Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tolkien's Desks

Tolkien's desk at the Wade Center
Tolkien had two desks that have achieved some fame. The first is the more simple desk, given to him by his wife in 1927. In 1972, he donated it to the charity Help the Aged, who sold it at auction. In the accompanying letter, Tolkien noted that: "It was my first desk, and has remained the one that I chiefly used for literary work until her death in 1971. On it The Hobbit was entirely produced: written, typed and illustrated." This desk has long resided in the Wade Center at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois.

The Tolkien/Murdoch roll-top desk around 1990
The second of Tolkien's desks that has achieved some fame is the roll-top desk later owned and used (for letter writing) by novelist Iris Murdoch (1919-1999). Murdoch's husband, John Bayley (1925-2015) was a Fellow of New College, Oxford, from 1954, and was therefore a close colleague of Christopher Tolkien, after he got a Fellowship at New College in 1963.  In January 1965 J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his son Michael that he had received a "warm fan-letter from Iris Murdoch." A.N. Wilson noted in his memoir Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her (2003): "The Lord of the Rings she read and reread, enjoying detailed conversations about it with its author, or with Christopher Tolkien, the author's son" (p. 224). Murdoch herself, in private correspondence, was somewhat more critical. On 18 January 1969 she wrote to Rachel Fenner:  "Have you read Lord of the Rings yet I wonder? I have just been reading The Hobbit which has some very good scenes in it. (Tolkien muffs all of the big scenes in L of R I'm afraid—it should be much more drawn out.)" In the recent thick volume of her letters, Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995 (2015), there is a photograph of Tolkien's roll-top desk, and another of Murdoch sitting at it. The latter photograph has a caption from a 29 March 1990 letter to artist Harry Weinberger, reading "I have a new desk and one of your big sea (harbour) pictures hangs above it and inspires me"—implying that the desk was new to her in 1990.  But this implication is incorrect. Murdoch's biographer, Peter J. Conradi, in his Iris Murdoch: A Life (2001), noted that she and husband John had bought the desk in the 1970s (p. 569), but even that might not be correct.  A.N. Wilson noted in his Murdoch memoir that she had the desk when Wilson first met her, around September of 1969, while Tolkien was still very much alive. The desk itself can be seen in photographs of Tolkien's room in Merton College in the mid-1950s.  He would have cleared it from Merton when he retired in 1959, but it was probably sometime around the summer of 1968, as he prepared to move from Oxford to Bournemouth, that he sold the desk to Murdoch.