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J. R. R. Tolkien and his wife Edith with their grandson Simon, at their home on Sandfield Road, Oxford, 1966. Photo from the Oxford Mail.

Tolkien was not an easy man to be friends with, as he himself knew. But relatively late in his life he became friends with the poet W. H. Auden, thanks to Auden’s reviews in the New York Times of the first and third volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Those came at a moment when the success of LOTR was by no means assured, and indeed those who hated the book — most notably Edmund Wilson — made a point of including Auden in their denigration. There were moments of tension later on, most notably when a London newspaper quoted Auden as having said that the decor of Tolkien’s home was “hideous”; and Tolkien — so it seems to me anyway — was never fully at ease with non-Catholics. But in the main the friendship remained firm, if rather distant, and was a source of pleasure and comfort to both men. When some medievalists produced a festschrift for Tolkien on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Auden contributed “A Short Ode to a Philologist”; and when Auden received a sixtieth birthday festschrift in the journal Shenandoah, Tolkien offered a lovely tribute, “For W.H.A.,” in both Anglo-Saxon and modern English. 

You can read about their relationship in the biographies that Humphrey Carpenter wrote about each man, and also in Tolkien’s letters. But it seems to me that the relationship is interesting enough that it deserves some kind of artful presentation; perhaps one that portrays their friendship as more intimate than it really was. And I have always been haunted by the fact that, though Tolkien was fifteen years older than Auden, they died within a few weeks of each other: Tolkien in Bournemouth on September 2, 1973, and Auden in Vienna on September 29. 

So I wrote a short play about them

There I imagine a conversation between them — taking place probably in 1967, though don’t try to pin me down about that — a conversation based on things they actually said to each other, usually in letters, and things they said or wrote on matters of mutual interest. That is, Auden really did invent a parlor game called Purgatory Mates, and Tolkien really did say that Auden’s proposal to write a book about him was “an impertinence.” Auden’s final words in the play are based on an encounter he had with the young Jay Parini. And so on. So, the play is Based on True Events and Words, even though I seriously doubt that they ever would have had a face-to-face conversation like this. Auden had become by this point in his life too garrulous, and Tolkien too mumblingly reticent. (In both cases excessive alcohol consumption played a part.) So I had to make Auden more shortly-spoken than he was in real life, and Tolkien more articulate. 

Anyway, it’s probably really terrible, but I enjoyed writing it. It scratched an itch.