Monday, December 7, 2009

Tolkien's Will

So, having recently coming across the Wills of C. S. Lewis, Warnie Lewis, and Owen Barfield* made me want to go back and look at J. R. R. Tolkien's will again. I'd seen this about ten years ago but not been able to make a copy, so the details had become faded in my mind aside from the single most striking passage, and I wanted to get the exact wording of that.

I soon learned that it was available through the excellent Tolkien Shop (TolkienWinkle) in Holland**, who as usual have available the most amazing selection of out-of-the-way Tolkien items (it's not for nothing that their owner combines his Leiden shop with The Tolkien Museum). But since I don't do Paypal, payment turned out to be unexpectedly difficult. When combined with the shipping costs (which was more than the cost of the item itself) and an unfavorable exchange rate (grr), it turned out to be far more than I wanted to pay for a four-page photocopy.

Fall back to Plan B. I asked a friend in England if he could get it and then forward it to me, since it'd both be cheaper and less fuss that way. Turned out he had a much better idea (Plan C): why not just get it from the probate office? So he did -- one for himself and another for me, at a v. reasonable rate. And so a nice clean copy, beautifully embossed by the 'Seal of the Family Division of the High Court of Justice', arrived safely a little before Thanksgiving. [Thanks Charles!]

The Will itself is fairly simple and straightforward. Having been signed on the twenty-third of July 1973, only a few weeks before Tolkien's death (on Sept. 2nd), it would have replaced an earlier will.*** Aside from appointing his executors (his solicitor F. R. Williamson and sons Michael and Christopher, the latter of whom is also designated his Literary Executor) and stating his desire to be buried, the first part of the will is devoted to specific bequests:

--a thousand pounds to the Birmingham Oratory in memory of Fr. Francis (and the Fathers' kindness to JRRT after he was orphaned)
--five hundred pounds to Trinity College, which he hopes wd be used to help out a hard-up undergraduate****
--three hundred pounds to Exeter College
--two hundred pounds to Pembroke College
--two hundred pounds to David Havard, his godson
--a thousand pounds to Joan Baker, his granddaughter

He suggests the bequests to Exeter and Pembroke be used to buy some article of silver for their senior common rooms (which reminded me of the rings Shakespeare asked his friends to buy to remember him by). Exeter was of course his own college as an undergraduate, while Pembroke gave him his first Oxford professorship. I was a bit surprised to find Merton unmentioned, but assume he'd already made other arrangements there before his death.

According to the cover letter from the Probate Registry accompanying the will, his estate was valued at 190,577.60 pounds (gross), or 144,159.29 (net), and the tax bill came to 42,019.50 pounds. After asking that his personal effect be distributed among his family as his executors see fit, he sets up a trust with the remainder of his estate, to be shared equally among his children and their children after them. He also (wisely) urges the executors to keep his copyrights in the family if at all possible.

The one great exception to this are his 'literary assets' ("my library and all my manuscripts typescripts notes and all other articles connected with my work as an author"), which he entrusts (literally) to Christopher as Literary Executor, granting him the right to

"publish edit alter rewrite or complete any work of mine
which may be unpublished at my death or to destroy the whole
or any part or parts of any such unpublished works as he
in his absolute discretion may think fit and subject thereto"

Wow. That's quite a vote of confidence, saying Christopher could publish it, in whole or in part, or destroy it, in whole or in part. His father trusted his judgment, explicitly granting him permission to do whatever he thought right with the mass of manuscripts left in his keeping.

I'm glad he decided not to have one big bonfire, and that he devoted the next third of a century to sorting, transcribing, analyzing, and publishing so much of those papers. The world would be a poorer place if CT had followed the Mary Renault example.*****

--John R.

*** (cf. the Note to Letter #315 [January 1970], which mentions the trust he had set up for his children; there is also mention in an unpublished letter from the 1950s about his having willed his papers to the Bodleian)

****this concern for hard-up students was typical of Tolkien; cf. Jn Lawlor's account.

*****Renault had long-standing instructions to her partner that if she died leaving a work unfinished, her partner was to destroy it -- which she loyally did, despite the anguish it caused her and her personal opinion that the Arthurian novel Renault had half-finished was her best work.


Jason Fisher said...

As to his trust in Christopher to “publish edit alter rewrite or complete [...] or to destroy the whole”, I expressed amazement at this myself not very long ago, only to have it pointed out to me that this is pretty much legal boilerplate, and it should not necessarily be taken to mean that Tolkien himself carefully thought out all these particular verbs and their implications himself. He would certainly have had to give his attorney some guidance, but in general, I'm told this is standard legal language.

David Bratman said...

Renault's executor may have destroyed her unpublished works on instruction, and there are many cases of survivors destroying letters - Jane Austen's sister burned most of hers, and what's left is a tiny selection - but others did not.

As I mentioned in my article in Tolkien's Legendarium, Kafka's executor instructed him to destroy his unpublished papers, but instead the executor published them, including most of the works for which Kafka is now best known.

John D. Rateliff said...

Jason: could you provide a link to your discussion of this issue? I'd like to see a source on the 'boilerplate' language, not being v. conversant in English legal language myself. I don't recall the phrase appearing in CSL's will. Might be worth while tracking down Ch.Wms' will, given CW's high opinion of his literary importance (he even appointed an official biographer years before his death).
In any case, I don't think Tolkien wd have approved and signed the will without modifying the language if it didn't reflect his exact intent (since he does include phrasing expressing his specific intent on other points).

David: yes, Kafka is a famous case where an author is famous posthumously primarily because his or her heirs/executor ignored instructions to destroy unpublished papers. Emily Dickinson is the most famous American example. Cassandra Austen's burning most of her sister's letters did real damage to Austen's subsequent reputation (luckily a few wicked and witty letters to nieces and nephews survive), but at least JA's brothers went ahead with the publication of PERSUASION, which I think second only to PRIDE & PREJUDICE among Austen's novels, and NORTHANGER ABBEY, which even in its unrevised state is great fun.*
Others enjoy great posthumous success when works they v. much wanted before a wider audience finally get published -- Schubert is a good example here, and in a different sense Tolkien as well (though in his case I'd say his posthumous works built upon and extended and cemented his reputation based on works published in his lifetime, esp. LotR).


*by the way, the completion of SANDITON in the 1970s is one of the few successful such posthumous collaborations I've seen.

David Bratman said...

Yes, those are all good examples for their particular points, John. For another Schubert-like example of a writer who became famous only after death, though known to a few connoisseurs earlier, and who should be familiar to Inklings fans, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hlaford said...

Another well-known example, and perhaps the oldest in Western tradition, is Vergil's 'Aeneid'. According to Suetonius,

"He had arranged with Varius, before leaving Italy, that if anything befell him a his friend should burn the 'Aeneid'; but Varius had emphatically declared that he would do no such thing. Therefore in his mortal illness Vergil constantly called for his book-boxes, intending to burn the poem himself; but when no one brought them to him, he made no specific request about the matter, but left his writings jointly to the above mentioned Varius and to Tucca, with the stipulation that they should publish nothing which he himself would not have given to the world. However, Varius published the 'Aeneid' at Augustus' request, making only a few slight corrections, and even leaving the incomplete lines just as they were."

The pathetic description of Vergil in his sick chamber may be historical or not, but it raises an interesting issue concerning the legitimacy of the procedure, doesn't it? The presence of Augustus makes it much more complicated: "at Augustus' request" is milder than "auctore Augusto" (as the Latin text says), and I wouldn't have liked to be in Varius' shoes. One may guess that Vergil was aware of this and so decided not to press his friends too far. But this is idle speculation.

Tolkien's lines, even if they are commonplace legalese, sound impressive. One question may be in order: is there any indication that he was aware that the posthumous publication of his papers would be not only interesting to many but also likely to be controversial?