Tolkien, Auden, and an evening of mushrooms and Elvish

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Fond of Elvish…

Lovely piece in the New Yorker about J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings, and just in time for the current hubbub about Peter Jackson‘s adaptation of The Hobbit, the movie.  I’ve never understood the Tolkien craze – I took an unsuccessful stab at The Hobbit as a teenager, and indulged in a weekend binge of the movies a few years back just to get the hang of it – but Erin Overbey goes some way to explaining the devotion to me:

We love to think about the dorky minutiae: how Hobbits invented the art of smoking pipe-weed, why trolls speak with Cockney accents, whether Middle-Earth is spherical. These elements aren’t distractions; they’re the magical details that elevate Tolkien’s books. People may come to Tolkien for the Milton-esque struggle between good and evil, but they stay for the fresh mushrooms and the Elvish.

Apparently, so did W.H. Auden, one of Tolkien’s early champions and defenders.  In 1926, he heard Tolkien reading from Beowulf so beautiful that he decided on the spot that Anglo-Saxon was worth pursuing – it shows in Auden’s poetry.  He also became a close friend of the Oxford professor.  Thirty years later, he wrote in the New York Times about The Return of the King, the third installment of the Lord of the Rings cycle:

I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it, and among the hostile there are some, I must confess, for whose literary judgment I have great respect. A few of these may have been put off by the first forty pages of the first chapter of the first volume in which the daily life of the hobbits is described; this is light comedy and light comedy is not Mr. Tolkien’s forte. In most cases, however, the objection must go far deeper. I can only suppose that some people object to Heroic Quests and Imaginary Worlds on principle; such, they feel, cannot be anything but light “escapist” reading. That a man like Mr. Tolkien, the English philologist who teaches at Oxford, should lavish such incredible pains upon a genre which is, for them, trifling by definition, is, therefore, very shocking.

Perhaps the most memorable bit of Overbey’s piece is her description of Auden’s invitation to speak at a Brooklyn Tolkien Society in the 1960s.  He looked, according to a witness, remarkably like “a Tolkienish wizard surrounded by a crowd of young and eager Hobbits.”  Overbey writes:

So was he.

He began by talking about his personal relationship with Tolkien and the major influence his former professor had had on his life. Tolkien, he said, had originally fallen in love with the Finnish language, which has affinities with Elvish, because it has “fifteen or sixteen cases.” (“Fifteen!” one of the young attendees exclaimed.) Auden went on to tell the group how Tolkien had often admitted that he really had no idea where The Lord of the Rings was going when he first started the trilogy. In fact, Auden said, he wasn’t even sure how the pivotal character of Strider would develop as the narrative grew. Auden also let his rapt audience in on Tolkien’s fascination with “the whole Northern thing.” For Tolkien, Auden said, north is “a sacred direction.”

The nerdy group of lawyers, students, businessmen and military men snacked on unspiked eggnog and non-alcoholic cider – and also on fresh mushrooms, a preferred Hobbit dish.  “The discussion spanned a variety of Tolkien-related topics: the correct method of writing in Elvish, the best way to assemble an accurate cosmological model of Middle-Earth.”

Read the whole New Yorker piece here – or Auden’s New York Times piece here.  Or watch the trailer for the movie below.  I might even make it to a theater before the New Year chimes in.
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4 Responses to “Tolkien, Auden, and an evening of mushrooms and Elvish”

  1. Why Middle-Earth still enchants us so | Peschel Report Says:

    [...] Go to this article [...]

  2. Jeff Sypeck Says:

    It would be interesting to know more about who attended those early Tolkien Society meetings. I’m not sure the under-25 crowd flocking to see The Hobbit this week can grasp that until a decade and a half ago, people with quirky reading habits (or musical interests, or what have you) had a devil of a time finding others who shared their affinities.

    When I’d let fly a reference to Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan in my medieval lit class as recently as 1999, I’d be met with blank stares. Then the movies came out, and maybe three quarters of my students knew exactly who and what I meant. And now there’s a “hobbit menu” at Denny’s! I wonder what those Tolkien Society members would have thought of a world in which their favorite author was a source of mainstream entertainment.

  3. Chris Matarazzo Says:

    The love of Tolkien certainly does stem from the desire to crawl into the world he created in such detail. It has never been done, in fantasy, to such an extent since. It’s funny, though — I often find myself getting snooty about it; saying, “LotR is not the best book ever written, but it is my favorite.” I’ll read some “literary” fiction and then come back for a summer reading of Tolkien. I always wind up being surprised by how good he actually is as a writer. Sure, his prose wasn’t hip. He overused the word “perilous.” Lots of things glimmered. But that’s because Middle Earth was perilous and lots of things glimmered there. Tolkien has the misfortune of having been a genius in areas that don’t seem to impress the literary community too much, but my life would not have been the same without him.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Chris and Jeff. You’re encouraging me to have another go at Tolkien. I certainly admire his fans!

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