Wednesday, 23 August 2017

'An elephant in its bath'

An extract from my latest piece for History Today:

I recently read a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937, when The Hobbit had just been published. Tolkien wrote to his publishers to comment on the description on the dustjacket, which compares his book with the work of Lewis Carroll. As Carroll the mathematician amused himself in Wonderland, the blurb suggests, so Tolkien the medievalist took inspiration from his specialism to write his children’s book. ‘Here again a professor of an abstruse subject is at play,’ it trills.

With patient precision, Tolkien takes issue with the use of the word ‘abstruse’ to describe his academic work. ‘I do not profess an “abstruse” subject,’ he protests. ‘Some folk may think so, but I do not like encouraging them. Old English and Icelandic literature are no more remote from human concerns, or difficult to acquire cheaply, than commercial Spanish (say). I have tried both.’ He also objects to the publishers’ description of him as ‘a professor at play’ – ‘a professor at play rather suggests an elephant in its bath,’ he remarks wryly.

Read the rest here.

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