Tolkien resisted the idea of a biography, although he kept copies of his letters and drew up a preliminary sketch recollecting his early life. He resisted the idea of biographical investigation because he did not want his stories read as commentaries on his life, or even on his times (this last is more accurately appreciated if you add to it the adverb ‘exclusively’).
That nobody should read his works as a commentary on his life is understandable. Tolkien wanted to have literary considerations prevail because he aimed to satisfy a literary desire. His works were written with great care and with attention to provide the intelligent reader with everything needed to find the satisfaction the book achieved.
Tolkien knew something more would eventually be required by those who loved the art he made. If art is an expression of the human spirit, then a further inquiry into the circumstances of, and influences upon that human spirit are a proper expression of tribute and a continuation of the same love. In such a spirit Humphrey Carpenter wrote a biography and edited Tolkien’s letters. They ought to be highly recommended for the shelves of decent, self-respecting libraries.
One of the things Tolkien pointed out—in a draft of a letter he apparently failed to send—is that it limits the appreciation of a work of literature if the book cannot be recommended solely on the merits of what lies between the covers. If an understanding of the writer’s life is required in addition, it can hardly be considered a successful as the object of the writer’s purpose.
The notion that the text is incomplete without the shrewd investigation that seeks to show nothing so much as the condescending critic’s superior insight is intolerable and was, apparently, alive and rampant in Tolkien’s day. Tolkien wrote an essay on Beowulf with a little narrative that illustrates the blindness and suggests the futility of the approach that undermines the appreciation of the text as literature. In one deft essay Tolkien changed the approach to Beowulf, expressing the Mordor-meaninglessness of the condescending approach—that idiotically critical and not properly critical approach—and showed them a way lit by the light of a love for learning.
This love can be seen in Tolkien’s books but it comes into sharper focus once you read the story of his life and make your way through selected correspondence. He applies the rigorous methods of scholarship to his explorations of an imaginary world and he shows us the proper love of learning is a love for substantial things, that it is a love that will enrich our appreciation of the world itself, the created order.
He started with imaginary languages, because he loved beautiful languages and beautiful words. He then proceeded to produce imaginary worlds because his languages required a living history, they needed a place to develop and they needed stories in which to work. Eventually, Tolkien became entangled in the details, leaving a wealth of material behind for scholarly inquiry.
In some ways Tolkien was a ridiculous man, and you cannot avoid understanding this as you read of his life. His ridiculousness was connected with his greatness, and it is the lot of every fallen man—no matter how great—to have an inalienable smallness. It is not the case that all of us small beings achieve a measure of greatness. Tolkien’s niggling, his continual revising and rewriting and expanding, prolonged the gestation of his earliest and posthumous work: The Silmarillion. But it gave us a world so detailed that even the phases of the moon have been taken into consideration.
I was recently offered a cup of orange juice freshly reconstituted from frozen concentrate. I declined it because I was drinking something else, but also because one who has regularly drunk of the fresh squeezed orange can never have any great, irresistible desire for what is, in a way, a substitute. My uncle-in-law who grew up on a dairy farm has a lesser enthusiasm for the regular offerings of the dairy section in the grocery store. It illustrates the glory of Tolkien, that craftsman and lover of his craft: he served orange juice of the fresh squeezed oranges; all his dairy products were produced and offered, as it were, from the dairy farm he worked in and maintained with all the effort it entails.
One does not need to tour the dairy farm to love the butter and pay extra for the cheese. Certainly, the smell of manure is not something most lovers of rich milk anticipate. But it would be a strange devotee who did not have the sufficient curiosity to wonder about the smell of the cows, the instruments and processes that make the final product more desirable than the others. Surely love for milk is a love for something bovine.