Tolkien Lecture 2024

It was that time of year again, so off I went to Oxford for the annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. This year was a bit special. That was partly because at long last a memorial to Professor Tolkien was to be unveiled in Pembroke College. That was as much a project as the lecture series itself: something that Gabriel Shenk, Will Badger and their colleagues had pressed the college for from their student days. Because really Pembroke should make more of its most famous Fellow.

The other reason this year was special was because the lecture was to be given by a chap called Neil Gaiman, of whom you may have heard. Whereas previous lectures had all been held on Pembroke’s premises (they do have a lecture hall), this one was planned for Oxford Town Hall. I gather than tickets sold out on the first day they went on sale.

Being a Friend of the Lecture Series (not to mention an old friend of the lecturer), I got a freebie. That also meant an invitation to the memorial unveiling. So on a sunny afternoon in Oxford I ended up in the Master’s Garden eating cream teas and sipping bubbly in the company of the Great and Good. That included quite a few of the Tolkien family, because the memorial had been designed by the Professor’s nephew, Tim. Much to my delight, it also included Kim Stanley Robinson, whom I’d not seen in ages, and Geoff Ryman, so I was able to thank him for HIM.

Also present were Maria Dahvana Headley and little Grim, because they are part of the Tolkien Lecture Family now. Roz Kaveney, being a Pembroke alumnus herself, was there, and Neil had asked her to write a poem for the unveiling. A surprise to me was the presence of historian, Kate Lister. I hope I didn’t fangirl too badly. And if you have not heard the episode of her podcast that Neil guested on, you really should give it a listen. It is hilarious.

The memorial was duly unveiled. I’ve included a photo of it with this report. Inevitably reply guys on social media were jumping on my posts complaining that it is ugly. That’s art for you though. If you haven’t upset some idiots in the process, you are probably not doing it right. I can’t find a copy of Roz’s poem online, possibly because internet search is rubbish these days.

Neil’s speech was very Neil. If you have heard him talk before you’ll have some idea of what it was like, even though each speech is quite different. Juliet McKenna has a post about it here, in which she picks up on her mention of the idea that the only people opposed to escapism are jailers (via CS Lewis, credited to Tolkien).

Neil spent much of the speech talking about his childhood, and how he got into reading fantasy. This led to favorite authors from his childhood, one of whom was Nicholas Stuart Gray. For those of you who missed the social media storm this produced, Gray was a 20th Century trans man. He’d had a fairly successful career as an actress in the 1930s and 40s, but during the War he took the opportunity to disappear and reinvent himself as a man. Many fine books ensued.

That’s very early, as far as modern trans history is concerned. For comparison, Michael Dillon, who pioneered medical transition for trans guys, also transitioned during WW2. Gray would have had no idea that such things were possible when he began his journey, but he made it nonetheless.

The fact of Gray’s transition was known to very few people. Neil had to do quite a bit of digging to get to the truth, including ordering a copy of Gray’s death certificate. That’s a fascinating document because laws about gender transition were decades away when Gray died. It gives his sex as male, but cites one of the causes of death as cancer of the ovaries. There is a fascinating note on that: “NB Sex Change 1959”.

Dillon was outed in the Daily Express in May 1958. Gray presumably read that story, and may have learned from it that medical transition was a possibility. If he did, he clearly wasted no time in availing himself of what was possible.

These days Gray’s books are all out of print. This is a great shame, as they are much better than the books written by a certain well known transphobe. Hopefully they can be brought back into print, though as is often the case with deceased authors, there are legal issues to be resolved.

Oxford Town Hall, by the way, is a beautiful building. I hope we can go back there again sometime soon.

After that we all trooped back to Pembroke for dinner in Hall. I was lucky enough to end up sat next to Carolynne Larrington, and we had an interesting chat about Spear and mediaeval Welsh literature.

A recording of Neil’s speech will be made available on the Tolkien Lecture website in due course.