An audio recording of J.R.R. Tolkien speaking at a dinner in Rotterdam in 1958 is set to undergo restoration and may offer new insights into The Lord of the Rings. Significantly, for Tolkien scholarship, it includes a previously unpublished poem.
Tolkien’s Dutch publisher and bookseller Voorhoeve en Dietrich hosted the dinner on 28 March, 1958. More than 200 fans gathered to listen Tolkien speak, and someone had the presence of mind to record his speech on reel-to-reel tape.
However the recording was lost for decades until avid Tolkien collector René van Rossenberg (who runs a Tolkien bookstore called TolkienShop) found the tape in a Rotterdam basement in 1993. Van Rossenberg held onto the tape until SF website and publisher Legendarium approached him with an offer to restore the recording.
Some details of the dinner are already known, as Tolkien afterwards wrote about it in a letter to Rayner Unwin, published as Letter #206 in The Letters of JRR Tolkien. In the letter, Tolkien described it thus:
At 5.30 on Friday I faced quite a large concourse in an assembly hall. Apparently over 200 (largely ordinary people) had paid to be present, and many had been turned away. Professor Harting was even more astonished than I was.
The dinner was certainly ‘abundant and prolonged’: the latter, because the speeches were interleaved between the courses. In the event they were all in English; and all but one quite sensible (if one deducts the high pitch of the eulogy, which was rather embarrassing).
The exception was a lunatic phycholog [psychologist], but the able chairman held him to five minutes. My final reply was I hope adequate, and was I believe audible; but I need not dwell on it. It was partly a parody of Bilbo’s speech in Chapter I.
Additionally Humphrey Carpenter in his biography of Tolkien adds a few more details. Tolkien’s speech was, according to Carpenter, in English, Dutch and Elvish (the latter, presumably the poem), and included the concluding statement:
…it is now exactly twenty years since I began in earnest to complete the history of our renowned hobbit-ancestors of the Third Age. I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron; but I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentlehobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.
The above quote, in fact, conforms very closely to the excerpt of the reel released to the public yesterday.
Writing in The Huffington Post, Noble Smith (author of The Wisdom of the Shire) enthusiastically says that in his address Tolkien “states in unambiguous terms the real meaning of The Lord of the Rings!”. He goes on to add:
[Tolkien] jumped right into explaining the construction of his great narrative work, stating that the One Ring is a mere mechanism that “sets the clock ticking fast.” And then he quite plainly spells out what the books are about–something he only alluded to once in a letter, but is incontrovertible in this speech.
Being the curious sort, I can’t help but wonder what this might be. Because, generally, Tolkien’s thoughts as elucidated in his letters tend to tell us (repeatedly) that The Lord of the Rings is thematically a meditation on death and immortality.
The real theme for me is about something more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to not leave it, until its evil-aroused story is complete. (Letter #186, April 1956)
And from Letter #208 to C. Ouboter of none-other-than Voorhoeve en Deitrich dated 10 April, 1958:
As for ‘message’: I have none really, if by that is meant the conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching, or of delivering myself of a vision of truth specially revealed to me! I was primarily writing an exciting story in an atmosphere and background such as I find personally attractive.
But in such a process inevitably one’s own taste , ideas and beliefs get taken up. Though it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind) that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death. (Not that there is any ‘original’ message in that: most of human art & thought is similarly preoccupied.)
But certainly Death is not an Enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the ‘message’ was the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster. Compare the death of Aragorn with a Ringwraith. The Elves call ‘death’ the Gift of God (to Men). Their temptation is different,: towards a faineant melancholy, burdened with Memory, leading to an attempt to halt time.
Note the date: a little after two weeks after Tolkien gave his dinner speech. Thus I would expect that Tolkien’s speech will most likely give a fuller account of the thesis alluded to in the letters above. Whether it will qualify as more unambiguous remains to be seen: I always held that Tolkien’s thoughts on what The Lord of the Rings was about were quite equivocal, even if formed on a post-hoc basis. Your mileage may vary.
A final thought, in 1992 René van Rossenberg gave a presentation titled Tolkien’s Exceptional Visit to Holland: A Reconstruction, which was later published by Mythopoeic Press as part of Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992. Mallorn 33. Mythlore 80.. Although the presentation pre-dates van Rossenberg’s discovery of the audio recording it also references “part of a letter to Cees Ouboter in addition to several quotes attributed to Tolkien”. It may be that van Rossenberg’s presentation could shed more light on the content of the speech (I have been unable to source a copy so far).
Regardless, it’s great that we’ll have another recording of Tolkien speaking — because there are precious few of those.