Michael Tolkien



Autobiographical essay on my grandfather,

J.R.R. Tolkien,

based on a public talk* requested by

The Leicester Writers' Club at

College of Adult Education, Wellington Street

October 19th, 1995.


1.)Longer excerpts, which are merely alluded to or digested, were actually read out in full.

*2.) This talk was composed on the basis of my lecture given in April 1989 at St Andrews University, at the invitation of its Science Fiction and Fantasy Society. In a sense it commemorated my grandfather's Andrew Lang Memorial Lecture of 1939. But there have been many additions and stylistic adjustments, as well as omission of more pointedly 'academic' materials. (Click to see the full text of this lecture)



¶1...' My name is TOLKIEN ( not _KEIN). It is a German name from Saxony, an anglicisation of Tollkiehn ( that is tollkühn) But, except as a guide to spelling this fact is as fallacious as all facts in the raw. For I am neither foolhardy { as the name implies} nor German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been...'  These are not my words, and only about me as accidental inheritor of that name. I am quoting from my grandfather's notes to his American publishers after a N.Y Times book reviewer made some fatuous assumptions. It has the combative and punctilious flavour of much that he said and did, anticipating what I would like to celebrate.

¶2    I was always made to feel from my parents' exaggerated accounts that I came into the world on indirectly bad terms with my grandfather, though I did become a source of reconciliation. He and my grandmother had disapproved of my father Michael's hasty wartime marriage to my mother who was one of many nurses he fell in love with when he was being treated for the shell-shock he only superficially got over. Judging by the various rows which usually took the form of irate and pompous letters on either side, my grandparents found reasons to justify their reservations: ostensibly his lack of means and prospects; more disturbingly my mother's apparently uncultured, lower middle class, C.of E. background. They were fervent Roman Catholics: my grandfather had a deep and nourishing faith, but my grandmother simply retained the prejudices and never attended church after being offended by one priest's attitudes.

¶3    All this had really been brewing for years. My father's unpublishable autobiographical attempt to make sense of and to some extent idealise the conflicts and confusions of his childhood reveals that he felt an obsessive need to establish belief in himself and to secure his parents' attentions.  I recall him saying bitterly that he was once told in one of his rebellious moments that his not being a girl was a disappointment to his parents. He also told me proudly that he walked out after one of those disputes that isn't really about the issue at stake, and on the eve of the'39-'45 War signed on with a local regiment for 21 years. But he also went ahead and married my mother in autumn 1941 in a hush-hush R.C. ceremony. One result after a terrible labour that put my mother off another pregnancy was me, JRRT's first grandson, born in January 1943 to the sound of the Luftwaffe pounding Birmingham.

¶4    I am often asked if it's a nuisance to have a name so unusual that I can't escape from the inevitable curious comments. I hope that what I am going to say will be a kind of answer to this; but I also hope that it will provoke you into asking questions later on.

¶5    I shall avoid the kind of anecdotes I started with. Simply to relate experiences has the danger of becoming sentimental, self-indulgent or directionless. My own intense literary interest in my grandfather's work will be leading me from talking about Tolkien as I knew him to Tolkien as I would in part like him to be understood as a thinker and writer.  Any recalling of past events is coloured by our motives for doing so, and of course by subtler influences wrongly assumed to be memories, such as what other close relatives have said, or photographs which tend to distort accurate recollection.

¶6    When the American edition of Carpenter's biography came out, one critic said it had neglected to tell us all we would like to know about Tolkien the man in his mature years. I can only begin to take up this challenge and wherever possible I have tried to objectify memories and impressions by referring to letters and to my experience of him as it emerges for me from the actual works. I am also going to be quite specific about my grandfather's impact upon me at certain formative periods of my life: for example, I was obliged to study Anglo-Saxon and Mediaeval texts as part of my Eng. Lit course at St Andrews university in the mid'60s. He was an acknowledged authority on and currently translating some of these works, and we corresponded copiously then. Quoting from some of the mostly unpublished letters will serve my dual purpose of establishing a picture of the author and revealing his part as a grandparent. I lent all my letters to Humphrey Carpenter when he was cooperating with my uncle Christopher to publish a selection in 1978. He said '(these) are full of good things of every kind and reflect the very great range of his mind '. By coincidence my grandfather gave the Andrew Lang Memorial lecture at St.Andrews University in 1938. This is unfortunately described in the still 'official' biography as one of the 'endless distractions that prevented him from working at The Lord of the Rings.' In fact it contained the bases for the astute and witty, delightfully prejudiced and uncompromising Essay on Fairy Stories known to us as Tree and Leaf, which clarifies what he was doing in L.of R., and is one of the best implicit guides to the art and concepts of Tolkien's fantasies. I will  quote from this later in my talk to confirm some of my implications about his inventiveness as an author.

¶7      My literary training makes me acutely aware of certain critical trends, which I will touch on both because they have affected the way that Tolkien's life and works have been viewed in some quarters and because I hope my approach may suggest how to steer a middle course between various extremes.

¶8    First the 'biographical fallacy': know your author intimately and you have an 'open sesame' to his works. Tolkien himself anticipated this as early as 1935 in a letter to W.H.Auden, where he talks about the great spider Shelob ( successor to Ungoliant, co-agent of the destruction of Valinor in The Silmarillion):'...if that had anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when I was a small child, people are welcome to the notion...I can only say that I remember nothing about it...I do not dislike spiders...and have no urge to kill them. I usually rescue those I find in the bath...'{ But it is true that my father Michael had a phobia about spiders; and their humiliation by Bilbo in Mirkwood was partly written with him in mind, to undermine their more menacing side.}

¶9   I think I am also echoing my grandfather's feelings if I touch on the critical tendency of looking for watertight theories about the works, reading in references to world or contemporary history on the assumption that Middle Earth is 'real'. Critics are seldom content to say 'this is what x suggests to me'; responses turn into hard and fast interpretations. Even worse vast significance is attached to what's NOT in the books. The author himself disclaims inner meanings and messages in his own foreword to the L/Rs; but in 'Tree & Leaf' he talks about the creator of fantasy achieving an 'inner consistency of reality', a world inherently believable on its own terms. So perhaps he became the victim of his own success in doing this. He certainly always maintained that he was exploring rather than inventing the legends accredited to him. His imaginative world became so vast that much of it was imponderable to its conceiver as the unfinished and perpetually developing Silmarillion suggests.

¶10  The way to keep a clear perspective on the apparent clash between two kinds of 'reality' (imaginative and literal) is to look at the literary means by which he brought his imaginative world into being and the preoccupations of the mind that created it. My Uncle Christopher's scholarly tracing of the entire literary and imaginative history of the Ring in twelve volumes is now an indispensible part of achieving an assessment on appropriate lines. And I hope this talk will help to demonstrate how both biographical material and well-directed critical judgments may cooperate to achieve a proper estimate of Tolkien's stature as a man and author.

¶11    My memories of him as philologist are of prime importance in this respect. The literal meaning of the Greek is 'love of words': I draw attention to this to dispel ideas of him as a kind of talking dictionary with dry expertise about derivations. There's revealing detail from the time when he was studying for a crucial part of his degree in 1912: he discovered in Exeter College library a Finnish grammar and years later told W.H.Auden: '...it was like discovering a complete wine cellar filled with bottles...of a kind and flavour never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me...' (in fact he nearly lost his exhibition award and got sent down or so he said.)'... and I gave up the attempt to invent an unrecorded Germanic language and my own language-or series of invented languages- became heavily Finnicized in phonetic pattern and structure...' (But we should not isolate this discovery from his fascination with the ancient Finnish epic, the Kalevala.)

¶12     Later he became an authoritative linguistic scholar; but he always gave me the impression that words, in an almost physical sense, have a special kind of life to be pondered, savoured and probed. I recall family occasions, usually meals with cross currents of chat. He had the ability to carry on several conversations at once, debating the merits of a recipe, exploding wrong theories about a place name, telling anecdotes about an eccentric character and under his breath trying to solve a linguistic matter that had arisen unnoticed by anyone else. In my imagination he became the ultimate authority on the origin of names and the uses and abuses of words. He would expose common assumptions so rapidly and overwhelmingly that you were compelled to listen and agree. But he also respected words that were perplexing and he delighted in their elusiveness. When he became involved in linguistic matters to do with his own works he proved particularly sharp in disabusing theoreticians and critics of their misconceptions. Two letters in the Carpenter selection illustrate this amusingly. There's too much to quote; but I warmly recommend his analysis of a Daily Telegraph Magazine interview in 1967 and of the introduction and appendices to the Swedish translation of L/R.

¶13      When I was an advanced student of mediaeval and Anglo-Saxon literature I appreciated all this much more. As a child or teenager he did not influence me to have a particular curiosity over words. I think I mostly enjoyed his genial war on little minds. Later though I really began to respect and wish to consult his knowledge and to experience his powers of exposition. His letters of 1965 show he was pleased when my linguistic studies became of positive interest. Excerpts throw light on some of his attitudes and on him as a grandparent. Referring to the mediaeval poems I was studying and he was translating he says: ' I am sorry my Gawayne and Pearl will not be in time to assist you: largely owing to my discovering many minor points about WORDS...which lead me off...But truthfully it is, I suppose, just a private amusement...I am glad you like the earlier literature and I hope you will be rewarded for your work by worthy examiners…I have you much in heart and thought...' In a later letter he wrote:.. 'I am of course deeply interested in all that you have to tell me of your work and tastes. I might have given you more help and advice...but in any case I have a strong feeling that you should not be influenced in growth of taste and discovery of aptitudes by opinions possibly weighted by family loyalty and affection; while in the end you will get more credit for your own industry and talents if you do not show much evidence of being under my shadow...' These are only brief glimpses of long letters expressing his concern and interest; but when I opted to specialise in 17th and 18th century literature for my second degree at Oxford he showed equal interest and was full of amusing anecdotes about the authors I chose to read.

¶14     Before discussing more closely links between the philology and the fictional works I would like to mention a few more anecdotes:-

    1. I remember sitting with him in hot August sun, a month before he died and watching butterflies on a buddleia bush. He told me in great detail how the word butterfly was etymologically a dead end: noone had ever discovered how or why the two words had been associated; the displacing of sounds in flutterby wouldn't do, either. As usual I found that any word he discussed took on a new dimension and so did the object it was attached to.

    2. When my first daughter Catherine was born in 1969 he was very concerned to explain in a long letter all the vagaries of spelling attached to this name: ' I meant to have a say over the matter of my great granddaughter's name...and now it's settled; but I meant to support you in CathArine...' A lengthy philological discussion followed, typically sandwiched between all kinds of mundane matters. But his enthusiastic command of detail compelled one to read on and to learn. ( Incidentally, one of my memories, happily preserved in a photograph, is of his entertaining his three year old granddaughter with excerpts of the Tom Bombadil poems. As ever he had a natural and spontaneous gift for striking an answering note in children.)

     3. He always thought highly of Jonathan Swift, less for the ingenious and biting satire which he probably felt relied too heavily on allegory, than for inventing a new sound in the language by using the word Yahoo to describe the humanoid apes of Gullivers Travels, book IV.

    4. When I was 14 he wrote me a letter which illuminates his wide-ranging linguistic interests and how he could talk about them to a teenage grandson. He explains how he had been asked to contribute to the translation of the Jerulsalem Bible with a version of the Book of Jonah and had just been elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature:

'...on the strength of the L/R, I suppose: a pleasant compliment and pat of approval, and one which few if any philologists or language men have received...' Another of the many indications that he saw the book as an offshoot of his linguistic interests: something many critics would do well to ponder. He talks about supervising the Dutch edition and translation of the book and how he's immersed in a study of Hebrew: '...if you want a beautiful but idiotic alphabet, and a language so difficult it makes Latin or even Greek seem footling but also glimpses into a past that makes Homer seem recent- that is the stuff !'

¶15     It was only when rereading The Hobbit and the L/R after my intensive linguistic studies at St Andrews that I began to appreciate and find delight in the connections between Tolkien's philological skills and wisdom and his fictional work. I was lucky to see a great deal of him during my subsequent B.Phil studies at Oxford; and knowing how beset by pundits and enthusiasts he had become I was scrupulous about not bothering him with the many linguistic questions that reading the books had provoked; but this was probably a mistake since his correspondence with me and many he never met reveals a generous, professional concern to examine the derivations and etymology of the names with their attached legends in the books. For instance I had been pondering over the name Mirkwood in The Hobbit and wrote to him about this: did it mean as in the Anglo-Saxon mearc or gemyrce, a boundary or marker of the edge of the wild or was it derived from another word, myrce (dark, or sinister) ? His reply was so meticulous and revealing, even citing materials from an ancient Scandinavian saga where there is a forest called Myrkvi, that it has now in part appeared in the annotated edition of The Hobbit. The details don't matter to a non-specialist; but they suggest important general points :

    i) every authority mentioned involves a legendary or historical association which enriches the meaning or feeling of the word; ii) as often he felt he was working with material which was part of a huge body of verbal/historical/ mythical lore, the keys to which could only be found by perplexing labour and might even evade you when you thought you were getting close. (It's not surprising that he read detective fiction for relaxation and went out of his way to praise Agatha Christie.)  iii) As he always contended, The Hobbit was 'a fragment torn out of an already existing mythology'(Reply to N.Y Times Book Review inquiry of June 1955)                                                                  


¶16    It is interesting here that he says that it was great good fortune that Mirkwood remained intelligible with exactly the right tone in Modern English. He always said to me that names had the power to generate a story for him. It is well-known that he was mystified as to the source of the word hobbit that came to him unbidden in the sentence: ' there lived a Hobbit in a hole in the ground' when he was marking exam scripts, which is regarded as the pseudo-genesis of that story. Though he did not keep his promise of a comprehensive analysis of the word to those making the supplement to the Oxford Dictionary, there are amusing details about it in a now published letter he wrote to the editor of The Observer in Jan. 1938. He was always prepared to accept that some things could never be proved one way or another, though he was constantly irritated by those who blew out of proportion matters that had a simple and practical explanation. For instance, he said it was of no consequence that Bilbo's theft from a dragon's hoard and a parallel act in the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf were similar in their results: how else could you get the dragon out on the rampage ?

¶17         Characteristic of my grandfather's lively methods of enquiry and often quizzical pursuit of detail is the moment in the 4th chapter of the Two Towers where the ent, Treebeard, and Merry and Pippin discuss their names and origins. I refer to the passage beginning: 'Pippin, though still amazed, no longer felt afraid...' and ending where Treebeard declares: " Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to." Treebeard is almost a ponderous pedagogue, but suddenly his alliterative, rhythmic search for the key adds new dimensions to the enquiry; and Pippin's adding a new line in similar style is the kind of solution to a textual omission that Tolkien had provided in his scholarly work at editing poems like Sir Gawayne & The Green Knight. At this moment we almost expect an analysis of the term hobbit; but with narrative tact the author allows the ent's more intriguing lore of names and stories to predominate. And what Treebeard says of names telling stories indicates one of Tolkien's creative mainsprings.

¶18     It is therefore worth noting that after my Uncle Christopher had been lecturing on the heroes of northern legend at St. Anne's College, Oxford, my grandfather said to him in a letter: 'I am a pure philologist. I like history...but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names...Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real...'  And when W.H.Auden was due to talk about the L/Rs on the radio in June 1955  Tolkien wrote and told him that :'...Languages and names are for me  inextricable from the stories. These are an attempt to give a background or world in which my expressions of linguistic taste could have a function. The stories were comparatively late in coming...' (Both letters are in Carpenter's selection.)

¶19     He loved riddles, posing puzzles and finding surprising solutions. Riddles have rules. They are an art form in Anglo-Saxon. He liked the challenge of the rules and challenging you with them. But like Gandalf he'd often triumph by telling you there were ways of bypassing the rules without necessarily breaking them. His talk about words and their origins was often like this.

¶20       It's apt to round off focus on Tolkien as a philologist with some excerpts from 'Tree and Leaf', the essay on Fairy Stories, and in particular where it focuses on Fantasy. First to show his insistence that the powers of language and story-making are indivisible. 'The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold and the still rock into swift water...put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such fantasy as it is called, new form is made: FAËRIE begins.' (The nearest modern translation I can arrive at for this mediaeval term is 'magical transformation') He also talks of his own development: 'I can only say that a liking for fairy stories was not a dominant characteristic of (my) early taste...but was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood and quickened to full life by war...' A longer excerpt reveals: i) the high priority given to the craft of words; ii) the view that true fantasy requires a special skill.

 ‘... Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough- though it may already be a more potent thing than many a 'thumbnail sketch' or 'transcript of life' that receives literary praise.

    To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its most potent mode...’( pp46 &ff. Tree & Leaf )

    (He goes on to say that the truest Fantasy is achieved by words; what passes for such in painting or drama is fundamentally different, and by misguided association demeans the former art.)


¶21     My talk is partly intended to indicate aspects of the author's interests and concerns which I believe are easily overlooked; but I am also trying to illustrate what it was like to be his grandson; so I am going to introduce some of the more random aspects of his personality. A reference to his own ingenious fairy story, Leaf by Niggle, serves both my purposes. By 'fairy' here we should perhaps understand 'strange enchantment'. The title refers to a single leaf sketch left over from a painting of vast ambition and scale and never finished. It was written at the same time as he was composing the essay I have just quoted from and published along with it in 1947.

¶22      We can read into it some of his confusion as to what direction his ambitious and increasingly daunting saga of the Ring might take; but I am going to look at a few parts that sum up some aspects of his behaviour as I knew them. Niggle's conflict between absorption in his art ( the status of which he is unsure) and his kindly sociable heart was something I noticed in my grandfather's conflict between the life of the study and other unavoidable daily distractions. His study felt like a sacred precinct to children of both generations, though he himself might often hate it and curse it, feel worried about becoming too buried in it, and yet feel compelled back to it. Niggle is no more precisely JRRT himself than Bilbo is, though there are reflections of him in that particular hobbit's reluctance to be dug out of his routines behind the Shire borders by Gandalf's crazy proposals. The opening of Leaf by Niggle reveals a similar theme: ' There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go; indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start sometime, but he did not hurry with his preparations.' Tolkien's ability to achieve some kind of resolution of the conflicts between his inner life, his professional duties, family demands and other sociable activities is part of his stature as a man and reflects the humanity we find in the most endearing of his fictional heroes. He was by no means the absent-minded professor. Had he been, his life would have been easier and his work less rich. Like Niggle, too, he was a perfectionist over a huge canvas and set himself remorseless standards in creating his fantasies often in face of the kind of criticism he anticipated where the self-important councilor Tompkins is condemning Niggle on commonsense and commercial grounds, listened to by Atkins ( described earlier as nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster) who tries in an embarrassed way to defend the imagination. There is also Perkins, a nonentity who feels arguments are just a disturbance. (See Leaf by Niggle, p.94 )

¶23      Ironically, though, Tolkien was to be persecuted far more by those bursting to be informed about every vein and particle of his 'leaves'; and I think he liked the world's Tomkinses and Atkinses better than those who cross-questioned him once he had become a media hit, making him feel like an overplayed instrument. When he moved into rooms in Merton College from his retirement home in Poole after the death of my grandmother in the winter of 1971, he wrote to me saying: '...alas! I shall no longer be protected from Hoopers, Snoopers, Goopers, press groups, phone bugs and transatlantic lion-hunters and gargoyle fanciers...'

¶24   Unlike Niggle, Tolkien was not just puzzled by bureaucrats and officials who pulled their rank on him: he loathed them though he could often win them over with genuine courtesy which came from forgiving them for what they stood for and seeing them as people. Then he would boast about how he'd won them over and sing their praises.  Like Jonathan Swift he found humanity hard to bear but had a love for individual Jacks and Jills. Writing to me when I was on holiday with my family on the edge of Dartmoor in 1957 he said: '...I should have loved to have been with you on the high Tors and away from people, that is folk in the mass...' He always maintained that he was affable but unsociable. Most readers of his work now realise something that soon dawned on me from all this: he was fascinated by the miraculous capacity of small and insignificant people (like H.G.Wells's Mr Polly) to achieve the unexpected in face of apparently insuperable odds. He said quite openly that his time in the trenches in the Great War stamped this feeling on his imagination.  Two excerpts from Elrond's words at the Council in the Fellowship of the Ring are powerful reminders of this: I remember him quoting the first one on a radio interview:

    ' This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great ones are elsewhere.'.....'This the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the great. Who of all the wise could have forseen it ? Or if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck ?’ ( See F'ship of the Ring, bk.2,ch.2, pp 283-4 )

¶25     It's reasonable to infer from these unpatronising and unsentimental comments by Elrond a crucial and central theme in his major works, even when the protagonists are in the guise of semi-mortal folk.



¶26     However, it was always difficult to keep track of his views, which might modify or intensify without warning, my grandfather had his feet firmly on the ground. This 'earthed' quality is reflected in the precision of geography and time scales of his major work, from which researchers and graphic artists have made much capital. He is even reputed to have been expert on the habits and features of the house sparrow and gave a paper to an ornithological society. If he had an enthusiasm for a person, place or gadget, an item of food or drink

( never French !) he could always defend his preference; but weeks or months later you might find him demolishing it just as persuasively. Both his children and their successors would agree that it was possible to pass in and out of favour without knowing it if you happened not to have visited my grandparents' home for some while. But looking back I think these eccentricities added to the affection I felt for him; and I was more likely to follow his advice than that of my parents even though it wasn't necessarily any better. He had a way of making me see the real world of living, breathing and often inexplicable things in a new light. In 'Tree & Leaf' he maintains that such reappraisal of the familiar is achieved in a well-composed fantasy or tale of faërie.

¶27     I have said that in balanced critical terms Tolkien should not be identified absolutely with Niggle or Bilbo or for that matter Frodo or the just but fallible heroes of The Silmarillion; but I have always found something of my grandfather in the stories: innumerable shades of attitude and tone in hundreds of details of course, but particularly in the figure of Gandalf who is as vital offstage as when he's central to the action. In The Hobbit his presence in the dialogue and narrative is small, and in The Lord of the Rings members of the fellowship are either waiting for him to show up or frustrated by his absence; overjoyed, too, when he returns as Gandalf the White after having won what always seems the fatal tussle with the Balrog of Moria. Tolkien had just this very kind of ever-present distance and occasional close intimacy in the pattern of my life; and I would like to illustrate this with some images of Gandalf, which are in turn an opportunity to glance at the man and the writer on territory familiar to most readers.

    1.) Gandalf takes the view that life is inevitably an adventure not a series of easy routines and that each traveler is of vital importance in some mysterious way. How is for them to find out, though he'll guide them periodically if unpredictably. This is the authorial voice embodied in an authoritative figure but never too obtrusively.

    Just before Bilbo and the dwarves encounter the trolls...'they noticed that Gandalf was missing. So far he had come all the way with them, never saying if he was in the adventure... he had eaten most, talked most, laughed most. Now he simply was not there at all...' There's similar outrage just before they enter Mirkwood after enjoying the hospitality of Beorn. They sense that he is about to leave them and receive sharp words about taking responsibility for their own expedition.

(See The Hobbit, p.119 ) I find here all the unpredictable reliability and the rather irritable kindness of Tolkien. I would react as the party did with a mixture of exasperation, affection, need and respect. It also reminds me of how he could exert authority and influence without domineering. Gandalf like him also understated what was of huge consequence in his own business, which is at least indirect evidence that The Hobbit was only a fragment of a much larger concept and emphatically not the starting point of his imaginative world as many continue to suppose.

    2.) In the first of these excerpts we see Gandalf's relish for fun and the good things of life. His tricking of the trolls into arguing beyond the dawn that transformed them to harmless stone and later on his tossing of lighted fir cones at the warg wolves also illustrate this aspect of my grandfather: one of my earliest memories ( I was 7 or 8) is of a long family walk down overgrown lanes in the wooded Chiltern Hills north of Reading where I was lucky to be brought up before the district was 'developed' into dormer villages. Hedgerow hemlock and hogweed were in flower; he called their white inverted umbrellas 'wasps' tables', and constantly upset these predators by dashing in with his stick and slicing off a table, telling us to run for it. It made us hysterical with excitement much to my mother's silent irritation. We also delighted in a game where he threatened with all kinds of murderous and menacing gestures to catch us with the hooked end of his stick. The stick, mischievous as Gandalf's wand, was part of one of his funniest stunts: a loud "HOI !" and violent waving at motorists hogging country lanes as if they owned them. In the same vein but years later, when he was 81, I remember him racing my then four year old daughter Catherine round the great lime trees of Merton College gardens.(This was on the occasion when I took the last photograph of him leaning on his favourite tree, included in the illustrations of Carpenter's biography.)

    3.) Another aspect of Gandalf I connect with Tolkien is in the hidden dimension. Like the craggier Dr Who impersonators he might seem at times to be rather old, tired, frail, battered by the demands of a perverse world. His elvish name is Mithrandir (the grey pilgrim); but he was a Maia, one of the ancient Istari or wizards. In The Two Towers he comments on his former stature:

' Olorin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten.'  In The Hobbit and the L/Rs his deep wisdom is disguised, a powerful irony against his enemies. He seems just persuasively managerial towards Bilbo and the dwarves until his spirit towers into authority and halts the advancing dwarves of the Iron Hills at the Battle of the Five Armies.( See The Hobbit: pp 233-4.) It's a passage that shows Tolkien's capacity to adapt language and create a style of epic resonance in both speech and narrative, a feature found on a larger scale in many of the great battle scenes in the Return of the King.

    4.) Like Gandalf, too, my grandfather delighted in winning without being boastful about it. He had a knack of mastering techniques at lightning speed and dumbfounding the experts because he could genuinely play at lighthearted things. I recall endless rounds of clock golf with him at the Hotel Miramar in Bournemouth and his delight in successions of 'holes in one' as if they were quite natural to him. This winning capacity is captured for me where Gandalf explains to Thorin why he kept the map, explaining to the astonished dwarf company that he had visited their leader's father in the dungeons of the Necromancer. '...I was finding things out as usual; and a nasty, dangerous business it was. I tried to save your father, but it was too late. he was witless and wandering, and had forgotten almost everything except the map and the key.' ( See The Hobbit,p.32)

¶28     But now I can hear Bilbo urging on Gollum in the subterranean lakeside riddles test with "Time's up !" Like him, too, I'm trying to sound bold and confident; but like Gollum I'm going to cheat by working in several other items at once, including other crucial parts of my memory and experience of Tolkien I would like to have covered: his love of the family unit and his vital role as its head and keystone; our mutual interest in and love for the Welsh language, on which the Sindarin tongue, a Grey-elven language was modelled; the many jokes he made about money and payment in his letters for Christmas and birthdays, reminding me of those in his illustrated childrens' tale, Mr Bliss. I might have examined the informed love of trees he bequeathed to me. (Talking of the inadequacy of drama as a mode for fantasy in 'Tree and Leaf' he says almost obliquely: there could be 'very little about trees, as trees cannot be got into a play '. As if a medium that denied one that facility was inevitably limited.) I think of the many stage stunts to suggest the advance of Birnham Wood to Dunsinane in 'Macbeth', and recall the graphically described wrath of the Ents vented on Isengard and on Sauron's forces.

¶29     Trees demand a last digression. If I were asked to read from a work not sufficiently acknowledged it might be a passage from his translation of Sir Gawayne & the Green Knight. He composed it in a modernised form of the original mid-14th century poem's alliterating measures. I choose it, too, because he felt an affinity with this poem. Like his own tales and most mediaeval fantasies this is an 'adventure', to use an inadequate substitute for the mediaeval word pronounced 'antur', that meant taking a risk that involved moving beyond set patterns, discovering other sides of the world and therefore of oneself, which is what happens in distinct ways to Niggle, Bilbo, Frodo and others. I would read from where Sir Gawayne enters the grim forest in his long search for Sir Bertilak's castle just before Christmas. His anxieties over what's now called ' the run-up to Xmas' are rather different from ours. The descriptive emphases, devout attitdues and deft choice of words are all for me essential JRRT. { See stanza Sza.32 Sr.G.& Gn Knt.,p.39, Harper Collins 1995 edn.}

¶30    I suppose I could have dealt with many of the adverse criticisms of his work but I prefer to end positively with my own estimate of the quality and continued popularity of Tolkien. People of all ages like the books because the tales adjust themselves to who you are when you are reading them, so there is always something new to discover. A quality he defines in 'Tree and Leaf':'...I doubt if...the enchantment of the effective fairy stories...becomes blunted by use, less potent after repeated draughts.'( See Tree & Leaf,p.38.)  But much of the appeal lies in the complete and consistent imaginative world, which includes characters and situations with which we can identify without being bombarded by messages and engineered layers of meaning.

¶31     The books are 'classics'. Up-to-date, state-of-the-art bestsellers have the important but limited function of mirroring one age; but Tolkien's works touch on universal and timeless issues and have the stature of myth. Every age spawns myths to deal with its fears or ambitions: we can all think of contemporary ones. And it is interesting that Tolkien maintained that even Arthurian myth was limited because of its too specifically Christian elements. He said: '...Myth and fairy story must, as all art, reflect and contain elements of moral and religious truth and error but not explicitly, not in the known form of the primary, 'real' world.' (Letter to Milton Waldman of Collins publrs: 1951)

¶32     Significantly, he disliked most modern attempts to rewrite or even reinterpret old materials: he felt they led to uncertainties of tone or spirit.

¶33     In his stories he returns us in an accessible way to what the psychiatrist and polymath, Jung called the 'archetypes', the mythical patterns that lie buried in us from the long human quest for the truth about who we are and why we are here. Pippin's attempt to recall the ent Treebeard's eyes captures this subconscious mythical impact: '...behind these eyes ', he says he felt ' as if there was an enormous well, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree or on the ripples of a... deep lake.'  ( Such intuitively profound insights into perspectives of history were moving to Tolkien, and he found his characters surprised him with them.)

¶34      For me personally he himself was one such 'archetype', as I hope my talk has implied. His death in September 1973 first made mortality real to me. I'd lost other loved and close relatives; but his passing removed a centre of gravity, a source of unity, a formative influence I am still piecing together 22 years later. His uniqueness can be no better distilled for me than in these words from The Silmarillion:-

'...In that time the last of the Noldor set sail from the Havens and left Middle Earth for ever...'