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Another Tolkien reference

For several years I’ve been keeping a bibliography of appearances by or references to the Inklings as characters in fiction. I’ve tried to keep it complete, so it’s a surprise to find an old one that I’ve missed.

A review copy of Raymond Edwards’ new biography, Tolkien (Robert Hale, 2014), revealed one. It’s in Tomorrow’s Ghost, a 1979 novel by the thriller writer Anthony Price.

This find surprised me slightly, as I should have known about it: this book was still fairly new when I was introduced to Price’s work by a fellow Tolkien fan. What intrigued her was that his contemporary-setting spy novels were often about history. The one I read that I enjoyed the most, Other Paths to Glory, is set in the 1970s when it was written, but it’s about World War I. Someone is murdering historians specializing in studying the trench warfare, and the survivor has to find out why. Another book, Our Man in Camelot, involves the search for the location of that legendary court. No Tolkien references in either of those, though the opportunities are obvious.

Tomorrow’s Ghost isn’t about history, except the personal history of its characters (and you have to have read Price’s other novels about these people to care about them), but it does have these Tolkien references. The protagonist, Frances Fitzgibbon, is a British government spy who’s been hurriedly assigned a cover identity as a post-grad research fellow at a plateglass university in Yorkshire, studying fairy-stories from Spenser to Tolkien. The colleague who assigned her this topic had seen shelves of fairy-stories, including well-thumbed copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, at her home, so he figured this would be up her alley.

What the colleague didn’t know is that they all belonged to her late husband. Her own view of LotR was that “its awful poetry apart, it had seemed to her an absolutely marvellous adventure story for romantically-inclined 14-year-olds. But … perhaps Robbie [her Tolkien-loving husband] had been right and she had been wrong …”

So in the English faculty common room, then, she sits mutely while the dons discuss “On Fairy-stories” over her head, until she offers a fairy-story her grandmother had told her, and it’s this, rather than anything from Tolkien, which offers a leitmotif that connects with the novel’s overall plot.

Most of the conversation is about Tolkien’s scholarship rather than his person, for instance:

It’s Hugo’s theory that Tolkien didn’t really know his fairy stories, Miss Fitzgibbon. According to Hugo he was a philologist who made up languages before lunch by way of relaxation, the way Hugo does The Times crossword. What do you think of that?

She can’t say much of anything to that, though I would have liked to have been there and contributed a few earfuls.

Mention of an Inkling’s work is outside the coverage of my bibliography, but the said Hugo (no, not Dyson) says that as a student in Oxford he’d known Tolkien slightly. He offers one personal anecdote, in response to a question as to whether Tolkien was obsessed by World War I and based the Dead Marshes on the trenches, and it’s this which Edwards quotes.

Hmmm … I don’t know about that. But he was fascinated by trenches, certainly … I can remember meeting him in the High once – at Oxford. He was standing in the rain watching workmen digging a trench in the road, absolutely transfixed by them –” (ellipses in original)

Edwards’ comment (p. 305) is, “This may be fictional, or may not,” citing Price’s own Oxford background.

Let’s chalk it up on the list, and leave it there for now.

About the Author: David Bratman
David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.