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11 August 2016

The wizard of Oxford: what Tolkien could hear in a voice

Over the radio, J R R Tolkien's precise and musical voice told us why he'd never have gone to hunt a dragon.

By Antonia Quirke

“What would you have done if you had been a little boy, and a wizard had come and asked you to go to the misty mountain and help kill a dragon?” A question put to a 76-year-old J R R Tolkien during an interview in 1968. Tolkien amusedly shot back: “I’d been very well brought up to avoid conversations with dubious old gentlemen, and would have retired into the house and asked my mother.” This is one of many memorable out-takes from a BBC documentary about the writer, never heard until now.

Born in what is now South Africa and raised “miserably poor” in Birmingham, Tolkien has a voice that in these clips sounds never too imperious, but stupendously precise and musical. I was reminded of something the actor Robert Hardy told me, and I went and dug out my notes from that exchange. Hardy had been taught Anglo-Saxon by Tolkien, along with six others, in the 1940s at Oxford. At their first lesson Tolkien persuaded them to enact a parlour game involving him listening to their voices without knowing who was speaking, all the while making “complicated notes”. He then proceeded to “go through us all one by one, analysing what the voice he had heard meant to him”.

He was, among other things, immediately able to see through the “posh London stuff” Hardy had laid over his light Welsh border accent – and got each of the students similarly down to a T. Upbringing, influences, aspirations. Tolkien eventually concluded: “Now, you may wonder why we’ve played that game. The answer is because when I say that Anglo-Saxon sounded like this, or when I say Chaucer sounded like that, I want you to believe that I know. That I know so much about what is behind a ­human voice. That I am talking sense.” All this, I should add, was taking place at the Eagle and Child pub, over a “first-lesson pint”. Hardy said it was a performance that had thoroughly silenced him. Not an actor, but a teacher: a devastating magic trick, to do exclusively with listening.

“What’s so beautiful about Elvish, Professor Tolkien?” goes yet another out-take, broadcast for the first time in this programme. The reply is exquisitely interested, and simple. “You tell me.”

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This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq