Rare book by J.R.R. Tolkien held by National Library of Scotland

A recently retired member of staff got in touch with the Library to ask if we were aware that we had a very rare book by J.R.R, Tolkien in the collections. The rare item is a booklet called “Songs for the Philologists” by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon which was privately printed by the Department of English at University College London in 1936. This was a year before Tolkien would publish “The Hobbit” and just before he began work on “The Lord of the Rings” which was written between 1937 and 1949 and published in 1954 and 1955.

The book collects thirty poems and songs, thirteen of which were contributed by Tolkien. These include “The Root of the Boot” which in revised form appears in “The Lord of the Rings” as “The Stone Troll” where it is sung by Sam Gamgee, a friend of Frodo Baggins. The poems and songs are in modern English, Middle English, Old Norse and Latin and give an insight into Tolkien’s literary and academic interests.

The book’s origins lie in the Viking Club a society whose members would read Old Norse sagas whilst drinking beer. The Viking Club was founded by J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon when they were professors at Leeds University in the 1920s. Members of the Viking Club also wrote original songs and poems that would be performed at meetings.

In 1925 Tolkien left Leeds and took up the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Cambridge. In 1934 Tolkien and Gordon gathered together verses and songs from the Viking Club and distributed them as typescripts to their former students as a keepsake. One of the students A.H. Smith was now an academic at University College London. He got his students to hand-set the typescripts as a pamphlet and print them on a wooden press as an exercise. Smith had not obtained permission from Tolkien and Gordon to do this so he was reluctant to distribute copies. His students were given copies and the remaining copies were put into storage on UCL premises on Gower Street.

Gower Street was bombed in Word War II and the remaining copies of the pamphlet and the wooden printing press they were produced on were destroyed. Luckily as well as being given to Smith’s students, a number of copies were also sent to libraries. We obtained our copy in April 1941. We think this was sent to us in terms of Legal Deposit, which entitles us and five other Libraries in the UK and Ireland to a gratis copy of new UK and Irish publications. As well as the National Library of Scotland copies are also in Legal Deposit collections at the British Library, Trinity College and libraries in Cambridge and Oxford. Perhaps someone had a premonition that the remaining stock was vulnerable and decided to send copies to research libraries.

It is believed that only fourteen copies of “Song of the Philologists” exist. It is regarded as the rarest of Tolkien’s books and important because of the insight it gives to his work and thinking on Old Norse and its ties to “The Lord of the Rings”. Tolkienists, people who study the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, have been known to lament that they are unlikely to hold let alone own a copy of this very rare work. The chance to hold and study this rare work is available to visitors to our Edinburgh reading rooms.