Down a Tolkien rabbit trail

Down a Tolkien rabbit trail;
or, Why you shouldn’t trust Wikipedia;
or, Why you should sign up for classes at Signum University right now.

I am happy that I live in the 21st century–and I am delighted to be a member of a lively, intelligent, persistent community of Tolkien scholars and fans. Yesterday, the perfect #NerdFest happened on Facebook, and I want to share it with you. It began with this:


It was pretty obvious that this text is a summary of Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven.” But it really didn’t sound like Tolkien. The tone, the syntax, the diction–it’s just not his style. Also, he was extremely hesitant to make public theological statements; he believed that was the purview of ordained priests, only, so he was quite cautious when it came to talking about God in print. So I could only imagine that it came from a private letter, perhaps to one of his sons, but then I came up against the problem of tone again. It just doesn’t sound like Tolkien. I got a little frightened; do I know my authors so little?

Therefore, I decided to follow this rabbit, never ceasing in my running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, until I found out the truth–or at least, I would post it on Facebook and let my nerdfriends do the work. 🙂 Here is an edited selection of our comments back and forth on the unofficial Signum and Mythgard facebook hangout. In the end, the heroic Marie Prosser found out the answer!


noon yesterday:

Sørina Higgins: It’s not a quote from Thompson, but it might be a paraphrase. It certainly sounds more like Lewis than Tolkien to me.

Deborah Sabo: I used the simplest element I could think of to turn this up (“the hound”) and search Letters—Nope.

Deborah Sabo: Oh, look: Janeen Ippolito references it under “Tag Archives: c.s. lewis”.Untitled2

Sørina Higgins: The speaker mentioned that book to me; I think Hunter quotes it? So it’s that book’s summary of Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven”? …how did Tolkien come into it?

Sørina Higgins: I think this is the deal:

  1. The Neumann Press book gives that quote as a summary of Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.”
  2. James Davison Hunter quotes that summary in his book To Change the World.
  3. Hunter probably also mentions Tolkien on the same page.
  4. The speaker I heard attributed the quote to Tolkien.

If somebody has the Hunter book handy, maybe you can check for me?

Deborah Sabo: I can’t access the book but amazon preview allows checking the index. There, Tolkien is mentioned on some pages that the preview will not allow us to see. HOWEVER, nothing by Tolkien is in the References Cited for the book, which we can see, so this leads me to doubt that Hunter actually quotes anything by Tolkien.

Sørina Higgins: What a crazy rabbit trail. With the Hound of Heaven on the rabbit’s tail. 🙂

Marie Prosser: Ah. But then, the next question would be if the Neumann Press poetry book got its summary from elsewhere!

Sørina Higgins: That is also a question!

Deborah Sabo: Anyway, the passage seems to come from that Newmann Press Book of Verse, which I don’t believe Tolkien is known to have contributed to.

<Sarah Powell sent the following images:>

Hunter 1


Sørina Higgins: Hunter does attribute it to Tolkien. Now I need to get my hands on the Neumann book, which I haven’t even been able to find listed in World Cat yet.

Deborah Sabo: I can’t find such a title either.

Sørina Higgins: I couldn’t even find it on the publisher’s website.

Deborah Sabo: It’s a fake book!

Sørina Higgins: Like Williams’s Medieval sources in The Place of the Lion.

Deborah Sabo: This calls for an email to this Hunter guy, if you ask me.

Sørina Higgins: Writing it now!!

Marie Prosser: I’ve seen two separate online sources listing this summary of ‘The Hound of Heaven’ and attributing it to the Neumann book. So, it’s possible they both took it from the quote in Hunter’s book, or…. The book really did exist (1988 is listed as the publication date on one blog post) but something happened when TAN bought Neumann Press?

Sharon L Hoff: Funnily enough, whoever wrote the wikipedia entry offers this Tolkien connection:

The Hound of Heaven – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“The Hound of Heaven” is a 182-line poem written by English poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907). The poem became famous and was the source of much of Thompson’s posthumous reputation. The poem was first published in Thompson’s first volume of poems in 1893.[1] It was included in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917). It was also an influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, who read it a few years before it was published in 1917.

Sørina Higgins: More and more connections: The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917) was complied by by D. H. S. Nicholson and A. H. E. Lee, two English occultists, and Charles Williams worked on the book in his editorial capacity at OUP. He got to know the two compilers very well, met with them biweekly for 20 years, and maybe, just maybe (according to Lindop’s new bio), got initiated into the actual Order of the Golden Dawn by them! This means that Williams and Tolkien had at least this small point of contact *years* before they met or read each other’s books.

Deborah Sabo: That Oxford book has no commentary in it. It’s available at archives dot org online.

Sørina Higgins: Where is this elusive text by Tolkien?!? There WAS an original rabbit in this quest. 😉

Deborah Sabo: Why, it’s in the elusive Neumann Press Book of Verse! 😉

Sørina Higgins: Which we agreed doesn’t exist…..

Marie Prosser: So…the fact that Tolkien’s name appears immediately before this quote in the Wikipedia article is suspect. And the only online references I can find to “The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988” are all regarding this quotation, suggesting the title of the book is wrong.

Sarah Powell: I’ve done some Neumann Press hunting, and I wonder if the Book of Verse’s contents may have been “repackaged” – in part or in whole – in their Readers. But I can’t find a ToC for any of them.

Sørina Higgins: I’ve written to the current owners of the previous “Neumann Press” to ask them.

Deborah Sabo: Also I’ve a couple of times seen the assertion that Tolkien read the poem “a few years before it was published in 1917.” How might this have come about?

Sørina Higgins: Maybe he and Charles Williams were in the same secret magical society. 😉

Marie Prosser: The poem was published (with other poems of Francis Thompson) in 1893. The anthology put together by those secret society types was published in 1917. The Wikipedia article asserts (w/o any reference) that Tolkien was familiar with the poem ‘before it was cool’ 😉

Sørina Higgins: Hm… it was Wilfrid Meynell who discovered Thompson.. Wilfrid and Alice Meynell paid for the publication of Charles Williams’s first book of poetry (“The Silver Stair”) in 1912, so they very well could have shown “The Hound of Heaven” to Williams… but I don’t know the Tolkien connection.

Deborah Sabo: We did already know that Tolkien admired Thompson but I cannot recall when he first read Thompson. Check John Garth’s site?

Sørina Higgins: I’ve just checked Garth’s book: JRRT gave a talk on Thompson in 1914.

Marie Prosser: Do we have the text of that?

Sørina Higgins: Folks: If “The Hound of Heaven” was published in 1893 and Tolkien was born in 1892, he’d have to be a pretty remarkable prodigy to know it before it was published.

Deborah Sabo: Clever child!

Marie Prosser: Wikipedia has the reference for our ‘rabbit’ (the quote Sorina posted that started this all) given as The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988… and the link is to this blog post: “Hound of Heaven: Part 1.”  While you’re e-mailing folks, you might want to try to get in touch with the Oblates of St. Benedict at Belmont Abbey (do not expect a prompt response).

Until I hear otherwise, I will assume that Hunter got both the quote (and the [mis-]attribution to Tolkien) from the Wikipedia page on ‘The Hound of Heaven.’

If the goal is to find the origin of this quote (and its mysterious attribution to a book that doesn’t seem to exist), the idea would be to figure out which website/blog published it ‘first’ and which are just copy/pasting…I realize that the idea is to find the original *printed* source, but finding the original online source might point to finding the correct printed source. Maybe. bc

That, and I want Sorina to fill out a form to become a Benedictine Oblate in her quest for the truth. 😉

Sørina Higgins: That depends which Benedicts are involved….

I did once consider joining the local Rosicrucian order to learn more about Williams. I can’t tell you whether I did or not….

Deborah Sabo: The oblates page states it was posted in 2009.

Sørina Higgins: Hunter’s book was published in 2010.

Marie Prosser: The ‘rabbit’ appeared on Wikipedia before 2009, so no need to contact the Oblates; they’re not the source.

Sørina Higgins: It’s that darn non-existent book again.

Marie Prosser: This was the Wikipedia page on Oct 14, 2005:

The Hound of Heaven is a long religious poem by Francis Thompson, and the source of much of his posthumous reputation. It was included in the Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse (1917). It was also an influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, who read it a few years before that.

The name is strange. It startles one at first. It is so bold, so new, so fearless. It does not attract, rather the reverse. But when one reads the poem this strangeness disappears. The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and impertubed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit. The Neuman Press “Book of Verse”, 1988.

I think it a safe bet that all the online quotations of this passage find their ultimate source in the Wikipedia page…which gives a much later blog post as the ‘source’ – so that’s a circular reference. I have no idea where the original Wiki editor got the quote from, but…it does not seem to be accurately attributed!

Sørina Higgins: Tan Books, which took over from Neumann Press, emailed me back this not very helpful message:

 “The Hound of Heaven is a poem by Francis Thompson which influenced Tolkien. When I search for the quote, I find the same citation as you. Unfortunately, we no longer have access to the book, but it seems to originate with this Book of Verse.”

Marie Prosser: This is the edition that the Amazon page references for the ‘rabbit’.

Sørina Higgins: It’s held in a couple of college libraries near me.

Deborah Sabo: The version I can view via my library (it goes to project gutenberg) is the same one as at archive dot org.


[it’s now 5 o’clock in the evening]


5:17 pm

Marie Prosser: I FOUND IT!!!!!!


The author of the ‘rabbit’ is John Francis Xavier O’Conor, S.J. And it was published in 1912.

Deborah Sabo: SPLENDID! Well done! So possibly JRRT read this while at school.

Marie Prosser: I guess the secondary thing to check would be to see if J.R.R. Tolkien quoted from O’Conor in his 1914 address on Thompson – is there any way to do that?

Deborah Sabo: The essay has not been published but John Garth must have read it as he does quote from it in Tolkien and the Great War. Garth provides two quotes from the essay; (1) refers to Thompson’s “images drawn from astronomy and geology, and especially those that could be described as Catholic ritual writ large across the universe” and (2) is a more general approach to the poet: “One must begin with the elfin and delicate and progress to the profound: listen first to the violin and the flute, and then learn to hearken to the organ of being’s harmony.” BTW, it’s not in his pamphlet “Tolkien at Exeter College” either.

Deborah Sabo: No, but if JRRT gave this talk at Exeter in 1914, perhaps he could have used this 1912 book. The catch is that it was published in NY so the thing would be to find out if Tolkien’s college library had a copy of it.

Deborah Sabo: In other cases, his name is on the loan records for books J

Sørina Higgins: You guys are AWESOME!!! I will write to Garth and ask him that remaining question. Marie, you are a hero.


So that’s that, for now. The answer is: NOT BY TOLKIEN.

I’ll update this post if I hear back from John Garth about the Exeter College talk in 1914 (or from James Davison Hunter about the source of his citation). Meanwhile, Marie continued her heroic efforts on behalf of accurate scholarship; she edited the Wikipedia page to take out the errors about the publication date. Wikipedia undid her edits and put back the errors (!), but she persisted, and the page is now correct.

The moral of the story?

(1) Don’t trust Wikipedia.

(2) Signum University/Mythgard Institute students are AWESOME.

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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13 Responses to Down a Tolkien rabbit trail

  1. I came across this rabbit! I was doing a post called “Hound of Heaven, Cat and Mouse,” and had begun a paragraph with Tolkien along that line. But I couldn’t jive it or find the real source. Instead, I just wrote:
    For J.R.R. Tolkien, it was not “the Hound of Heaven, but the never-ceasing silent appeal of Tabernacle, and the sense of starving hunger” (Letter 250, to Michael Tolkien).
    I’m glad I was cautious, and wish I saw your thread!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim says:

    Talk about hounds on a trail. What a great chase you’ve led us all on, everyone. Well done.


  3. John Garth is checking to see if my White Rabbit is really a Red Herring. 🙂


  4. Dmitry Medvedev says:

    The Russian Wikipedia has an even weirder quote attributed to Tolkien:
    “G.K. Chesterton died yesterday. P.G. Wodehouse is now the greatest living master of the English language”
    Does that sound like Tolkien to anyone?! I tracked it down a few years ago, turned out to be T. H. White. The history of that misquotation was quite interesting, it’s Russian translation became more and more distorted gradually, and at some point Tolkien’s name was attached to it. Fortunately it only appeared in the Russian-speaking segment of the Web, as far as I know… Reminds me, I probably should correct that wiki page after all 🙂


    • Charles Huttar says:

      Yes, do it. Wikipedia isn’t at all hard to edit and correct (at least in the English version).
      (But haven’t you all had fun, chasing the rabbit down into hat Wonderland?

      I think “Never trust Wikipedia” is way too strong. (In fact, if you had trusted Wiki to begin with, you wouldn’t have had to waste all that time on Neumann Press.) Clearly Wiki contains errors, but a better motto would be: “Caveat lector.” And the beautiful thing is that it invites corrections. I see that it was just changed earlier today. It no longer contains the sentence quoted by Sharon L. Huff, ” It was also an influence on J. R. R. Tolkien, who read it a few years before it was published in 1917.” (Wiki gives the date of latest editing at the end of the article.)

      So why doesn’t one of you simply go to the Hound of Heaven article and fix it. Easy enough: click on “Edit” in the upper right of the page. If you’ve never done it before, there are instructions for you right there.

      I can think of two things that might be done, one of which hasn’t yet been mentioned.
      1) Expand footnote 3, which identifies the 1912 quote as being from O’Conor, by adding that Hunter has mistakenly attributed it to Tolkien. This information would be a useful corrective. (If the Wiki article on James Davison Hunter were longer, it might be worth editing there too, so as to cross-link to this additional information. But the Hunter book in question isn’t even named.)
      2) In the section on Influence, insert a new bullet point (probably as the third one, since it came later, but not much later, than the Supreme Court decision [but I see that the list of “influences” has no chronological arrangement, which is too bad])–anyway, add the important information that Lewis borrowed this image in Surprised by Joy. (It might be worthwhile developing this in some detail from Lewis’s book.)


      • Dmitry Medvedev says:

        Yes, you are right… I’ve just fixed the Russian article.


      • Ummm, no, we could not have just gone to Wiki and found the answer – Wikipedia attributed this quotation to the ‘Neumann Press Book of Verse’ (no author given), and linked a 2009 blog post as the ‘source’….despite the quotation being on Wikipedia since 2005.

        The reason it has the correct reference now is because I changed it. I am the one who rewrote the sentence about Tolkien’s interest and included the John Garth reference. And since I am not a user with an account, my changes were all erased. I was able to enlist the aid of one of Deborah Sabo’s friends, who has an account, and was able to make my edits ‘stick.’

        I never told my students ‘Don’t trust Wikipedia.’ I always told them that Wikipedia is not a source, because it is an encyclopedia. It’s a good starting point for information, and use the sources linked at the bottom to continue your research and find actual sources. I was annoyed by teachers who had told my high school students that Wikipedia was always wrong and not to trust it.

        But in this case, it was wrong, and not only wrong, but seemingly the source of a mis-attribution of this quotation in many sources, both online and in print. Tolkien’s name was added to this Wikipedia entry *before* someone added this quote, so they were completely disconnected references. But because the quote had no author, and Tolkien’s name appeared right before it…..


        • Charles Huttar says:

          Marie, Thanks for correcting my too-facile assumption about what Wikipedia used to have. And thanks for your persistence in helping them get it right. But why don’t you sign up as a contributor for them (among all the other things I’ms sure you have to do!). You could do a real service to the academic world, and to those who’re simply curious, and most of all, to TRUTH. In my earlier post I suggested two things that should be added to their “Hound of Heaven” article.
          I resonate with your exasperation at Wiki’s administrative procedures. In the fall of 2014 I made what I thought was an obvious (and easily confirmed) addition of an important book on a given subject which previous contributors had overlooked, but they never put it in – which is the main reason I didn’t make a financial contribution to Wiki this past year. I did, however, significantly expand the Charles Williams article, adding among other things “Chapel of the Thorn” in the list of his works. Now you make me wonder if they have erased what I did — I haven’t checked lately. (Sorry, that’s just snide.)


          • I used to correct errors as I found them on Wikipedia when I was a college student – there was usually little difficulty in getting my edits to *stick* back then. Then, 5 years later, I noticed that any changes I made vanished within an hour. After that, I stopped making edits, and instead chose to figure out which topics were more trustworthy to look up on Wikipedia. It’s probably been 8-10 years since I’ve tried to edit Wikipedia.

            Also, I am an engineer, and most of the technical articles on topics I look up are fine :P.


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Internet Archive has scans of three different editions of John Francis Xavier O’Conor’s A Study of Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven: a copy of a 1912 ed. (the first ed.?) in the Library of Congress; a copy of the “December, 1912” “FOURTH EDITION” published in New York by the John Lane Company in the University of California Libraries; and a copy of the “January, 1914” “SIXTH EDITION” (NY: Lane) in the Princeton University Library.

    For what it is worth, all the copies of the ten other works of his included in the Internet Archive seem to have been published in America.

    In the generous selection of transcriptions of articles at New Advent from The Catholic Encyclopedia (which was certainly available in England as well as the U.S.: Williams refers to several of its articles in his Arthurian Commonplace Book), the only one a search for his name reveals is that he wrote on St. Aloysius Gonzaga.


    • Agreed that this author (an American Jesuit philosophy professor) was published in New York.

      Interesting that you should bring up the Catholic Encyclopedia – Pallen, the Managing Editor, is quoted at the end of the 4th Edition of O’Conor’s book praising it. So, he, at least, was familiar with this!

      I do think it would be difficult to demonstrate that Tolkien would have read O’Conor’s book, for the reasons you point out. There were 4,300 copies in print by the end of 1912, but I can’t say if any of them made it to England at that time.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    For some sharp original and related critique of Wikipedia, search for it as a term in the “search blog archives” at the admirable Roger Pearse’s blog.


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It would be splendid if the Tolkien Estate would provide for, or permit, the publication of that 1914 talk! If those two quotations above by Deborah Sabo from John Garth’s book are anything to go by, it would be fascinating to see how it may relate to such things as what the Tolkien Society Timeline calls “his first identifiable ‘Middle-earth’ fragment ‘The Voyage of Éarendel the Evening Star’ ” and the Tinfang Warble poems. “One must begin with the elfin and delicate and progress to the profound: listen first to the violin and the flute” sounds not a little like ” ‘Over Old Hills and Far Away’ a poem featuring Tinfang Warble”!


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