Monday, November 13, 2017

The Man Who Didn't Like Tolkien (Roger Highfield)

So, thanks to Bill F. (thanks, Bill) for drawing my attention to (and providing me with a copy of) the recent obituary of longtime Merton don Roger Highfield, who died on April 13th at the age of ninety-five. A historian of medieval Spain, Highfield was a fellow of Merton College, Oxford  for sixty-eight years -- and thus a colleague, in his younger days, of J. R. R. Tolkien. He was not, however, a fan.

We've long known that some of Tolkien's academic peers disparaged his work (a prominent example being Ida Gordon). I think we can now safely add Roger Highfield's name to that list.* Here's what his obituary has to say about Highfield and Tolkien:

One of the secrets of his longevity may have been his powers of discretion. At one stage he had rooms above JRR Tolkien, one of the college's most illustrious fellows, and he knew him well, not least as a squash partner.

However, when approached by a television producer to discuss his memories of the author of The Lord of the Rings, Highfield played down his connection and suggested that they speak to Bruce Mitchell at St Edmund Hall, who had been taught by Tolkien. After the producer went away happy, Highfield was heard to mutter that Mitchell was a rare bird indeed, because Tolkien was "very lazy and supervised few". His deflection also avoided him having to admit that all he could say of Tolkien was that he was "the worst sub-warden ever", and that Tolkien-mania left him "baffled".

Consulting the Hammond-Scull Chronology, with its many entries detailing Tolkien's work at Oxford, tutoring and lecturing and attending many meetings of many different committees, pretty well refutes Highfield's claim here. But there's more: Highfield's 'favourite anecdote' about an embarrassing incident:

At his funeral at Merton chapel, old dons remembered his favourite anecdote about the time that Tolkien offered to bequeath to the college his original (and therefore highly valuable) manuscript of The Hobbit

Champagne was ordered to mark the occasion, and Tolkien duly handed the thing over to Highfield to the sound of popping corks. When Highfield untied the string and opened the brown paper he found that the great man had wrapped a work in progress up by mistake. He duly asked for it back. "Waste of good champagne." Highfield was heard to mutter as the party gloomily disbanded.

--I've heard this story before, albeit different in the details, but think this is the first time it's had a name assigned to it (Highfield's) or found its way into print. We know from the Ready-Rota letters that by the late 1950s Tolkien's memory of the HOBBIT draft material had grown dim. I suspect that what was in that envelope was what we now call the 1960 Hobbit, material he had drafted after the sale to Marquette in '57-58 but then put aside; given that it was still unpublished at the time of the Merton incident, it's not surprising he needed it back.

As for 'waste of good champagne', I find it hard to believe the college staff, if not the departing dons, wouldn't have taken care of that on their way out.

To leave on a lighter note, Highfield's cheerful malice cd sometimes be v. funny when it hit the mark:

[a friend recalled how] "Roger once told me that in Oxford, if you find yourself talking to a stranger at a party, you have only to ask, 'And how is the magnum opus?' for the floodgates of conversation (or monologue) to be opened. A couple of years later, when he had come on a visit, I inquired, 'How is the magnum opus?' All unsuspecting, he immediately entered into details of what he was working on."

--John R.
current reading: DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE by A. Merritt (1932; so far, mediocre)

*which, I'd like to point out, is far shorter than that of his colleagues who thought v. highly indeed of his works.

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

By the way, if you want to see what Highfield wrote - there's some - he's listed in library catalogs under his scholarly byline of J.R.L. Highfield. (The person you'll find in library catalogs as "Roger Highfield" is somebody else.)