When my father met Gandalf: Tolkien’s time as an external examiner at UCG
Tolkien may have enjoyed Galway and Burren scenery but disliked the Irish language
From 1949, during his time as Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University’s Merton College, JRR Tolkien was an extern at UCG and regularly made the trip to Galway. Photograph: Haywood Magee/Getty Images
So there I was, staring at my computer screen having just typed the words Chapter Six, when it occurred to me that the sensible thing to do was to log on to Twitter. I believe it’s called displacement activity. It appears to happen when I’m working on a novel.
Normally I’d scroll down the latest tweets, admiring other people’s input, wondering if I should come up with something myself, and knowing I’d be far better employed getting back to my deadline. But on that occasion, instead of feeling vaguely guilty about dancing kittens, I was catapulted back to one of the most exciting days of my life. The day I heard that my father knew Gandalf.
My father was a professor at UCG, since renamed NUI Galway. Shortly before my momentous discovery he’d given me a copy of The Hobbit and I’d loved it. It was the first book I’d read which echoed the Connemara folktales I’d been told by my granny, yet it had a distinctive flavour that I couldn’t quite pin down. So, because the material was familiar and the style felt foreign, I discovered something new: books have voices. It was also the beginning of my awareness of, and delight in, the similarities and contrasts between stories from different traditions, and between literary and oral storytelling. Not that I knew that at the time. I just loved the fact that my Granny’s stories and the book I’d been given by my father were what I called “the same only different”.
I read it slowly, seduced by the quest for the dragon’s gold but feeling something was missing. Looking back, I realise I disliked the whimsical elements and resented the lack of women. The Hobbit is male to the core and, having been raised on fearsome crones, and seductive witches who trained Cú Chulainn in arms, I found its fey “faerie” elements tame.
Gandalf, however, made up for them. Possibly because I’d had no experience of hearty public schoolmasters, I missed that specifically English side to his character and responded instead to the fact that he raised armies and spoke to eagles. This was a proper, towering druid, whose habit of disappearing to deal with unspecified threats and high matters evoked the uncertainty and danger that I loved in my granny’s tales. But, in some way, I must have grasped his essentially donnish personality. Certainly I assumed he lived in the same world as his author. Perhaps that too was something to do with my granny – the bane of my mother’s life, she lay crossly in bed lamenting her lost husband and ruled our household with all the vengeful power of a bean sídhe. So since, like her, Tolkien was a storyteller, I may have thought it logical that he would consort with wizards.
About the time that I finished reading The Hobbit, I overheard my father and mother chatting, and one name, casually mentioned, leapt out of their conversation. Daddy had to go to a meeting with Tolkien. It seemed so unlikely that I said nothing. Then I edged over to my father’s chair and stood staring at him. Eventually he looked down, and I heard myself asking if he’d take me to his meeting. He was baffled. But a lot of the things I said as a child baffled my parents, so he just laughed and pulled my hair.
Next day I watched him pack his bags and set off to take the train from our home in Dublin to Galway. I was absolutely certain that in a few hours’ time he’d be hanging out with a wizard. Possibly Smaug and the dwarves as well, but they didn’t interest me. I wanted to be introduced to Gandalf. Naturally he’d be there. The Tolkien guy probably never travelled without him. They might even be going to Galway on the same train as my father.
But he didn’t take me with him. Instead he left saying he’d be back again on Thursday. So it never happened.
Years later, when Tolkien’s visits to the Burren with CS Lewis were making headlines, I wondered if I’d imagined the whole Galway thing. Then, on the morning on which I diverted from Chapter Six to Twitter, this appeared.
NUI Galway Archives ?@nuigarchives
Happy Birthday to JRR #Tolkien today! “Imagine if J.R.R Tolkien was marking your exam papers?”
My novel completely forgotten, I tweeted back.
Felicity Hayes-McCoy ?@fhayesmccoy
@nuigarchives Was wildly excited as a kid when I heard Tolkien was in Ireland. Think he was actually a mid-fifties UCG extern?
From the other side of the country, the archivist Barry Houlihan replied.
@fhayesmccoy We’re as excited now! &you’re right, he was here in late 50s. Hopefully we can unearth more info!
He did so, establishing that from 1949, during his time as Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University’s Merton College, Tolkien was an extern at UCG and regularly made the trip to Galway. Subsequently, having polished off my novel, I did a little digging myself and discovered, rather smugly, that my childhood instinct was right. He may have enjoyed the scenery round Galway and the Burren but, for reasons he never appears to have explained, Tolkien disliked the Irish language, and spent a great deal of time assuring correspondents that there’s no Celtic influence in his stories of Middle Earth.
Though he grudgingly admitted in a 1967 letter that “Nazg”, the word in the inscription on the One Ring in The Lord of The Rings may have come from nasc which, in Old Irish, meant both “ring” and “link”. If it did, though, he insists, it was unintentional, something which just became “lodged in some corner” of his “linguistic memory”.
Out of such mental links stories are woven. It’s only as I’ve been writing this piece that I’ve spotted that, despite the Finfarran novels’ focus on rural realism, Fury O’Shea, my fictional builder, has something of Gandalf about him, and Mary Casey my protagonist’s formidable mother, owes a great deal to my own fierce granny.
The Transatlantic Book Club by Felicity Hayes-McCoy is published by Hachette Ireland in trade paperback and ebook