How I came to work in J.R.R. Tolkien’s office
It didn’t strike me at the time, not in the way it does today. I was sitting in that room (the number of which is a secret ;-)) in the School of English, University College Dublin, on a daily basis — and didn’t realise how special it was. I’m shaking my head at my younger self.
I was so close to one of THE biggest authors of the 20th century! I had been smelling the air (literally and metaphorically) of his genius and authority by spending hours in his old office — without my knowledge, first.
This is a younger me with my dear Professor Dolan at U.C.D in 2003, in the very room Professor Tolkien had used, and which was by then his (Dolan’s) room, where we worked together:
(man, I don’t like that girlier me, it looks so un-scholarly …)
Back in the days when he used our room for exams, Professor Tolkien came from Oxford, England, and in his own correspondence he describes why he spent so much time in ‘Eire’, and his relationship with Ireland (which wasn’t unbiased):
“J.R.R. Tolkien, 30th June 1955: ‘I have spent a good deal of time in Ireland, and am since last July actually a D. Litt. Of University College Dublin; but be it noted I first set foot in ‘Eire’ in 1949 after The Lord of the Rings was finished, and find both Gaelic and the air of Ireland wholly alien – though the latter (not the language) is attractive.’” (taken from “J.R.R. Tolkien and Ireland“, on December 7, 2014)
Well, I can’t agree with him there. I LOVE Ireland, its people, and its languages. Irish (of which I only learned the pronunciation and several words and expressions, but never its grammar, though the sound is lovely) as much as their special English with all its grammatical and semantic quirks, and that lovely pronunciation that makes it an especially attractive version of English.
10 years ago, I was working at University College Dublin, researching and compiling for the “Dictionary of Hiberno-English” (read a review about it here) with Professor T.P. Dolan (who has become a personal friend of our family since then, a quirky character and lovely man, addicted to his work as any scholar and author should be. He attended my wedding as honorary guest, which made it even more memorable).
Now, the third edition, also in paperback, is available and the book has become a national treasure. And Professor Dolan is still at it. He can’t rest until every quirk of the language has been nailed and analysed. I love it!
And one day, my beloved boss mentioned it, matter-of-factly:
That I was sitting and working in the exact office in which the literary superstar J.R.R. Tolkien had sat and examined students as an external examiner for U.C.D. Imagine Tolkien’s voice, that wonderful face, saying: “You shall (not) pass!”
On the left, you can see him in his own study, with a map of Middle-Earth!
(picture courtesy of “J.R.R. Tolkien and Ireland”, accessed Dec. 7, 2014)
My then academic hero, Professor Dolan, told me, proud as he should be: “Did you know we’re sitting in his very office? In this small, cramped and cluttered room he used to spend many years of examining students of English. I actually got a term paper he did for them.” And he showed me this treasure:
My idea was … none. I hadn’t read Lord of the Rings and just knew him as a famous author, but other than that … no fangirling for me then. Young and naive assistant that I was, I didn’t give it too much thought and rather concentrated on the neverending work of analysing words and expressions for our dictionary of English, as the Irish speak it.
I tell myself that I was too submerged in academic enthusiasm.
Today, this is a whole different story. He is one of — if not THE — greatest authors of the 20th century and his stories (at least Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) never grow old, never cease to grab new audiences, inspire authors and readers across the globe. His characters are timeless and the worlds he created unique in their inspirational (im)perfection.
This is (or when I sat there, was) what Professor Dolan called the “Tolkien library of UCD” in our room:
Well, this managed to impress me. Books always do. Just as the mountains of books my professor had piled up EVERYWHERE in his office, as tall as a man, and often dangerously leaning towards me, my laptop on the small part of the table that wasn’t overcrowded with papers. Because, you know, books, and OLD books, however high-piled or neatly lined-up — but Tolkien’s books? I admit, I strolled past these shelves many a times.
But I went home after half a year of memorable experiences in Ireland with not so much as a second thought on Tolkien. That I had been in the heart of what had been his scholarly life in Ireland. I was too proud of Professor Dolan, my hero then, and my small contribution to his best-selling dictionary, the immediate fruit of hard work at hand. Then, I didn’t understand the aura of the much bigger author, who had and still is influencing generations of readers and writers, who had been sitting in that same office Professor Dolan shared with me.
But looking back: I am awestruck. Only since I took writing serious enough to call myself a professional writer do I appreciate what had been granted to me. I was in that room, I could touch the books, the papers, enjoy the same (bland, but hey) view out of the window. It were the same corridors (dark) and lecture rooms (old-fashioned), it was just a new generation of students and lecturers.
And when I read up on his life, I found he had similar (writing) interests to mine:
“Tolkien specialised in English philology (great subject, I agree) at university and in 1915 graduated with Old Norse as special subject (Old NORSE! I mean … Vikings! Ha!). He worked for the Oxford English Dictionary from 1918 and is credited with having worked on a number of words starting with the letter W, including walrus, over which he struggled mightily” (I can so relate, having worked for the Hiberno-English dictionary … one letter can drive one crazy. All info from “wikipedia — J.R.R. Tolkien, Linguistic career”, accessed 7th Dec. 2014.)
If only I had known — my interest would have kicked in immediately, I would’ve felt the awe MUCH earlier, I can tell you!
Looking back today, I am stunned looking at my own pictures. And I want to share them with you, who probably knew decades before the ignorant me what a great man my professor was talking about, when he said: “We’re sitting in HIS room.”
(credits for signature: “J. R. R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings, including: The Fellowship of the Ring. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1954. First edition”)
THE John Ronald Reuel Tolkien!
Thank you, fate, for making Professor Dolan pick me to work with him.
I can’t believe this struck me so late as significant, but maybe as a writer my view has shifted and now focusses on inspiration more: How many writers did he inspire? Influence? Intimidate?
Have you read his works of genius, have written in the same genre, or just enjoyed the films?
Tell us all about your view of Tolkien and his works in the comments! Can’t wait to read them!