The Man Behind the Professor

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has become an uber-writer.  Long indeed has his shadow grown, and the fields of spec fic and pop culture were permanently changed by his books.

Thus it is quite interesting to read about the man himself, the cantankerousness genius who wasn’t able to tweet about his work in progress and had to stop writing because WWII caused a paper shortage in London.  The book is called “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien,” and it’s not new.  But it doesn’t have a wide readership either, from what I can tell.  That’s a shame, as there is some great stuff in here.

On his political leanings

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. 

On his friend C.S. Lewis releasing a new book.

Alas! His ponderous silliness is becoming a fixed manner. I am deeply relieved to find I am not mentioned. 

On Sam

Cert. Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting….

On World War II

the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter – leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines. As the servants of the Machines are becoming a privileged class, the Machines are going to be enormously more powerful. What’s their next move? 

On the reaction to Lord of the Rings

Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps (though at least Boromir has been overlooked) in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read, and, of course, without the earlier written but unpublished Elvish histories. But the Elves are not wholly good or in the right. Not so much because they had flirted with Sauron; as because with or without his assistance they were ‘embalmers’. They wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle-earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had the advantages of a superior caste), and so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be ‘artists’ – and they were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret. 

On how he came to write Lord of the Rings as a sequel to the Hobbit

But if you wanted to go on from the end of The Hobbit I think the ring would be your inevitable choice as the link. If then you wanted a large tale, the Ring would at once acquire a capital letter; and the Dark Lord would immediately appear. As he did, unasked, on the hearth at Bag End as soon as I came to that point. So the essential Quest started at once. But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the comer at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo. The Mines of Moria had been a mere name; and of Lothlórien no word had reached my mortal ears till I came there. Far away I knew there were the Horse-lords on the confines of an ancient Kingdom of Men, but FangornForest was an unforeseen adventure. I had never heard of the House of Eorl nor of the Stewards of Gondor. Most disquieting of all, Saruman had never been revealed to me, and I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.1 knew nothing of the Palantíri, though the moment the Orthanc-stone was cast from the window, I recognized it, and knew the meaning of the ‘rhyme of lore’ that had been running in my mind: seven stars and seven stones and one white tree. These rhymes and names will crop up; but they do not always explain themselves. I have yet to discover anything about the cats of Queen Berúthiel.8 But I did know more or less all about Gollum and his pan, and Sam, and I knew that the way was guarded by a Spider. And if that has anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when a small child,9 people are welcome to the notion 

On the character he most resembles:

I am not Gandalf, being a transcendent Sub-creator in this little world. As far as any character is ‘like me’ it is Faramir – except that I lack what all my characters possess (let the psychoanalysts note!) Courage. 

On libraries and book sales:

I am afraid I am always rather pleased when I hear of somebody being obliged to buy the book! An author cannot live on library-subscriptions. 

His hyper-critical reaction to a Dutch translation:

May I say now at once that I will not tolerate any similar tinkering with the personal nomenclature. Nor with the name/word Hobbit. I will not have any more Hompen (in which I was not consulted), nor any Hobbel or what not. Elves, Dwarfs/ves, Trolls, yes: they are mere modern equivalents of the correct terms. But hobbit (and orc) are of that world, and they must stay, whether they sound Dutch or not. …. If you think I am being absurd, then I shall be greatly distressed; but I fear not altered in my opinions. The few people I have been able to consult, I must say, express themselves equally strongly. Anyway I’m not going to be treated à la Mrs Tiggywinkle = Poupette à l’ épingle.* Not that B[eatrix] P[otter] did not give translators hell. Though possibly from securer grounds than I have. I am no linguist, but I do know something about nomenclature, and have specially studied it, and I am actually very angry indeed. 

On his love of philology:

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. But it is true. 

On how Hobbits are based on him:

I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much. I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side resons, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive. I hope that is enough to go on with. 

On his pedantry and how to address him: 

Do you think you could mark the New Year by dropping the Professor? I belong to a generation which did not use Christian names outside the family, but like the dwarves kept them private, and for even their intimates used surnames (or perversions of them), or nicknames, or (occasionally) Christian names that did not belong to them. Even C. S. Lewis never called me by a Christian name (or I him). So I will be content with a surname. I wish I could be rid of the ‘professor’ altogether, at any rate when not writing technical matter. It gives a false impression of ‘learning’, especially in ‘folklore’ and all that. It also gives a probably truer impression of pedantry; but it is a pity to have my pedantry advertised and underlined, so that people sniff it even when it is not there.

There’s plenty more–but those were some of my favorite passages.  And although I skipped a lot of the relationship oriented letters to his son, it’s certainly a book that any fan of LOTR or the Hobbit can enjoy.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Man Behind the Professor

    • I read the paperback version a long time ago, but I was too young to really parse it all. This time I read the ebook; happy to send it your way if you’re interested.

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