Monday 13 July 2020

Why was Tolkien averse to France and the French Language?

That Tolkien was averse to the French Language, and indeed things French in general (especially food), is a frequent theme; after which the various biographers and interpreters try to suggest some specific reason why this should be the case: why Tolkien should have developed such an extraordinary characteristic...

But there is no specific reason necessary, beyond that Tolkien was a normal, patriotic Englishman; among whom such an aversion is normal and unremarkable.

The ordinary Englishman has 'always' had a thing against the French; and this was only amplified by having them as 'allies' in both 20th century world wars. Aversion to the French was as common among World War I and II veterans as was an admiration-of, and friendliness-towards, the Germans.

A pervasive (but mostly unspoken) dislike of Frenchness is just normal among the English lower classes; including the non-professional middle class, from which Tolkien emerged.

There are many reasons for it - for example the Norman Conquest imported a French-speaking ruling class, leading on to centuries of cultural division, destruction and oppression. And France was an old (often primary) military enemy and political threat (or rival) for many centuries up to Boneparte.

Then there is the association between France and radicalism generally; such that those English who are keen on Leftism, Feminism, and sexual license have always been keen on France. (These are the same people who want England to Remain in the European Union, which is French in origin and spirit.)

Those who find it strange or sinister that Tolkien was French averse are mostly upper-class and/or progressive English - for whom to be Francophile ("the food, the fashion, the sheer style") is a natural as their complementary (and more visceral) despising of Englishness. This description covers nearly all of those people who would be inclined to publish books about Tolkien.

...Or else they are Americans; who just don't understand.

(They may instead be Scottish or Irish; for whom the French serve as just another stick with which to beat the English.)

What is perhaps surprising is that Tolkien qua Oxford Professor did not adopt the Francophilia of his new tribe. But Tolkien's retaining of natural, patriotic, 'common folk' Englishness, was a sign of that same integrity that made him the genius he was.


a_probst said...

Or else they are Americans who know, but don't care much.

Anthony Burgess once characterized a third, more ambivalent stance. Paraphrasing from Henry V he said that the English love France so much that they will not part with a single village of her. But to be French...!

John Fitzgerald said...

As a lover of the Traditional Mass, JRRT might have come to appreciate France ('la France profonde', I mean, not 'radical/chic' France) more as the 70s and 80s wore on. Because if it wasn't for the witness of Archbishop Lefebvre and other French Catholics then there probably wouldn't be any Latin Mass provision today. France very much remains the home and epicentre of traditional Catholicism today. This, in many ways, is tied in with the very strong monarchical tradition there, which has certainly not gone away and bubbles away under the surface of plotical, social and cultural life.

It would be interesting to know what JRRT thought of Charles de Gaulle, who very much saw himself as a quasi-monarchical figure and cultivated a deliberate policy of national grandeur and promotion of the high arts. De Gaulle valued writing very highly and was no mean writer himself. One would have thought that he'd have 'ticked a lot of boxes' for JRRT, and certainly when you compare De Gaulle to British Prime Ministers of the time - MacMillan, Douglas-Home, Wilson - and ask yourself, 'who, out of these men, is most like Aragorn?' there can only be one answer.

France is a remarkable country, in my view, capable of extraordinary highs and lows, as De Gaulle himself commented on the first page of his memoirs with his famous phrase - 'une certaine idée de France.' There's a sense, in short, in which everything really bad comes from France but also everything really good. Spiritually speaking, it's a very important country - a real lightning rod - so who controls it and what France stands for is of paramount spiritual significance. If France goes the right way, then the whole world will, and vice versa.

They know this very well in the Vendée, of course, that region of France which resisted the degradations of the Revolution to the utmost degree and paid for it in gallons of blood, much like parts of England did in the years following the Norman Conquest.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John - As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien might have been expected to be keen on France - as was Belloc. This is one area where T's patriotism (and preference for the Germanic and Norse) overcame was was the usual internationalist (and ultramontaine) preferences of the Roman Catholics of his day (and perhaps still?).

T was certainly in favour of the patriotism of other countries, but loathed both Empire and other forms of internationalism such as the EU - so I doubt if he would have had great affection for de Gaulle on both these counts (since dG was pretty keen on retaining France's North African Empire, I understand).

Overall, however, I am not attempting to argue against the consensus of biographers and memoir writers when they reiterate that Tolkien made a lot of 'anti French' comments in his daily speech - especially in relation to cooking - to the point of sometimes being rather boring on the topic! I'm just saying that this general view of France was and is not unusual among the English, so does not require any specifcially biographical explanation.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

But let's not forget that the original "Rider of Rohan" was a Frenchman! And the House of Rohan is said to trace back to Conan Meriadoc. Coincidence?

dearieme said...

Some people with experience of the French during the First German War became fans of them. You could look at Assignment to Catastrophe; I'll grant that the author, Spears, was a rum cove and had anyway lived in France when young. Nonetheless his account of the surprise and horror of much of the British political class at the collapse of France in 1940 is persuasive. It wasn't just that it made Britain vulnerable: their admiration for France had persuaded them that such a thing could never happen.

Of course, this reminds me that no Englishman ever willingly learns anything about the history of the Continent for otherwise they'd have kept 1870 in mind.

Apropos the French lingo: it's the only foreign tongue in which I have been mistaken for a native speaker, which is enormously to its credit.

William Wildblood said...

Wasn't French cuisine partly developed because the French ate a lot more rotten meat and had to disguise that somehow? Whereas the English consumed fresh, wholesome produce which didn't need any fancyfying. That's what I used to be told anyway. Then there's the matter of that pungent plant garlic which no normal Anglo-Saxon would tolerate (orthodox Brahmins won't eat it either) but is now everywhere.

I agree with John that when France is good, it's very good, cathedral architecture is largely French in origin I think, but its tendency to intellectual abstraction can be very destructive of the natural and the true.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

John is right, both about la France profonde and about General de Gaulle. I'm as anglophile, by ancestry and preference, as one can be. But I share John's affection for the deep France, without contradiction. There is room for both.
The France of the Paris salons, cafe society, Sartre, Socialism, the soixante-huitards and decadence I've no time for. I wonder at that France's passive surrender to Islam - and since that France completely dominates I wonder if la France profonde can survive progressive France's weakness.
(I could replace France in the sentence above with the names of several countries and it would be no less accurate.)
De Gaulle tried to have it both ways. He got France out of Algeria (among other reasons because he feared France's being wide open to in-migration of North Africans) and the rest of France's African empire, but tried to arrange the departure in such a way that France remained the dominant power and influence in France's former possessions, especially in West and Central Africa. He was right to be wary, but didn't get the door closed tightly enough.
As for the EU, De Gaulle suspended French cooperation with the Common Market for several years as it was another supra-national institution assembled by Socialists that he didn't trust. He was also wary of NATO, which he correctly perceived as a vehicle for American dominance in Europe, and withdrew France from NATO for decades as well as ordering U.S. forces out of France. On the whole, De Gaulle's instincts as a French nationalist (that is, what he was supposed to be) were pretty sound.
One example of those instincts, which was not mere vindictiveness as many have thought, was his vetoing Great Britain's entry into the Common Market, to the great dismay of Macmillan. De Gaulle contended that such a dirigiste institution was alien to the Anglo-Saxon spirit. He was right! I expect Professor Tolkien would have agreed with that, and - along with the old general - would pray for Brexit to succeed.
And the old bird did have a sense of humour. At the time of De Gaulle's veto, Edith Piaf's Milord was top of the charts. When De Gaulle next met Macmillan after the veto, he leaned over and greeted him with the song's refrain, "ne pleurez pas, milord..."

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Rohan was a SInadrin word from Gondor, i.e. what they called the place in Minas Tirith; the Riders called their country the Mark, which is essentially the same word as Mercia; i.e. Anglo Saxon, West Midlands dialect.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Spears was born in France, and was (international) upper class. Of course he liked France/ French! It's like reading the Guardian/ Independent for an account of Brexit, compared with the views of a farmer from Somerset or an industrial worker from Tyneside.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I haven't read it anywhere, but I have always assumed that the bad reputation of British cooking was based on restaurants and other kinds of communal catering - which was indeed both dire in quality and overpriced, right into the 1980s. However, home cooking for the family (especially the baking) was - in my experience, absolutely delicious. But few visitors experienced that.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

The Chevalier de Rohan was a Frenchman indeed, but of a distinct sort. A Breton, he was descended from Britons who had sailed south to get away from Fifth Century troubles. Perhaps the Bretons are a type of Frenchman Tolkien did like. Weakness in that notion is that they were moving away from the very Anglo-Saxons who so inspired Tolkien. Meriadoc is quite a Breton-sounding name, though.
The French were actually very hardy in the Great War, although they could not have defeated a stronger and more populous Germany alone. But the Great War was a war of great alliances and greater mistakes. France’s fall in 1940 reflected just how high the cost of 1914-1918 had been.
Must disagree with William about garlic. That flower, a variant of lily (is that why the French like it?), is one of God’s gifts to man. Best bangers and mash I’ve ever had, in a pub in the Oxon. Chilterns, were delightfully garlicky. Improved further by the local bitter we washed them down with. French get no credit for the beer, however.
Do agree about French inclination to abstraction, though.
General de Gaulle came up, so one more anecdote about the great man. Someone, in the early ‘60s I think, proposed more guest-worker programmes for French industry. De Gaulle didn’t object to guest-workers from Spain and Portugal, who he presumed would go home eventually and whom he thought culturally compatible. He was less sanguine, on both counts, about Algerians and other North Africans. He said, referring to the Lorraine village where he had his country house, “If I should do that, Colombey-les-deux-eglises would become Colombey-les-deux-mosquees!” Prescient, even if not as prescient as Enoch Powell.

Luke said...

Look here, how are we Americans supposed to maintain our belief in our own uniqueness if we know anything about Brits?
We used to have a similar divide, although it was based more on the perceived military reputation of France in WW2 and Vietnam, and much less of a class divide.
Up until about 10 years ago it was still possible to split party groups along the lines of who wanted to pretend to like french cuisine and who wanted to grill. Now, thanks to youtube everyone has a special cuisine to pretend to like.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Bruce: Did you choose this day for this post because it’s Quatorze-juillet? Great parades and flyovers, but to my mind a celebration (even if unwitting for most Frenchman) of that revolutionary rationalising impulse that is worst of France. I expect Professor Tolkien cordially disliked Quatorze-juillet celebrations.
Final thought: Tolkien’s distaste for things French reflects a sound Englishness. But might it not also reflect that his first experiences of the place, in 1917, were likely very grim?

Anonymous said...

Picking up on Wm Jas Tychonievich and Howard Ramsey Sutherland's comments, I would commend Professor Paul J. Smith's essay, "French Connections in Middle Earth: The Medieval Legacy" in Tolkien Among Scholars (Lembas Extra 2016) and further accent the variety of elements in what we consider 'French' - the pure scholarly, liturgical, and poetic Latin, the Latinate Romance, the Germanic Frankish, and Celtic Gaulish and Breton ('The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun' invites mention in the latter context).

Professor Smith notes French-derived vocabulary in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I would tend to think of as less 'French' than Chaucer - what sort of attention Tolkien pays to the 'Frenchness' of the latter is one of the many things that has me keen to see Tolkien's Lost Chaucer!

David Llewellyn Dodds

P.S.: Professor Smith has a footnote promising a second article dealing "with Tolkien's relationship to twentieth-century French literature" - which was an intriguing feature of the version of the paper he read at the 'Tolkien Among Scholars' Conference (e.g., Tolkien's play with Simone de Beauvoir in that famous filmed interview).