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!