Friday, August 31, 2012

Shadows of the past

I was quite surprised to see a new interview with Daniel Grotta, published just today in the newly resurrected journal of Festival Art and Books (available in PDF format here). There are some other interesting things in this issue too — notably interviews with Tolkien artists John Howe, Tim Kirk, Rodney Matthews, and others — but the interview with Grotta caught my full attention since, to paraphrase Bilbo, I had no idea he was still in business. (No doubt Grotta would retort just as Gandalf did.)

For those who may not be quite as long in the tooth as I am, Grotta wrote the first published biography of Tolkien (Running Press, 1976; issued in a second edition in 1978). The biography is widely considered a bit of a joke. It’s full of errors, both of fact and judgment, that I need not repeat here. (And Grotta still has some very wrong ideas about Tolkien. In the interview, he calls him an “ordinary and pedestrian individual”, alas.)

In spite of this preface, I would like to say a couple of things in some small defense of the book. First, I think it’s very easy to criticize first books with the benefit of hindsight. Certainly it could have been better, but it’s pretty easy to say that now, with Carpenter’s, Garth’s, and Hammond and Scull’s far superior books at hand. Something similar might be said of Lin Carter’s book, Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings (Ballantine, 1969). Second, while a disproportionate wealth of sources of information were available to Carpenter and not to Grotta, there were a few that were available to Grotta and not to Carpenter. It’s worth ferreting this material out. There is also the fun exercise (in the first edition, not the second) of searching for the notations, “material deleted for legal considerations”, and to wonder what these redactions might hide.

Anyway, as I said, I saw a new interview with Daniel Grotta today, like a bolt from the blue. There are some interesting comments in it, and I wanted to say a thing or two about some of these.

It’s evident right from the start that Mr. Grotta still harbors hard feelings toward the Tolkien Estate and Humphrey Carpenter. “The Tolkien family not only declined to talk to me,” Grotta says, “they contacted as many of Tolkien’s friends, associates and former students as they could and asked them NOT to talk to me or provide any information. I did not know at that time that they were in contract negotiations with Humphrey Carpenter for an ‘official’ biography and wanted to kill or sabotage any possible competition.” This sounds like paranoid exaggeration, but who knows?

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the interview is that Grotta is planning to revise and expand his biography again and reissue it as an e-book. One addition will be “a chapter called The Posthumous Tolkien”. Grotta opines that Tolkien “has become quite prolific since his death, thanks to the creative work and imagination of Christopher Tolkien.” Er, the “creative work and imagination” of Christopher Tolkien? This seems like a gross mischaracterization to me. Grotta certainly isn’t shy about implying that Christopher’s role was not merely that of editor. He elaborates when asked about Tolkien’s posthumously published works:

“I have mixed views. Some works, especially the smaller ones, are literary gems, eminently readable and worthy companions to Tolkien’s central masterpiece. Others should have been left in the drawer or trunk, despite Christopher Tolkien’s heroic efforts to edit, expand and make them readable.” Expand them? Just what does Grotta think Christopher has done, exactly?

Grotta also goes out on a limb on Tolkien’s writing — well, why not? he’s already considered a pariah by most serious Tolkien scholars. He says: “I see Tolkien more as a storyteller and mythmaker than an author, because if truth be told, he wasn’t really a very good writer. Stylistically, The Lord of the Rings suffers from inconsistencies, digressions, plus unresolved story, plot and character lines. It desperately needed a good edit to clean up the language.” For myself, I would say that “a good edit” is just what The Lord of the Rings did not need!

Go read the interview by Alex Lewis yourselves. There are some interesting things I haven’t mentioned here (such as Grotta’s opinions of the Peter Jackson films). I never expected to see Daniel Grotta coming back into the light of Tolkien studies again, but life is full of surprises. Thank goodness! Otherwise, we might get too comfortable!


  1. I thought the essay on Roger Lancelyn Green (whom I read about the same time I read Tolkien, or perhaps a little later) was way more interesting.

  2. Back when the Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS films were coming out, I was invited by Gardner Dozois to do an online chat about Tolkien at the Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine website. I found out a few minutes before we went live that Daniel Grotta had been asked as well. He clearly hadn't paid any attention to Tolkien in the twenty-five years since his biography had been published, and what he said, more and more belligerently, was based on his misremembering of erroneous "facts" from decades earlier. It was very frustrating, and I was glad when it was over---facing that much error and misrepresentation, where do you start to counter it? The transcript of the chat was online for a long time afterwards (it might still be, I don't know). But it was clear that Grotta had nothing worthwhile to say, though he clearly enjoyed saying it. It reminded me of the one letter I received from him back in 1978, when I queried him about some points in his biography. He ignored my specific questions but wrote that was planning to write a PhD. dissertation comparing Terry Brooks's SWORD OF SHANNARA with THE LORD OF THE RINGS, _if_ he could get some university to accept the thesis alone, as he said he had neither the time nor inclination to do any coursework! He doesn't seem to have found such a university.

  3. "Grotta wrote the first published biography of Tolkien"

    As far as I know, the first published biography book was _Sagan om Tolkien_ (1972) by Åke Ohlmarks (who, like Grotta, came to regard himself as being personally harassed by the TE).

  4. "that Grotta is planning to revise and expand his biography again and reissue it as an e-book. One addition will be “a chapter called The Posthumous Tolkien”."
    A pervert effect of the intense Tolkienian actuality (like all these books published about the Hobbit, in the next months) ?

  5. Here's a link to an archived version of the Dozois/Anderson/Grotta chat (held on 9 December 2003):

  6. Thanks, Doug and Morgan, for the additional stories and information. Morgan, I should have said it was the first biography published in English. And I may as well clarify now that I also mean the first full-length biography in English; there were a few pieces published before Grotta’s that included some biographical details (e.g., Colin Wilson’s Tree by Tolkien in 1974).

  7. Even a small defense of Grotta's book, for the necessary incompletenesses and errors that come with being a pioneering, unauthorized effort, give it too much credit.

    First, it's not necessary for a pioneering book to be written in such hideously bad prose.

    Second, Grotta makes unnecessary errors inexcusable by his status. For instance, he conflates the Inklings guest Roy Campbell with Tolkien's pupil Alistair Campbell and creates a phantom Inklings member. Grotta's only defense against this charge is that he's not as bad as Michael White.

    Third (and here he's possibly worse than Michael White, hard as that may be to believe), he makes errors by jumping vigorously to the Island of Conclusions. For instance, he knows that Allan Barnett was a friend of Tolkien's, and that Barnett survived WW1, so he jumps to the conclusion that Barnett was the one close friend of Tolkien's who survived the war (as alluded in the preface to LOTR 2nd ed). And he knows that Tolkien was a lieutenant on the Somme, and he knows that platoons were led by lieutenants, so he invents an imaginary description of Tolkien leading his men over the top.

    Both wrong. Lieutenants also did other things; Tolkien happened to be the battalion signaling officer. And while Grotta might be excused for not knowing about the TCBS, he really ought to have guessed, given that the most knowledgeable sources wouldn't talk to him, that there was a lot of important stuff he didn't know about.

    The most amusing part about reading Grotta is comparing his first edition with his 1978 revision, to see him hastily backtracking on both these errors, and others that Carpenter enlightened him on.

    There's a glaring error in the interview, as well. Grotta didn't talk to "an American friend from his Oxford undergraduate days who had survived the war," if that means Barnett (and it must, because no other such character appears in the book). Barnett was already deceased. Grotta apparently contacted his widow, possibly through Guy Davenport.

  8. David, when the new revised and expanded third edition comes out, maybe you should make a systematic comparison of all three (if you can stomach it), then present your findings at Mythcon. You could call it something like, “How not to write a biography”. With your sense of humor and attention to detail, I think it would be a hit. :)

  9. It hit me as a surprise, too, to see Grotta again. If I want to make for some very light conversation on a Tolkien-related event I simply read out (or translate into German) passages from either Grotta or White. As the audience is usually pretty knowledgeable about Tolkien their gasps and laugher at these writers' statements is always worth the effort.

  10. It is not clearcut that _Sagan om Tolkien_ is a biography. I have regarded it as a general presentation, a 'life and works' as much about the works as about the life (with a load of padding added for good measure).

  11. (Sorry about hijacking your comments field, Jason!)

    "It is not clearcut that _Sagan om Tolkien_ is a biography."

    Indeed, I wholeheartedly agree that Ohlmarks' book certainly borders on the genre definition of a biography. But for those not acquainted with the work, it is perhaps of interest to know that the book was marketed as the "first Swedish biography" about Tolkien, and later (on the back cover of _Tolkiens Arv_, 1978) Ohlmarks was acknowledged as the author of the "first Tolkien biography in the world".

  12. Having read that chat between Grotta and DAA, I can only say that everything I felt about Grotta's book back when I read the first edition is confirmed. I didn't know about all the errors then, but I certainly did pick up on Grotta's sneering, patronizing tone. And he accuses Tolkien of being in it for the money! Projection, if I ever saw it.