Michael Tolkien


Harper Collins, 1998. ISBN 0-00-274018-4

Published in MALLORN 37 (1999)



Dust jacket browsers might wonder whether this 'original', 'major new study' of Tolkien's life, character and work, launched in the wake of Book of the Century controversies, is a reconstruction of well-worn materials on the relatively safe territory of 'traditional religious faith' to assure us that myth is 'real'.


For Pearce the ullulations of establishment literati and 'educational' axe-grinders are more than an incentive: they make for a structural tactic to juxtapose assumptions and prejudice with analysis, and to suggest that the modes and means of attack have changed little since the first appearance of the Lord of the Rings, while positive criticism has matured into the open-minded and scholarly standards he emulates. Qualities evident where the biographical narrative or the discussion of intellectual influences follows or admits Carpenter on the life and 'The Inklings', weighing this 'established' authority against later, subtler interpretations from a surprising range of sources and his own quietly interposed perceptions. Carpenter's gloss on the tenacity of Tolkien's faith and allegiance to the Catholic Church in relation To Mable Tolkien's death is incisively quelled, and Tolkien's approach to his own Mount Doom in the 1970s, in contrast to the 'official' biography, penetrates the joys, conflicts and bereavements in terms of the writer's imaginative and spiritual aptitudes. The relationship with Edith for example has been throughout a carefully considered thread and foil, and citing a letter reflecting on her role and influence after her death, Pearce comments illuminatingly that it is written 'in the way he had always expressed himself when he had something to say beyond the power of mere facts. He reverted to the language of myth and more specifically to the language of myth she had inspired...'  Instances among many where new perspectives, including a shrewd reappraisal of Tolkien-Lewis relations, signal the need for a more comprehensive critical biography beyond the purpose but on the lines of this book.


'If one is to understand the man behind the myth', it contends, challenging its own process,' one must first avoid turning the man into myth.' No facile maxim but an irony aimed at those who reject myth as unreal or escapist while inventing proofs of what they have set out to discover. Eulogisers and debunkers alike should not look for pseudo-psychological or ethical keys in the man, his formative influences, and for good measure in the works. Typically in one of several balanced and contextually appropriate surveys of Tolkien's marriage and family life there's well-documented discussion of extremes like John Cary's schematic sexual decoding of the life and work. Here again the eloquent but practical wisdom of the author's letters quiets the storm. Pearce clearly appreciates how these articulate in response to queries or anxieties nuances of feeling and belief subconsciously implied rather than imposed  in the fictional and even the academic writing, though these are scavenged 'for tantalising titbits'. A rapacity demonstrated in a well-placed chapter about misconceptions that stem from attitudes to myth, examining among other critical ingenuities Brenda Partridge's Freudian fantasy over the hobbits' encounter with Shelob, from which it is refreshing to return to Pearce's own cogent account of an episode whose controversial aspects Tolkien took very seriously, the struggles of Frodo and Sam on Mount Doom seen in terms of sublimated orthodox Christian preoccupations with sacrifice, free will, the conflict of good and evil and what they signify in the light of eternity or a greater reality beyond the hints and shadows of this perplexing world.


The central thesis of the book is that such moral and 'mystical' concerns are 'at the core of all (Tolkien's) work'. Showing how and suggesting that these are integral with the inspiration responsible for the quality and uniqueness of the work, evokes an imaginative and far-reaching reappraisal of the creation myth in The Silmarillion to demonstrate that Tolkien 'did not consider his sub-created myth as fiction, as popularly understood, but as a figment of truth.' And to substantiate the argument that 'if Tolkien was the man behind the myth, its sub-creator, The Silmarillion was also the myth behind the man, moulding his creative vision', a letter recounting a mystical experience of angelic orders is compellingly aligned with the principles of world-fashioning in the legends. Pearce is adept at this kind of fusing and paralleling of primary and secondary materials, and it adds conviction to an adjacent chapter illustrating the paradox that while it is possible to enjoy the work without sharing the beliefs, one cannot ignore the positive and aesthetic effects of Christian Orthodoxy and the appropriateness of Tolkien's coherent myth for expressing these. Moreover, the complex matter and significance of there being no ‘subcreated’ theology for the creation and destinies of creatures other than humankind is deftly explored with regard to how it both facilitates and debilitates the machinations of evil.


My enthusiasm for Pearce's lucid presentation was tempered by a chapter that sets out to show the indispensable Englishness of the ‘hobbitical’ Tolkien behind the myth, returns to materials in Tolkien's shorter experiments with Faërie vital to an earlier chapter on The Truth behind the Myth, then expatiates on Chestertonian analogues not all clearly related to the purpose of a chapter belatedly orientated by reflections on English ale.


A more serious matter, though, for a book subtitled 'A Literary Life', is Pearce's deference to the availability of specialised studies by Shippey and Flieger which preclude direct examination of Tolkien's academic and philological career in an account of his Christianity and its connection with the 'philosophy of myth that underpins his sub-creation.' But since the formative linguistic and literary interests are part of the equation, the general reader, at whom the book is aimed and whom I don't want to deter, suffers a certain loss of perspective; and even if On Fairy Stories, the minor fiction, and many enlightened commentators are correlated and examined fruitfully to show the nature of Tolkien's myth-making, one cannot ignore Shippey's concern that OFS is equivocal and 'circular', and how he attributes this to ' its lack of a philological core or kernel' ( RTME, p.38), a reminder of Tolkien's recollection that he 'began with language' and 'invented legends of the same taste.'( Letters, p.231)


So it is worth noting by way of extension to the book's coverage of adverse responses that Tolkien's professional immersion in pre-Reformation English and its cultural and literary antecedents, as the lectures of the 1930s indicate, nurtured a penchant for kinds of narrative and ambience (beyond the scope of Grimm, Andersen, Lang, or even Macdonald) and predating the rationalist subdivision of 'real' and 'imaginary' that gave rise to fiction where the journey of the soul becomes the struggle of the psyche. Therefore much misapprehension and even conscientious criticism like Auden's doubts over quest ( New York Times Book Review (2/1/56) derives not only from the Christianised myth-making but from the way the familiar and perhaps delusive trappings of the novel (dialogue, character conflict, careful chronology, geographical consistency) are blended with a now unpalatable wholeness of vision to which the Ego is ultimately subject, implying, as Pearce aptly says, that 'truth...is ultimately metaphysical in nature; the physical universe...a reflection of some greater metaphysical purpose..'                                        



References in order of appearance:

H. Carpenter : J.R.R.T.: A Biography & 'The Inklings' (Allen & Unwin, 1977 & 1978);

J.Cary: Review of Carpenter's Biog.in The Listener (12/5/77);

B. Partridge: No Sex, please-We're Hobbits. The construction of female sexuality in The Lord of the Rings.(from 'J.R.R.T.:In This Far Land', Ed. R.Giddings: Vision, Barnes & Noble, 1983);

V. Flieger: Splintered Light: Logic and Language in Tolkien's World( Eerdmans, 1983);

T.Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth (A.& U., 1981);

J.R.R.T.: On Fairy Stories (in The Monsters and the Critics ed C.Tolkien (A.& U., 1983);

Letters of J.R.R.T., ed. Carpenter with C.Tolkien, (A.& U., 1981.)


Joseph Pearce