Back to blog feed
Tolkien and Quisling

Was Tolkien the first writer in English to use the word ‘quisling’?

I came across this claim on the spawning-board of so many odd claims, Wikipedia. Its article on the word ‘quisling’ currently states that ‘The term was introduced to an English-speaking audience by the British newspaper The Times, in an editorial published on 19 April, 1940 entitled “Quislings everywhere”, after the Norwegian Vidkun Quisling, who assisted Nazi Germany as it conquered his own country so that he could rule the collaborationist Norwegian government himself.’

This already is not quite in accordance with the OED (I have the 1989 2nd edition), whose earliest citation is from The Times for 15 April, the quote referring to the need for ‘unremitting vigilance also against possible “Quislings”‘ in Sweden. Whether this is the same piece (misdated by somebody) or not, someone willing to push uphill the boulder of fact-checking Wikipedia could look up The Times to see.

In the next sentence, with a fine disregard for sequential logic, Wikipedia writes, ‘Before that, J.R.R Tolkien used the term in “On Fairy-Stories”, a presentation given in 1939 and first printed in 1947.’

It’s true that Tolkien printed the word in 1947. It’s on p. 76 of Essays Presented to Charles Williams. In his criticism of those who ‘confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter,’ Tolkien also charges that ‘they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot.’

But did he use it in 1939? It seems unlikely. Wikipedia informs us that the word had been used in Norwegian politics since at least 1933 to refer to Vidkun Q.’s followers, but prior to the German invasion of 9 April 1940 it would have lacked the full meaning of ‘traitor to one’s country, collaborationist’ of the OED’s definition and Tolkien’s meaning, as well as the transference to others than specifically Norwegians.

Flieger and Anderson’s Tolkien on Fairy-stories demonstrates that the lecture Tolkien gave in March 1939 was far briefer than the version published in 1947. Nor did Tolkien avoid being more up-to-date in his revisions. In discussing the likelihood of belief in legendary stories, he raises the implausibility of the Archbishop of Canterbury slipping on a banana skin ‘in the period between, say, 1940 and 1945.’ As Flieger and Anderson point out (p. 105), the war years was a period that bananas would have been hard to find in England, something not quite predictable in 1939; nor does it seem plausible that Tolkien would have used such wording in 1939 to indicate ‘I don’t believe the story because it hasn’t happened yet.’

I haven’t scoured all the drafts printed by Flieger and Anderson to confirm that the word isn’t there. That I haven’t found it proves little, as I find OFS dashedly hard to locate anything in, even if I just saw it there yesterday. But I doubt Tolkien preceded The Times. The answer to the question with which I opened is almost certainly no.

Tolkien is not cited for this word by the OED, but C.S. Lewis is. He gave ‘quislings’ (without quotation marks) as an example of ‘bad morality’ in the second series of his broadcast talks, Christian Behaviour, published in 1943. Interestingly, the word did not survive into the compiled revision, Mere Christianity of 1952. Possibly Lewis thought the word had become obsolete, though both the OED and Wikipedia still plump for its currency.

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.