Antony Curtis Remembers Tolkien and Lewis

Excerpts from: Curtis, Antony. “Remembering Tolkien and Lewis.” British Book News (June 1977), 429-30.

“Another time I arrived [as a student to a class with C.S. Lewis] before the others and he was staring out of the window at the deer.  ‘A deer has only two concepts,’ he told me, ‘the concept of food which they approach and the concept of danger from which they retreat.  Now what interests me is how a deer would react to the idea of poison. . . . which is both food and dangerous.” (Pg. 429)“At the end of the hour with Lewis I always felt a complete ignoramus; no doubt an accurate impression but also a rather painful one; and if you did venture to challenge one of his theories the ground was cut away from beneath your feet with lightening speed.  It was a fool’s mate in three moves with Lewis smiling at you from the other side of the board in unmalicious glee at his victory.  By contrast Tolkien was the soul of affability.  He did all the talking, but he made you feel you were his intellectual equal.  Yet his views beneath the deep paternal charm were passionately held.” (Pg. 429)

“At the first of these classes he handed round some sample passages of medieval English he had had typed out.  One of them was an English translation of the first verses of the Gospel according to John.  ‘You see,’ he said triumphantly, ‘English was a language that could move easily in abstract concepts when French was a still a vulgar Norman patois . . .’” (429)

“One day as the class was breaking up and we were talking in general about myth and story he [Tolkien] said, ‘You know if you want to find out about me read a little piece of mine, that has just been published in the Dublin Review [Leaf by Niggle].” (429)

“Tolkien is dans le vrai; his world is sunlit, normal, frightening but not morbid or eccentric.  Among Niggle’s judges there is a kindly examiner, a Second Voice, who speaks up for Niggle.  This Voice does not sentimentalize or ‘go soft’ on him; far from it, but he does put forward his positive virtues and secures him has pass degree to heaven.  It is a characteristically Tolkienian voice” (430).

“I told him I had read the tale [Leaf by Niggle] and he was delighted.  If he was reluctant to publish he was not disinclined to enjoy the fact of publication once it had occurred or to talk about the things of his that had been published.” (430)

“He already had a local reputation as a storyteller through the publication of The Hobbit in 1937.  It was the done thing in certain North Oxford circles to have read that book and to talk knowingly about hobbits.  But this avocation of Tolkien’s was regarded as something of a joke.  His main reputation was as a don, a professor, an authority on Beowulf and Sir Orfeo , a mainstay of the controversial much disliked ‘Anglo-Saxon’ element in the English Honours Degree.” (430)

“I returned to Oxford in 1948 wearing my new ‘civvy suit’ and began to read English in earnest.  Tolkien and Lewis were both still there, still lecturing and medievalizing, but their academic influence had already past its peak.  By now Leavis had begun to penetrate even Oxford; once he appeared in person at the invitation of some undergraduates declaring ‘If I had my way the word ‘aesthetic[‘] would be banished from the English language. . .’  Occasionally I met Tolkien by chance in a pub and had a drink with him.  He was as affable as ever but I cannot remember anything of great moment that he said.” (430)

“By the time The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 I had gone down to experience the Limbo of London literary journalism in which I have been wandering ever since.  I observed Tolkien’s popular success and growing fame with a kind of proprietorial pride.” (430).

“Tolkien, who had retired from his professorship in 1959, was already enjoying the first fruits of being a bestseller.  The three volumes of The Lord of the Rings had by now sold 156,000 copies, he said then.  Today the figure is twelve million in America alone!  ‘You know,’ he smiled puffing away at his pipe, ‘nothing helps so much as a bad review.  Philip Toynbee has done me a power of good.’” (430)

“He was working on the Silmarillion and spoke about it a little: ‘The Hobbits don’t come into this,’ he explained, ‘they of course represented the simple farming people I was brought up amongst–I just couldn’t go on with that story.  It would have become too grim.  This deals with an earlier period and concerns a more rational humanoid type of creature and the powers of evil.  The problem is to get across a whole mythology which I’ve invented before you get down to the stories.  For instance you can’t expect people to believe in a flat earth any more.  Half way through the elves discover the earth is round.  There is a great armada and kind of Atlantis theme.  I’ve always been fascinated by the lost continent.  There is also a lot about immortality.  You see both the idea of death and the thought of immortality on earth (Swift’s struldbugs) are equally intolerable.  The whole thing will be dominated by three jewels, symbols of beauty rather than power. . . . But I mustn’t give too much away.’” (430)

“He spoke without any self-consciousness of a set of events which in his mind seemed to exist with as much reality as the French Revolution or the Second World War.” (430)

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