Monday, November 13, 2017

The Man Who Didn't Like Tolkien (Roger Highfield)

So, thanks to Bill F. (thanks, Bill) for drawing my attention to (and providing me with a copy of) the recent obituary of longtime Merton don Roger Highfield, who died on April 13th at the age of ninety-five. A historian of medieval Spain, Highfield was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford  for sixty-eight years -- and thus a colleague, in his younger days, of J. R. R. Tolkien. He was not, however, a fan.

We've long known that some of Tolkien's academic peers disparaged his work (a prominent example being Ida Gordon). I think we can now safely add Roger Highfield's name to that list.* Here's what his obituary has to say about Highfield and Tolkien:

One of the secrets of his longevity may have been his powers of discretion. At one stage he had rooms above JRR Tolkien, one of the college's most illustrious fellows, and he knew him well, not least as a squash partner.

However, when approached by a television producer to discuss his memories of the author of The Lord of the Rings, Highfield played down his connection and suggested that they speak to Bruce Mitchell at St Edmund Hall, who had been taught by Tolkien. After the producer went away happy, Highfield was heard to mutter that Mitchell was a rare bird indeed, because Tolkien was "very lazy and supervised few". His deflection also avoided him having to admit that all he could say of Tolkien was that he was "the worst sub-warden ever", and that Tolkien-mania left him "baffled".

Consulting the Hammond-Scull Chronology, with its many entries detailing Tolkien's work at Oxford, tutoring and lecturing and attending many meetings of many different committees, pretty well refutes Highfield's claim here. But there's more: Highfield's 'favourite anecdote' about an embarrassing incident:

At his funeral at Merton chapel, old dons remembered his favourite anecdote about the time that Tolkien offered to bequeath to the college his original (and therefore highly valuable) manuscript of The Hobbit

Champagne was ordered to mark the occasion, and Tolkien duly handed the thing over to Highfield to the sound of popping corks. When Highfield untied the string and opened the brown paper he found that the great man had wrapped a work in progress up by mistake. He duly asked for it back. "Waste of good champagne." Highfield was heard to mutter as the party gloomily disbanded.

--I've heard this story before, albeit different in the details, but think this is the first time it's had a name assigned to it (Highfield's) or found its way into print. We know from the Ready-Rota letters that by the late 1950s Tolkien's memory of the HOBBIT draft material had grown dim. I suspect that what was in that envelope was what we now call the 1960 Hobbit, material he had drafted after the sale to Marquette in '57-58 but then put aside; given that it was still unpublished at the time of the Merton incident, it's not surprising he needed it back.

As for 'waste of good champagne', I find it hard to believe the college staff, if not the departing dons, wouldn't have taken care of that on their way out.

To leave on a lighter note, Highfield's cheerful malice cd sometimes be v. funny when it hit the mark:

[a friend recalled how] "Roger once told me that in Oxford, if you find yourself talking to a stranger at a party, you have only to ask, 'And how is the magnum opus?' for the floodgates of conversation (or monologue) to be opened. A couple of years later, when he had come on a visit, I inquired, 'How is the magnum opus?' All unsuspecting, he immediately entered into details of what he was working on."

--John R.
current reading: DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE by A. Merritt (1932; so far, mediocre)

*which, I'd like to point out, is far shorter than that of his colleagues who thought v. highly indeed of his works.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Inklings that Aren't (Chesterton and Percy Bates)

So, last week I had recourse to Wikipedia's entry on The Inklings to quick-check something and found some interesting errors in its list of Inklings.

For one thing, it includes someone I've never heard of before named "Percy Bates" as a member of the group. Checking Bates' own Wikipedia entry, I find he was a shipping magnate and director of the Cunard Line (whose most famous ship was probably the Lusitania). There's no mention of the Inklings under his entry, nor in the Inkling entry is there any justification for including him in the list of second-tier members. So this seems to be an error, pure and simple.

For another error, more understandable but just as wrong, the Inklings entry includes G. K. Chesterton's name as someone who visited the group (along with Eddison and Campbell, who really did attend at least a time or two*). While they no doubt wd have been delighted to have had him (and he might have enjoyed this meeting of the minds as well), he never attended even a single meeting.

It's not really an error, but so long as it's going to mention guests, the article might be improved with listing some folks we know did occasionally visit, like George Sayer or Roger Lancelyn Green,

At least they don't make the old mistake of listing Dorothy L. Sayers as a member or visitor.

--John R.

*interestingly enough, T. H White was once invited to visit but never seems to have done so.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

John Wain (IV) -- Havard, Warnie, Tolkien

(continued from previous post)

In addition to his portraits of Lewis, Williams, and Dyson, Wain also gave brief depictions of Havard and The Major:

Of the other Inklings, only his brother and Dyson struck me as sharing Lewis's taste for the ordinary pub, though I am sure Williams, who had beer and sandwiches for lunch every day of his life, had no sort of objection to it as a convenience, as it is to any London man of letters . . . Havard, to be sure, was always expressionless and imperturbable, the man of healing who has looked on life in all its forms and its extremities, and Warren Lewis ('Warnie'), the seasoned officer, much travelled, unsurprised by anything, was gravely courteous and affable, like a Major who has been invited to take a glass in the Sergeants' Mess.

He immediately follows this with more about Tolkien:

Only Tolkien seemed mildly though attractively odd: slight in build beside the bulk of either Lewis, his utterances almost sotto voce by comparison with their deep, measured tones* or the manic sea-lion roaring of Dyson, he stood looking round him with a gnomish, lop-sided grin, irresistibly suggesting a leprechaun that has unexpectedly wandered into human company. He had no objection to conviviality, quaffed his pint of draught cider willingly enough, and yet he always seemed to me to bring with him an atmosphere too fey for the prosaic cheerfulness of an English beer-house, something that belonged in the Hall of the Mountain King.

It's a tribute to Wain's skill as a writer that this exact smile can be seen on Tolkien's face in a surviving clip of film in which Tolkien describes his glee at finding that blank sheet of paper among those he was grading and writing down the first line of THE HOBBIT. Elsewhere I've seen Tolkien described as almost birdlike, by which the writer meant his conversation hopped around from topic to topic, rather than proceeding by measured steps in a logical progression like CSL, which may be part of what Wain is getting at.

In the end, sadly, it was their very own leprechaun, who had wandered from some cleft of the wooded mountainside into their snug haven, who ruined it for them. Without consulting the others, Tolkien went to Charlier Blagrove and asked if they might have the use of the private sitting-room, regularly, every Tuesday. Glad to meet what  he thought were the group's wishes, the landlord opened up the room the next Tuesday and always thereafter. There was no going back. Jack Lewis confided to me, sadly[,] that it had spoilt his Tuesdays for him. 'I miss the sense of meeting in an open tavern.' I was very sorry. He had many problems in his life at this time,** and it seemed needless to rob him of one of his few remaining pleasures.

Personally, I can easily see that the loudest members of the group, like Lewis and Dyson, could prefer the loud outer room, while the quieter ones like Tolkien and Havard might have liked the inner room where they cd be heard. Taken with his earlier comment about Tolkien's being "almost dementedly solipsistic" (I take him to mean that Tolkien was one of those professors who taught his subject rather than his students), I get the sense that Wain is trying to be fair to Tolkien but finding it a bit hard (that 'leprechaun . . . wandered from some cleft of the wooded mountainside' seems to me to include a touch of parody).

One small corrective: Wain says that upon Lewis's marriage to Joy Davidman,  CSL 'made no attempt to introduce his wife into the circle in the bar-room'. This is in error: Lewis did bring Davidman to some of their meetings in the pub, but it was not a success and she stopped coming after only a few attempts.

--John R.
current reading: THE PROUD TOWER (chapter on the Dreyfus Affair)

*surviving recordings show that Lewis's voice sounded a good deal like Alfred Hitchcock, but with a different accent. Imagine Hitchcock being impersonated by Sean Connery and you'll come pretty close.

**since Blagrove died in 1948, this must refer to about that time or slightly before, in the period when Janie Moore's health was failing due to encroaching Alzheimers.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

John Wain (III) -- from a tadpole to a young frog


So, the single thing I found most interesting in Wain's account is that at one point he gives the very words with which Lewis invited him to join the Inklings.*

. . .  my getting a First and being elected to a small . . .  Fellowship must have seemed to Lewis to turn me from a tadpole to a young frog, because he beckoned me into the inner bar one Tuesday noon and said, kindly (he was always kind)** but rather formally, 'We meet here every Tuesday at mid-day and in my rooms at Magdalen every Thursday evening: I desire your better acquaintance.' I liked and admired Lewis, though I knew already that his approach to life, and therefore to literature, were not the same as mine, and I thought then and think now that it was a striking piece of good fortune to have one's better acquaintance sought by such a man. . . my relationship with him is not the least of the gifts that Oxford has given me.  

Personae Inklingis
Given my interest is the history of the Inklings, I found this piece a valuable snapshot of the group as it was in its latter days (specifically 1945-1948). For one thing, there's Wain's list of members as they were just before he joined: Lewis himself, Tolkien, Williams, Dr. Havard, 'a couple of Magdalen dons' (whom he leaves unnamed), and Warnie. After Williams died the most significant newcomer was not Wain but Dyson, so the roster wd then have run CSL, JRRT, Harvard, Warnie, Dyson, and Wain.

Wain was deeply impressed by Williams, second only (if indeed it was second) to Lewis.*** Although Wms died before Wain started attending meetings, both here and in his 1962 autobiography Wain asserts that Wms was the most important member of the group and that his absence took a lot out of their discussions. Here's how he phrased it in the Eagle and Child piece:

. . . its personnel underwent two significant changes in the time I observed it. The first was the death of William in 1945. I was, of course, not yet formally admitted to the circle, but I registered the shock it inflicted, particularly to Lewis. Williams was the genius of the group; an unresolved genius, perhaps; a genius, if you will, that never quite came to its real achievement; though on the other hand it could be said that the genius of Williams lay not in what he did so much as in what he was. After he died, something went out of the Inklings.  I think I knew, even at twenty-one, that the group I joined there had a light and warmth rather like those of a gas fire after it has been switched off. The sustaining fuel had been the imagination of Williams. 

Wain then goes on to offer a memorable portrait of Hugo Dyson:

The second change was that Hugo Dyson, an old friend of all the group, came to a Fellowship in Merton in 1945 after twenty years at Reading University . . . and immediately added his presence to the gatherings. No circle of which Dyson was a member could be said to remain the same. He was a raconteur, a barnstormer, a wit if your definition of wit includes knock-down-and-drag-out, a performer to his fingertips. I always felt that he was driven by inward nightmares into an endless routine of conviviality, and indeed his experiences in the First World War trenches had been enough to give a man nightmares for life if he lived a hundred years. The removal of Williams dimmed the radiance of the Inklings' meetings; the accession of Dyson rekindled it, but with a smokier light.

next up: Wain's brief descriptions of Havard and Warnie, and his someone lengthier thoughts on Tolkien

(to be continued)

--John R.
current reading: more of the same three books.

 *or the closest approximation his memory can make of them

**The statement that Lewis was 'always kind' no doubt held true for Wain's relationship w. Lewis himself, though it's not how others of CSL's tutorial students remembered it (e.g. Lawlor, Betjeman, Stanley)

***elsewhere he said he considered C. S. Lewis and Edmund Wilson his role models as critics.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

John Wain (II) -- Lewis's 'Absurd Delusion'

(Wain, continued)

In addition to describing the place and the people who ran it,* Wain devotes most of his piece to talking about the Inklings. I've been wondering for some time why, of all the pubs  in Oxford, did Lewis and Tolkien fix upon the Eagle and Child rather than some place nearer to Tolkien's or CSL's colleges (Pembroke then Merton and Magdalene, respectively). Wain gives as his opinion that Lewis et al chose the Eagle and Child for their weekly meetings for two important reasons. First, that it was an ordinary place, not fancy. In a memorable phrase, Wain writes of Lewis that "He liked ordinary men, and indeed was under the absurd delusion that he was one himself.' I think this might become one of my favorite lines describing Lewis: both insightful and touching.

Second, it was convenient for Havard, whose office was just up the street, and also to the Taylorian, where Wms lectured.

I had known about Dr. Havard's clinic, and for a while now have considered it likely to have been the deciding factor, but not connected the dots about it being so close to where Williams wd be lecturing. Wain is helpful here, as after speculating on why they chose where to meet, he reveals discovering, when still an undergraduate, why the when as well:

Only gradually did I come to realize that there was a regular pattern to these Lewisian visits in that they always took place on a Tuesday at noon. What focused this fact for me was a sense of annoyance that I could not attend Tolkien's weekly lecture on Beowulf without missing Charles Williams on Milton, or Wordsworth's Prelude, or Shakespeare -- these were his three usual subjects. I wanted to attend Williams's lectures because I found them torrentially stimulating; I wanted to attend Tolkien's because I thought they might provide me with something to write down in my Schools paper on Anglo-Saxon literature, a hope that in the end was disappointed, for he was largely inaudible beyond the first row and, if one did manage to catch a few words, almost dementedly solipsistic.

'It's a nuisance', I remarked to Lewis at one tutorial, 'that Tolkien and Charles Williams always seem to lecture at the same time.'

'Yes, Tuesday at eleven,' he replied composedly. 'It's so they can meet at the Bird and Baby at twelve.'

I was evidently meant to gather from this that the requirements of civilized conversation among men of letters had legitimate priority over the requirements of pedagogy, a lesson that was not lost to me. All the same, I noticed that Lewis himself did not lecture on Tuesday at eleven. He took a lot of trouble with his lectures and I believe the capacity audiences he drew were a gratification to him, surely a legitimate one. He had no wish to clash with a crowd-puller like Williams.

Leaving aside Wain's dismissal of Tolkien as a teacher, which I think unfair, this does give some idea of Williams at his peak at Oxford,** and an interesting juxtaposition of Wms vs. Lewis as lecturers, a subject I'd like to know more about.

(to be continued)

--John R.
--current reading: THE PROUD TOWER by Barbara Tuchman (my first time reading one of her books); THE NOTION CLUB PAPERS (re-reading for a project); and A WALK IN WOLF WOOD by Mary Stewart (a gift long ago from Jim Pietrusz).

*One interesting miscellaneous detail: Wain reveals that Blagrove had originally been a horse-cab driver, in the days when such things, now remembered chiefly for their appearance in the Sherlock Holmes stories, still existed.

**Wain was a great admirer of Wms and had little use for Tolkien either as a writer or, it seems, an academic.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

John Wain (I) remembers The Eagle and Child

So, last year when I was at the Archives I got to look through a box of Taum's material that had recently come there by a circuitous route. And among the items of interest* was a 1988 piece from the OXFORD MAGAZINE by Inkling** John Wain called "Push Bar to Open". It's essentially a paean for the Eagle & Child (Wain prefers not to use the nickname 'Bird & Baby', thinking it rather silly). He describes the physical layout of the place (something not I think evident from the much-expanded building it is today) and how the family that ran the place (Mr. & Mrs. & Miss Blagrove) lived upstairs for the most part, though they did have a parlour downstairs that they sometimes allowed customers from the bar to use. Since this is the most detailed description I've come across of the place as it was in the Inklings' day, I thought I'd quote it here:

. . . a few of us, who naturally thought of ourselves as the cognoscenti, preferred the simplicity and quiet of the Eagle and Child. It was a beer house, not licensed for wine or spirits,*** with scrubbed wooden tables and linoleum on the floor, and two rooms, both small. On entering from the street, you were faced with the end of the bar, because you were sideways on to its main length, though 'length' is hardly the word in such a doll's house of a place. This oblong of bar was slightly to your right as you stood inside the door; slightly to your left a door confronted you, habitually closed but occasionally opening to reveal a flight of stairs which led to the family's quarters. Geometrically straight ahead, then as now, was the space left between the wooden partition wall of the staircase and the bar, which ran along this narrow space for some six or eight feet before emerging, less obstructed, into the second room. This had two doors. One, on the left, led into an alley-way at the side of the house from which the street could be gained; the other into a long, open backyard of the type usual in working-class houses, flanked on one side by a brick wall and on the other by a wash-house and, no doubt, in the original design of the place, all the plumbing of whatever description.

The family, Mr and Mrs Bladrove and their daughter, lived their domestic life mainly upstairs, but they must also have lived some of it in the area of the backyard, and in addition they had a parlour, which faced you when you entered the second bar-room. This room was not part of the licensed premises, but during the years immediately following the war, when the clientele increased in number, the Blagroves would occasionally, out of good nature, allow select customers to take their drinks in and sit there, if chairs were scarce or if they wanted to have an interrupted conversation. 

. . . continued in next post

--John R.

*which included, among other things, a photocopy of my second of two letters from Christopher Wiseman, which I must have given to Taum and long since forgotten that I had done so.

**and Angry Young Man, though it made him mad to be called that.

***I take this to mean you cd order beer or hard cider but not whiskey or wine. Wain is explicit that Lewis always ordered cider.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tolkien TV Series?

So, I may have been wrong about predicting that the next Tolkien-on-film we see wd be a biopic. VARIETY at any rate is reporting that a LotR miniseries is in the works, possibly to be made by Amazon Studio. Details are lacking, but Jeff Bezos himself is said to be pushing the deal. THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER and ROLLING STONE also each have a piece on the project; the former is pretty good  but I take the latter's account less seriously since they seem unable to tell the difference between the movie people (Tolkien Enterprises, an American firm formerly run by Saul Zaentz) and the Tolkien estate (Tolkien's family, often backed up by his publishers).

Here's the VARIETY piece


And here's the ROLLING STONE version.

One thing I was glad to learn, whatever comes out of this, is that the studios have finally settled their lawsuit with the Estate, who objected to Tolkien slot machines, online LotR/H-themed gambling, and other excessive forms of movie merchandising -- following what has now become the established pattern that the studios have only paid up money they owed on the previous project when they've decided to go ahead on a related project.

--John R.