Merton Tolkien Symposium

Here is your humble Editor‘s contribution to the Anniversary issue: a report on Merton College’s symposium on Tolkien last year.

On Tuesday of 6th Week of Michaelmas Term, Merton held an all-day symposium of lectures entitled “Tolkien in Oxford” as part of its 750th anniversary celebrations. Unfortunately, most of us weren’t able to attend due to the Tuesday daytime slot, but I managed to avoid labs that day to attend the event. Speakers included John Garth and Stuart Lee, both of whom have recently spoken to Taruithorn.

Arriving in Merton’s lecture theatre in Rose Lane, I was pleasantly surprised to meet one of our newer members, and find that I wasn’t the entire Taruithorn presence. After standing around awkwardly for a few brief moments, attendees were invited to take our seats, and proceedings began. A brief safety talk by Merton’s Fellow-Librarian was followed by a welcome speech by Sir Martin Taylor, the Warden of Merton College. As one would expect, he made much of the link between Tolkien and Merton, even somewhat facetiously extending the Merton connection to include Tolkien’s childhood schools – King Edward’s because its current headmaster is a Mertonian, and the Birmingham Oratory because of its foundation by Cardinal Newman, an alumnus of an Oxford Hall later subsumed by Merton. He then shared with us tidbits from the King Edward’s archive, retrieved for him by the aforementioned headmaster, including that Tolkien once advocated the return of the stocks as a punishment in a school debate, stating that it would “benefit the greengrocers’ trade!”

Hwæt!” began the first speech of the day, just as Tolkien’s Beowulf lectures used to. This, along with the rest of the first eleven lines of Beowulf, were delivered from memory by Professor Andy Orchard, the current holder of the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon – Tolkien’s old post at Pembroke – who lectures in the English department on Old English literature and Medieval Latin. After completing his recital, and reading us Tolkien’s translation of the passage, he pointed us to the first few pages of our handouts, containing a formidable list of all the lecture series Tolkien gave during his twenty-year stint in that professorship – in some terms he did six lectures per week. We were also asked to notice the considerable number of Old Norse and Philology lectures that Tolkien gave – which weren’t his job to do!

The main body of Professor Orchard’s talk took us through Tolkien’s teaching while in Oxford, with illustrations from the segments of Tolkien’s library still present in various Oxford Libraries. We were shown the breadth of his personal linguistic reading – not only Old English and Norse, but also Faroese and Gothic, Welsh, Irish, Breton, Scottish Gaelic, and much more. He also drew our attention to some cryptic text Tolkien had written in the in the front of an Irish book that he acquired as an undergraduate: “AMDG” and “EMB”. AMDG, he told us, stands for ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the motto of the Jesuits – a reference to Father Francis Morgan, Tolkien’s guardian from the time of his mother’s death to his majority. In “EMB”, the ‘M’ was noticeably in the shape of a heart, the ‘M’ standing, of course, for the Mary in Edith Mary Bratt, Tolkien’s early love and future wife whom he was forbidden to contact at the time.

Professor Orchard finished his talk with a riddle: “What have I got in my pocket?” The answer was a personal treasure of his, a torn-off bit of paper that he found tucked inside an Old Norse book while an undergraduate at Exeter College in the eighties. On it was written some Old Norse saying, roughly, “All the Coalbiters should visit C. S. Lewis’s home Magdalen on Odin’s Day, November 20th, to read Helgakviða Hundingsbana I”. The note, which does seem to be in Lewis’s handwriting, appears to be an invitation by him to the Coalbiters, Tolkien’s little Norse sagas reading club. Looking for years in which the 20th of November fell on a Wednesday, Professor Orchard dated it to 1929, and found corroborating evidence in the form of a letter by Lewis referring to a Coalbiters meeting on that day. The Exeter Librarian of the time, he said, let him keep it because it was “written in foreign”. He then closed his lecture with a few lines of Old English from Beowulf’s funeral.

Now, I’ve been going to Professor Orchard’s Beowulf lectures this term, and I feel I should mention that in the lecture the next morning, when comparing characters in Beowulf to those in a Norse saga, he looked at me and said “just for my Tolkien friend in the audience,” this character was also described as a Kólbitr, and then proceeded to explain what the Coalbiters club was and why they were called that. I felt special…

The next lecture was by Dr Elizabeth Solopova of Brasenose, also a lecturer in the English department in mediaeval literature and the history of the book, an co-author with Stuart Lee of The Keys of Middle Earth, speaking on the subject “Tolkien and Names”. Now, I must confess that while the preceding section of this article was written a few days after the event, I then proceeded to foolishly forget about this article for about four months, and only remembered it now that the Miruvor submissions deadline approaches. I therefore apologise for any noticeable decline in the article’s quality hence noticeable, as I’m now working purely from my rather illegible and disjointed notes from the lectures…

Dr Solopova began her talk with a Tolkien quote: “To me a name comes first, the story later”, and with this launched into an examination of the roles of names in mythology and mediaeval literature.  Observing that in the Icelandic prose sagas, the place-names and personal names are usually given with great precision even for minor characters and locations, that these works will give names even when strictly unnecessary for plot or story. Specifically mentioning that editions of such works often include genealogies, indices of personal and place names, even maps, she drew the obvious link with Tolkien’s work. Dr Solopova presented that our evaluation of the role of these details depends on our interpretation of the identity of these works –  ancient literature and Tolkien’s work. She suggests that the extent to which mythological tales were seen as history as well as (or instead of) as fiction presents an explanation for the inclusion of such details –  they have intrinsic worth outside their contribution to the narrative since we’re learning about the world in that time and place, and this is what Tolkien was trying to carry out in his tales. In fact, she tells us that Tolkien once commented that some of his fans wrote to him as if his stories were real and he was misinterpreting them!

Later in her talk, Dr Solopova pointed out many interesting examples of etymologies of Tolkien place-names and people-names, especially those of the Rohirrim, which, being rendered in Anglo-Saxon, were close to her specialism. For example, she drew our attention to the names of the royal house of Rohan – Théoden, Thengel, Théodwyn &c. – which alliterate, as did the names of Anglo-Saxon royals.

I found that, as well as the talk itself, the questions from the audience after Dr Solopova’s talk raised many interesting points. One questioner, for example, pointed out the importance of nameless things in Tolkien’s work, giving the example of the Mouth of Sauron who has “forgotten his own name”, as well as the Ringwraiths –  for whom the loss of their names can be seen as showing how utterly they have given themselves up.
After Dr Solopova’s lecture (and a break for lunch), we heard briefly from Sir Rick Trainor, the Rector of Exeter College. He told us of an occasion when, as an undergraduate at Merton in the seventies, he once met Tolkien when invited into the SCR, but their only conversation was on the subject of the American elections at the time, on which the Rector gave predictions that turned out entirely false. The Rector (who is American) is thus a little disappointed that Tolkien’s only memory of him would be as the student who didn’t know the politics of his own country…

Sir Rick was followed by a brief introduction from Dr Catherine Parker, the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian, from whom I would have liked to hear more. She introduced the third speaker of the day, John Garth, speaking on Tolkien’s inspirations in a lecture entitled “100 years on: how Tolkien came to the brink of Middle-Earth”. A specialist in Tolkien’s undergraduate years (he recently wrote a short volume entitled “Tolkien at Exeter College” to tie in with Exeter’s 700th Anniversary celebrations), Mr Garth took us chronologically through this phase of Tolkien’s life identifying particular inspirations and his creative process, while frequently diverting to show us interesting etymological links and short anecdotes. He began his talk by mentioning Crist II, the Anglo-Saxon poem which inspired Tolkien’s first identifiable published Middle-Earth work, the poem The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star, which notably contains a reference to the character earendel. He used Exeter College’s records of Tolkien’s library borrowings during his time as an undergraduate to illustrate his interests during this period – among interesting observations were that during the first year of his degree, Tolkien borrowed only one Classics book!

Mr Garth discussed the Notion Club Papers, Tolkien’s abandoned time-travel novel featuring a fictionalised version of the Inklings, in which Tolkien’s analogue, one Alwin Arundel Lowdham, presents to the other members of the club his extraordinarily detailed dreams about Atlantis, Middle-Earth’s Númenor. In the name of this character, Mr Garth showed us that Alwin is a modernisation of Ælfwine (Elendil in Quenya), “elf-friend”, that is the name of Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon traveller to Eressëa through whom the Silmarillion tales are first recounted. Arundel meanwhile is an Anglicisation of Eärendil – here and in many other cases Mr Garth showed us the etymological references and links that Tolkien’s works contain, illustrating in many cases Tolkien’s wish to, through his narratives, create a world that might have given rise to the divergent literary traditions he studied. All these small insights were framed by the narrative of Tolkien’s undergraduate life – we were told the story of his coming up to Oxford, his discovery of Finnish, the switch to studying Classics and his winning back of Edith soon after his 21st birthday. Several biographical were present that were less familiar to me – for example we learned about an experience briefly before Tolkien’s Mods in Classics, when one of his neighbours on his staircase shot himself in his room.

After finishing relating the development of the character of Túrin drawing on those of Sigurd and Kullervo from Norse and Finnish traditions, Mr Garth ended his talk with Frodo’s words to activate Eärendil’s Light and the line from Cynewulf’s Crist II that started it all: Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima and eala earendel engla beorhtast – the one in Quenya, the other in Old English.

Speaking after Mr Garth was Edmund Weiner, the Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Fellow of Kellogg College, and professional philologist, co-author of the book The Ring of Words – J.R.R. Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Mr Weiner’s talk illustrated Tolkien’s contributions to the OED and his use of language in his published works, focussing on three words: wan, dim, and pale. Tolkien’s contributions to the OED focussed on the letter W, and Mr Weiner was able to use as a source (and show us as a scan) Tolkien’s handwritten dictionary card for the word wan.

Of Tolkien’s six meanings listed on the card, three were listed as extinct, and three in present use – the most recent as meaning faint, dull, pale, an older meaning pallid or sickly of a face, and one meaning dark or gloomy, specifically of the sea, this preserving a much older, more general Old English meaning. Mr Weiner identified the diminution of light as the common quantity linking the two seemingly contradictory meanings dark and pale – the development of the latter into the former would appear at first to be a reversal of meaning. We were shown that one of the examples Tolkien’s entry cites for the Old English meaning dark or gloomy, and which he identifies as usually used in an ominous sense, is from Grendel’s approach to Heorot in Beowulf, and yet Tolkien’s own recently-published Beowulf translation into modern English does not use wan here, nor in the four other places where it occurs in the Old English text.

Mr Weiner then investigated Tolkien’s use of these words in his fiction, giving us many fascinating example of their usage and occurrence. It seems that Tolkien used these three words almost twenty times as often as they commonly appeared  in English at the time. Mr Weiner noted to us that Tolkien frequently used wan in the Silmarillion, the Lay of Leithian, his translation of Pearl, and other works, while he preferred dim and pale in the Lord of the Rings. His analysis of the use of pale in the Lord of the Rings showed that it is used most commonly with light, sky, face, and eyes, and Mr Weiner here noted that Tolkien uses the word almost exclusively in ominous contexts – similar to the Old English meaning of wan, yet here the word is pale, corresponding to wan’s modern sense, not its older. However, an exception is in Lothlórien, where pale describes things that are good, including Galadriel. He analysed dim in the Book of Lost Tales, where notable instances include its use describing the magic of Valinor and the fading of the Elves – in both of these cases and in many others, the word is used with a sense of vanishing past lordliness, yet in the Lord of the Rings, dim is used almost exclusively to describe the gloom of Mordor, with other words, such as grey, being used to achieve this “distancing of Faerie”. The linking concept between the meanings of wan, of diminution of light, connects much of Tolkien’s use of these three words. After showing us many more such subtle links, Mr Weiner’s talk concluded, having demonstrated that Tolkien’s use of these three words illustrates his general concept of his world as removed from us in time, as historically distant.

Mr Weiner’s talk was the last lecture of the day, the rest of which was dedicated to the BBC’s 1968 Tolkien in Oxford documentary, recently restored, which was shown after a brief introduction by Dr Stuart Lee of Merton College and the English Faculty, Lecturer in Old English, co-author with Dr Solopova of The Keys of Middle Earth, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien.

The documentary itself (available online at is an extended interview with Tolkien in various locations around Oxford, on the subject of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, interspersed with sometimes-amusing short clips of students of the time giving their views on Tolkien’s works. The whole documentary is available on the internet, and I won’t summarise it here, except to say that it is extremely interesting as a source for Tolkien’s views on his own work. Here I give some of the more amusing quotes from it. One sixties student, on the hobbits’ lifestyle in the Shire, commented “I’ve never seen anything more bourgeois in my life!”. Another, after declaring that the Lord of the Rings is about the oppression of the proletarian masses, namely the Orcs, admits that he hasn’t actually read the book. Tolkien, commenting on his popularity, says “North America has always been more easily excited than England”. After reciting the One Ring poem in the Black Speech, Tolkien declares “I invented that in the bath, I remember”… “I got it right and thought ‘all right, that will do’ and jumped out”. We get a glimpse of an early OUSFG, one of whom comments “It’s always fun meeting another fan who gets your references. The obscurer the reference the better the pleasure”. Tolkien at one point notes that he’s always been fascinated by trees, and that he’d “like to make contact with a tree and see what it had to say”, before, on a less humorous note, declaring that the Lord of the Rings, like all stories, “is about death”.

After the film, Dr Lee interviewed Leslie Megahey, the documentary’s director, who was a radio and TV writer, director and producer at the BBC for decades, and Tolkien in Oxford was his first film (The interview has been put on the University’s website at One of Mr Megahey told us many interesting stories about the making of the documentary, including how Tolkien later said of him that he was a “very nice, very young man, equipped with some intelligent insight”, and that though his comment on the film itself was that he didn’t like it at all, he did invite the young Mr Megahey to come back to have a drink with him in Oxford sometime.

As well as coming for his interview, Mr Megahey had brought with him some previously unseen film footage, cut from the final version, as well as the typescripts of every take and interview with Tolkien – another previously unseen priceless resource which he entrusted to Dr Lee, who may publish them at some time in the future. The day ended with the showing of the extra segments of film, which included a great many interesting comments by Tolkien. Tolkien mentions that “everyone make errors in my mythology” – citing the Valar’s taking the elves to Valinor in the hope of protecting them as a critical error. In a less serious section, on the subject of the taste of bacon, he comments that it is as if “pigs had a divine destiny to be used as bacon”, such is the taste.

As the day came to a close, the last comment, from the Professor himself speaking through the years through yet more previously unseen footage, was on the subject of language itself. He notes that it is unfortunate how little people know of language, in that most consider it only verbal communication, when in fact, language is the passing of any information from human to human. He specifically mentions that lighting candles and genuflecting are both examples of language. Now, it seems to me that if not only words, but any gesture that transfers meaning is language, then stories most certainly are, and as vehicles of transferring so much meaning, indeed they are one of its highest forms. Then it is certain that Tolkien, not only through his academic work, but also through his fiction, has phenomenally contributed to our English language that was such a large part of his life.

4 thoughts on “Merton Tolkien Symposium

  1. […] Reports from past events 18 November 2014, Merton College, Oxford, ‘Tolkien in Oxford‘ Amrit Sidhu-Brar, Sunday, 5 July 2015, ‘Merton Tolkien Symposium‘ […]

  2. Sir Rick Trainor, of course, tried to sack over 300 academic staff while at Kings College, including those teaching linguistics and palaeography, disciplines of particular interest to Tolkien.

  3. I was at the symposium, too, and I greatly appreciate your summary, if for no other reason than it brings back fond memories. I must not have heard the quote about bacon, but will look for it now… I recorded most of the “extra footage” on my iPad. I don’t think it would be right to put it online, but will certainly be pleased if Dr. Lee follows through with his suggestion that the extra footage and transcripts will be available some day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s