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Collection highlights JRR Tolkien's time at the University of Leeds

Collection highlights JRR Tolkien's time at the University of Leeds

A collection of letters, poems and prose by The Hobbit creator JRR Tolkien has been acquired by the University of Leeds, where he taught in the 1920s.

The papers form the Gordon-Tolkien Collection in the University’s Special Collections.

They provide unique insight into the close friendship between Tolkien and Eric Gordon, who joined him in the English department at the University of Leeds in 1922.

The six letters, 11 manuscripts and two books include a copy of the extremely rare Songs for the Philologists, penned by Tolkien, Gordon and others, and a first edition of The Hobbit dedicated by its author to Gordon, his wife and young children.

Tolkien began his academic career at Leeds, joining in 1920 as Reader in English Language, aged 28, before being promoted to a newly created post of Professor of English Language in 1924. By the time he left in 1925 to take up the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, he had established the University as a UK leader in Old Icelandic language and literature. 

Gordon and Tolkien began working together almost immediately, most notably on their edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (published in 1925), which would become for many years the standard edition of the poem.

In one of the letters, written to Gordon’s widow Ida after her husband’s death in 1938 at just 42, Tolkien describes him as his “dearest friend”. Ida Gordon worked in the same field as Tolkien and her husband and was a University of Leeds alumna.

“In Gordon, Tolkien found a kindred spirit as well as a colleague, one who shared his delight in the study of medieval philology,” said Dr Alaric Hall, Lecturer in Medieval Literature at Leeds’ School of English. Philology is the study of ancient languages and literature.

“At Leeds they created the Viking Club, whose meetings were characterised by members singing drinking songs they’d written in Old English and Old Norse.

“Gordon maintained the group after Tolkien left for Oxford, whilst Tolkien continued to supply songs and poems, some of which are the manuscripts in this collection. The Old Norse Reading Group, a descendant of the Viking Club continues similar activities to this day.”

One of the songs in the collection – ‘The Root of the Boot’ – later appeared in The Lord of the Rings book, recited by Samwise Gamgee. The manuscript for the song, neatly handwritten in tiny ink script by Tolkien, has written at the top an indication of which traditional tune it should be sung to.

Today Dr Hall was joined by colleague Dr Catherine Batt, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature, and students from the Old Norse Reading Group and the University’s School of Music, to perform ‘The Root of the Boot’ in Leeds' oldest pub, Whitelock's.

The Gordon-Tolkien collection was acquired by the University’s Special Collections thanks to generous support from the Brotherton Family, Friends of the National Libraries and the V&A Purchase Fund. 

Katy Thornton, Head of Special Collections at the University, said: “The acquisition is an important collection of works relating to Tolkien’s earlier academic career at Leeds. They reveal a playful but erudite creativity, and the letters are striking for their emotional candour.”

Writing to Ida Gordon after his old friend’s funeral, Tolkien wrote: “I have never been quite so happy since Leeds and the parting (too far) of our ways.” He describes his own grief over the death of his friend, and shares his experience of the loss of his own father at a young age.

Dr Hall said: “These papers show a side of Tolkien often eclipsed by his fame: the passionate professor of philology.”

Further information

Images and interviews are available. Please contact University of Leeds press officer Gareth Dant on 0113 343 3996 or g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk.

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