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Letter 46

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The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Letter 46
RecipientR.W. Chapman
DateNovember 26, 1941
Subject(s)Reminiscences about George S. Gordon

Letter 46 is a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien and published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Summary

R. W. Chapman, Secretary to the Delegates of the Oxford University Press, asked Tolkien for reminiscences about George S. Gordon (to possibly be included in an obituary), who was terminally ill at the time. Tolkien said he did not remember dates but offered impressions that Chapman might use. Tolkien associated Leeds with Gordon even though he spent more time with Abercrombie.[notes 1]

Tolkien remembered that Gordon’s pre-World War I departure from Oxford had caused consternation among the undergraduates of English. He first met Gordon in Leeds in June 1920 when he interviewed for the "Readership" in English Language. Tolkien believed that the title (new for Leeds) and the relatively high pay were both due to Gordon's farsighted policy. Gordon was kind and encouraging to Tolkien from their first meeting. His primary feelings towards Gordon were always of personal gratitude, of a friend rather than as an academic figure. It was rare for a Professor to bother with the difficulties of a new junior but Gordon did. He found rooms for Tolkien and let him share his private room at the University. Tolkien called him a master of men, who neglected some of his own work but created not a miserable little "department" but a team, inspired with a missionary zeal.

Gordon had a doctrine of lightheartedness: dangerous in Oxford but necessary in Yorkshire. He was encouraged to play a little, looking beyond the "syllabus", and regarded his studies as something larger and more amusing than a subject for examination. He had very little false solemnity.

Although for Tolkien his lines of development were set, Gordon gave him a "free hand" with only unobtrusive control. Gordon created the happiest and most balanced “school” Tolkien had seen. When Gordon started "English" was a departmental subject; when he left it had become a school of studies. Upon arrival he shared a private room with the Professor of French, which was a box with some hot water pipes and only a hat-peg for mere assistants. When he left the "English House" had separate rooms, with bathrooms, for every member plus a common room for students. This centre helped the growing body of students to become a cohesive unit, deriving some of the benefits associated with a university rather than a municipal college.

Notes

  1. Lascelles Abercrombie became Professor of English Literature in 1922 after Gordon returned to Oxford.