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Thread: A Collector's tale(s)

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I thought I'd start a thread with a bibliographical theme, based on my hobby of collecting books by and about Tolkien. All collections are different from one another; as different as the people who collect! The geordie library is high and deep and wide, reflecting my (sometimes odd) tastes. For example, to look at me, you wouldn't think I'd go in for a pop-up Hobbit book, would you? (it's a book of picturesby John Howe. The Battle of Five Armies is particularly effective).

Every collector has their tales, of how books come into their stewardship. Not ownership - for example, the geordie library has a section of books once owned by Tolkien's friend and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. So in a real sense, they are still Mr Barfield's books; I'm just looking after them. Many tales are the same as those told by fishermen, of 'the one that got away'. I'll never forget how close I came to acquiring a copy of 'Songs for the Philologists'. But that's how these things go. One of my favourite stories involves a first edition of the American 'Hobbit'. Not a very expensive book, as it happens - a later printing; no dustwrapper - but still a bit more than I could afford. I was offered it by a bookseller friend of mine, years ago. I saw it again some time later, on the top shelf of a bookshop in London. The owner, whom I'd got to know pretty well, had bought it from my friend (for trade price, of course), and had it priced at one and a half times as much as I'd ben offered it some time before. Still, that's business, and I've no cause for complaint.

The book was out of my range, and over the next eighteen months or so, it stayed on the dealer's top shelf. I'd pop in now and again, and ask to see it. He'd take it down, I'd look at it wistfully, and back it would go. Then something happened. Some books came onto the market from the library of another of Tolkien's friends and fellow Inklings, Colin Hardie. I bought three of them, for only a few pounds. Two of them were of particular interest - Hardie was secretary of the Oxford Dante Society (Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were all members during the forties). These two books were on Dante. One, a translation by an American called Parsons, carries the inscription 'To Mr Charles Dickens esq, with the compliments of the translator'. But the other was even more interesting (to me). This book on Dante was by Maria Francesca Rossetti, sister of the poet and Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He actually designed the book's cover - (thus making this book a Pre-Raphaelite work!) There were three letters tucked inside the book, written from Maria Francesca to her friend, a Mrs Heinemann. The letters are models of mid-Victorian writing; beautifullly calligraphic, and with a lovely turn of phrase. '[The publisher]s have written to inform me that they intend to publish my little book on Dante. Is not that grand?'

Now for the interesting bit - turning to the art section of the geordie library, I took down a couple of books on the Pre-Raphaelites, and found that Maria Francesca was the youngest of four siblings (her sister Christina Rossetti was a famous poet). But what's more, their uncle was Dr Polidori, who one night at a villa on Lake Geneva (IIRC) said to his fellow guests - 'I know, everybody! Why don't we each write a ghost story?' Or words to that effect. So one of the guests, Lord Byron, wrote 'The Vampyre'. And another - Mary Shelley (who was there with her husband, Percy Byshhe Shelley) - went off and wrote 'Frankenstein'.

So, what does this have to do with the early American Hobbit? I was coming to that. The books arrived on a Thursday, and on the Saturday I took them over to London for a bit of 'show and tell'. I was very pleased with them, esp, the Maria Francesca book. I'd grown fond of her through my reading of the history of the Rossetti family, and esp. of her letters. Letters, what's more, written by the hand which had touched the hands of Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and of Christina; and also the hand of her uncle, who'd touched the hands of Shelley and Byron. Not to mention the author of 'Frankenstein'! I showed the book-dealer the books and letters; and explained their provenance. I told him the tale of Maria's uncle's trip to lake Geneva, and he was a bit quiet and thoughtful. In a fit of humour, I offered him the book with the 'Dickens' connection for his Hobbit. He laughed. Then I offered him both books, and he said 'okay'. I left the bookshop with the Hobbit under my arm, wondering whether one of us had made a mistake.

As it happened, it all went ok in the end, for both of us. The 'Dickens' book was a risk; he had to do some research on that, to find out whether it was genuine. But the Maria Francesca book was no trouble; he got on the phone right away to a college in the States which has a collection of letters and other materials pertaining to the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle, and they took it immediately. You see, everyone knows that Dante Gabriel and Christina Rosetti are famous, so their letters come up quite often. But three letters by Maria Francesca - including one refering to the book in which they are preserved - these are rare. So, the early U.S. edition of The Hobbit is in its proper place within the vast marbled halls of the geordie library. And the pop-up book? It has its place, too. But not in the same area. :-)

This is so amazing.With every line my jaw opened wider and wider.Thank you for sharing,most enlightening and entertaining.

I agree. 'vast marble halls of the geordie library?' Where on earth do you live, in a palace, possibly sir Winston Churchill's home as a baby?

heh, no, The vast marbled halls are a little joke of mine; most evident to the few who've actually visited the collection. In reality, the collection takes up a bedroom and a small box-room in a nondescript house in an ordinary town.  But the contents of the library - the collection itself - is pretty good.


The reason I was enamored was because of the history behind each of the collectibles and also because I'm a Christina Rosetti fanblush

Odette and Leelee - thanks for your kind words.

I've noticed that my recent posts have been on the sombre side; mainly to do with Tolkien and his schoolfriends. Perhaps this little note will cheer things up a bit. One of my interests is in Tolkien's biography; I extend that to his family and his circle of friends and colleagues. The geordie library has a section for books from the libraries of several of these notables. 

It's often been said (mainly by folk who are unaware of the facts!)  that outside of his family, Tolkien didn't mix much with  women. Seems an odd thing to say.  In fact, many of Tolkien's colleagues at Oxford were women. Many were former pupils of his, such as Mary Salu, Joan Blomfield (later Turville-Patre), and Simonne d'Ardenne. During WWII Simonne worked with the Resistance in her native Belgium, aiding Allied fliers to escape. Happily, she survived the war, and got in contact with Tolkien, and their friendship continued for many years.

Tolkien and Simonne worked together  on an edition of 'Te Lyfe ant te Passiun of Seinte Julienne'. (1936) Actually, Simonne did much of  the work; Tolkien was supposed to be her supervisor, but in the event,  as Carpenter says, there's more of Tolkien's though on Middle English in this work than almost anything he produced under his name. Simonne wanted to credit T. in the book, but Tolkien refused, as it would help her get a Chair at Liege University.

My copy comes from the library of Tolkien's fellow philologist and colleague at Merton, G.V. Smithers. Tolkien wrote at least part of the book's Etymological Appendix. Under the entry for 'Gra'  Tolkien discusses the relationship between the words 'grim' and grey'.

"The special use of _gra-r_ in Norse is regarded as due to the frequent application of grar to the wolf. But when so applied the adjective refers solely to colour, not temper, ... It would seem that the notions of 'grim' and 'grey' were associated in Germanic from an early period, and one may suspect the influence of some accident of homophony: alliteration probably played a greater part than wolves."

One of the delights of ex-libris books is that some of them contain notes in their margins. Next to this paragraph, Smithers has pencilled:

"If this isn't Tolkienian, nothing is!"









How very interesting. Somehow when I think of our dear professor, I see him very much like many of the grey elves. Very intelligent, gifted , deeply spiritual, which I believe in some strange way the elves were, well the 'higher' elves. I just feel they were even though nothing is said. Also, the way he fought so hard for Edith even when she was engaged to the other chap, and the deep way he carried grief such as the loss of mother of father. And yet there are light moments in LOTR and the elves are playful and have a wonderful sense of humour. He to me was just a rather largish elf.And of course a master of words and a lover of poetry. Pretty elven, don't you thin? Of course like the men of the white city he was a fighter and all that. But still I see him as an elf.

Do you know anything about his auntie that he corresponded with until she was well advanced with age. She seemed so alert and interesting.

Actually, Tolkien once wrote: 'I am a hobbit; in all but size..'  :-)

Tolkien's aunt; yes, you're thinking of Jane Neave, one of Mabel's two sisters.  Tolkien was very fond of Jane; he was very proud that she was one of the first women in England to take a science degree.  Jane lived for a while at a farm in Worcestershire, called Dormston farm, though the locals still called it by its old name; 'Bag End'. There's a couple of books by a chap called Andrew Morton about Jane - let's see: (we met Andrew at Oxonmoots on a couple of occassions, when he was giving talks). Got them; they're called 'Tolkien's Gedling', and Tolkien's Bag End. Quite interesting; the main emphasis being on Jane and not JRR.

it was Jane who led the walking-party in the Swiss Alps in 1911 which fired young Ronald's passion for mountains, which in turn led to some memorable passages in TH and LotR. Ronald signed two first edition copies of TH to his aunt:  why, I don't know.  It was Jane who suggested Ronald should put together a little book 'for us old 'uns to give as presents'. No sooner said than done! Do you know, Tolkien's publishers (and he had several) had the devil's own job getting academic works out of him, but one word from his aunt, and up pops 'The Adventures of Tom Bombadil', the next year!

I have a soft spot for Jane. Not the easiest of people to get along with, I expect; but Ronald loved her as much as his mum, I think.



First of all, thank you for sharing your experience.

Collecting is something I find really fascinating. The problem is always the same: money! When we talk about our dreams for the future (I'm 20 so I speak at least for my generation) we all tent to avoid saying that we would like to earn a lot of money... but I actually think money makes the world go round... not because I want to be reach, but because I want to be in a position to, say, enter that library and claim THAT book, whitout need to think of all those thing I should drop to afford that specific item.

So money is my first problem. I'm a student, I can try to save some money but... how could I spend even "only" 300$ knowing that my family work hard everyday to pay 600$ monthly rent? I would feel too guilty... so I always tent to postpone this project of collecting and I like thinking of a great future for me, with a whole huge room fully devoted to Tolkien's books. lol ok I'm dreaming...

Second problem, which is more "objective" I would say: I live in Italy, you mostly find books in Italian and I usually don't like reading English writers in Italian. But also, the greatest editions are in English. The oldest ones, the rarest ones... these things you cannot find in Italy. I read of people in England who found letters signed by Tolkien himself in simple books fairs... surely that's not something that could ever happen here! So the only way to find rare items is buying through the internet, which I don't like when I have to buy items of a certain value (which, as I said, a don't do often indeed).

As a result, my "collection" is sadly limited to some deLuxe editions and other books in the usual paperback/hardback you find in stores worldwide.

Yes, money is a consideration - prices are ludicrous compared to when I began collecting. On the other hand, I've only ever bought what I can afford at the time (that is, I've never gone so far as to take out a loan!)  I'm an ordinary working bloke with a family, and family concerns take priority. As all collectors do, I set myself a limit; in my case, I've never spent more than a month's money on any one item. But of course, spending at that level is very infrequent. By my reckoning, I haven't spent as much per annum on collecting as I would have spent on, say,  twenty cigarettes a day, were I a smoker.

  And, when I set out collecting, many years ago, there were bookshops! I'd tramp the length of London's Charing Cross Road, where there used to be dozens of bookshops once upon a time. And there were book-fairs. Well, there still are book-fairs of course, but it's been years since I've found anything out of the ordinary. 

There are many Tolkien collectors out there, and each collection is as individual as the person who compiles it. Look up 'Tolkien Library' on the net - there's a section on collecting, and a series of collector profiles, in which nuts like me are pleased to share their stories. (sorry; I was going to put up a link just then, but it doesn't seem to be working).

Few of these fine individuals  live in the UK, but they specialize in editions from all over the world. The site is worth checking out.






One of the odd things in the geordie library is a book called 'The Nature of Belief', by Tolkien's friend Martin d'Arcy, S.J.  This book  comes from Tolkien's library. It's inscribed 'to Prof. Tolkien with every good wish from Rene and Jack Eccles Christmas 1931'.

A friend of mine looked up Rene and Jack. Jack was better known as John Carew Eccles, later knighted, and awarded a Nobel Prize for medicine. I'm told Rene was an opera singer, but I can;t find anything on that. This is an interesting example of what can be found out there, for not a lot of money - it cost me £3. 49 from Oxfam.


Wow £3. 49 only?

Btw, I know that website and it's great, really one of the best on the internet I would say. Are you one of those collectors?

Not I. I wouldn't want folk to see photographs of my bookshelves. For one thing, they're nowhere near as impressive-looking as some on that sit. (nor as tidy!)

Actually, I began a thread about the geordie library some years ago, on another site. If no-one objects, I'll give a link to it here: I'd welcome any queries or comments -


I hope that works! Don't worry too much about the length of the thread - it's not 'structured' in any way. I hope it's the sort of thing where folk can just pop into, as they please.







Some say the best things in life are free -  :-)    One of the nicest things on the bookshelves is a pine cone. Yes... but not just any pine cone. This cone is from Tolkien's favourite tree, the mighty Black Pine (Pinus Nigra) in Oxford's Botanical Gardens.  There's a picture of Tolkien standing next to it, in Humphrey Carpenter's 1977 biography. It's the last photo ever taken of JRR; the photographer was Tolkien's grandson Michael.  An original print of this photo came up for sale at Christie's in London a couple of years back. A friend and I went to the pre-sale viewing

(We'd actually gone along to see the first ed. copy of TH which had been given by Tolkien to Elaine Griffiths, and signed by him. It was a great thrill to handle that book, I can tell you, It sold for £60,000).

Anyway - the photo was part of a small lot along with a couple of other items. On the back, Priscilla Tolkien had written that this was the last photo taken of her father, by the tree which he used to call 'Laocoon'. Fancy that. Needless to say, I could not have afforded either lot. But it was nice to have had the chance to see them. And my pine-cone has pride of place next to an actual print of another photograph of Tolkien, given to me ages ago by that same friend with whom I'd visited Christie's that day.