What did he really mean? Carpenter on Tolkien on Drama

I’ve borrowed my title from Verlyn Flieger’s essay, “But What Did He Really Mean?” published in Tolkien Studies in 2014. Professor Flieger points out ambivalent statements made by Tolkien at different times about religion, Elves or Faeries, and Faërian Drama. I’ll be looking closely at what she says about Faërian Drama at a later date, but for now I’m thinking about how she demonstrates that readers sometimes stake a claim for one position in their interpretations without considering contrary evidence.

For example, I’ve been rereading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, in which he declares several times that Tolkien disliked drama. Carpenter notes that in 1912, Tolkien wrote and acted in a play composed for his relatives’ Christmas entertainment, but then adds, “Later in life he professed to despise drama” (67).  However, when the biography arrives at Tolkien’s later life, Carpenter recounts the Tolkien children’s memories, including “Visits to the theatre, which their father always seemed to enjoy, although he declared he did not approve of Drama” (162). (Did he declare this to his children or to other adults or in his writings?).

More examples: when describing Tolkien’s public performances reciting Chaucer in 1938 and 1939, Carpenter states, “He was not enthusiastic about drama as an art-form, considering it to be tiresomely anthropocentric and therefore restricting” (218).  Carpenter somewhat downgrades Tolkien’s one published play (which appeared in 1953), “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son,” as a “radio play” (217) and a “dramatic recitation of verse” (218) rather than according it the status of a fully developed, albeit brief, drama. Yet if we look closely at these events cited by Carpenter, spanning several decades, Tolkien actually seems to be enjoying the dramatic art form – composing, acting, reciting, watching — in spite of Carpenter’s negative assessments. So where is the evidence that Tolkien disliked or despised drama?

Peter Pan with Pauline Chase. V&A Collection
Pauline Chase as Peter Pan. When he was 18 years old in 1910, Tolkien saw J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and wrote in his diary: “Indescribable but shall never forget it as long as I live.” (Carpenter 55). For more on Barrie’s influence on Tolkien’s early work, see Dimitra Fimi in Works Cited, below.

The best evidence for Carpenter’s views is in the allusion to drama being “anthropocentric,” a term used in Appendix F in “On Fairy-Stories.”  Here is the text:

Drama can be made out of the impact upon human characters of some event of Fantasy, or Faërie, that requires no machinery, or that can be assumed or reported to have happened. But that is not fantasy in dramatic result; the human characters hold the stage and upon them attention is concentrated. Drama of this sort (exemplified by some of Barrie’s plays) can be used frivolously, or it can be used for satire, or for conveying such ‘messages’ as the playwright may have in his mind – for men. Drama is anthropocentric.  Fairy-story and Fantasy need not be.” 

(OFS 82)

My reading of this passage would not lead me to say that Tolkien finds drama “tiresome” or even that he “despises” it.  He is explaining his view that Fantasy is not suitable for dramatic presentation, not that drama in general is to be despised. He concludes this Appendix by positing that drama “cannot well cope” with either a scientific theory or a fairy-story – it must be about human beings.

This could well be the restrictiveness that Carpenter was alluding to. Fair enough, and to this we could add Appendix E, in which Tolkien is again considering how Fantasy can be best expressed. He compares “true literature” with the visual arts, including drama, and points out that visual art “imposes one visible form” whereas literature “works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive” (82). Although this paragraph begins with the idea of “the primary expression of Fantasy in ‘pictorial’ arts” (82), it is not clear whether Tolkien’s remarks remain within the context of how best to represent Fantasy, or whether he moves into a consideration of literature vs. visual art in general terms. I think it could be the latter and so, to Tolkien’s mind, drama is more restrictive in general. However, that doesn’t seem to have restricted his enjoyment of dramatic arts at several points in his life.

John Gielgud in Hamlet. 1944.
John Gielgud as Hamlet. Tolkien saw Gielgud perform Hamlet in 1944, when Tolkien was in his 50s. In Letter 76 he praises the production, calling it “a very exciting play.”

In my opinion, Carpenter misreads Tolkien’s feelings about drama, overemphasizing his disapproval. The repeated statements in the biography that Tolkien dislikes drama or disapproves of it, made without a closer look at the source for those ideas or any weight given to contrary evidence, can lead to a critical interpretation becoming a cliché and being accepted without question – that Tolkien disliked drama. Critics who are interested in Shakespearean influences on Tolkien have also had to deal with this issue.

Looking back at Carpenter’s biography, I think he could just as easily have weighted his assessments to a more positive side and said something like this:  Although Tolkien did not think drama suitable for representing Fantasy, he enjoyed acting in dramatic performances; he attended plays; and he even composed a few plays himself in his youth and one later as an adult.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. 1977. HarperCollins, 1987.

Fimi, Dimitra. “Victorian Fairies and the Early Work of J.R.R. Tolkien.” http://dimitrafimi.com/articlesandessays/victorian-fairies-and-the-early-work-of-j-r-r-tolkien/

Flieger, Verlyn. “But What Did He Really Mean?” Tolkien Studies, vol. 11, 2014, p. 149-166. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2014.0005.

John Gielgud as Hamlet. 1940s. The Shakespeare Blog. http://theshakespeareblog.com/2011/10/shakespearian-stars-3-john-gielgud-as-hamlet/

Pauline Chase as Peter Pan. 1907. Victoria and Albert Museum Collections. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1325803/pauline-chase-as-peter-pan-photograph-unknown/

Tolkien, J.R.R.  “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Essays and Studies, New Series vol. 6, 1953, pp. 1-18. Republished in The Tolkien Reader (1966), Poems and Stories (1980), Tree and Leaf (2001) and by Anglo-Saxon Books (1991).

Tolkien, J.R.R.  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A selection edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, 1981. HarperCollins, 1995.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien on Fairy-Stories. Expanded Edition, with Commentary and Notes, edited by  Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. HarperCollins, 2008.

3 responses to “What did he really mean? Carpenter on Tolkien on Drama”

  1. Anna, thanks for a wonderful post. So much of what we think we know about Tolkien’s dislikes, cordial or otherwise, needs to be re-examined, especially when Carpenter’s bio is involved. We really need a new authorized biography, one not so glib and facile, one that weighs all the evidence. Just last night I was looking at the letter in which Tolkien talks about Hamlet.

    It’s not just the details of his life either that writers use selectively. I have been reading a book on Tolkien lately and the author keeps making claims without considering any evidence that’s pointing in a different direction. I was taught to address possible counterclaims before anyone could raise them, and that requires considering all the evidence, not just the evidence which supports your theory.

    But you know this. I look forward to hearing more.


  2. Thank you, Tom. I agree that it would be wonderful to have a new authorized biography. Imagine being able to read Tolkien’s diary, just as Carpenter did!

    I’ve also been annoyed by a couple of critical works I’ve read recently that select one piece of evidence around which to build an argument without even considering contrary evidence or the possibility of Tolkien’s changing views over time. I try to teach my students to consider counterclaims in their arguments, and I hope I can follow that advice in my own work. For me, Verlyn Flieger leads the way with her essays “But What Did He Really Mean?” and the more recent “The Arch and the Keystone.”


    • I couldn’t agree more. Flieger is unquestionably right about the care with which we need to approach the letters. I have read several scholarly takes on evil in Tolkien of late. Do they start with what Tolkien says? With what is told in The Ainulindale? No, they pay far more attention to what other scholars say or what Augustine has said. These takes on evil and on evil in Tolkien have value of course, sometimes very great value, but scholarly opinion is not evidence. We are not primary sources. I always try to look at what the text of Tolkien says, and figure out what I think it means, and only then do I go look at the opinions of scholars and measure those opinions against the text, or at least my understanding of it. Sometimes it confirms my understanding, sometimes it overthrows my understanding, and sometimes I wonder if we’re reading the same text at all.

      A friend once told me she heard some grey eminence get up at the MLA decades ago and declare that any interpretation that is not based on the text is crap. I tend to agree. Which is not to say that I find all critical theory worthless. Far from it. Often by looking through a filter, as it were, we see something which is there, but wasn’t easily visible without the filter. But we can’t forget there’s a filter there, and there are so many different filters we can apply, all of which reveal and conceal. We can’t forget what we are using the filter to see. I sometimes see that happen.

      Liked by 1 person

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