Hobbit mania has gripped the media in recent weeks, as the release of Peter Jackson’s next blockbuster approached. In fact it was hard to get away from ‘all things Hobbit’. Fortunately, I was able to.
It seems that my namesake has enough footage in the can to release two more films – or was it that he plans to film two more? What can we expect? Gone With The Hobbit, Return of The Hobbit, True Hobbit?
Let me lay my cards on the table: I am NOT a Middle Earth, elvish, LOTR fan in any shape whatsoever. I’ve not read any of the books – and doubt I ever will – or seen any of the films. One of my daughters gave my wife a DVD some Christmases ago of the first LOTR film. I fell asleep.
I’d never heard of The Hobbit until I went to university in 1967. One of my fellow botany students, Allan Mackie, was a serious Hobbit fan. I couldn’t see the point.
But on reflection, I should have known more about the LOTR and JRR Tolkien.
In 1960, I passed my 11-plus exam, and won a place to a Catholic grammar school, St Joseph’s College, in Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke-on-Trent, a 28 mile or so daily round trip from my home in Leek. So what has this got to do with JRR Tolkien and his Middle Earth stories?
St Joseph’s was run (controlled would be a better description) by Irish Christian Brothers, whose education ethos came with a heavy dose of corporal punishment. But the school chaplain was none other than Fr JFR Tolkien, JRR’s eldest son. At the time that meant nothing to me, and even when the eminent professor was the guest of honour at the school prize-giving one year (I don’t remember the actual year, but probably between 1964 and 1966) there was no indication of the fame yet to come with The Hobbit and the LOTR.
In fact, what I do remember is this rather tall, gaunt, unsmiling gentleman making one of the most boring and tedious speeches it has been my misfortune to listen to. There was absolutely nothing of the inspiration that so many have commented on. Just the other day I listened to actor Robert Hardy waxing lyrical about his undergraduate days at Oxford and having JRR Tolkien as his tutor.
During my time at St Joseph’s I got to know Fr Tolkien quite well. Although my first impressions were of an austere, rather severe persona, he was, in fact, a gentle, kindly man. Before he died in 2003 he was sadly accused of – all without foundation as it turned out – child abuse some 40 years earlier when he was Scout master at a parish in Birmingham¹. Maybe the accusations against Fr Tolkien were a consequence of the publicity surrounding the release of the first LOTR film, and expectations of cashing in on the family wealth. A sad indictment of society.
¹ There may well have been more to these allegations than I realized when I first wrote this post on 23 December 2012. In an article that appeared in The Guardian on 13 December 2018, Cardinal Vincent Nichols (who used to be Archbishop of Birmingham) is reported to have covered up claims of abuse by Fr. Tolkien. Sad.