09 December 2011

Tolkien the Teacher

Back in early 2010, I quoted reminiscences about J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford from Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, as collected by Leonard Marcus. Cooper said, “He was a wonderful lecturer,” but Jones said his lectures were “absolutely appalling.”

It looks like many more people shared Jones’s response. Adam Gopnik’s recent article in the New Yorker about high fantasy for young readers begins:

At Oxford in the nineteen-forties, Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was generally considered the most boring lecturer around, teaching the most boring subject known to man, Anglo-Saxon philology and literature, in the most boring way imaginable.

“Incoherent and often inaudible” was Kingsley Amis’s verdict on his teacher. Tolkien, he reported, would write long lists of words on the blackboard, obscuring them with his body as he droned on, then would absent-mindedly erase them without turning around.

“I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Philip Larkin, another Tolkien student, complained about the old man’s lectures on “Beowulf.” “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”
Since Jones and Cooper were at Oxford at about the same time, and since Cooper can appreciate theatricality when she sees it, most likely she was remembering the more popular lectures of C. S. Lewis.

According to Philip Pullman, Tolkien left his stamp on the Oxford curriculum even after he had retired from teaching: “every undergraduate had to read and study—and suffer—Anglo-Saxon.”

1 comment:

ToB said...

Fantastic post! I bet it was deadly stuff.