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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tolkien and George MacDonald, from Clyde S. Kilby

From Tolkien & The Silmarillion, by Clyde S. Kilby. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976.

In order to comment on this story [Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major] it is necessary for me to remark once again that while I was with him Tolkien frequently fired verbal cannonades at George MacDonald. Someone had asked Tolkien to consider writing an introduction to a book on MacDonald and he had for that reason gone back to read again some of his works. He said that he had found MacDonald terrible and his broadside criticism of him implied that nothing he had written was worthwhile. I asked Tolkien if Smith of Wootton Major referred to MacDonald. No, he said, his aversion had only been the "explosion" that started him off on the story, no more. (pp. 36-7) Kilby believed that Tolkien had meant Nokes, the unimaginative baker, was meant to be MacDonald.

There is no doubt in my mind that, whatever this story may satirically say of MacDonald, and in spite of Tolkien's several severe attacks on him in my presence, Tolkien was as I have already said, clearly indebted to MacDonald. For instance, there are at least a dozen places in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that are reminiscent of The Princess and Curdie. The most striking of them is the parallel rehabilitation of the king of Gwyntystorm and King Theoden in The Two Towers after a close "friend" in the palace had almost destroyed him. (p. 39)

Kilby, who was a professor of literature at Wheaton College, spent some time with J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1960s (before Tolkien's son, Christopher, brought The Silmarillion to publication).

For more on George MacDonald, see here. On Tolkien, here.

Thanks for reading.


Julana said...

That's funny, because C.S. Lewis gave so much credit for progress on his spiritual pilgrimage to MacDonald.

Jason Fisher said...

Yes, Kilby was certainly correct: there can be little doubt that Tolkien owed an imaginative debt to MacDonald, especially with respect to his (Tolkien's) earlier work, like The Hobbit, Roverandom, Mr. Bliss, etc. Later in life, Tolkien expressed regrets over having written The Hobbit in the style he did (i.e., as a children's fairy tale), and that regret parallels the dislike he developed for MacDonald later in his (Tolkien's) life.

I published an essay much to this effect a couple of years ago. If you can track it down, you might find it interesting. Certainly, it would add ammunition to your contention here in this post.

The article is:
“Reluctantly Inspired: George MacDonald and the Genesis of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smith of Wootton Major.” North Wind: A Journal of George MacDonald Studies 25 (2006): 113–20.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you both. I'm no Tolkien expert, but my impression is that JRRT thought that, if an author hadn't spent years and years on a book, it wasn't worth much. He claimed not to like the Narnia books, at least partly for that reason.

I don't, so far as I know, have access to North Wind, I'm sorry to say.