Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Birthday Books of the Day: Frodo Lives

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Today is the 125th birthday of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, born in South Africa. His parents “went out” to seek their fortune in the gold rush; his father a bank clerk, died while the rest of the family was on leave in the UK in 1895.

Tolkien’s mother home-schooled him, letting him read as widely has his capacious imagination ran. He began experimenting with inventing languages as a child; it was a distraction from the straightened finances of the Tolkien household. Mrs Tolkien’s conversion to Catholicism outraged her Baptist family, who cut off their support.

Tolkien was twelve when his mother died; she left him and his brother to the care of a Catholic priest. In 1911 he went up to Exeter College, Oxford, deferring his enlistment in the Army- to some considerable criticism- until he graduated with a First in 1915. He married a girl he’d known from age sixteen, demanding that she convert.

Commissioned a lieutenant, Tolkien led a unit in France for a harrowing year before trench sickness overtook him. He alternated between active duty and army hospitals until he was mustered out in 1920.

He went back up to Oxford and a research job on the Oxford English dictionary, drafting entries on words of Germanic origin beginning with “w”. “Walrus” proved particularly troublesome. Landing a teaching gig at Leeds University, he settled into academic life.

Oxford beckoned a third time. In 1925 he was elected the Rawlinson & Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon and fellow of Pembroke College; after twenty years he moved to Merton College as the university professor of English Language and Literature.

Though his core interests in philology were maddeningly arcane, Tolkien was a good lecturer by the standards of Oxford, where few professors liked doing it and students were not required to attend. Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, recalled his legendary lectures on Beowulf, which Tolkien translated himself:

He would come silently into the room, fix the audience with his gaze, and suddenly begin to declaim in a resounding voice the opening lines of the poem in the original Anglo-Saxon, commencing with a great cry of Hwæt! (The first word of this and several other Old English poems), which some undergraduates took to be "Quiet!" It was not so much a recitation as a dramatic performance, an impersonation of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall, and it impressed generations of students because it brought home to them that Beowulf was not just a set text to be read for the purposes of examination, but a powerful piece of dramatic poetry.

Decades later, W.H. Auden wrote to his former professor:

I don't think that I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite Beowulf. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.

In the early 1930s, Tolkien became one of the pillars of an Oxford club, The Inklings. Nearly all academics, the group met mostly in members’ college rooms on Thursday nights and for lunch at The Eagle & Child, a pub (which is plagued, to this day, by evangelical American tourists) on Tuesdays.

They read and critiqued each other’s writing projects for nearly twenty years. Among the regulars were C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie; the OUP editor Charles Williams; Lord David Cecil; Owen Barfield; and Hugo Dyson. Amid cumulus clouds of tobacco smoke and the clink of glasses, they alternated between the serious and the absurd: a favorite game was seeing who could read the longest from the works of the notorious Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros before collapsing in laughter.

A doting father, Tolkien wrote and illustrated letters to his children from Father Christmas ever December for years; somewhere along the line a line popped into his head: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The Hobbit nearly didn’t get published: editors didn’t think a fantasy book by an Oxford academic would sell; publisher Stanley Unwin asked his ten-year-old son for a review.

The book was a hit. It won the Carnegie Medal and sold like blazes. Tolkien was, by then, on a twelve-year quest to write its sequel, The Lord of the Rings. The three-volume set sold well and got generally good reviews; most critics justly faulted Tolkien’s mashup of serious philological studies, Christian themes, and northern European legends with his childhood fondness for Edwardian zenith-of-the-Empire-boys-own-adventure tales like John Buchan’s Richard Hannay stories and Rider Haggard’s She (which Tolkien admired for how the femme fatale of the title was, really, just a plot device “to get the whole thing going).”

Tolkien retired in 1959 and was, over the next few years, surprised and irked to become a celebrity. Two American paperback houses, Ace and Ballantine, put out paperbacks of his books, and the old professor became a cult figure among the hippies.

In no time, Tolkien was both rich beyond the dreams of avarice and plagued by long-haired Americans banging on his front gate day and night. A traditionalist who hated most isms, Vatican II, and the industrial revolution (he was annoyed beyond the telling when C.S. Lewis came back into the faith but got off at Canterbury rather than Rome), Tolkien’d made a good life slightly outside the world’s notice, and now it came clamoring into his front garden. He tried deisting his phone number; when that didn’t work he and his wife decamped to the upper-class- and harder to reach- coastal enclave of Bournemouth.

He chafed at the lack of matey academic life, with its stag dinners and erudition, but cheerfully traded places with his spouse. After forty years of being outside the charmed circle of college life, she came into her own as a sought-after society hostess; Tolkien fiddled with his pipe.

He died at 81, full of honors including a Doctorate of Letters from Oxford and a CBE from the Queen. His son Christopher, now 92, has spent the decades since carefully curating both his dad’s reputation and negotiating smart deals: in 2009 Forbes ranked J.R.R. Tolkien the fifth most valuable dead celebrity in the world. He despised giving autographs, making inscribed first editions both scarce and valuable (a signed first edition of The Hobbit fetched $85,000 a decade ago). He sold most of his papers to Marquette University; his son gave the rest to Oxford.

Henry Bemis Books has a few nice Tolkiens in stock: make us an offer!

Tolkien, J.R.R., Unfinished Tales, (Houghton Mifflin, stated 1st Am. ed., 1980), Christopher Tolkien, ed. ISBN 0-395-29917-9. The mining of the elder Tolkien’s papers began shortly after his death in 1972, and has continued apace since then. This is a collection of backstories written by Tolkien to fill out- and up- the mythology of Middle Earth. Good condition with some dust jacket wear. Hardcover, 9” x 6”. HBB price: $50 obo.

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Hobbit, Or There And Back Again (Abrams, 1st ed., 1977). ISBN 0-8109-1060-8. Illustrations from the 1977 animated feature film of the same name.Over 230 color pictures in a scene by scene accompaniment to the Tolkien text. Striking clear acetate dust jacket bearing the dragon Smaug’s likeness for a 3-D effect. Several illustrations fold out three panels wide. Very good condition. Hardcover, 12” x 11”. HBB price: $195 obo.


Tolkien, J.R.R., Unfinished Tales (Houghton Mifflin, 1st American ed., 1st printing, 1980). Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, very good condition. One inch tear in dust jacket at top of cover. HBB price: $95 obo.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Smith of Wootton Major (Houghton Mifflin, 1st ed., 4th printing, 1967). ISBN 0-395-08259-5. This is a tale about the Feast of Good Children, held in the village of Wootton Major every 24 years, and what happened when the village cook went away on on a trip and came back with a mysterious apprentice called Alf. Hardcover, 4.5” x 6.75”, clipped dust jacket with two small tears at the front top right. Good condition; HBB price: 24.99.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit: Or There And Back Again (Houghton Mifflin Company. 1997, first thus edition). ISBN: 0-395-87346-0. Hard Cover, 8vo - over 7¾" - 9¾" tall. Ill.: Alan Lee. Published in 1997, illustrated by Alan Lee. Written by J.R.R. Tolkien for his own children The Hobbit met with instant success when published in 1937. This special new edition has established itself as " one of the most influential books of our generation ". The Times. The dustjacket carries Lee illustration,with runic borders in gold. Bright, clean text with a tight binding a solid book, with many color drawings. Gift inscription in longhand on the front end paper. Very good condition. HBB price $40 obo.

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