Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tolkien in Who’s Who in Literature, 1925

Quite by chance I recently came across an interesting piece of very early Tolkien ephemera: an entry in the 1925 edition of Who’s Who in Literature. The publication is “[a] continuance”, so we’re told, “of the Bibliographical Section of THE LITERARY YEAR BOOK (Founded 1897)”, and edited by one Mark Meredith.Tolkien’s entry, which long predates The Lord of the Rings and even The Hobbit, reads as follows:

TOLKIEN, John Ronal [sic] Reuel, M.A. B. 1892. Au. of A Middle English Vocabulary (Clar. Pr.), 1922; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (do.), 1924; Selections from Chaucer (do.), 1925. C. Times Lit. Suppl., Year’s Work in English Studies, Yorkshire Poetry, The Microcosm. 2, DARNLEY ROAD, WEST PARK, LEEDS. [1]
Yes, the typographical error for Ronald is right there in black and white, for all posterity to gawp at. Thank heaven they spelled his surname correctly!

This is the earliest such entry I have seen. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull do make reference to entries for Tolkien in Who’s Who, citing previously unpublished sources such as the archives of Tolkien’s publisher, George Allen & Unwin. But these appear to be much later ones, long postdating The Hobbit and in some cases even The Lord of the Rings. It is also clearly not the same early entry still in print, as the Who’s Who entry discussed later also contained Tolkien’s telephone number. [2]

First, let me explain the abbreviations, because I chose not to intrude with square brackets of my own. Most are pretty self-explanatory: Au. “Author of”, B. “Year of Birth”, and C. “Contributor to”. Clar. Pr. refers to the Clarendon Press, an imprint of the Oxford University Press. A bit more opaque to us today is “do.”, which is (or was) the standard abbreviation for “ditto”. That is, each of the three books attributed to Tolkien are identified as Clarendon Press publications.

Now, there are several interesting things in this blurb. For one, Tolkien and E.V. Gordon’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was actually published in 1925, not 1924 as stated here. Gordon, by the way, is not in the 1925 Who’s Who. But more interestingly, Selections from Chaucer, given a date of 1925, probably refers to the so-called Clarendon Chaucer. Assuming so, this was originally conceived as a collection of writings other than The Canterbury Tales, aimed at younger readers. A half-title proof survives, in which the proposed volume is entitled Selections from Chaucer’s Poetry and Prose, which matches Who’s Who well enough. Tolkien was a co-editor of this volume with E.V. Gordon George S. Gordon, under the supervision of Kenneth Sisam — familiar names at this point in Tolkien’s bibliography. From its first conception in 1922 through roughly 1925, the volume took shape, but then it stalled until around 1930. Following this, some additional progress was made over a year or two, after which it stalled again, never to recover. The inclusion in Who’s Who was therefore, sadly, premature, as the material Tolkien prepared for it was never published. [3]

Regarding the contributions referred to in the blurb, these are (taken in the order given above):
  • “Holy Maidenhood”, a review of Hali Meidenhad: An Alliterative Homily of the 13th Century, edited by F.J. Furnivall (Early English Text Society, 1922), written, but unsigned, by Tolkien, and published April 26, 1923.

  • Tolkien wrote substantial essays on “Philology: General Works” for The Year’s Work in English Studies covering 1923–5, and appearing in 1924, 1926, and 1927, respectively. Most likely, the Who’s Who blurb refers only to the first of these three.

  • Tolkien’s poem “The Cat and the Fiddle” appeared in the Oct./Nov. 1923 issue of Yorkshire Poetry (Vol. 2, No. 19), published by the Swan Press, Leeds.

  • And finally, Tolkien’s sonnet “The City of the Gods” appeared in the Spring 1923 issue of The Microcosm (Vol. 8, No. 1). For those who would like to read the poem, it has been reprinted in John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War and in The Book of Lost Tales, Part 1, edited by Christopher Tolkien. Interestingly, Tolkien’s rhyme scheme — a b a b c d c d e e f g g f — appears to be a nonce form; it’s not the Petrarchan, Shakespearean, or Spenserian. Does anyone recognize that rhyme scheme?

And last, but not least, there is the address of Tolkien’s home in Leeds. The helps us to zero in a bit further on the date of the blurb. The Tolkiens were living in the house on Darnley Road from March 5, 1924 on, and they moved out of it (to their better known address of 22 Northmoor Road, Oxford) on January 7, 1926. Because the blurb identifies the edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as 1924 (unless this is a mere slip), my guess would be that the edition was then still forthcoming, and that the blurb therefore dates to the period between March and December 1924. It is also possible that the Who’s Who appeared later, with much of its contents already stale or otherwise in error. It doesn’t really matter too much, but with ephemera such as this, it’s always nice to try to get the best idea one can of its origins.

A couple of closing questions. Isn’t it nice, and perhaps even a bit surprising, to see Tolkien being recognized for his literary efforts (philology, criticism, and poetry) so long before his eternal fame would be made by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? And who might have submitted his name and abbreviated vita to Who’s Who in the first place? Was it Tolkien himself? Leeds? Or Oxford or its Press?

[1] Meredith, Mark (ed.). Who’s Who in Literature (1925 Edition), A continuance of the Bibliographical Section of THE LITERARY YEAR BOOK (Founded 1897). Liverpool: The Literary Year Books Press, [1925], p. 433.

[2] Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 396, 486, 590, 664, et seq.

[3] For more information on the Clarendon Chaucer, see Scull, Christina and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, pp. 153–6.


  1. Interesting rhyme scheme on that sonnet. I've e-mailed a couple of my colleagues who teach poetry and will pass along any info.

  2. Thanks! I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it before. I liked it. Sort of a souped-up version of the Shakespearean, almost.

  3. We knew of the Who's Who in Literature entry, but made no mention of it as it told us nothing that wasn't documented elsewhere. You're right, though, that it's interesting, and should be noted in our online addenda. "1924" for the edition of Sir Gawain may have been wishful thinking, written in advance of the Who's Who deadline -- "1925" for the Clarendon Chaucer certainly was. The history of the edition of Sir Gawain is given in sequence in our Chronology volume (beginning on p. 115), which also has (beginning on p. 118) more about the Clarendon Chaucer than appears in the Reader's Guide essay on Chaucer. Note that Tolkien's co-editor on the Clarendon Chaucer was not E.V. Gordon, but George S. Gordon.

    Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull

  4. Hi, Wayne and Christina. Of course, I should have expected you two knew of this entry already. :) And thank you very much for pointing out the error of E.V. Gordon for George S. I’ve corrected that in my post.

  5. There's a distinctly hopeful air to that bio: not just the 1924 date for Sir Gawain (which I'm guessing might well not be a typo, but an indication that it was intended for 1924 publication but in the event was delayed, we can guess why), but the listing of him as a contributor to magazines which he wrote for once but, as it turned out, never again. Ah well.

  6. Yes, David, well put. As I intimated, one of the most interesting things about the blurb, to me, is how it portrays Tolkien long before his Middle-earth fame: basically as a scholar and (minor) poet, and seemingly optimistic about these. Little did anyone know then …

  7. Hi Jason, I enjoyed this post. It is interesting to speculate about Tolkien's own involvement in the Who's Who Entry, which may or may not account for some of the errors. Thanks for the complete citations on the list of referenced works.

  8. Glad you liked the post, Annie. :)