John Ronald Reuel Tolkien fielded a few letters from readers about The Hobbit, after it was published in 1937.
One of them was from fellow author Arthur Ransome, whose Swallows and Amazons series was in full swing that decade – charming camping and sailing stories set mostly in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads. They are still wonderful reading today, classic inter-war period pieces that put Enid’s Blighters in their place.
Ransome’s books sold like hotcakes – he was the 1930s equivalent of J K Rowling. Those stories also carry an innocent charm that belies Ransome’s darker secret.
He was a journalist, sent to Moscow in 1917 as correspondent for the Guardian. Here he ended up hob-nobbing in the highest circles of the Soviet administration. He played chess with Lenin and then romanced – and married – Leon Trotsky’s secretary Evegnia.
When he got back to Britain in 1919, MI5 arrested him for being a Soviet spy. ‘What are your politics?’ Special Branch head Sir Basil Thomson demanded. ‘Fishing,’ Ransome allegedly replied.
But Ransome was actually a double agent, passing Soviet details back to MI6, who had recruited him in Stockholm in 1918. Alas, it seems MI6 failed to tell MI5 of the deal. Oops.
Ransome put all that behind him in the 1920s, retiring to the Lake District where he shortly began writing his childrens stories.
While Ransome was convalescing in Norwich hospital from surgery in 1938, he read an early edition of The Hobbit, and felt moved to write to Tolkien. His gripe? He disliked Tolkien’s use of the words ‘man’ and ‘men’ as the generic term to describe hobbits, dwarves and wizards. Tolkien protested; in Old English usage it was correct.
But it seems Tolkien did make Ransome’s recommended change in the second edition.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012