Academic journal article Mythlore

J.R.R. Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E.M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature

Academic journal article Mythlore

J.R.R. Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E.M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature

Article excerpt

Introduction

BACK IN 2012, THE BRITISH NEWSPAPER THE GUARDIAN broke the news that, fifty years prior, J.R.R. Tolkien had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The news created something of a stir in Tolkien circles. On one hand, Tolkien's nominator was his old friend C.S. Lewis, indicating the esteem in which he still held Tolkien despite their growing distance in later years. On the other hand, Tolkien's nomination was rejected by the Swedish Academy for "poor prose" and a failure to maintain "storytelling of the highest quality" (Flood), a sign of the old disdain with which mainstream literary critics have often treated him. Lost in this story, however, was the following tidbit: the year 1962 was not Tolkien's first association with the Nobel. In 2004, when the Nobel Committee unsealed its 1954 records, we learned that Tolkien himself had nominated someone for literature's highest prize. Surprisingly, his candidate was E.M. Forster. Although Forster certainly had the requisite reputation, receiving 29 nominations in 17 different years, that he was nominated by Tolkien of all people caused some head-scratching. (1) Nothing in Tolkien's published writings or interviews ever indicated that he ever read Forster, much less admired him.

Digging deeper, however, uncovers something much more interesting about that 1954 nomination. Tolkien's effort on Forster's behalf did not come unassisted. Joining his nomination were those by two of his Oxford colleagues, Lord David Cecil, occasional Inkling and Goldsmiths' Professor of English Literature, and F.P. Wilson, Renaissance scholar and one of Oxford's two Merton Professors of literature (Tolkien being the other). Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence that explains why three friends and colleagues should combine to nominate Forster for the Nobel, and no explanation has ever been offered as to why Tolkien would have selected someone like Forster. Only two online blog posts to my knowledge even mention Tolkien in conjunction with the 1954 nomination. (2) My intention, then, is to offer one possible explanation for Tolkien's choice of nominee. The first half of this article notes some general resonances between Tolkien and Forster, and in particular I discuss Verlyn Flieger's claim that Howards End may have influenced Tolkien. Nonetheless, while largely agreeing with Flieger, I wish to suggest that A Passage to India could have been equally, if not even more, instrumental as Tolkien's justification for Forster's nomination. This point is taken up in Part II. My guiding assumption will be that active writers like Tolkien tend to read other authors in light of their own literary or thematic concerns. Admittedly, considering that Tolkien never discusses Forster directly, my argument is a speculative one. As Raymond Edwards, though, remarks in an admirable recent biography, such speculation can be permitted so long as "we admit we are guessing" (16). Although I doubt Tolkien borrowed anything in literary terms from Forster, Forster's work nonetheless articulates several colonial, racial, and ethical themes that would have captured Tolkien's attention and garnered his esteem.

The appendix to my main argument takes up the question of one possible non-literary influence on the 1954 triple nomination. Considering that the Nobel website lists the 1954 nomination as one nomination signed by three different professors, all of whom were friendly with one another, it seems clear that Tolkien, Wilson, and Cecil were working together. The question, then, is why? My hypothesis is that they collaborated in order to help secure their friend C.S. Lewis a professorship at the University of Cambridge. During the same time that the triumvirate submitted their 1954 nomination, Lewis's friends and allies--frustrated that his career seemed blocked at Oxford--orchestrated the creation of a new chair in Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge. Most discussions of this episode in Inklings' history focus on the coaxing Lewis needed to accept this prestigious promotion, but nobody knows anything about the behind-the-scenes efforts needed to create the professorship in the first place. …

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