j.r.r. tolkien's mother -- 8/28/15

Today's selection -- from The Fellowship by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. British author J.R.R. Tolkien [known to his family as Ronald], famed as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, lost his father in 1896 when he was four and his mother when he was twelve:

"Mabel gave Ronald more than a lovely world in which to grow up; she gave him an array of fascinating tools to explore and interpret it. We know little of her own education, but she clearly valued learning and vigorously set about transmitting what she knew to Ronald. She instructed him in Latin, French, German, and the rudiments of linguistics, awakening in him a lifelong thirst for languages, alphabets, and etymologies. She taught him to draw and to paint, arts in which he would develop his own unmistakable style, primitive and compelling, Rousseau with a dash of Roerich. She passed on to him her peculiar calligraphy; he would later master traditional forms and invent his own. She tried to teach him piano, although that proved a failure. And she introduced him to children's literature, including Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, and Andrew Lang's collections of fairy tales. In George MacDonald he encountered goblins and, although he did not realize it at the time, Christian mythopoesis; in Lang's retelling of bits of the Old Norse Volsunga saga he met Fáfnir the dragon, a creature that excited his imagination like no other, and the prototype of Smaug of The Hobbit: 'The dragon had the trade-mark Of Faerie written plain upon him ... I desired dragons with a profound desire.' It was his first baptism into the enchantments of Faerie, an otherworldly realm just touching the fringes of ordinary life and leading, in its farthest reaches, to the outskirts of the supernatural.

Mabel Tolkien

"Bequeathing interests and skills to offspring is a means of ensuring continuity in the face of death, and we can read in Mabel's intense tutoring of her children a response to her husband's early demise. She may have sensed, too, that her own life would not last long. But Mabel wished to give her children more than the metaphorical immortality of transmitted gifts; she wished to give them true eternity. This she accomplished in 1900, by bringing herself and her two boys into the Roman Catholic Church [a controversial and unpopular move in Anglican England]. ...

"We have no record of why Mabel decided to join the Roman church; some will read in it a longing for hierarchy or authority, perhaps a replacement for a missing husband; others will see it as a genuine conversion of mind and soul. Whatever the motive, the act was not taken lightly. ... A further unraveling of her life instantly ensued. This time, she must have anticipated it: the Baptist Tolkiens and the Unitarian and Methodist Suffields united in furious denunciation of the conversions. Only one or two family members supported the sisters. May's staunchly Anglican husband commanded her to renounce her new faith (she turned, instead, to Spiritualism) and severed the small allowance he had been sending Mabel. The next few years proved bitterly hard for Mabel, as she and her children moved into a succession of dreary residences, struggling to survive on the paltry remains of Arthur's estate, the result of his amateur investments in South African mining ventures. ...

"Leon Edel, speaking of one of Tolkien's contemporaries, Leonard Woolf, who lost his father when he was eleven, commented that 'there is no hurt among all the human hurts deeper and less understandable than the loss of a parent when one is not yet an adolescent.' Tolkien was twelve when Mabel died. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, he remembered her as a 'gifted lady of great beauty and wit, greatly stricken by God with grief and suffering, who died in youth (at 34) of a disease hastened by persecution of her faith.' These notes of admiration and bitterness accompanied his memories of his mother all his life. At age seventy-three, he reiterated the theme, describing, again to Michael, her death 'worn out with persecution' in 'rented rooms in a postman's cottage at Rednal.' In Tolkien's mind, the cruel shunning that Mabel suffered after her conversion led inexorably to her fatal disease, and she thus became for him not just a beloved mother but a Job figure, a saint, and a martyr, even a type of Christ, a selfless victim whose death gave life to those whom she loved and who loved her. Mabel appears in his fiction in countless sacrificial figures, a gallery of quasi Christs: Galadriel the Elven queen, who willingly surrenders her power for the good of Middle-earth; Gandalf the wizard, who submits to death to save his companions; Aragorn the king, who puts his rightful rule and very life to the ultimate test; Arwen (and her ancestor Luthien Tinuviel), who gives up her immortality for love; and the hobbits Frodo and Sam, companions in sacrifice. The bitterness of death, the sweetness of faith, the ransom to be paid in blood; thanks in large measure to Mabel's indelible presence in his consciousness, these would become keynotes of Tolkien's imaginative world. ...

"Mabel's death transformed Tolkien's life. She had responded to the loss of her husband, to poverty, to disease, and to family cruelty with boldness and ingenuity, by opening herself to others, especially to her children and to her Church, pouring into these precious vessels her knowledge, hope, and devotion. Ronald responded to the same afflictions -- plus the additional discovery that he and Hilary must now live with Beatrice Suffield. Mabel's widowed sister-in-law, an insensitive woman who had no affection to spare for her young, bereft, and brooding Catholic charges -- by closing in upon himself, by inventing private languages, landscapes, creatures, and worlds, eventually composing a personal mythology of exceptional richness and depth."


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author:

Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

title:

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

publisher:

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

date:

Copyright 2015 by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

pages:

17-21
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