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Lot 182: TOLKIEN (J.R.R.) Autograph notes and heavily revised typescript with accompanying autograph letter about a review of Robinson's edition of Chaucer, 1957
Books, Maps, Manuscripts and Historical Photographs, including the Property of the late Michael Silverman
November 22, 2011
London, United Kingdom
Description: Autograph notes and heavily revised typescript with accompanying autograph letter about a review of Robinson's edition of Chaucer: being his suggested revisions and corrections to the review by his friend and admirer Professor Przemyslaw Mroczkowski OBE of Poland, comprising (i) autograph letter signed to Mroczkowski, about his prose style in the review, 2 pages, 8vo, "midnight 9/10 Nov 1957"; (ii) typescript of Mroczkowski's review heavily annotated by Tolkien, 8 pages, 4to; (iii) autograph supplementary sheets of Tolkien's remarks on the review, 2 pages on one sheet, large 8vo, 1957
TOLKIEN AND THE MAN FROM MORDOR, to whom he despatches a letter at midnight, discussing Chaucer and instructing him on the niceties of English prose. Chaucer of course had been encountered by Tolkien when a schoolboy, and had helped inspire a lifelong passion for the history of the English language and for comparative and historical linguistics; a passion that in its turn led to the creation of the artificial languages – as well as all the words that went with them – of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (and associated posthumously-published material). These passions were shared by his friend and correspondent, Professor Przemyslaw Mroczkowski, from Poland. Mroczkowski, born in 1933, had studied philology as an undergraduate at Jagiellonian University and after a spell of imprisonment by the Gestapo earned his living as a language teacher. He visited Oxford in 1956, courtesy of Graham Greene whom he had encountered in Poland. He met Tolkien at the British Council in Oxford, recalling: 'I do not remember all the topics of conversation, but I remember that I presented myself to Tolkien in the following way: I come from Mordor, I come from Mordor' (Tygodnik Powszechny, No. 14, 1994; see the online Tolkien Gateway). The following year Tolkien was to pass on to his new friend part of the proceeds of The Lord of the Rings. Mroczkowski was later to become director of the Institute of English Philology at Krakow and to receive the OBE; dying in 2002.
In his letter, Tolkien offers some succinct advice on the writing of English: "Your style uses too many abstract nouns for my taste, and avoids saying in direct language what (I suppose) is meant". It also summarises the nature of their collaboration, with Tolkien showing a rather more sceptical approach to Robinson's edition (which has enjoyed a long life as the standard undergraduate text) than does Mroczkowski: "I have done what I could. Red ink is used for changes and corrections which I propose to you seriously. Most are really concerned with style and tone, I hope these are legible – but they are not necessarily meant to affect the text... We do not agree, I think, on many points... and certainly I think your adjectives applied to Robinson are over-high (but that rather more with respect to style and tone than to truth). But yours is the task. I only hope that I have helped in it, and not in fact made it more difficult. In any case my intention has been good, an attempted reparation for much neglect".
During the course of his running critical commentary on Mroczkowski's critical commentary, Tolkien shows an acute awareness of the dangers facing an author should he die before completion of his major work (although The Lord of the Rings had been successfully published, the great bulk of his own work on the history of Middle Earth was still to be completed, and was to remain so at his death): "As to the order of the fragments of the C. Tales, debate is likely to continue as long as anyone is deluded by the hope of reaching any certainty by argument in such a matter. The great scheme was never completed. Chaucer himself never erected even a definite scaffolding, nor reached any fixed decision as to the placing of those parts of the work which he had finished. If to this basic uncertainty we add the possibility that the papers in his possession were disordered at his death (more likely than not), and shuffled uncritically after it, while copies may have been extant beyond his control, it will seem that discussion of the 'correct' order of the particular branches of finished work may be vain". As for Robinson's edition itself, he laments "the sad fate of Chaucer in becoming a subject of examination for adolescents", although he concedes that, in lieu of a proper variorum edition, Robinson's "will, no doubt, again serve and serve well the needs of the average reader of the poet, without troubling him too much with technical matters (least of all linguistics), and without really full and illuminating commentaries".