How I Spent my Wednesday Afternoon

or "A visit with a neighbor who knew Tolkien in the 1950s" by May Gamgee

To anyone who reads this and says: Huh? I shall quickly explain that yesterday I had the honor and privilege of spending some time with an elderly gentleman--my neighbor--who turns out to have written to and visited with JRR Tolkien in the 1950s (an amazing fact that I learned only recently...'til then, he was simply Mr._____, with whom I'd chat from time to time by the mailboxes).


We had a lovely time ( *I* did, certainly, and he seemed to, since he invited me to come back, any time...he also seemed to enjoy the *baked offering,* a great deal of which was polished off in one sitting!). I took everyone's advice and allowed him to talk as he would (though I had to actually steer him, a couple of times, back to himself, because, being a journalist, among other things, he tended to turn things 'round and ask *me* questions...).

Most excitingly, Mr.____ brought out a "book" of letters ("I haven't looked at these in 40 years...") and found one, written to his mother, that documented (in great detail) his visit to Tolkien at Merton College in the mid-50s. He promised me a photocopy of this....

He read aloud about meeting Prof. Tolkien and then adjourning to a nearby pub for a pint or two. I meant to ask if this was the spot where Tolkien used to meet with his "mates," Lewis and Williams et al., but I didn't wish to interrupt. Mr.____ said his first impression was of a character straight out of ME--"an old Elf...an exceptional Man...an overgrown Hobbit." He wore green--coat, vest, hat--and smoked his well-known pipe.

Tolkien, however, was not quite the warm, cuddly, and avuncular man suggested by his photos. He was cordial but intense, sometimes brusque; not exactly cold but certainly reserved. As Mr.___ also comes originally from the UK, and is somewhat more reserved than, say, the typical American, I thought his observation worth mentioning.... The Professor, on one or two occasions, took great exception to Mr.____'s comments and questions, all innocently made. One of these was: Why are there few female characters? Tolkien bristled at this, saying that the influence of women--their force "behind the scenes" can be felt throughout the book. He made clear, however, that he had a very traditional, conservative view of women, generally, and disliked what he called the "mannish" sort. He had some slight regrets about the character of Eowyn, in particular.

Mr.___ agrees this was the prevalent view of the time, especially among Oxford dons, and we conjectured that on an individual basis, Tolkien was much more lenient and less dogmatic than he might sound.

The theme of LotR is "the enobling nature of struggle," according to Tolkien, but "loss" is the pervasive tone, and may also be considered a theme. He was, as has been said of him, deeply affected by the changes that he saw taking place in his beloved England, and he liked very little of the modern world, which he found ugly and dehumanizing. He was obsessed by the notion of Atlantis, which he dreamed of frequently, and his Ages were intended to express the sense of lost times and peoples that the notion of Atlantis embodies.

Tolkien was very defensive about people's complaints and criticisms, in general; though he made light of particular points, it was clear he prided himself on the meticulous care he took, using realistic details of warfare and geography to maximum effect. He said, with pride,that his favorite mail often came from scientists, who noticed some of these details....

Mr.___ said that once Tolkien pointedly corrected his use of a word, though he later more or less apologized that it was the philologist in him (that being what Tolkien thought himself, first and foremost).

He was altogether aware that he'd created something that "reverberated" and went beyond himself and beyond his control (though he expressed dismay at people who wrote, claiming to see Elves and Hobbits in their gardens...).

Lastly, Tolkien wished very much that he could withdraw and rewrite The Hobbit...to make it more consistent with LotR.

There was, of course, much more...but I couldn't take notes, and have had to rely on memory, alone, here. Mr.____ is such a charming man, I can't imagine that Tolkien was anything other than happy about the overall tone of their conversation, and the fact that he took the time to debate some issues suggests to me that he respected him sufficiently to even do so (one doesn't bother to discuss fine points with someone whose opinion is of no consequence!)

Later, we spoke of other things (Mr.___'s review of LotR, which I plan to seek out, for one). Apparently Mr.____ was once threatened by Joe McCarthy. This alone, I said, would place you highly in my opinion. And he laughed.....

I do hope to visit, again. :)