Monday, September 8, 2014

The Man Who Knew Tolkien (Not Well)

So, the article that most interested me in the current issue of THE JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES (Spring 2014 issue, the first I've seen) is the modestly-titled memoir by E. G. Stanley, "C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as I Knew Them (Never Well)". Stanley had been a student at Oxford in 1948-51, during an era when CSL and Tolkien had abandoned the Eagle and Child for The Lamb and Flag across the street and, occasionally, the Eastgate.  As such, he attended "all the lectures Lewis and Tolkien gave" during that period, as well as "Tolkien's seminar for graduate students and selected undergraduates" from Michaelmas 1949 onward.  This meant he heard Lewis's lecture series Prolegomena to English Renaissance Literature -- what soon thereafter became the core of CSL's long awaited if prosaically named ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY (EXCLUDING DRAMA). Stanley says of  these "I thought them them and think them still the best lectures I have ever heard".

I think the line that most stood out for me in his description of Lewis lecturing was "He was never reluctant to state his views on any work of literature"; he says Lewis was "scathing" -- a word Stanley applies twice to CSL* -- about some well-known works (he does not say which). Lewis was never his tutor, but Stanley notes that his friend Derek Brewer was tutored by Lewis and "never ceased to be afraid of him" -- which tends to confirm Helen Gardner's judgment that Lewis was not a good tutor but a supremely gifted lecturer. Stanley also describes his own later interaction with Lewis when the latter became General Editor of a medieval and renaissance text series Stanley and Brewer started (w. a third colleague named Shepherd), and shows that Lewis was just as unsparing an advisor as he was a tutor.

The section of Tolkien is considerably shorter (some five or six pages out of a twenty-page piece), although he says he knew Tolkien better than he did CSL, as one of less than a dozen attending his seminars for "four or five terms". He describes Tolkien as "usually very patient, very encouraging, very polite, very friendly", except when a student made a philological blunder, to which Tolkien's response was, in Stanley's word, "sharp": Stanley gives two examples of Tolkien peremptorily cutting short students whom he considered were wasting his time. As a scholar, he notes that Tolkien "did not often publish his views, but when he did . . . his contributions were at once recognized as brilliant, because they were wholly original and right.** Some of his ideas were published, with acknowledgment, by graduate students of his", citing d'Ardenne as an example. Although Stanley does seem mildly scandalized that Tolkien "did not regularly revise his lectures", more or less repeating lectures from the 1920s and 30s well into the 1950s, he thought Tolkien's lecturing (e.g., on SGGK) "full of interesting, highly original ideas".  He confirms my long-held suspicion that it was Tolkien's loss of all his teeth, which happened mid-way through Stanley's undergraduate days, that made him truly difficult to understand: "he . . . began his lecture . . . pronouncing the words of his opening sentence memorably with sh for s and the like: 'You shee you can't do shound shangezh with porshelain.' He always pronounced words indistinctly, but he had never pronounced sibilants like that before" [JDR: although to be fair, there's no s/sh hissing in the recordings made later in Tolkien's life, so he must have gotten better-fitting false teeth somewhere down the line, or at least improved with practice].

Stanley also notes that "Tolkien was always friendly and the undergraduates were treated kindly"; he includes a brief second-hand account by someone*** who'd been one of Tolkien's students back at Leeds, in the early days of his teaching career, who "spoke of him with great affection" and "adjured me not to miss any opportunity to hear him or be taught by him. She had been personally spellbound by his teaching" -- an account I wd have worked into my essay on Tolkien' support of women's higher education, had I known of it in time.

Finally, Stanley recounts the last time he met Tolkien, at a 1972 party to celebrate the completion of Burchfield's Supplement to the OED. Although it'd been two decades since they met, Tolkien remembered Stanley and said he'd read S's subsequent work -- a statement Stanley finds hard to believe and chalks down to "Tolkien's great charm and warmth" and wish to be kind, but I see no reason to doubt Tolkien could remember a former pupil, even after so long. Significantly, Stanley ends with "I shall not forget his warmth, his kindness, and his charm at that party, and when others talk of J. R. R. Tolkien, the renowned author of fantasy fiction, I think of Professor Tolkien, the brilliant philologist".

So, an interesting account of how these two gifted but very different men appeared to a particular person at a particular place and time; a valuable glimpse back into a vanished world. Of it all, I was particularly struck by Stanley's twice applying the word 'scathing' to CSL and three times some version of 'kind' ('kind', 'kindly', 'kindness') to JRRT -- the latter of which matches well with John Lawlor's acocunt, among others.

Recommended for all who collect memoirs of CSL (which which I think there are four volumes published now) and JRRT (which we're still waiting for a collection of, but worth the wait once we get it)

--John R.

*Stanley himself can be scathing, as when writing of what he sees as A. J. Bliss's shortcomings as an editor, or when he notes that as an undergraduate he was, in his own words, "arrogantly dismissive" of another Inkling, Nevill Coghill, as a popularizer.

**Stanley gives as one unpublished example Tolkien's explanation for why two words spelled identically the noun 'wind' (breeze) and the verb 'wind' (twist, crank) are pronounced differently

***This was Stanley's own tutor, Stefanyja Olszewska (Mrs Alan S. C. Ross). Scull & Hammond, in their excellent CHRONOLOGY, record Tolkien's being appointed her dissertation supervisor in 1927 at Oxford, but Stanley's account enables us to push her connection w. Tolkien back to her undergraduate days at Leeds. Plus, of course, it's nice to know her full name (and married name) and not just surname plus initial.


David Bratman said...

Does Stanley say specifically that the Renaissance prolegomena lectures became the core of the 16th century survey volume? Because, while they were certainly what Lewis called "a useful buttress" to this book, it appears that what they really formed the core of was The Discarded Image, which is largely a prolegomena, i.e. an introduction to, medieval and Renaissance literature, while the 16th century volume is more of a survey of writers, though it does contain some general overview. The lectures that went directly into the 16th century core volume were survey lectures on writers of that period. See Hooper's Companion & Guide, p. 524-5, compare to 476-7.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David.
Stanley refers to this set of lectures in a way that makes clear it's a different series than the one later published as THE DISCARDED IMAGE (perhaps my favorite of all CSL's books), which was already in existence by 1936/37 and which Stanley also attended.

Here's (most of) the paragraph in which he lays out how lecture series and OHEL volume were related:

"Lewis's volume ENGLISH LITERATURE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY was published a few years after I began my first university appointment. In the preface he says that he used 'this book, in an embryonic state, as the Clark Lectures (1944)' given at Trinity College, Cambridge. He does not say that in 1948-1951 he gave some of the content of the book, especially of its introductory chapter, entitled characteristically 'New Learning and New Ignorance' in a brilliant series of lectures, 'Prolegomena to English Renaissance Literature' in the Oxford Examination Schools . . . "

I've seen a reference to the 'Prolegomena to English Renaissance Literature' lectures somewhere in COLLECTED LETTERS but don't have that reference ready at hand.

--John R.

David Bratman said...


That's interesting. Lewis gave several series of lectures with potentially confusing similar names, and possibly he used the same names on different lectures.

Hooper says that the Clark lectures were titled "Studies in 16th-Century Literature," and that another series, started in 1943, that found its way into both books, was "Some 16th-Century Writers."

Hooper also mentions lectures that Lewis had first given before the war, titled "Prolegomena to Medieval Poetry", "Some English Thinkers of the Renaissance", and "Prolegomena to the Study of Renaissance Poetry". All these Hooper mentions in connection with the OHEL volume, but he says elsewhere that the first of these, "Prolegomena to Medieval Poetry," was most directly related to THE DISCARDED IMAGE. Then, during and after the war, he added "Introduction to Renaissance Literature" and "Prolegomena to Medieval Literature." Hooper mentions these in connection with DISCARDED IMAGE, along with "Prolegomena to the Study of Renaissance Poetry" again.

So I guess it is a little muddled up, and that neither book is as close to simple transcribed lectures as one might initially guess, but it's pretty clear that the author lectures contributed more to the bulk of OHEL, while the more general lectures must have contributed more to its introductory chapters and THE DISCARDED IMAGE.