JRR Tolkien: academic, philologist – and prankster extraordinaire

·6 min read
High fantasy author JRR Tolkien - Getty
High fantasy author JRR Tolkien - Getty

The party invitation to Christopher Tolkien’s 21st birthday party offers “Carriages at midnight”. Very civilised, of course, but his proud parents clearly expected guests to hang around rather longer. “Ambulances at 2am,” the invitation continues. “Wheelbarrows at 5am,” it adds. “Hearses at daybreak.”

The Twittersphere is currently warbling over the realisation that the epic storyteller not only held parties of special magnificence, but actually had a sense of humour. The 1945 invitation card is published in The Great Tales Never End, a book of essays in memory of Christopher Tolkien, who edited – brilliantly – most of his father’s vast posthumous output. But the idea of a laughing Professor should come as no surprise. Tolkien was a hoot.

While he didn’t come up with the line “Nobody tosses a dwarf” (that is from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation),  he has enough gags to justify an entire book of scholarly essays about his humour, Laughter in Middle-earth.

Tolkien was troubled by nightmares, including one he had always suffered about an all-devouring wave. And his stories include moments of creeping horror and unbearable sadness – like the doom of the Atlantis-island of Númenor, which will feature in the forthcoming Amazon Prime television epic, The Rings of Power. But his taste for simple humour seems to have emerged just as early – and to have been bound up with his urge to tell stories. The earliest are those he told his little brother, in which their Staffordshire village neighbours included a witch (who ran the sweet shop), a Black Ogre (a bad-tempered farmer with a dark beard) and a White Ogre (the miller, covered in mill dust).

But for all his solitary pursuits as a writer and inventor of legends and even languages, Tolkien was, in fact, an entertainer. When his classically oriented school (King Edward’s School in Birmingham) held its annual Latin debate, Tolkien arrived as Portorius Acer Germanicus – Latin for “Toll Keen of Germany” – but spoke Gothic, an extinct Germanic language. You can picture the bewilderment of the other boys, all posing as Roman senators.

As an Oxford student, he attempted to scale the walls of a college residence. Such was his love of punning that I wonder whether he chose this Alpine escapade specifically because the chalet-like house was known as “the Swiss Cottage”.

Humphrey Carpenter put it well in his authorised biography of Tolkien: “He could laugh at anybody, but most of all at himself, and his complete lack of any sense of dignity could and often did make him behave like a riotous schoolboy.” He catalogues incidents where Tolkien dressed up as a polar bear in sheepskin rug, as an Anglo-Saxon axeman (he chased a neighbour down the street), and gave shopkeepers his false teeth in a handful of change.

But it was the late Hugh Brogan, eminent professor of history at the University of East Anglia, who showed me the lengths Tolkien would go to in his quest for a laugh. As a child, Brogan lived in a late Regency house with a tall, elegant, winding staircase. Tolkien, visiting the family, “went up to the first-floor landing and fell all the way down quite spectacularly – about a dozen steps, I guess – arms and legs splaying about in all directions, and an immense clatter. We were literally breathtaken.” The elderly Brogan regretted that he couldn’t remember for sure whether Tolkien gave an encore.

As secretary of his undergraduate college society, Tolkien’s minutes of meetings are filled with an almost Joycean delight in expression. “A maggot, moldiewarp, or mealie-worm saved from drowning in coffee was rescued and attended to by Mrs Kindersley, the noted insect-fancier.” He retold his final meeting in mock-epic mode, the president vying with a riotous assembly. “It was at one time on the point of dissolving and becoming another society; at another it was vociferating for Rule 40; at another for Rule 10; at another for no Rules at all, or for the President’s head, or his nether-garments.”

John Rhys-Davies as Gimli in the 2001 film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Alamy
John Rhys-Davies as Gimli in the 2001 film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Alamy

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this bit of throwaway comic prose is how it uses the some of the same structure and rhetorical techniques as the severely beautiful creation myth that he later wrote for The Silmarillion. Parody was Tolkien’s route into writing. Online forums exist where devotees swap tips about the funniest bits in The Silmarillion, but it’s thin pickings.

Here, Tolkien was aiming for wonder or, more often, grim austerity. The hero Beren asks the elf-king Thingol for his daughter’s hand in marriage. You can have it, says Thingol, when you hold in your hand a Silmaril from the Iron Crown of Morgoth. Translated for the uninitiated, this means: “I want you to fetch me a holy jewel from Middle-earth’s own Satan.” Translated further, it means eff off and die. Because this is An Impossible Task. Beren eventually returns saying he has a Silmaril in his hand. Problem is, the jewel is far away inside a ravening wolf which bit off the hand. Ho ho ho.

Tolkien’s propensity for humour also made its way into his most famous works such as The Hobbit. Whether or not you like the trolls’ comic cockney accents, you have to relish their quarrel over the best way to make dinner out of a captive troupe of dwarves. Boil them, mince them, or sit on them till they’re slowly squashed to jelly?

Gandalf, who saves the dwarves on that occasion, is at once a Nordic wanderer and a bit of comic relief. The wisest figure in The Hobbit and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, he is also irascibly superior. A favourite target is the incorrigibly curious hobbit Pippin Took – or “tom-fool of a Took”, as Gandalf calls him.

Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee and Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in the 2002 film adaptation of he Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Allstar/New Line Cinema
Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee and Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in the 2002 film adaptation of he Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Allstar/New Line Cinema

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits themselves are crucial to the comedy – and the extraordinary pathos. At the outset, they are well-fed, comfy, conceited creatures. But their author hurls them into a world of mythological perils – and thus humour is woven into a profoundly effective rhythm of suspense and relief.

Indeed, comedy in some of the most dramatic moments in Middle-earth. The hobbit Sam Gamgee’s rural accent may be snortworthy enough for some readers, while critics used routinely to deride him as a comic sidekick in a posh man’s book. But Tolkien based him on ordinary soldiers he had known in the trenches, and there is genuine love and admiration in the portrayal. Sam’s inability to be awed by the awesome is a real gift – both to him and to the reader.

Having managed to wound the monstrous spider Shelob – by dint of holding his sword upright while she tries to crush him – he yells: “Come on, and taste it again!” It’s not the language of heroic epic, but of a village dust-up. After an astonishingly tense showdown, Sam has not been crushed – either psychologically or physically – and we can let off steam, with a chuckle.

John Garth is the author of The Worlds of JRR Tolkien, available in paperback from September 6