fact left room for successors that has not been filled. Most of the many successive biographies of Tolkien have been either rewrites of Carpenter, with little new material, or else totally inept. Some manage both.

Two shining exceptions have been John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War (2003), a finely detailed account that restricts itself to a few short, but critical, years in Tolkien’s young adulthood, and Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond’s The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide (2006), which is a definitive source for factual information but takes the form of an encyclopedia and chronology, not an interpretive biography.

Now comes Raymond Edwards with a biography that uses Carpenter’s and the other books above as only a few sources among many. Edwards has read a cogently-chosen selection of the Tolkien secondary literature, and he has absorbed and internalized what he has read.

The result is a highly readable and interesting biography that conveys much the same information—there are no major reinterpretations of character here—but in an original and fresh way, without simple regurgitation of what he has read.

Edwards’ primary interest is in Tolkien’s academic career. Readers will learn much more here about his work on English department curricula [End Page 196] than from Carpenter. They will also get the long sad story—the fullest account yet published—of the Clarendon Chaucer edition that hung over most of Tolkien’s professional career and was never published. The account of Tolkien’s flirtation with Collins as a possible publisher for The Lord of the Rings is quite abbreviated. But then, Carpenter is quite full on Collins and does not mention the Clarendon Chaucer at all.

Compared to the detail on Tolkien as an academic, Edwards’ treatment of the legendarium and what went into making it is cursory. Discussion of The Lord of the Rings consists mostly of a chronological account showing how the stop-and-go writing process fit into Tolkien’s other activities of the time. Aside from an appendix on Tolkien as a Catholic writer (Edwards thinks most apologists go way overboard in their claims for him, with which I agree), there is very little on the content or the meaning of Tolkien’s fiction. This book assumes its readers already know that body of work.

Edwards has done some original research, particularly in Oxford University documents, and corrected some errors of earlier biographies. Generally he is cautious with his sources. His dating for the founding of the Inklings is “some time in the mid-1930s,” which is a far more accurate statement than the unjustifiably specific “fall 1933” that many recent authors are fond of pinpointing. He refuses to speculate on the unpublished intimacies of Tolkien’s marriage, so there is little to say about Edith, although succinct biographies of all four children are given.

Edwards loves to poke around in obscure corners that other scholars haven’t considered, such as Tolkien’s friendship with, and possible inspiration from, Wilfred Rowland Childe. There are many in-depth digressions on relevant people and things. Edwards is sympathetic to C. S. Lewis, and he is properly cautious about relying on Alister McGrath’s recent biography. Less sympathetically, he is scornful of Charles Williams, and dismisses Warren Lewis as not much more than a habitual drunk.

The only factual error I found is a citation of a mistake in an Inklings memoir as demonstrating the unreliability of memoirs, when in fact Edwards misread the memoir and there is no mistake. In an appendix on adaptations, Edwards states that he likes the Hobbit movies better than the Lord of the Rings movies. That is not a common response.