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Literature/Modern Firsts



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Archive of letters with two related books

Letters and books- including an autograph letter by J.R.R. Tolkien and two autograph letters and an autograph note by C.S. Lewis- from the collection of Robert W. Burchfield.

Burchfield (1923-2004), noted philologist, lexicographer (he was the chief editor of the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary), and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, arrived at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar from his native New Zealand in 1949. At Magdalen College, he studied English under both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, forming a particularly close bond with Tolkien, who served as a mentor to the young Burchfield. In his capacity as chief editor of the OED Supplement, he initiated an interesting correspondence with Tolkien (who was an assistant lexicographer himself on the original OED from 1918-20) concerning the origin of the word 'Hobbit'. In a letter of 11 September 1970, Tolkien wrote: "For the moment this is held up, because I am having the matter of the etymology: 'Invented by J.R.R. Tolkien': investigated by experts. I knew that the claim was not clear, but I had not troubled to look into it, until faced by the inclusion of hobbit in the Supplement". Tolkien suggested a definition which was later adopted verbatim, prefaced by the words "In the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)" (J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, 1981, no.316 and note p.453).

In the early 1960's, it was Burchfield, "then the editorial secretary of the Early English Text Society, with Professor Norman Davis, the director of the EETS, [who] 'gently bullied' Tolkien" to complete and submit his edition of Ancrene Wisse which Tolkien had begun as early as 1936 (Hammond and Anderson, 309). In a 1989 article in the Independent titled "My Hero", Burchfield details the great influence Tolkien had over his life, describing Tolkien as "the puckering fisherman who drew me into his philological net".

The collection consists of::

1) Autograph letter signed by Christopher Tolkien (Tolkien's son) to Burchfield dated 27 June 1974 explaining that he found a book (Wallenberg's Kentish Place-Names, included in the collection) among his father's possessions after he died and is now returning it;

2) Autograph letter signed by J.R.R. Tolkien to Burchfield dated June 11, 1972 and written from Merton College, apologizing for not returning the book (Kentish Place-Names) he borrowed: "My dear Burchfield / In unpacking my books from shore [?; probably Bournemouth, from which he moved in March 1972] I discovered this book which belongs to you. You lent it me a long while ago- but as I was in hospital at the time of my reward from Oxford [an honorary doctorate] I was not guilty of removing it to [...?], though guilty (with more excuse) for not returning it later. Forgive me. / Yours... / J.R.R. Tolkien";

3)  The copy of J.K. Wallenberg's Kentish Place-Names that Tolkien borrowed and Christopher Tolkien returned to Burchfield. Octavo, original wrappers. Wrappers detached with significant chipping.

4)  Autograph letter signed by C.S. Lewis dated June 18, 1956 written from The Kilns, to Burchfield asking for assistance in joining the Early English Text Society (EETS): "Dear Burchfield / I shd. like to become a member of the E.E.T.S. Are you the right man to approach? If not (but I think you must be) no doubt you can '[...?] me bettere' / Yours / C.S. Lewis";

5) Autograph letter signed by C.S. Lewis dated June 26, 1956 written from The Kilns, to Burchfield discussing the exchange of books: "Dear Burchfield- (I'd rather you called me Lewis than Professor)- As I didn't by any means want to get all numbers [?] sent me automatically, I'll travel second-class. / I would like the South East Legendary when it comes back. If Brock's Morte Arthur (E.88) is a new post-Brock, edn. of the alliterative Morte I'd also like it. Most of the [......?] wd. really like one- naturally- O.P. / Yours, C.S. Lewis";

6) Autograph postcard from C.S. Lewis to Burchfield (dated June 1953), initialed by Lewis, written in Anglo-Saxon, referring to C.T. Onions (fellow and librarian of Magdalen College, Oxford, and co-editor of the OED supplement and editor of the Shorter OED) and mentioning Beowulf;

7)  Typed Letter signed by C.L. Wrenn (Inkling member, Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, the successor to Tolkien's chair, and editor of a scholarly edition of Beowulf) and a note and draft letter by Burchfield;

8) Beowulf with the Finnesburg Fragment, edited by C.L. Wrenn. London: George G. Harrap & Co. LTD, (1953). Octavo, original black cloth. R.W. Burchfield's copy, with his signature on front free endpaper and notes in pencil throughout. Interestingly, Wrenn's gratitude to Tolkien is mentioned in the Preface (they had previously collaborated on a 1940 edition of Beowulf with Tolkien writing the Preface and Wrenn providing the Notes and Introduction). A very good copy.


An important archive uniting the greatest English philologists and lexicographers of the mid-20th century. $5800.   


Literature/Modern Firsts