To be honest I’m not even sure Tolkien drank coffee. If I was a betting person I’d suggest that he probably didn’t – he seems more like an old fashioned English Tea type of gentleman. Anyway, that aside, that’s not the point of this article. In this series I’m going to imagine what it might be like to have coffee with various people. Clearly I have never had coffee with any of them.
Or maybe I have…
After I had written to him at Merton College, Oxford (his most recent academic residence), Professor J. R. R. Tolkien had requested that we meet at 2pm on Saturday afternoon in the Old English Tea Rooms in the town we would both be visiting at the time. It was a happy accident that I had mentioned my visit in my initial letter. He apparently liked it there because it was one of the one tea shops in town where he could still enjoy his pipe after his afternoon tea, all of the others having implemented this newfangled smoking ban. I agreed, excited that I was soon to meet one of my literary heroes.
When we met he was politeness personified. He was wearing his trademark tweed suit and tie (done in a Windsor knot), his trusty pipe already lit in his mouth, he had clearly set the match to his pipe before entering the tea room gardens by the wooden gate near to where I was stood. I could see the empty tobacco twist sticking out of the left-hand pocket of his jacket.
We took a seat near an open window, a calm summer breeze drifting in from the nearby river, making the summer trees shift slightly outside. He removed his hat, and placed it on the back of his chair, along with his tweed jacket. It was a little too warm to keep a jacket on.
As we settled he ordered from the waitress who hovered nearby, and then looked at the sugarpot and chuckled. I asked him why he found it funny. He told me that it reminded him of when he was walking out with Edith, the woman whom he married in 1916, and who he’d adored until her death in 1971. He said they’d go to tea shops that looked out onto the street in Birmingham, and throw sugar lumps at unsuspecting passers-by. It was especially excellent if they could get a sugar lump to land in someone’s hat brim. That was in the day when everyone wore hats. He agreed and said that you would not be able to do that anymore because very rarely did anyone wear a hat, and if they did, they were almost certainly brimless. Yes, I said, good luck trying to get a sugar lump to balance on a baseball cap. Edith had always been his Luthien, and he had been Beren, like the narrative that he had created to fit into this legendarium. You could see it in the way that he spoke about her. I, naturally, wanted to talk to him all the more about his masterpiece works. His creation of the world of Middle Earth and the peoples that populate that realm had captured my imagination from a young age, and continued to do so.
The waitress returned with the tea, and a selection of sandwiches with the crusts cut off; smoked salmon and cream cheese; cucumber; and tuna as well. Professor Tolkien offered me the first pick from the plate, after which he poured us both a cup of tea from the pot that had been brewing by his elbow. He didn’t put sugar in his tea, despite his fondness for the stuff. I, guiltily, did so.
The talk then turned to University. Tolkien asked where I had studied. When I told him the place he looked confused, saying that he had not heard much about that university. I said that that was probably true, as it didn’t open until 1964, less than a decade before his death, and post his retirement from academic life. I told him that I was interested in the development of the English language, and had considered a PhD thesis which touched upon the topic and it’s links to the progression of political events in early-medieval England. That was when his eyes lit up, this being his area of expertise.
I confessed, before we began discussion, that I had not actually had much opportunity to study it, other than as an amateur, because my own academic pursuits had taken me off down the path of medieval political history. It didn’t matter; I was a willing audience for his wealth of knowledge, and as a natural teacher, he was only too happy to allow me to ask stupid questions in order to enlighten myself on his subject. The Professor talked about his influences and works through the years, particularly in relation to his love of the Anglo-Saxon language and the epic poetry and fantasy work that came with it. Before long, a second pot of tea had been ordered, to replace the finished first.
I wondered aloud to the Professor whether his love of Anglo-Saxon could be seen most clearly in his legendarium in the people of Rohan, with their culture and architecture seeming to draw the most similarities. At this, Professor Tolkien smiled, and said that no author is without their influences. Even when creating something completely new, as new as entire universe with it’s own languages, peoples, and lands, an author can never escape their own contexts and histories. Nothing is created in a vacuum. His comment, however, was that his Anglo-Saxon influence, and especially his work on the epic poem Beowulf (a translation, completed in 1926, was the Professor’s first published work), could perhaps most clearly be seen in The Hobbit, and the dragon-lore that emerged in that book.
Finally I asked the Professor about the life of his legendarium, and that it continued to develop and flourish even though he could no longer work on it. For the first time, the Professor looked a little troubled, saying that he often worried that his work was not complete enough for public consumption, and that it never would be. That there would be flaws that he would never be able to correct. This is why he had agonised for so long before published ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Then again, he supplied after a moment, in ensuring that the philosophical underpinnings and the creation myths had been firmly established, others were able to build on that in ways they saw fit. He stated that a work is never truly finished, and that an author or scholar is always thinking of revisions or edits to make to it. I agreed that this was definitely true, hence the different publication editions one often saw with popular books. It wasn’t just that, however, he mused, it was that things such as his works take on a life of their own. They stand free of their creator, and he just had to hope that he had provided enough of the foundations for the mythology to remain true as others took on his work and embellished it for themselves.
With his tea finished, and the plate of sandwiches thoroughly polished off, I thanked the Professor for his time, and that it had been delightful to meet him and to talk. He smiled, and wished me luck with my future endeavours, whether they be academic or not. With that he stood up, removed his jacket from the back of the chair and put it on, before settling his hat back on his head. He turned away from the table and walked away, his hands in his pockets, his pipe still firmly between his lips.
Tune in soon to see who I have coffee with next…