What Tolkien Wished He Had Told His Teachers

By Ellen Wexler — June 18, 2014 1 min read
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Feeling like you didn’t make a big enough impact on your students this year? Here are some year-end words of consolation for you, from an unlikely and indirect source: In a recently discovered letter, author JRR Tolkien said he regretted that the teachers from his childhood would never know that they had an effect on him—even if it seemed like he was never paying attention at the time.

Fifty years ago, according to The Guardian, a new teacher named Anne Mountfield sent Tolkien two letters—one from her, and one from a student—after she had read The Hobbit to her “rather restless” class. Recently, Mountfield rediscovered Tolkien’s kind-but-somewhat-bittersweet response.

“The letter you sent me from one of your class children gave me great pleasure,” he wrote. “The Hobbit seems to go down well at school; I have had several letters telling me of class activities arising from interest in it. Not all as well penned as this. All the same, I hope it will turn out not to be the only gift to you from Oxford.”

That part of the letter was typed. Tolkien wrote the rest of the letter by hand at the bottom of the page. In this part, he reflected on teaching:

“All teaching is exhausting and depressing,” he wrote, “and one is seldom comforted by knowing when one has had some effect. I wish I could tell some of mine (of long ago) how I remember them and things they said, though I was (only, as it appears) looking out of windows or giggling at my neighbors.”

Mountfield is putting the letter up for auction this week. She told The Guardian that she found the letter not long after she received a kind letter from a former student. “How right Tolkien was that teachers are seldom ‘comforted by knowing that one has had some effect,’ and how very nice when, 50 years after the event, it happens,” she said.

Before Tolkien was the author of The Hobbit, he was a professor at Oxford. According to The Guardian, he began writing The Hobbit while grading exams over the summer for extra income.

“All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children,” Tolkien wrote in a letter to WH Auden. “On the blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.