A recent donation to Special Collections throws fascinating light on JRR Tolkien’s time at the University of Leeds.

JRR Tolkien photographic portrait

A series of three letters addressed to Brian Woledge offer insight into Tolkien’s teaching at the University and the care he took over his students.

Woledge had studied for a BA Honours degree in French and English at the University of Leeds during the 1920s. He was the only student to choose a Medieval Welsh course offered in 1925, which gave him the distinction of being the one student ever to have studied this subject at Leeds. The course was taught by Tolkien, with his collaborator and friend E V Gordon sitting in. Tolkien left Leeds before the course was completed. The letters, dated between November 1925 and June 1926, concern Woledge’s academic work and job searches, and include a reference Tolkien wrote for him.

Tolkien expresses great sympathy at his student’s ‘trouble and anxiety’ (Woledge had been ill and his father had recently died), and offers reassurances and support where he can. He gives advice to Woledge who was then seeking a post, saying he should ‘do anything…but teach’. Tolkien goes on to say that ‘Academic distinctions are doubtless valueless in themselves, but I have always a feeling that bread-and-butter is a fundamental’ and ‘Classes are only of value for thus purpose of getting a congenial hole to peg oneself in’.

Woledge does not seem to have heeded this advice. He would go on to earn a doctorate from the University of Paris in 1930. In 1939 he was appointed to the Fielden Chair of French in University College London, where he headed up the French department until his retirement in 1971.

The letters were kindly donated to Special Collections by Woledge’s niece, Julia Woledge. The letters and associated material (MS 2244) are now catalogued.

We hold further Tolkien material in MS 1952 The Tolkien-Gordon Collection.