Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tolkien and L.W. Forster

It is well known and now often repeated that for Tolkien, language came first, story second. In answer to an inquiry from The New York Times Book Review, Tolkien set down some notes about himself, including comments about the “fundamentally linguistic” genesis of his work. These notes were first used (abused, Tolkien would say) by Harvey Breit as the basis for a very short interview in the NYTBR on 5 June 1955. Breit omitted mention of philological origins in his piece, but the same notes were handed out to many inquirers by Houghton Mifflin over the years. In these notes (printed with Tolkien’s further annotations and corrections as Letter #165 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien), Tolkien says that “the invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows.” To give an example of how far these notes went, this passage (and more) was reprinted verbatim a dozen years later in “The Prevalence of Hobbits” by Philip Norman in The New York Times Magazine, 15 January 1967.

About three years after that, the same point was reiterated in a surprising place. At least, I was surprised to encounter it, and sharing the discovery is the reason for this post.

Leonard Wilson Forster (1913–1997) was a distinguished German scholar, Fellow of Cambridge University and Lecturer at University College London, and about a generation younger than Tolkien. In 1970, he published The Poet’s Tongues: Multilingualism in Literature with the Cambridge University Press. This was a series of lectures turned fuller historical sketch of “the different ways poets have used languages other than their own for poetry from the Middle Ages down to our own time” (1). A fascinating subject, and one with obvious relevance to Tolkien, though not one where we would necessarily expect to find him discussed as early as 1970. And yet, we read:
[The German poet] Stefan George used an invented language for workshop practice. Many people have invented private languages, usually as a secret means of communication or as a kind of personal cypher. In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien uses a number of invented languages and has included some fine poetry written in them. His is quite a different case; the languages came first and everything else followed. Tolkien tells me that he long ago invented some languages out of pure philological enthusiasm; as they seemed to work, he thought it would be interesting to invent people who spoke them. The result was the whole thrilling world of dwarves, elves and hobbits which is already being exploited for Ph.D. theses by the academic machine, mainly in the United States. (88)
This is as nice a summary on the subject as you could look for, with snarky commentary on American academia as well. But the most interesting thing here, to me at least, is how Forster makes it clear that he and Tolkien discussed this personally. We know of one letter from Tolkien to Forster, predating Forster’s book by a decade (dated 31 December 1960), of which only one paragraph is printed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (as #226). The subject under discussion in this excerpt is whether the two World Wars influenced Tolkien in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. One can only imagine that Forster was among those Tolkien was answering directly in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings when he wrote that “its sources are things long before in mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

What else was in Tolkien’s letter? Were there others exchanged between them? Did they ever meet in person? I don’t know. I’ve done some very cursory searching to see whether I could learn anything of Forster’s letter to Tolkien (or any others). No luck so far, though I did learn that the Forster papers held at Cambridge contain a number of clerihews, so that’s another fun connection between them (not to imply Forster and Tolkien were the only dons writing clerihews in the 20th century). I did find a few letters from Forster to others, and I was interested to see that his signature reminds one a little of Tolkien’s, though not so calligraphic as his (and again, not to imply anything more than happenstance similarity). You can judge for yourself below.

Anyway, this chance discovery of Tolkien in one of the works of Forster doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know, but it’s always enjoyable to discover connections, especially when they are relatively early, even during Tolkien’s lifetime.


  1. Thanks Jason - I love this kind of connection, especially when someone else has done the ferreting out!

    1. Very glad you enjoyed reading this, Saranna. Thanks for letting me know you're still out there. :)

  2. I made a comment yesterday, but it doesn't appear to have gone through. Fascinating stuff, as always. I'm still out there, too, and glad to see two blog posts in two days! Almost like old times. ;-)

  3. Jason

    What an interesting connection. Search thru Forster papers sounds like a good plan. Good to see a new blog post from you.

    All the Best Andy

    1. Thanks, Andy! I presume you also saw the one from the day before? I didn't announce it on Facebook.