Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tolkien: Notes from his Biography

What follows are my notes from an OUTSTANDING biography of J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter. I've interspersed some comments along the way that summarize some parts of the bio. The book is definitely worth reading. I borrowed it from a friend who said he had already read it 3 times and I imagine I'll read it again before long. I've already lined up a number of books he references in the bio to read, many of which heavily influenced Tolkien's thinking and writing, shaping what eventually became Lord of the Rings (LOTR hear after). Page numbers are from the bio. Most of my comments are in Italics (book titles are also in italics).


ON MALE FRIENDSHIP: 53 - he came to associate male company with much that was good in life.. Started a group called the “Tea club.” Later changed title to the “Barrovian Society.” (name of place they met).

One of the major themes of the book, and I've heard one of the major observations of those who've studied Tolkien's life, was his deep need for male friendship. And anyone who's read LOTR or the Hobbit can see this pretty clearly. More quotes to follow on friendship - especially

ON BOOKS OF INFLUENCE 42, 54 - Beowulf, The Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Tolkien published his own translations of all three of these works). Volusungasaga (from the Norse) - Wagner’s interpretation of these events  lead to the ring series? (see note on p.77 on the translation).
Curdie’ books of George Macdonald
57 – Kalevala - or “Land of heroes” the collection of poems which is the principal repository of Finland's mythology. WH Kirbys everyman translation.
71 – Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon reader
72 – Crist of Cyenwulf - a group of anglo saxon poems. Two lines struck him forcibly from this:
“Eala Earendel engla beorhtastofer middangeard monnum sended.”
         (note: this is where the LOTR name “earendel” came from).

72– Valuska "prophecy of the seer rest"
77 – William Morris' The life and death of Jason (Morris’s translation of the Volungasaga), and a prose-and-verse romance The House of the Wolfings (both he found fascinating).

A note on these books and his love of languages: that was also another major theme of the bio. In fact, LOTR really flowed out of his love of languages and not the other way around. He also was versed in many ancient languages, mostly related to various forms of old English and nordic languages. He headed up various discussion groups, even with fellow faculty, who would meet to discuss works in the original old english and Ancient Nordic.

83 - ON HOW HE CAME TO WRITE LOTR: "G B Smith, after reading some of Tolkien's stories about Earendel, said that he "liked them but asked what they were really about." Tolkien had replied: "I don't know. I'll try to find out." Not try to invent: try to find out. He did not see himself as an inventor of story but as a discoverer of legend. And this was really due to his private languages.  He had been working for sometime at the language that was influenced by Finnish and by 1915 he had developed it to a degree of some complexity. He felt that it was a "mad hobby", and he scarcely expected to find an audience for it. But he sometimes wrote poems in it, and the more he worked at it the more he felt that it needed a "history" to support.

98 - B - William Morris: The earthly paradise (influenced The Silmarillion.)

107 – ON HIS FACINATION WITH INVENTING LANGUAGES: Not only did he invent languages for fun, he also toyed with it in his own diary: “After starting it in an ordinary hand writing he began instead to use a remarkable alphabet that he had just invented, which looked like a mixture of Hebrew, Greek, and Pittman’s shorthand. He soon decided to involve it with his own mythology, and he named it “The Alphabet of Rumill" after and elvish sage in his stories. His diary entries were all in English but they were now written in this alphabet. The only difficulty was that he could not decide on the final form of it; he kept on altering the letters and changing their use, so that a sign that was used for "r" one week might be used for "L" the next. Nor did he always remember to keep a record of these changes, and after a time he found it difficult to read earlier entries in the diary. Resolutions to stop altering the alphabet and leave it alone were of no avail: a restless perfectionism in this as in so much else made him constantly refine and adjust."

Tolkien's friendships were critical to his creative process. He depended on the men in his life to sharpen him and give him creative energy and feedback. His friendship with Lewis became so important that it even created a bit of jealousy with his wife. This started as a young man, having gathered a close knit literary group in college, a group that was decimated by the ravages of WWI.

147 – ON HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH CS Lewis - ‘Anyone who wants to know something of what Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other’s lives should read Lewis’s esay on friendship in his book The Four Loves. There it all is, the account of how two companions become friends when they discover a shared insight, how their friendship is not jealous but seeks out the company of others, how such friendships are almost of necessity between men, how the greatest pleasure of all is for a group of friends to come to an inn after a hard days walking: ‘Those are the golden sessions,’ writes Lewis, ‘when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim or responsibility for another, but all are freeman and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give."

159 – ON MARRIAGE AND HONESTY - GREAT QUOTE!!! “Indeed he perceived that his need of male friendship was not entirely compatible with married life. but he believed this was one of the sad facts of a fallen world; and on the whole he thought that a man had a right to male pleasures, and should if necessary insist on them. To a son contemplating marriage he wrote: ‘There are many things that a man feels are legitimate even thought they cause a fuss. Let him not lie about them to his wife or lover! Cut them out - or if worth a fight: just insist. Such matters my arise frequently - the glass of beer, the pipe, the writing of letters, the other friend, etc, etc. If the other side’s claims really are unreasonable (as they are at times between the dearest lovers and most loving married folk) they are much better met by above board refusal and “fuss” than subterfuge.'

Good advice for sure. Every man needs a hobby - needs a productive outlet. Too many guys are bored with their lives. But they also feel the hobby takes time from the family. Make the time! It may actually give you more energy for your family.

165 - Bombadil metaphor: “Tom Bombadil was intended to represent ‘the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside."

Another theme of the book was his love of trees - and how much his love of trees shaped his writing. The Bombadil metaphor certainly points at this. More on that later.

167ON HIS WRITING FOR HIS CHILDREN: Tolkien would write out an account of recent events at the North Pole in the shaky handwriting of Father Christmas, the rune-like capitals use by the Polar Bear, or the flowing script of Ilbereth. Then he would add drawings, write the address on the envelope… and paint and cut out a highly realistic North Polar postage stamp. and he would deliver the letter in a variety of ways… leave in the fireplaces as if it had been brought down the chimney, and cause strange noises to be heard in the early morning, which together with a snowy footprint on the carpet indicated that Father Christmas himself had called. Later the local postman became an accomplice and used to deliver the letters himself….” HA! Fun idea

same pageChildren’s Lit: G.Macdonald’s Curdie, Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collection, E.A. Wke-Smith’s The Marvellous Land of Snergs. Highly amusing!

168 – Book Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (and source of the name hobbit?)
171 - read his Arthur poem - “the Fall of Arthur” - colleague said, ‘shows how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English.'
173 – C.S. Lewis' "ransom" trilogy reread and get a copy!

175 – ON HOW THE HOBBIT STARTED - How the Hobbit started: “On a summer’s day… he was sitting by the window in the study… marking exam papers. Years later he recalled: ‘One of the candidates had mercifully left one of the pages with no writing on it (which is the best thing that can possibly happen to an examiner) and I wrote on it: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Names always generate a story in my mind. Eventually I thought I’d better find out what hobbits were like. But that’s only the beginning.’"

A good reminder that the mundane can lead to the exceptional. Note the "I'd better find out..." line again.

182 – compost heap - “One learns little by raking though a compost heap to see what dead plants originally went into it. Far better to observe its effect on the new and growing plants that it is enriching."
199-200 – procrastination story = "leaf by Nagel in the "brilliant! Also, "The Whitehorse”

“He was fifty-one, tired, and fearful that in the end he would achieve nothing. He had already gained a reputation for almost indefinite procrastination in his philological work (i.e. his university work with languages), and this sometime amused him, though it was often saddening to him; but as to never finishing his mythology, that was a dreadful and numbing thought. 

One day at about this time Lady Agnew, who lived opposite in Northmoor Road, told him that she was nervous about a large poplar tree in the road; she said that it cut off the sun from her garden, and she feared for her house it if fell in a gale. Tolkien thought that this was ridiculous. ‘Any wind that could have uprooted it and hurled it on her houses’, he said, ‘would have demolished her and the house without any assistance form the tree.’ But the poplar had already been lopped and mutilated, and though he managed to save it now, Tolkien began to think about it. He was after all ‘anxious about my own internal Tree’, his mythology; and there seemed to be some analogy.

Eearlier in the book he describes an experience with trees as a boy... which I didn't capture here. The cutting of a tree brought great sorrow. This quote continues...

“One morning he woke up with a short story in his head, and scribbled it down. It was the tale of a painter named Niggle, a man who, like Tolkien, ‘niggled’ over details: ‘He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening odd dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a huge tree. There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out’

In the story, which he  called Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien expressed his worst fears for his mythological Tree. Like Niggle he sensed that he would be snatched away from his work long before it was finished - if indeed it could ever be finished in this world. For it is in another and brighter place that Niggle finds his Tree finished, and learns that it is indeed a real tree, a true part of creation.

243 – ON LEWIS' DEATH - He felt lonely at the lack of male company. Lewis died…. “so far I have felt the normal feel ins of a man of my age - like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.” He spent many hours pondering over Lewis' last book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.

246 – Never a TV, washing machine or dishwasher in the house. Hmmm... 

259 – Best known inklings: Lewis, Charles Williams, Tolkien, also Hugo Dyson. author says to visit their graveyards.

260 – read "leaf by niggle” - excerpt LAST LINES OF BOOK: “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. he gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It’s a gift!’ he said."

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