What I hadn't realized is that there's so much information on GSG (biography, letters) readily available. And, checking the index of said volumes and looking up the Tolkien references, of which there are a few --one in the Life (inconsequential) and four in the Letters (quite interesting). And reading these, I was immediately struck with just how ill Tolkien was when he came down with pneumonia in 1923.
I'd never realized before how close Tolkien came to dying. Looking at the evidence, it seems obvious. So why didn't that simple, and dramatically important, fact not impress itself upon me before? I certainly have always known how deadly pneumonia was in those days, and for long afterwards: my own grandfather died of it in 1949 (age 57), and I myself almost died of double pneumonia as a child. The treatment was more or less to make the person get lots of rest and hope for the best. So why, knowing that Tolkien had been strickened with a usually-fatal disease, didn't it really register?
Part of it seems to be presentation. Carpenter's account of this episode, which he does include, is rather breezy, focusing on the humor of young Tolkien sick in bed while old John Suffield, his Tookish grandfather, was off on a trip around the islands (Carpenter's BIOGRAPHY, p. 106). Scull and Hammond report the facts, but briefly and with detachment:
May 1923 Tolkien catches a severe cold, which turns into pneumonia.
He is gravely ill, his life in danger; but he will begin to recover by 12 June.
[Scull/Hammond CHRONOLOGY, p. 121]
and again, a little later on the same page
Late June or July 1923 Once Tolkien has recovered from his illness,
he and his family travel on holiday
This is sad news about Tolkien -- his illness; but
E. V. says he's safe now, and pulling through.
(i.e., E. V. Gordon) THE LETTERS OF GEORGE S. GORDON 1902-1942 (p. 164)
It's a strange might-have-been to think of Tolkien, who'd never been a strong or healthy man, succumbing to pneumonia at thirty-one, leaving behind THE BOOK OF LOST TALES, the Turin Lay, Kullervo, two invented languages and I think one invented script, a small portfolio of strange art, and a quantity of odd verse. If any of that had gotten published at all, 'SPRING HARVEST'-like, what a strange and truncated legacy it'd have made. I suppose he'd have been remembered as a disciple of Dunsany's who died young. How grateful I am that he recovered from that near-fatal bout, and lived a good long life, with virtually all the work he's known for falling on this side of that dividing line.
Lucky him. Lucky us.