As ever, dear readers, welcome.
In the March 22, 1968 issue of The Daily Telegraph Magazine, you will find an interview with Tolkien.
It’s not a very good piece—being very much of its time: surface-y and obviously desperate to sound “hip”–but with a few interesting quotations from JRRT. (Here’s a reprint from a later issue—2015–so that you can read it and judge for yourself: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/tolkien-interview-its-easier-to-film-the-odyssey/ ) What I find much more interesting are Tolkien’s original comments on the draft of the interview, which you will find on pages 372-378 of Carpenter’s The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.
It’s clear from Tolkien’s comments that in 1967, when the interview was conducted, he was not a happy man. As he says, referring to his current home, but easily read as a broader statement:
“I am caught here in acute discomfort; but the dislocation of a removal and the rearrangement of my effects cannot be contemplated, until I have completed my contracted work. When and if I do so, if I am still in health, I hope to go away to an address that will appear in no directory or reference book.” (Letters, 373)
Among those comments is this:
“I read quite a lot—or more truly, try to read many books…But I seldom find any modern books that hold my attention.”
To which he added this footnote:
“Above these [other works], I was recently deeply engaged in the books of Mary Renault; especially the two about Theseus, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea.”
Mary Renault (1905-1983),
who was actually Eileen Mary Challans, was originally a writer of contemporary fiction, but who, from 1956 to 1981, produced a series of historical novels set in the classical Greek past, both mythical, as in the two books mentioned by Tolkien, and historical, with volumes in which Socrates, Plato, the 6th-century poet Simonides, and Alexander the Great appear.
Although I enjoy them all, my personal favorites of these are The Mask of Apollo (1966),
which recreates the world of early Greek drama, and The Praise Singer (1978),
which follows the life of the ancient Greek poet, Simonides of Keos (c.556-468BC).
Historical novels in English literature might be said to stretch all the way back to writers like Thomas Malory (c.1415-1471), with La Morte d’Arthur,
(This is a page from Caxton’s original edition of 1485)
or maybe to Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797)
(with his crazily wonderful “castle”, Strawberry Hill, in the background)
pre-Romantic “gothic story” of The Castle of Otranto (1764),
but perhaps a firmer claim might be that of Jane Porter (1776-1850)’s
extremely popular novel of 1810, The Scottish Chiefs about the life of the Scottish independence fighter, William Wallace (c1270-1305), a caricatured version of which appears in M Gibson’s Braveheart. (If you’re a fan of this movie, I apologize for what I hope is unaccustomed harshness, but the actual Wallace was a southern Scottish knight, who didn’t wear kilts or paint his face blue and would have been very surprised to see himself so depicted.)
(the first American edition of 1812)
And I can’t resist adding the 1921 edition,
with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), for those very illustrations. Here are the endpapers, just to give you an idea–
Here’s the LINK so that you can own your own copy: https://archive.org/details/scottishchiefs00port/page/n3/mode/2up
As the Porter novel was published in 1810, it actually pre-dated Sir Walter Scott’s (1771-1832)
1814 novel, Waverley,
with its complex and dramatic story of the last Jacobite rebellion of 1745-46,
although I would bet that Scott, probably now not read outside specialty English courses, is, at present, the better-known.
Scott’s succeeding historical novels, in fact, seemed to have opened the proverbial flood gates, even inspiring beginning authors from across the ocean as, only seven years after Waverley, James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851),
produced the first successful American historical novel, The Spy, set during the American Revolution,
beginning a career which would make him wealthy and well-known, not only in the US, but in Europe, as well.
And, beyond Cooper, there was a full century of historical fiction, including authors like George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a host of people who are now only names, at best.
(For an interesting, but too short, piece on the multitude of such authors, see: https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199799558/obo-9780199799558-0098.xml )
With the 20th century, the number of books set in the past—whether Robert Graves’ Julio-Claudian Rome or Kenneth Roberts’ 18th-century America, among nearly-countless others, can appear quite overwhelming and this leads me back to Tolkien’s quotation: “I read quite a lot—or more truly, try to read many books…But I seldom find any modern books that hold my attention.”
His explanation for this combines being “under ‘inner’ pressure to complete my own work—and because [as he states in the interview] ‘I am looking for something I can’t find.’ “
And yet he could be “deeply engaged in the books of Mary Renault”.
He provides no explanation for this. We might guess that in the two Theseus novels, Renault depicts a troubled hero in a world of myth and speculate about Frodo as another such figure, but, that is just that, a guess.
And yet there is one more bit of the Tolkien quotation which I haven’t cited.
In the interview published in 1968, there is this:
“Any hobbit would trust this man, any dragon quail before him, any elf name him friend. Effortlessly, he compels you to admire as much as–and herein lies his charm–he clearly admires himself.”
In his comments on the manuscript draft of the interview, just after his mentioning his engagement with novels by Renault, Tolkien adds:
“A few days ago I actually received a card of appreciation from her; perhaps the piece of ‘Fan-mail’ that gives me most pleasure.”
Might we say that, along with the solid literary pleasure of The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, there was the added pleasure that he was admiring the work of someone who admired his work?
Thanks for reading, as always.
Remember that you, too, are in history,
And know that, as ever, there’s