An Epilogue for Beren & Lúthien: Tolkien’s Last Years, 1966-1973

50 years ago – in 1972 – Queen Elizabeth II appointed JRR Tolkien Commander of the Order of the British Empire “for services to English Literature.” Outside Buckingham Palace with his daughter Priscilla.

The Road Goes Ever on – Headington to Bournemouth:

Although life retirement sometimes seemed ‘grey and grim’ to Tolkien, it also had many elements that suited him. For one thing, he and Edith, at last, had enough money. However, the tax authorities took a large proportion of his earnings, and on one occasion, Tolkien wrote across a cheque to the inland revenue the words ‘not a penny for Concorde‘. Near the end of his life, he made a financial settlement passing on most of his assets to his four children. He was always, as ever, concerned with providing for his family’s needs, buying a house for one of them and a car for another: He gave a cello to a grandson and paid the school fees for a granddaughter. Tolkien was generously philanthropic with his new-found wealth, donating a substantial sum, anonymously, to his parish church in Headington.

He and Edith were still very different people with widely differing interests, and even after fifty years of marriage, they were not always ideal company for each other. There were still moments of tension and irritation between them besides those of great tenderness and affection. Nevertheless, they celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1966 with many ceremonies. Among the events that marked it was a performance at their party in Merton College by Donald Swann of his own Tolkien song-cycle, The Road Goes Ever On, with the composer at the piano and the songs being sung, appropriately, by William Elvin.

But the domestic arrangements at Headington were by no means ideal, and they deteriorated as Edith’s health declined, and her arthritis made her increasingly lame. She still managed to do most of the cooking, housework, and gardening, but as the 1960s advanced and she came closer to her eightieth birthday, she couldn’t manage the chores or the stairs much longer. Ronald helped as much as he could, but he was growing increasingly ‘stiff’ himself. So at the beginning of 1968, when he was seventy-six and she seventy-nine, they decided to move to a more convenient house which also had the advantage of preserving a measure of privacy. After considering several possibilities in the Oxford area, they decided to move to Bournemouth.

Like most south-coast resorts, the town attracted the elderly in large numbers. It served as a setting where they could spend time with others of their age and class. Edith had come to like it very much. Some years previously, she had begun to take holidays at the Miramar Hotel on the seafront to the west of the town, an expensive but comfortable and friendly establishment chiefly patronised by people like herself. Consequently, in Bournemouth, for the first time, Edith had made a large number of friends. After Ronald had retired and had given up his examination visits to Ireland, he had begun to accompany her on these holidays and soon realised that, on the whole, she was far happier there than she was at home in Oxford. The social setting at the Miramar was close to what she had known in the Jessop household at Cheltenham between 1910 and 1913: upper-middle-class, affluent, unacademic and with a warm friendliness towards its own kind. She felt entirely at home, back in her social milieu, as she had never been at any time in her married life.

Many of the other guests at the hotel were titled, rich, and self-assured, but Edith did not feel any inferiority, for she was now as wealthy as any of them. As to titles, her status as the wife of an internationally famous author cancelled out any feelings she might have of inadequacy. The Miramar gradually became the answer to Tolkien’s domestic problems. When the strain of keeping house became too much for Edith, they booked their standard rooms and arranged for a hire car and driver to take them down to Bournemouth. Edith soon recovered much of her strength and good spirits. Ronald was relieved to escape to the sea air from the confines of Sandfield Road and his despair at his own inability to get work done. He was not particularly happy at the Miramar itself. He shared Lewis’s dislike of the type of person whose general conversation is almost wholly narrative. So the visits to Bournemouth continued, and when the couple decided to leave Sandfield Road and find another house, they resolved to look for something near the Miramar.

Ronald and Edith bought a well-equipped bungalow a short taxi ride away from the Miramar Hotel. But the move to Bournemouth involved many sacrifices on Tolkien’s part. He had little wish to leave Oxford and knew he was cutting himself off from all but limited contact with his family and close friends. But, as with Headington, he found the reality a little harsher than he had expected. He wrote to his son Christopher a year after moving that he saw no men of his own kind. But the sacrifice had a purpose: Edith’s health and happiness. That purpose was achieved. She was consistently happier than she had ever been in their married life, and her continuing pleasure at visits to the Miramar and the friendships she made there. She had ceased to be the shy, uncertain, sometimes troubled wife of an Oxford professor and became herself once more, the sociable, good-humoured Miss Bratt of her Cheltenham days before she married Ronald in 1916.

The Return of Beren & Lúthien; further progress in work:

Edith in 1916

Edith’s happiness was also gratifying to Ronald. It was reflected in his own state of mind so that the diary he continued to keep for a short while at Bournemouth was no longer full of the despondency which had so often taken him over at Sandfield Road. The absence of what he called ‘men of my own kind’ was made up for by frequent visits of family members and friends, while the almost constant interruptions from ‘fans’ they had endured in Headington came to a permanent end. A great deal more of his time was therefore available for work, and Joy Hill, a member of the Allen & Unwin staff, dealt with fan-mail, coming down regularly to attend to the letters which found their way to him, though his new address remained secret.

He, therefore, began to work again with some thoroughness on The Silmarillion. Yet it was difficult for him to decide exactly where to start. In one sense, there was very little remaining to be done. The narrative itself was complete, beginning with an account of the world’s creation and dealing in the main with the struggle between the elves and the prime power of evil. To produce a continuous narrative, Tolkien had to decide which version of each chapter he should use, for there were many, dating from his earliest work in 1917 to some passages written in the last few years. But this involved so many decisions that he did not know where to start, and even if he managed to complete this work, he would have to ensure that the whole book was consistent with itself.

Over the years, he had, by his various alterations and rewritings, produced a massive confusion: Characters’ names had been changed in one place but not in another. Topographical descriptions were disorganised and contradictory. Worst of all, the manuscripts themselves had proliferated so that he was no longer sure which of them represented his latest thoughts on any particular passage. For security reasons, he had, in recent years, made two copies of each typescript and kept each copy in a different place. But he had never decided which was to be the working copy, and often he had amended each of them independently and in a contradictory fashion. To produce a consistent and satisfactory text, he would have to make a detailed collation of every manuscript, and the prospect of attempting this filled him with dismay.

He was also uncertain as to how the whole work should be presented. He was inclined to abandon the original framework, the introductory device of the seafarer to whom the stories were told. But he didn’t know what he would replace it with or whether it was enough simply to present the narrative as the mythology that had appeared in a shadowy form in The Lord of the Rings. In this latter respect, he had made his task even more complicated by introducing several new essential characters into the narrative, such as the elven-queen Galadriel and the Ents, who had not appeared in the original versions of the Silmarillion, but who now required some mention in it. He had managed to work out solutions to these problems but still had to ensure that they harmonised in every single deed and detail recorded in the two works. Otherwise, he would be bombarded with letters pointing out the inconsistencies. Besides these technical issues, he was still not beyond rewriting some fundamental elements in the whole story, which would have entailed complete rewritings.

By the summer of 1971, after three years at Bournemouth, he had begun to make progress. But, as usual, he was drawn aside to considerations of detail, like what form an individual name should take, rather than overall revision. Even when he did some actual writing of the narrative, it was not concerned with what had already been written but with the mass of ancillary material accumulated over the years. Much of this was in the form of essays on “technical aspects of the mythology, such as the comparison of the ageing processes of elves and men or the death of animals and plants in Middle-earth. He felt that every detail of his cosmos needed attention, whether or not the essays themselves would ever be published. Sub-creation had become a sufficiently rewarding pastime, apart from the desire to see the work in print. On some days, he would put in long hours at his desk, but on other days he would abandon any pretence of working. Yet overall, he was deeply concerned that time was slipping away with the book still unfinished.

At the end of 1971, the Bournemouth epilogue ended abruptly. Edith, aged eighty-two, was taken ill in the middle of November. She was moved to a hospital, and after a few days of severe illness, she died at the end of the month. After Tolkien had recovered from the first shock of Edith’s death, there was no question of him remaining in Bournemouth. Clearly, he would return as a widower to Oxford, but at first, there was uncertainty about what arrangements could be made for his accommodation. Then Merton College offered him a set of rooms, a flat, in one of their houses on Merton Street, where a ‘scout’ and his wife could take care of him. Charlie Carr and his wife, his caretakers, lived in the basement. This was the perfect solution and an unusual honour, which Tolkien accepted with the utmost enthusiasm. He moved into 21 Merton Street at the beginning of March 1972, typically making friends with the three removal men and riding with them in their pantechnicon from Bournemouth to Oxford. After all, he was more at home with the working classes than the retired military aristocracy of the Miramar Hotel.

Return to Merton Street & Awards; Honours from the Queen:
The Quad on Merton Street.

The Carrs provided breakfast for him every morning and other meals if he was feeling unwell or unable to eat in college. He could also get a meal and entertain guests at the Eastgate Hotel next door, where he had dined with Lewis in the thirties. As a wealthy man, he could now afford to eat there whenever he liked, though he took most of his meals in college, where he was also made most welcome in the Senior Common Room.

The Eastgate Hotel, on the corner of Merton Street and The High Street.

Although he had been distressed at the loss of Edith and was now a lonely man without his Lúthien, his almost bachelor existence in Merton Street provided some compensation for his loss and a reward for his patience during their time together in Bournemouth. There was no question of him becoming inactive, as he frequently visited the Oxfordshire village where his son Christopher and his family lived. He also went to stay in Sidmouth, Devon, with Priscilla and his grandson Simon. He revisited his old ‘Tea Club (TCBS)’ friend, Christopher Wiseman. He spent several weeks with John in his parish at Stoke-on-Trent, motoring through his beloved West Midlands landscape to visit his brother Hilary, still living on his fruit farm in the Vale of Evesham.

H.M. Queen Elizabeth II at her Coronation in 1953, the year before The Lord of the Rings was published.

His happiness was added to by the honours that were conferred on him. He received several invitations to visit American universities and receive doctorates, but he couldn’t face the long journey. There were also many tributes within his homeland. He was profoundly moved when, in the spring of 1972, he was invited to Buckingham Palace to be presented with a C.B.E. by the Queen. She had been eleven when The Hobbit was published, and The Lord of the Rings had hit bookstores two years into her reign. Tolkien wrote to his publisher Rayner Unwin about the day,

“… I was very deeply moved by my brief meeting with the Queen, & our few words together. Quite unlike anything that I had expected.”

Humphrey Carpenter (ed.) (1981), Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, Letter 334.

After everything he had lived through and all the fairy stories he had written, meeting the Queen was a special moment for him. But perhaps the most gratifying of all was the award in June 1972 of an honorary Doctorate of Letters from his own University of Oxford; not, as was made clear, for The Lord of the Rings, but for his contribution to philology. Nevertheless, at the degree ceremony, the speech in his honour by the Public Orator (his old friend Colin Hardie) contained more than one reference to the chronicles of Middle-earth, and it concluded with the hope…

…that in such green leaf, as the Road goes ever on, he will produce from his store Silmarillion and scholarship.

The Silmarillion & The Ad Eundem:

As far as The Silmarillion was concerned, however, the months were still passing by with little progress in the writing. There had been an understandable delay while Tolkien reorganised his books and papers after the move from Bournemouth. When he finally resumed work, he became once more enmeshed in technical problems. Some years previously, Ronald had decided that in the event of his dying before the book was finished, Christopher (who was already well versed in the work) should complete it for publication. He often discussed the book with Christopher, contemplating the numerous problems that remained to be solved, but they made little progress in solving them. Christopher completed the editing within five years of his father’s death, so it was finally published in 1977.

Almost certainly, he did not expect to die soon. He told his former tutee, Mary Salu, that there was a tradition of longevity among his Suffield ancestry and that he believed he would live for many more years. But late in 1972, there were warning signs. He began to suffer from severe indigestion, was put on a diet and warned not to drink wine. Despite his unfinished work, he did not relish the prospect of many more years living at Merton Street. He wrote to his old cousin, Marjorie Incledon, that:

I often feel very lonely. After term (when the undergraduates depart), I am all alone in a large house with only the caretaker and his wife far below in the basement.’

Nevertheless, he was still able to travel. In June 1973, he visited Edinburgh to receive an honorary degree from the university.

There was also a ceaseless stream of callers at Merton Street: his family, old friends, and colleagues, including Joy Hill from Allen & Unwin, to attend to fan-mail. There was also the regular Sunday morning drive by taxi to church in Headington and Edith’s grave in Wolvercote cemetery. But his loneliness didn’t cease. Yet the diet had apparently been successful, and in July, he went to Cambridge for a dinner of the Ad Eundem, an inter-varsity dining club. On 25 August, he wrote a belated note to his host, Professor Glyn Daniel…

… to thank you for your delightful dinner in St John’s, and especially for your forbearance and great kindness to me personally. It proved a turning point! I suffered no ill effects whatever, and have since been able to dispense with the diet taboos I had to observe for six months.

Three days after writing this letter, he travelled to Bournemouth to stay with the doctor and his wife, who had looked after him and Edith when they lived there. Two days later, he was in pain during the night, and the next morning he was taken to a private hospital where an acute bleeding gastric ulcer was diagnosed. Unlike Michael and Christopher, John and Priscilla were able to travel to Bournemouth to be with him in the nursing home. At first, the reports on his condition were optimistic, but after a further forty-eight hours, a chest infection had developed, and on 2 September, he died, aged eighty-one. His requiem mass was held in Oxford four days after his death, in the plain modern church in Headington, which he had attended so often. His son John chose the prayers and readings and said the mass with the assistance of Tolkien’s old friend Fr Robert Murray and his parish priest. However, there was no sermon, eulogy, elegy, or quotation from his writings. He had always disapproved of all kinds of biography.

The Dissolution of the Inklings: Endings & Epitaphs:

His ‘autobiography’ is The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, which led to the accolade of him as ‘the father of modern fantasy literature,’ otherwise known as ‘High Fantasy.’ The truth about him lies within these works and in his shorter stories and poetry related to his legendarium; Tree and Leaf, Farmer Giles of Ham, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book.

View of Magdalen College from the Eastgate Hotel.

The Inklings, the handful of men who met, in the 1930s and 40s, at Magdalen College on Thursday nights and at ‘The Eagle and Child’ on Monday mornings, were not a homogeneous group. However, as writers, they certainly exercised significant influence over each other. Neither were they homogeneous in their deaths and resting places. The graves of the group’s core can be found at various locations in and around the city of Oxford. Lewis’s grave, shared with his brother Major W. H. Lewis, is marked by a plain slab adorned with a simple cross and the words Men must endure their going hence. Hugo Dyson and Charles Williams are buried in the shadow of St Cross Church in the city centre, along with many other University men of their generation. All of them, as well as the Lewis brothers, were members of the Church of England, but there was no Catholic burial place in Oxford other than the corporation cemetery at Wolvercote, where a small area is reserved for members of the Church of Rome. Many of the tombstones are in Polish because the graves of emigrés predominate over English adherents to the Catholic faith. A grey slab of Cornish granite to the left of the group stands out clearly, as does its slightly curious wording:

Edith Mary Tolkien, Lúthien, 1889-1971.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892-1973.

The Legacy of Tolkien’s Loves, Languages & Literature:

His only epitaph lay in the references in this wording to Beren and Lúthien, his early narrative poem, which was based on and in which he ‘fantasised’ about his relationship with Edith. Tolkien found the inspiration for many of the ideas presented in the tale in his love for his wife and, after her death, had “Lúthien” engraved on her tombstone, and later “Beren” was engraved on his own. Short after Edith’s death, Tolkien had written the following in a letter to their son Christopher:

I never called Edith Luthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos.

Carpenter & Tolkien (1981), Letter 340, to Christopher Tolkien.

Front cover of the 2017 hardback edition

The story’s first version is The Tale of Tinúviel, written in 1917 and published in The Book of Lost Tales. During the 1920s, Tolkien started to reshape the tale into an epic poem, The Lay of Leithian. Unfortunately, he never finished it, leaving three of seventeen planned cantos unwritten. After his death, it was published in The Lays of Beleriand. The latest version of the tale is told in prose in one chapter of The Silmarillion and is recounted by Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring. Some early versions of the story were published in the standalone book in 2017.

The grave stands in suburban surroundings, very different from the Worcestershire countryside he grew up in, at Sarehole and visited in the Vale of Evesham. So, even at the end of his life’s story, at this plain grave in a public cemetery, we are reminded of the antithesis between the ordinary life he led and the extraordinary imagination that created his mythology. However, when a few weeks later, a memorial service was held in California by some of his American admirers, and his short story Leaf by Niggle was read to the congregation:

Before him stood the Tree, his tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, it leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt and guessed, and had often failed to catch. He gazed at the tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. “It’s a gift!” he said.

Tolkien at Merton Street in 1972

Where did it come from, this imagination that peopled Middle-earth with elves, orcs and hobbits? What was the source of the literary vision that changed the life of this obscure scholar? And why did that vision strike the minds and harmonise with the aspirations of numberless readers worldwide? Tolkien would have thought that these were unanswerable questions but that the answer lay, at least in part, somewhere in the rural, English West Midland landscapes and dialects of his childhood and youth.

The Worcestershire countryside near Sarehole inspired Tolkien.

Appendix – The Common Speech:

Tolkien’s tales were created around the languages he began to invent while still at school. These carefully constructed languages, including fifteen Elvish dialects and languages for the Hobbits, Ents, Orcs, and Dwarves, also included elements of the West Midland dialect used in ‘the Common Speech’ of Middle-earth. For example, in his Prologue to the First Book of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote of the Hobbits’ languages that…

of old, they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion… A love of learning… Was far from general among them, but there remained still a few in the older families who studied their own books and even gathered reports of old times and distant lands from Elves, Dwarves and Men.

In Appendix F, in the third part of The Lord of the Rings, he provides more detail on The Languages and Peoples of The Third Age. The language represented in the books by English was the Westron or Common Speech of the Westlands of Middle-earth in the Third Age. The Westron was also used as a second language of intercourse by all those who retained a language of their own, even by the Elves, not only in Arnor and Gondor but eastward to Mirkwood. It was a Mannish speech, enriched and softened under Elvish influence.

“The Shire” was divided into four quarters, the Farthings, North, South, East and West, and these again into many folklands, which still bore the names of the leading families. Each Farthing had three Shiriffs.  Outside these were the Marches, East and West, and Buckland. The Hobbits of the Shire and of Bree had used the Common Speech for a thousand years before Bilbo and Frodo. Tolkien informs us that they had used it in their own manner freely and carelessly, though the more learned among them had still at their command a more formal language when occasion required. The Common Speech, the Westron, was current throughout all the lands of the kings from Arnor to Gondor and about all the coasts from Belfalas to Lune. There is no record of any distinct Hobbit language; Tolkien tells us:

In Ancient days, they seem always to have used the languages of Men near whom, or among whom, they lived. Thus they quickly adopted the Common Speech after they entered Eriador, and by the time of their settlement at Bree, they had already begun to forget their former tongue. This was evidently a Mannish language… akin to that of the Rohirrim…

Of these things there were still some traces left in local words and names, many of which closely resembled those found in Dale or Rohan… While more were preserved in the placenames of Bree and the Shire. The personal names of the Hobbits were also peculiar and many had come down from ancient days

Of the four hobbit friends who form a company to journey to Rivendell to join the Fellowship of the Ring, Meriadoc (Merry) and Peregrin (Pippin) both belonged to great families, the Brandybucks and the Tooks, giving their names to Buckland and Tookland. They were, therefore, ‘aristocratic’ hobbits. Apart from Bilbo and Frodo, the more middle-class Bagginses were spread throughout the Shire. Ham Gamgee,…

commonly known as the Gaffer, held forth at The Ivy Bush, a small inn on the Bywater road; and he spoke with some authority as he had tended the garden at Bag End for forty years before his son, Sam, took over.

Sam Gamgee, of course, Tolkien’s ‘working class hero’ as the story evolves in The Lord of the Rings; a faithful servant to Frodo Baggins, perhaps partly based on the men he commanded in the trenches on the Somme in 1916.

In Chapter Nine of the first book, the Hobbits arrive at the inn in Bree to sojourn overnight on their journey out of the Shire. The landlord, Mr Butterbur, invites them to join the company in the bar with their news, a song or a story. Merry decides not to, perhaps using his seniority of status to caution his fellow travellers to be mindful of their mission and to speak politely:

So refreshed and encouraged did they feel at the end of their supper… That Frodo, Pippin, and Sam decided to join the company. Merry said it would be too stuffy. “I shall sit here quietly by the fire for a bit, and perhaps go out later for a sniff of the air. Mind your Ps and Qs, and don’t forget that you are supposed to be escaping in secret, and are still on the high-road and not very far from the Shire!”

“Mind your P’s and Qs”, meaning ‘be careful to say “please” and “thank you”,’ is redolent of late Victorian, middle-class English, certainly that of the West Midlands. It was the kind of idiom Tolkien’s mother might have used with her young son when sending his aunt’s ‘house in ‘respectable’ Edgbaston. In using this contemporary colloquial phrase, Tolkien deliberately emphasises the company of Hobbits’ use of the Common Speech of the Shire and Bree. In the context of the story, Merry’s use of it as a warning was an apt one.

As a lecturer in English language and linguistics, Tolkien was acutely aware of how the English of his day was becoming standardised and not just in its written forms. He could hear how much diversity in dialectical forms was in danger of being lost. The multi-stratified Victorian and Edwardian middle classes had been defined not simply by their literacy but by their ability to ‘speak’ properly to distinguish themselves from the classes below them and even from the rural gentry and yeomanry in terms of ‘respectability’. One eighteenth-century grammarian made reference to the depraved language of the Common People. The relationship between social class and the language used in the eighteenth century was maintained through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, for example, is the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Dr Henry Alford, writing in a book called The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling in 1864:

And first and foremost, let me notice that worst of all faults, the leaving out of the aspirate where it ought to be, and putting it where it ought not to be. This is a vulgarism not confined to this or that province of England, nor especially prevalent in one county or another, but common throughout England to persons of low breeding and inferior education, … Nothing so surely stamps a man as below the mark of intelligence, self-respect, and energy, as this unfortunate habit…

Tolkien’s contemporaries continued to judge their fellow Britons by their speech as much as by other aspects of their behaviour, though some, like Tolkien, were much more positive in their reactions than others. In his case, the relative poverty of his upbringing and his encounters with village children taught him a measure of humility even before his experiences of commanding working-class soldiers in the First World War. In the end, Sam Gamgee is judged not by the ‘quality’ of his speech but by his loyalty and the heroic nature of his actions.

Sources:

Humphrey Carpenter (1977, 2016): J. R. R. Tolkien – A Biography. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.

The Fourth Age Limited (1954, 1966): J. R. R. Tolkien – The Return of the King, being the Third Part of The Lord of the Ring. Appendices. Oxford: George Allen & Unwin.

Robert McCrum, William Cran & Robert MacNeil (1986, 1987): The Story of English. New York & Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Tolkien

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beren_and_L%C3%BAthien

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