Muddled Earth

JRR Tolkien’s tortured relationship with Ireland

‘In one letter, Tolkien admitted “a certain distaste” for Celtic myths. They were like broken, stained-glass windows, reassembled at random, he thought. “Colourful”, in other words, but “mad”.’ Above, the grave of  Tolkien and his wife Edith,  in Oxford, England. Photograph:  Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images

‘In one letter, Tolkien admitted “a certain distaste” for Celtic myths. They were like broken, stained-glass windows, reassembled at random, he thought. “Colourful”, in other words, but “mad”.’ Above, the grave of Tolkien and his wife Edith, in Oxford, England. Photograph: Graham Barclay/BWP Media/Getty Images

Sat, May 11, 2013, 01:01

It’s hard to decide whether JRR Tolkien would be pleased that the Burren is holding a festival in his honour (Irishman’s Diary, May 10th), or if – on the contrary – the news would have him spinning in his grave.

But before wrestling with the question, a confession. I have never read a word of The Lord of the Rings , nor have I any immediate plans to do so. Furthermore, I somehow missed the entire film series. So the Tolkien oeuvre is known to me only third-hand, through the enormous popular-culture phenomenon it has become.

The subject of the author’s relationship with Ireland is nevertheless fascinating. And to say it was complex is an understatement. He was himself born in South Africa, but of English parents temporarily exiled, so that England was where he grew up and the country to which he developed a profound allegiance.

A measure of his commitment to its cause was that in his adult professional capacity, as an academic specialising in language and literature, he came to be grieved by the “poverty” of his beloved country in the realm of written mythology. The Arthurian legends he found wholly inadequate, compared with German, Scandinavian, and Celtic myth. So in The Lord of the Rings , essentially, he set out to redress the deficit.

He had no problem in later years acknowledging his debt to the Scandinavians. The Celts were another matter. It became a running theme of exchanges with friends and publishers that, whatever they called his work, they shouldn’t call it “Celtic”.

In one letter, he admitted “a certain distaste” for Celtic myths. They were like broken, stained-glass windows, reassembled at random, he thought. “Colourful”, in other words, but “mad”. Elsewhere, he agreed with a publisher’s rejection of his work that, while it had beauty, it was beauty “of a Celtic kind irritating to Anglo-Saxons”.

By Celtic, he usually meant Irish. An exception was when, after the belated publication of The Lord of the Rings , he acknowledged a Celtic inspiration for the names and place-names. He went on to specify that he meant Welsh, a language that, unlike Irish, he loved.

The Tolkien festival now under way (burrentolkiensociety.ie) is in part inspired by the possibility that, as a regular visitor to the Burren, the writer may have used that strange landscape as a model for Middle Earth.

But by Tolkien’s own account, this couldn’t have happened. As early as the mid-1950s, he felt the need to set the record straight, protesting that he first set foot in “Éire” only in 1949, by which time The Lord of the Rings was already complete, although unpublished.He did indeed become a regular visitor after that, as an external examiner for the universities. UCD cemented the relationship by awarding him a doctorate. And for his part, he seems to have developed real affection for the country, especially Galway, Clare, and Cork.

But never for the language, which despite his multilingual talents, he couldn’t or wouldn’t learn. He also found “the air of Ireland” (ie the ambience) “wholly alien”, although also “attractive”. This is a telling contradiction. You sense in Tolkien’s utterances about Ireland the mixed feelings of a recent convert to marijuana, happily sharing a joint at parties, but trying not to inhale.

Indeed, you could explain some of Tolkien’s unease about “Éire” as being typical of an Englishman of his class and generation, exasperated by Irish independence. The paradox here is that, while he visited the South a lot, he avoided the North on principle. Commenting on his friend and fellow writer, the Belfast-born CS Lewis, he confessed to finding him “irritating” sometimes, and added by way of explanation: “He was after all . . . an Irishman of Ulster”.

But surely the strangest thing Tolkien ever said about Ireland was a comment attributed after his death. It was from another writer, George Sayer, who recalled him once discussing the idea that landscapes could be intrinsically malign, and saying he believed Ireland to be “naturally evil”. The only thing keeping this evil in check, Sayer remembered Tolkien suggesting, was “the great devotion of the southern Irish to their religion”.

This sounds a bit mad, even from a man with as fervid an imagination as Tolkien’s. But it is someone else’s memory of a conversation, years later, and the context may have been lost. He might have meant a particular area or areas. Or maybe his hypersensitivity to landscape was just infected by acquired historic prejudice, buried like a body in one of the Irish bogs that so unsettled him.

In later years, and on a lighter note, Tolkien joked that he had become “Irish-by-adoption”. He didn’t know the half of it. If he had any ancestors from this island, however distant, he would by now have had posthumous citizenship forced upon him. As it is, it’s only the DNA of Middle Earth that remains to be decided, and the Burren has joined a growing list of places claiming paternity.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com