J.R.R. Tolkien_ A Biography Part 8

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Sales of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings continued to rise steadily, but there was no drastic change in the pattern until 1965. Early in that year it was learnt that an American publisher who appeared not to suffer from an excess of scruples was planning to issue an unauthorised paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, almost certainly without paying royalties to Tolkien. Because of the confused state of American copyright at that time, the publisher doubtless thought that he could do this with impunity; and he also realised that such an edition would probably sell widely, especially among American students, who were already showing an interest in the book. The only way to save the situation was for Tolkien's authorised American publishers, Houghton Mifflin, to issue their own paperback as quickly as possible, and this they planned to do, in collaboration with Ballantine Books. But in order to register this new edition as copyright, they would have to make a number of textual changes so that the book was technically new'. Rayner Unwin came to Oxford to explain all this to Tolkien, and to ask him to make some hasty revisions of The Lord of the Rings, and of The Hobbit, so that the latter book could be protected as well. Tolkien agreed, and Unwin returned, satisfied, to London.

Normally the very mention of the word revision' set Tolkien to work. But on this occasion he did nothing about it for the time being. He was quite used to missing deadlines and failing to meet urgent demands for ma.n.u.scripts, and now he continued to polish his new story Smith of Wootton Major (which he had just written), and to work also on his translation of Gawain, and on some notes on the Elvish poem Namarie' which the composer Donald Swann wanted to set to music as part of a Tolkien song-cycle. By the time he had finished all these tasks it was June, and what Tolkien and others regarded as an American pirate' edition of The Lord of the Rings had been issued.

The publishers were Ace Books, who (when challenged) alleged there was nothing illegal in their paperback, even though it was printed entirely without the permission of Tolkien or his authorised publishers, and even though no royalty payment had been offered to the author. Indeed the Ace edition had also been manufactured with some care, so that it was quite a bargain at seventy-five cents for each volume. There were a number of errors in the typesetting, but on the whole the printers had reproduced Tolkien's text accurately; ludicrously so, since they had included both the promise in the foreword of the index of names and the note at the end apologising for its absence. Ace were already well known as publishers of science fiction, and clearly a lot of people were going to buy their edition until an authorised paperback could be issued. An urgent request was sent to Tolkien to complete the revisions (which it was a.s.sumed he had been working on a.s.siduously for the last six months) as soon as possible.

So Tolkien began, though he turned not to The Lord of the Rings for which revision was urgent, but to The Hobbit for which it was not. He spent many hours searching for some revision notes that he had already made, but he could not find them. Instead he found a typescript of The New Shadow', a sequel to The Lord of the Rings which he had begun a long time ago but had abandoned after a few pages. It was about the return of evil to Middle-earth.

He sat up till four a.m. reading it and thinking about it. When the next day he did get down to The Hobbit he found a good deal of it very poor' and had to restrain himself from rewriting the entire book. The business of making revisions took some time, and when he turned at last to The Lord of the Rings the summer was well advanced. He decided on a number of changes that would correct remaining inaccuracies, and checked through the index which had now been prepared for him, but it was not until August that he was able to send the revised text to America.

Meanwhile the authorised paperback publishers, Ballantine Books, had decided that they could not wait any longer.

In order to get at least one Tolkien book into the shops they published The Hobbit in the original text without waiting for Tolkien's revisions, which they planned to include in a later edition. They sent him a copy, and he was astonished by the picture on the cover. Ace Books for all their moral piracy' had employed a cover artist who knew something about the story, but Ballantine's cover picture seemed to have no relevance whatever to The Hobbit, for it showed a hill, two emus, and a curious tree bearing bulbous fruit. Tolkien exploded: What has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs?' When the reply came that the artist hadn't time to read the book, and that the object with pink bulbs was meant to suggest a Christmas tree', Tolkien could only answer: I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse.'

Late in 1965 the authorised' paperback of The Lord of the Rings was published in America in three volumes, with Tolkien's revisions incorporated, and with the emus and the Christmas tree on the cover of the first volume, though this picture was later removed and one of Tolkien's own drawings was subst.i.tuted; two more of his pictures were used for the second and third volumes. Each copy carried a message from Tolkien: This paperback edition and no other has been published with my consent and co-operation. Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it and no other.'

But this did not immediately produce the desired result. The Ballantine edition (because it paid a royalty) cost twenty cents per volume more than the Ace edition, and the American student buyers did not at first show a preference for it. Clearly something more would have to be done. Curiously Tolkien himself played a prominent and efficient part in the campaign that now began; curiously, because he was no businessman, and ironically, because the unbusinesslike habits of his recent years were now turned to good advantage. He had been accustomed to waste' many hours that ought to have been spent on completing work for publication by writing innumerable replies to fan-letters, but this did mean that he had already built up an affectionate following of many dozens of enthusiastic correspondents, especially in America, and they were now only too glad to spring to his defence. On his own initiative he began to include a note in all his replies to American readers, informing them that the Ace edition was unauthorised, and asking them to tell their friends. This soon had a remarkable effect. American readers not only began to refuse to buy the Ace edition but demanded, often in forcible terms, that booksellers remove it from their shelves. A fan-club, The Tolkien Society of America', which had recently been formed, now joined in the battle. By the end of the year the sales of Ace copies began to fall sharply; and when the cause was taken up by the Science Fiction Writers of America, an influential body that now applied considerable pressure to Ace, the result was that Ace wrote to Tolkien offering to pay him a royalty for every copy they had sold, and stating that they would not reprint after their present stocks had been exhausted. So a treaty was signed, and The War over Middle-earth', as one journalist had dubbed it, came to an end.

But the most important consequence was yet to come. The dispute had attracted considerable publicity, and as a result Tolkien's name and the t.i.tles of his books were now very widely known in America. Approximately one hundred thousand copies of the Ace edition of The Lord of the Rings had been sold during 1965, but this figure was soon pa.s.sed by the authorised' paperback, which quickly reached the one million mark. Ace had unwittingly done a service to Tolkien, for they had helped to lift his book from the respectable' hard-cover status in which it had languished for some years and had put it at the top of the popular best-sellers. And by now a campus cult' had begun.

Clearly there was much in Tolkien's writing that appealed to American students. Its implied emphasis on the protection of natural scenery against the ravages of an industrial society harmonised with the growing ecological movement, and it was easy to see The Lord of the Rings as a tract for the times. But its chief appeal lay, as Lewis had seen long ago, in its unabashed return to heroic romance. The harsher critics might call it escapism, while the harsher still might compare it to the sinister influence of the hallucinatory drugs that were then fashionable in some student circles, but, whatever the reason, to hundreds of thousands of young Americans the story of Frodo's journey with the Ring now became The Book, surpa.s.sing all previous best-sellers. At the end of 1966 a newspaper reported: At Yale the trilogy is selling faster than William Golding's Lord of the Flies at its crest. At Harvard it is outpacing J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.' Lapel badges began to appear bearing slogans such as Frodo Lives', Gandalf for President', and Come to Middle-earth'. Branches of the Tolkien Society mushroomed along the West Coast and in New York State, and eventually grew into the Mytho-poeic Society', devoted also to studying the works of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Members of fan-clubs held hobbit picnics' at which they ate mushrooms and drank cider, and dressed up as characters from the stories. Eventually, Tolkien's writings began to achieve respectability in American academic circles, and were the subject of theses with such t.i.tles as A Parametric a.n.a.lysis of Ant.i.thetical Conflict and Irony in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings'. Volumes of Tolkien criticism began to appear in campus bookshops. A President's daughter, an astronaut, and a film star wrote to express their enthusiasm for Tolkien's writings. Among the graffiti that could be seen on American walls was: J.

R. R. Tolkien is Hobbit-forming.'

The wildfire of this American enthusiasm spread to other countries. At festivities in Saigon a Vietnamese dancer was seen bearing the lid-less eye of Sauron on his shield, and in North Borneo a Frodo Society' was formed. At about the same time, interest in Tolkien's books showed a marked increase in Britain, partly because those who had first read them as children were now reaching adulthood and were communicating their enthusiasm to their friends, and partly as a reflection of the cult that had grown up in America. British sales of the books rose sharply, a Tolkien Society began to meet in London and elsewhere in the country, students at Warwick University renamed the Ring Road around their campus Tolkien Road', and a psychedelic magazine' ent.i.tled Gandalf's Garden was issued with the avowed objective to bring beautiful people together'. Its first issue explained that Gandalf is fast becoming absorbed in the youthful world spirit as the mythological hero of the age'.

As for Tolkien himself, writing to his colleague Norman Davis he referred to the widespread enthusiasm for his books as my deplorable cultus'; and to a reporter who asked him if he was pleased by the enthusiasm of the young Americans he replied: Art moves them and they don't know what they've been moved by and they get quite drunk on it. Many young Americans are involved in the stories in a way that I'm not.'

Sales of the books continued to increase, and though it is impossible to give an accurate figure it would appear that by the end of 1968 approximately three million copies of The Lord of the Rings had been sold around the world.

Numerous translations appeared in a variety of languages.

Press reporters began to seek Tolkien out in increasing numbers, and although in principle he disliked giving interviews, his natural courtesy made it difficult for him to turn them away; eventually he selected several for whom he had a particular liking and insisted on communicating with them alone. Visitors of all kinds arrived on business connected with his books, and again, though he wished to remain undisturbed, he usually agreed to see them. In general he tended to like people when he first met them, and then to find them irritating within a short time; eventually, perhaps with this in mind, he installed an alarm-clock which he set to ring a few minutes after the visitor had arrived, whereupon he would imply that he had some other matter to attend to and would show the caller out.

Americans who were enthusiastic about his books began to make pilgrimages to see him. d.i.c.k Plotz, founder member of the Tolkien Society of America, called to interview him for a fan-magazine. Professor Clyde S. Kilby from Illinois arrived showing much interest in The Silmarillion, for which the Tolkien enthusiasts were now waiting impatiently; Tolkien showed Kilby some of the Silmarillion ma.n.u.scripts, and was glad of his appreciative remarks.

Another academic from the Middle West, William Ready, visited Tolkien and later published a book about him which Tolkien found insulting and offensive'; and from then onwards he was more careful about visitors. Early in 1968 the BBC made a film about him, which they called Tolkien hi Oxford'; he performed unselfconsciously to the camera, and enjoyed himself in a mild way. Yet on the whole this kind of thing did not please him. He wrote to a reader: Being a cult figure in one's own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant. However I do Dot find that it tends to puff one up; in my case at any rate it makes me feel extremely small and inadequate. But even the nose of a very modest idol cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense.'

Part Seven.

1959-1973: Last years


Fame puzzled him. It was not something that he had ever expected or felt to be appropriate. Certainly let his readers be enthusiastic about the stories, but why should they make a fuss of him? And they were indeed making a fuss. He was having to deal with a huge mound of correspondence from fans, and many readers did not merely send him letters. They enclosed gifts of every kind: paintings, sculptures, drinking-goblets, photographs of themselves dressed as characters from the books, tape-recordings, food, drink, tobacco, and tapestries. 76 Sandfield Road, where the Tolkiens were now living, was already filled to bursting with books and papers, and now it began to overflow with gifts. Tolkien spent day after day writing letters of thanks. When Alien & Unwin offered to a.s.sist with the answering of his fan-mail he accepted with grat.i.tude. But since his private address had received some publicity and his telephone number could be found in the Oxford directory, he was troubled in another way.

Callers began to arrive without appointment, asking him to autograph books or to give them money. Usually they were polite, occasionally mad or threatening. The telephone would ring in the middle of the night: an unknown American was on the line, wishing to speak to Tolkien in person, and quite unaware of the time difference. Worst of all, people began to take photographs through the windows. It was not the kind of thing that should happen in an ordered world, a scoured Shire.

As Tolkien grew older, many of his characteristics became more deeply marked. The hasty way of talking, the bad articulation and the parenthetic sentences, grew to be more p.r.o.nounced. Att.i.tudes long held, such as his dislike for French cooking, became absurd caricatures of themselves. What he once wrote of prejudices held by C. S. Lewis could have been said of himself in old age: He had several, some ineradicable, being based on ignorance but impenetrable by information.' At the same time he had nothing like so many prejudices as Lewis; nor is prejudice'

exactly the right word, for it implies that his actions were based upon these opinions, whereas in truth his stranger beliefs rarely had any bearing on his behaviour. It was not so much a matter of prejudice as the habit (and it is not an uncommon Oxford habit) of making dogmatic a.s.sertions about things of which he knew very little.

In some ways he found old age deeply distressing, while in other respects it brought out the best in him. He was saddened by the consciousness of waning powers, and wrote in 1965: I find it difficult to work - beginning to feel old and the fire dying down.' Occasionally this plunged him into despair, and in his later years he was particularly p.r.o.ne to the gloom that had always characterised his life; the very sense of retirement and withdrawal was sufficient to bring out this side in his nature. But the other side of his personality, the capacity for high spirits and good fellowship, remained just as strong, and if anything it too increased to balance the growing gloom. The approach of old age suited him physically, and as the angularity of his long thin face softened into wrinkles and folds, and there was a suggestion of increased girth behind the coloured waistcoat which he now almost invariably wore, friends noted that the ripening of age was distinctly becoming. Certainly his capacity for enjoying the company of others seemed to increase as the years pa.s.sed; while the twinkling eyes, the enthusiastic way of talking, the explosive laugh, the easy friendliness, and the expansiveness over the dinner-table or in a bar, made him the most congenial of companions.

He was a man of cronies,' wrote C. S. Lewis in the obituary of Tolkien, and was always best in some small circle of intimates where the tone was at once Bohemian, literary, and Christian.' Yet when Tolkien retired from the Merton Professorship in the summer of 1959 he placed himself almost deliberately out of reach of such cronies, away from the society of those whom (apart from his own family) he loved best; and as a result he experienced a measure of unhappiness. In these later years he still saw a little of Lewis, making occasional visits to the Bird and Baby' and to the Kilns, Lewis's house on the other side of Headington; and he and Lewis might conceivably have preserved something of their old friendship had not Tolkien been puzzled and even angered by Lewis's marriage to Joy Davidman, which lasted from 1957 until her death in 1960. Some of his feeling may be explained by the fact that she had been divorced from her first husband before she married Lewis, some by resentment of Lewis's expectation that his friends should pay court to his new wife - whereas in the thirties Lewis, very much the bachelor, had liked to ignore the fact that his friends had wives to go home to. But there was more to it than that. It was almost as if Tolkien felt betrayed by the marriage, resented the intrusion of a woman into his friendship with Lewis - just as Edith had resented Lewis's intrusion into her marriage. Ironically it was Edith who became friends with Joy Davidman.

The cessation in the mid nineteen-fifties of Tolkien's regular meetings with Lewis marked the closing of the clubbable' chapter in his life, a chapter that had begun with the T.C.B.S. and had culminated in the Inklings. From this time onwards he was essentially a solitary man who led most of his life at home. This was chiefly through necessity, for he was greatly concerned for Edith's health and well-being; and as she was becoming increasingly lame with every year, besides suffering from constant digestive trouble, he felt it his duty to be with her as much of the time as was possible. But this change in his life was also to some extent a deliberate withdrawal from the society in which he had lived, worked, and talked for forty years; for Oxford itself was changing, and his generation was making way for a different breed of men, less discursive, less sociable in the old way, and certainly less Christian.

In his Valedictory Address, given to a packed audience in Merton College Hall at the end of his final summer term, Tolkien touched on some of the changes that were taking place in Oxford. He directed some barbed remarks towards the increasing emphasis on postgraduate research, which he described as the degeneration of real curiosity and enthusiasm into a planned economy, under which so much research time is stuffed into more or less standard skins and turned out in sausages of a size and shape approved by our own little printed cookery book'.

Yet he ended not with any discussion of academic matters, but by quoting from his own Elvish song of farewell, Namarie'. At last, after four decades of university service, he was looking forward to devoting all his time to his legends, and especially to the completion of The Silmarillion, which Alien & Unwin were now extremely keen to publish, and for which they had already been waiting for several years.

Sandfield Road was not the best place for retirement. Tolkien had already lived there for six years and was aware of the limitations that it would impose; yet even so he was perhaps not fully expecting the sense of isolation that began when he no longer had to make the daily journey into college. The Sandfield Road house was two miles from the centre of Oxford, and the nearest bus-stop was some distance away, further than Edith was able to walk with ease. Consequently any journey into Oxford or to the Headington shops involved the hiring of a taxi. Nor did friends call with such frequency as they had when the Tolkiens lived in the centre of the city. As to the family.

Christopher and his wife Faith often paid visits; Faith, a sculptor, had made a bust of her father-in-law which the English Faculty presented to Tolkien on his retirement; later Tolkien had it cast in bronze at his own expense, and the bronze was placed in the Faculty library. But Christopher, who was now a lecturer, later a Fellow, at New College, was much engaged with his own work. John was now in charge of his own parish in Staffordshire, while Michael was teaching in the Midlands and could only come for occasional visits with his family (a son and two daughters). Priscilla was now back in Oxford, working as a probation officer, and she saw a good deal of her parents; but she lived on the further side of the city and she too had her own concerns.

Tolkien's contacts with academic life were now restricted to occasional visits from Alistair Campbell, the Anglo-Saxon scholar who had succeeded Charles Wrenn as professor, and to lunches with his former pupil Norman Davis, the new Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. Davis and his wife soon realised that these meals were an important feature of life for the Tolkiens, offering a release from the confined domestic routine at Sandfield Road. Once every week or so the Davises would call to take them to whichever country hotel was the current favourite - and none remained in favour with the Tolkiens for long, due to some defect in the cooking, the size of the bill, or the fact that the route to it involved the use of a new road which had spoiled the scenery. At the hotel they would have a round of drinks - Edith found that a large brandy agreed with her digestion - and then a good lunch with no lack of wine. During the meal Lena Davis would talk to Edith, of whom she was very fond, freeing the two men for their own conversation. But besides this and family events there was little else in Tolkien's social life.

Exeter College elected him to an Honorary Fellowship in 1963, Merton following suit with an Emeritus Fellowship.

But though he was always welcome in both colleges and was sent frequent invitations, he rarely attended a college dinner, and when he did so he ate little, suspecting the worst of the cooking. Nor would he dine away from home unless Priscilla or a friend was able to keep Edith company for the evening. Concern for her well-being always took precedence with him.

Immediately after his retirement there was a good deal to occupy him in the matter of domestic arrangements. He had to move all his books out of his college room and find s.p.a.ce for them at home, and since his upstairs study-bedroom at Sandfield Road was already crammed, he decided to convert the garage (unoccupied, since there was no car) into a library-c.u.m-office. The shifting of books took many months, and it did no good to the lumbago of which he now complained. But at last everything was in place and he could begin the major task of revising and completing The Silmarillion.

Inevitably, given his habit of drastic rewriting, he had decided that the whole work needed to be reconstructed, and he began this great labour. He was helped by his part-time secretary Elisabeth Lumsden, who like two of her successors, Naomi Collyer and Phyllis Jenkinson, became friends with him and Edith. But no sooner had he begun to make progress than he was interrupted by the arrival of the proofs of his Ancrene Wisse edition, delayed by a printing strike. Reluctantly he abandoned his mythology and turned to the labour of correcting two hundred and twenty-two pages of Middle English with detailed footnotes. Once the Ancrene Wisse was out of the way, he began to turn back to what he called his real work', but he felt that before continuing with The Silmarillion he ought to complete the revision of his Gawain and Pearl translations, and to write the introduction that the publishers required for them. Nor did he manage to finish any of this before turning to another task for Alien & Unwin, the revision of his lecture on Fairy-Stories which they wished to reprint together with Leaf by Niggle. Thus there was a perpetual discontinuity, a breaking of threads in his work which delayed achievement and frustrated him more and more.

A lot of his time was also spent simply in answering letters. Readers wrote to him by the score, praising, criticising, and asking for more information about elements in the stories. Tolkien took every letter seriously, especially if it came from a child or an elderly person. Sometimes he would make two or three drafts of his reply - and then be dissatisfied with the result, or so undecided as to what he should say that he never sent anything. Or he would lose a letter after writing it, and spend hours turning out the garage or his study-bedroom until he had found it. The search might reveal other forgotten things, an unanswered letter or an unfinished story, and he would abandon what he had set out to do, and sit down and read (or rewrite) whatever he had discovered. Many days pa.s.sed in this fashion.

He was always glad to deal with requests from readers who wanted to name their house or their pet or even their child after a place or a character in his books; indeed he considered it only proper that they should ask him, and he was angered when a hydrofoil was given the name Shadowfax' (the horse ridden by Gandalf) without his permission. Those who did write on such matters were often rewarded in unexpected ways; a breeder of Jersey cattle asking if he could use Rivendell' as a herd-name received a letter from Tolkien to the effect that the Elvish word for bull' was mundo, and suggesting a number of names for individual bulls that might be derived from it.

(When he had posted this letter, Tolkien sat down to work out how it was that mundo came to mean bull', something that he had not previously considered.) With these and similar matters occupying him more and more, he spent little time working on The Silmarillion.

Nevertheless he continued to attend to it, and he might have succeeded in preparing it for publication at this time if he had been able to discipline himself into adopting regular working methods. But much of his time was spent simply in playing Patience, often far into the night. It was a habit of many years' standing, and he had invented a large number of games of his own, which he would pa.s.s on gleefully to other Patience players. Certainly he did a good deal of thinking while apparently frittering away the time over cards; but he would usually be filled with remorse at hours spent in this fashion. Often he would pa.s.s much of the day drawing marvellously intricate patterns on the backs of old newspapers, while solving the crossword. Inevitably these patterns were caught up in his stories, and became Elvish heraldic devices, Numen6rean carpet designs, or drawings of exotic plants with names in Quenya or Sindarin. At first he would be delighted with them. But then he would feel ashamed at his dilatory ways, and would try to get down to work; then the telephone would ring, or Edith would call him to come shopping or have tea with a friend, and he would have to abandon work for the day. He himself was thus partly to blame for the fact that he did not get much done. And this in itself depressed him, and made him even less capable of achieving much, while he was also saddened by what often seemed to him a monotonous and restricting way of life. The days seem blank,' he wrote, and I cannot concentrate on anything. I find life such a bore in this imprisonment.'

In particular he felt lonely at the lack of male company. His old friend and doctor, R. E. Havard of the Inklings, was a near neighbour and (being a Catholic) often sat next to him at ma.s.s on Sundays. Their conversation on the way home after church was an important part of Tolkien's week, but it often only made him nostalgic.

C. S. Lewis died on 22 November 1963, aged sixty-four. A few days later, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla: So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age - like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.'

He refused a request to write an obituary of Lewis, and he turned down an invitation to contribute to the memorial volume. But he spent many hours pondering over Lewis's last book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer.

Soon after Lewis's death, he began to keep a diary, which was something he had not done for many years. In part it was an excuse for using another alphabet that he had invented; he called it his New English Alphabet', and noted that it was intended as an improvement on what he called the ridiculous alphabet propounded by persons competing for the money of that absurd man Shaw'. It used some conventional letters (though giving them different sound-values), some international phonetic signs, and some symbols from his own Feanorian alphabet. He employed it in his diary when he wanted to write about private matters. Like all his diaries, this was more often a record of sorrows than of joys, and it does not provide an entirely balanced picture of his life at Sandfield Road. It does however indicate the appalling depths of gloom to which he could sink, albeit only for short periods. Life is grey and grim,' he wrote at one such moment. I can get nothing done, between stateness and boredom (confined to quarters), and anxiety and distraction. What am I going to do? Be sucked down into residence in a hotel or old-people's home or club, without books or contacts or talk with men? G.o.d help me!'

Not untypically, Tolkien turned this particular depression to good effect. Just as his despair over his failure to finish The Lord of the Rings had given birth to Leaf by Niggle, so anxiety over the future and his growing grief at the approach of old age led him to write Smith of Wootton Major.

This story arose in an odd way. An American publisher had asked Tolkien to write a preface for a new edition of George Macdonald's The Golden Key. He usually refused invitations of this sort, but this time, for no apparent reason, he accepted. He set to work at the end of January 1965, a time when his spirits were particularly low. He found Macdonald's book far less to his taste than he had recalled, and noted that it was illwritten, incoherent, and bad, in spite of a few memorable pa.s.sages'. (Indeed Tolkien had none of C. S. Lewis's pa.s.sionate devotion to Macdonald; he liked the Curdle books, but found much of Macdonald's writing spoilt for him by its moral allegorical content.) But despite this reaction to the story, and again uncharacteristically, he pressed on with the task, as if he had to get something finished to prove that he was not incapable of work. He began to explain, to the young readers for whom the edition was intended, the meaning of the term Fairy'. He wrote: Fairy is very powerful. Even the bad author cannot escape it. He probably makes up his tale out of bits of older tales, or things he half remembers, and they may be too strong for him to spoil or disenchant. Someone may meet them for the first time in his silly tale, and catch a glimpse of Fairy, and go on to better things. This could be put into a short story like this. There was once a cook, and he thought of making a cake for a children's party. His chief notion was that it must be very sweet.., The story was meant to last only for a few paragraphs. But it went on and on, until Tolkien stopped, realising that it had a life of its own and should be completed as something separate. In the first draft it was called The Great Cake', but he soon adopted the t.i.tle Smith of Wootton Major. (The Macdonald preface was never finished.) Smith was unusual in two ways: it was composed on the typewriter - something Tolkien did not normally do - and it was related closely and even consciously to himself. He called it an old man's story, filled with the presage of bereavement', and elsewhere he said that it was written with deep emotion, partly drawn from the experience of the bereavement of retirement and of advancing age'. Like Smith, the village lad who swallows a magic star and so obtains a pa.s.sport to Faery, Tolkien had, in his imagination, wandered for a long while through mysterious lands; now he felt the approach of the end, and knew that he would soon have to surrender his own star, his imagination. It was indeed the last story that he ever wrote.

Not long after it was completed, Tolkien showed it to Rayner Unwin, who was delighted with it, but felt that it needed the company of other stories to make up a sufficiently substantial volume. However, Alien & Unwin eventually decided to issue the story on its own, and it was published in Britain and America during 1967, with ill.u.s.trations by Pauline Baynes. Smith of Wootton Major was generally well received by the critics, though none of them perceived its personal content nor remarked that it was uncharacteristic of its author in containing an element of allegory. Tolkien wrote of this: There is no allegory in the Faery, which is conceived as having a real extramental existence. There is some trace of allegory in the Human part, which seems to me obvious though no reader or critic has yet averted to it. As usual there is no religion in the story; but plainly enough the Master Cook and the Great Hall, etc.. are a (somewhat satirical) allegory of the village-church, and village parson: its functions steadily decaying and losing all touch with the arts, into mere eating and drinking - the last trace of anything other being left in the children.'

During this period Tolkien completed two other books for publication. His revision of the lecture On Fairy-Stories was published in 1964 together with Leaf by Niggle under the overall t.i.tle Tree and Leaf; and when in 1961 his aunt Jane Neave, then eighty-nine, wrote to ask him if you wouldn't get out a small book with Tom Bombadil at the heart of it, the sort of size of book that we old uns can afford to buy for Christmas presents', the result was The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The verses that Tolkien selected for this book had been written by him mostly during the nineteen-twenties and thirties, the exceptions being Bombadil Goes A-Boating', which was composed especially for the book, and Cat', written in 1956 to amuse Tolkien's granddaughter Joan Anne. The book, again ill.u.s.trated by Pauline Baynes, was issued just in time to delight Jane Neave, who died a few months later.

If life in retirement sometimes seemed grey and grim', it also had many elements that Tolkien enjoyed. For the first time he had enough money. As early as 1962, before the amazing increase in American sales, he wrote of his income: It is an astonishing situation, and I hope I am sufficiently grateful to G.o.d. Only a little while ago I was wondering if we should be able to go on living here, on my inadequate pension. But saving universal catastrophe, I am not likely to be hard up again in my time.'

Tax took a large proportion of his earnings, but on the whole he bore this philosophically; though on one occasion he crossed a cheque for a large sum payable to the tax authorities with the words Not a penny for Concorde'. Near the end of his life he made a financial settlement that pa.s.sed on most of his a.s.sets to his four children.

He was generous with his new-found wealth, giving a substantial sum (anonymously) to his parish church in Headington during his last years. In particular he was always glad to provide for the needs of members of his family. He bought a house for one of his children, a car for another, gave a cello to a grandson, and paid the school fees for a granddaughter. But despite his affluence, the habit of watching every penny - a habit acquired during years of heavy expense and a small income - could not be broken easily; and his diary, besides including a daily record of the weather, invariably contained a detailed account of even the smallest amounts of cash spent: Airmail Is 3d, Gillette Blades 2s lid, postage 7Jd, Steradent 6s 2d.' He never spent money carelessly; he and Edith did not install any electrical gadgets in the home, for they had never been accustomed to them and did not imagine that they needed them now. Not only was there no television in the house, but no washing-machine or dishwasher either.

Yet the fact that he now had plenty of money did give Tolkien much pleasure. He indulged in selected extravagances which were entirely to his taste: a good lunch with wine at a restaurant after a morning's shopping in Oxford, a black corduroy jacket and a new waistcoat from Hall's the tailor, and new clothes for Edith.

He and Edith were still very different people with widely differing interests, and even after fifty years of marriage they were not always ideal company for each other. Occasionally there were moments of irritation between them, just as there had been throughout their lives. But there was still, as there had always been, great love and affection, perhaps even more now that the strain of bringing up a family had pa.s.sed. Now they had time simply to sit and talk; and they often did this, especially on summer evenings after supper, on a bench in the front porch at Sandfield Road, or in the garden among their roses, he with his pipe and she smoking a cigarette, a habit that she had taken up late in life. Inevitably much of their talk would be about the family, an endless source of interest to them both.

The concept of the family, something that they had scarcely known themselves as children, had always mattered to them, and they now found the role of grandparents entirely to their liking, delighting in the visits of grandchildren.

Their Golden Wedding, celebrated in 1966 with much ceremony, gave them great pleasure. Among the events to mark it was a performance at their party in Merton College of Donald Swann's Tolkien song-cycle, The Road Goes Ever On, with the composer at the piano and the songs sung by William Elvin - A name of good omen!' said Tolkien.

The domestic arrangements at Sandfield Road were by no means ideal, and the situation deteriorated as over the years Edith's health became worse. Despite her increasing lameness from arthritis she managed to do all the cooking, most of the housework, and some of the gardening; but as the nineteen-sixties advanced and she came closer to her eightieth birthday it was clear that she could not manage for much longer. A daily help generally came in for a few hours, but it was not a small house and there was much to be done, while at the same time it was not big enough for a resident housekeeper to be accommodated with convenience, even supposing that a suitable person could have been found. Tolkien himself did what he could to help, and since he was good with his hands he could mend broken furniture or repair fuses; but he too was becoming increasingly stiff, and by the beginning of 1968, when he was seventy-six and Edith seventy-nine, they had decided to move to a more convenient house. A move would also have the advantage of making it possible to keep his whereabouts secret, and so of avoiding the now almost intolerable stream of fan-mail, gifts, telephone calls, and visitors. As to where they should move to, he and Edith considered several possibilities in the Oxford area. But eventually they settled on Bournemouth.

Even by the standard of English seaside towns, Bournemouth is a peculiarly unlovable place, an urban sprawl that owes most of its architecture to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an anaemic English equivalent of the French Riviera. Like the majority of south-coast resorts, it attracts the elderly in large numbers. They come to spend their last years in bungalows and villas, or as residents in faded hotels where they are welcomed in winter but where the weekly rates rise sharply during the summer season. They take the air along the sea-front at East Cliff or West Cliff; they patronise the public library, the Winter Gardens, and the golf course; they stroll among the conifers of Bos...o...b.. and Branksome Chine; and eventually they die.

Yet Bournemouth serves its purpose. It provides a setting in which elderly people of some affluence can be comfortable, and can spend their time with others of their age and cla.s.s. Edith Tolkien had come to like it very much; and not without reason, for in Bournemouth for the first time in her life she had made a large number of friends.

Some years previously she had begun to take holidays at the Mira-mar Hotel on the sea-front in the west of the town, an expensive but comfortable and friendly establishment chiefly patronised by people like herself. After Tolkien had retired and had given up his examination visits to Ireland, he had begun to accompany her on these Bournemouth holidays, and he soon realised that on the whole she was far happier there than she was at home in Oxford. This was scarcely surprising, for the social setting of the Miramar was very close to what she had known in the Jessop household at Cheltenham between 1910 and 1913: upper middle-cla.s.s, affluent, unintellectual, and with an easy friendliness towards its own kind. At the Miramar she felt entirely at home, back in her own milieu, as she had never been in Oxford or at any other tune during her married life. True, many of the other guests at the hotel were t.i.tled, rich, and self-a.s.sured. Yet they were all essentially of the same breed: conservative, glad to talk about their own children and grandchildren and about mutual acquaintances, happy to pa.s.s most of the day in the residents' lounge with occasional interruptions for walks by the sea, content to sit over their post-prandial coffee and watch the nine o'clock news in the television room before going to bed. Nor did Edith feel any sense of inferiority, for she was now as well off financially as any of them; and as to t.i.tles, her status as the wife of an internationally famous author cancelled out any feeling she might have of inadequacy.

On a more practical basis, the Miramar became increasingly the ideal answer to the Tolkiens' domestic problems.

When the strain of keeping house became too much for Edith, it was easy to book their usual rooms and to arrange for their regular hire-car driver to take them down to Bournemouth. At the Miramar, Edith would soon recover much of her strength, not to say her good spirits; while Tolkien himself was often glad to initiate visits to Bournemouth simply to escape from the confines of Sandfield Road and from the despair caused by his own inability to get his work done.

He himself was not particularly happy at the Miramar. He shared little of Edith's delight in the type of person (as C.

S. Lewis expressed it) whose general conversation is almost wholly narrative', and though he found an occasional articulate fellow male among the guests he was sometimes reduced to silent and impotent rage by the feeling of imprisonment. But in other respects the Bournemouth holidays suited him very well. He could work in his hotel room just as much (or just as little) as at Sandfield Road - providing he remembered to bring all the relevant papers with him, which was not always the case - and he enjoyed the comfort and the cooking. He and Edith had discovered a local doctor who proved unfailingly friendly and helpful if either of them should be unwell; there was a Catholic church reasonably near at hand; the hotel was close to the sea which he loved so much (albeit a rather more timid sea than he might have preferred); and above all he could see that Edith was happy. So the visits to Bournemouth continued, and when the Tolkiens decided to leave Sandfield Road and find another house it was not altogether surprising that they resolved to look for something near the Miramar.

He lives in a hideous house - I cannot tell you how hideous, with hideous pictures.' W. H. Auden said this at a meeting of the Tolkien Society in New York, and his words were reported in a London newspaper in January 1966.

Tolkien read them, and remarked: Since it is some years since his sole visit, in which he only entered Edith's room and had tea, he must be confused in his memories (if he really said just this).' It was a calm reaction to an insulting remark, and after showing a little initial displeasure in a letter to Auden, Tolkien was soon writing cordially to him once more.

Auden's remark was silly, and it was not true. The Sandfield Road house (to which he was referring) was no uglier than any others in that nondescript but modest street, nor were the pictures that adorned the walls of Edith's drawing-room any different from those in the average middle-cla.s.s house of the district. But of course this is precisely what Auden was trying to say. As a man of sophisticated tastes he was astonished by the apparent ordinariness of Tolkien's life-style, and by the conformity of the house in the suburban road. This lifestyle did not specifically reflect Tolkien's own tastes; on the other hand he did not exactly object to it - indeed there was an ascetic side to him which did not even notice it. It is important to grasp this before coming to any conclusions about the life that Tolkien led in Bournemouth from 1968 until the end of 1971.

He and Edith bought a bungalow a short taxi-ride away from the Miramar. What Auden would have thought of this plain modern house, 19 Lakeside Road, can be easily imagined, for in his terms it was quite as hideous' as the Headington house. But from the point of view of the Tolkiens - both of them - it was exactly what they wanted. It had a well-equipped kitchen in which Edith could manage to cook with some ease despite her increasing disability; and besides a sitting-room, a dining-room, and a bedroom for each of them there was also a room that served as an indoor study for Tolkien, and he could use the double garage for a library-c.u.m-office just as he had done at Sandfield Road. There was central heating - something they had never had before - and outside there was a verandah where they could sit and smoke in the evenings, a large garden with plenty of room for their roses and even a few vegetables, and at the bottom a private gate that led into the small wooded gorge known as Branksome Chine, and so down to the sea. There were Catholic neighbours who often took Tolkien to church in their car, regular domestic help, and the Miramar always near at hand for the accommodation of friends and members of the family who came down to see them as well as for regular lunches, and even for sleeping overnight now and then when Edith needed a rest.

Inevitably the move to Bournemouth involved much sacrifice on Tolkien's part. He had little wish to leave Oxford, and he knew that he was cutting himself off from all but a limited contact with his family and close friends. And again, as with his retirement to Headington, he found the reality a little harsher than he had expected. I feel quite well,' he wrote to Christopher a year after moving to Bournemouth. And yet; and yet. I see no men of my own kind.

I miss Norman. And above all I miss you.'

But the sacrifice had a purpose to it, and that purpose was achieved. Edith was happy at Lakeside Road, as happy as she had been during the holidays at the Miramar, and consistently happier than she had ever been before in their married life. Besides the comfort of the new house and the benefit she derived from the absence of stairs to be negotiated, there was also her continuing pleasure at visits to the Miramar and at the friendships she made there.

She had ceased to be the shy, uncertain, sometimes troubled wife of an Oxford professor, and became herself once more, the sociable good-humoured Miss Bratt of the Cheltenham days. She was back in the setting where she really belonged.

And on the whole life was better for Tolkien himself. Edith's happiness was deeply gratifying to him, and was reflected in his own state of mind, so that the diary he kept for a brief time during these Bournemouth years shows very little of the despondency which often overtook him at Sandfield Road. The absence of what he called men of my own kind' was partly made up for by frequent visits from members of the family and friends, while the almost total lack of interruptions from fans (the address and telephone number, even the information that Tolkien was living on the south coast, were successfully kept secret) meant that a great deal more of his time was available for work.

A certain amount of secretarial a.s.sistance was given by the doctor's wife, while Joy Hill, the member of Alien & Unwin's staff who dealt with his fan-mail, came down regularly to attend to letters. The move to Bournemouth was initially made more tiresome by a serious accident when Tolkien fell on the stairs at Sandfield Road and injured his leg badly, with the result that he had to spend some weeks in hospital and many more in plaster; but once he had recovered he was able, at least in theory, to begin to work with some thoroughness at The Silmarillion.

Yet it was difficult to decide exactly where to start. In one sense there was very little to be done. The story of The Silmarillion itself was complete, if the term story' could be used of a work beginning with an account of the creation of the world and dealing in the main with the struggle between the elves and the prime power of evil. To produce a continuous narrative Tolkien merely had to decide which version of each chapter he should use, for there were by now many versions, dating from his earliest work in 1917 to some pa.s.sages written in the last few years. But this involved so many decisions that he did not know where to start. And even if he managed to complete this part of the work, he would then have to ensure that the whole book was consistent with itself. Over the years he had by his various alterations and rewritings produced a ma.s.sive confusion of detail. Characters' names had been changed in one place and not in another. Topographical descriptions were disorganised and contradictory. Worst of all, the ma.n.u.scripts themselves had proliferated, so that he was no longer certain which of them represented his latest thoughts on any particular pa.s.sage. For security reasons he had in recent years made two copies of each typescript and had then kept each copy in a separate place. But he had never decided which was to be the working copy, and often he had amended each of them independently and in contradictory fashion. To produce a consistent and satisfactory text he would have to make a detailed collation of every ma.n.u.script, and the prospect of attempting this filled him with dismay.

Besides this, he was still uncertain how the whole work should be presented. He was inclined to abandon the original framework, the introductory device of the seafarer to whom the stories were told. But did it perhaps need some other device of this kind? Or was it enough simply to present it as the mythology that appeared in a shadowy form in The Lord of the Rings! And on the subject of that other book, he had made his task even more complicated by introducing into it several important characters, such as the elven-queen Galadriel and the treeish Ents, who had not appeared in the original Silmarillion, but who now required some mention in it. By this time he had managed to find satisfactory solutions to these problems, but he knew that he would have to ensure that The Silmarillion harmonised in every single detail with The Lord of the Rings, or else he would be bombarded with letters pointing out the inconsistencies. And even given these daunting technical challenges, he was still not beyond reconsidering some fundamental aspect of the whole story, the alteration of which would have meant a complete rewriting from the beginning.

By the summer of 1971, after three years at Bournemouth, he had begun to make progress, although as usual he was drawn aside to the consideration of detail rather than the planning of the whole. What form, he would wonder, should a particular name take? And then he would begin to contemplate a revision of some aspect of the elvish languages. Even when he did do some actual writing, it was not usually concerned with the revision of the narrative but with the huge ma.s.s of ancillary material that had now acc.u.mulated. Much of this material was in the form of essays on what might be called technical' aspects of the mythology, such as the relation between the ageing processes of elves and men, or the death of animals and plants in Middle-earth. He felt that every detail of his cosmos needed attention, whether or not the essays themselves would ever be published. Sub-creation had become a sufficiently rewarding pastime in itself, quite apart from the desire to see the work in print.

Sometimes he would put in long hours at his desk, but on other days he would soon turn to a game of Patience and abandon any pretence of working. Then there might be a good lunch at the Mira-mar with plenty of wine, and if he did not feel like doing any work after it, why should he? They could wait for the book. He would take his time!

Yet on other days he was distressed that time was leaking away so fast with the book still unfinished. And at the end of 1971 the Bournemouth episode came abruptly to a close. Edith, aged eighty-two, was taken ill in the middle of November with an inflamed gallbladder. She was removed to hospital, and after a few days of severe illness she died, early on Monday 29 November.

After Tolkien had begun to recover from the first shock of Edith's death, there was no question of his remaining in Bournemouth. Clearly he would come back to live in Oxford, but at first there was uncertainty about what arrangements could be made. Then Merton College invited him to become a resident honorary Fellow, and offered him a set of rooms in a college house in Merton Street, where a scout and his wife could look after him. This was a most unusual honour and the perfect solution. Tolkien accepted with the greatest enthusiasm, and after spending the intervening weeks with members of his family he moved into 21 Merton Street at the beginning of March 1972, typically making friends with the three removal men and riding with them in their pantechnicon from Bournemouth to Oxford.

His flat in Merton Street consisted of a large sitting-room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. Charlie Carr, the college scout who acted as caretaker, lived in the bas.e.m.e.nt with his wife. The Carrs showed much kindness to Tolkien, not only providing him with breakfast in his rooms (which was part of the official arrangement) but also cooking lunch or supper for him if he did not feel well or did not wish to dine in college. Another alternative to eating in Merton was to have a meal at the Eastgate Hotel next door, which had changed greatly since he had first dined there with Lewis in the thirties, and was no longer cheap; but he was now a rich man, and he could afford to eat there whenever he liked. Nevertheless a good many of his meals were taken in college, for he was ent.i.tled to free lunches and dinners, and was always made most welcome in the Senior Common Room.

Thus his way of life in 1972 and 1973 was on the whole entirely to his liking. He had suffered much distress at the loss of Edith, and he was essentially a lonely man now; yet he was free, as he had not been within memory, and he could live his life as he pleased. Just as Bournemouth had in some ways been a reward for Edith for all that she had faced in the early days of their marriage, so his almost bachelor existence in Merton Street seemed to be a reward for his patience at Bournemouth.

There was no question of his becoming inactive. He paid frequent visits to the village near Oxford where Christopher and his second wife Baillie lived; and, in the company of their small children Adam and Rachel, he would forget his lumbago and run about the lawn in some game, or would throw a matchbox into a high tree and then try to dislodge it with stones to amuse them. He went with Priscilla and his grandson Simon to Sidmouth for a holiday. He revisited his old T.C.B.S. friend Christopher Wiseman. He spent several weeks with John in his parish at Stoke-on-Trent, and with John he motored to visit his brother Hilary, still living on his fruit farm at Evesham.

Ronald and Hilary now resembled each other far more than they had ever done in their youth. Outside the window the plum-trees whose crop Hilary had picked patiently for more than four decades had grown old and bore little fruit.

They should be cut down, and fresh saplings planted in their place. But Hilary was past tackling such work, and the trees had been left standing. The two old brothers watched cricket and tennis on the television, and drank whisky.

These two years of Tolkien's life were made happy by the honours that were conferred upon him. He received a number of invitations to visit American universities and receive doctorates, but he did not feel that he could face the journey. There were also many honours within his homeland. In June 1973 he visited Edinburgh to receive an honorary degree; and he was profoundly moved when, in the spring of the previous year, he went to Buckingham Palace to be presented with a C.B.E. by the Queen. But perhaps most gratifying of all was the award in June 1972 of an honorary Doctorate of Letters from his own University of Oxford; not, as was made clear, for The Lord of the Rings, but for his contribution to philology. Nevertheless at the degree ceremony the speech in his honour by the Public Orator (his old friend Colin Hardie) contained more than one reference to the chronicles of Middle-earth, and it concluded with the hope that hi such green leaf, as the Road goes ever on, he will produce from his store Silmarillion and scholarship'.

As to The Silmarillion. the months were again pa.s.sing with little to show for them. There had been an inevitable delay while Tolkien reorganised his books and papers after the move from Bournemouth; and when at last he resumed work he found himself once more enmeshed in technical problems. Some years previously, he had decided that in the event of his dying before the book was finished, Christopher (who was of course well versed in the work) should complete it for publication. He and Christopher often discussed the book, contemplating the numerous problems that remained to be solved; but they made little progress.

Almost certainly he did not expect to die so soon. He told his former pupil Mary Salu that there was a tradition of longevity among his ancestors, and that he believed he would live for many years more. But late in 1972 there were warning signs. He began to suffer from severe indigestion, and, though an X-ray failed to reveal any cause more specific than dyspepsia', he was put on a diet and warned not to drink wine. And despite his unfinished work, it seemed that he did not relish the prospect of many more years living at Merton Street.

I often feel very lonely,' he wrote to his old cousin Marjorie Incledon. After term (when the undergraduates depart) I am all alone in a large house with only the caretaker and his wife far below in the bas.e.m.e.nt.'

True, there was a ceaseless stream of callers: his family, old friends, Joy Hill from Alien & Unwin to attend to fan-mail. There was constant business to be attended to with Rayner Unwin, and with d.i.c.k Williamson, his solicitor and adviser in many matters. There was also the regular Sunday morning drive by taxi to church in Headington, and then to Edith's grave in Wolvercote cemetery. But the loneliness did not cease.

As the summer of 1973 advanced, some of those close to him thought that he was more sad than usual, and seemed to be ageing faster. Yet the diet had apparently been successful, and in July he went to Cambridge for a dinner of the Ad Eundem, an inter-varsity dining club. On 25 August he wrote a belated note of thanks to his host, Professor Glyn Daniel: Dear Daniel, It is a long time since July 20th; but better (I hope) late than never to do what I should have done before being immersed in other matters: to thank you for your delightful dinner in St John's, and especially for your forbearance and great kindness to me personally. It proved a turning point! I suffered no ill effects whatever, and have since been able to dispense with most of the diet taboos I had to observe for some six months.

I look forward to the next A.E. dinner, and hope that you will be present.

Yours ever, Ronald Tolkien.

Three days after writing this letter, on Tuesday 28 August, he travelled down to Bournemouth to stay with Denis and Jocelyn Tolhurst, the doctor and his wife who had looked after him and Edith when they had lived there.

The end was swift. On the Thursday he joined in celebrations to mark Mrs Tolhurst's birthday, but he did not feel well and would not eat much, though he drank a little champagne. During the night he was in pain, and next morning he was taken to a private hospital where an acute bleeding gastric ulcer was diagnosed. It so happened that Michael was on holiday in Switzerland and Christopher in France, and neither could have reached his bedside in time, but John and Priscilla were able to come down to Bournemouth to be with him. At first the reports on his condition were optimistic, but by Sat.u.r.day a chest infection had developed, and early on the Sunday morning, 2 September 1973, he died, aged eighty-one.

Part Eight.

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J.R.R. Tolkien_ A Biography Part 8 summary

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