Why Didn’t Tolkien Win a Nobel Prize?

A secret archive containing the deliberations of jurors who awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature has been unsealed after 50 years and some material made available for public review. Fans will be pleased to discover J.R.R. Tolkien was considered for the Prize. And annoyed to hear why he was passed over.

For the past five years Swedish reporter Andreas Ekström has sifted through the Nobel archives as they come available:

“The academy keeps a strict secrecy around the archives for 50 years, but doesn’t reveal everything. The final decision is made without any notes ever becoming public. But the list of suggestions is indeed public, with some commentary to it.”

Who nominated Tolkien? None other than his good friend C.S. Lewis. The Swedish Academy invites certain academics, former winners and other institutional representatives to nominate. Lewis, as a professor of literature, was qualified to submit a recommendation. That Lewis might have nominated someone was known from his January 7, 1961 letter to Alistair Fowler (published in C.S. Lewis Collected Letters, Vol III ). I wonder — Was it known that he definitely did so, and that Tolkien was his nominee?

One thing we now know is why Tolkien lost. Critic and jury member Anders Österling declared the prose of Tolkien “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.”

We also know for the first time how many other notable writers — Karen Blixen, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Frost, Graham Greene, and E.M. Forster — were considered for the 1961 prize ultimately given to Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andrić.

From what I’ve read about fellow Inklings Tolkien and Lewis, I can only imagine Tolkien would have been mortified to learn Lewis had sent in his name. I wonder, did Lewis ever tell him? It happens that the leading Inklings scholars read this blog so I have a good chance of finding out.

[Thanks to Martin Morse Wooster for the story.]

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18 thoughts on “Why Didn’t Tolkien Win a Nobel Prize?

  1. I suspect you’re right, and Tolkien would have been chagrined to have been nominated… although whether because Lewis nominated him or because it was the Nobel prize is a moot point.

    So Tolkien’s unadorned prose is of less worth to world literature than the amazing impact that the immortal words of *who*? I’m sorry, maybe there are people who have shelves of novels by Ivo Andric, but I’d be very surprised if I knew one. Not that popularity is a reliable measure of literature’s worth — Danielle Steele ought to be dispel that misapprehension nicely. But obscurity, irrelevancy and esotericism are no measure either. That old joke about how many Swedish writers have won the Nobel prize for literature is funny for a reason…

    Also funny is that story that Tolkien hardly knew what to make of the Hugo award he won and kept it perched on the toilet tank.

  2. I love the last line so much it’s a pity I need to point out that he never won a Hugo (lost All-Time Series to Asimov in 1966) and it was Chesley Bonestell who reputedly kept his Hugo on the toilet tank. (Really a Special Committee Award, but he got a rocket. Then the rules were changed to prevent that from happening again).

  3. Lewis asked his former student Alastair Fowler in January 1961 what he thought of various possible writers – including Tolkien – as Nobel nominees. This was known, but it wasn’t known until now that Lewis had actually been asked to nominate.

    I suspect that Tolkien would indeed have been embarrassed if he’d learned of this, because he was essentially a modest man who felt that his work spoke for itself and didn’t need awards to validate it. But I don’t know where Taral’s suggestion comes from that maybe it would have been the fact that Lewis did it that would have bothered him. Lewis and Tolkien were no longer close by this time, but contrary to stories that get tossed around a lot, they were never personally hostile. Tolkien knew that Lewis rated The Lord of the Rings very highly (one occasionally sees statements that Lewis disliked the book: emphatically untrue), and Tolkien was pleased for the publicity, though he did feel that some of Lewis’s (and others’) effusions went too far.

    The rocket-shaped award that Tolkien didn’t know what to do with was the International Fantasy Award, which he received in 1957. In the end, he just left it in the front window of his publisher’s office in London, where it could impress passersby.

  4. It seems that I conflated two stories — the one about Bonestell’s Hugo and Tolkien’s IFA.

    As for my guess work about Tolkien’s embarrassment, that comes of a knowing a little about the relationship between Tolkien and Lewis. Lewis was always supportive of his friend, but Tolkien seemed less generous in his estimate of Lewis as time went by. He may have felt that anyone who could write the academically sloppy and philologically deficient Narnia series may be poor judge of Tolkien’s work.

    A stronger hint that J.R.R. might not have cared for a Nobel Literature Prize is his plain orneriness toward the modern world around him. Anyone who flatly refuses to like movies, is capable of disliking recognition by the same world that makes them…

    Still, Tolkien actually made a statement about the Nobel Prizes, we can only guess what he thought.

  5. Taral: Knowing a little about a complex subject can be a hazardous thing. There’s a lot of misinformation about Tolkien’s and Lewis’s relationship floating around out there. You write, “Tolkien … may have felt that anyone who could write the academically sloppy and philologically deficient Narnia series may be poor judge of Tolkien’s work.”

    If he employed such reasoning, he left no evidence of it. His dissatisfaction with Lewis’s later work did not change his gratitude for all Lewis had done to encourage his writing and champion it. He wrote to his son after Lewis’s death that they had long ceased to be intimate friends, and noted how hurt he had been by not having been told of Lewis’s marriage. But he immediately went on to say:

    “But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the deep affection that it begot, remains. He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries only scraped the surface.”

  6. Much as I deplore this sort of one-upmanship in fandom, I don’t just make haphazard guesses. I base my guesses on haphazardly researched books and articles I’ve read, including one by the wife of a certain blog editor.

  7. I really tend to doubt that your guess about Tolkien’s attitude towards Lewis is fairly derivable from said book by the wife of a certain blog editor. I think I know that book fairly well, having read it seven times in the course of helping the author research and edit it and in compiling its index, not to mention writing its bibliographical appendix myself. (What were you saying about oneupmanship again?) I have my sources for Tolkien’s attitude towards Lewis, and quoted one. Yours?

  8. It isn’t the only book I’ve read — I particularly recommend MIchael White’s “Tolkien, A Biography,” that has the best treatment of Tokien’s private life, opinions and habits of any I’ve read.

    However, if you know better, fine with me…

  9. Yes, I do. Michael White’s is about the worst book on Tolkien out there. It is of absolutely stunning incompetence and inaccuracy, and its section on Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship in chapter 8 is a perfect example of the “misinformation … floating around out there” which I referred to. It depicts them as becoming positively hostile, which is entirely inaccurate and based on a nasty selectivity of facts.

    Even Humphrey Carpenter’s biography and his “The Inklings” have their flaws and won’t cure a White-born misapprehension of the friendship. You’d be better off with Colin Duriez’ “Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship”, which, if it errs, at least does so in the opposite direction and not very far, or George Sayer’s biography of Lewis, “Jack”.

    But Michael White …? oh oh the pain the pain …

  10. Interesting perspective on the White book that I’m in no position to evaluate. Have you informed Mr. White of his inept scholarship?

  11. Pity. The other handful of books have very little to say about Tolkien’s internal life, I found. Almost all of it could have been found in the blurbs of his books and his National Service papers.

  12. That’s because everything on Tolkien’s “internal life” in White’s book he just made up, with a basis in his own imagination rather than the source material. (He also made up a goodly number of anecdotes which were never heard of until his book’s publication.) He has this freshman psych student image in his mind of what an author’s “internal life” ought to be, and he just plugs it in to Tolkien without any consideration of Tolkien’s actual personality, and sometimes not even the facts about him.

    As a result, White appeals to innocent readers who don’t think an author is complete without the “personal demons” that White thinks he ought to have. I worried at the time the book was published that it would be a never-failing toxic influence on public perception of Tolkien, and that’s illustrated perfectly by the way an intelligent and sympathetic mind like Taral’s could get infected by White’s distorted view to the point of imagining a Tolkien so antipathetic to Lewis that he might retroactively discount Lewis’s praise of his (Tolkien’s) own works.

    Anyone who thinks that other biographical books on Tolkien have little to say about his internal life should run, not walk, to “Tolkien and the Great War” by John Garth, an intensive study of Tolkien’s beginnings as an author. I didn’t mention it earlier because it doesn’t cover the later period we’re discussing here. Also, Humphrey Carpenter’s “Tolkien”, though somewhat waffly on the Inklings (to which a full antidote will be found in the previously-mentioned book by the wife of a certain blog editor), is tremendously insightful and subtle on just the point White is worst at, Tolkien’s motivations and drives as an author. It’s just not as colorful or as mindlessly “insert knob A into hole B” psych textbook as White’s.

    For anyone baffled by the difference here, I’d recommend the discussion of biographical writing as literature and scholarship in “The Use and Abuse of Literature” by Marjorie Garber. It has nothing on Tolkien, but it’s a specific illustrated discussion of the difference between biographers who draw their descriptions and psychological insights out of the source material (which is what Carpenter does: Garber’s good example is David McCullough) and those who pile assumptions upon presumptions upon assertions (which is what White does).

  13. Also, somewhat irrelevantly to the above, White is ROFLingly hilariously bad on getting his simple facts straight. Here’s a couple about World War I that should particularly tickle you, Mike (Alpha books ed., 2002):

    “… on August 4, [Britain] declared war against Germany and Serbia.” (p. 58)

    “The Prussian Empire, one that had taken the Habsburgs a thousand years to collect through war and marriage, had dissolved” (p. 103)

  14. Much as I deplore this sort of one-upmanship in fandom, I don’t just make haphazard guesses. I base my guesses on haphazardly researched books and articles I’ve read, including one by the wife of a certain blog editor.

    My own years of writing have taught me that publically writing “guesses” of any sort when checkable facts are available usually ends up with the person venturing the “guess” with metaphorical egg-face.

    It’s not actually very hard to fact-check, rather than guess. (It’s even simpler to say nothing at all, rather than present “guesses.”)

    Anyone who thinks that other biographical books on Tolkien have little to say about his internal life should run, not walk, to “Tolkien and the Great War” by John Garth, an intensive study of Tolkien’s beginnings as an author.

    Which I happen to own. As can anyone who wants to pay $5-$6 on abebooks.com

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