Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Evening with Tolkien

Of course I haven't really been spending the evening with Tolkien, but I definitely feel like it.  I started reading Tolkien and the Silmarillion late this afternoon and finished it tonight.  Kilby's reminiscing about the first time he met Tolkien and the summer he spent helping him sort through the manuscript of the Silmarillion was completely captivating.   

Would you like to know how he met J.R.R. Tolkien?  He walked up to house and knocked on the door.

"Knowing the reported difficulty of getting inside his house, I asked for help from his personal physician...who then lived...not far from the Tolkien home...I inquired how I might contrive to get into Tolkien's presence.  What I hoped was that Dr. Havard would telephone and introduce me.  Instead he said, 'Just go down there and ring the door-bell.  He isn't doing anything.'"

And how did a professor from Illinois earn the honor of spending a summer with him working on his manuscripts?  After their initial meeting, they exchanged letters from time to time, and Kilby simply wrote him a letter and offered his services for the summer, and Tolkien very graciously accepted.  I thought it was a good reminder to just ask.  You never know what you might receive.  Here are a few quotes from the first chapter that made me smile or laugh or that I just thought were interesting.

  • He then became a bit apologetic and explained that people sometimes regarded him as a man living in a dream world.  This was wholly untrue, he insisted, and described himself as a busy philologist and an ordinary citizen interested in everyday things like anybody else.  As an illustration of his practicality he told me of his keen regret that salaries were raised at his college at Oxford the very day after his retirement.
  • He admitted that the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings was sold through his agent to Marquette University because he needed money, owing to his having been 'retired on a pittance.'  (Later I learned from Marquette that the manuscripts made a stack seven feet high.)
  • He was also aware of an even deeper meaning and origin for his fiction.  [Tolkien] said that a Member of Parliament had stood in the room we were in and declared, 'You did not write The Lord of the Rings,' meaning that it had been given him from God.  It was clear that he favored this remark.
  • As I prepared to leave, he spoke of getting a letter from a man in London whose name was Sam Gamgee.  I asked him what reply he had made and he said he had written that what he really dreaded was getting a communication from S. Gollum.
I think that one of qualities that makes Tolkien's work so great was summed up in a statement C. S. Lewis made:  "...the deeper meaning of a story must rise from the writer's lifetime spiritual roots rather than be consciously inserted."  Tolkien wrote, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision."

Working hard to consciously add religion and Christian truth to a story usually only ends up sounding preachy to me, but creative story-telling that comes out of a person whose life is founded on truth ends up being beautiful and epic with a million rich and wonderful themes running through its plot.  Speaking of epic, KJ handed me his iPhone when I went out the door for a walk tonight so I could listen to some different music.  Of course he has his favorite soundtrack music on there, and I discovered that a walk around the neighborhood feels like a trek through Middle Earth if you're listening to The Return of the King.  

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