Simon Tolkien remembers his grandfather
Novelist Simon Tolkien talks to Joanna Moorhead about a grandfather who inspired and inhibited him
As creator of Middle-earth, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most successful authors in history. And yet, says Simon Tolkien, the grandfather he remembers seemed to think he had failed.
It wasn't that his work hadn't met with acclaim; by the time of his death in 1973, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were bestsellers. The problem, says Simon, was that the bigger picture Tolkien had wanted the world to know - the complex hinterland of which the books were but a small part - had not been deemed publishable. "He'd produced this huge output that covered everything from the history of the gods to the history of the people. He called it the Silmarils - that was his great work but it had never seen the light of day despite his best efforts to get it published.
"By the time I knew him he was in his 70s. And it's my perception that from an artistic point of view he was unhappy. The work he had devoted his life to had gone by the board, and that was a distressing realisation. He knew it was too late by then for him to get it published."
That task fell to Simon's father, Christopher, who over the two decades after Tolkien's death published The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth. "It's enormously to my father's credit that he took on that huge task.
"I remember the crate-loads of papers arriving at his home, and no one could be in any doubt at the scale of the work he had taken on," Simon says.
"My grandfather had been working on his vast project for about 30 years - he started it during his time in the trenches in 1916. And although it's very sad that he was dead before it was published, it means that people who want to understand Middle-earth and the world of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit can do so."
Simon's praise for his father is a turnaround - a few years ago, he and Christopher were at loggerheads over Peter Jackson's plans to turn The Lord of the Rings into a film trilogy. Tolkien had sold the rights for £10,000 in 1968 to pay a tax bill, and Christopher was unhappy that the family would have no role in, or financial benefit from, the films.
There were plenty of headlines about the family fallout: but, today, Simon plays it all down. He and Christopher seem to have patched up their differences (his new book is dedicated to his father). Meanwhile, a lawsuit between the family and the film company was settled a few years ago, paving the way for the release of the first Hobbit film - An Unexpected Journey - this month. "Fathers and sons have their ups and downs," is all he's prepared to say on the subject.
From Simon's point of view, the problem with the films wasn't how they portrayed his grandfather's work but rather that they catapulted the Tolkien family into the realms of media mega-fame. "When I was growing up, people were reading his books but it wasn't the defining factor of our family," he says.
"All that changed when the films came along. They were a global hit, and everywhere you went the name Tolkien meant something."
That affected Simon's wife, Tracy, and their son Nicholas, who Tracy has said was teased at school and nicknamed "the hobbit", when his great-grandfather's fame grew. But Simon says he's not worried about his younger daughter Anna, 10, with the new film due out soon. "She is very proud of being related to J.R.R. Tolkien - and in America, where she's growing up, they are a lot more comfortable with the idea of being related to someone famous."
For Simon, Tolkien's fame meant that for a long time he felt he was "just the grandson". He studied at Oxford University, where his grandfather was a professor of English and his father a fellow of New College.
He went on to become a barrister despite harbouring ambitions to be a writer himself. "Being Tolkien's grandson blocked my writing. I found it very inhibiting that I was the grandson of such a genius - I thought it would be impossible for me to do anything creative because I couldn't possibly match up to him."
Simon has just published his fourth novel, Orders from Berlin, a thriller set during the second world war, very different to the fantasy world of Middle-earth.
As a child, Simon was very close to his Tolkien grandparents.
"I was an only child and my parents got divorced when I was five. I lived with my mother in a small village outside Oxford and spent quite a bit of time with my grandparents at their house in Oxford. After my grandfather retired and they moved to Bournemouth [south-west England], I'd go to visit them there."
"My grandfather was a very patient person, a very affectionate person, and we had many happy hours together. I had older cousins and younger half-siblings, but I was the perfect age to go on my own on the train to stay with them."
It wasn't until he was 40, 13 years ago, that Simon first tried his hand at fiction. Ironically, he says, although he was trying to get away from being Tolkien's grandson, his name opened doors with agents and publishers. "They would have loved me to have written fantasy fiction because that would have been easier to sell from a Tolkien, but I wanted to write thrillers," he says.
He credits his grandfather's stories as the inspiration of some of his plotlines and says that the influence of his creative mind in his early years must have helped him in the development of his own fiction.
"I don't ever remember him reading to me, though I read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was quite young, and loved them," he says. "The thing I used to do, all the time, was ask him about the plots that were off somewhere out of sight in the books. He was very patient and would always indulge me by explaining what else the wizards and dragons he'd written about got up to, and what else was going on in their world.
"What separated him from other fantasy writers was that the depth of his world was so real. He told me that he devised the languages before he wrote the stories, so he really was building new worlds from the foundations up."
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