Friday, October 15, 2021

A Failed Meme re. Tolkien

So, there's a meme going around lately that's punchy but fails in the facts department. Usually I give such stuff a pass, but this one offers a good example of fact rearranged to make a better fiction.

Here's the post that's making the rounds:


First of all, I'd like to point out that Tolkien didn't have an editor on LotR. As a result, he had control of the text to an extraordinary degree, even over minutia like the spelling of dwarves. His argument here was with the typesetters at the printer, not with his publisher.

Nor was FELLOWSHIP rejected by an editor: this mis-statement is a mash-up of the complicated maneuverings* whereby Tolkien essentially engineered Allen & Unwin's withdrawal in order that he could to submit it to Collins instead -- who promptly dropped the ball, leading Tolkien to go back to Allen & Unwin instead.

It was the Puffin Books edition of THE HOBBIT that upset Tolkien by changing his text without his permission, especially since he only discovered what they'd done after the book was in print and on store shelves. As a result he refused to allow Puffin to reprint their edition, something they were eager to do.

A&U did irk JRRT when their printer made the same sort of changes with the first volume of LotR, but Tolkien insisted they use his preferred spellings and got this set right (see below).

Here's how Humphrey Carpenter, author of the authorized biography of JRRT, describes it:

He was . . . infuriated by his first sight of the proofs, 

for he found that the printers had changed several of his spellings,

 altering dwarves to dwarfs, elvish to elfish, further to farther

and ('worst of all' said Tolkien) elvin to elfin. The printers

 were reproved; they said in self-defence that they had merely

 followed the dictionary spellings. (Similar 'corrections' to 

Tolkien's spellings were made in 1961 when Puffin Books 

issued The Hobbit as a paperback, and this time to Tolkien's 

distress the mistake was not discovered until the book had

 reached the shops.) 

 [Carpenter, TOLKIEN: A BIOGRAPHY, page 221]

As for the OED,  I've heard this little quip before. I think it comes from an interview or memoir but cd not trace its source in time to include it in this post. Tolkien did work on the OED at the beginning of his career but he actually worked on the final sections --e.g words like walrus (W) not dwarves (D).

So, a fun little story but not exactly what happened. 

--John R. 

*essentially Tolkien wanted a publisher to commit to publishing LotR and THE SILMARILLION together as a two-volume set, when what the publishers wanted was LotR (which was actually finished, though still in need of a lot of work) with a future option on Silm (which was still far from finished).

UPDATE Oct 18th: and here's what I hope is a better link --JDR


Paul W said...

Thank you so much for posting this! The image seems to have trouble loading at the moment, but this is precisely the sort of fact-based response i was hoping for!

Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles said...

The origin to the "I wrote the OED!" part of this horrible meme might be this New York Times article:

I can't remember reading that in THE REMEMBRANCER so this article might be, indeed, the only place where Unwin has said this.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Marcel
I think you've certainly traced the quote to its root. Well done.

For those without access to the 1977 piece, here's what it quotes Rayner as saying:

“He was a very great philologist, and he knew precisely the way he wanted to say things. In a sense, I was more his correspondent than his editor during ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ His spellings could be eccentric‐his plural of dwarf was dwarves, for example. Once a printer corrected all his so‐called misspellings. Tolkien was furious. The printer then quoted as his authority the Oxford English Dictionary. And Tolkien responded, ‘Why, I wrote the O.E.D.!’ As a matter of fact, he had worked on it early in his career.”

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Marcel

Thanks to your clue about Unwin's book I've now been able to track down the source. Rayner recounts the Puffin dwarves/dwarfs incident then follows up with

"There is a possibly apocryphal anecdote attached to this incident. Puffin's printers rashly defended their action by quoting The Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien, with lordly exaggeration, replied 'I wrote the Oxford English DIctionary.' "

Rayner Unwin, GEORGE ALLEN & UNWIN: A REMEMBRANCER (Merlin Unwin Books, 1999), page 111).

Note that Rayner does not claim to have heard or read Tolkien say this but passes it along as a good story told of him at the time.

--John R.