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Visiting Tolkien’s Publishers

August 13, 2017

Over the years, we have visited Tolkien’s British publishers in their variety of establishments. Christina used to watch the windows of George Allen & Unwin’s London headquarters at Ruskin House, 40 Museum Street, for the occasional Tolkien display, and to step into the reception area now and then to pick up catalogues. She penetrated further in 1987 when Rayner Unwin allowed her to photograph covers and artwork of translations of The Hobbit for a talk at the Tolkien Society seminar celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of The Hobbit’s publication. Because there was not much room, she had to rest the books on a high windowsill to get enough light, and to stand on steps to shoot from above. She later expanded beyond The Hobbit to other titles, at Museum Street and then mainly in forming her extensive library of Tolkien in translation.

A few years before that, Rayner gave Christina permission, along with Charles Noad, the Tolkien’s Society’s bibliographer, to photocopy Allen & Unwin’s collection of Tolkien-related press cuttings at the company’s warehouse in Hemel Hempstead, twenty-four miles (thirty-nine kilometres) north-west of London. As she recalls, Christina and Charles made three or four visits, taking a train from Euston at about 8.30 a.m. and then a bus from the station into the town, arriving not long after the offices opened at 9.00 a.m. They would then work through until closing time (about 5.00 p.m.) without lunch. Sets of reviews, including ones from the U.S.A. supplied by Houghton Mifflin, and miscellaneous publicity about Tolkien were packed tightly into envelopes (in some cases, ‘scrunched’ would be a better description). Christina and Charles paid for the cost of the photocopies, and to save time and money opted for the larger A3 paper, fitting as many carefully unfolded cuttings as possible on each sheet. Christina later cut out individual items from her set of copies and pasted them into a series of scrapbooks –  we’ve made great use of these in our books and papers on Tolkien. After Allen and Unwin merged with Bell Hyman in 1987, the Hemel Hempstead premises were sold and the cuttings evidently discarded. In the film made to celebrate the Tolkien centenary in 1992, Tom Shippey reads some of the reviews from one of Christina’s scrapbooks.

Allen & Unwin sold a long lease on Ruskin House and the new entity, Unwin Hyman, moved into premises in Broadwick Street, Soho. We visited these offices several times, sometimes accompanied by Joy Hill, who had worked at Allen & Unwin in the 1960s and 70s, variously as Rayner Unwin’s secretary and to organize matters associated with Tolkien, at times helping with his correspondence. Christina met Joy first at a few Tolkien events, and was in contact with her also in regard to the Tolkien Centenary Conference, for which Christina was committee chair. Joy lived only few streets from Christina in Battersea, and became a close friend of us both. Wayne had been working for many years on a bibliography of Tolkien’s publications and, encouraged by Joy, was now striving to finish it for publication in 1992, the centenary of Tolkien’s birth.

Wayne having approached Rayner and the Tolkien Estate about access to Tolkien’s correspondence with Allen & Unwin, as a basis for his publishing history, permission was granted. Then suddenly we heard from Joy that Rayner had been unable to prevent the acquisition of Unwin Hyman by HarperCollins; the Tolkien–Allen & Unwin archive would be preserved, but its location would be uncertain for a time. We had to move quickly. Wayne spent most of a week in the Broadwick Street building, with Christina’s help part of the time, recording relevant information at breakneck speed while the Unwin Hyman offices were being dismantled, moved, or disposed of around us.

As HarperCollins were interested in promotional prospects of the Centenary Conference, as chair Christina had contacts with Mary Butler, who had been on the Unwin Hyman staff and was now in charge of Tolkien publications. She became our editor when Christopher Tolkien asked us to write a book about Tolkien’s art, and we subsequently visited her at HarperCollins’ offices in an impressive new building at 77–85 Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith. There, after passing through a security checkpoint, one found a large central atrium surrounded on each level by a mix of private offices and open-plan working space.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator having been published with success in autumn 1995, when we returned to England in spring 1996 we went to Hammersmith again to discuss further Tolkien projects with David Brawn, Mary Butler’s successor. Our proposal of an expanded edition of Tolkien’s Letters was not taken up, but it was suggested that a Tolkien volume similar to Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide would allow us to include some parts of unpublished letters, and more immediately, we were asked to edit Tolkien’s unpublished story Roverandom. During the next few years when visiting England we made our way to Hammersmith, where in addition to David Brawn we met his deputy, Chris Smith, as well as other assistants. On one occasion, we spent time comparing our notes from the Tolkien–Allen & Unwin archive against the original letters, which had to be used in the small room and narrow passage where their fireproof filing cabinet was kept.

We can’t remember the exact date of our final visit to Hammersmith, but it was probably early in the new millennium. Our visits to England have become less frequent, and with publishing business carried out now mainly by email there’s less need for personal contact. So there had been a considerable gap before our May 2016 visit to David and Chris at HarperCollins’ new headquarters in the News Building – earlier known as ‘The Place’ and the ‘Baby Shard’ – at 1 London Bridge Street, just south of the river. HarperCollins share the building with other Rupert Murdoch businesses, but are situated high enough to have a dramatic view of the Thames, the City, the Tower of London, and all of the various oddly-shaped tall structures that have altered the skyline in recent years.

We had been kept busy with The Art of The Hobbit, the expanded Adventures of Tom Bombadil, revisions to the sixtieth anniversary Lord of the Rings and to The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, and most recently The Art of The Lord of the Rings. Now, invited to meet, we wondered what HarperCollins might be considering. After discussing a few possibilities (an expanded Letters was, alas, still not required), quite unexpectedly we were asked about a revised and expanded Companion and Guide. The original printing had sold out, and a straightforward reprint seemed unlikely to do well when so much had been published in the years since the original edition (2006) and so much more information had become available, including material we had noted on our website. After getting over our surprise, we were happy to discuss the proposal. Wayne pointed out that the Guide volume was already at its maximum length for binding. It was suggested that we make the Companion and Guide three volumes rather than two, splitting the Guide and reorganizing material to try to make the two new Guide volumes as equal in volume as possible both to each other and to the Chronology. At the same time, we welcomed the opportunity to add running heads to aid navigation, which we were unable to include in our first edition.

Eventually, when Wayne has time to work on a second edition of his Tolkien bibliography – so long promised! so often set aside as Tolkien contracts have come our way – we’ll need to visit HarperCollins’ offices in Glasgow. Their archive has moved there, including papers which would give printing figures and publishing details of Tolkien books since Wayne’s original cut-off date in 1992.


Finished at Last

July 12, 2017

At last, in the middle of June, we sent to HarperCollins the revised and expanded edition of our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. Our original March deadline proved impossible to meet. Even after we finished writing and revising, we still needed to add running heads (page titles) and to make a new index. This last step, which took about six weeks, delayed sending our completed files, and that is probably the main reason why the original publication date for the new Companion and Guide boxed set, 5 September 2017, has been moved back, first to 21 October and now to 2 November.

We knew from the start that it would take longer to index 864 pages in the new Chronology and 1,455 in the new, two-volume Reader’s Guide than it did 803 pages in the original Chronology and 1,135 in the first (single-volume) edition of the Guide. But we always forget that writing a thorough, useful index takes more time than we expect, in fact we have only a dim memory of how long it took in 2006. Although we were able to make use of our earlier draft index, so didn’t have to recreate our terms or style of presentation, all page references had to be corrected and we had a great deal of added text.

As for our previous edition, we considered whether to use the indexing function in our InDesign publishing software, but ruled it out as more complicated and less flexible than creating an index in Word from a printout of the finished pages, as we’ve done now for several books. The disadvantage of Word is that its sort function does not by itself ignore initial articles or quotation marks; but it allows the indexer to work critically rather than mechanically, taking into account alternate words or names and grouping related concepts.

When we began to write our new index we planned to break up some of the longer blocks of page numbers in individual entries, subdividing by topic or concept, as this had been a point of criticism from some readers of our first edition. We were able to do this to some extent, if not as much as we wanted. We were already past our deadline, and in the Chronology we had a limited number of pages we could devote to the index, HarperCollins having restricted the length of each volume to 960 pages for economic reasons. We had already moved the family trees and bibliographies of Tolkien’s works (126 pages) from the Chronology to the Guide, where we had more space (across two volumes), and we decided to omit from the Chronology our now much longer list of works consulted, which in any case had more bearing on the Guide. We were also able to slightly condense, from six to four pages, the long copyright statement at the end of each part. Even so, the Chronology text grew so much that we were left with only six pages beyond the original length of the index, while needing to cover more than 300 additional pages of text in the Companion and Guide. Fortunately, Wayne was able to extend the available space by reducing the font size and through other typographic tricks, and in the end our new index was just able to fit without having to be cut back, as we feared we would have to do.

Of course, even though we had both proofread our text thoroughly, the indexing process pointed out some further errors, omissions, and inconsistencies, all of which had to be corrected or emended, ideally within the same page breaks so as not to affect any indexing already done to that point. This was possible only because Wayne was setting the type and making up the pages, and we could rewrite as needed. We’re grateful to HarperCollins for understanding this process and not rushing to press the texts we had sent for their comment. Nevertheless, even before publication, we’ve begun to collect addenda and (very minor) corrigenda, and as before will post these on our website.

The full price of the new edition is £120, but Amazon UK are offering the boxed set at only £78. Later this November, each of the three volumes will be available individually as well, currently priced at £40. (These individual volumes are almost hidden by Amazon, and the two Reader’s Guide volumes are categorized under Science!) As far as we know, there are no plans for a new edition of our book to be published in the United States.

We’ll have more to say about added and revised content, and about our experience writing the Reader’s Guide, in later blog posts.

Tolkien Notes 14

November 24, 2016

Tolkien at Auction

Christie’s, King Street, London offer in their sale Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 1 December, as lot 40, Tolkien’s autograph postcard signed to the poet Alan Rook, 21 April 1943. Estimate: £1,000–1,500/$1,300–1,800/€1,000–1,700. Tolkien thanks Rook for a copy of his book These Are My Comrades and promises to send him a story to read, almost certainly Leaf by Niggle; see our Chronology, p. 260. In the same sale, as lot 165, is a first edition, first printing of The Hobbit, in dust-jacket, estimate £7,000–10,000/$8,600–12,000/€7,900–11,000.

Sotheby’s London offer in their sale English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations on 13 December, as lot 337, a set of The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins, 1996, third/second/second printings of the three volumes in paperback, boxed, each volume with an inscription and original pencil drawing by Alan Lee. Estimate: £2,000–3,000/€2,250–3,350.

Sotheby’s New York offer in their sale Fine Books & Manuscripts including Americana on 6 December, as lot 119, a set of first printings of the first edition of The Lord of the Rings, Allen & Unwin, 1954–55. In the original jackets, but that for the Fellowship is price-clipped, and that for The Two Towers is browned. Estimate: $10,000–15,000. The catalogue entry, referring to a ‘trilogy’, states: ‘While serving in the trenches in WWI, Tolkien conceived of these tales set in a “secondary World,” for consolation and pleasure; they developed over a period of forty years into an epic narrative. The Lord of the Rings has been read as an allegory for multiple good-versus-evil conflicts: post-World War I and the rise of Hitler; Christian myth; even the environment, with the Dead Marshes reflecting Tolkien’s despair over the desolation wreaked by military technology.’ Note to the author of this text: No, it’s not a trilogy. No, it wasn’t written in the trenches – nor, for that matter, was ‘The Silmarillion’, which is probably what you have in mind. And Yes, The Lord of the Rings has been read as an allegory, but No, it isn’t one.


The Advantage of Being a Completist

For months we’ve been wondering about a four-volume set, J.R.R. Tolkien, being prepared by Stuart Lee for the publisher Routledge in their series Critical Assessments of Major Writers. Early information was sparse, but has now been amplified in a blurb which claims that the book ‘meets the need for an authoritative reference work to collect early evaluations and to make sense of the more recent explosion in research output. Users are now able easily and rapidly to locate the best and most influential critical assessments. With material gathered into one easy-to-use set, Tolkien researchers and students can now spend more of their time with the key journal articles, book chapters, and other pieces, rather than on time-consuming (and sometimes fruitless) archival searches.’ Its contents are listed on the publisher’s website.

The first volume is titled ‘Tolkien’s Life: Writer and Medievalist’, and will contain 19 essays or extracts in three categories: ‘Biographical Studies’, ‘The Medievalist’, and ‘Lit. and Lang.’. The second volume will be ‘The Roots of Middle-earth’, and will contain another 19 writings, on Tolkien’s language invention, sources, analogues, and inspirations, and mythology and mythmaking. Volume 3 is to be ‘Key Works and Themes’, comprising 19 writings on ‘The Silmarillion’, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, other works, and poetry. Finally, the fourth volume, ‘Themes, Reactions, and Legacy’, is to have 27 writings on war, spirituality and religion, good and evil, heroism, gender, modernism, critical reaction, fantasy, and film adaptations.

Contributors include Humphrey Carpenter (an extract from his Biography), Douglas A. Anderson, David Bratman, Diana Pavlac Glyer, John Garth, J.S. Ryan, Thomas Honegger, Tom Shippey, Jane Chance, Verlyn Flieger, Marjorie Burns, Stuart Lee himself, among many others. Because all of their writings on Tolkien have appeared before – there are no new contributions – we suspect that most ‘Tolkien researchers and students’, as well as most libraries, will have to think hard whether to spend £900.00 or $1,485.00 for ‘one easy-to-use set’, whatever the quality of its contents, and especially, the selection of contents – for one could name several worthwhile critical works on Tolkien for every one this set will include – and instead endure the ‘archival searches’ that are, after all, part and parcel of work of this sort.

For ourselves, we were very pleased to find that every one of the writings chosen for this set is already on our shelves or in our files – hence, the advantage of being completist Tolkien collectors! For example, a few of the essays were published earlier in Lee’s 2014 Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien, several appeared in Tolkien Studies or in the proceedings of the 1992 Tolkien Centenary Conference, and many are being taken from the 2000 festschrift for Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien’s Legendarium, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter, or from the proceedings of the 2004 Marquette University Tolkien conference, The Lord of the Rings 1954–2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder (2006), edited by Hammond and Scull. Most teachers and students at a higher level will find most of these already in their institutional libraries or available online.


The Art of The Lord of the Rings

A few days ago, Amazon U.K. reduced the price of our Art of The Lord of the Rings significantly, to just £10.00. Sales are evidently brisk – in time for Christmas – for our book is once again in Amazon’s ‘best-selling’ ranks.

Turning Over a New Leaf

October 22, 2016

Williams College, where Wayne is the Chapin Librarian – that is, concerned with the Chapin Library of rare books and manuscripts – has produced a short video of Wayne performing one of his duties: turning a leaf in the original ‘double elephant folio’ edition of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. The very large dimensions of this book (originally issued as separate prints) allowed Audubon to depict the birds of North America at life size and in their natural habitat, if not without some contortion for very large birds such as the Great Blue Heron. Double elephant is a term for the size of the paper. (Contrary to the text at the beginning of the video, a new plate is displayed every two or three weeks.)

Beren and Lúthien

October 19, 2016

Beren and Luthien coverHarperCollins will announce today the latest Tolkien title edited by Christopher Tolkien, Beren and Lúthien, to be illustrated with drawings and paintings by Alan Lee and published on 4 May 2017. An American edition will be published simultaneously by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. As we write this on the 18th, Amazon UK list only a Kindle edition. Price and physical details have not been announced, but the upper dust-jacket is pictured at left; nor is there word yet of a deluxe edition.

To quote HarperCollins’ press release (thanks to David Brawn at HarperCollins for sending this and the cover art), Christopher Tolkien ‘has attemped to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.’

‘Original form’ presumably means the earliest surviving version, written in ink over, and obliterating, the first version which Tolkien had written out in pencil, in The Book of Lost Tales, as The Tale of Tinúviel. This evolved as Tolkien’s legendarium grew, as related in several volumes of The History of Middle-earth and described at length in our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Update later this morning: A hardcover edition of 304 pages is now listed on Amazon UK at £20.00, and a simultaneous deluxe edition at £75.00.

Tolkien Companion and Guide 2nd Ed.

October 4, 2016

Companion and Guide boxTen years after its publication in autumn 2006, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide is out of print in both the U.K. and the U.S. The decade has passed as if in the blink of an eye. During that time, our book has been praised as essential and authoritative, but also criticized on several counts, some of them legitimate. Kind readers have sent us corrections and suggestions, many of which may be found in our addenda and corrigenda. It’s gratifying to have so many readers that stocks of the Companion and Guide have sold out: it has not always been clear that our book was being noticed, let alone read, as when a question was asked on an online Tolkien site and no one thought to find the answer in ‘Scull and Hammond’.

We were honoured to learn this past spring that HarperCollins want to continue to publish the Companion and Guide, not simply as a reprint of the existing text but in a new edition, corrected, revised, and enlarged. When we were commissioned to write a general book about Tolkien’s life and works, our first model was C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide by Walter Hooper, a thick volume of nearly a thousand pages; but we gathered so much material that our Chronology alone reached that length. Fortunately, HarperCollins agreed to give us two volumes, though we had to cut the text of the Reader’s Guide to fit the maximum number of pages the binding process would allow. Readers of our addenda and corrigenda know that we have continued to gather information about Tolkien, and in the ten years since the Companion and Guide appeared more works by Tolkien have been published, as well as a considerable amount of Tolkien scholarship and criticism. With so much additional material at hand, and so much more ground to cover, HarperCollins suggested that the Companion and Guide now expand from two volumes to three.

The first edition of our book was published both as a boxed set in a slipcase and separately as the Chronology and Reader’s Guide; and because the two volumes could be bought separately, our Preface, bibliography of Works Consulted, and Index were included in each. For the new edition, which will be published only as a hardback set, the Preface will appear only in the first volume and the bibliography of sources only in the third, but for convenience of use each volume will include a comprehensive, improved index. The Chronology will remain a distinct volume, while the encyclopaedic Reader’s Guide will now have two volumes, the first of which will include a list of topics covered, a feature more than one reader has requested. Further, running heads for easier navigation, which had to be omitted in 2006 for reasons discussed on our website, will be included in the new edition of the Reader’s Guide, as well as a greater number of cross-references.

When HarperCollins commissioned this new work, they asked us not to discuss it until they could arrange publicity to be released at an optimal time. But partial information about the book slipped out to Amazon UK and was soon noticed by fans. We asked for permission to announce the new edition formally in this space, and received it this morning. The publication date of 7 September 2017 mentioned in the Amazon listing is probably correct, but the number of pages given, 2,400, is just an early estimate.

Tolkien Biographies Continued, Part Three

July 8, 2016

Wayne writes: Last December, I commented on J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-master, Hero by ‘Elansea’ (Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie), which argues that Tolkien was an Intelligence operative for Great Britain, and that this hidden career explains inconsistencies or errors in published biographies. I was not convinced of either the premise or the conclusion of the book, and felt that the authors’ points were unsupported – Lewis and Currie admit to a lack of direct evidence for their position – or that there are simpler or more rational interpretations for events than ‘Elansea’ provide.

The same authors, again as ‘editors’ and with Currie given pride of place, have now published On the Perilous Road: An Unauthorised Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is intended ‘to tell the story of Tolkien’s life in a concise, clear and easily readable way’, but is built on the same assumptions about Tolkien and Intelligence Lewis and Currie made in their earlier book. They describe their approach in On the Perilous Road as similar to that taken by Humphrey Carpenter in his authorized biography of Tolkien, but with new evidence which has appeared subsequently. The use of new evidence is to be applauded, though at this date one has a right to expect it: many later Tolkien biographies have been no more than variations on Carpenter’s. I would also give Currie and Lewis credit for their efforts to put Tolkien’s life in the context of history, though these tend to be excessive and sometimes act as digressions.

As for Codemaker, Currie and Lewis draw almost exclusively on published sources, the chief exception being good if not exhaustive research done for them ‘by our researcher S.M. Wood’ in online records concerned with Edith Bratt’s parents. Often they criticize other writers on Tolkien (including ourselves) for not having fully explored some avenue of Tolkien biography, such as correspondence between Tolkien and the publisher Collins about The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

To this we might reply: Why did Currie and Lewis not do so themselves? As we know from experience, no researcher can afford to pursue every lead as far as it will go, nor does every approach seem worthwhile for a given purpose, nor does every possible avenue come to mind until after the fact, nor are all archives open to be explored. But at least we did a great deal of work in this regard, rather than complain that others had not done it for us.

Currie and Lewis also frequently complain that material they might use, such as letters by Tolkien, has not been published or has been heavily edited. This is sometimes true, although the degree of editing is often due to lack of space or a need, say, to appeal to a wide readership. But a scholar may deal with this in various ways: for example, by seeking out original material in libraries and archives. We too wish there were more published Tolkien letters, and in lieu of a new edition of Letters included many previously unpublished letters or extracts in our Companion and Guide.

At the same time, Currie and Lewis have not used published sources comprehensively, and have overlooked some which could have been useful. As a consequence, they make not a few erroneous, or at least remarkable, statements.

On p. 22 they repeat the old error that in 1904 Tolkien was sent to stay with ‘Jane Neave and her husband Edwin’. But Jane and Edwin were not yet married at that time. We made the same mistake in the Companion and Guide, but corrected it in our online addenda and corrigenda when new evidence came to light.

On p. 24, Currie and Lewis state that, other than the boys in the T.C.B.S., ‘who else Tolkien knew at [King Edward’s School] is unknown’. By ‘unknown’ I suppose they mean that Tolkien’s biographers do not include class lists or membership rosters of, say, the school debating club or football team. Some information of course is too tangential for a particular purpose, and space in a book or essay may be limited. But the names are known nevertheless, for example in the King Edward’s School Chronicle and C.H. Heath’s Service Record of King Edward’s School, Birmingham.

Similarly, on p. 32 Currie and Lewis state that ‘we know nothing about [Tolkien’s] friends at university’. But we do, as reported in our Companion and Guide and addenda, in John Garth’s booklet Tolkien at Exeter College, and elsewhere. Perhaps Currie and Lewis mean that Carpenter, and others who have produced formal biographies of Tolkien (distinct, say, from our Chronology and Reader’s Guide), have not discussed his university friends, or have not done so to any great degree. And yet, the information is available, and if there were a great lack, could Currie and Lewis not fill the gap themselves?

On pp. 109–10, in an argument carried over from their earlier book, Currie and Lewis dispute Tolkien’s need to mark examination papers to pay doctor’s bills. They cite a letter he wrote to R.W. Chambers on 7 August 1925, in which he says that he has recently finished marking examinations, ‘yet there is no mention [in our Chronology] of any illness in the family in the preceding months. It is hard to identify any reason for such bills’ existence just then.’ Presumably it did not occur to Currie and Lewis that our Chronology does not cover Tolkien’s life for every minute of every day, nor do we have direct evidence for every day, especially for Tolkien’s early career, and unlike Currie and Lewis we have preferred not to speculate, at least not wildly. One could reasonably speculate, however, that if Tolkien needed to pay doctor’s bills, then he or family members had seen the doctor, for some reason we do not know and, frankly, do not need to know. Currie and Lewis want to make the point that Tolkien did not need the money, and was not in fact marking examinations, but working for British Intelligence from time to time – but this is supposition based on more supposition.

‘None of Tolkien’s biographers so far have taken [Tolkien’s pupils] seriously’, Currie and Lewis write (p. 111). They say much the same also about his colleagues at Leeds and Oxford, complaining that some were ‘unknown to Carpenter and the “tradition” of Tolkien biography that follows him’ (p. 112). They mention Lascelles Abercrombie, whom Tolkien knew at Leeds: ‘Did he have any influence on Tolkien – or did Tolkien influence him? We don’t know’ (p. 112). Why should it be up to others to find out? Yes, life is short, and yet Abercrombie is the subject of the first entry in our Companion and Guide, which includes his statement: ‘I have gained at least as much from the keen artistic sensibility as from the science of his scholarship’. For accounts of Tolkien’s students and colleagues, one can read the Companion and Guide, or essays such as Douglas Anderson’s ‘“An Industrious Little Devil”: E.V. Gordon as Friend and Collaborator with Tolkien’ in the collection Tolkien the Medievalist (2003).

Is it any different for the Inklings, who have had Carpenter’s 1978 book and Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep from 2007, among others? No: ‘Despite the fame of three of them, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, little is known about most of the others in the group’ (p. 229). Here, at least, Currie and Lewis make some effort to discuss ‘the others’: Barfield, Dyson, and Wrenn, Havard, Dundas-Grant, and Hardie – but not Warnie Lewis. Their source was perhaps our Reader’s Guide, where each known Inkling has an entry, or Walter Hooper’s C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide.

They suggest that biographers’ focus on the Inklings (which, in contradiction, is said to give little notice to most of them) ‘has inadvertently but most effectively wiped everyone else out of the picture’ (p. 235), ‘everyone else’ being friends of C.S. Lewis who may have had ‘a secondhand but important impact on the Inklings’, such as John David Mabbott and Hilary Hinsley (née Brett-Smith). I would hazard a guess that these ‘secondhand’ figures are not mentioned in accounts of the Inklings, or of Tolkien, and indeed they are not, because there is no evidence to connect them, beyond their association with Lewis or others Tolkien knew. One can play ‘six degrees of separation’, but researchers, and their books, and reason, do have their limits.

The most remarkable part of On the Perilous Road comes late in the book, where Currie and Lewis discuss the publication of The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s concern to publish The Silmarillion. They are puzzled why Tolkien should have wanted to publish The Silmarillion at the same time as The Lord of the Rings, ‘when the two books as [finally] published have almost nothing to do with each other’ (p. 239) – an amazing statement, given that the two works are parts of a larger legendarium – as Currie and Lewis surely know. I imagine that they were trying to make the point that this was insane behaviour for an author, for whom getting just one of his long and unusual works published was difficult enough, and of course Tolkien himself came to see this. But it does not need an outlandish explanation, having to do with Intelligence and censorship, to understand Tolkien’s way of thinking about his great tale of ‘the jewels and the rings’.

Nor is it hard to understand the behaviour of his publishers, why they should treat Tolkien with such respect even when he was being difficult, or in the case of Milton Waldman at Collins, why he should have bothered to read Tolkien’s extremely long letter explaining the connection between The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. One needn’t even say that publishers were different in those days, because I can attest that Christina and I are always treated with respect by our publishers, and I do not doubt that they would read carefully any long memo sent them by an author of Tolkien’s stature (regardless of what publishing realities might dictate about the final result).

Currie and Lewis are astonished at Tolkien’s famous letter to Milton Waldman. ‘Only a very small part of it has been published. The complete text apparently runs to around ten thousand words. . . . This massive missive seemingly outlined Tolkien’s entire personal mythology in which must have been considerable detail, so whilst its partial publication is understandable, it is also a great pity. . . This letter as published has been hugely edited . . .’ (pp. 255–6). The word count is given by Humphrey Carpenter in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 143 – just before nearly the entire letter appears in print, excepting only the long portion which describes The Lord of the Rings.

Since The Lord of the Rings could be assumed to be well known to readers of Letters, the description was omitted there, but it is included as an appendix in our Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, and had been published earlier, with a French translation, by Michaël Devaux. The whole letter therefore is, and for a long while has been, available to read; it has not been ‘hugely edited’, and in no way suppressed. And if ten thousand words seems incredible – ‘bachelor’s degree thesis length in Britain, or about one-eighth of a novel’ (p. 255) – in fact by my count it is closer to thirteen thousand words. Its length suggests both the complexity of the two works it describes and the importance those inter-related writings held for Tolkien.

Currie and Lewis provide a list of ‘further reading’, in which books on war and intelligence predominate. There they describe the Companion and Guide as ‘enormous, expensive and hard to use’, and John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War as ‘the only detailed study’ of Tolkien and the First World War but ‘not without flaws’. Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien is listed first, following Currie and Lewis’s opinion that he was ‘Tolkien’s only real biographer’ (p. 306), whatever that may mean; at any rate, it’s insulting to ourselves, and to John Garth and Raymond Edwards, who also wrote Tolkien biography and did original research.

The book concludes with an index which is too selective to be used with confidence.

Lord of the Rings Comparison 3

June 23, 2016

Hello again, and apologies for being out of touch for six months. We’ll fill in the gap as we’re able, but for now would like to catch up on a topic we’ve raised twice before: textual variations between editions of The Lord of the Rings. Since we recently acquired a second boxed set of the three-volume HarperCollins U.K. edition of 2014, labelled A11 in our previous post on the subject, we can report on further corrections, a correction still to be made, and a new error introduced in the correction process.

The HarperCollins three-volume trade hardback of 2014, with dust-jackets reproducing Tolkien’s designs, was meant to include further corrections to the 50th anniversary edition of 2004, but missed some of these and added at least two new errors:

On pp. xvi–xix, our note on the 50th anniversary edition was reprinted from 2004, though we submitted a slightly amended version. This is in error in our earlier copy, the 6th printing, but was corrected by the 8th printing in our new set.

On p. 169, l. 7 from bottom, ‘Dear Frodo,’ (the opening of Gandalf’s letter) was still indented, though it should be flush with the left margin. This was corrected by the 8th printing, but the comma after ‘Frodo’ was mistakenly deleted.

On p. 170, l. 9, we had noted, in regard to the original 50th anniversary setting, that the first line of the poem (‘All that is gold does not glitter,’) should be indented, that is, brought to the left measure of the poem rather than set (with a standard paragraph indent) at the left measure of the larger text block. The typesetter failed to see that this point had been corrected already in this edition, and indented the line still further, too far to the right. It is still in error in the 8th printing.

For p. 1041, n. 1 (etc.), we had discussed issues with footnotes or parts of footnotes in Appendix A which needed to be within quotation marks, to indicate ‘extracts’ from annals or tales. The typesetter has misread this in regard to n. 1 on p. 1043: here, instead of an ‘extract’, followed by a comment not within quotation marks, followed by another extract, the comment has been enclosed in quotation marks, within a larger not in quotation marks. The note should correctly read, with all quotation marks as they should be printed: ‘The sceptre was the chief mark . . . with a silver fillet’ (p. 146; pp. 848, 861, 967). In speaking of a crown . . . Aragorn’s line. ‘The sceptre of Númenor . . . crowning of Aragorn.’ This is an error in the 6th printing of The Return of the King, but was corrected in the 7th printing.

On p. 1100, the death date of Bingo Baggins should not be ‘1363’ but rather ‘1360’. The date is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

On p. 1136, l. 7, the name hámfœst (with an oe digraph) was not corrected to hámfæst (with an ae digraph). The digraph is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

On p. 1137, l. 29, ‘butterflies to the falcon’ was not corrected to ‘butterflies to the swift falcon’. The phrase is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

On p. 1173, index col. 2, entry for ‘Spiders’, the see also note should read ‘Shelob; Ungoliant’, with a semi-colon, but was set instead with a comma. This is incorrect in the 6th printing, but correct in the 7th.

From this, we can say that the corrections in The Return of the King were made in the 7th printing, following on immediately after the 6th, both being in our possession, but we do not yet know if the corrections (and new error) in The Fellowship of the Ring were made in the 7th printing of that volume, which we have not seen, or the 8th, which we have. We would be grateful to hear from anyone with a 7th printing of this edition of the Fellowship who can check the two points in question. We would also like to hear from anyone with a Fellowship later than the 8th printing, if the remaining point, still in error through the 8th, has been corrected.

Tolkien Notes 13

December 25, 2015

Indents, and Odovacar

Tolkien’s publisher Rayner Unwin once suggested, not entirely with tongue in cheek, that it could take centuries to achieve a printing of The Lord of the Rings with ‘typographical perfection’. One could predict just as well that there will never be an edition of The Lord of the Rings wholly without error, or if there were, it would not last for long, as errors seem to enter of their own will with every new typesetting or substantial revision. This is not to say that one should not strive to be correct, only that complete textual accuracy, and faithfulness to an author’s intentions, may be a quality that one may approach but can never quite reach.

One case in point arose from a question we received last year from our friend Andrew Ferguson. He asked if the space (indent) before ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ on p. 1089 of our edition of The Lord of the Rings (the citation is to the standard typesetting) could be an error, as it was not present in the first edition. The indented line begins a second paragraph in the entry for Third Age 2951 in the Tale of Years (Appendix B). We went to our shelves and determined that the indent was introduced in the reset edition of 1994. But the question remained: Is the indent an error, or is it wrong not to have the indent? Or even, would it be wrong in either case, if the text were meant to run on? 2951 is the only entry we can find in the Tale of Years which has a physical (line) break in the text. We felt that the entry for 3009 (p. 1090) could have a break, between ‘was captured by Sauron’ and ‘Elrond sends for Arwen’. Earlier this year, we were able to check these points on a visit to the Marquette University Tolkien papers, and made the following discoveries.

1. In Tolkien’s typescript of The Lord of the Rings (Marquette Series 3/9/6), ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ begins a new entry, under the date heading 2952. Also in the typescript, there is an entry for 3016, beginning ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ i.e. this part of the entry for 3009, as currently printed, was originally a separate entry dated seven years later.

2. In one galley proof (3/9/20) the shoulder date heading ‘2952’ is marked for deletion, but ‘Elrond reveals . . .’, beginning a new line, is not marked to run on with the text of the entry for 2951. The entry for 3016 is present, as in the typescript.

3. In another galley proof (3/9/21) ‘2952’ is not deleted. Appendix B ends erroneously with the entry for 3009, lacking ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ (i.e. the entry for 3016).

4. In still a third galley proof (3/9/22), both ‘2952’ and the entry for 3016 are present.

5. As published, in all editions, there has never been a Tale of Years entry under the date heading 2952, but ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ has always begun on a new line. Someone at HarperCollins evidently noticed the latter break in text when resetting for the edition of 1994, and felt that ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ needed to be indented as a new paragraph. Also, in all printings of the first edition, there is an entry for 3016, ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’

6. With the revised and reset Appendices in the Ballantine Books edition of 1965, there was no separate entry for 3016, the text beginning ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ being conjoined with the entry for 3009. This carried over into the Allen & Unwin second edition, in which the Appendices were reset following the Ballantine printing (Tolkien’s original notes for revisions as sent to Houghton Mifflin having been lost), and is the text for all subsequent printings.

Since ‘Elrond reveals . . .’ has always begun a new line, and despite the associated date having been deleted from the one galley proof and from the printed text, we are inclined to think, following the evidence of the typescript, that Tolkien intended to begin a new entry, dated 2952. He also seems to have meant ‘Elrond sends for Arwen . . .’ to begin an entry for 3016, as in the first edition, rather than run on as part of the entry for 3009, as in the flawed Ballantine setting. Christopher Tolkien agrees that these points should be submitted to HarperCollins as further corrections.

Another question of long standing came to us from Larry Kuenning, as to whether the birth date of Odovacar Bolger, in the Bolger family tree, should be 1336, as printed in our edition of The Lord of the Rings, or 1335, as in The Peoples of Middle-earth. At Marquette, we found that Tolkien had written ‘1335’ in two holograph copies of the family tree (Marquette Series 3/9/8 and 3/9/9), but emended this to ‘1336’ in one galley proof of the printed family tree (3/9/10). In two other galley proofs, however, the date is not emended. With no final version, the Bolger family tree having been omitted from editions during Tolkien’s lifetime, Christopher Tolkien agrees with us that we cannot be sure which date his father intended, and therefore we must leave the point open to question.


The Map of Middle-earth

Like many other Tolkien enthusiasts, we were surprised when Blackwell’s Rare Books in Oxford offered for sale a proof of the original printed Lord of the Rings general map, annotated by both Tolkien and Pauline Baynes to assist Baynes in making the 1969 poster-map, A Map of Middle-earth. We wish we had known of its existence in Pauline’s collection; if we had, we could have examined it closely on one of our visits to her, and it may have helped inform our comments in The Art of The Lord of the Rings. Much has been written about it online, not always accurately. The best transcription of the annotations accompanies an article in French, ‘Découverte d’une carte de la Terre du Milieu annotée par Tolkien pour Pauline Baynes’, on the Tolkiendil site. Both Tolkien and Baynes had difficult handwriting from time to time, and there are still some points in question.


The Art of The Lord of the Rings

Art of Lord of the Rings trial bindingOur latest book appears to be selling very well. Now and then it has been listed on or as no. 1 in one category or another – the Amazons have many categories, such as Science Fiction and Fantasy criticism, and ‘Catalogs, Collections & Exhibitions’ in graphic arts. The Art of The Hobbit also continues to do well. We hope that those of our readers to whom Father Christmas brought one or another (or even many) of our books this year will enjoy them, and that you will all have a happy holiday season and new year.

Tolkien Biographies Continued, Part Two

December 10, 2015

Wayne writes: Following on Christina’s discussion of Tolkien biographies, I too will deal with two recent books, beginning with The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. The Zaleskis teach religion at Smith College and have written a number of works on Christianity and faith.

The ‘Fellowship’ of the title is nominally all of the Inklings, but concentrates on four: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. ‘Why these four,’ the Zaleskis ask, ‘and not that graceful flower Lord David Cecil, or the lovable, ogreish Hugo Dyson? Why not Lewis’s sidekick, his admirable alcoholic brother Warnie? Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams are the best-known of the group. . . . They are also the most original, as writers and as thinkers, and thus most likely to be read and studied by future generations. They make a perfect compass rose of faith: Tolkien the Catholic, Lewis the “mere Christian,” Williams the Anglican (and magus), Barfield the esotericist’ (p. 12).

These words are near the beginning of the text, in a ‘prologue’, and already I took issue with the Zaleskis’ style of writing. Calling Lord David Cecil an ‘admirable flower’ rides a thin edge between clever and pretentious, while the authors cross a line of discourtesy by calling Warnie Lewis – never ‘Warren’ in this book, always ‘Warnie’, except in the index – his brother’s ‘sidekick’ and labelling him ‘alcoholic’. In regard to this point, David Bratman spoke my mind when commenting on the Mythopoeic Society listserv: ‘As a description of Warnie, “admirable alcoholic” is actively nauseating. First because there’s no such thing as an admirable alcoholic; they probably mean that he was admirable albeit an alcoholic. And secondly because the (Walter Hooper-inspired) elevation of Warnie’s alcoholism to the central defining feature of his character is cruel, defaming, unfair, and grossly misleading. In the context of the Inklings he was the host – and extremely effective in that role – and a historian of 17th century France, whose books . . . are as good of their kind as Barfield’s are of theirs.’

Another early problem in The Fellowship occurs on the first two pages of the book, where the Zaleskis refer to the moment when ‘the last Inkling passed away on the eve of the twenty-first century’. Apart from stretching the meaning of eve, they mean Owen Barfield, who died in 1997. The actual last man to have been an Inkling is Christopher Tolkien, still with us at age ninety-one. The Zaleskis even mention Christopher in a list of the Inklings on the same page where they make their ‘last Inkling’ remark. I suppose they were thinking of the ‘last’ of their four featured Inklings, but the misstep gave me pause. Then, while reading the advance review copy sent me by their publisher (not in time to suggest revisions), I saw that the Zaleskis referred more than once to Cecil Harwood as an Inkling, though he never was. The Harwood references were deleted in the final published book (also given me for review), but Barfield remains ‘the last Inkling’.

Both the dust-jacket of The Fellowship and its title-page give equal visual and typographic weight to Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams, in that order. These four may be the best known among the Inkings, but Tolkien and Lewis are more popular than Barfield and Williams, as well as the most significant of the group, and the Zaleskis naturally find more to say about them. Technically, The Fellowship aims to weave the lives of the four together, with the other Inklings appearing here and there; but the result is awkward, because they were individuals, and although their lives touched each other they were still separate and distinct. Also, between Tolkien and Lewis, the Zaleskis are clearly more interested in Lewis. They admire him, as a Christian who learned the errors of his ways when he left the faith and then returned to be its champion, and as a writer and scholar who produced a substantial body of published work, which the Zaleskis admire in turn. In their treatment, he is almost without fault. Tolkien, on the other hand, is charged with ‘crimes of omission’, with ‘a long trail of starts, stumbles, and stops that typified his dilatoriness in academic labors’, which the Zaleskis attribute to his heart being instead ‘in the development of the legendarium and its offspring’ (p. 214) – though they note the importance of works such as the Beowulf lecture. Tolkien is criticized also for having ‘difficulty moving on to another full-length tale’ (p. 240) after The Hobbit, and then for being slow to finish The Lord of the Rings; ironically, the Zaleskis say that this was because ‘academic obligations kept interfering’ (p. 241), thus chastising Tolkien both for setting aside his scholarship in favour of Middle-earth and for failing to hurry up his storytelling while fulfilling academic responsibilities.

Despite the length of their book, some 645 pages, and probably in part because of its attempted scope with nominally four subjects – five if one counts the Inklings as a whole – the Zaleskis provide more breadth than depth. For the most part, they rely on secondary sources, mainly excepting previously unpublished papers in the Bodleian Library’s Barfield archive. Their biographical treatment of Tolkien is particularly superficial, and although much of it concerns Oxford, it conveys very little sense of the academic environment in which many of the Inklings lived. I wonder, as one always has to wonder when a book has more than one author, how, or if, the labour of writing was divided, and in this case whether one author wrote most of the text about Tolkien, and the other most of the text about Lewis. Especially in the early chapters, before the Inklings come together, Tolkien and Lewis are discussed separately, in distinctively different prose styles. In those portions devoted to Tolkien, the writing often tends toward the melodramatic, with the author (or authors) delighting in turns of phrase, such as that ‘with Tolkien the Inklings constellation began its ascent into the English literary firmament’ (p. 13), or that Father Francis Morgan ‘descended like a fairy godfather upon Mabel [Tolkien] and the boys, filling their straitened lives with hope and joy’ (p. 19), or that Tolkien had a ‘rapturous romance with words’ (p. 25). For the most part, the Zaleskis simplify previous biographies, especially Carpenter’s, but at times they exaggerate Tolkien’s talents. His literary ambitions, they say, ‘soared to dizzying heights’ (p. 125), reading far too much into Tolkien’s statement that he wished to create ‘a mythology for England’ and failing sufficiently to put it in context.

In contrast, the portions of text about Lewis are more restrained and more sophisticated. Is this evidence of work by one author, where there has been no attempt to find a unified ‘voice’, or did the Zaleskis feel that Lewis’s life called for a more sober and serious tone, while Tolkien’s did not? Nor is it clear who the audience for this book is supposed to be: one who may be attracted (though I would hope not) by flowerly, ‘creative’ language? If so, that reader will be out to sea with interludes of philosophical discussion and very casual references to Kant and Kierkegaard.

In any case, it’s a bold claim for the authors, or their publisher, to say that this is ‘the first group biography of the Inklings’, or ‘the first complete rendering of the Inklings’ lives and works’. The Zaleskis know about Carpenter’s Inklings: they find it ‘entertaining’ (p. 196), and note that Carpenter’s reconstruction of an Inklings meeting has been both praised (by Barfield) and panned (by Havard). But they pay little attention to The Inklings, and more to Carpenter’s Tolkien biography. They are also aware of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep, calling it a “valuable study” (p. 586), and about several of Colin Duriez’s works. On the Mythopoeic Society’s listserv, David Bratman called the Zaleskis’ book (on the basis only of what he had heard; he had not yet read it) ‘a granfalloon approach to greatness in the Inklings’. The word granfalloon comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle, and means ‘a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless’. ‘It’s already bad enough to treat Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams as a kind of Three Musketeers of fantasy’, Bratman wrote; ‘to add Barfield and call it a “compass rose” is even worse: imposing a pattern out of one’s own desires as a pattern-seeking animal rather than out of interest in what was actually there.’ But the book has had wide publicity, and may be found of value for its particularly Christian view of the Inklings.


J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-master, Hero (self-published, 2015) by ‘Elansea’ also claims to be a biography, if an unauthorized one ‘which only sources information publicly available or previously published’, and yet is said to be ‘simply ground-breaking’, a ‘game-changer’, after which ‘nothing can be the same again’ (all quoted from the cover blurb). This would be true if its authors’ claims could be proved, or even if they could be thought likely on the balance of evidence. The authors can safely say, as they do, only that Tolkien’s writings have been ‘analysed in a way never applied to them before’.

‘Elansea’ is a pseudonym for Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie (Ruth Lacon), made from their initials (L and C). Lewis and Currie are named in the book as ‘executive consultants’, apparently from the thought that consultants, as opposed to authors, can’t be held liable for breach of copyright, or trademark, or propriety – or there was a desire to pull legs. Since Lewis and Currie have openly referred to themselves online as the authors of the book, there is no point in attempting to ‘disguise’ their function. Moreover, they argue that there can be no libel or slander against a deceased person: ‘to put it bluntly’, they write, ‘we can say what we like about [Tolkien] and there is nothing that anyone can do about it’ (p. iv). But they take care to suggest that their ‘contentious theories and hypotheses’ (which however are more often presented as fact) ‘do not reduce Tolkien’s reputation’ but ‘enhance it’, for in their view he was a ‘hero’ (p. iv).

Lewis and Currie’s thesis begins with what they refer to as a theme running through Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien: ‘how could someone who was so dull and provincial write such incredible books that have inspired and moved millions?’ Indeed, Carpenter writes of Tolkien’s ‘ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen’, and to his ‘ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden’, while wondering ‘at the fact that a mind of such brilliance and imagination should be happy to be contained in the petty routine of academic and domestic life’ (1977 edition, p. 111). ‘What do we make of that?’ he asks, but the question is rhetorical, no more than an introduction to the second half of the biography. Lewis and Currie feel that Carpenter came to no satisfactory answer, and that ‘many others have found the same insoluble dilemma’ (p. 1). They do not say who these ‘many others’ may be, and I have no idea, but neither do I think that there’s a question to be asked, or that Tolkien’s life was dull. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent most of my own life as a scholar and academic, and have never felt it to be a ‘petty routine’, in fact just the opposite.

But Lewis and Currie pursue their thought. ‘How’, they ask, ‘could a man who Sir Stanley Unwin once described as one of the few true geniuses he had ever met have lived his life in such an ordinary fashion, have accepted a very mundane existence and done so little else of real note apart from his fictional writing?’ (p. 2). I would reply, in regard to ‘little else of real note apart from his fictional writing’: what about his lecture on Beowulf, and editions of Sir Gawain and the Ancrene Wisse? What about his successful and (to his students) influential career as a teacher at Leeds and Oxford? Lewis and Currie also ask how ‘such an apparently boring ordinary person [was] able to write such gripping and imaginative stuff’ (p. 3). They say that Tolkien’s biographers, even the ‘untiring’ Scull and Hammond, have not answered this question. These other scholars don’t have the perception of ‘Elansea’ (says ‘Elansea’), aided by his or her highly experienced ‘consultants’; but also, most of the information on which earlier biographies were based is (they say) not to be trusted: it may have been deliberately falsified, while other, potentially valuable sources have been withheld from researchers, such as the greater part of Tolkien’s letters.

Lewis and Currie enumerate ‘facts’ which, for them, do not add up. Tolkien’s First World War record states that he had trench fever, but according to Lewis and Currie’s research, the described course of his ‘illness’ (one must put that word in quotation marks) does not match the disease, nor was the weather on the Somme right for its outbreak. Also, Tolkien’s convalescence, from which he never returned to the fighting in France, was (Lewis and Currie decide) much too long to be truly needed for recovery. From this, they conclude that the claim of ‘trench fever’ was false, in fact deliberately so.

Then there’s the matter of Tolkien’s statements, made through much of his life, that money was tight. On the contrary, Lewis and Currie say, Tolkien’s academic salary was ‘more than generous by middle class standards’, ‘certainly good enough to raise a family of four children with ease. He was a full Professor at one of the most ancient colleges in Oxford, let us not forget!’ (p. 18). Medical and education costs, they argue, would have been manageable. And if Tolkien was hard up for money, why did he exhibit ‘no drive to provide publishable material [to Allen & Unwin] to earn royalties from’ (p. 17)? Why did he not accept the job offered him by Cape Town University, which would have paid well? Why did he turn down a job during World War Two at the Government Code and Cipher School, which would have given him substantial remuneration? Lewis and Currie reject the idea, first put forward by Carpenter, that Tolkien was invited to apply for chairs at both Cape Town and Liverpool: it seems unlikely, they say, at this stage in Tolkien’s career, which Christina and I have dated to autumn 1920. ‘How could Cape Town especially have ever heard of Tolkien?’ they ask (p. 210). Still later, why was Tolkien given the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair at Oxford when (Lewis and Currie feel) he was the least qualified candidate? And why was he given the Merton chair when, by their estimate, he had such a dismal record of publication?

When considering the Middle-earth stories, especially The Lord of the Rings, Lewis and Currie question how Tolkien, whose biographers record for him relatively little travel, and that unadventurous, could have written about such vast landscapes. And how could he have written so vividly about Frodo being wounded by a Ringwraith when – so the medical records say – he was never wounded himself? According to Lewis and Currie, writers write about what they know, and when they write about what they don’t know, they get into trouble. Lewis and Currie give the example of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who did all right with Westerns, as he had visited the West, but not with the Tarzan stories, which include animals that have no business being in Africa, which Burroughs had not visited. In Lewis and Currie’s reasoning, Tolkien must have been wounded, he must have travelled widely, he must have had experiences not documented in order to write about them so successfully.

For ‘Elansea’, there can be only one answer which fits all of their questions: Tolkien was an Intelligence operative for the British government. And not merely an operative, working in different capacities, but one of the best England ever produced. In The Hobbit, Bilbo is secretive, and less ordinary than he appears; therefore, Tolkien must have been, too. So, Lewis and Currie speculate, was Tolkien’s father Arthur, and they find his death at a young age suspicious. Tolkien’s gift for language, and for creating languages, and his use of coded diaries, reflect his ‘true work’ in espionage. His under-production of both fiction and non-fiction, much less than for similar academics, in Lewis and Currie’s view must have been due to Tolkien performing espionage work instead.

His tutor at Oxford, Joseph Wright, was probably the one who chose him while an undergraduate as a good recruit for Intelligence, Lewis and Currie argue, and they believe that it was Wright who persuaded Tolkien not to enlist immediately on the outbreak of war in 1914, but rather to complete his studies, not so that he might find a good job to support his family, but to be more useful to King and country. They believe that his return from the Somme with ‘trench fever’ was merely a cover story so that he could do Intelligence work back home. They also argue that Tolkien was named to the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair not because he was the best qualified, but so that he could take over from Joseph Wright as a talent-spotter for Intelligence agents. In this capacity and others, notably as someone who performed ‘mentally taxing code making work’ (p. 586), Tolkien had a ‘shadow career’ which accounts for his remarkable lack of writings – not because he was slow, or a perfectionist, or so poor that he had to spend his time marking examination papers. When he was given the prestigious Merton chair in 1945, there was no call for applicants, and – Lewis and Currie believe – C.S. Lewis was brought in as an elector to secure the deal; this makes no sense professionally, ‘yet for someone involved with Intelligence, it would do so as a “thank you”’ for his long service (p. 589).

It’s hard to know how to respond fairly to J.R.R. Tolkien: Codemaker, Spy-master, Hero. It’s another long book, more than 600 pages, so that a complete analysis or rebuttal, point by point – and there are many points one could rebut – would need yet another book, at least half as long. Here it will have to suffice to say that although I read their book in its entirety, and did so as far as possible with an open mind, I was not convinced by Lewis and Currie, and do not believe for a moment that Tolkien was a secret agent. I have seen and read too much to the contrary, about his activities and travels (or lack of travel), and cannot bring myself to believe that there has been a conspiracy to keep us all from the truth, necessarily involving a great many people over the years, as well as forged documents and the destruction of evidence. Nor – granting that I am one of the biographers whom Lewis and Currie feel have been misled to wrong conclusions – do I think that there is any reason to accept their thesis as the only answer to questions which seem to me not worth asking.

But let me attempt a few brief responses nevertheless. Tolkien did write ‘gripping and imaginative stuff’, but he was neither ordinary nor boring; even if he had been, I cannot accept the argument that someone outwardly boring and ordinary could not write imaginative fiction. That Tolkien contracted trench fever on the Somme, and that this required hospitalization and a long recuperation, seems to be settled fact; Lewis and Currie’s objection, based on an interpretation of a Red Cross report, is at odds with other, readily available information about the illness. Tolkien was indeed ‘a full Professor at one of the most ancient colleges in Oxford’, but such a position did not produce a substantial income, and Tolkien’s need for supplemental income, as from marking examination papers, by all evidence was genuine – and it would be remarkable indeed if all of the evidence Christina and I have seen in this regard were falsified for the sake of ‘cover’.

Why did Tolkien not accept the job offered him by Cape Town? His wife and baby Michael were not fit to travel, and Tolkien did not want to be separated from his family. Why did he turn down a job at the Government Code and Cipher School? According to Tolkien’s own testimony, he was never offered one; and in any event it would not ‘have given him substantial remuneration’ – not a government job, in wartime. Why would Cape Town and Liverpool not have invited him to apply for posts? Word travels in academic circles, and one might have heard about Tolkien’s work on the Oxford English Dictionary, or on the glossary for Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, then still in progress, or even that Tolkien had been appointed earlier in the year to the readership at Leeds. Who are Lewis and Currie to judge that Tolkien was the least qualified candidate for the Rawlinson and Bosworth chair, or not qualified for the Merton chair when he had published so little? Could it have been that there are other qualities a university may want in their professors? Or that Tolkien’s genius, his talents, his enthusiasm for teaching were readily apparent, and his recommendations sterling?

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