Note: This entire evening of conversation was recorded and I hope the real thing will be available at some point. In the meantime, anything I've put in single quotation marks here are words that I have written down specifically as quotes (I've adopted a bit of British punctuation for this, using single quotes for direct quotations and double quotes for other purposes). I've tried to be as correct as possible in my reporting, but that doesn't guarantee that I've gotten it all completely right.
In the conference program, the evening was called 'Remembering J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a conversation with Priscilla Tolkien, Robert Murray SJ, and Walter Hooper,' but for me, at least, Priscilla turned out to be the most significant of the three. Walter Hooper was C.S. Lewis's secretary, and knew Tolkien through that association, but his main contact was with Lewis. Some years back, I remember there was a controversy about some work he published as Lewis's which some people thought was bogus; that was never mentioned the evening he spoke to us, and I didn't feel any tension in the air (or in him) about his presence at the meeting, so that seems to have been resolved.
I was excited about hearing Robert Murray, as some of JRRT's most interesting letters about LotR are ones written to him, but when someone asked him the question - what it was that he had written to Tolkien to elicit the responses - he couldn't remember! To be fair, he was quite young at the time and more of a student to Tolkien than a peer. He did remember noticing as he read LotR for the first time, 'What I sensed as strong Catholic sense underlying especially this Galadriel as a figure of Our Lady,' which does come up in the Letters. He also had some recollections of visiting in the Tolkien home and recalled, for example, that the Professor and Edith 'would tolerate a lot of shade before they would cut down or lop a tree.'
But it was really Priscilla's evening. Most of us weren't aware until later how seldom she participates in any Tolkien-related gatherings, and how fortunate we were to have her there. She's someone I'd love to get to know, but I have the feeling everyone who was there would say the same thing, and she wouldn't have time for each of us to drop by for tea on a regular basis! There were moments when she'd turn at a particular angle that I could see a physical resemblance to both her father and her mother. But it was in her comments that she seemed most like her father. Intelligent, courteous, engaging - but not afraid to say that something's nonsense when it is. (She also came to the lectures the following morning, and took one of the speakers to task during the question-and-answer period for making an argument that went beyond what his evidence could support. I felt kind of sorry for the speaker, but the thing is, she was right.)
When asked about her father's reaction to the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Priscilla said, 'The first thing is he was enormously surprised, often talking about it being a gift that had been given him.'
Happily, someone asked her the often-discussed question of why JRRT said that, of all his characters, he thought he was most like Faramir. One link I'm aware of is that he gave Faramir a vision that is his own recurring dream of the wave that destroyed Númenor, but that could have been an effect of the similarity he felt with the character as easily as it could have been a cause. In the past, I've heard his love of gardening mentioned as a parallel, as well as the experience of falling in love at first sight. Another that's been suggested is that of Faramir being, at heart, a scholar; he sees fighting as sometimes being necessary, but doesn't love the sword for its sharpness or battle for its glory, as his brother was more prone to do. Priscilla's response was different. She said that Faramir '...appears to be very severe but had a deeply tender side. His outer public image can be different from his private or domestic image.' This leads very well into the rest of the questions she was asked, which tended to be about her childhood. As the youngest of the four Tolkien children, she was the only one still at home during most of the time LotR was being written. John and Michael, who have now both died, were quite a bit older; Christopher, of course, was called away by World War II and received a lot of LotR as a kind of "serial" by mail.
As I've said in my review of Joseph Pearce's Tolkien: Man and Myth, enough time has passed and enough has been published that it's possible to start debunking some of the things "everyone knows" about Tolkien. One of these is that he was, at best, a distant father. Along with the professorial bearing he had in his public life (as Priscilla brought up in her Faramir comparison), this idea is largely based on his own statement in a letter that he felt he hadn't been a good father. But most, if not all, parents believe they could have done a better job than they did, and with both JRRT and Edith being orphaned at young ages neither of them had a family-centered childhood to use as a comparison. After hearing Priscilla's stories, my impression is that her father made more effort than most to be attentive to his children, and to give them the security of a father's love, maybe because he hadn't experienced it himself. As I look through my notes, I find Priscilla using the word "attentive" several times: 'My father was a greatly attentive father'; '...how kind and attentive he was.'
Of course, just the fact that she used the word doesn't make it true. It was the stories she told that were convincing.
It wasn't too surprising to hear that the letters from Father Christmas were a highlight of the year, or that they got more elaborate as time went on with the addition of more characters and expanded storylines. And it seems Father Christmas had as much trouble as Santa Claus sometimes does in fulfilling wishes. Priscilla told of one year when she'd read a friend's books written by a particular author, and so loved them that she asked Father Christmas to bring her all of the author's books - not realizing that the books were quite old and all of them were out of print. She was at the age when she was beginning to figure out who played the part of Father Christmas, and overheard her father telling someone after Mass one Sunday, 'And now Father Christmas has to find these books...' but hadn't been able to locate them anywhere. I don't remember if she got the books - I don't think Father Christmas ever found them (there's actually some evidence of this in the letter from Father Christmas that I'm guessing belongs to that particular year) - but that wasn't what most stayed in her memory.
One thing she didn't mention (probably because it was "before her time") was Roverandom, which has been published fairly recently. A marvelous short book, with some magnificent illustrations, all done for the purpose of consoling Michael when he lost a favorite toy dog (it wasn't actually a toy dog, you see, but a real dog that had been enchanted by a wizard...) With some authors - and some families - I'd consider the publication of things that weren't written for the purpose of being published to be something akin to exploitation. But I just consider The Father Christmas Letters and Roverandom (and Mr. Bliss, which is still one of the funniest things I've ever read) to be gifts the family has shared with us. I wish there were more, but it seems that most of the stories Tolkien invented for his children were never written down. We do know that's where hobbits first came into existence. Roverandom has even given Tolkien scholars a look into the beginnings of his larger mythology spilling into his children's stories, and has been called a stepping stone to The Hobbit, which merged them even further. But that wasn't why it was written; it was written because "little boy Two" needed some comforting from his father.
My favorite story from Priscilla involved her statement that, 'We were allowed to go into his study at any time except when he was teaching [i.e., was having a session with a student] or someone else was visiting.' (One of the British attendees, who's a professor married to a professor/author, said afterward that their children would never be allowed into their father's study when he was writing.) It seems one day Priscilla went into the study not realizing there was a student there. Surprised and embarrassed, she broke into tears and ran out of the room. So, did her father turn back to the student and say, "Oh, that's just my daughter - she'll get over it"? No, he came out of the study, found her, and brought her back in, saying to the student, "I don't believe you've met Priscilla." He then proceeded to tell the student that she (Priscilla) was "quite an artist," pointing out a picture of hers that he had hanging in the room. In my notes I have the single word "Rapunzel" written; I believe that was the subject of her picture. She said her father had put it in the same frame with a famous painting he had hanging in his study, giving the impression that the two works of art were comparable.
I don't have a good way to end this, except to say what a privilege it was to hear Priscilla speak, and how grateful I am that I had the chance to do so.
The background on this page was made by playing around a bit with the background
of the Bird and Baby sign.
Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw