Meeting Professor Tolkien

I FIRST MET J. R. R. TOLKIEN late on the afternoon of September 1, 1964. His fame was then rapidly on the rise and he had been forced to escape his public whenever he could. Visitors were more or less constantly at his door and his telephone busy. Phone callers from the United States sometimes forgot the time differential and would get him out of bed at two or three o'clock in the morning. He was paying the price of sudden emergence from the relative obscurity of a professional scholar to the glare of publicity accorded to any internationally known writer.

Close encounter

With great hopes and some fears I walked to 76 Sanfield Road, opened the gate, nervously approached his door and rang the bell. I waited what seemed to me a very long time and was on the point of a reluctant departure when the door opened and there stood the man himself. Tolkien matter-of-factly invited me inside.... We went into his downstairs office, remodeled from a garage. Possessing no automobile, he was then using taxis for errands to Oxford, two miles away, and elsewhere. This little office was pretty well filled up with a desk, a couple of chairs, and bookcases along the walls.

After his sober greeting at the door, I found him immediately friendly as we sat down. Tolkien was a most genial man with a steady twinkle in his eyes and a great curiosity—the sort of person one instinctively likes.

I briefly explained who I was and told him that, like thousands of others, I had come to love his great story and regard it as something of a classic. He laughed at the idea of being a classical author while still alive, but I think he was pleased. He then became a bit apologetic and explained that people sometimes regarded him as a man living in a dream world. This was wholly untrue, he insisted, and described himself as a busy philologist and an ordinary citizen interested in everyday things like anybody else.

He told me, surprisingly, that he and his good friend C. S. Lewis had long before agreed to do narratives dealing with space and time. Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra and thus fulfilled his part of the plan to write on space, but Tolkien said he had never embarked on a story about time.

Second impressions

To my surprise, at the end of our brief visit, Tolkien warmly invited me back for the morning of September 4, the day before I was to fly home to the U.S. At that time Mrs. Tolkien greeted me at the door and showed me upstairs to her husband’s main office, a room crowded with a large desk, a rotating bookcase, wall bookcases, and a cot. I was received like a longtime friend.

While he talked he stood up and walked about or else sat on his cot. Like C. S. Lewis, when I visited him some years earlier, Tolkien continually fiddled with his pipe but actually smoked little. As his talk grew in enthusiasm, he would sometimes come very close to me and put his face almost against mine, as though to make sure the point of some remark was completely understood. One had the feeling that he had thought considerably about whatever opinion he was expressing and simply wanted to state it accurately.

A deep-rooted faith

I do not recall a single visit I made to Tolkien’s home in which the conversation did not at some point fall easily into a discussion of religion, or rather Christianity. He told me that he had many times been given a story as an answer to prayer. Mrs. Tolkien joined him in remarking that one of their children had been cured, as they firmly believed, of a heart ailment, through prayer. He commonly referred to Christ as “our Lord” and was much upset when he heard others address God as though He were the Lord Mayor.

Tolkien did indeed have a special reverence for the Virgin Mary. One of his observations was that she must have jealously guarded her pregnancy since had it been discovered Mary would either have been stoned as an adulteress or, if she had tried to explain, stoned for blasphemy.

He was moved by the degradation of the birth of Christ in a stable with its filth and manure and saw it as a symbol of the real nature of holy things in a fallen world. He spoke of his special regard for the book of Luke because that writer included so much about women.

He believed that creativity itself is a gift of God. After years of teaching aesthetics, I cannot but conclude that the whole of that difficult subject is comprehended in a single line from Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories": "we make still by the law in which we're made.”

The Secret Fire of Middle-earth

Responding to a letter from Father Robert Murray suggesting Tolkien’s story impressed him as entirely about grace, Tolkien wrote: “I know exactly what you mean by the order of grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first but consciously in the revision. I . . . have cut out practically all references to anything like 'religion,’ to cults and practices in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. However that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. I should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up since I was eight in a faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know... “

Professor Tolkien talked to me at some length about the use of the word “holy” in The Silmarillion. Very specifically he told me that the “Secret Fire sent to burn at the heart of the World” in the beginning was the Holy Spirit.

He described his problem in depicting the fall of mankind near the beginning of the story. “How far we have fallen!” he exclaimed—so far, he felt, that it would seem impossible even to find an adequate prototype or to imagine the contrast between Eden and the disaster which followed.

Kilby’s first visit to Tolkien took place in Fall 1964. After returning to the U.S., Kilby wrote to Tolkien, offering to come to Oxford to help him put into publishable form the many scattered manuscripts treating the early history of Middle-earth.

Tolkien gratefully accepted Kilby’s offer, and Kilby spent the summer of 1966 in Tolkien’s company. In the end, the publishing of Middle-earth’s early history would await the labors of Tolkien’s son, Christopher (The Silmarillion was published in 1977, four years after Tolkien’s death). But Kilby gained rare insights into Tolkien’s character, which he gathered and published in the book from which these excerpts are quoted with permission: Tolkien and the Silmarillion. (Harold Shaw, 1976; now copyright 2003, The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Illinois).

Permission to quote from Tolkien and the Silmarillion, by Clyde S. Kilby, granted by The Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

By Clyde S. Kilby

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #78 in 2003]

Clyde S. Kilby was a Wheaton College (IL) professor who, in 1965, established at that college a center for the study of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Later named after a benefactor, the Marion E. Wade Center houses a major collection of the books, papers, photographs, and mementos of these writers, including such items as Lewis’s family wardrobe and Tolkien’s desk.
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