The Biographical Fallacy?

MythgardBadge_90x90Hear, ye, hear ye! Calling all lovers, haters, and ambivalent readers of Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien! Calling all fan-girls and fan-boys of Ender’s Game, Dune, Watership Down, the Hobbit films, and Doctor Who! Calling those who are dazed with the wonder and mystery of fantasy, sci-fi, and other imaginative works! Tune in on November 8th for The Mythgard Academy’s annual Webathon!

Take a look at the amazing content scheduled for that day; here’s the description from Mythgard’s website:

  • The New Whovian: In the first hour, Corey Olsen will be join Mythgard students Katherine Sas and Curtis Weyant, podcast hosts of Kat and Curt’s TV Re-View, to discuss Doctor Who (Corey is a wide-eyed newbie, eager to discuss his impressions).
  • Inside the Inklings: In the second hour, Mythgard Academy Wizard Ed Powell will be interviewing Sørina Higgins, author of the Oddest Inkling blog and Mythgard faculty member, on the Inklings—their lives, their loves, and their literature.
  • The Great Hobbit Movie Debate: In the third hour, Sørina has challenged Corey to a debate about the Hobbit films, throwing down the gauntlet and daring him to defend the films against her own far more scathing critique (Will sparks fly? You must attend to find out!).
  • Riddles in the Dark, the Extended Edition: Finally, in the last two hours, the Riddles in the Dark team will focus on the just-released Extended Edition of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug.

 I’ve already posted about “Crowdsourcing “The Hobbit” Smackdownand would still love your assistance as I prepare for this terrifying debate.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about “Inside the Inklings” and the dangers of biographical criticism. If you are a regular listener of The Tolkien Professor, or a Signum University student, you know that Dr. Corey Olsen rarely discusses the lives of authors when he is teaching their works. He (quite rightly) is careful not to interpret their lives in light of their literature. For example, in the Lewis and Tolkien course, we recently discussed JRRT’s The Notion Club Papers. It would be foolish to rashly assume that since some of the characters in that work criticize CSL’s “space trilogy,” therefore it is clear that JRRT himself held to exactly the same critiques in precisely the way his fictional characters express them. It is possible that he was writing parody of the critiques, rather than (or in addition to) parody of CSL’s writings. Now, if he wrote the same critiques elsewhere, we could then infer that he was putting his own views in the mouth of a character in The Notion Club Papers, but that would be a different matter. It wouldn’t be interpreting the life by the works; it would be interpreting the works by other works, which is perfectly legitimate.

There is another variation of this kind of poor criticism, which is to assume, without any other evidence (internal or external) that the biographical events of an author’s life made their way straight into his or her works. So, for instance, some critics are surprised that the Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King is less like the Battle of the Somme, in which JRRT fought. Still other critics have argued that all battles in JRRT’s works are directly related to his experiences in WWI, either as reactions against them (depicting war as differently from his own military involvement as possible), or as condemnations of modern warfare (by describing a more glorious, chivalric type of engagement) or as creative recastings of the main lessons he learned in the fields of France (such as the toll war takes on the natural environment).

While any one of these conclusions, or some combination of them, may be true, readers of Tolkien’s works must be careful not to make them too readily. How do we know which is correct? Can we look at the description of a battle in LOTR and determine from that depiction alone how exactly he is responding to his personal experiences? We must tread carefully, looking for textual evidence, especially elsewhere in his works, before jumping to facile conclusions.

Either approach — reading the life via the works, or reading the works exclusively or superficially via the life — would be a logical fallacy, thus:

Premise: This writer expresses an idea in his works
Conclusion: Therefore he held that view in real life.


Premise: This writer experienced such-and-such in his works
Conclusion: Therefore that event is expressed in his works.

You see? It’s missing a premise. It’s not a syllogism at all.

C.S. Lewis was concerned about this type of bad reading. In fact, he wrote a book about it, called The Personal Heresy. This book is a debate with another scholar, E.M. Tillyard, about whether we read a book to learn more about the author (Tillyard’s position) or about something external to the author, something that maybe even the reader brings to the text (Lewis’s argument). Lewis thought it was not only a fallacy but a literary “heresy,” a damnable belief, that we should read a piece of literature to get to know more about the author. Baloney, he thought.

I have to be on my guard against this fallacy constantly in my work on Charles Williams, and I quite unashamedly fall into in on this blog, where I am writing much more casually than I do in my strictly academic work. You can probably think of many instances in which I have described something in the writings and the ascribed it to the man. I did this quite explicitly in my post Problems with Heroes and Kings. I find something troubling in the novels or poetry, usually having to do with the treatment of women, and I then label CW a chauvinist, or a sexist, or a sadist, and so forth.

writersbetweencovers-250x380But see, that’s not exactly what I am doing. I am comparing the content of, say, Heroes and Kings — in which a knight ties a woman to a bed and punishes her as part of their love-play — to external evidence: reports by Alice Mary Hadfield and Lois Lang-Sims that CW did engage in mild S&M rituals with his young female disciples. So I am, I hope, performing perfectly legitimate literary criticism: analyzing one (fictional) text in the light of another (nonfiction) text.

Furthermore, biography is (obviously) a perfectly respectable academic study in its own right. We readers as justified in wanting to know about the lives of CW, CSL, and JRRT as a matter of personal or professional curiosity.

THEREFORE! With all that established, I invite you to submit to me the biographical questions you may have about the Lives and Loves of the Inklings

>, and I will attempt to address them in my “Inside the Inklings” session with Ed Powell on November 8th. What do you want to know?

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a PhD student in English and Presidential Scholar at Baylor University. She also serves as Chair of the Language and Literature Department at Signum University, online. Her latest publication is an academic essay collection on "The Inklings and King Arthur" (Apocryphile Press, December 2017). Her interests include British Modernism, the Inklings, Arthuriana, theatre, and magic. She holds an M.A. from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Sørina blogs about British poet Charles Williams at The Oddest Inkling, wrote the introduction to a new edition of Williams’s "Taliessin through Logres" (Apocryphile, 2016), and edited Williams’s "The Chapel of the Thorn" (Apocryphile, 2014). As a creative writer, Sørina has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" (2007) and "Caduceus" (2012).
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9 Responses to The Biographical Fallacy?

  1. Stunning question. I don’t know that the problem is exactly biographical criticism, but that 61.8% of writing on C.S. Lewis (anyway) does exactly that sort of critique. I don’t know about Tolkien.
    What I look for are synchronicities between:
    1. The author’s autobiography/letters/diaries.
    2. The author’s nonfiction work and teaching.
    3. The author’s biographers and period cultural historians.
    4. The author’s fiction or poetry.
    If I see a case building–like new creation motifs in Tolkien or resurrection motifs in Lewis–I allow these four streams to talk to one another. There can be helpful discussions here. Sometimes it leads to new readings of #2 or #4, or an evolution of understanding of #1. It can also give background to #1.
    But… when I want to just encounter the literature, or have students encounter it, I’ll avoid any bio or cultural set up to the reading. I do this more with poetry and fiction than I do with nonfiction.
    I know you didn’t ask for an essay! But I’d be open to critique from readers on my approach.


    • I know I do those things, too! I also want to find richer ways of bringing in historical documents: finding out what contact the author had with such-and-such law or court case or scientific discovery, etc. Sandy Schwartz does this brilliantly in “C.S. Lewis on the Final Frontier.” My favorite non-Inklings work of this kind is Mark Morrisson’s “Modern Alchemy.” Good stuf.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed Powell says:

    I don’t think it is a fallacy. Or rather, as presented above it is a fallacy, but that’s a small example. Yes, the Battle of the Pellenor Fields was not like the Somme, but that’s not an idea, that’s merely a concrete example. The Dead Marshes were (in many respects) like the Somme, and one can understand better the situation in the Dead Marshes if you understand the experiences of the soldiers in WWI.

    Similarly, when the writer puts words in a character’s mouth, those words are not necessarily those of the author. Yet when the omniscient narrator of a work says something, it is hard not to assume theta it is the author talking, especially when the something is a discourse rather than a description of the action or characters.

    My view is that one can learn a lot about a work by studying the author’s life (and sources), and one can learn a lot about an author by reading his work. To claim otherwise is to claim that an author is cut off from his writings, which I don’t think anyone really means. One just can’t draw simplistic conclusions without evidence. But one can draw conclusions, if evidence exists.


  3. Tom Hillman says:


    Another interesting post. Thank you.

    The extent to which an author’s life is ‘applicable’ to an author’s work depends greatly on the author. In bad writers all fiction is leaden memoir. In good writers all experience becomes golden fiction. It is the alchemy of imagination. A bad writer cannot in general convincingly portray anything not personally experienced. A good writer commonly does so, through imagination and understanding and study.

    If, for example, the details of Tolkien’s experience of The Great War had been so baldly reproduced on the battlefields of Middle-earth we might expect very few of the members of the Fellowship to have survived the War of the Ring, since, as we all know, all but one of Tolkien’s close friends perished in WWI. Instead Frodo, who in a very real sense never does come back from the war (just as he suspected he would not), sums up the horrific human loss which Tolkien knew. And even that is an oversimplification.

    One of the things that I find most interesting about Tolkien is the way he both is and is not a WWI writer. When you read Paul Fussell’s brilliant book or, more recently, Egremont’s Some Desperate Glory, it’s so easy to see the deep common ground Tolkien shared with the writers discussed there. But through imagination and faith he transformed his experience in ways that Blunden, or Graves, or Sassoon never did. There’s a book coming out next year that seems to be about Lewis and Tolkien in this regard. I am looking forward to it.

    You and Ed will certainly have lots of good things to discuss on the 8th.



  4. @Sorina – wrt biographical elements, I think that the truth lies in something closer to the flavour of the work, rather than some kind of system for validation.

    So, when you write: ” It would be foolish to rashly assume that since some of the characters in that work criticize CSL’s “space trilogy,” therefore it is clear that JRRT himself held to exactly the same critiques in precisely the way his fictional characters express them. It is possible that he was writing parody of the critiques, rather than (or in addition to) parody of CSL’s writings.”

    …by using words like ‘exactly’ and ‘precisely’ you are putting things so strongly that the point becomes a bit of a straw man.

    At a more general level I am quite sure that the main criticisms the Notion Club makes of Ramer’s story are indeed just the kind of criticisms which Tolkien himself would have made, and quite possibly did make. Indeed, by making the comments in the NCPs, and then reading the Notion Club story to the Inklings (which we know Tolkien did) then Tolkien actually *was* making these criticisms to Lewis, face to face!

    From the flavour of the story, and the reason it was written, and the unrevised state we have it, there is a rawness about the NCPs which makes Tolkien’s personal views stand out with unusual starkness, when they appear in the mouths of some characters – especially Ramer in part one, where Christopher Tolkien has confirmed the parallels which he knows of (and which he was prepared to make public) in Ramer’s reports of bizarre dream phenomena.

    I think that the best and most valid guide to biographical relevance is an empathic identification with the author, through sympathetic immersion in the work, biographies etc. – also it helps if you have a basic similarity of perspective, knowledge and world view (which is why Tom Shippey is the greatest of Tolkien critics).

    The silliest examples of ‘rashly assuming’ biographical relevance are when there is ignorance and lack of sympathy between critic and author; and when the critic is indulging prejudices or grinding an axe or exploiting the author for career purposes. Many of these bad traits are shown by an early work of Tolkien criticism – Understanding Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings by William Ready (1969) which is riddled with errors, falsehoods and wrong assumptions.


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