Continuing the ceremonial theme this week. I recently received an email from a Tolkien scholar asking for a copy of the oration delivered when the great man was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Nottingham back in 1970. Well, I must admit I thought it might be a little tricky to locate this but one of my colleagues knew exactly where to find the oration: it was published in an edition of the University Gazette (since discontinued) and therefore would have had a reasonable circulation at the time.
Having come across this in such a fortuitous way I thought it was worth reproducing in its entirety. I suspect it remains one of the few orations to mention Hobbits quite so freely (at least until the University of Kent decided to honour the actor Orlando Bloom) and is therefore worth a read for that alone although the phrase “deep fruity laugh” is also noteworthy.
The Public Orator, Professor E. J. W. Barrington, M.A., D.Sc., F.R.S., delivered the following orations when presenting the honorary graduands to the Chancellor:
For the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa:
JOHN RONALD REUEL TOLKIEN
Your Grace and Chancellor,
All members of the Congregation will join with the University Officers in deeply regretting that there are no Hobbits with us today. Well-informed as we are regarding the way of life of these Little Folk, we know that they would have welcomed the opportunity to dress in bright colours. And they would have relished even more the provision of luncheon and tea, for Hobbits are fond of six meals a day (when they can get them), and their consequent tendency to be fat in the stomach need not have made them unduly conspicuous. But it is your Public Orator who most keenly regrets their absence, for they have the singular merit of enjoying simple jests, and of responding to them with deep fruity laughs. And what can fall more rewardingly upon the ear of any Public Orator than the sound of a deep fruity laugh?
But if we are deprived of the Hobbits themselves, we have the pleasure of welcoming their distinguished chronicler, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and at Exeter College, Oxford, he served in the First World War and then, in 1920, went to the University of Leeds as Reader, and later Professor, in English Language.
Those who knew him at that time might well have predicted for him a progress to academic eminence along well-trodden paths, and would have felt confirmed in this expectation when he was appointed at an early age to the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He held this Chair from 1925 to 1945, during which period he initiated the modern critical study of Anglo-Saxon poetry. His influence was exerted partly through some highly significant essays, but no less through his intensely vivid and dramatic teaching, which has left ineradicable memories. What pupil could forget a Professor who was prepared to prostrate himself upon the floor if he could thus the better illustrate the drama of Anglo-Saxon combat?
But other modes of expression must also have been stirring within him, for in 1937 he published The Hobbit, or There and back again, that memorable account of the perilous journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins. It is now recalled that during those early North Oxford days his creative energy was so far overflowing that from time to time he would himself polish his shiny yellow brass door knob with all the care of a thoroughly domesticated Hobbit. With his removal, first to Headington, and now to a location more closely concealed than that of the Hobbits themselves, North Oxford can hardly be the same, and cer¬tainly the door knob is not, for its once cheerful surface has been covered with a coat of sad varnish.
From 1945 to 1959 he was still at Oxford, holding the Merton Chair of English Language and Literature, and it was then that it became apparent that The Hobbit was only a beginning. Stung, perhaps, by the suggestion that he might prove to be Oxford’s second Lewis Carroll, an occasional writer of small-scale works, he proceeded to the remarkable achievement for which he is now best known. This is his heroic romance, The Lord of the Rings, planned as a vast sequel to his earlier tale. His profound and scholarly grasp of the whole range of Germanic mythology, combined with an intense personal interest in the supernatural, here comes to superb expression, in a fantasy which explores an invented world, and maintains with compelling consistency every detail of life within it.
Tolkien has never lost touch with the academic roots of creative scholarship from which his fantasies have grown. But to a host of readers throughout the world he is primarily esteemed for providing in such rich measure, through the power of his imagination, the recovery, the escape, and the consolation which he sees as the prime gifts of the fairy-story, for adults as much as for children. “Why,” he asks, “should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?”
We can assure him that at no time has it occurred to us to apologise for our frequent escapes to the Shire, and, for choice, to the home of Mr. Bilbo Baggins. To that nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing, and with freshly baked seed-cakes in the pantry. “If ever you are passing my way”, said Bilbo, “don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!”
Your Grace and Chancellor, I present to you John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, as eminently worthy of receiving the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.
They don’t do them like that any more.