December 4, 2001
There and Back Again
There it sits, scrawled in barely faded ink: for R.Neale J.R.R.Tolkien.
In a testament to the power of a signature to awaken awe of long-dead genius, fascinated journalists repeatedly stop retired Massey University English Professor Robert Neale's set of Lord of the Rings on its journey to the photographic studio.
They want to peek at the handwriting of the man who wrote what was voted the 20th century's greatest book. Prof Neale is delighted at the fuss.
He experienced a taste of it last year when he was the final reader in a line-up that presented a non-stop reading of the trilogy at the Palmerston North Library.
Prof Neale read from his signed copy and, when word got out, people contacted him from around the world to learn more about the signatures and how he knew Tolkien.
It began when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University from 1952 to 1956. At the time, the university was bursting with literary talent, including Tolkien and C S Lewis among its professors.
Prof Neale wasn't in Tolkien's college (Merton), but he met him several times and went to a few of his lectures.
"We liked him, but we were a little bit uncertain about him," Prof Neale recalls.
Many undergraduates felt Tolkien's professorship in medieval studies should have gone to a New Zealander, Professor Kenneth Sisam.