29 March 2010

Conflicting Recollections of Prof. Tolkien

In his book The Wand and the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, literary scholar Leonard S. Marcus asked a number of established fantasy writers about their influences, particularly J. R. R. Tolkien.

Diana Wynne Jones (born in 1934) and Susan Cooper (born in 1935) attended Oxford University at about the same time, and they gave Marcus completely different memories of Tolkien.

Cooper said:

I never met him, but I went to his lectures on Anglo-Saxon literature, along with hundreds of other students. He was a wonderful lecturer. Like C. S. Lewis, whose lectures I also attended, he was a tweedy, pipe-smoking, middle-aged man. We were all waiting for the third volume of The Lord of the Rings to come out.
But Jones told Marcus:
I went to his public lectures. They were absolutely appalling. In those days a lecturer could be paid for his entire course even if he lost his audience, provided he turned up for the first lecture. I think that Tolkien made quite a cynical effort to get rid of us so he could go home and finish writing The Lord of the Rings.

He gave his lectures in a very, very small room and didn’t address us, his audience, at all. In fact he looked the other way, with his face almost squashed up against the blackboard. He spoke in a mutter. His mind was on finishing The Lord of the Rings, and he was really musing to himself about the nature of narrative.

But I found this so fascinating that I came back week after week, as did one other person. I’ve always wondered what became of him, because he was obviously equally fascinated. And because we stuck there, Tolkien couldn’t go away and write Lord of the Rings!

He would say the most marvelous things about the way you take a very basic plot and twitch it here and twitch it there—and it becomes a completely different plot.
Perhaps these writers are remembering different series of lectures, and Tolkien was more engaged in the topic of Anglo-Saxon than in his “public lectures.” Perhaps Cooper’s memory of Tolkien is mixed with her memory of Lewis, whom Jones recalls as a polished, popular speaker in a large, packed auditorium.


Leila said...

Love this -- two of my very favorite authors -- thanks for posting it.

Sarah Stevenson said...

What Leila said. I'll have to look for the book...