Thursday, January 5, 2012

Tolkien's Nobel

So, thanks both to the MythSoc list (thanks Alana) and also friends (thanks Bijee), today I learned about the time Tolkien was nominated for a Nobel Prize. Apparently the Prize Committee seals their records regarding any particular year's deliberations for fifty years, and for the past few years a Swedish journalist named Andreas Ekstrom has examined the newly revealed results. This year it was the 1961 records that were made public, and Osterling discovered that JRRT was one of those up for the Literature prize, along with luminaries like Rbt Frost, E. M. Forster, Grahame Green, and Lawrence Durrell: the award eventually went to Ivo Andrie (whose work I confess I've never read, and know nothing about).

It's not so much that Tolkien didn't get a Nobel that's interesting as the revelation that he was ever considered for one. And so shortly after his masterpiece, THE LORD OF THE RINGS, came out (six-seven years earlier). And that his nomination came from his old friend C. S. Lewis, who'd apparently been asked as a recognition of his status as Cambridge professor.

The reasons for some candidates' rejection are strange. Frost, for example, was rejected as too old (86), while Forster was not only too old (82, I think) but something of a burn-out case (he'd only published one novel in the preceding fifty years, and that'd been over thirty years earlier) Durrell they considered obsessed w. sex. Greene came in second place (while the article doesn't say so I suspect Greene's thrillers counted against him as lowbrow 'entertainments'), and Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen) in third.

Not to have gotten the award is no disgrace -- in more recent years the committee rather pointedly refused to give it to Borges, for example, and one prominent member of the Academy went on record to say that not to have given it to Dinesen was a big mistake. It must also be said that some of the past winners strike most today as decidedly eccentric choices: I've always found it a good trivia question to ask folks if they can name the first writer in English to win the prize (Rudyard Kipling, of all people). And it's hard to feel that purely literary judgments were made when Winston Churchill got it for his histories (explaining the brilliance of his own career). But it's also gone to those whose work has stood the test of time, like Yeats (when he still had a lot of great poetry yet to write) and T. S. Eliot (who received it when he was something of a spent force, though there's no way they cd have known that at the time).

The reason given for rejecting JRRT, however, is striking. In the words of committee member Anders Osterling, "the result has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality". So we can add another name to the Edmund Wilson Hall of Fame of those who Got It Wrong. Here's the link to the piece:

One further interesting bit it that we'd known for several years now that C. S. Lewis considered Tolkien Nobel-worthy material, just not that he'd acted on it. In a January 7th letter to Alastair Fowler,* Lewis wrote

"In confidence. If you were asked to nominate a candidate for the Nobel Prize (literature) who wd be your choice? Mauriac has had it. Frost? Eliot? Tolkien? E. M. Forster? Do you know the ideological slant (if any) of the Swedish Academy? Keep this all under your hat"

--Collected Letters, vol. III, p 1224

I'd always assumed Lewis was just expressing an opinion (and one that did him credit), not that he was actually having an imput into who was actually getting nominated. And as we can see three of the four men he mentions did get consideration, while the fourth (TSE) had actually won the award almost a quarter-century earlier.

--John R.

*the same Lewis scholar who authenticated THE DARK TOWER


David Bratman said...

I can't find the e-mail, but somebody commenting on this said that "storytelling", while one of the possible meanings of the Swedish word that Österling used, is not really the best translation in the context. He probably meant something more implicating the prose than the plot, which is a somewhat more understandable criticism.

One comment below the Guardian article online wonders whether Österling's experience of Tolkien came in the Ohlmarks translation, which might not have given him the most accurate impression of Tolkien's authorial skills.

Magister said...

So far Tolkien has racked up three nominations: in 1961, 1967 and 1969. In early 2024 we will know for certain how many he received in total.