“I worked with Tolkien!”

Interviews to two former colleagues of professor Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's place
Tolkien's favourite sitting place at Merton College

Finally I publish on my blog an article I wrote when I had my Phd time in Cardiff and in Oxford, studying JRR Tolkien’s world and sources (one of my former lifes! lol). This text has already been published in Italy and in the Uk by the English Tolkien Society (Marco di Noia, “Best wishes from Thorin and Company! – Following Tolkien’s trails in Oxford” , Amon Hen n.212 – 2008).

Oxford, 24th April 2008 – <<Did I know Tolkien?>> said professor Roger Highfield <<Yes, indeed! I played four-handed Squash with him!>> And the old man’s eyes glittered, as they were switching a light on a far past, a youth, a lifetime spent among busts and togas made of stone, pale spires and coloured coats of arms. <<I knew him very well! He was a very disorganized Sub-Warden!>>, he said, and the walls of the Fellows’ Common Room of Merton College, magically turned into the warm dining room of Bag End, and I was getting ready – like a Hobbit-kid – to listen to my smart necktied Mr. Bilbo Baggins’ stories… But that is only the last part of my tale that started some days before with my coming in Oxford.

I went to the “city of dreaming spires” for collecting useful material for my Phd thesis on Tolkien, with the help of several local professors interested in my research.

My days in Oxford passed intensely, among the XVI century walls and the shelves of the Bodleian Library (the oldest library in the world!), the rooms of St. John’s and Linacre – where the Old Norse culture gurus Carolyne Larrington e Heather O’Donoghue teach – and the halls of Pembroke and Merton, where Tolkien has been a lecturer for 40 years.

I decided to employ my spare time finding material for an article concerning the trails let by Tolkien, during his long life in Oxford. A mission that could seem impossible, considered that almost everything has been written on such a famous author… But in Oxford is different; the city and the University shine of their own light and they don’t owed their fame to a particular writer or professor who lived or worked there. So there’s no such a strong academic interest in investigating the life of such a popular author or creating thematic museums or exhibitions; furthermore a man who was considered by several local professors just a scholar who published very few on his academic subject and owed his notoriety to a bunch of “not so oxonian” books of fairy stories. In Oxford, a lecturer is just a lecturer, and even the fact that he invented a literary genre (the Fantasy, one of those who sell the most nowadays) is not enough to avoid that his former dwellings would be managed, sold or rented like ordinary houses. So, it wasn’t a surprise for me, finding out that Pembroke College, where Tolkien has been a lecturer for 20 years, has no trail of him, neither in the building, nor on the web site and nor in the memory of its actual students or staff, <<Tolkien was lecturer at Pembroke? For 20 years? Really? Cool! I didn’t know it! Did you know it Becky? No? We will ask to the professors!>>.

Mrs. Muriel Henderson

Tolkien lived in Oxford from 1926 to 1973, being away only for 3 years, in Bournemouth from 1968 to 1971, because of the health problems of his wife Edith and because, as professor Malcom Parkes wrote me, she hated Oxford for the snobbery that citizens showed to the low instruction level people.

When he was already famous, Tolkien lived for 15 years at 76 Sandfield Road in Headington, a quite, residential and green district of Oxford, not so easy to reach by the fans, especially 50 years ago when the transport system was not as broad as nowadays.

I reached 76 Sandfield Road in a typical british day, where sprays of fine spring drizzle felt down on the singing birds at roost among the branches of the in bloom trees of the street.

The former Tolkien’s house didn’t distinguish from the others residences of the road for being particularly big or gracious, but only for a plaque made of stone with a dragon, a hill with a hole shaped entrance and a tree on the top, the inscription “The Hill“, the four cardinal points in dwarvish runes and the inscription “J.R.R. Tolkien lived here 1953-1968”. Just out of the dwelling, there were a Land Rover and a Bmw parked.

I knocked on the door, and after few second a 35 years look-like man, in short, slippers, t-shirt and beer belly came.

Tolkien's Sandfield Road house
Tolkien's Sandfield Road house

I asked him whether something belonged to Tolkien remained in the house and how living in the former house of a man of that kind was like: <<The house changed several owners and nothing belonged to Tolkien left, except that plaque over the garage gate…>> the man answered, << How do I feel living in Tolkien’s house? Nothing particular, it’s a house like the others…>> he told me with an irreverent irreverence, and suggested me to try with the front house where a woman who surely met Tolkien lived.

I took his advice and I crossed the street. Near the ring bell I saw two cards with the inscriptions “Attention: we do not buy or sell at this door” and “Please, press bell (underlined) firmly once & wait (underlined)”. But I weren’t there to buy or sell anything, so I followed the instructions and pressed firmly the bell.

After a dozen of seconds, I noticed to be observed by an old lady, who was staring at me behind the curtains of the large living room window.

The woman stepped slowly to the entrance helped by a zimmer frame and opened the door half way. I understood her diffidence and I tried to don’t fright her and make her fell sure with all of the gentle manners I could. Then, little by little, the frail granny with light blue eyes like the robe she wore, kept to be confident and answered my questions. <<Professor Tolkien lived in in front of my house, but my boy, I’m so old now, I don’t remember almost anything…>> she said, <<… he was a gentleman, he was polite and kind… I remember he had chores in the garden… and his wife was a lovely woman, I heard her playing piano…>> she continued, << He didn’t love so much to be bothered by people, and he used to pretend to be not at home… and he had an adorable daughter, what’s her name? I don’t remember it anymore… oh yes, Priscilla! She still lives in Oxford, doesn‘t she?… And he had two other sons, who often came here… but really, my brain is not as good as it was in the past, I’m sorry, I don’t remember anything else… I just remember that her wife was such a lovely person>>. I asked her if she would have liked me to take her a picture for a magazine, and after a tender indecision she accepted: <<A picture? But I’m not so beautiful as I were when I was young now… but if you want you can take it to me while I look at professor Tolkien’s house>>.

At the end, she told me her name was Muriel Henderson, she was 92 years old, the oldest person in Headington.

Oxford at Tolkien‘s time and the parturient student – Interview with professor Courtney Phillips

Julia Walworth, the Merton College librarian, organized for me a private tour through the places of the College, linked someway with Tolkien, who was a Merton professor for more than 20 years. The gentle lady showed me his favourite sitting place along the old city wall overlooking Christ Church meadow, near the Fellows‘ Garden (or Rose Lane), where he used to smoke his pipe looking at the open horizon, the side of the college where he had his office, the Hall in which he read his famous “Valedictory to Oxford University” and two very old trees he surely would have loved: a mulberry, probably from the XVII century and a large chestnut about 200 years old.

After the tour I asked her if anyone who have met Tolkien remained at the College, and she suggested me to contact the “Emeritus Fellow” Courtney Phillips, a retired Chemistry professor. The meeting was arranged for a Thursday morning at the larger of Merton.

At 9.30 o’ clock, came an old, tall, jolly and lively man wearing a gray suit and a pale yellow shirt. He led me into the Fellows’ Common Room, where he invited me to take a seat on one of the snugs and soft armchairs of the wide and elegant hall, where in the middle was a table with newspapers and magazines strayed over. When we both sit, professor Phillips kept talking about the changes happened at Oxford University from Tolkien’s time to nowadays: <<Since the time he was here, University changed quite a lot>> he said, <<I mean, when I first came here the University was very strict, you weren’t allowed to go to a pub house and drink beer if you were an undergraduate, even if you had just come back from the War. All colleges were all men or all women, there were 35 colleges, 5 female colleges and 30 male colleges; while now all the colleges, with possibly one exception, take men and women, so the number of men and women is quite equal. In those days all colleges but one took undergraduates, now there many other colleges like St. Cross’ or Linacre who don’t take undergraduates>>.

He told me and continued his speech <<Nowadays the title of Professor is different. When Tolkien was here, there was one professor for each subject or, in big subject like English, there were more than one. Today a lot of people are called professor, quite like the American standards, where everybody is called professor. In Tolkien’s days if you were “Professor“, you were the only person in that subject in Oxford. And if you were professor in a Science subject, you had also to run the department, but if you were professor in English, as Tolkien was, you had nothing to do except lectures>>.

Merton College
Merton College

Than professor Phillips keep talking about the college system and its paradoxes: << Now, Oxford and Cambridge and I think Durham, have got an unusual college system: there’s a number of completely independent colleges that are joint together to form the University, and some of the colleges are richer than University. St. John’s, for example, is the richest college, it has a worth of about 300 millions. We are about the fifth richest college and we have lands over the country, farm lands, and a lot of money invested… and all that belong to the College and not to the University. Hence some colleges are rich and other are poor, and some of the richest colleges, as the Merton, use to help the poorest colleges.

As a matter of facts, the degree is given by the Oxford University and not by the colleges, but most people tend to consider the colleges as their home and when they die or they just want to leave money, they tend to leave it to the College and not to University who has given them they degree. And so the University is in a very critical position. >> he said.

<<Each college is run by a governing body who consist by certain fellows>> he kept going, <<and they are supposed to be ruled by the Head of the College, that sometime could be called Master, Warden or President. As the matter of fact, the Head of the College doesn’t run the College, and many people who has come to Oxford, they felt disappointed because they come to be the Head of such college and they have found that they have not a real power, because if they want to do something, maybe the Fellows say no because they want something else. Anyway the Head of the College could have a big deal of power if he uses wisely>>, he said smiling and rested for a while.

He started talking again: <<So as long as Tolkien was professor, holder of the chair of English he was a Fellow of Merton>> he told me, <<and he had the right to be involved in everything the College did… Thus, he could propose the College to do something but he never did… when he was called to do something he always did it, but he never acted, for example, for trying to make the College have women or changing the garden or something like that>>. Than he stopped, scowled and talk again: <<He was quite a competent lecture, but not outstanding. I mean, he had a typical audience between 20 and 40 people… and a very outstanding lecture may have 200 students, while a very bad lecture would have 5. He was in the middle>>.

<< In 1945 I was an undergraduate at Merton and I became a Fellow in 1948, so I knew Tolkien really well>> he said, <<I never was a very close friend of him because we belong to very different fields and we didn’t have very much in common, anyway he was always a very agreeable, approachable and easy to talking to and although he was a “grand” man he never said ”he’s just a chemistry I have nothing in common with him, I don’t want he bothers me” but he was always a very agreeable man>>.

<<He was very difficult to understand because he came very close to you to talk and he tended to spit a bit during his talking>>. He laughed and kept going: <<I played four-handed Squash with him, he liked it very much, even if he wasn’t particularly good, just like me, someone in the middle>>.

<<When I knew Tolkien he was always run short of money>> said professor Phillips, <<he wasn’t poor but he has to be careful… he liked to smoke his pipes, to drink beer – even if I never saw him drunk, he was very often quite merry – and when he became famous the millions came but he was old and he had to leave all to his children, he hasn’t benefits very much>>. He said and laughed.

<<He was a little bit misogynist>> he told me serious, <<he didn’t seem to like the women very much, I remember he told me once that when the College kept to accept women he gave a lecture and there was a woman who was attending his lecture and she begin to give birth at the end of his lecture! Therefore all the other women left the room scared and so Tolkien and the other men had to help her giving birth!>>. He said guffawing.

<<When he was professor, he spent a lot of time in writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings>> he continued, <<and the people of his subject criticized him because they thought these kind of works were not properly academic works, and being “the Professor” he had to work more on Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the green knight and not wasting his time on fairy stories.. and he was in fact a great anglo-saxon scholar! He was very interested in place name… I remember there is a place near Oxford called Moreton in Marsh, and a lot of people said Moreton in the Marsh because there was a famous radio program called Much binding in the marsh, and Tolkien was very careful to point out that “in” was an old word for “hen”, and that means that in the marsh there were a lot of birds and so it was Moreton In Marsh and not Moreton in the Marsh!>>.

As he told me that Tolkien was always run off money, I asked him whether being a professor in Oxford was a well remunerate profession, and if the success of The Lord of the Rings had changed him towards the other Fellows and vice versa: <<Professors was paid by the University with a standard professor salary, the only advantages they could have by the College was to have meal, or ask for an office or a flat in there… of course, as richer was the College and as comfortable were the flats, the offices or the meals, but there weren’t other particular benefits>> he told me and keep going answering to my second question, << than, he was a very ordinary person, he wasn’t changed by the success of The Lord of the Rings. Yes, people very often, like yourself, come to meet the “great” Tolkien, and they were told where his room was… and someone from New Mexico or South America would come and told him “my life had been changed by  reading your books“… but he remained just an ordinary person>> he said enjoyed, << I remember I made a canoe and I was taught by a man who was very expert in making canoes. That man was a very ordinary sort of chap but the College had to win the University Canoe Championship so they had a special dinner for him. So when he came here they sat him down next to Tolkien and he said “Is he “that” Tolkien??”, he couldn’t believe it!>>.

<< Anyway In Oxford at 67 years old you are automatically retired, not like in the American universities where you can go on until you are very old>> he told me sarcastic, <<But when his wife died, the Merton invited him to come living at the College, but just because he was a relaxed chap, not because he was famous>>.

I asked professor Phillips if he had read any Tolkien’s book and if he ever talked with him about that: << Yes, I started to read something but I couldn’t finish it. On the other hand, my son like them very much and he has a copy of the Lord of the Rings, signed by him>> he said, << … however Tolkien never talked about his stories. He made a world his own but that it was in his own head and in the head of his son Christopher… they worked out very much together, they spoke in special languages, they produced a logic and so on, but I knew nothing about this, and I think most of the Fellows knew nothing about this, it was a private interest. He never talked about The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings at dinner or anything like that, even if he was very interested about it>> he said.

So I asked him if he has ever been at Tolkien’s house: <<No, I haven’t. He didn’t ask many people to come having dinner with him or something, he was perfectly a cheer person in College, but he liked to keep his private life to himself… he was a very friend of people like CS Lewis, they use to go drinking together in The Eagle and Child pub, but a part of that he was normally sociable but not aggressively>>.

Thus, I pushed him to talk about CS Lewis, and I asked him about a gossip heard in Oxford for who Tolkien and Lewis had a pub crawl together when they went in Ireland as academic examiners: <<I knew Lewis as well, I meet him a couple of time… I remember that when I had a professorship in California, I used to go to the local Church, and the pastor there used to talk of God, Muslim and CS Lewis in the same sermon!>> he answered, <<than, a Tolkien and Lewis’ pub crawl in Ireland?… Yes, it could easily be, they were great friends he, Lewis and Hugo Dyson… even if Dyson was very talkative but not very clever, while Tolkien and Lewis indeed were very clever… I mean, Dyson was a tutor in English here… he was a nice chap, he talked a great deal but never said anything really important>>.

Professor Phillips had just finished to tell his story, when the fate decided to smile on me another time. The door of the Common Room opened and… <<Good morning Roger! This chap is here to write an article on Tolkien… you remember him, do you?>>.

<<Very well, yes!>> the other replied, <<I played four-handed Squash with him! He was a very disorganized Sub-Warden!>>.

Roger Highfield and Courtney Phillips
Professors Roger Highfield and Courtney Phillips

We know you have the manuscript of The Hobbit. Give it back!!! – Interview with professor Roger Highfield

Thus, another Emeritus Fellow of Merton College joined the Common Room and our story too. Professor Roger Highfield was a 85 years old man – 2 years older than professor Phillips – that once was the historian and librarian of the College. He slowly entered in the room, walking with a zimmer frame, thence he took a newspaper from the table and sit down on an armchair: <<He was a very disorganized Sub-Warden!>> he kept telling, <<Sub-Warden is the person who produced the paper for the Fellows meetings and so on. We had to change Sub-Warden every two years and the tasks passed one to another. When he hold that title, he used to come to the meeting room with an armful of papers and trough it on the desk. He was an engaging Sub-Warden but not very efficient one… I mean, it didn’t work very well, but he did all his best>>.


Then he rested, thought for a while and said: <<He was a very charming Common Room member, and when we had a guest we asked him if he was glad to be sit next Tolkien…>>.

<<Than, I remember he spoke indistinctly, it was very hard to understand what he was saying…>> he said, <<He believed in Norman literature, Norman sagas… he thought nothing about Spain or Italy, he believed in Iceland, Norway, Vikings and Sagas…>>.

Professor Highfield seemed to know Tolkien very well, so I asked him about the religious faith of the author: <<He was a roman catholic, he took a great interest when Opus Dei tried to get in Oxford>> he said, <<Oxford is on the frontier between two major catholic diases: Birmingham and Portsmouth. So, the religious organization called Opus Dei wanted to establish at University, thinking to be influential. But the catholic chaplains of Oxford didn’t want the Opus Dei come and they tried to persuade the Catholic Bishop of Birmingham not to allow them the licences… However the Opus Dei approached the Bishop of Portsmouth and established itself just on the other side of the bridge… and this is the sort of things the Tolkien took a great interest indeed, in catholic chaplains of the University… He wasn’t interested in College affairs… well, he was interested in getting on with his books… and I remember this thing because I used to go having lunch with him and his wife in their house in Sanfield Road and the garage was his study for getting on with his books…>>. He said laughing.

So I asked him if he reminds any particular funny anecdote: <<Yes, sure! I remember more than one! …His wife had some problems who restricted her movement and a certain time they went to live in Bournemouth in hotel called Miramar. Than she died and so he came back in the College late in life, and we fixed him up with a flat in Merton Street and somebody who looked after him. And he came regularly to here, and he was an excellent Common Room member.>> he said, <<Because at that time I was his librarian, once he came to me and said “I want to leave to the College Library something of mine, would you like the manuscript of The Hobbit??”, “Certain – I said – nothing would it keep me a greater pleasure, so go on!” I went into his room and he took an enormous amount of paper bound in parcel paper and I said “I’ll put it in the safe, because this is very valuable thing!”. But about a month later he came back and asked me “Do you still have that parcel I gave you… because I don’t think it contains the manuscript of The Hobbit, I reckon it contains part of the Silmarillion! Could I have it back again?”>>. Me and professor Phillips kept laughing, and after few seconds, professor Highfield talked again: <<So I gave it back, of course, I could do nothing else…and he still had that thing when he died, and, of course, there was nothing in the Library, not the manuscript of The Hobbit or The Silmarillion… but after he died, I got a letter of his lawyer who said “I understand you have the manuscript of The Hobbit. You must give it back!”… and we had to demonstrate for a week that we hadn’t got it never… So when I told that story to the professor of English Literature of that time, Norman Davis, that was a great friend of Tolkien, he said “I will give you for the Library the first edition of The Hobbit with the inscription in Tolkien’s hand, that he would gave it to me in runes”… and in the Library we do have it. Did you already see it?>>. And because I did knew nothing about it, the kind professor Phillips went to inform about the possibility of take me to see it.

In the meanwhile professor Highfield kept to tell me another of his stories: <<He was a fan of Flanders and Swann, a singing duo of the radio very popular at that time>> he said <<…and Tolkien collected their songs and when he had the birthday he invited Flanders and Swann to come at the College. So we brought our opera piano up in the new Common Room and Flanders and Swann played it and sung their songs. I thought it was a charming episode. He very much enjoyed the light-hearted lyrics of Flanders and Swann>>.

So, I asked him about the critics Tolkien got as an academic and which was his reaction to those: <<He published very little. It was criticized but it said nothing… he was busy with The Lord of the Rings!>> he ironically said, <<In the English Faculty people told him he should write on English language… but of course, in his garage of Sandfield Road he was writing The Lord of the Rings!>>.

JRR Tolkien
JRR Tolkien

After that, professor Phillips came back to the Common Room, saying gaily: <<In a quarter, they will show you the book! So follow me, a person waits for you in the larger!>>. Hence, I say hallo to professor Highfield who greeted me, trying to talk me in Italian: <<Arrivederci! C’era un tempo in cui potevo parlare italiano!* I’ve been in Italia for two years during the War, from Taranto to Trieste!!>>, than I followed professor Phillips to the larger.  *[<<Goodbye! There was a time I could speak Italian!>>]

He greeted me there, put his headgear on his head, and went away riding his bicycle, 83 years old… the Roman said “mens sana in corpore sano*“! [*“A healthy brain in a healthy body”]

After some minutes, Julia Walworth came back to me and took me to the Library, than she went in the security chamber, came back with a book, and she put it in my hands. It was a first copy of The Hobbit (the one with green forests and blue and black mountains on the cover). Inside on the frontispiece, there was the pencil inscriptions: “Norman Davis from JRR Tolkien” and in dwarvish runes “Best wishes from Thorin and Company”.


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