- R. W. Chambers and The Hobbit
In mid-August 1937, Tolkien directed his publisher, George Allen & Unwin, to send an early copy of The Hobbit, whose publication was scheduled for September 21st, to R. W. Chambers, the Quain Professor of English at University College London. At the end of the month, Tolkien wrote to his publisher: "Professor Chambers writes very enthusiastically, but he is an old and kind-hearted friend" (Letters 20).1 A few years later, after Chambers collected his lectures and essays in a volume entitled Man's Unconquerable Mind: Studies from Bede to A. E. Housman and W. P. Ker (1939), Tolkien wrote to Chambers:
My thanks are overdue for your most welcome book. My shelves are well-endowed with your generous gifts, yet there are I think 2 studies in the volume that I do not possess, and have not read—alas! not yet even in the collection. I have meant to, but I delay no longer to thank you, for it will be some time before I read anything rational. I shall first re-read viii and ix, which I remember so eminently deserves several readings.2(Chabot 93)
Remarks like these make it clear that the friendship between Tolkien and Chambers was a long one which involved the mutual sharing of their professional publications. This friendship has been little-explored. Here follows an introductory perspective on it, looking particularly at one way in which Chambers seems to have had a direct effect on Tolkien's composition of The Hobbit.
Raymond Wilson Chambers was a Yorkshireman, born at Staxton on 12 November 1874. At the age of 17, he went to University College London, where he studied under W. P. Ker, the literary scholar and Quain Professor of English, and A. E. Housman, the poet and classicist. He received his Bachelor's degree in 1894, and worked elsewhere as a librarian for five years before returning to University College London in 1899, when Ker appointed him to be Quain Student. Chambers received his Masters degree in 1902, and in 1904 was made an Assistant Professor. For slightly more than two decades he also served as the Librarian of the College Library. [End Page 137]
His first book, Widsith: A Study in Old English Heroic Legend, was published in 1912. Two years later he published a revision of A. J. Wyatt's edition of Beowulf. During the Great War, he served as an orderly at a hospital base in France. After the war he returned to scholarly work.
His ground-breaking Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem, announced as forthcoming in the introduction to the 1914 edition of Beowulf, appeared in 1921. On the death of Ker in 1923, he succeeded his mentor as the Quain Professor of English. In 1925, Chambers was offered the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, but he turned it down, thereby coincidentally paving the way for Tolkien's election to the Chair—a position which Tolkien held for twenty years.
In the 1920s Chambers's publications increased. These include England before the Norman Conquest (1926), and an edited volume of Ker's lectures and notes, Form and Style in English Poetry (1928). The expanded version of Beowulf: An Introduction appeared in 1932, and Chambers wrote some of the introductory chapters to the facsimile edition of The Exeter Book of Old English Poetry that was published in 1933.3 His landmark biography Thomas More appeared in 1935, and this work aided the cause for More's canonization. Chambers, who was not Roman Catholic but Anglo-Catholic, was proud of the personal letter of thanks that he received from His Holiness Pope Pius XI for his work on More. Another study, The Place of St. Thomas More in English Literature and History, came out in 1937.
Chambers's lectures to the British Academy and other essays were collected in 1939 in Man's Unconquerable Mind. With the advent of the Second World War, Chambers and University College removed to Wales. His health began to fail, and he retired from the Quain Chair in 1941, but continued as a Special Lecturer. In the...