Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tolkien and . . . Igor Stravinsky?

References to Tolkien come about in the oddest places. My most recent "huh?" reference comes from the personal diaries of a guy named Robert Craft, an American composer and writer who developed an intimate creative partnership with Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Tolkien comes up in three places.
  • December 23, 1955. Craft, W. H. Auden, and a fellow named Chester Kallman are chatting in Stravinsky's rooms (it's unclear if Stravinsky's present), and Craft notes that "Auden, bright as ever but didactic, says that as an undergraduate, Tolkien fell in love with the Phoenician language" (122).
That's the extent of the first reference, but Phoenician? Going out on a limb, let me suggest that Auden said "Finnish." Craft either misheard or misremembered.
  • October 27, 1961. Craft, accompanied by someone named Natasha Spender, describes a painfully awkward conversation with E. M. Forster in his rooms at King's College, Cambridge. Apparently completely at a lack of things to say to one another, Tolkien's name comes up for some reason, and Forster is reported to have said, "I dislike whimsicality and I cannot bear 'good' and 'evil' on such a scale. . . . To my surprise, I liked Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner" (255).
That's just a random bit of gossip from someone not overly keenly on Christians -- C. S. Lewis once called him an "ass." (Forster's remark is also ironic because Tolkien, along with another Inkling David Cecil, would nominate Forster for the Nobel in 1954.) The third reference is as follows:
  • January 16, 1966. Stravinsky, Craft, and Auden are having dinner, and Auden apparently begins pontificating about books: "Books referred to include Auerbach's Literary Language; Tolkien's Silmarillion ('J.R.R. is 'in' with the teenage set, you know, and is no longer the exclusive property of dotty school teachers and elderly cranks'); In Cold Blood. . . . "
Now that's is an interesting remark. The Silmarillion, of course, wouldn't be published for 11 more years, and Tolkien's popularity stemmed from The Lord of the Rings. Yet Craft clearly didn't mishear this time, since it's unlikely that he would have heard of Silmarillion except that Auden brought it up. So what happened? I can only guess that Auden mentioned LOTR and S both but that Craft, writing later from memory, only remembered the name of the latter work. Why he would focus on S rather than LOTR, though I can't say. Auden's Tolkien reference seems to have been a relatively passing one in a long literary conversation, and Craft evidently found Auden's remarks on Truman Capote more memorable, considering that Craft devoted a whole paragraph to those. Still, it's intriguing that Auden was spreading the word in casual dinner conversations.


Craft, Robert. Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship. Rev. and exp. ed. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 1994. Print.



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