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Literary detective

How would JRR Tolkien have chosen to illustrate The Lord of the Rings? Letters discovered by the Department of English's Dr Paul Tankard now give us an insight…

Not every English scholar can say they've unearthed new primary material on a major author. Dr Paul Tankard has done it twice in recent years – tracking down the transcript of a unique and unknown television interview with CS Lewis, and bringing to light a chain of correspondence between JRR Tolkien and a would-be illustrator for The Lord of the Rings.

Tankard's essays about both of his discoveries have been published in the prestigious and widely circulating Times Literary Supplement, with the story of Tolkien and English artist Mary Fairburn featuring on the cover.

“Many of the major authors of the past have been well worked-over by scholars – so we explore ever more obscure angles on them, or find increasingly minor authors to write about,” says Tankard.

“I am pleased to think that, in finding new material about important writers, I have been able to contribute more meaningfully to literary history. The Tolkien letters and Mary's paintings and illustrations were real discoveries. Tolkien actually saw her pictures and said they were the best illustrations of his fantasy epic that he'd seen.”

In 2010, Tankard was visiting relatives in Victoria, Australia, when he was told about a local artist claiming to have done work for Tolkien in the 1960s. He was initially skeptical but, when they eventually met, she was able to produce four letters written by Tolkien to her in 1968.

“It was very exciting to see Mary's letters from Tolkien – his handwriting is very distinctive and instantly recognisable. I knew then that her story was verifiable and was clearly something more than just an anecdote.”

In May 1968, Fairburn submitted at least three paintings to Tolkien in the hope he would use them as illustrations. These included a pen-and-ink illustration of Gandalf and a small sketch of Gollum. Tolkien's response was a letter in which he said the pictures were “splendid. They are better pictures in themselves and also show far more attention to the text than any that have yet been submitted to me.”

Tolkien was not, in general, enthusiastic about the idea of his books being illustrated. His letters to Fairburn showed that he was very impressed with her work and might even have had a change of heart, beginning to “think an illustrated edition might be a good thing”.

Sadly for Fairburn, the correspondence ended without success, despite Tolkien requesting and receiving further illustrations. This was due, in part, to upheaval and injury in Tolkien's life as well as the publisher's fear of how much an illustrated edition would cost.

When it came to publishing Fairburn's story, Tankard knew he would have to seek permission from the Tolkien estate to use Tolkien's letters, as the copyright for unpublished letters lies with the author.

“I was slightly nervous about this. Most of my scholarly work has been on writers who have been safely dead for over 200 years and literary estates can be awkward to deal with.”

At that time, he had no expectations that the estate would still have Fairburn's letters. Other researchers had published detailed findings from Tolkien's correspondence, but none had apparently seen or understood the significance of the letters, or heard of Mary Fairburn.

“I was very surprised when the estate sent me copies of Mary's letters and pleased that they trusted me. Having both sides of the correspondence enabled me to tell a much fuller version of the story. Mary was astonished to see her own letters to Tolkien again after over 40 years.”

The importance of the letters lies in the unique insight they offer into Tolkien's own vision of his books, Tankard says. They showed that he had seen and approved of Fairburn's work, not just as good paintings, but as illustrations that were in tune with his own vision of his imaginary world and which he might have used if circumstances had been different.

Tankard's work on Tolkien and Fairburn took only 18 months from first steps to publication. In stark contrast, his search for a television interview with CS Lewis was a “long slog” and called for dogged persistence. “I tugged on the thread on and off for 10 years,” he says.

Tankard, who has a background in journalism and teaching, began his search in the early 1990s after reading an article on theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in which he mentioned a television interview with Lewis.

“I pricked up my ears. I knew that it had never elsewhere been mentioned that he'd been interviewed on TV and wondered what, if anything, I'd find if I went looking. It took time and many dead ends, but everything slowly fell into place.”

Tankard discovered the programme was Tempo – an arts show that aired in 1961-62 on Britain's ITV each fortnight on a Sunday afternoon. The episode including Lewis was filmed, but never aired because the theme, “Eros in the Arts'', was deemed unsuitable for the time slot.

Among his many enquiries, Tankard contacted Tynan's bibliographer who gave him the contact details for Tynan's daughter. She, in turn, gave him a copy of her father's engagement book.

“That was very exciting, as it clearly indicated he had interviewed Lewis not once, but twice, and pointed to the heavy involvement of Wayland Young [Lord Kennet] in that particular episode.

“He wrote to Lord Kennet – then in his 80s – and got a handwritten letter back saying he recalled the interview and would be looking through his archives soon. A couple of months later a copy of the transcript of the interview arrived unexpectedly in the post.

“It was like holding the Holy Grail,” says Tankard. “I wasn't sure I was ever going to get there.”

In the interview, Lewis was “on his mettle” and spoke frankly in a way that was consistent with his known views.

“Lewis was brought in to represent a stuffily conservative religious perspective. Instead, he baffled the interviewer by saying that he objected to the use of 'four-letter words' in literature, not because they were too erotic or inflammatory, but because they were not erotic enough.”

Tankard's interest in Lewis and Tolkien extends to an Otago Summer School paper he teaches (English 251 Fantasy Worlds) in which students examine the novels of major fantasy writers and the film adaptations. He also teaches papers on essay and feature writing.

His current research involves 18th-century essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, which Tankard doubts will yield such “dramatic discoveries”.

“They are much older authors, so their papers have been worked through by generations of archivists and editors.” In contrast, Tolkien's and Lewis' reputations are established, but not set in stone, he says.

“It's very satisfying to do something which, however small – and unlike even the most profound critical work – will be part of the scholarship of those writers so long as literature is read and studied.

“These discoveries contribute to a fuller picture of both writers and can't now be overlooked.”


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