“From the corner of every shire in all the North, they head to Leeds, and in the fairest town of all Yorkshire they seek the deep, bright well of learning…”
These lines are taken from The Clerk’s Compleinte, a poem written in Leeds by a young university lecturer in the early 1920s. They perhaps wouldn’t be significant were it not for the fact that the lecturer in question was a certain JRR Tolkien.
The poem is one of many written and published during the five years he spent as a reader in English language at the University of Leeds.
Tolkien, of course, is one of the most famous writers of the 20th century, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy are known the world over, and later this week it will be 80 years since The Hobbit, his children’s fantasy novel, was first published.
The story follows home-loving hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his quest to win a share of the treasure guarded by Smaug the dragon and the ensuing perilous adventures he finds himself embroiled in.
It was published more than a decade after Tolkien left Leeds to take up a post at Oxford, his alma mater. However, the time he spent in Yorkshire influenced the writer he became and offers some fascinating insights into the man himself.
Tolkien arrived in Leeds in 1920, having left the city of dreaming spires, where he’d been working on the Oxford English dictionary, for the heartlands of the industrial North to take up his job in academia. It was a very different city with a very different outlook than the one he had come from.
Dr Alaric Hall is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval English Literature and as such follows in Tolkien’s footsteps. “Leeds didn’t have a great image at the time, it was seen as a grim industrial city and his family didn’t move up with him for the first year he was in the job, so he must have been quite lonely at times.”
The university, though, was making a name for itself and attracting talented lecturers from all over the country. “All these scholars arrived and were trying to make an intellectual community happen and Tolkien was very much part of this,” says Hall.
“At this time Tolkien was still working on the Silmarillion. But while he was in Leeds he was getting quite a few poems published, some of which were in medieval languages, and it’s interesting to see him learning the art of writing.”
He was also developing the ideas he would later use in The Hobbit. It was while in Leeds that he wrote an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with his friend and fellow Leeds academic EV Gordon, who also happened to be an active member of the Yorkshire Dialect Society.
“It’s something Simon Armitage did a translation of a few years back, so there’s a bit of a Yorkshire tradition of working on this poem,” says Hall.
“This poem clearly influences Tolkien’s later work in some significant ways, partly with The Hobbit and also The Lord of the Rings. What’s striking about it is it makes the main character an ordinary person who finds himself caught up in this fantasy world and being confused about what he’s supposed to do.
“This is also one of the main conceits of both The Hobbit, where Bilbo is thrust into this adventure that he didn’t really see coming, and The Lord of the Rings, and again they give the perspective of the ordinary person in this fantasy world.”
Hall believes Tolkien’s time in Leeds was significant for a number of reasons. “It started his academic career and he was still clearly reflecting on his experiences during the First World War which comes through a lot in his writing.
“People might not look at his work and instantly think of it as First World War literature as they would do Wilfred Owen’s, but it really is.
“He reflects on his experiences as an ordinary person thrust into these great events. The Hobbit, for instance, is quite striking for its pacifism, although that is something which didn’t really come through in the films.”
A rare first edition of The Hobbit is housed at the university which also has some intriguing correspondence in its collections between Tolkien and Leeds-born children’s author Arthur Ransome, shortly after it was first published.
Ransome had the same publisher as Tolkien and, while the Swallows and Amazons author was convalescing in hospital, after injuring himself while sailing in the Norfolk Broads, he was sent a copy of The Hobbit to cheer him up. After reading it Ransome wrote a letter to Tolkien.
“It’s nice because he enters the fiction the book presents, that it’s a translation of an ancient work that Tolkien found. Ransome praises the book but also says the scribe may have got a few things wrong.
“So he criticises the style at a few points but in a friendly way and he does it by criticising the translator, rather than Tolkien,” says Hall.
“Tolkien wrote back saying the translator might have got a few things wrong but not as many as Ransome may think, and it’s fascinating to see these two famous children’s authors entertaining this fiction.
“Ransome questioned some of the Tolkienian allusions that weren’t explained at the time.
“Tolkien came back and comments on the relationship between men and hobbits and elves, and this was some of the first reflections we can see from Tolkien’s surviving letters on his own writing. So it’s a milestone in that respect.”
Their letters also reveal that Tolkien was initially downbeat about the prospects of his book’s success, promising to send Ransome a revised copy “if there is a reprint”, adding somewhat gloomily that “sales are not very great.”
The Hobbit, of course, went on to become a literary classic.
“It’s got a realism that you rarely find in fantasy books. It’s got a strong sense, for instance, of how long journeys by foot or on a pony are hard and miserable. There’s a grittiness to it even though it’s a children’s book which comes from Tolkien’s experiences on the Western Front.
“Bilbo is an anti-hero and isn’t likeable in many ways and you don’t see that in much children’s literature, particularly in the thirties. Tolkien gave readers a hero they could identify with and there’s the pacifist strand to the story which you don’t find in much high fantasy work.”
His books have stood the test of time. “He’s still hugely popular among readers and he’s become more seriously regarded by scholars in recent years.
“While The Hobbit doesn’t start the fantasy genre, which begins earlier in the Edwardian period, he is one of the first big, landmark figures and very few writers have been able to get out from under his shadow since.”
Viking Club for drinking songs
During his time as a lecture at Leeds University, Tolkien co-founded the Viking Club for students with his friend EV Gordon. This involved meetings where club members sang drinking songs they’d written in Old English and Old Norse.
“Tolkien and Gordon would go with the students to a pub, though we’re not sure which one, and sing these strange songs,” says Dr Alaric Hall.
The songs are part of a collection of letters, poems and prose by Tolkien acquired by the university. One of the songs in the collection – The Root of the Boot – later appeared in The Lord of the Rings, recited by Samwise Gamgee. The manuscript for the song, neatly handwritten in tiny ink script by Tolkien, has scribbled at the top an indication of which traditional tune it should be sung to.