J.R.R. Tolkien_ A Biography Part 9

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The Tree.

Nowadays it is fashionable to regard the Inklings, the handful of men who met at Magdalen on Thursday nights in the nineteen-thirties and forties, as a h.o.m.ogeneous group of writers who exercised an influence over each other.

Whether or not you subscribe to this view you may, if you are pa.s.sing through Oxford, decide to visit the graves of the three best known Inklings, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

You will find Lewis's tomb in the churchyard of his own parish, Headington Quarry. A plain slab marks the grave, which is shared with his brother Major W. H. Lewis. It is adorned with a simple cross, and with the words Men must endure their going hence.

Williams lies beneath the shadow of St Cross Church in the centre of Oxford. His fellow Inkling Hugo Dyson is buried not far away, and the graveyard contains the tombs of many other University men of that generation.

Lewis and Williams were members of the Church of England, but there is now no Catholic burial-place in Oxford other than the corporation cemetery at Wolvercote, where a small area of ground is reserved for members of the Church of Rome. So if you are searching for the remaining grave you will have to travel far out from the centre of the city, beyond the shops and the ring-road, until you come to tall iron gates. Go through them and past the chapel, crossing the acres of other graves, until you come to a section where many of the tombstones are Polish; for this is the Catholic area, and the graves of emigres predominate over English adherents to that faith. Several of the tombs bear glazed photographs of the deceased, and the inscriptions are florid. In consequence a grey slab of Cornish granite rather to the left of the group stands out clearly, as does its slightly curious wording: Edith Mary Tolkien, Luthien, 1889-1971. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973.

The grave stands in suburban surroundings, very different from the English countryside that Tolkien loved, but not dissimilar to the man-made places in which he spent most of his days. So, even ^t the end, at this plain grave in a public cemetery, we are reminded ^f the ant.i.thesis between the ordinary life he led and the extra-ordinary imagination that created his mythology.

Where did it come from, this imagination that peopled Middle-Earth with elves, orcs, and hobbits? What was the source of the literary vision that changed the life of this obscure scholar? And /why did that vision so strike the minds and harmonise with the aspirations of numberless readers around the world?

Tolkien would have thought that these were unanswerable questions, certainly unanswerable in a book of this sort.

He disapproved (ff biography as an aid to literary appreciation; and perhaps he was fight. His real biography is The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion; for the truth about him lies within their pages.

But at least he might allow an epitaph.

His requiem ma.s.s was held in Oxford four days after his death, in the plain modern church in Headington which he had attended so often. The prayers and readings were specially chosen by his son John, who said the ma.s.s with the a.s.sistance of Tolkien's old friend /r Robert Murray and his parish priest Mgr Doran. There was no sermon or quotation from his writings. However, when a few weeks later a memorial service was held in California by some of his American admirers, his short story Leaf by Niggle was read to the congregation. He would perhaps have considered it not inappropriate : Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and ^ending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

It's a gift!' he said.


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J.R.R. Tolkien_ A Biography Part 9 summary

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