Saturday, September 30, 2017

Like and Unlike Tolkien

Year 1 of Decade 3 was a year of letters: Lewis letters, Dickens letters, Tolkien letters. In reading a collection of correspondence from the man who created Sam and Frodo and Legolas and Eowyn, I noticed many striking parallels between him and myself. I remembered from reading Tolkien’s biography several years ago that I saw myself in his habits of getting to class late and reading to his children. But the parallels run even farther.

SNL’s Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey used to play a couple of friends who sat in the basement watching television and talked about huge projects they had in mind. After the description of every castle in the air, they’d look at each other, laugh, and say, “Aw! There’s another thing I’ll never do!” I had to laugh at myself in these characters, although I gave myself the consolation that I at least often began the novels and the game designs and the businesses that I only dreamt of completing. But Tolkien described my own desultory ways in calling himself a “notorious beginner of enterprises.” It took him twelve years to finish The Lord of the Rings; the book he worked on for fifty years, The Silmarillion, he left for his son Christopher to finish. How many other great projects did he merely begin?

• Tolkien complained sometimes of proofs and other extra bits of work coming at the worst time: when some large amount of grading was due. “Evil fate has plumped a doctorate thesis on me,” he once complained, and I sympathize.

• After one of these intense periods of task upon task, Tolkien said, “I have been chasing lost days ever since.” For years, without exactly knowing it, I had been searching for this phrase to describe a feeling of dyssynchrony with the world. I once dealt with a family crisis the week before a school year began and felt one week out of step the entire semester. Now I know: I was chasing lost days. (I found them again at Christmastide.)

• Tolkien believed that no commercialism can defile Christmas unless one lets it.

• Tolkien wanted to teach young people elevated vocabulary by simply using words like (and this was his example) argent, which has a beauty of sound all its own and so does not mean the same thing as silver. See the last paragraph from my June post this year on the effect of such writing on me in my childhood.

• Tolkien loved quoting one of his old professors in characterizing Oxford University not as an institution of learning but as a factory that makes fees. Amen! But at least “Oxford U.” isn’t routinely taken to mean a football team. (Hmm, I wonder if any Oxonian has ever referred to that academy as OU.)

• Hoping to find the Church a place of solace in times of trouble, Tolkien instead had to admit it was  “just another arena of strife and change.”

• Tolkien loved Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

Of course, I also noted some differences. I, for instance, did not create the Misty Mountains from my impression of Lauterbrunnen and then include my mental creation in an influential, best-selling, genre-creating novel. Also, I actually like Dorothy Sayers’s mystery stories. And I love The Chronicles of Narnia. But I’ll let Tolkien have his odd quirks.