What would you give to hear a recording of J.R.R. Tolkien at the top of his form? What if it held new revelations about The Lord of the Rings? It’s a practical question.
The Rotterdam Project is fund-raising to remaster a newly discovered reel-to-real tape, partnering with the Tolkien site MiddleEarthNetwork.com to raise awareness and funds in order to remaster the original recording, chronicle the event, and make it available to the world this fall. From the scratchy youtube video below, they have their work cut out for them – that’s a pitch for your support. Hey all you techies in Silicon Valley – want to come to the rescue?
The recording is from the Rotterdam “Hobbit Dinner” on March 28th, 1958. The tape was found in 1993 by Tolkien enthusiast René van Rossenberg, who owns a shop for the Tolkien-obsessed in the Netherlands, “the only brick-and-mortar shop in the world entirely dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien,” according to the website.
So how come we didn’t know about the recording till now? ”Like Smaug I am guarding my treasure, hissing at any collector who comes near,” he recently wrote in response to an email query. Fortunately, he was persuaded him to open his dragon hoard. Now, he says, “I am looking forward to sharing with all Tolkien aficionados the great joy I felt when I first played the tape and heard Tolkien give his great speech.”
At the start of the speech Tolkien is indeed full of high-spirits and cracks jokes in a way that we’ve never heard him do before. Rather than the ultra-serious Oxford don whom most of us know from his scanty recordings, we get Tolkien-as-Bilbo, right out of the chapter “A Long-expected Party.” He even makes reference to that famous eleventy-first birthday, for Tolkien’s oration was intended as a parody of Bilbo’s farewell speech. The author’s merry voice, with its brusque and rich accent, dances around your head like a hobbit drinking song. For the Professor, it was said by one of his former students, “Could turn a lecture room into a mead hall.”
Tolkien thanked the assembled “hobbits” for giving him the greatest party of his life. He spoke very modestly about The Lord of the Rings calling it “A poor thing, but my own.” He couldn’t believe that the people there would want to hear an after-dinner autobiography. So he jumped right into explaining the construction of his great narrative work, stating that the One Ring is a mere mechanism that “sets the clock ticking fast.” And then he quite plainly spells out what the books are about–something he only alluded to once in a letter, but is incontrovertible in this speech. (If you want to know exactly what he says you’ll just have to listen for yourself!)
At one point he read a poem in Elvish, joking that hobbits were always terrified when someone threatened to recite poetry at a party. He prefaced the poem by saying it was almost twenty years to the day since he had started working on The Lord of the Rings. His mellifluous voice makes the imaginary language come alive, like sinuous silvery mithril script etched in the mind’s eye:
Twenty years have flowed away down the long river
And never in my life will return for me from the sea
Ah years in which looking far away I saw ages long past
When still trees bloomed free in a wide country
And thus now all begins to wither With the breath of cold-hearted wizards
To know things they break them
And their stern lordship they establish
Through fear of death
Tolkien had spent the afternoon walking around Rotterdam–a city that had suffered much destruction during World War II. The sight of it had saddened him, reminding him of the “orc-ery” that he so lamented taking hold of the world. The “cold-hearted wizards,” in their quest for knowledge and power, were only good at destroying things. In his final salute to the assembly of hobbit-lovers, Tolkien said that Sauron is gone, but the descendants of the hateful, Shire-polluting wizard Saruman are everywhere. The hobbits of the world have no magic weapons to fight them. But, he adds with a robust and hopeful declaration:
“And yet here gentlehobbits may I conclude by giving you this toast. To the hobbits! And may they outlast all the wizards!”
The Rotterdam Hobbit Dinner was the first of its kind, and also the last. For Tolkien never again attended another party like this in his honor. But now we have the proof of what took place on that wonderful night, and what the great author said. And the sound of Tolkien’s voice, like his works, will outlast death.