W.H. Auden realized that J.R.R. Tolkien’s greatness was not simply the result of a capacity for the fantastic, but rather that it relied just as much on his scholarly acumen as on his imagination…

w.h. audenW.H. Auden was a great admirer of the fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Having heard Tolkien’s lectures while an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1920s, Auden returned to Tolkien often later in his life. In many respects, this is not surprising: Among Auden’s favorite stories when he was a child were the Icelandic sagas, the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, and George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. He was always partial to mythology of a Nordic cast more so than to that of the Greeks (in the poem “Mountains,” he says, “I’m nordic myself”). This perhaps goes some way toward accounting for his great love for Tolkien, about whom he wrote on many occasions, both in prose and in verse.

My focus in this brief essay is an extremely minor, but extremely revealing, piece of Auden’s Tolkienalia: the liner notes he wrote in 1967 for a recording of Poems and Songs of Middle Earth, a collection of Tolkien’s verse from his imagined world read by the author himself.[1] (It is no surprise that Auden would support such a project, as a devotee of the aural quality of poetry, of, that is, the spoken word: He intended his own poems to be read viva voce, and a large portion of his classes when he was a schoolmaster consisted of making his pupils read aloud.) Auden realized that Tolkien’s greatness was not simply the result of a fecund capacity for the fantastic, but rather that it relied just as much on his scholarly and philological acumen as on his imagination.[2] Both facets of Tolkien, together with his powerful presence as a teacher, are clear in Auden’s opening two sentences:

Years before the general reading public had heard his name, Professor J.R.R.  Tolkien was well known to his colleagues in the field of Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English studies as a formidable scholar, and to Oxford undergraduates as an inspiring teacher.[3] As a lecturer, he showed that it is possible (though, alas, not very common) to examine the philological details of a text without forgetting its poetic value.

Auden goes on to unpack what he means with respect to the twin necessities of philological prowess and poetic fancy—and the simultaneous presence of each is one of the things that sets Tolkien’s work apart from many writers that are superficially similar. (They, combined with Tolkien’s religio-moral cast of mind, are enough to show that the only thing The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have in common is the double “R” in the byline of each series.) Auden writes:

Nobody could have written The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings who was not both a philologist and a poet. For example, only a philologist, and an exceptional one at that, could have invented an “imaginary” language for the Elves which has all the properties of a “real” one. Only a scholar could have drawn upon so many sources for the ingredients of his “brew,” from Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon and Welsh myths down to, I suspect, Rider Haggard, though, as every gourmet knows, it is not the ingredients of a dish that matter, but what the chef does with them.[4] And only an exceptional poetic imagination could have created a Secondary World, so complex, on so grand a scale, yet so completely credible in every detail.

Auden himself was, it should be pointed out, quite drawn to Iceland, a place he visited and wrote about in Letters from Iceland [1937]; inspired by his father, he even liked to think he could trace his descent from there.[5]

In these brief liner notes, Auden next lists what he views as Tolkien’s three chief gifts:

Among his many gifts, the three which astound me most are his gift for inventing Proper Names, his gift for describing landscape, and (how I envy him this) his gift for calligraphy.

Let me focus on the first for a moment, the “gift for inventing Proper Names.” The capitalization is totalement Audenesque, and he means something very specific by it. If we return to an essay from several years previous, we can see what it is that he is after:[6]

It was Edward Lear, I believe,[7] who said that the true test of imagination is the ability to name a cat, and we are told in the first chapter of Genesis that the Lord brought to unfallen Adam all the creatures that he might name them and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof, which is to say, its Proper Name. Here Adam plays the role of the Proto-poet, not the Proto-prosewriter. A Proper Name must not only refer, it must refer aptly and this aptness must be publicly recognizable. It is curious to observe, for instance, that when a person has been christened inaptly, he and his friends instinctively call him by some other name. Like a line of poetry, a Proper Name is untranslatable. Language is prosaic to the degree that “It does not matter what particular word is associated with an idea, provided the association once made is permanent.” Language is poetic to the degree that it does matter.

Elsewhere, in a passage in which he closely paraphrases the above, Auden states that “Proper Names are poetry in the raw.”[8] Naming, that is, is an act of poesis, of poetic making or creation.[9] Proper Names, for Auden, cannot be replaced with some other, equally suitable, name. There is only one; there are no synonyms. (One need only glance at the list “Bilbo Baggins; Frodo Baggins; Meriadoc Brandybuck; Peregrin Took; Samwise Gamgee” to see that Auden is correct in his evaluation.)

Regarding Tolkien’s poems themselves, Auden quotes Tolkien on Hobbit verse to remark that the poems make much use of “strange words” and “metrical tricks” (Auden loved both), and that they give a “light-hearted and frivolous” appearance—though that can be deceiving, as there is often more concealed beneath the surface.[10] Auden continues:

Tolkien’s] metres are as exciting as they are various and, though most of his poems belong to the category of “Light Verse,” there are a number, notably The Sea-Bell—in my opinion his finest—which are anything but “light-hearted.”

Auden comments specifically on the delight of hearing Tolkien recite in Elvish, and wishes space had allowed for “something by a Rohan poet” on the record.

Auden ends the notes with an endorsement of Tolkien’s series, while at the same time showing his awareness that such endorsement is superfluous: Those who love the books love the books, and those who don’t—don’t. Auden puts it this way:

I presume that most people who buy this record will already have read Professor Tolkien’s tetralogy, and I hope it will persuade anybody who has not, to do so at once. A prospective reader, however, should, I think, be warned: “This is a work that will either totally enthrall you or leave you stone cold, and, whichever your response, nothing and nobody will ever change it.” As a member of the enchanted party, I have found by experience that it is quite useless to argue with the unconverted.

Even if, however, persuasion is useless in this matter, it is worth attending to the sources of Auden’s “enchantment,” which are not a result of inexplicable aesthetic subjectivism. They are susceptible of rational analysis. They are, for Auden, scholarly acumen and imaginative energy. Neither, in isolation, would make The Lord of the Rings “work.” It is their dynamic combination that makes the books sing.

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[1] The text is found in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume V: 1963-1968, 353-4.

[2] This is in keeping with what I noted in my last essay, “In Praise of Scholarship.”

[3] This aside is obviously autobiographical (see above), though Auden does not say so.

[4] Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was a British writer of imaginative literature, including of the “Lost World” genre. He was the author of such novels as King Solomon’s Mines and She: A History of Adventure.

[5] Edward Mendelson writes of Auden’s father that he “was deeply learned in classical and Northern literature and archaeology, and published scholarly essays on fields as varied as madness in Greek tragedy, Norse antiquities, mathematical prodigies, and the psychology of juvenile delinquency. He traced his ancestry to Iceland, and transmitted to his son a lifelong love for Norse sagas, folktales, and myths” (Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography, 10-11).

[6] “Making, Knowing and Judging,” which I discussed in the previous post in relation to Yeats, linked above. The passage can be found in The Dyer’s Hand, 34-5.

[7] Auden notes that he was wrong in this assertion; the one who said this was Samuel Butler.

[8] In his lecture “Phantasy and Reality in Poetry” (1971); see The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Volume VI: 1969-1973, 713.

[9] “Creation” is meant here in its secondary, derivative sense, not its technical, theological sense. With respect to the latter, only God can create ex nihilo.

[10] Auden possessed perhaps the most versatile prosodic skill of his century.


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