08 May 2010

Another Recollection of Tolkien

Back in March I quoted recollections of Prof. J. R. R. Tolkien from Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, found in Leonard Marcus book of interviews, The Wand in the Word.

Yet another future children’s-book author who encountered Tolkien at Oxford was Philip Pullman. He’s a decade younger than Jones and Cooper, so by the time he was at university Prof. Tolkien was a wealthy celebrity, retired from the classroom. Pullman told Marcus:

He was a genial old fellow in his seventies, world famous by then. The rector of our college…invited me and a couple of my friends to dinner to meet the great man. . . . it was Tolkien who fought the great battle to retain Anglo-Saxon as a subject of study at Oxford. Because he won that battle, every undergraduate had to read and study—and suffer—Anglo-Saxon.

And so we were all introduced and sat down to dinner. One of my friends was on one side of him; the other friend was on the other side. I was seated across the table. Professor Tolkien turned to the first fellow and said, “How are they pronouncing Anglo-Saxon these days?” That was one of the things the scholars argued over, you know: the different ways of pronouncing the wretched language! My friend had done as little work as I had, and had no idea. So he just sort of gaped and goggled and tried to make up an answer.

Which displeased Tolkien, who turned to the other fellow and said, “Now then, you man, did you enjoy The Lord of the Rings?”

My other friend had to say, “Well, I’m awfully sorry but I haven’t read it.“

I could have answered that question, at least. But that was the end of Tolkien’s conversation. He never got round to asking me anything.
The young Pullman was a fan of Tolkien, but he’s become more critical. Perhaps if the professor had paid him more attention back then…

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