Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More on "Tolkien in Oxford"

So, now that I've had a chance to re-watch TOLKIEN IN OXFORD and take notes, I find that my opinion of it has come up. At first watching, the dashed expectations get in the way: that they had the chance to ask Tolkien so much and decided to take him to a bonfire to watch pretty fireworks takes some getting over. But, that said, it's still wonderful to have at least this much footage of Tolkien 'as he lived and breathed'. And some of the things he says are fairly striking as well.*

First off, when discussing why he wrote THE LORD OF THE RINGS, he seems as detached as Poe in the latter's famous 'The Philosophy of Composition" (where Poe explained that his first move in writing The Raven was to determine to write a poem about a hundred lines long). After briefly discussing the origin of THE HOBBIT (wrote that phrase on the back of a student paper, hobbit as reluctant hero, published in 1937) he goes on to describe his goal in undertaking LotR thusly:

"I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really stupendously long narrative and to see whether I had sufficient art, cunning, or material to make a really long narrative which wd hold the average reader right through", adding that "one of the best forms for a long narrative is, as was found in THE HOBBIT, though this is a much more elaborated form, is the pilgrimage or journey with an object. So that was inevitably the form I adopted."

--Particularly of note here is his ambition and the practicality with which he undertook the project.

A more surprising bit comes a little later, when he's out walking the Merton grounds. Much of this is barely audible, at least to my ears, but with patience it can be made out and turns out to be autobiographical:

"I was on the whole a rather puny, overmothered, timid little creature who was not much of a success. I eventually became a rather ordinary scholar . . . (turned out to be) rather good at rugby football, of all odd things. Let me say at once that owing to the casualties of the War . . . there were v. few people to elect. Too big a job for me, really. Which means to say that I was legally removed."

--I don't think I've ever heard Tolkien being more self-depreciating than this. It's not clear what he mean by lack of competition but I assume he's referring to his election to the Pembroke professorship in 1925, rather than his Leeds post or his original admission and scholarship to Oxford (the OED post, his first academic job, he was of course superbly qualified for, as even he wd have had to admit). As for not being up for the job I assume this in some way refers to his retirement, which had taken place about eight/nine years before. In any case, it's a striking example of his characteristic humility, in this case carried to an extreme.

Finally, a minor mystery that had puzzled me somewhat has now been cleared up. In the Landseer video (I think it is), there's a bit of film in which Tolkien talks about how THE LORD OF THE RINGS is ultimately about death. That's all well and good, but he proceeds to astonish me by pulling out of his pocket a clipping from which he quotes Simone de Beauvoir, of all people, on the individual tragedy of inevitable death. The quote itself is thoroughly Tolkienesque, but I shd no more expect Tolkien to be quoting de Beauvoir than I wd him quoting Virginia Woolf, given that de Beauvoir was (a) French and (b) closely associated with Jean Paul Sartre, the originator of Existentialism, a philosophy one wd hardly expect Tolkien to be in sympathy with.

Now the mystery is solved, since we now see that bit of film in context. Tolkien proceeds it by saying that he had recently been reading a biography of a composer he liked, Carl Marie von Weber,** and found in it the de Beauvoir quote. That Tolkien wd be reading a composer's biography isn't anything new: he comments a time of two in old age that he's been reading a biography of Beethoven (cf. his 1958 letter to Deborah Webster Rogers in LETTERS). So there's one less mystery, and one possible trend to look for.

As for miscellaneous points, there's his shrewd assessment of why his books shd be so popular in America (a section unsubtly introduced by shots of Frodo and Gandalf buttons while THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC blares):

"I don't live in America. Surely they shd tell me. I shd like to ask them some questions about how these things arise. I observe in general that America has . . . North America has always been more easily kindled than England (or) indeed any country in Europe and for instance -- the Dickens cult -- the extraordinary excitement about Dickens so that . . . people came down to the quay to watch the mail ship, the only thing they wanted to know was what happened to the next chapter; they weren't worried about goods"

One curious point -- I wd have guessed that this was filmed on Guy Fawkes Day (early November 1967), given the bonfire and fireworks, but S&H date it to February 5th thr 9th 1968 (COMPANION & GUIDE vol II p. 716). In which case the bonfire, fireworks, &c must I suppose just have been put on especially for the film? In any case, being a good Tolkienist I note that it was on the night of the first-quarter moon and, though I don't have any confirmation of this, that looks like young Simon in the foreground next to his grandfather in one of the nighttime shots.

At one point we actually hear him cuss, just a bit, from a third-story window (". . . Can't get out -- there's a great damned thing in the way -- I'll try & climb out. One minute!")

Re. trees, he says: "I have always for some reason, I don't know why, been enormously attracted by trees . . . all my works are full of trees. I suppose I actually in some simple-minded (way) always long to -- I shd have like to be able to make contact w. a tree & find out what it feels about things. ha ha." I particularly liked this part, since his depiction of trees was what first drew me to Tolkien's work and remains one of my favorite parts about it.

re. smoking (cf. 'At the Tobacconist' from almost four decades earlier): "I've always . . . always smoked. I sometimes smoke beyond the point when you enjoy it, which is silly, but I do smoke & enjoy it & as a matter of fact it's now so tied to writing that I can't write without it."

and, though it doesn't come at the end, a suitable last word:
"it's a pity the book didn't catch on a bit sooner, isn't it?"
a pity indeed, but I'm glad he got to know that the book showed every sign, nearly twenty years after publication, that it was going to last. And it has.


*I haven't had a chance to triple-check them, so exact word-for-word fidelity of quotes not guaranteed.

**someone whose work I'm not familiar with at all.


Andrew said...

I posted Rayner Unwin's published thoughts on this interview on the Tolkien Collector's Guide after the video was released.


David Bratman said...

I wrote about Weber and his flamboyantly supernatural operas - very much the precursors to Richard Wagner's - in my article in Middle-earth Minstrel. The scene from Der Freischuetz that I particularly noted may be seen, in a rather hokey stage production, online here, beginning and conclusion. The part I wrote about in detail begins at about the 4.50 mark of the second clip.

Brian Murphy said...

I agree with your assessment: at first viewing I kept thinking, "this could/should have been so much more," and, "enough with the ridiculous student comments," but in the end I reached the conclusion that it's great to simply have this video at all. And there are some interesting bits.