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  • J.R.R. Tolkien and the Boy Who Didn't Believe in Fairies
  • John Garth (bio)

Tolkien On Fairy-stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, includes among its extensive materials from the manuscripts of "On Fairy-stories" a striking anecdote in which that great proponent of Faërie, the author, recalls being put in his place by a small, thoroughly scientifically-minded boy. It is an entertaining little nugget, but I would suggest that it is more than that: it identifies a moment in the author's life which encapsulated for him, even some thirty years later, the defining idea behind his legendarium: that fairy-stories are not solely or primarily for children. Here I not only reveal the identity of the boy, but also provide photographs of both child and garden, while offering some thoughts on the date of the incident.

The anecdote appears among the pages written by J.R.R. Tolkien when he was revising and enlarging his original 1939 Andrew Lang lecture for publication in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, published in 1947. However, the passage itself was excised by the author and leaves no direct trace in "On Fairy-stories." He introduces the incident to illustrate why the fairy-story should not be specially tailored for children in either tone or content. "Do not let us write only for them, certainly not 'down' to them," he warns: children old enough to enjoy a fairy-story are already old enough to know when they are being patronised. "Children prefer adult conversation—when it is not infantile in all but idiom. But being talked down to (even in verbal idiom) is a flavour that they perceive quicker than any 'grown-up'…" (OFS 248)

Tolkien describes the encounter as a "salutary lesson":

I was walking in a garden with a small child. I was only nineteen or twenty myself. By some aberration of shyness, groping for a topic like a man in heavy boots in a strange drawing room, as we passed a tall poppy half-opened, I said like a fool: 'Who lives in that flower?' Sheer insincerity on my part. 'No one,' replied the child. 'There are Stamens and a Pistil in there.' He would have liked to tell me more about it, but my obvious and quite unnecessary surprise had shown too plainly that I was stupid so he did not bother and walked away.

(OFS 248)

Tolkien gives no hints regarding the location of the garden, and few about the identity of the young sceptic. Indeed there is little here, beyond faith [End Page 279]

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Hugh Cary Gilson at eight years old

[End Page 280]

in Tolkien's veracity, to indicate that the incident is more than a concoction to enliven his essay. However, he does recollect the boy's age—"five was young for such good sense"—and adds: "The child certainly later became a botanist" (248).

In fact the anecdote was perfectly true, and the child was Hugh Cary Gilson, half-brother of Tolkien's schoolfriend Robert Quilter Gilson. Rob and Hugh's father was Robert Cary Gilson, headmaster of King Edward's School, Birmingham, who had remarried two years after his first wife's death in 1907. The garden belonged to the Gilsons' home, Canterbury House, which stood in the village of Marston Green a few miles outside the city.1

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The encounter as told by Marianne Gilson in her memoir, written in 1969 or later

I know all this because Hugh's mother Marianne Caroline Gilson—the headmaster's second wife and Rob's stepmother—tells the same story in an unpublished memoir she wrote in her nineties:

Tolkien was a great friend of Rob's and he was a frequent visitor. I remember on one occasion he took Hugh, then about 3 years old, round a formal garden planted with low growing flowers and he returned and said to me, "Mrs Gilson, your son Hugh has ruined my career"—"What nonsense are you talking, Tolkien?" (It was always surnames in those days.) "Well, I took him round the beds and I asked...