Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien
By Hilary Tolkien.
Edited by Angela Gardner and illustrated by Jef Murray
Moreton-in-Marsh, England: ADC Publications Ltd., 2009
This true treasure of a hitherto unknown trio trove of tales by J.R.R. Tolkien’s younger brother Hilary was saved, like the scrap of Niggle’s painting in JRRT’s allegorical Leaf by Niggle, from a box of assorted family papers that came to Hilary’s eldest son Gabriel, who bequeathed them to his son Chris, who in turn passed them along to editor Angie Gardner.
We are all the richer for this remarkable recovery.
Editor Gardner, the quiz-setter for the Tolkien Society and an erstwhile bookseller, wrote this reviewer that “the paperwork, photographs, etc. were just family stuff until Chris had a good look at it. Gabriel and he (Chris) had often felt that [JRRT biographer Humphrey] Carpenter had not given Hilary the place in Ronald’s life that in reality he had occupied.”
As evidenced by jovial family photographs, the brothers shared both talent and affection.
Enriched by seven hitherto unpublished photos, facsimiles of never-published letters from father Arthur Tolkien and brother John Ronald, three notebook pages and Hilary’s “HART” monogram and his signature, this small book is surprisingly provident.
Artist Jef Murray brightens the book’s brilliance with forty-nine illustrations that capture the cozy charm of the English countryside that begat these tales as well Hilary’s brother’s Shire.
Like Julius Caesar’s Gaul, Black & White Ogre Country is divided into three parts.
“Bumble Dell,” the first, begins:
“In very far off days in a part of Warwickshire, there dwelt a Black Ogre and a White Ogre. The one had wonderful flowers growing along the banks of the stream, and you had to trespass on Black Ogre’s land to get them. Sometimes you had to paddle in order to get the water blobs, and if you left your shoes and stockings on the bank, Black Ogre would come along and pinch your shoes. You had either to go home without your shoes, or if you went to the Black Ogre’s house, he would give you a good thrashing, which might also happen if you went home shoeless.”
Bumble Dell, where the “most enormous blackberries grew. We called them ‘bumbles’…,” was hidden amid the White Ogre’s fields of barley and wheat. Murray’s delightfully comic drawings of both Ogres beguile readers at once.
Those familiar with the Shire will recognize this landscape and be able to give a name—Ted Sandyman?—to one of the Ogres.
But this is the boys’ beloved Warwickshire, where the Great Western Railway raced through the dell, the fastest train from Birmingham to London: “Green engines, black engines, and red engines. Chocolate and cream, black and white, and red coaches.”
Following this ten-page tale is another ten-pager, “Black & White Witches,” which darkens the landscape:
“Not far away, in either place or time, there stood a very tattered old windmill, even then too old to do any more work. Here there lived a bad Black Witch with her even worse black cat, a bedraggled magpie, and of course, her broom for getting about on, to keep mischief going in what she considered to be her country.”
Murray’s Ringwraithian depiction of this gin-drinking sardine-sandwich-stealing hag is followed by a supremely scary close-up on the Black Witch that makes Disney’s Snow White Witch look like Aunt Jemima.
The good White Witch, on the other hand, keeps a “dear old cottage” candy shop,
where everything costs a penny a bag. Murray’s depiction of her is a confection of white and gold: Galadriel meets Dolly Parton.
“Other Stories,” the 37-page closing section, is memoir vignettes. Bucolic reveries of swans, hedgehogs, squirrels, owls, bats, dogs, pigs, and kittens melds into tales of motor-cars reminiscent of his brother’s Mr. Bliss. Haunted farmhouses and the fifty hens and eleven ducks the boy Hilary kept do not hide the price he later paid to keep his Shire free:
“In the Black Ogre’s Country, some fourteen years later, I trained to fight the whole of Kaiser Bill’s army. They stood up to me well for years, but in the end on 11 November 1918, they simply ran away, and we couldn’t catch ‘em for love or money, so the only thing to do was come home, and in February, 1919, I got home on my birthday and just slept for a full twenty-four hours.”
With an 1896 frontispiece photograph of the two fair-haired boys in dresses, as was customary a century ago, the book concludes with a glossary and a brief dozen pages of biography of Hilary Tolkien, “a dreamy child who preferred being outside to doing school work.” Both the dreaminess and the love of nature illuminate this book.
After a walking trip through Switzerland with Ronald and their Tookish aunt Jane Neave, Hilary worked on that aunt’s Nottinghamshire farm. Serving as a bugler with the British Army in France and Belgium, he returned to a career as a market gardener near Evesham, especially proud of his fruit orchard. Plum trees he planted in the 1920s still throve when he was in his eighties. His lovely hobbit-Monet painting of a farmhouse shows he shared his brother’s eye for bold color.
This book may be the first Tolkien that my grand-daughter Madeleine, 8, reads for herself.. It restores Hilary to his rightful place in the Tolkien pantheon as a charming tale-weaver in his own right. Read and rejoice.