Saturday 10 September 2011

Humphrey Carpenter as a Tolkien/ Inklings scholar


I have been re-reading Humphrey Carpenter's authorized Tolkien biography, which I have read many times before - but not for quite a while.


Although more than 30 years old, Carpenter had access to private papers (such as diaries) which has not been granted to anyone else; and the biography therefore remains essential, indeed definitive.

HC also edited Tolkien's letters (with Christopher Tolkien) - an exceptional job of work; and published the definitive study of The Inklings (very enjoyable, but deeply flawed by permeating assertions of the triviality of the group).

In sum, the Tolkien connection launched Humphrey Carpenter on a successful career as a man of letters, and he naturally became regarded as a Tolkien and Inklings expert (which indeed he was) - yet he never seemed comfortable in this role, and he is most memorable for his carping and sniping remarks than his for his insights or enthusiasm.


Carpenter's greatest achievements in the Tolkien biography are technical: he is completely in command of the information and imposes shape on it, he compresses a lot of facts into a small span, and he does this with an easy and readable style.

And, as it turned out, HC became (more or less) a professional biographer, turning his hand to a wide range of subjects, always producing something factual, well-organized, understandable and readable (and doing so remarkably quickly).


But there are problems.

The main is that Carpenter was no more than lukewarm about Tolkien's work, and as a person was not on Tolkien's wavelength. Tolkien was a reactionary even among reactionaries - but HC was a very mainstream, flexible, left-liberal intellectual pundit - often to be heard on the radio as a presenter or interviewer, comfortable in  the fashionable world of The Arts.


Humphrey Carpenter was highly competent and professional, but he didn't really have anything distinctive to say - or rather his own views were simply those of his class and time, hence come across as shallow and predictable.

(For instance HC wrote Secret Gardens a 'group biography' about the authors of children's stories, terribly disappointing, a book which harped on the note that the characteristic feature of children's book authors was that they never grew up...)

The HC Tolkien biography is therefore always at its weakest when it moves away from facts to their interpretations.


Like many or most modern biographers, Carpenter tries to explain enduring adult traits in terms of childhood events: distinctive childhood events are causally linked with distinctive adult traits.

e.g. HC asserts that the death of Tolkien's mother left JRRT a pessimist. This sounds reasonable, but is nonsense; HC has no way of knowing any such thing, and there is no 'scientific' evidence for a link between maternal death and pessimism and plenty of exceptions (not least CS Lewis).

Then again - due to his being deeply leftist in assumptions - HC tries to explain things which should be assumed.

For instance, Tolkien's delight in all-male company in The Inklings is normal in global and historical terms, and it is the modern tendency for mixed sex groupings at work and in leisure which is a first time experiment.

Mystifyingly, much is made of Tolkien's 'ordinaryness' - and HC tries to excuse this, or explain it. The solution to the mystery is probably that moderns have developed an expectation that 'writers' should have sensational biographies - but it is precisely this 'post-romantic' expectation which is at fault, and there is no reason at all why writers should have vivid lives (and many reasons why they should not).


These faults in Carpenter stem, ultimately, from his insufficient sympathy and liking for Tolkien.

The mammoth labour of working with difficult primary sources, the years of note taking, the difficulties of collation, the relentless focus on a specific individual - all this will swiftly become a hated drudgery - a job of work - unless sustained by genuine interest and affection; a commission done for money and career is just not the same thing at all.


The process of writing a full scale, official biography of somebody whom you do not actually love therefore tends to produce in writers a growing resentment against the biographical subject; which leads to petty (or not so petty) acts of revenge - or at least to using the subject as a means to advance the biographers career (by false emphasis and distortions (rather than trying to write the best possible biography).

The most extreme example is Lawrance Thomson's biography of Robert Frost; and Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien and Inklings books are very mild by comparison - but there is animus at work, albeit in the background.


The Inklings biography has distorted scholarship for decades because it continually asserts that the Inklings were nothing but a group of Lewis's friends who met for a while. This is contrasted with the straw man (apparently derived from a writer called Charles W Moorman III) of a group of homogeneous and selected people self-consciously and strategically engaged on some activity such as Christian evangelism.

Both alternatives are false. Carpenter's Inklings biography is absurd in its self defined task of writing a book about nothing but the ephemeral and trivial; a book trying to prove there is nothing to write a book about!


Carpenter regards the Inklings primary concerns as either absurd or mistaken, and simply cannot believe that serious people could believe or want what Tolkien, Jack Lewis or Williams believed or wanted - but if he did believe it then he would loathe it.

So HC can therefore only explain-away or excuse or ignore the core features of Tolkien, and of Lewis and the other Inklings.

And after he has done this, there is indeed not much left: just a group of Lewis's friends meeting to entertain each other. Nothing more. Silly to mention it really...


On the other hand, people such as myself recognize and want to understand what was going on in that last generation of strong and distinctively British Christian spirituality and major literary achievement.

Williams remains enigmatic, but Tolkien and Jack Lewis are towering giants that are for many moderns our main link with a lost world of honesty, beauty and virtue; the world of myth; the world of real Christianity.


But for Humphrey Carpenter this was not the case. He was a pleasant and likeable personality; a well adjusted member of the intellectual and arts elite; he was clever, hard-working and efficient; but not a man of great insight, nor of heroic stature, nor of great integrity.

And HC was a man whose motivations, life and ideology were essentially hostile to Tolkien and the other Inklings.

So despite his crucial contributions, Carpenter's position among Tolkien scholars is modest: and the real exemplars are deep and non-mainstream writers with a positive personal affinity with Tolkien, enabling them to attain to major interpretations and insight - Christopher Tolkien, TA Shippey and Verlyn Flieger.



Thursday said...

Jack Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were the main writers and proposers.

Where is Owen Barfield, perhaps the most powerful pure thinker of all of them? Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearances are absolutely essential books and set both Lewis and Tolkien on their path. Neither of them would have been what they were without Barfield.

Bruce Charlton said...

"Where is Owen Barfield"?

The short answer is: working as a lawyer in London.

He did not manage to get to Oxford very often once he had started this.

Barfield's influence on Lewis came early, mostly before Lewis became a Christian, and on Tolkien was related to Poetic Diction.

This was Barfield's Big Idea, at least as far as the Inklings was concerned - relating to the 'mythical' nature of history.

However, I would not agree that Barfield was anything-like so important a thinker as Lewis and Tolkien, nor even as important as Williams.

In important ways, such as his emphasis on the past, present and future evolution of consciousness; and in religious terms (where Barfield was a distinctly heretical - certainly not orthodox or 'mere' - Christian); Barfield was (it seems to me) in almost total opposition to the core ideas of Lewis and Tolkien (and Williams).

Barfield's role was mostly as a friend of Lewis, and in that respect as a gadfly rather than an ally.

Wurmbrand said...

"The process of writing a full scale, official biography of somebody whom you do not actually love therefore tends to produce in writers a growing resentment against the biographical subject; which leads to petty (or not so petty) acts of revenge - or at least to using the subject as a means to advance the biographers career (by false emphasis and distortions (rather than trying to write the best possible biography)."

Case in point: A. N. Wilson's biography of C. S. Lewis, from a little over 20 years ago.

Christian readers in particular might like to take a look at "The Uncertain Legacy of Owen Barfield," which was published a few years ago in Touchstone magazine. I didn't write it as the last word on Barfield, but perhaps it will serve as a beginning-place for further reflection.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - The AN Wilson biography of Lewis is certainly an example of a spiteful, snobbish (and careless) (although not entirely worthless) piece of work - such as you get when the author is doing the job for money and doesn't much like the subject.

(And is also losing their Christian faith at the same time! An 'insider' friend alleged that the loss of faith was (ahem) not entirely un-related to having an adulterous affair and ending a first marriage - but obviously I don't know for sure.)

The professional biographer is probably the root of this problem, or the idea that you get a better biography by someone 'objective' who never knew the subject , and is *not* a particular admirer.

Which would rule-out Boswell's life of Johnson... which refutes this argument.

Who is your favorite Lewis biographer? For me it would be George Sayer, but I do like the Hooper Lancelyn Green biog as well - and I the books of collected memoirs, too.

But even better is a combination of Warnie's diaries/ selected letters and CSL's collected letters.

Wurmbrand said...

Fervent agreement about your esteem for Sayer, Warnie's diaries, and Lewis's wonderful letters. Those five seem to me the essential biographical books. I am thankful that I came across the gathering of Lewis's letters to Arthur Greeves (now subsumed on the three Collected Letters volumes), published 1979 as They Stand Together, which are loaded with good book talk, at a time (mid-twenties) when I was highly susceptible to its gusto. It led me to good books I might not otherwise have looked up, and quickened my interest and delight in many British authors, some of them still standard, some (like Sir Walter Scott) now apt to be forgotten, passed over, or misrepresented.

Once one has acquired the five books you specified, there are other things worth reading if possible: there are good pieces about Lewis in these collections: We Remember C. S. Lewis (ed. David Graham; I particularly liked Roger Poole's "Lewis Lecturing") and C. S. Lewis Remembered (ed. Harry Lee Poe; I single out Paul Piehler's Encounters with Lewis: An Interim Report"). An earlier good collection of short memoirs of Lewis was C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table (ed. James Como), and there were good things in In Search of C. S. Lewis (ed. S. Schofield, editor of the Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal, which printed many brief but interesting pieces by people who had known CSL).

Wurmbrand said...

Apropos of books and reading:

I've begun Mysterious Wisdom, the new biography of Samuel Palmer. The author quotes from an 1880 letter:

"'there is nothing like books'; -- of all things sold incomparably the cheapest, of all pleasures the least palling, they take up little room, keep quiet when they are not wanted, and, when taken up, bring us face to face with the choicest men who have ever lived, at their choicest moments."

I recommend that anyone interested in your comments about "animism" in recent posts should look into Palmer's art and read about him. It's too soon for me to say whether this new biography will prove to be gold, but I can recommend Geoffrey Grigson's Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years (1947) very highly.

Thursday said...

I think you're seriously slighting Barfield. All the main Inklings ideas, including those on animism, were really first articulated by Barfield, sometimes in embryo, but often in a fair amount of detail, in Poetic Diction. I would even go so far as to say that no Poetic Diction, no Inklings. But even beyond the early book, discussion with Barfield was clearly a major impetus behind a lot of Lewis' work. For example, Barfield's influence is all over a work like The Abolition of Man.

As far as Barfield's later work Saving the Appearances remains the most thorough articulation of the Inklings' ideas on animism and the genial universe in general. His chapter on Ancient Israel's relationships to animism is particularly powerful.

Now, it is true that Barfield believed some weird stuff, but it mostly doesn't get into his two great books. As for the evolution of consciousness stuff, Barfield often seems confused about what he means by that. That human beings have gone from experiencing the universe as being a personal universe to experiencing it as a bunch of impersonal objects wholly separate and fundamentally different from oneself. This change, it is fair to say, might be called an evolution of consciousness, in a way, as would be a movement away from such a view of the world to something else. However, I have to say that Barfield does seem to want to mean something more than this, though I don't much seem to be able to understand exactly what.

Anyway, while one should be quite wary with Barfield, as one needn't be as much with Lewis or Tolkien, I still think him perhaps the most brilliant fellow of them all.

Wurmbrand said...

Thursday, as I say in my "Uncertain Legacy of Owen Barfield" article, I think he is an Origen figure. On the one hand he has much to offer the orthodox Church, and on the other hand his thinking must be carefully sifted and he had affinities with heresy.