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Christian History Home > 2003 > Issue 78 > Meeting Professor Tolkien

Meeting Professor Tolkien
An American professor spent a summer with Tolkien. He remembers the man, his faith, and his writings.
Clyde S. Kilby | posted 4/01/2003 12:00AM

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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.

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