Michael Tolkien



ON 2nd MAY, 1989.


¶1  Perhaps I should begin with a brief statement of my credentials. I am the son of J.R.R. Tolkien's second son, Michael.  I was born in January 1943 and saw my grandfather frequently until his death in September 1973.  The question I am most frequently asked is if it is burdensome to have a name like this since questions are bound to be asked.  I hope the substance of what I am going to say should provide a sufficient answer.  Apart from taking up an invitation to Norwich School some years ago, this is the first occasion when I have formally lectured about my grandfather; and my relation to him and his work is of a sort that defies any kind of routine rendering.  I therefore hope there will not be too many perplexing changes of direction; I also hope much of what I say will be seen as a series of starting points for questions and comments later on.

¶2  I would like to thank the Science Fiction and Fantasy Society as it is a special honour and pleasure for me to return to St Andrews University.  I was fortunate to receive an excellent education here in the mid-60's, though I have to confess with shame in a Tolkien context that, while at once falling under the spell of Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas, the Middle Scots poets, at first I disliked and resented the demands of the AS and ME courses, though ultimately the irresistible qualities of Beowulf and The Wanderer, The Seafarer and Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight soon settled the issue favourably.  Implicit rebukes from teachers about my name and connections and surprising indisposition did not assist this somewhat 'bolshy' student (I will return to this aspect of my studies by introducing some correspondence

I had with my grandfather over it; and incidentally I make no apology for quoting freely from his letters to me;  scarcely any of them have been published and they make up one of the few packages I have that should live in a fire-proof box.


(In 1978 I sent these to Humphrey Carpenter when he was working at the selection he and my uncle, Christopher, produced for Allen & Unwin.  He wrote to me of my collection of letters:  "They are full of good things of every kind and reflect the very great range of his mind.")


¶3  Other reasons why I am happy to return here are that I have

continued to feel a special affection for this part of Fife (which,

much to the astonishment of most of my fellow students, I walked all over and explored)  I also always cherished a dream of returning to teach in this university.  Now, setting dreams aside, I am delighted to be able to continue a family connection that goes back 50 years to the Andrew Long Memorial lecture of March 1939, though I am sorry to note in the official biography of my grandfather that this commitment was described as one of the "endless distractions that prevented him from working at The Lord of the Rings!"  However, it is clear that this lecture was not just a sidetrack;  it subsequently formed the basis for the remarkably astute and often characteristically witty, prejudiced and uncompromising Essay on Fairy Stories, known as "Tree and Leaf" and went into a collection of Memorial pieces for Charles Williams published in 1947.  It helped to clarify his purposes and

sense of direction in The Lord of the Rings and it could be seen as an indispensable guide to the art and concepts of Tolkien's fantasies (if you need one!).  So what may have seemed a distraction was actually a reinvigoration and gave him more confidence as to what kind of audience the undertaking might presuppose.  I do not know anything about the occasion at St Andrews or how the original lecture was received but I want to point out that St Andrews has a niche in the Tolkien saga (in several senses!) and later I have deliberately incorporated some quotations from and comments on the essay that evolved from the lecture.


¶4   When I, in turn, after consultation with senior members of our

clan, agreed to accept another invitation to St Andrews, I proposed to the secretary of your society that I should talk about my own

experience of my grandfather.  And in a sense that is central to my

purpose.  But experience is desperately hard to pin down and

categorize and it has a protean truculence and elusiveness when you most want to make it coherent.  I think you can understand that when you have been close to someone it is difficult to dissever a mass of intertwined memories and responses.  It is often difficult for me to disentangle Tolkien as a person from my experience of his writings and the many indirect experiences channelled through recollections and reactions of relatives, particularly, of course, those of my father (who died only 10 and a half years after his father).  Moreover, simply to relate or recreate experiences has the grave danger of becoming either sentimental or self-indulgent or directionless or all three.  My literary training, much of it gained here, makes me acutely aware of what I might call the "biographical fallacy":  know your author intimately and you have an "open sesame" to his works; this is especially tempting with Tolkien, many of whose fictional writings seem to provoke their ardent devotees into personal and programmatic theories, which might even be substantiated by how the great creator held his knife and fork or as Philip Larkin says of Mr Bleaney, "his preference for sauce to gravy."  Tolkien points this out amusingly in a letter to W.H. Auden (of June 1935).  Having conceived of the great spider Shelob he said:-


 ".... if that has anything to do with my being stung by a

tarantula when I was a small child, people are welcome to the

notion ..... I can only say that I remember nothing about it ...

 I do not dislike spiders particularly and have no urge to kill

them.  I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath..... "


¶5    However, I hasten to add that while I am sure I will often only

confirm (or add a little of the same to) what you already know, I

recently lighted upon an intelligent critique of the American Edition

of H.C's Biography made by an academic, one Dick Barbieri, who was an exchange colleague of mine in 1978-9.  (I found the piece in some ways an encouraging endorsement of my undertaking.) This brief essay suggested that the book became too involved in "recounting every detail of invention and revision during the years when Tolkien's great fantasies were in the making and so neglects to tell us all we would like to know about Tolkien the man in his mature years."

¶6   I don't pretend to be able to answer this challenge and I would contend that the publication of the Tolkien Letters has partly done so, nor am I sure if the verdict is fair; but it does indicate that there is still a valid and valuable role for recollection even if it may well only prove in the end that all great writing transcends the writer himself; he writes as he does because of but also in spite of who he is.  So while I will be recalling often quite trivial details, I will also try to link these up with the writings, where that seems pertinent.  But I have to stress that my grandfather remains for me primarily the man he was, someone often so close in memory that to be objective, discerning, let alone selectively "literary" in bias is virtually impossible.

¶7   Another confession I must make is that I feel daunted by the huge invisible company of Tolkien experts.  I have read most of what he wrote, some of it several times at distinct stages of my life - I can appreciate for example how a fourteen-year-old's reading of The Lord of the Rings might differ from that of someone at 25 or 40 - But I can only really claim to be an authority on what it was like and what it means to be his grandson (which has become for me an integral part of reading his work).  If by chance I manage to talk about more than this - which is, as it were, my brief or excuse for standing here, please consider it a lucky (or perhaps, dubious) bonus.

¶8   May I just say a little more on the subject of experts if only to

justify some of the emphases and bias that will follow?  [AND on the

basis of knowing my grandfather's sentiments I feel this material is

apt for my purposes.]                 

When the New Tolkien Companion by J.E.A. Tyler came out in 1979, I read an intelligent comment by one John Ezard on this exhaustive alphabetical key to the great fantasies in a local Lancashire paper.(my parents were living near Clitheroe at the time).

Of the book he says:  "I find it handy in small doses:-  overused it develops the defect of most of the other tomes (of analysis);  it sucks the marrow from the stories.  It is also based on the coy pretence (which Tolkien lived to regret having encouraged) that Middle Earth is real."  [{I myself should add here that he talks in "Tree and Leaf" about the creator of fantasy achieving an 'inner consistency of reality' - a world inherently believable on its own terms – a successful sub-creation, as it were.’}]  Perhaps then he became a victim of his own success.  Mr Ezard continues:  "For some readers that pretence has become a delusion."  AND next he says something which is crucial:  "Perhaps one day somebody capable will write the much-needed study of the literary means by which he conjured his world into being.  The trouble is that the CULT is making it progressively less likely that anyone capable will touch the subject with a barge pole."

¶9 (The trouble is, I think, that critics are often not content to say

this is what x does for me - they have to contend pseudo-scientifically that they've come up with the 'non plus ultra' watertight theory.)  I'm sure many of you have read a marvellously sustained 'university fantasy' - David Lodge's "Changing_Places" and will recall from it Professor Maurice Zapp's plan to anticipate comprehensively every conceivable future dissertation on and theory about Jane Austen's life and works.  A fine piece of double-edged irony because it expresses both an absurd critical ambition and a malaise within the whole industry.  Let me quote (p44 Penguin Edn.):-

"The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from

every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, Freudian, Jungian,

existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical,

ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you

name it;  so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing further to say about the novel in question ...  After Zapp the rest would be silence."


¶10  In a way, now I've got all that off my chest my introduction is

over and as my lecture like Alexander Pope's wounded snake "drags its slow length along" I am going to discuss rather loosely what is for me one indissolubly essential memory of my life - that of Tolkien as a philologist. ¶11  And we should at once abandon the often aridly, academic associations of that word.  If a poet is distinguished from other men at all it is surely by his love of words.  The Anglo-Saxons spoke of unlocking their 'word hoard':- e.g. Beowulf 258-9:-


 Him se yldesta . answarode

 werodes wisa    . wordhord onleac


(The chieftain, the leader of the troop gave him his answer, unlocked his word-hoard - )

Words were a commodity to be used with care and reverence.  In The Merchant's Tale, Chaucer cites a late Latin poem and speaks of the marriage of Mercury (the creative, quick-thinking spirit) with Philologie (the love or words). [So I mean that he was for me a philologist not just in the technical sense but in the almost physical sense of feeling that words have a special kind of animation to be pondered and savoured and to be probed.]  This includes my earliest memories of him on family occasions, usually meals with cross-currents of conversation.  Incidentally, he seemed to have the art of carrying on several dialogues at once, including a kind of sotto voce monologue or soliloquy if something linguistic needed calculating.  He might be commenting on the merits and demerits of a certain recipe, exploding the false etymology of a suburban place name and entertaining with a yarn about an eccentric character, all at once.  Consciously or unconsciously he quickly assumed in my imagination the role of an ultimate authority on such matters as the origins of names and the vagaries of words in their use and abuse.  He loved to explode or expose common assumptions:  he did this so

enthusiastically and rapidly and overwhelmingly that one was compelled to listen and agree.

¶12  But he also respected words that were perplexing and he rather delighted in their elusiveness. (Tolkien was in my experience as great an exploder of myths as a creator of them though he'd usually maintain he was exploring rather than inventing myths accredited to him!).  More especially he attacked legends formulated by misconceptions about his life, attitudes and writings from the proliferation of reviews, interviews and theories in the '60s. ¶13  I think his disciplined, academic training gave him a great advantage (as well as adding to his frustrated impatience) in making people face up to the loose way they used words and phrases.  You can see this in several highly amusing letters which it would delay me too much to quote but I recommend you to read his 1967 analysis of the Daily Telegraph Magazine's interview (No. 294 in HC's edition) and of the introduction and appendices to the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings (Nos 228-9).

¶14  My appreciation of this aspect of Tolkien is really retrospective from my time as an advanced student of literature.  He certainly did not influence me as a child or teenager to study theorigins of language or even have a curiosity over words.  I have to thank the language courses here for that.  Then also I developed a far more specific respect for and desire to consult his phenomenal knowledge and lively powers of exposition.  I sensed from his letters to me (we corresponded a great deal in the '60s) that he was pleased when my linguistic studies became a positive pursuit rather than a resented chore.  Letters of 6th January, and 16th September and 30th October 1965 are particularly worth quoting here:-


"....I enjoyed having a letter from you as much as anything.  I

am sorry my Gawayne and Pearl will not be in time to assist you (if

indeed they would):  largely owing ... to my discovering many minor points about WORDS .... which lead me off."  {Then speaking in some detail about the translation process and its expected audience he ends:-}  "But truthfully it is, I suppose, just a private amusement." {He then suggests I might like to read 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm's son and its accompanying essay and says:}  "I am glad you like the earlier literature and I hope you will be rewarded for your work by worthy examiners .... I have you much in heart and thought .."


In September 1965 he wrote:  "I am, of course, deeply interested in all that you tell me of your work and tastes.  I might  (it may be thought) have given you more help and advice especially in parts of your work where I have any special knowledge.  But I have been under much pressure while you have been at St Andrews ... (this refers  especially to the battle over the PIRATE edition of The Lord of the Rings in U.S.A. by ACE Books)  If you lived nearby, in an hour I could do what would take days to do less satisfactorily in writing.  But in any case I have a strong feeling that you should not be influenced in growth of taste and discovery of aptitudes by opinions possibly weighted by family loyalty and affection;  while in the end you will get more credit for your own industry and talents if you do not show much evidence of being under my shadow..."


In October I had sent him a copy of a test we had had in Middle English and he wrote that I seemed "flea-bitten by pernickety dons: they sound more like the feminine dons of a women's college with their little tests and increasing harrying of students."  (I actually felt this was a bit unfair!!)  "I looked at the enclosed paper but all this business of examining afflicts me now like a sickness.  I had 40 years of it.  I am sticking to my decision not to confuse the issue by sending you any of my notes on Beowulf, Gawayne and Pearl before your finals ... {Then with characteristic shift of ground he says}....  "I should be interested to hear your opinion on Question 3 part 3 since the two lines from Pearl sza 5 cannot be discussed without understanding the whole stanza ....."


[I felt these letters showed how well he wrote to a grandson with a mixture of frankness, ease and an instinct for apt tone.]  But when I opted to specialise in Neo-Classical English Literature at Oxford he showed equal interest and was full of funny anecdotes about authors I chose to read and enthuse over.


¶15 Out of the innumerable philological anecdotes I could cite, I

have selected only a few to mention before going on to discuss

something of my feelings about and experience of the intimate

connections between the fictional work and the philology:-


1. I remember sitting in hot sunlight with him and watching August butterflies on buddleia;  I think it was the month before he died; and he discoursed at length on the way that 'butterfly' was

etymologically a dead end - no one had discovered how or why the two words had been associated.  But as with anything like this he

discussed, the word gained a kind of new dimension as did the object it was attached to and I've been trying to solve the problem ever since, assured by J.R.R.T. that it does not lie in the inverted



2. When my first daughter, Catherine, was born in 1969, he was most concerned to clarify the vagaries of spelling attached to this name and here I quote another letter written from Poole in early 1970:-


"I meant to have a say over the matter of my great grand-

daughter's name but did not;  and it's now settled. But I

meant to support you in CathArine.  I think it's the better spelling

and in any case certainly acceptable.  Having been alerted (as it were) I have observed a large number of Catharines recently in notices etc.  The name has a curious history which few seem to know though you probably do since you chose it.  It is not a Greek name and the Greecized forms are those of the Roman (Latin)

church which attempted to associate the original barbaric name

with  - pure.  Hence the liturgical form Catharine. Catherine seems in the main more of a slovenly form of Catharine, though it may also in part derive from the original EKATERINA of unknown origin - a name used in the Greek Church and Russia.  But I say let's have either CATHAR- or EKATER! ...."


[These meticulous details are sandwiched between a lot of practical and mundane matters.]


[Incidentally, one of my most clear memories (happily assisted by a photograph which you may like to see along with several others afterwards) is of his entertaining my then three and half year old daughter Catherine with spontaneous quotations from the Tom Bombadil poems as we sat in the garden of my aunt's house in Summertown, Oxford, in July 1972.  It typified his lifelong gift for striking an answering note in children without in any way seeming other than his unique, versatile self.]


3. I remember his saying to me several times that one of Swift's

great contributions to the language was his invention of a new sound in the word 'Yahoo' to describe the humanoid apes of Gulliver's Travels, Book IV.


4. Much earlier on 24th April, 1957, (when I was 14 and reading The Lord of the Rings with absorption) I received a long letter which I only fully appreciated later on but which serves to illuminate his

wide-ranging linguistic interests, how he talked of them to a teenage grandson and what he later stressed as his small contribution to the Jerusalem Bible:-


“Daddy may be interested to hear that I have been elected a

fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (on the strength of

'The Lord of the Rings' I suppose):  a pleasant compliment and

pat of approval, and one which few if any 'philologists' or

language men have received.

The Dutch edition and translation are going well.  I have had to

swot at Dutch;  but it is not a really nice language.  Actually,

I am at present immersed in Hebrew.  If you want a beautiful but

idiotic alphabet, and a language so difficult that it makes Latin

(or even Greek) seem footling but also glimpses into a past that

makes Homer seem recent - that is the stuff!  (I am hoping when

I retire to get included in a new Bible-translation team that is

brewing.  I have passed the test: with a version of the Book of

Jonah.  Not from Hebrew direct!  Incidentally, if you ever look

at the Old Testament, and look at Jonah you'll find that the

"whale" - it's not really said to be a whale, but a big fish - is

quite unimportant.  The real point is that God is much more

merciful than 'prophets', is easily moved by penitence, and won't

be dictated to even by high ecclesiastics whom he has himself

appointed.)  However, there are too many absorbing things in the

world.  One has to choose and stick to a few, with which blessing

and counsel (like preachers) I end - and with my love and good

wishes.   Grandfather."

¶16  It was only when re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings after my intensive linguistic studies at St Andrews that I began to appreciate the connections between Tolkien's philological skills and wisdom and his fictional work and to find a new delight in these connections.

¶17    Although I was fortunate, during my subsequent pursuit of a B.Phil course in 18th Century Literature at Merton College, Oxford, to see much of my paternal grandparents, I was aware then of how much he was being pestered by pundits and in the derogatory 17th Century sense ‘enthusiasts’;  and when we went round to Sandfield Road, Headington for tea or met for meals out or on family occasions I tended scrupulously to avoid asking the many questions that reading the books had provoked.  This was probably a mistake since his correspondence both to me and many others (whom he never met) reveals a generous, professional and eager willingness to expound the derivations and etymological structure of nomenclature and legends attached to them.

¶18  Two of my favourite passages from the A.S. epic Beowulf happened to involve the words 'mark' or 'myrc':-


i) mearcstapa (wanderer in the waste borderland)  [Beow 103] a term to describe Grendel, the outcast monster who burns and plunders Hrothgar's Hall.


ii) land-gemyrce (land boundary) [Beow 209]  [Sea-wise Beowulf led them right down to the land's edge].


iii) I also had in mind the phrase over myrcan mor  [Beow

 1405]  where myrce means dank/sinister, describing the retreat of Grendel's mother with her slaughtered human prey.


[For no good reason certain things in great literature seem to get under your skin:  perhaps poetry is what you can't help remembering whether you like it or not].  When I subsequently reread 'The Hobbit', I pondered over the name Mirkwood:-  did it mean 'boundary wood', 'marker of the edge of the wild', or ' dark, dense, sinister wood'?  I mentioned this rather casually in a letter and received a reply that was so meticulous and revealing that it has now in part appeared as a side note in the (for me rather superfluous) new annotated edition of The Hobbit.  I won't burden you with its whole substance but what is of interest is:-


1. that every authority cited by him involves a legendary or historical association which enriches the meaning or feeling of

the word;


2.   that, as often, he felt he was working with material which

was part of a huge body of verbal/historical/mythical lore the

keys to which can only be found by often perplexing labour   and may even evade you.


Two short quotations illustrate the first point well:-  he cites

the Old.Scan. Volundarkvitha where swan maidens fly from the south through Mirkwood (meyjar flugu sunnan Myrkvith  igegnum) and the Atlakvi a where Atli (or Attila) got the brothers of Gudrun to come and visit him and then murdered them.  Among the many gifts and territories he promised to give them is mentioned :  hris  that et maere es menn Myrkvith kalla (that well-known forest men call Mirkwood.)  It is also interesting that he says that it was great good fortune that Mirkwood remained intelligible with exactly the right tone in Modern English.  (He always said to me that names generated a story for him)  "There lived a Hobbit in a Hole in the ground" is well enough known as the pseudo-genesis of the work of that name, yet he confessed that he really was mystified by the source and explanation of it and how and why it came to him as it did.  (Incidentally, though, he did promise those making the supplement to the Oxford Dictionary a comprehensive analysis which was never in fact completed. There is an amusing letter to the editor of The Observer of January 1938, partly on this subject [No. 25: Letters].]


{He was always prepared to accept what couldn't be proved; equally he was easily irritated by those he felt blew simply and practically-explained matters out of proportion.  (e.g. it was of no consequence that both Bilbo's theft and the similar theft from a dragon's hoard in Beowulf were akin in action and results:  how else could you get the dragon out on the rampage?!)}


¶19  Characteristic to me of my grandfather's lively and persistent

methods of inquiry and often quizzical and lateral pursuit of detail

is the moment in the 4th chapter of The Two Towers where the Ent,

Treebeard and Merry and Pippin ask each other questions about who and what they are:-  [Here I quote The Two Towers p.67 "Pippin, though still amazed ... " to p. 68 "....... and to listen to."]

   Treebeard very nearly becomes a rather slow pedagogue but suddenly his alliterative, rhythmic search for the key gives the inquiry the dimensions of a whole complex world;  Pippin's witty addition of a new line in similar style is a kind of perfect filling of a crux or lacuna.  At this point we might have got an analysis of the term 'hobbit' - but the far richer lore of names and stories

distinguishes the ent from the shire folk and in the last part I read you can sense one of the author's creative mainsprings.

¶20    In a letter to my Uncle Christopher [No.205 H/C Edition of Letters] (after the latter had lectured on the heroes of Northern Legend at St Anne's College, Oxford), Tolkien said:  "I am a pure philologist.  I like history .. but it's finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names...  Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real ...” [In a letter to W.H. Auden in June, 1955, when the latter was due to talk about The Lord of the Rings on BBC 3rd Programme, Tolkien said of what he'd been describing about his tastes and influences on them:

".....Languages and names are for me inextricable from the stories.

These (They) are .... an attempt to give a background or world in

which my expressions of linguistic taste could have a function.  The

stories were comparatively late in coming ...”]

¶21  I recall him as a man who loved riddles - posing puzzles and finding surprising solutions.  Riddles of course have rules (and are an art form in Anglo Saxon) and he liked the challenge of rules and challenging you with them.  And like Gandalf he'd often triumph by telling you there were ways of bypassing the rules without necessarily breaking them.  His talk about words and their origins to me often had this flavour.

¶22 I think it would be apt to round off what might be called the

philological section of my talk with a reference to 'Tree and Leaf',

the essay on Fairy Stories and Fantasy:-

     He talks here of the indisseverable powers of language and story-making.  "The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey, lead into yellow gold and the still rock into swift water ... we may put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm.  But in such 'fantasy' as it is called, new form is made: FAERIE begins".  And talking of his own development:  "I can only say that a liking for fairy stories was not a dominant characteristic of (my) early taste ... a real taste for fairy stories was wakened by

philology on the threshold of manhood and quickened to full life by


     In my final excerpt (which I now quote) (p46ff) we can see (a) the high priority given to the craft of WORDS  (b) the view that true Fantasy requires considerable and special skill.

¶23  I would like to move from philology, though it can never be far away in thinking of Tolkien, to more random aspects of his personality.  But I am going to do this first of all by reference to his own ingenious fairy story [or story of strange enchantment] 'Leaf by Niggle' - (the title refers to a single leaf sketch left over from a painting of imponderable ambition and scale never finished).  It was written at about the same time as the lecture given at St Andrew's and not published till 1947.  But while it seems to deal implicitly with a certain perplexity as to what direction his ambitious and increasingly daunting saga of The Lord of the Rings might take, I wish to look at a few parts to point out how these distil for me something of what I recall of his behaviour.  Niggle's conflict between his absorption in his art (the status of which he is unsure) and his kind, sociable heart that "made him uncomfortable more often that it made him do anything" [like all of us!] was the way I often found my grandfather.

¶24   This conflict between the study and other necessary mundane demands has indeed become a family feature.  The dream of being surrounded by tiers of loved books, having an orderly shambles of papers about one, an absorbing project to fulfil I certainly inherited from my father who got it from J.R.R.T. in turn.  The study in all three households seemed to have had a kind of unstated sacrosanctity, too, though its inmate can often hate and curse it, feel worried about being buried in it, yet always be compelled back to it.  But I don't want to be absolute and say Niggle is J.R.R.T.;  like all superimpositions of theory on such stories, seeking for a consistent pattern, it would  wreck the enchantment, the flexibility and the inherent inner consistency. (In A.S., SPELL meant a tale or story:  I am tempted to

call the critical searcher of this sort a 'SPEL-BRECAR'.)  By the same

token, Bilbo is not J.R.R.T., loath as the former was to be moved from his set routine and go on a wild goose chase beyond the shire borders.

¶25    For me conflict between practical demands of family life and the necessity of not always congenial sociable activity remains part of his stature as a man.  I'm often asked if he was the archetypal absent-minded professor (I suppose it fits the vulgar image of fantasy writer).  Had he been, his life would have been easier and his art less rich - even if we just use the cliché that great art comes out of various types of tension.  I think I recall Dorris Lessing saying on a radio interview that all artists are in a sense neurotics desperately trying to be normal.  The trouble is with all such 'grain of truth' comments, they get latched onto and you find people who are tense and neurotic assuming they have an artistic temperament and much to say to mankind.  Normality is, of course, by definition indefinable.  But Tolkien for me was if anything aggressively and hugely normal and human even if he had his annoying and loveable eccentricities; for example it was clear to me that he could be immensely dilatory, happily idle and apt to damn the overwhelming standards of perfection he'd set himself.  And once out of his study he was capable of being dynamically entertaining, and most patient and affectionate, not only to us his grandchildren but also, for example, in dealing with the deserving cases of those fans who were genuinely helped and moved by his books.  To continue the Niggle image then, he was a great perfectionist over a huge canvas, and set himself remorseless

standards in creating his fantasies and this often in face of the kind

of criticism he anticipated in the condemnation of Niggle by Tompkins and Atkins & Perkins. [I quote p94 of Leaf by Niggle}

¶26   Ironically, though, he was to be persecuted far more by those

bursting to be informed about every vein and particle of his

'leaves'.  In fact I think he rather liked the Tompkinses and Atkinses

of this world and probably better than those apt to be more

exhaustingly demanding when he felt like an instrument overplayed by academics and experts as he wrote to me when he was moving into rooms in Merton College in January 1972 (my grandmother died in 1971):-

‘...alas!  I shall no longer be protected from [Hoopers]

Snoopers, Goopers, press groups, phone bugs and    transatlantic

lion-hunters and gargoyle-fanciers"

¶27    Unlike Niggle, J.R.R.T. was not so much perplexed by but

positively loathed bureaucrats and officials who pulled their rank on

him but I think he often actually treated them, as opposed to what

they stood for, with courtesy that was entirely natural and winning,

getting the best out of them; and he would most likely boast about his success afterwards and even give a little eulogy of the person he'd won over!

¶28   I found he actually felt a fascination for individual people in

the round while finding the idea of humanity en masse rather daunting or repellent.  Writing to me about a family holiday we had on the edge of Dartmoor in 1957 he said,  "I should have loved to have been with you on the high tors and away from 'people', that is folk in the mass...."

¶29   Although it's probably generally well-understood by now it

certainly struck me that he was interested in the miraculous capacity of small and insignificant people to achieve the unexpected in face of apparently insuperable odds.  My grandfather himself I recall quoting Elrond's comment at the Council in Fellowp. of  The Ring  [from The Lord of the Rings Book 2, Ch 2, towards the end]

{ I quote (a) F/Ring p283/4:’…This quest may be attempted…’

(b) p284:’…This is the hour of the Shire folk…’ }It is not difficult to see how this theme is worked out in the fantasies and the sentiment which is in no sense sentimental is poignantly expressed in Hardy's well-known poem "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'"

¶30    This puts me in mind of the perennial qualities denoted by the SHIRE and its folk.  Though I think my grandfather like Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas knew that the old ways had gone for good.  ("Fayre feeldes ful of folk" were to become prairies full of floppy surplus wheat).  I could easily envisage the Shire since I was brought up in what was a remote corner of Oxfordshire, went to a village school, danced the Maypole, helped with the harvest, spoke a dialect my parents couldn't grasp and had my foot scooter mended by the village blacksmith.

¶31   Though one might not always agree with his views (and these would change and modify and intensify quite barometrically) my grandfather always felt like a man with his feet firmly on the ground.  [The immense precision and wealth of practical detail in the fantasies show this; and how many know that he was expert enough on the habits and features of the house sparrow to be asked to give a paper on the matter to an ornithological group of some stature?]  If he had an enthusiasm for any person, place, gadget, item of food or drink he was ingeniously able to defend his preference; though weeks or months later he might prove equally adept at denigrating it with even more persuasive eloquence or vituperation.  He seemed to thrive on having black sheep or bêtes noires.  We of both the next generations used to say it was possible to pass in and out of favour without knowing it if you did not visit Oxford too frequently.  Looking back these features enhanced one's affections rather than the reverse.  And as far as I was concerned the advice of my grandfather (though not necessarily any better than that of my parents) was always more likely to be heeded. He had a way of making me see the real world in a new light, of reappraising the familiar (which he contends in 'Tree and Leaf' is what a well-composed fantasy might achieve).

¶32    I have said that Tolkien is not to be absolutely identified with Niggle or Bilbo (and; it follows, not with Frodo) but I want to be completely subjective and turn my strict rule against identificationon its head:  for me he always has been Gandalf.  Gandalf is a character who is as vital offstage as on it;  his presence in terms of direct dialogue and narrative space is fairly minimal in The Hobbitand The Lord of the Rings but you are always waiting for him to show up or even frustrated by his absence, overjoyed, of course, when he returns after apparent elimination by the Balrog of Moria.  My grandfather had precisely this kind of ever-present distance and occasional close intimacy in the pattern of my life.  Through certainimages of Gandalf I can explore some of my memories of and responses to Tolkien.


1. Gandalf takes the view that life is a great adventure; the travellers are of vital importance in it in some mysterious way but it's up to them to find how through their own efforts, though he'll guide them periodically but unpredictably.


"Not till then did they notice that Gandalf was missing.  So far he had come all the way with them, never saying if he was in the adventure... he had eaten most, talked most, laughed most.  Now he simply was not there at all!...."  (Just prior to the encounter with the trolls in The Hobbit)

Later, before they enter Mirkwood after the hospitality of Beorn:- [I quote "The Hobbit" p119:’…Then they knew that Gandalf was going to leave them…until tomorrow morning.’]

This for me has (to coin a paradox) all the unpredictable reliability, mixture of testiness and kindness of Tolkien;  and in the recipients, like me, a mixture of exasperation, affection and need and respect.  It also denotes for me that invaluable quality of his for exerting authority and influence without dominating.  Gandalf also, like Tolkien, understated what was of huge consequence in his own business.


2. In the first of those two excerpts from The Hobbit there was stress on Gandalf's relish for fun and the good things of life.  His tricking of the trolls into arguing beyond the dawn that transformed them to harmless stone and his tossing lighted fir cones at the warg wolves also exemplify this aspect of my grandfather as I knew him; one of my earliest memories (I would be about 7 or 8) is of a long family walk down overgrown lanes in the Chiltern hills north of Reading.  Hedgerow hemlock and hog-weed were flourishing; their white floral abundance he called wasp tables and constantly persecuted the wasps that were probably more intent on seeking grubs than nectar. Much to my entertainment he would suddenly dash in with his stick, slice off what he called a wasp table and tell us all to run for it!

  Years later when he was 81 I recall him racing my then four year old daughter Catherine round the trees of Merton College gardens. When we were children the game we most enjoyed was his threat to catch us with the hooked end of his stick;  he launched into this with all kinds of histrionic and mock-horrific gestures.  The stick also came into one of his funniest gestures:  a loud "Oi!" and violent waving of his stick at self-important motorists hogging country roads.


3. Another aspect of Gandalf where I find a meaningful connection with my grandfather is what I might call the hidden dimension.  He might seem at times rather old and tired, frail, battered by the world's demands.  In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings this is part of the guise of deep wisdom which constitutes a powerful irony against his opponents.  He can seem a little bossy and pedagogic towards Bilbo and the dwarves and you think that is as assertive as he will become; but there are hints of great power of spirit at a crucial moment in the battle of the Five Armies [p233-4] where the dwarves of the north advance. [I quote this passage where Gandalf halts the opposing forces and keeps them apart.]


4. A further aspect of Gandalf which reminds me of my grandfather was his pleasure in winning, in showing who is master without in any way alienating one or being boastful.  Of all things, I recall playing endless rounds of clock golf with him on the lawns before the Miramar Hotel in Bournemouth and how he had achieved mastery of this and his amazing number of 'holes in one' which he chuckled over with great delight.  One of many excerpts from The Hobbit which captures this aspect is where Gandalf explains his tenure of the map to Thorin:- [I quote from The Hobbit, p.32]


¶33    Having now "The Hobbit" much in mind, I can hear Bilbo urging on Gollum in the riddles test with "Time's Up!!"  And like Bilbo I'm trying to sound bold and cheerful and I am going to work in several items at once, cheatingly, like Gollum.  I find I have probably digressed too often into irksome detail or comments about the principles and quirks of analysis.

And I can only now say what I had also prepared and hoped to talk about in addition as these are crucial parts of my memory and experience of my grandfather:  e.g. our mutual interest in and love of the Welsh language; an immense number of diverse jokes about the subject of money and payment, particularly in his letters at Christmas and on birthdays, an awareness triggered off in me by recently reading his children's tale, Mr Bliss; the special importance of trees to him and how he influenced my father and myself in this.

¶34 (Talking of the inadequacy of drama as a mode for fantasy in Tree and Leaf he almost obliquely says:-  "Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play" - as if a medium that denied one that outlet was inevitably limited!)

¶35  Trees lead me to a brief digression.  If I were asked to select a reading of something not sufficiently acknowledged in Tolkien's work it would be from his translation of Sir G & G Knight and in particular this stanza where Gawayne enters the grim forest just before Christmas. For me so much of my grandfather is in this both in its craft and feelings and convictions:-[ I quote in his translation stanza 32, pp44-5]

¶36   I would like to have dealt with serious adverse criticism of his work and shown my reactions to it in the light of my knowledge of his person; and above all I would have enlarged on his love of the family unit and its importance to him as well as his vital role for all of us as its head and keystone.  And it is on this note that I shall end by reading a poem I wrote about the occasion of his funeral.  It was his death which first made mortality really dawn on me.  I'd lost other loved and familiar relatives; but somehow his demise knocked away an essential centre of gravity, a source of unity, a formative influence that wasn't recognized until it could no longer continue to develop.

¶37   I began this piece in November 1973 and completed it in July 1974.  I am far from happy with it and I doubt if I shall ever publish it, but it happens to distil many of the aspects of Tolkien I've alluded to. I think it needs to be explained that I had frequently worshipped with him in the church in Headington where the service took place and that it was quite a long drive to the cemetery in north Oxford.


                           HIS LAST PARTY                                   


".....In that time The Last of The Noldor set sail from The Havens and left Middle Earth for ever...." (Silmarillion)


 Slowly telephones invited us to attend a last party

 And share a close regret.

 Important for once, we arrived, unconfident,

 Out of focus, like an un-led retreating army,

 United somehow across blood or law, to confront

 Our firm stronghold in ruins, the certainty

 That our guide had made his last

 Impossible departure:  and these slow generations

 Feeling in their brains just a little of his patience

 Might not resurrect their inevitable host

 Who'd no doubt feel regret

 To miss his last most well-attended party.


 Drink and quiet frivolity gave way only slowly

 To the last slow journey:  no one found it easy.


 The bungalow church was a port where goodbye

 Dissolves into farewell

 And the terrible slow vessel's decorated wake.

 Docked now and piled white with floral decay.

 The slim, pale coffin ship cancelled its shrunk

 Freight into a brass cross.  Family seats

 Were reserved to watch the slow launching.

 Embarrassed by some unfamiliar tackle of the rites

 Boys were busy as ever inside the harbour railing.

 A dark flock of academics perched out of reach.

 Behind, a crowd blurred with a million motives,

 Dissolved in farewell,

 Their goodbye dumb.


 The carved modern Lady gracious over

 Empty candle sockets,

 And places where he'd kneel and slowly unravel

 Eighty years, receded:-

 Metaphor succumbed at last.


 Purple booklets shut,

 Unsteadily we passed the grey audience,

 Arms locked behind our loss -- slow, coupled mourners

 Adding dust to black shoes.  And the spruce

 Gravel cracked like rattles all the way to the hot cars.

 The cut of suits, grotesque handbags, a new beard,

 Could not distract.  Somehow the bulbous hearse

 Got its load professionally; traffic turned

 Plastic, obedient, and we were sitting close

 And quiet on his last familiar journey.

 Those who drove at least had survival

 To consider and steered straight to burial,

 Glimpsing only the strange dignity of slow wheels:

 Almost we might ask:  did he sense it too?

  Now lights and islands and one last turn ahead.

 Grey gates swung steadily shut

 To lock the living one moment with their dead.

(Begun November 1973.Completed July 1974.)


[Emendations were kindly suggested by Jon Stallworthy and Anne Beresford, and I added an initial epigraph from "The Silmarillion"]