an imaginary conversation
In Headington, a suburb of Oxford, on a nondescript street called Sandfield Road, a large house with a small front garden. A gray chilly day. A stoutish fiftysomething man with a lined face and greasy hair, wearing a shabby overcoat, comes to the door and knocks. After a moment the door is opened by a man in his seventies, also a bit stout, wearing a tweed sport coat and a colorful embroidered waistcoat. He shifts his pipe from his right hand to his left, extends the right to the visitor. They shake hands and the guest is ushered in.
The Scholar: Yes, yes, do please come in. Edith is not here right now, she’s visiting one of the children. [Muttering, as he often does] Perhaps that’s for the best.
The Poet [with an uneasy smile]: Yes, I suppose it might be.
The Scholar: Well, eh — how was the train up from London? Do please have a seat.
The Poet: Oh, it was fine, fine. Always good to be back.
The overcoat is taken and hung up. The Poet’s suit is shabbier than the overcoat, and ill-fitting. He is waved to a chair and they sit in silence for a few moments. The Scholar is clearly nervous, and it’s not clear to The Poet how welcome his visit is. Throughout the subsequent conversations the Scholar speaks hesitantly and haltingly; the poet speaks more confidently — once he feels more sure of his welcome.
The Scholar [with an effort]: I really never can forget my gratification at your reviews of my books. At the time, you know, it wasn’t at all clear that anyone would buy the books or enjoy them. Your commendation was a great boon to me at a time of trial. I can never thank you enough for that.
The Poet: It was no more than the books deserved, and probably considerably less. I was glad for the opportunity to write on your behalf — on their behalf. One so rarely comes across books that speak to one as those books spoke to me.
The Scholar nods, and they sit in silence for a moment more.
The Poet [grasping the nettle]: Perhaps I should tell you why I’ve come – because I do have a specific reason, aside from the pleasure of sharing your company once more. There’s an American publisher – you’re not likely to have heard of them, and they are rather … American, but they do seem to have their heart in the right place. And they are interested in modern Christian writers, they’ve created a kind of series. They want me, and my friend Peter Salus, to write about you. We would very much like to do so, but we don’t want to do it without your approval. So I thought it best to come and discuss the matter with you directly.
More silence. The Poet tentatively extracts a pack of cigarettes from his jacket; the Scholar notices and provides an ashtray. The Poet continues to smoke for the rest of his visit. Eventually:
The Scholar: What is there to say about me?
The Poet: Well, I should clarify, not so much about you, though I expect that I would give a brief biographical sketch … but rather your work, that is, your fiction. They seem to think that I understand your work better than most.
The Scholar [equivocally]: Yes. I’m … not sure that the books I’ve written require any … exposition. People will either like them or not, are drawn into the world or not. I’m not confident that anything can be said to change that, to win over the skeptics. [More warmly] I once wrote a bit of doggerel on this subject, you know:
The Lord of the Rings
Is one of those things
If you like it, you do
If you don’t, then you boo
[Smiling, pleased with himself] I’m not sure what a work of criticism could add.
The Poet: Certainly the book inspires extreme opinions, in both directions. I say that as one whose admiration is extreme. Still, I think that at least some of those initially disinclined to read might be persuaded to give the book a chance. As your heroes well know, once one leaves one’s front door and sets out on the Road, anything can happen. Further, I might be able to say some things that would add to the appreciation of those who already enjoy the books.
The Scholar: Certainly there is no question that your reputation in the literary world is an enviable one. One I shall never have.
The Poet [also smiling]: My reputation is not what it was, you know. Going to America didn’t help.
The Scholar: Well, indeed.
The Poet [pausing for a moment to assess the tone of that]: I may have been an enfant terrible at one point — though I never thought so — but I have become quite the old fogey now. A relic of a bygone era. You know, sometimes I fancy that if I had entered the Church I could be a bishop by now.
The Scholar: The Church of England.
The Poet: … Correct, yes. Or its American cousin. Not that I haven’t sometimes considered … [The Scholar waits for the conclusion to the sentence. It does not arrive.] You are of course older than me, but as you know, like you I grew up in Birmingham, and that world hadn’t changed terribly between your youth and mine. Until the War, of course.
The Scholar: A rather different matter for you than for me.
The Poet: Yes, of course, of course. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. [In the silence that ensues the Scholar re-lights his pipe.] In any case, though I was quite awestruck by you in my student days, and indeed still am, given that you are learned in ways that I could never pretend to be, I think I can fairly say that we share an outlook on the world.
The Scholar: I am not sure what “an outlook on the world” is, but we do not share a Church.
The Poet: No. [At a loss.] Well, I don’t mean to take up any more of your time. [Starts to rise.]
The Scholar: No, no, please stay. I’m afraid I have become a poor host in my old age. I rarely see friends, you know! Most of mine have died or drifted away. And fan mail, however enthusiastic and it its way welcome, is no compensation. Please stay. Would you like some tea?
The Poet [resuming his seat]: Thank you, no.
The Scholar [punctuating his sentences with draws on his pipe]: Lewis’s death was a great blow, as I’m sure you know. But we scarcely spoke for the last fifteen years of his life. I even had to hear of his marriage from a common friend. I suppose he knew I would not approve — could not approve. Of course, he and I didn’t share a Church either. Nor taste in stories, truth be told. I thought the Narnia books absolute rubbish. But for all that, there was much we shared — much only we two shared…. Edith was quite hurt by your comments on our house, you know. I believe you said that it is “hideous.”
The Poet: I did say that, in a shamefully catty moment. I hope you and your wife can forgive me. Indeed I plead for your forgiveness.
The Scholar: I do not see why a London paper would feel the need to repeat your comments. It exposed us to ridicule, rather. [Pause.] I can’t speak for my wife, of course, but Catholics are commanded to forgive.
The Poet: Yes … Thank you. In any case, whatever the commonalities in our backgrounds — I waive that point — you and I live in very different worlds now. Many of my friends are single, like me, and the ones who are married tend to be rather … bohemian. It is easy, for me anyway, to fall into a sense, a largely false sense mind you, of cultural superiority, of excellence in taste. It’s repellent, I know, and I wish I were not vulnerable to it. But, as you have seen, I am. Compared to you and your wife, I live in absolute squalor, I have no right to criticize anyone else’s domestic arrangements. Indeed I often wish I could live in a more orderly fashion. After all, I grew up in a tidy home.
The Scholar: So why don’t you live in a more orderly fashion?
The Poet: I don’t really know. Probably there is some Freudian explanation. But surely it it has something to do with my need for mental and temporal order.
The Scholar: “Mental and temporal order”?
The Poet: I keep to a very strict, my friends often say rigid, schedule. I work like an office clerk: I get to my desk at the same time each day and keep working until closing time, that is to say, cocktail hour. I seem to require the regularity to function. And there’s little energy left over for ordering my space after I have ordered my time.
The Scholar: Good heavens, I’ve never had a day like that in my life.
The Poet: Really?
The Scholar: Oh no. I fritter the day away, putting off anything I can put off — I even answer letters, sometimes at great length, if that keeps me from whatever I’m supposed to be doing. Though sometimes I write long letters and then never send them. If I get around to my work at all, it’s often only after Edith is asleep. For years and years my writing workday began after I put my children to bed.
The Poet: When you say “your work,” what do you mean? Now that you are retired, I mean.
The Scholar: My legendarium. The whole body of myth and legend of which my published stories are a kind of offshoot. I think I wrote to you about it, years ago. I have been working on it since childhood. Ridiculous though this may sound, it is in many respects my life’s work. It began, of course, with the making of the languages.
The Poet: What joy that must have been.
The Scholar [beaming]: Oh yes! Indeed, I have often thought that I only come up with stories in order to create an environment in which the languages can be spoken. In one of my languages, Quenya, one can say Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo — a star shines on our meeting. And it seemed to me very worthwhile to write a story in which that sentence could plausibly be said.
The Poet: I don’t mean to … if I may say so, your voice changed quite dramatically when you spoke that. It grew bold, where before you had been mild. I remember that from your lectures, which I attended — goodness, thirty years ago, or nearly. Not Quenya, of course! — Old English. Anglo-Saxon. You spoke in a low and quick voice — until you got to the verse. Even before I understood what you were saying I knew that this was the stuff for me. All of my early poems were written under the spell of Anglo-Saxon; I worked to burrow deeper and deeper into that world, into that verbal world.
The Scholar: Mmmmm … mmmmm. Yes. You have an ear for it. Mostly I lectured to the deaf. But … I must say that … well, I don’t really care for your poetry.
The Poet: Oh, I know that.
The Scholar: It’s not — you do? [The Poet nods, cheerfully enough.] Ah. Well. It’s not you — or not altogether. Not even mostly. I am a man of very narrow tastes, you know. I think this was a good deal of my trouble with Jack. You see, I don’t really care for anything later than — well, I suppose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the most recent thing I really adore. Oh, I read Scott in my youth, and William Morris; they’re fine in their way. But they don’t …
The Poet: Housman says somewhere that Horace’s “Diffugere Nives” goes through him like a spear.
The Scholar: Yes! Yes, precisely. Nothing after Gawain goes through me like a spear, though much in the preceding five centuries or so does. I don’t care for Shakespeare at all, you know. Not in the least. For one thing, I can’t really forgive him for what he did to fairies — Mercutio’s tiny twee figures, Queen Mab and her little minions, such poppycock. In any case, if your poetry lies outside the scope of my sympathy — well, you are hardly alone. I often wish those sympathies were more capacious, but I have long since ceased to hope for that.
The Poet: Perfectly understandable. And it is not as though poetry makes anything happen.
The Scholar: Yes … Pardon me?
The Poet [smiling]: Poetry makes nothing happen. What you feel about Mercutio’s Queen Mab I feel about Shelley’s “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” That’s also poppycock — and dangerous poppycock. The “unacknowledged legislators of the world”? Those are the secret police.
The Scholar [trying to take this in]: Hmm. But if poetry makes nothing happen, why do you write it?
The Poet: It’s my vocation. It’s the craft to which I am bound.
The Scholar: That’s a very good answer.
The Poet: I hope so, because it’s the only answer I’ve got. But I don’t suppose you’d say the same about your stories — which, for the record, go through me like a spear.
The Scholar: You are most kind to say so. And no, the writing of stories is not my vocation, not in any conventional sense, anyway. I suppose my calling is scholarship … philology.
The Poet: “Dame Philology is our Queen still / Quick to comfort…”
The Scholar: Yes! And thank you again for that. Languages real and imaginary have their histories. And yet the writing of those stories was a call I had to answer, an itch I had to scratch. Something in me was leading me down that path and I had to follow.
The Poet: You are in this sense more modern than I.
The Scholar [surprised]: How so?
The Poet: When Wordsworth was named Poet Laureate he said that he couldn’t write any verses to order. Only when Peel relieved him of that responsibility did he accept. Could you write stories to order, and with a deadline?
The Scholar: I most certainly could not.
The Poet: Spoken as a true Romantic! I, by contrast, would be ashamed if I couldn’t produce vers d’occasion when called upon. Indeed, when I was Professor of Poetry [nodding in the general direction of the University] I freely admitted that I was far less happy giving lectures — before rooms full of dons, for God’s sake! — than I would have been if I had been asked to produce a funeral elegy for a deceased Canon of Christ Church or an epithalamium for a Fellow of Somerville.
The Scholar: Ha!
The Poet: But more seriously — though I was perfectly serious just now — I think the difference between us may be less a matter of your Modernity and my Pre-Modernity than of our having different vocations. The same sense of calling that makes me ready to write verses on demand also gets me to my desk promptly at 9am.
The Scholar: I am afraid that I have never been so disciplined.
The Poet: I do not recall your ever missing a lecture, or arriving unprepared.
The Scholar: This is true. But in all other matters I am dilatory. It took me more than a decade to write The Lord of the Rings!
The Poet: It was a disastrous decade, and you had much else on your mind and heart.
The Scholar: I suppose so, but still….
The Poet: And would it have been good for you to publish it any earlier?
The Scholar: I was sixty-one when the first volume was published!
The Poet: Right. Certainly you were not in the first flush of youth. Your impatience is understandable, especially since, I would imagine, your publishers were likewise impatient.
The Scholar: Oh Lord.
The Poet: Yes. So I speak only from my own experience, but my fame — or not fame, really, but notoriety in certain circles — came to me far too early. I took paths — personally, but also poetically — that proved to be dead ends. And I was under enormous pressure to live up to what people wanted me to be, the role they had pre-arranged. This was my real reason for going to America. In England, and especially in London, I couldn’t think — I couldn’t find my own path, I was too distracted and harried by all the paths others had laid for me.
The Scholar: Ah.
The Poet: I just wish I had had more time to think things through. Perhaps that’s why I am so rigorous in the management of my time now.
The Scholar: Ah.
The Poet [noting the dimming sky outside the window]: But I’ve kept you too long. And we haven’t really addressed the question of the book about your work that I would like to write. Would you at least be willing to consider it?
The Scholar: I don’t think so.
The Poet: Ah.
The Scholar: You called me a heretic!
The Poet: What?
The Scholar: In one of your reviews! You said that I made the Orcs “damned as a species” and am therefore a heretic!
The Poet: No! I said that to create a species of sentient beings that cannot be saved is surely heretical, but that is not the same as naming you a heretic.
The Scholar: A distinction without a difference.
The Poet: I think there is a very great difference. [Silence.] Ah well. Should I consider the matter closed, then?
The Scholar: Could you come back tomorrow?
The Poet: I … could. Um … same time as today?
The Scholar: An hour earlier if you can manage it.
The Poet: I can.
Same house, same room, though the light coming in through the windows is brighter — at first. The scene should end in the dark. We begin with the Scholar pouring tea. The Scholar again has his pipe, the Poet his cigarettes.
The Scholar: I hope this isn’t taking you away from your exceptionally rigorous schedule of writing.
The Poet: Oh no, I only maintain such discipline when I am at home.
The Scholar: And — I think I know the answer to this, but — where is home for you?
The Poet: I spend part of the year in an apartment in New York City and another part of the year in my house in a village in Austria, not too far from Vienna. The Austrian house is home. Very much my home.
The Scholar: Goodness. Have you ever thought of settling back in England?
The Poet: No.
Silence as they sip their tea.
The Scholar: I do envy you in certain respects. You have the freedom to determine your own schedule, which is something I haven’t had … well, ever. First my mother and my school determined the shape of my days, then the Army did, then the University did, then my family did… I suppose I’m closer to being the master of my own time now than I have ever been.
The Poet: It is in some respects a blessing to be so self-determining, but not in all. If you envy me my independence, I envy you your dependence – your life with people whom you love and who love you.
The Scholar: Do you not have that?
The Poet: Not in the sense that you do. [Pause] You know, I assume, that I’m queer?
The Scholar [a bit startled] : Yes.
The Poet: And I suppose you do not approve of that.
The Scholar: It is not a matter of whether I approve or not. I strive to be an obedient child of the Church.
The Poet: I understand. And for what it’s worth I’m not always sure that I approve of myself. Of being queer. [Pause] I told you yesterday that I am single, but in fact I am married.
The Scholar: What?
The Poet: I am married to a woman named Erika Mann. Daughter of the novelist Thomas Mann. The great German novelist. [The scholar nods, without conviction.] In the Thirties she was living in this country but the Nazis revoked her citizenship. Making her stateless. But if she married a British subject she could get a British passport. So I married her.
The Scholar: In the church? I mean, in your church?
The Poet: No, it was a civil ceremony. But it may well have saved a woman’s life, so I don’t regret it.
The Scholar: In those circumstances, I don’t think I would regret it either. But how strange. And very far from my own experience. I married the woman I loved, and I did so in my youth. In our youth.
The Poet: That is a great gift.
The Scholar: Indeed, the greatest I have received. Aside, I suppose, from my salvation. Though in point of fact I have difficulty separating the two.
The Poet: Perhaps it would be better to separate them.
The Scholar: Why?
The Poet: [shrugs]
The Scholar: In any event, I cannot. We are … we are Beren and Luthien.
The Poet: Pardon?
The Scholar: You have heard them mentioned, though only briefly. The full story you may read when The Silmarillion is published.
The Poet: The legendarium?
The Scholar: Well, a large part of it.
The Poet: And when might you complete it?
The Scholar: Difficult to say. I am making progress — though “progress” is a complicated word. I am always adding to it, but when I do I see how much more there is to add. My son Christopher helps, when he can. It’s terribly disorganized, so many stories, they can’t all be reconciled to one another. And of course I am not as young as I once was.
The Poet: Nor am I.
The Scholar: Yes, well … I’m afraid I get rather absorbed in these matters. Again, I am a poor host. I haven’t asked about your work at all.
The Poet: No, no, we’re here to discuss your work.
The Scholar: Ah.
The Poet: Could we perhaps revisit the idea of a book about your stories?
The Scholar [after a pause]: It won’t do. It just won’t do.
The Poet: No?
The Scholar: It’s an impertinence!
The Poet: An impertinence?
The Scholar: Yes! [Desperately] Would you care for some whisky?
The Poet: Yes, please. I would like that very much.
The Scholar buys time by digging around for a bottle, acquiring glasses, and so on. Eventually he pours a generous measure for each and sits back down. They will drink freely through the remainder of the conversation, and their speech will reflect that.
The Scholar [holding his glass towards the Poet]: Skål.
The Poet: Skål.
The Scholar [more calmly]: Impertinent in the sense that my work is not complete. There is much about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that you cannot possibly understand unless you know the legendarium, or at least The Silmarillion, which will contain the core of it. I must tell you that I have seen reports of Salus’s comments on the world of Middle-earth, and they are woefully misbegotten. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But of course I shouldn’t blame him — well, perhaps I may justifiably blame him for his overconfidence, but what I mean is that there is much that he does not know because he cannot know, it has not yet been revealed to the public. And I could not possibly help you with your project! I have to complete The Silmarillion at least, I cannot possibly spare the time to be your consultant!
The Poet: We would not dream of asking you to.
The Scholar: Yet if you did not consult me you would get so much wrong — so, so much wrong. You couldn’t avoid it. That’s what I mean when I call the project an impertinence.
The Poet: I understand. [Silence.] Do you remember when I asked to dedicate a poem to you?
The Scholar: I don’t believe so.
The Poet: It was called “Homage to Clio” — muse of history. I told you that the poem was really a hymn to Our Lady.
The Scholar: I have, as I have said, been rude to you, but I fear I am about to be rude once more.
The Poet [smiling]: Please don’t hesitate.
The Scholar: That dedication was another impertinence. “Our” Lady. She is not yours as she is ours, she cannot be.
The Poet: I don’t see why not.
The Scholar: You come from Church of England people, do you not?
The Poet: Oh yes. Both of my grandfathers were vicars. Several uncles as well.
The Scholar: You said yesterday that we grew up in similar worlds. We did not. You said that we share an outlook on life. We do not and could not. My Faith is alien here, or has become so since Henry VIII. I always felt the scorn of those who belonged to the Established Church. I sometimes still feel it.
The Poet: It is true that the Establishment, in more sense than one, was my inheritance. Indeed, I left England in order to avoid being drawn into it. And, you know, I attend the Catholic parish in Kirchstetten — there’s nowhere else to go.
The Scholar: You had the choice of whether or not to belong. I never did.
The Poet: Still, do we not have a common bond as Christians? Is not Our Lady part of the common inheritance of Christianity?
The Scholar: I do not deny the bond. But I believe it is weaker and less significant than you do. And I simply do not think as you do. You speak of “Christianity,” which seems to me a bloodless abstraction. I think rather of the Church, and of the Faith. And just as you could choose whether or not to participate in what you call the Establishment, you can choose your devotion to the Blessed Virgin. I cannot. Her place in the firmament of the Faith is … fixed.
The Poet: Established.
The Scholar: Yes, established. And I don’t think non-Catholics grasp the … the … integrity of the Faith. Its wholeness, its oneness. That was another problem I had with Jack. “Mere Christianity,” forsooth! To be sure, his support as I struggled to write The Lord of the Rings was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. His encouragement was unwavering, his love for the story always consoling and uplifting to me. I would never have finished it without him. But I don’t think he understood it, not really. I don’t think any non-Catholic could understand it.
The Poet: You surprise me.
The Scholar: I know. You don’t see the Catholicism in the story. Your accusation of heresy, I believe, stems from your inability to see the shape of the world. And indeed I have made a world —
The Poet: A secondary world.
The Scholar: — yes, a secondary world with no doctrine, no temples, no religion of any kind. Yet the very warp and woof of the story is the Faith. It could not be otherwise, me being who I am.
The Poet: I think you underrate the powers of human sympathy.
The Scholar: No doubt I do. Human sympathy is not my strong suit.
The Poet: Sometimes one may understand something better by being outside of it, or at least partially outside. I am sure that you, as a long-married man, as a father, understand the experience of family life in ways that I do not. But I had a mother and father, and I have brothers. I have also observed families very closely — I am not inattentive. I know that there will never be someone with whom I will be one flesh, and at times the pain of that has been almost more than I could bear. But I have also seen the way that you normal people can … well, frankly, make an idol of erotic love. The story of Tristan and Isolde bears lessons for us all, though perhaps different ones for you than for me. Your friend Lewis wrote brilliantly about the relationship between courtly love and idolatry.
The Scholar: Well …
The Poet: That is just one example of the general principle, and I won’t belabor the point. I wish merely to say that those of us who differ may need each other more than we typically recognize. No doubt you know your legendarium, your secondary world, better than anyone else does, better than anyone else ever can. But that does not mean that you understand everything about it. It might benefit from the attention of alien eyes.
The Scholar: Perhaps.
The Poet: I once invented a little parlor game. I call it Purgatory Mates. We begin by imagining two people so different in temperament and belief that it is difficult to see how they could ever be reconciled to each other. Then we place them in Purgatory together. And they cannot ascend to Paradise until they achieve that reconciliation. The point of the game is to imagine how it might happen.
The Scholar: I told you earlier that I suspected I knew the place you call home — because I had read your poems about the place. “Thanksgiving for a Habitat.” You sent me the book they’re in.
The Poet: Yes.
The Scholar: I also told you that I do not care for your poetry. But I kept picking up the book, looking through it. And one sleepless night I read it through, again and again. Something in it was speaking to me. But I could never quite hear clearly what it was saying. Perhaps it is simply too late for that. Too late to hear a new music.
The Poet: I don’t think it’s ever too late to expand our sympathies. We always hear that Pentecost brought the gift of tongues, but it has always seemed to me that it brought the gift of ears. “Each one present heard in his own language.” But I do know what you mean. My friends tell me that I repeat the same stories over and over.
The Scholar: My family tell me the same!
The Poet: So few people understand that the best stories need to be told again and again. For our pleasure and the edification of others. [Peers at the window.] It’s late. I need to make my way to my hotel. [Stands, wobbles.] Goodness. That was very fine whisky.
The Scholar: “Was.” [Holds aloft the now-empty bottle.] Past tense.
They giggle, and make their way towards the door. The Scholar turns on an outside light.
The Poet: I don’t suppose you’ll ever approve of our project, Salus’s and mine?
The Scholar: I think not. My books … they will have to speak for themselves.
The Poet: Indeed, they do speak for themselves. They do; they will.
The Scholar: Feel free to write it when I’m dead!
The Poet: I may not outlive you.
The Scholar: Oh, you’ll outlive me, Wystan. You’ll certainly outlive me.
The Scholar pats the Poet on the back as he departs. He makes his way with exaggerated dignity towards the garden gate, struggles with it, manages to unlatch it, exits without remembering to close it. Down the street he goes, as the gate swings to and fro. The Scholar stands at the doorway for a moment, then turns off the light.
A single spotlight illuminates the Scholar, dressed much as he was in the earlier scenes, sitting in an easy chair center stage. His pipe is in his hand and on his lap is a book — the Poet’s About the House. He speaks to his wife, who remains unseen and unheard. Again the pipe-smoking punctuates his sentences.
The Scholar: He apologized handsomely, of course. Yes, true, what else could he do? But he did it handsomely. That one lamentable moment aside, he has been good to me. Oh, how they mocked him when he praised my books! Didn’t seem to faze him, though, I’ll say that for him. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a writer less concerned about his reputation…. I seem to have strange friends, have you ever thought of that? Jack, that bluff Irishman — his “Ulsterior motive” always working away in him — living with that bizarre woman all those years, never speaking a word to me about it, then marrying that loud American. Incomprehensible to me, really, he always was. So loud and yet so secretive. And now Wystan, this modern poet, this queer, this Englishman who will apparently live anywhere but England. This “fellow Christian” — I don’t deny it, indeed I am glad of it, but the words sound in my mouth like a language I don’t know. I seem to have friends I don’t understand, and yet what would I have done without them? Well. I would have had you, dear Edith. I would have had the children, and now the grandchildren. I am so glad Christopher is bringing Simon to visit…. I need to finish The Silmarillion. Why is this impossible for me? Wystan produces book after book, article after article, poem after poem … I don’t want to start reading one thing of his because if I did I’d feel I should be reading more, and that would become a never-ending journey. That’s another odd thing about my friends: They are horribly, horribly prolific. I must finish The Silmarillion. I wonder what Wystan will think of it? I don’t think I want to know. He is terribly acute… Well, he can write about it after I’m dead. And then I won’t have to see it! … He doesn’t know it, but an American journal has asked me to write something for him. They’re producing a festschrift for his sixtieth birthday. Hard to believe. I decided to write a little poem for him, a little Anglo-Saxon poem. “Woruldbúendra sum bið wóðbora, / giedda giffæst; sum bið gearuwyrdig, / tyhtend getynge torhte maðleð…” I think he will appreciate it. It seems we will never see eye to eye on … on so many things. But he is a good man. And God brought him into my life at a time when I needed his understanding. I am very grateful to him…. [Murmuring] Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo … Elen síla …
Fade to black. Then:
A single spotlight illuminates the Poet, noticeably older now, wearing a bathrobe over shabby trousers and carpet slippers on his feet, sitting in an easy chair center stage. An ashtray overflowing with butts and ash sits precariously on one arm of the chair. He has a cigarette in one hand and on his lap is a newspaper. He speaks to his companion Chester Kallman, who remains unseen and unheard.
The Poet: Tolkien is dead. May he rest in peace, poor man. He was not easy to know, and never seemed a happy man. Not as far as I could tell. Though one can never be sure about such things. He moved to Bournemouth a few years ago, did you know that? But when his wife died he returned to Oxford. As one does. His college put him up in a place, precisely as Christ Church has done for me. Charity to lonely old Fellows. For months we lived a short walk apart, just along the edge of the Meadow. I could have visited him any time, had I been inclined to walk. But I am rarely inclined to walk…. The last time I saw him he assured me that I would outlive him, and it seems that I have. I suppose he was in his eighties; I would like to die at seventy, though I know I shall live longer…. If I had taken orders, I would be a bishop by now. Would have been a bishop long since. Another life, though. For the one I’ve had I am grateful, endlessly grateful. Above all for you, dear C, above all for you…. My poems will last, they will speak for themselves, but I wonder if they’ll last as long as those stories of his. I suppose we’ll never see The Silmarillion now, but what we have is a feast…. That whole world of his — it loomed so large in his mind that he could scarcely see anything else. It blocked his view of other lives, other ways. My friend Isaiah speaks of hedgehogs and foxes; Tolkien was the hedgehog’s hedgehog. But if he hadn’t been, then we wouldn’t have gotten those books…. In just a few days you’ll be in Athens and I’ll be back in Oxford. A strange thought. I’m looking forward to seeing Isaiah, though truth be told there’s not much else there I’m looking forward to…. Last spring I came to know a young American. We talked in the coffee shop a few times. One day he stumbled across my path, clearly in a bad way, something eating at him. We went to my cottage — no, my dear, I didn’t proposition him — I gave him something to drink and told him the only two things I have learned in my years here in Middle-Earth. I told him that there is no such thing as time. And I told him to rest in God. That’s what I said: “Rest in God, dear boy. Rest in God.” It is good advice. I shall take it myself. Tomorrow to Vienna, and then … onward.