Sunday, April 7, 2013

Tolkien and the Elephant

So, here's a little anecdote about Tolkien I don't think is too well known. Came across my copy of it yesterday when looking for something else,* and seemed like a good time to share.

It appears in the unlikely place as an aside in a book review from a 1979 issue of NOTES AND QUERIES. The book being reviewed is a Folk-Lore Society volume, ANIMALS IN FOLKLORE; the reviewer is B. D. H. Miller, about whom I know nothing beyond this piece. In addition to mentioning such interesting-sounding pieces as ' "Historic Dragon-Slayers" from Alexander the Great to Sir John Lambton, who flourished in the fifteenth century' and essays by luminaries like Katharine Briggs (an account of the Muller-Lang war) and H. R. Ellis Davidson, he follows a sentence about J. D. A. Widdowson's "Animals as Threatening Figures in Systems of Traditional Social Control" with a lengthy parenthetical, which reads as follows:

(Professor Tolkien used to relate how 
as a young father he once threatened his son: 
"If you don't eat your porridge, the elephant 
will come and gobble it up," only to find himself 
disconcertingly vindicated when the boy, gazing out 
of the window, exclaimed "But it has, daddy, 
it has!" ; the circus was in Oxford, and animals 
were just then taking a constutional up Pusey Street. 
Did he realize he was operating a System 
of Traditional Social Control?) 

[NOTES AND QUERIES, June 1979, page 246]

The son in question is of course John Tolkien (b. November 1917). Given that the Tolkiens moved to Pusey Street in September 1919 and left there in March/April 1921 (cf. Scull and Hammond' CHRONOLOGY, pages 109 and 116), the event that inspired this little story must date from that sixteen or seventeen month period.

--John R.

THE WIFE SAYS "sounds apocryphal to me!"

*a 1955 review of RETURN OF THE KING, to be precise. Maybe better luck next time.

1 comment:

Wayne and Christina said...

B.D.H. Miller took a B.Litt. and D.Phil. at Oxford, and was one of Tolkien's students: see many references in the Chronology.

His parenthetical note about Tolkien may be a confusion derived from Father John's memory described in The Tolkien Family Album, p. 43: "Later that year they moved to 1 Alfred Street. . . . John remembers seeing the St Giles' Fair at that time, which then included wild animals. These were taken out for exercise early in the morning, and he recalls that as elephants were taken down Alfred Street, they blocked out the light as they passed the dining-room window." For some reason, we omitted this from our Chronology, but included it as a brief note in the entry for Tolkien's Oxford homes, p. 694.