In 1954, when I was working in a university science faculty, Allen & Unwin published a Book. The effect upon the learned and respectable body of people who composed the faculty staff was extraordinary. Lecturers and other responsible people went about quoting it, drawing maps of its geography in enthusiastic detail; one head of a department used to leave messages for his colleagues in High Elven, and for his secretary in Grey Elven.
The Book was, of course, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which was followed by the two companions that complete the three-volume work, The Lord of the Rings.
The publication of a book of this nature could be called an adventure, for though its predecessor, The Hobbit, had been a successful children’s book, no one could have seen quite such a wildly enthusiastic reception for what is, after all, the unusual and special product of a unique talent.
For those not fortunate enough to have encountered The Lord of the Rings, I should explain that it is extremely difficult to classify-if one has to classify a work of fiction. It is a combination of almost everything good you can think of in a story. It has high adventure, romance, fantasy, wonder, convincing people and dialogue, horror, humour, and a noble story of the struggle of good against evil. It concerns the alliance of the Hobbits, a little furry people, with Men descended from the Kings of Númenor and with Elves, against the powers of Evil sent forth by Sauron, the Dark Lord, from the Land of Mordor, and against the many servants who present themselves in amazingly varied and unpleasant guises. Each race in the book has its own language and customs; and we are given details of food, clothing, plant life, and terrain. Its addicts are many and generally incurable. After England, it overran America like wildfire; and since the paperback edition reached the U.S.A., hoardings and subway walls in various parts of the continent have been adorned with fervent exclamations of “Frodo lives!” “Gandalf is God,” and other expressions which show how strongly the Tolkien-fever has wrought.
I went to see Professor Tolkien in his house in Headington, Oxford, not long ago. The house is a pleasant one, dripping, at this time of year, with white roses and overhanging tree foliage. He had told me firmly that he was giving no more interviews, and then relented to add, “But I’ll make an exception for you, as you’re an old student of mine.” I think that others of his former students would remember many such acts of kindness. Such as, for instance, the failure of some minor examination, and the administration by him of glasses of sherry and the consoling words. “But, my dear girl, everybody fails that!”
He talks very quickly, striding up and down the converted garage which serves as his study, waving his pipe, making little jabs with it to mark important points; and now and them jamming it back in and talking around it. It is not always easy to hear him; and one dares not miss anything, for he has the habits of speech of the true storyteller, and seldom indulges in the phrase-ridden and repetitive ways most people use nowadays. Every sentence is important, lively, and striking — “deeply buried,” he says, “in the lunatic beliefs of children,” and “my heart is in my works, not on my sleeve.”
His first fictional work, The Hobbit, came into print almost by accident, after a friend who had read it in manuscript had recommended it lovingly to a friend of hers, who worked for Allen and Unwin.
It was, in fact, written after he had already begun to chronicle privately The Lord of the Rings, and the events referred to in that book as part of its historical background, the story of the Silmaril, and so on. More chronicles, he hopes, will come; but time poses an extremely difficult problem for him, and he is at present working on the revision of the next edition of The Lord of the Rings.
“I love [revision]. I am a natural niggler, fascinated by detail. But it is becoming evident that I had better get on, and leave what is printed, with its inevitable defects. I’m a very busy man, I always have been, with a great deal of my own work to do; and they keep on expecting a ‘Great Book’ of me. ‘Great Book,’ is what they say and expect, and it alarms me.”
He finds it surprising and pleasing that The Lord of the Rings has had such a success. It seems to him that nowadays almost any kind of fiction is mishandled, through not being sufficiently enjoyed. He thinks that there is now a tendency both to believe and teach in schools and colleges that “enjoyment” is an illiterate reaction; that if you are a serious reader, you should take the construction to pieces; find and analyse sources, dissect it into symbols, and debase it into allegory. Any idea of actually reading the book for fun is lost.
“It seems to me comparable to a man who having eaten anything, from a salad to a complete and well-planned dinner, uses an emetic, and sends the results for chemical analysis.”
He finds the matrix of a quickly-moving, well-written narrative ideal for presenting and developing character, dialogue, and background, the flesh and clothing which cover the skeleton of plot; many people do not realize how much they can enjoy what is simply a well-told story.
“What about the view that some people have, that The Lord of the Rings is really the allegory of an atomic holocaust?” I asked him.
“That’s absolutely absurd. Absurd. These wretched people who must find an allegory in everything! For one thing, a good deal of it was written before the nineteen-thirties.” And he began to explain the ordering of the composition of his work.
The legendary cycle of the Silmarillion, to which The Lord of the Rings is a sequel was begun in 1917, with the “Fall of Gondolin,” which he wrote while convalescing on sick leave from the army.
In general plot, and in several major episodes, most of the cycle was already constructed before 1930, and before the publication of The Hobbit. (There are references within The Hobbit to Glamdring and Orcrist, the elvish swords, as being made in Gondolin, before its fall, for the goblin wars.)
“The choice of the ring as a link with the older stuff was inevitable. Most of the allusions to older legends scattered about the tale, or summarized in Appendix A are to things which really have an existence of some kind in the history of which The Lord of the Rings is part.
“There’s one exception that puzzles me — Berúthiel. I really don’t know anything of her — you remember Aragorn’s allusion in Book I to the cats of Queen Berúthiel, that could find their way home on a blind night? She just popped up, and obviously called for attention, but I don’t really know anything certain about her; though, oddly enough, I have a notion that she was the wife of one of the ship-kings of Pelargir. She loathed the smell of the sea, and fish, and the gulls. Rather like Skadi, the giantess, who came to the gods in Valhalla, demanding a recompense for the accidental death of her father. She wanted a husband. The gods all lined up behind a curtain, and she selected the pair of feet that appealed to her most. She thought she’d got Baldur, the beautiful god, but it turned out to be Njord, the sea-god, and after she’d married him, she got absolutely fed up with the seaside life, and the gulls kept her awake, and finally she went back to live in Jotunheim.
“Well, Berúthiel went back to live in the inland city, and went to the bad (or returned to it — she was a black Númenorean in origin, I guess). She was one of these people who loathe cats, but cats will jump on them and follow them about — you know how sometimes they pursue people who hate them? I have a friend like that. I’m afraid she took to torturing them for amusement, but she kept some and used them — trained them to go on evil errands by night, to spy on her enemies or terrify them.”
I should very much have liked to hear more about Queen Berúthiel, who sent a pleasant grue down my spine — it is not often you have the chance to listen to an entirely new story from your favourite storyteller.
But, as Professor Tolkien had said, he did not really know much more to tell me; and time was running short, and I was anxious to know what he thought of other schools of writing that run roughly parallel with his own, in particular fantasy and science fiction.
I asked him what he thought of Naomi Mitchison’s description of his work as “glorified science fiction.” He said he supposed it was valid, if she means that the pleasure of “wonder” is also produced by good science fiction, and that this pleasure must be one of the aims of the author.
He has an interest in, and an appreciation of, good science fiction. He was a close friend of the late C.S. Lewis, who also wrote science fiction. “There’s a terrible undergrowth of rubbish produced by it, of course; though not worse in its way than the awful stuff which is also produced under the labels Fairy-Tale or Fantasy.
“The relationship between science fiction and fantasy is difficult and topically important. At present, there’s a good deal of serious dissension among sf writers, especially in the Science Fiction Writers’ Association of America. Obviously many readers of sf are attracted to it because it performs the same operation as fantasy — it provides Recovery and Escape (I analyzed these in my ‘Essay on Fairy Stories’) — and wonder. But when they invoke the word ‘Science,’ and use an element of scientific knowledge (very variable, sometimes, in scope and accuracy) authors nowadays are more easily able to produce suspension of disbelief. The legendary laboratory ‘professor’ has replaced the wizard.”
Some writers and readers of sf are really primarily interested in the “science,” rather than the “wonder,” or the “Escape,” but it is made more vivid for them by stories which exhibit the working-out of what they believe to be scientific truths.
“It’s a very good medium for the imagination to work with, of course. But it’s been much misused by lesser writers, as if a lot of them will never come to terms with it.”
He says that the only “science,” or body of knowledge, with which he himself is professional acquainted is that of language. He uses this with special emphasis — “just as, for instance, a composer will make special use of horns, if he is specially interested in them. Nothing has given me more pleasure than the praise of those who like my books for my names, whether of English form, or Elvish, or other tongues.” To give each of the two separate Elvish tongues in the book individuality, yet similarity, meant much pain-staking labour.
“I had to posit a basic and phonetic structure of Primitive Elvish, and then to modify this by a series of changes (such as actually do occur in known languages) so that the two end results would each have a consistent structure and character, but be quite different. I have met very few (either in person or by letter) among the most intelligent who can distinguish between the two different Elvish languages, or see or feel that (say) the hymn to Elbereth is in an entirely different mode and prosody from that of Galadriel’s lament.”
It is when dealing with the question of language, he feels, that science fiction writers do not always work satisfactorily He spoke of the three distinctions of what he means by the word “Language.” The first is what people normally think of when they talk of “language”: what is used by people in talking, and by authors as a medium. Good writers of sf can write well, and therefore write good dialogue.
“But I think Language (2) is often neglected by them, that is to say, language as an invention, and as the most important single ingredient in human culture in general, or in any particular culture. They treat it comparatively poorly in descriptions of strange cultures, and the problems of communications between alien beings in different worlds (with which they are often faced) are apt to be perfunctorily and unconvincingly treated.”
Remembering the number of “translator machines,” “communication helmets,” and telepathic races to be encountered in sf, I heartily agree with him.
“I think,” he went on, “that some are interested in and know something about mechanical (computer) analyses of language, but few know anything about its phonetics, history, or process of change. Then there is Language (3), word and name-making as a minor art-form, which hardly anyone thinks of , and fewer practise. Few people have by talent or education the experience for this. They have little feeling for the sound texture and structure of their native language, and less for any others they happen to be acquainted with. They know little or nothing of the history of them, or of their visible symbols. In consequence, even if they thought it important, they would have no notion how to set about making a group of names, or supposed alien words that belong to (and feel and look like belonging to) a real language with a definite character of its own. When they invent names and words, these are apt to take on a quite childish level. The names are absolutely appalling in many cases, they simply don’t bother with them. They leave me totally unconvinced. But this is not peculiar to sf — it is quite as evident in fantasy. E.R. Eddison is a notable example, all the more because he was a great writer.”
It is in keeping with his preoccupation with language that he should enjoy so much the making of verse. Personally, I find the verse in The Lord of the Rings and in The Hobbit particularly enjoyable. It seems to me to have a mystical bardic ring, and at its best can certainly call forth in me, and in many other readers I know, that unmistakable and exciting shiver of the skin which recognizes an absolutely right combination of imagery, rhythm, and meaning. He admits that he prefers writing verse to almost anything else. (Parenthetically, he adds, “Almost impossible to sell verse, though.“)
Though there is much verse, readers have claimed that there is not much (or not enough) romance in The Lord of the Rings.
“There’s a time and a place for everything,” he says. “Love is the background of history-not least, when least attended to.”
“In the time of a great war and high adventure, love and the carrying on with the race, and so on, are in the background. They’re not referred to the whole time, but they’re there. There’s surely enough given in flashes for an attentive reader to see, even without the Appendix (of Aragorn and Arwen) the whole tale as one aspect of the love-story of this pair, and the achievement of a high noble, and romantic love. There’s Éowyn’s love for Aragorn — a sort of calf-love, as well as the true romance. You get the scene in Rivendell, with Aragorn suddenly revealed in princely dignity to Frodo, standing by Arwen. There’s Aragorn’s vision, after he has plighted his troth to Arwen and left her; and what were his thoughts after receiving the furled standard, or when he unfurled it after achieving the paths of the dead. There is also Sam, who had other deep concerns, though he put his service first.”
I wanted to know whether he would choose any particular passages as his own favourites. After a little thought, he said that there were two places in The Lord of the Rings which stayed in his own mind more than others, and which he still found himself moved by when he thought of them. One is the point at which the cock crows in the pause before the great battle in the Pelennor fields. Gandalf, who has gained in stature as the story grows, from the smoke-ring blowing, slightly comic old wizard of The Hobbit to the Enemy of Sauron, the power for good of the Third Age of the world, confronts the King of the Nazgûl, the wraith which is all the more dreadful because it is invisible to all except the Ring-wearer. Then the cock crows, caring nothing for battle or death, welcoming the morning, and at the same moment the horns of the North, the horns of the riders of Rohan are heard echoing on the sides of the mountains.
The other passage is when Frodo and Sam lie down to sleep in the stony shadows near Cirith Ungol, on the borders of Mordor. Gollum, the dreadful little being, who has guided them so far, partly by force, partly by persuasion on their part, has crept off to make an evil bargain with Shelob (derivation for those who wish to know: she lob [spider] — those who have read The Hobbit will remember the song of Bilbo “Lazy Lob and Crazy Cob”) the unspeakable creature who has her lair in the mountain passages. She is one of the most genuine purveyors of horror and disgust you will meet with in the book.
Gollum returns, and sees the strange peace on the faces of Sam and Frodo, and for a moment the evil and malice die out of his face, and he looks only like some very old weary hobbit, a creature of the same race as Frodo and Sam, but lonely and lost and bewildered by years and events. He touches Frodo timidly, and Sam awakes, and sees him, and starts up with honest indignation and suspicion, at this creature “pawing” his master, Frodo. Gollum’s last chance of what looks like repentance is gone. In this passage, in particular, Professor Tolkien achieves an identification of the reader with a totally alien kind of being, such as many sf writers hope to, and can seldom accomplish. It is one thing to create alien beings. It is quite another to give them such actions and reactions that they remain consistently in accord with their alien life and surroundings, and yet can reach through to, and touch the relative chords in the mind of human beings. Professor Tolkien says, “It seems that Gollum is about to repent, and that Sam waking up suddenly like that, and naturally feeling full of righteous resentment, has spoilt the chance. But there wasn’t the chance for Gollum. He’d been evil for too long. There’s a point of no return in these things, and Gollum had passed it.” However, he still manages to make one feel there a genuine pang of pity for the (it seems) not absolutely irredeemable Gollum, loathsome as he is.
It is, of course, perfectly possible to find fault with The Lord of the Rings. No work is faultless, least of all fiction, which depends as painting does on the individual imagination as creator, and on the acceptance of other individual imaginations. You may not like this kind of romantic fantasy. Certainly there are passages in which the humour is a little Boys’ Own Paperish — the hot baths in the house at Crickhollow, for instance, when most of the water is splashed on the floor. Yet this is preceded by one of the most menacing passages any writer of suspense could produce — the moment when they look back, crossing the river on the ferry-boat, and see a figure that looks like a bundle left behind. ”[…] It seemed to move and sway this way and that, as if searching the ground. It then crawled, or went crouching, back into the gloom beyond the lamps.” M.R. James had this particular skill, and very few other writers. And immediately after the bath episode, they set off and travel through the forest, where they are continuously forced away from the path they wish to take. “They all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity. […] The cry fell as if muffled by a heavy curtain. There was no echo or answer though the wood seemed to become more crowded and more watchful than before.”
The characters, too, can be rather too jolly, childlike, and primitive, especially Sam, whose fierce devotion at times becomes oppressive. But they all seem to me to grow and develop nobly, from the exciteable, jocular, setting-out-is-fun crowd at the beginning of the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, until by the end of the third book, The Return of the King, some have become heroic figures, and all have gained breadth and sadness and wisdom. The work itself has no neatly rounded, complete happy ending. Frodo is too sorely hurt to return fully to his own world, and in the end passes overseas with Elrond and Galadriel, at the end of the Third Age.
Even in the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen there are seeds of sorrow, for Arwen is of Elf-kin, and must give up her right to pass over the seas, when Aragorn at last dies.
There is always the knowledge, in the story, that this is only the Third Age of the World; that other battles have been fought with the Enemy in the past, in other shapes; and that there are more Ages of the World to come.
As Sam says, under the shadows of Cirith Ungol: “But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief, and beyond it — and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got — you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales ever end?”
The addicts of Professor Tolkien’s works, I think, would be quite happy if this particular cycle of stories never did end. The news that there are more stories to come will certainly please as many people as much as it did me. It was a remarkable and intoxicating experience to talk to a writer who is still so closely a part of the new mythology which he has begun for us; and if I have tried, by including as many delectable quotations from him as possible, to lure new addicts in, I hope that I may be forgiven.
Copyright © 1996 by New Worlds. Illustrations are © 1966 by James Cawthorn.