Thursday, July 24, 2014

Another Unfact about Tolkien

So, last night I came across another of those odd claims people make about J. R. R. Tolkien from time to time.  This time it was that JRRT was a friend of Christopher Lee. I'd heard or seen somewhere that Lee was a Tolkien fan from way back who had gotten THE HOBBIT when it was first published, but this degree of contact between the two seemed inherently unlikely.

First off, the venue in which this claim was made is not a promising one.

It comes from the packaging accompanying a cheap compilation of three old horror movies on one dvd (one featuring Vincent Price, one Bela Lugosi, and one Christopher Lee) that I'd bought because the third of these had been the inspiration for a good CALL OF CTHULHU scenario from Pagan P. and I wanted to see how much it owned to its source and how much to their treatment of it. I bought this ten years ago and never opened till now (having in the meantime found a single dvd with the one movie I wanted on it and watched that copy instead, while this copy drifted to a back-shelf until my current watch-and-get-rid-of-phase. Having watched one and skimmed another of the two films I hadn't seen before, I've already added this to the discard/giveaway pile.

Second, there's the actual claim, which is given (under the header VESTIGES FROM THE VINTAGE WAULT) as one of a number of bullet points/ paragraphs of THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THESE CLASSIC FILMS . . . UNTIL NOW! , followed by factoids about Price, Legosi, and Lee, the relevant one of which reads

Christopher Lee
was a friend and
student/historian of
J. R. R. Tolkien long
before portraying the
role of Saruman in 
Peter Jackson's "Lord Of
The Rings" films.

As for the truth of the matter: according to The Source of All Knowledge (a.k.a. wikipedia), Lee in his 2003 autobiography says he once met Tolkien. I haven't yet tracked down a copy of the book to see if there's any more than that, but it's clear that they didn't really know each other. So, a Tolkien fan: Yes. A personal acquaintance, No.

So, a minor point, but it's good to point out 'facts' that aren't when opportunity arises. 
There's a lot of disinformation out there, and reducing its impact is a Good Thing.

--John R.


Daniel Helen said...

From what I recall from the LOTR Extended Edition Appendices, Lee was in an Oxford pub when some friends pointed out that Prof Tolkien had just walked in. Lee had read LOTR by then but knew nothing of the author, so he was quite taken aback. I think they had a brief conversation of sorts, but I can't recall any further details.

Wurmbrand said...

Yes -- it's good quickly to call into question the apocryphal remarks and incidents attributed to Tolkien, Lewis, et al.

David Bratman said...

I've taken a look at Christopher Lee's memoir, Lord of Misrule. At neither of the page references given in Wikipedia for the statement that he'd met Tolkien does he say anything about it, so this must come, as Daniel Helen suggests, from the movie appendices, which is the third reference. He does say that he read LOTR when it first came out, and that he reads it annually.

Interestingly, Lee does say, in connection with filming Gormenghast, that he'd met Mervyn Peake. P. 321: "I knew him only slightly, but when we encountered one another in Harrods' library we would talk briefly, because he knew my sister, and there were no signs then of the impending disaster" i.e. the collapse of Peake's health. Lee doesn't say when this was; his book is largely free of specific dates. Malcolm Yorke's biography of Peake says (p. 342) that Lee "knew Peake socially in the 1940s," which was long before his illness.

And that's all I have.

Eduardo O. Ferreira said...

"We were sitting there talking and drinking beer, and someone said, "Oh, look who walked in." It was Professor Tolkien, and I nearly fell off my chair. I didn't even know he was alive. He was a benign looking man, smoking a pipe, walking in, an English countryman with earth under his feet. And he was a genius, a man of incredible intellectual knowledge. He knew somebody in our group. He (the man in the group) said "Oh Professor, Professor..." And he came over. And each one of us, well I knelt of course, each one of us said "how do you do?" And I just said "Ho.. How.. How..." Christopher Lee interview:

John D. Rateliff said...

Thanks to all, esp. Eduardo for providing the quote. Very nice!

David, it seems there's more than one edition of Lee's autobiography -- was it the 2003 version you consulted?

Here's all I have, found online and said to be from the 2003 autobiography, which I meant to put into the main post: "Lee had met J. R. R. Tolkien once (making him the only person in THE LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy to have done so) and makes a habit of reading the novels at least once a year"

Personally, I found the actual story as Eduardo quotes it as much more moving than the vague claim I was debunking. How tongue-tied would any of us have been, given a brief sudden meeting with The Professor?


David Bratman said...

Yes, it's the 2003 edition. Earlier autobiographies don't discuss the Jackson LOTR movies, obviously, and this one does. (According to Wikipedia, this is the latest one in English.)

The line you're quoting is the one from the Wikipedia article which cites 2 pages from the 2003 autobiography and 1 appendix to the LOTR movies DVDs. Lee's reading habits are what come from the autobiography - not just that he reads LOTR once a year, but that he read it when it was new and was strongly smitten.

John D. Rateliff said...

Thanks for the clarification, David. Good to know.

--John R.