Monday, September 2, 2013

Written in Elvish

Forty years ago today died the English fantasy writer, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, best known for his novel, The Lord of the Rings. An archive of his papers is kept at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and includes diaries. These have not, however, been published. Biographer Humphrey Carpenter has said that Tolkien used the diaries ‘chiefly as a record of sorrow and distress’, but also that they were written in Elvish.

Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province in South Africa) to an English bank manager and his wife, Mabel. Mabel took Tolkien, then aged three, and his younger brother, back to England; their father died before he could join them. The family then lived in Birmingham, and the boys were educated by Mabel, but she too died young. Thereafter, they were raised as Catholics by Mabel’s friend Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Tolkien was sent to King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and then he studied at Exeter College, Oxford, switching after a while from classics to English. He married his teenage sweetheart, Edith, in 1916. They would have four children.

During the First World War, Tolkien served as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, fighting in the Somme offensive. He contracted trench fever and was treated at a hospital in Birmingham. After the armistice in 1918, he worked briefly on the New English Dictionary project (later to become the Oxford English Dictionary), before becoming a reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, and then, from 1925, Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford University. From 1945 to 1959 he was Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford. It was at Oxford that he became a close friend of C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia stories, and together they formed part of an informal literary discussion group known as the Inklings.

During his time at Pembroke, Tolkien wrote and published (1937) his first novel, The Hobbit. Unexpectedly popular with adults and children, the publisher (Allen and Unwin) asked for a sequel, which was eventually published in three volumes, in the mid-1950s, as The Lord of the Rings. This latter work became phenomenally successfully, and has remained so ever since. Academically, Tolkien published works on Chaucer, and on the old English heroic epic Beowulf; and biographers are at pains to point out the links between the fantasy epic content of his novels and his scholarly work.

After retirement, Tolkien became increasingly discomforted by the attention of fans. He and Edith relocated to Bournemouth, then an upper middle class seaside resort; but, after Edith’s death in 1971, he moved back to rooms at Merton College until his own death on 2 September 1973. The internet is awash with Tolkien information, try, for example, The Tolkien Society, the Tolkien Library, the Leadership University, the BBC or Wikipedia.

Before his death, Tolkien negotiated the sale of some of his papers, related to the then-published works, to Marquette University’s Raynor Library in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. However, after his death many other papers were donated to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Within this latter archive are a number of unpublished diaries kept by Tolkien. Although not publicly available, some researchers/biographers have been allowed access, and their books on Tolkien contain a few quotes and references to the diaries. Notably, Humphrey Carpenter, who wrote the authorised biography, says Tolkien used the diaries ‘chiefly as a record of sorrow and distress, and when . . . his gloom dissipated he ceased to keep up the diary entries’. Some of the diaries were written in code, Carpenter explains at the end of biography, in the acknowledgements, and he thanks his wife for help in ‘de-coding’ them. Carpenter has also said elsewhere - see The One Ring - that Tolkien kept his diaries in ‘elvish’.

The few quotations from Tolkien’s diaries that do exist in the public domain, mostly undated, have been collated by the Tolkien Gateway. Here are three.

1 January 2010
‘Depressed and as much in dark as ever, [...] God help me. Feel weak and weary.’

1933 [on visiting Birmingham]
‘I pass over the pangs to me of passing through Hall Green - become a huge tram-ridden meaningless suburb, where I actually lost my way - and eventually down what is left of beloved lanes of childhood, and past the very gate of our cottage, now in the midst of a sea of new red-brick. The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill; but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where the bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house (which the children were excited to see) is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change.’

August 1955
‘Venice seemed incredibly, elvishly lovely’; ‘contrary to legend and my belief, Italians . . . dislike exaggeration, superlatives, and adjectives of excessive praise. But they seem to answer to colour and poetic expression, if justified.’

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