Auctions | June 12, 2014

Tolkien on the Hell of Teaching in Unseen Letter to be Sold at Bonhams

A previously unknown letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to a schoolteacher in Eltham in South East London is to be sold at Bonhams Books, Maps, Manuscripts, and Photographs sale in London on June 18. It is estimated at £1,500-2,000.

Tolkien wrote the letter in 1964 to Anne Mountfield, a newly qualified teacher working at Eltham Green School, in response to a letter from her. She had written that reading The Hobbit to her rather restless class had captivated them and she included a fan letter from one of the pupils. After typing his thanks, and complimenting the pupil, Tolkien added, in his own hand. “All teaching is exhausting and depressing and one is seldom comforted by knowing when one has had some effect.”

He then recalled his own time at school as an inattentive pupil and wished he could tell his old teachers how much influence they had had on him. “I wish I could now tell some of mine (of long ago) how I remember them and things they said, though I was (only, as it appeared) looking out of the window or giggling at my neighbour.”

It was while correcting School Certificate Papers that Tolkien famously scribbled on a blank leaf of paper the opening words of his famous book, “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.”

Anne Mountfield forgot about the Tolkien letter until last year when she stumbled upon it by chance. She had recently received a letter from a former pupil of hers saying what an influence she had been on him. A few days later the Tolkien letter fell out of a copy of his book Leaf and Tree where she had put it years before.  As Anne herself said, "I like to attribute the coincidence to a little touch of Gandalf magic. How right Tolkien was that teachers are seldom 'comforted by knowing that one has had some effect' and how very nice when, 50 years after the event, it happens."