Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Did Tolkien Almost Die in 1923?

So, among the many, many interesting books I saw at Doug's during this past Kalamazoo (hi Doug) were two that, in juxtaposition, caught my eye: a biography and the selected letters of George Gordon. I don't know a lot about G.S.G., other than that he was responsible both for Tolkien's getting his post at Leeds (and thus establishing him within his chosen field) and for JRRT's getting the Oxford professorship five years later (thus putting him at the top of said profession). These past few years I've grown more and more convinced that, in the absence of a major publication of new primary research about JRRT himself, learning more about his teachers, colleagues, students, relatives, and friends is a good way to place him in context. Luckily there's been a string of such pieces: Doug's essays on E. V. Gordon and R. W. Chambers (and his Kalamazoo presentation on Simonne d'Ardenne), David's pieces on less-well-known Inklings (esp. Hugo Dyson), Morton's booklets on Jane Suffield Neave, the Hilary Tolkien booklet, the recent biography of Father Francis, et al.

What I hadn't realized is that there's so much information on GSG (biography, letters) readily available. And, checking the index of said volumes and looking up the Tolkien references, of which there are a few --one in the Life (inconsequential) and four in the Letters (quite interesting). And reading these, I was immediately struck with just how ill Tolkien was when he came down with pneumonia in 1923.

I'd never realized before how close Tolkien came to dying. Looking at the evidence, it seems obvious. So why didn't that simple, and dramatically important, fact not impress itself upon me before? I certainly have always known how deadly pneumonia was in those days, and for long afterwards: my own grandfather died of it in 1949 (age 57), and I myself almost died of double pneumonia as a child. The treatment was more or less to make the person get lots of rest and hope for the best. So why, knowing that Tolkien had been strickened with a usually-fatal disease, didn't it really register?

Part of it seems to be presentation. Carpenter's account of this episode, which he does include, is rather breezy, focusing on the humor of young Tolkien sick in bed while old John Suffield, his Tookish grandfather, was off on a trip around the islands (Carpenter's BIOGRAPHY, p. 106). Scull and Hammond report the facts, but briefly and with detachment:

May 1923  Tolkien catches a severe cold, which turns into pneumonia. 
He is gravely ill, his life in danger; but he will begin to recover by 12 June. 

[Scull/Hammond CHRONOLOGY, p. 121]

and again, a little later on the same page

Late June or July 1923 Once Tolkien has recovered from his illness, 
he and his family travel on holiday

Contrast this with the immediacy of Gordon's letters:

This is sad news about Tolkien -- his illness; but 
E. V. says he's safe now, and pulling through.

(i.e., E. V. Gordon) THE LETTERS OF GEORGE S. GORDON  1902-1942  (p. 164)

It's a strange might-have-been to think of Tolkien, who'd never been a strong or healthy man, succumbing to pneumonia at thirty-one, leaving behind THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, the Turin Lay, Kullervo, two invented languages and I think one invented script, a small portfolio of strange art, and a quantity of odd verse. If any of that had gotten published at all, 'SPRING HARVEST'-like, what a strange and truncated legacy it'd have made. I suppose he'd have been remembered as a disciple of Dunsany's who died young. How grateful I am that he recovered from that near-fatal bout, and lived a good long life, with virtually all the work he's known for falling on this side of that dividing line.

Lucky him. Lucky us.

--John R.


Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles said...

This is definitely an interesting way of approaching Tolkien - from the viewpoint of friends and colleagues. Let's hope there is more material on this!

Anders Stenström said...

Thanks for this perceptive blog post. I have the book with GSG's letters (not the Life), but have never looked in it much. Ought to!

Jason Fisher said...

J.S. Ryan has also published a number of interesting articles over the years from the same contextual vantage -- on William Craigie, George Gordon, Elizabeth Wright, Roy Campbell, and others -- as well as some useful examinations (no pun intended) of Tolkien's and his colleagues' curricula at Leeds and Oxford.

Ronald Kyrmse said...

Great luck indeed - if luck you call it.

David Bratman said...

Not to mention the fact that he could so easily have been killed on the Somme - or died in hospital afterwards, leaving even less behind. And the fact that G.B. Smith did die there, losing us who knows how much creative work?

And I was just discussing with a friend someone else who was killed on the Somme, the composer George Butterworth, an unquestionably major creative voice cut off.

And many, many others.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi all.

Marcel: yes, I second that. The Scull-Hammond READER'S GUIDE includes quite a few such pieces but highly compressed, as necessitated by the context.

Anders: glad you liked it. There'll be a little more re. GSG and JRRT tomorrow (or indeed later tonight if I can manage it).

Jason: don't think I've seen Ryan's piece on Roy Campbell; it's not included in the collection of his essays from Walking Tree (which I reviewed, rather critically, for TOLKIEN STUDIES Vol. VII). That must have been saved over for the promised second volume of Ryan's essays, which has still not appeared some four years later.

Ronald: I don't, but then I'm a Presbyterian.

David: glad to hear about Butterworth (in the sense that, glad to learn of him). Any of his work that's (a) available and (b) that you'd recommend to get a representative flavor of his work?

--John R.

David Bratman said...

Butterworth's music is English pastoral, very much like some of that of Ralph Vaughan Williams, his close friend. Here's some Youtube recordings:

English Idyll No. 1

The Banks of Greenwillow