One of the many treasures preserved in the British Library’s audio archive is this vintage lesson in “English Conversation.” As a document of instruction, it’s interesting enough. But it also bears the distinction of being an early recording of J. R. R. Tolkien. Read More
- Envisioning the brick-and-mortar bookstores of tomorrow: “Wide steps double as seating and lead down to a bar and a stage, where a writer performs—‘authors will become more like rock stars’—or a ‘book wizard’ explains the craft of making books. The book you make might be one by the writer on stage, something you’ve written yourself, or any other text the robots conjure up.”
- “I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen, because it’s the most delightful thing … We have lost the sense that poetry sits halfway between prose and music—that you can’t expect to read it like a novel. We are quite used to downloading an album and listening to certain tracks … poetry needs to be consumed in that way.”
- On Tolkien’s 1926 translation of Beowulf, which was finally published last month: “The literary landscape has changed since then in a way that Tolkien would have neither expected nor accepted: he now towers in fame over Beowulf. Last year, Penguin repackaged its Michael Alexander translation as one of five ‘classic [stories] that inspired J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.’ but far more people will read the book for Tolkien’s sake than for Beowulf’s.”
- “Though their obsolescence has been prophesied at various points, neighborhoods remain a vital—perhaps the most vital—way of thinking about the modern city.”
- A 1959 promotional comic touts the glories of atomic energy through Reddy Kilowatt, everyone’s favorite grinningly electric asexual mascot: “I’m a real, live wire and I never tire. Yes, sir—I’m a red-hot shot. I can cook your meals, turn the factory wheels, ’cause I’m Reddy Kilowatt.”
Alan Hollinghurst is sixty today.
I was rather a goody-goody as a child. I hated the idea of being in the wrong and dreaded being punished. Everyone at my prep school was being beaten by the headmaster with the back of a hairbrush round the clock, and I was keen to avoid that. It was only later on I discovered that you could be naughty and get away with it.
What were you reading at that age?
There was a bizarre library at the school that had a lot of old-fashioned children’s adventure books by G. A. Henty and R. M. Ballantyne. I got very involved with Rider Haggard—I still have the tie-in paperback for the film of She with a picture of Ursula Andress on the front, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” I also became an avid collector of a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert Van Thal. I still have these as well, and the gruesome covers take me back—the whole atmosphere of the school suddenly closes in on me when I look at them.
In my school reports, one of the masters was worried about this “macabre reading,” but by the following year, I had discovered Tolkien, with whom I became totally obsessed. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over. I made charts of the kings of Rohan and so on. I used to write letters to my friends in dwarfish runes. The English master took a dim view of this and made me read Barchester Towers as an antidote, when all I wanted to do was to get back to Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party for the seventh time. I’ve never been able to read Trollope since.
—Alan Hollinghurst, the Art of Fiction No. 214
A world for children: J. R. R. Tolkien,
The Hobbit: or There and Back Again
(London: Allen and Unwin, 1937)
The publishers claim that The Hobbit, though very unlike Alice, resembles it in being the work of a professor at play. A more important truth is that both belong to a very small class of books which have nothing in common save that each admits us to a world of its own—a world that seems to have been going on long before we stumbled into it but which, once found by the right reader, becomes indispensable to him. Its place is with Alice, Flatland, Phantastes, The Wind in the Willows. 
To define the world of The Hobbit is, of course, impossible, because it is new. You cannot anticipate it before you go there, as you cannot forget it once you have gone. The author’s admirable illustrations and maps of Mirkwood and Goblingate and Esgaroth give one an inkling—and so do the names of the dwarf and dragon that catch our eyes as we first ruffle the pages. But there are dwarfs and dwarfs, and no common recipe for children’s stories will give you creatures so rooted in their own soil and history as those of Professor Tolkien—who obviously knows much more about them than he needs for this tale. Still less will the common recipe prepare us for the curious shift from the matter-of-fact beginnings of his story (“hobbits are small people, smaller than dwarfs—and they have no beards—but very much larger than Lilliputians”)  to the saga-like tone of the later chapters (“It is in my mind to ask what share of their inheritance you would have paid to our kindred had you found the hoard unguarded and us slain”).  You must read for yourself to find out how inevitable the change is and how it keeps pace with the hero’s journey. Though all is marvellous, nothing is arbitrary: all the inhabitants of Wilderland seem to have the same unquestionable right to their existence as those of our own world, though the fortunate child who meets them will have no notion—and his unlearned elders not much more—of the deep sources in our blood and tradition from which they spring.
For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.
Review published in the Times Literary Supplement (2 October 1937), 714.
1. Flatland (1884) is by Edwin A. Abbott, Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858).
2. The Hobbit: or There and Back Again (1937), chapter 1.
3. Ibid., chapter 15.
Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews, by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. Copyright © 2013 C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.
This article originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Click here to read it on the TLS site.
We were talking of dragons, Tolkien and I
In a Berkshire bar. The big workman
Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe
All the evening, from his empty mug
With gleaming eye glanced towards us:
‘I seen ’em myself!’ he said fiercely.
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