Thursday, January 23, 2014

Contention at Oxford in 1925

My otherwise gentle Ridgeback enjoys “fence-fighting with dogs in my neighbors’ yards, and the gentle people of Lit-Ideas, so it has been averred recently, enjoy (presumably) a fight from time to time.  It was not so very different in Oxford in 1925 (quotes are from Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien):

“. . . It should be understood that an Oxford Professor, unlike those in many other universities, is not by virtue of his office necessarily in a position of power in his faculty.  He has no authority over the college tutors who in all probability make up the majority of the faculty staff, for they are appointed by their colleges and are not answerable to him.  So if he wishes to initiate some major change of policy he must adopt persuasive rather than authoritarian tactics.  And, on his return to Oxford in 1925, Tolkien did wish to make a major change: he wanted to reform certain aspects of the Final Honour School of English Language and Literature. 

“The years since the First World War had widened the old rift between Language and Literature, and each faction in the English School – and they really were factions, with personal as well as academic animosities – delighted to interfere with the syllabus of the other.  The ‘Lang.’ side made sure that the ‘Lit.’ students had to spend a good deal of their time studying the obscurer braches of English philology, while the ‘Lit.’ camp insisted that the ‘Lang.’ undergraduates must set aside many hours from their specialization (Anglo-Saxon and Middle English) to study the works of Milton and Shakespeare.  Tolkien believed that this could be remedied.  What was even more regrettable to him was that the linguistic courses laid considerable emphasis on the study of theoretical philology without suggesting that undergraduates should read widely in early and medieval literature.  His own love of philology had always been based on a knowledge of literature, and he determined that this state of affairs should be changed.  He also proposed that Icelandic should be given more prominence in the syllabus; this latter hope was one reason for the formation of the Coalbiters. 

“His proposals required the consent of the whole faculty, and at first he met with a good deal of opposition.  Even C. S. Lewis, not yet a personal friend, was among those who originally voted against him.  But as the terms passed, Lewis and many others came over to Tolkien’s side and gave him their active support.  By 1931 he had managed (‘beyond my wildest hopes’, he wrote in his diary) to obtain general approval for the majority of his proposals.  The revised syllabus was put into operation, and for the first time in the history of the Oxford English School something like real rapprochement was achieved between ‘Lang.’ and ‘Lit.’.

On mellowness in old age

On page 105 of his biography of Tolkien, Carpenter refers to a time after Tolkien’s wife had died.  Tolkien was by that time famous and realized someone would write his biography.  He wrote to his son Christopher about Edith:  “She was (and knew she was) my Luthien.  I will say no more now.  But I should like ere long to have a long talk with you.  For if as seems probable I shall never write any ordered biography – it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths – someone close in heart to me should know something about things that records do not record: the dreadful sufferings of our childhoods, from which we rescued one another, but could not wholly heal wounds that later often proved disabling; the sufferings that we endured after our love began – all of which (over and above personal weaknesses) might help to make pardonable, or understandable, the lapses and darknesses which at times marred our lives – and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed the memories of our youthful love.  For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.”

Carpenter discusses Tolkien’s eventful life up until 1925 when he became a professor at Oxford.  He is only on page 118 by that time and has to get to page 260 before he is done, and he seems to find the prospect daunting.  He writes, “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.  Tolkien came back to Oxford, was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature, went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the first part of his retirement, moved to a nondescript seaside resort, came back to Oxford after his wife died, and himself died a peaceful death at age eighty-one.  It was the ordinary unremarkable life led by countless other scholars; a life of academic brilliance, certainly, but only in a very narrow professional field that is really of little interest to laymen.  And that would be that – apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’ he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers.  It is a strange paradox, the fact that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the work of an obscure Oxford professor whose specialisation was the West Midland dialect of Middle English, and who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.”

A week ago I hired a new house-keeper.  She said she preferred working for old people because they are mellower.  I will be 80 this coming October and qualify as “old,” but mellow?  I later asked Susan (who will be 70 this coming December) if I had become mellower, and she scoffed at the idea.  The house-keeper must have come to a similar conclusion, for she never arrived.  But what of Tolkien immersed as he was in Anglo Saxon literature and Hobbits?  Did he become mellow in his old age?  Carpenter visited Tolkien in 1967 just four years before Edith Tolkien’s death in 1971 (at 81) and Tolkien’s own death in 1973 at the same age.  Here are a few words describing how the not-at-all mellow Tolkien appeared to Carpenter:

“I am still nervous that there will be other and harder questions, doubly nervous because I cannot hear everything that he is saying.  He has a strange voice, deep but without resonance, entirely English but with some quality in it that I cannot define, as if he had come from another age or civilization.  Yet for much of the time he does speak clearly.  Words come out in eager rushes.  Whole phrases are elided or compressed in the haste of emphasis.  Often his hand comes up and grasps his mouth, which makes it even harder to hear him.  He speaks in complex sentences, scarcely hesitating – but then there comes a long pause in which I am surely expect to reply.  Reply to what?  If there was a question, I did not understand it.  Suddenly he resumes (never having finished his sentence) and now he reaches an emphatic conclusion.  As he does so, he jams his pipe between his teeth, speaks on through clenched jaws, and strikes a match just as the full stop is reached.”

Tolkien was mellower in his letter to his son, but when Carpenter questioned him about his writings, he became very intense.  And while none of us can be intense all the time surely we need to be intense in our thinking and talking (or writing) about subjects important to us.  And if we have come to conclusions about our subjects we are probably going to discuss or defend them with a good deal of intensity.  We aren’t mellow in the sense of being neutral.  We worked hard to arrive at them.  There is no unsubscribing from this “Hotel California” for some of us who remain intense, even as old fellows, even unto the end.