Monday, February 5, 2024

Tolkien on Max Beerbohm

 Oscar Wilde by Max
The New York Public Library recently hosted an exhibition on Max Beerbohm: The Price of Celebrity from October 20, 2023--January 28, 2024. A small book (around one hundred pages), with text by Margaret D. Stetz, with Mark Samuels Lasner, describes many of the items showcased in the exhibition. 

Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) is perhaps best remembered as a caricaturist (he signed his work "Max"), but he was also an essayist and drama critic. His two most famous pieces of fiction are the novel (his only one), Zuleika Dobson, or, an Oxford Love Story (1911), a satire of undergraduates, and the clever short story, "Enoch Soames," about a lesser poet from 1897 who makes a deal with the devil and travels one hundred years into the future for an afternoon, in order to ascertain his own posthumous reputation. 

Item 70 in the exhibition is a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien to J.G. Riewald (1910-2006), a Beerbohm scholar who had written to Tolkien as a Professor at Merton College to ask if he knew of any personal stories about Beerbohm, who had been at Merton College as an undergraduate, and who had been made and honorary Fellow there in 1942. Tolkien replied on 20 August 1948 that he knew little of Beerbohm, whose "published cartoons ... amuse me" while Beerbohm's literary work "usually fails to amuse me." (quoted from p. 91 of the book). 

We don't know what of Beerbohm Tolkien had read (there are no Beerbohm books listed in Oronzo Cilli's Tolkien's Library, 2023), but Zuleika Dobson came out late October 1911, just as Tolkien had commenced his own undergraduate studies at Oxford, so it seems likely that Tolkien would have encountered it.


  1. Thanks for this! I was unaware of these letters. It's not a book, but a user over on TolkienGuide points out that Tolkien refers to a Beerbohm cartoon in his Dante Society lecture (see this Mythlore article by John R. Holmes)

    - Jeremy

  2. Incidentally, I remember a frontispiece photo of Arthur Machen and Max Beerbohm on the occasion of the former's 80th birthday -- I think; see Arthur Machen: A MIscellany, of which I have a photocopy somewhere that I wasn't able to find just now.
    Dale Nelson