Favourite Subjects

J.I.M. Stewart

  • The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien
    Allen and Unwin, 463 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 04 826005 3
  • Tolkien and the Silmarils by Randel Helms
    Thames and Hudson, 104 pp, £5.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 500 01264 4

It is probable that J.R.R. Tolkien was throughout his life a copious correspondent, but he appears to have been in his midforties before people took to preserving what he had addressed to them. Even so, Humphrey Carpenter has found that ‘an immense number’ of letters survive. In projecting the present selection, he realised that ‘an enormous quantity of material would have to be omitted’ and that ‘only passages of particular interest could be included.’ In the event, he has given priority to those letters in which Tolkien discusses his own books, but he has also worked with ‘an eye to demonstrating the huge range of Tolkien’s mind and interests’.

Tolkien certainly proves to have a great deal to say about his own books: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and (in rather a troubled and baffled way) The Silmarillion. About other people’s books he says little, and that little is commonly unfavourable. He disapproves of drama, and so doesn’t talk about it. Shakespeare when read at school he had ‘disliked cordially’, and in later life he was to reprehend him for his ‘unforgivable part’ in the disastrous debasement of the term ‘Elves’, as also for his shabby dealing with the splendid notion of Great Birnam wood advancing upon high Dunsinane hill. The Merton Professor of English Language and Literature admits with some complacency to ‘not being specially well read in modern English’ and to ‘no interest at all in the history or present situation of the English novel’. And so with individual writers and artists. He deplores ‘the shallow vulgarity of Browning’; meets Walter de la Mare but records, ‘we had little to say’; judges Robert Graves to be an Ass; declares it ‘possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity’; refers to ‘greasy Epstein’, and to his admirer W.H. Auden as belonging (mysteriously) with ‘the corduroy panzers’; dismisses the Poet Laureate as ‘poor old John Masefield’. Nor do the members of his own coterie fare much better. He is ‘wholly unsympathetic’ to Charles Williams’s mind, and although he has many warm and generous things to say about C.S. Lewis there comes a point at which he judges that ‘his ponderous silliness is becoming a fixed manner.’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer is a ‘distressing and in parts horrifying work’ – not much better (one is made to feel) than the sick-making Busman’s Honeymoon by Miss Dorothy L. Sayers. Nor did he think highly of Lewis as a critic: it was in only a ‘very few places’ that he found his great friend’s detailed criticisms of The Lord of the Rings ‘useful and just’. But then it is true that here Tolkien’s standard was peculiarly high. ‘The only just literary critic,’ he wrote to Lewis, ‘is Christ.’

Even a professor of literature, I suppose, has no need of the wide and sustained reading which might enable him to command a ‘huge range of ... interests’. Yet there is a certain quirkiness in all this reiteration of a theme (‘I seldom find any modern books that hold my attention’ ... ‘Certainly I have not been nourished by English literature’) which knits with similarly persistent quirkinesses in other fields to an effect that is not exactly that of breadth of view. Tolkien detests the ‘infernal combustion engine’ and the brutal arterial roads ploughed out for it; he detests wireless as ‘a weapon for the fool, the savage and the villain to afflict the minority with, and to destroy thought’; above all, he detests the path ‘from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber’, so that during the Second World War it is a special agony to him that his youngest son is in training with the loathed Third Service. In small matters he shared with Lewis a disposition to air prejudices suggestive of honest homespun worth. Lewis liked bread and cheese but despised the refinement of sandwiches. Tolkien goes much on record as detesting French cooking – a profession which a certain amount of personal recollection obliges me to find surprising.

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