Friday, February 6, 2009

Tolkien's Least Favorite Holiday?

So, I've now had time to read through the Hilary Tolkien book (#II.2768]. It's v. slight, and is less a book of stories than some remembered local characters and escapades of youth slightly recast in semi-fictional form (for example, one page is devoted to Fr. Francis Morgan's dog). In a way, it reminds me slightly of my great-grandfather (Rev. Newton Smith)'s memoirs which he wrote as a v. old man in that the organization is associational. Like those memoirs, there are striking bits in passing that bring vividly to life a vanished world. In this case, these come more towards the middle and end of the book than the beginning, which is a bit precious in its attempt to strike a bedtime-story mode. Particularly chilling is his laconic summary of his World War I experience:

"Somme, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Sanctuary Wood, Oppy Wood, Italy, Nieppe Forest, Merville, Amiens, Namur, Longueval, Falfemont Farm, Bethune, Ypres, Bray sur Somme, Albert, Mons, Charleroi, and home"

--Not being a WWI scholar, I've only heard of about half of these battles, but I hadn't realized there was anyone (that is, any single person) who survived all of them while serving all the way from 1914 to 1919.

The best parts for a Tolkienist are the photos near the end of Mabel T. (whose hair looks to have already been going grey in her mid-thirties, something I'd not known before), a pair of Hilary & his wife Magdalen, and best of all a photo of the two brothers looking, well, like brothers, arm in arm, both smoking pipes. Even better are two small snippets from a 1971 letter by JRRT in which he inveigles against Guy Fawkes Day:

"As for Bonfire Night -- that was a great Festival with us when the children were young. But I hit on the excuse of making it a 'continuous birthday' jamboree for the boys (Oct 22, Nov 16, 21), and also a carrying on of the ancient Incoming of Winter Festival, so that no shadow of that abominable business of 1605 was allowed to fall on it. Certainly one of the wickedest, cleverest, and most successful pieces of Government propaganda in history! . . . When I lived in Yorkshire the 5th was not remembered; but the old Mischief Night with larks and rowdyism went on. All the same I should be sorry if the new propagandists against fireworks were successful! I would rather have my Catherine Wheels and backarappers, and squibs and all that domestically than all the municipal display in parks. But I know such domestic fun needs a stern and competent manager! We used to hoard large quantities of horse-chestnuts, and fill our small bonfire with them: they provided quite a lot of unexpected pops and bangs"
(pages 70-71, emphasis mine).

--this ties in with two references by Hilary, the first on page 52, about how during the WWII "You couldn't have bonfires unless they were put right out and nothing showing" (his orchard was only twenty miles from Coventry, wh. was destroyed by German bombs), and the second on page 42, about what a great bonfire they had the year when he lost a lot of trees to a windstorm. I hadn't thought of it before, but now I see that asking an English Catholic to celebrate Guy Fawkes' Day is rather like asking a Southerner to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday -- some might not be bothered by it, since most of us don't think too hard about our holidays, but the keener a sense of history the person had the more likely there'd be objections.

Still, a nice little nugget to add to our knowledge of JRRT, and it's pleasant to finally get to hear Hilary's voice, especially in the latter parts of this book. I'll be looking forward to the second, companion, book w. interest.

--JDR
current reading: POE'S BROTHER: THE POEMS OF WM. HENRY POE, ed. Mabbott & Allen [1926]

2 comments:

Elena said...

Sounds like a book that will make for interesting reading. Looks like one to add to my list.

pieter.collier said...

"Somme, Vimy Ridge, Arras, Sanctuary Wood, Oppy Wood, Italy, Nieppe Forest, Merville, Amiens, Namur, Longueval, Falfemont Farm, Bethune, Ypres, Bray sur Somme, Albert, Mons, Charleroi, and home"

It took me a whole weekend to come up with the transcription of all these cities... going along with Hilary's regiment, reading tales, feeling the horror he must have been in. There is lots to tell... and all the time Hilary was writing to Mabel about it! She being the closest relative... must have been a scary time, not knowing whether letters or telegrams would talk about Hilary or her own husband!