Tolkien and the W.P. Ker Lecture at Glasgow

Clipping from The Evening Times (later Glasgow Times) from 14 April 1953, advertising Tolkien’s W.P. Ker Lecture the following day.

Last year we celebrated the 70th anniversary of Tolkien’s W.P. Ker Lecture on Sir Gawan and the Green Knight at the University of Glasgow, which he delivered on 15 April 1953. The essay was published posthumously, in 1983, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien. After research at the University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections, as well as within the Tolkien Papers at the Bodleian, contemporary newspapers, and other archives, Dr Andoni Cossio and I gathered new material on Tolkien’s lecture, his travel to and stay in Glasgow, and his relationship with the University, as well as his colleague (then a professor at Glasgow), Norman Davis. All of this new information can now be read in a newly published article for English Studies (a journal Tolkien himself had published in in, with Simonne d’Ardenne![i]) and is available open access here.

Looking into the history of the W.P. Ker Lectureship, though, has brought a few more interesting revelations, which I am sharing here.

First of all, who was W.P. Ker?

William Paton Ker (1855–1923) was a University of Glasgow alumnus, who then went on to hold academic positions at the University of Oxford, University College of South Wales, and University College, London. The legacy of the Glasgow writer John Brown Douglas provided funds to establish the W. P. Ker Memorial Lecture in 1938 in commemoration of W.P. Ker. The patron was the University Court, and “the foundation originally provided for an annual lecture on some branch of literary or linguistic studies”[ii].

The full list of W.P. Ker Memorial Lecturers shows us that a number of Inklings (or Inklings-adjacent people) delivered this talk, alongside other interesting personalities with connections to Tolkien. Here’s the list, with a few significant names highlighted:

  • 1939 Raymond Wilson Chambers, MA, DLitt, FBA: Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of London
  • 1940 William Macneile Dixon, MA, LittD, LLD: Emeritus Professor of English Language and Literature
  • 1941 Thomas Stearns Eliot, MA, LittD, LLD: Honorary Fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge
  • 1943 Lord David Cecil, MA: Fellow of New College, Oxford
  • 1944 Edward Morgan Forster, LLD: previously Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge
  • 1945 Charles Langbridge Morgan, MA: author
  • 1946 Edwin Muir: author
  • 1947 Helen Waddell, MA, DLitt, LLD: scholar and author
  • 1948 Harold George Nicolson, CMG: author
  • 1949 Roger Aubrey Baskerville Mynors, MA, FBA: Kennedy Professor of Latin in the University of Cambridge
  • 1950 Sir William Craigie, MA, LLD, DLitt, FBA: Professor Emeritus of English, University of Chicago
  • 1951 Geoffrey Langdale Bickersteth, MA: Professor of English Literature in the University of Aberdeen
  • 1952 Sydney Castle Roberts, MA: Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge
  • 1953 John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, MA: Merton Professor of English Language and Literature in the University of Oxford
  • 1954 Sigurdur Nordal: Minister at Copenhagen
  • 1955 Benjamin Ifor Evans, MA, DLitt: Provost of University College, London
  • 1956 Geoffrey Winthrop Young, MA, DLitt
  • 1957 Wystan Hugh Auden, MA: Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford
  • 1959 Clive Staples Lewis, MA, D-ès-L, DD, FBA: Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance English in the University of Cambridge
  • 1961 James Runcieman Sutherland, MA, BLitt, LLD, FBA: Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature in University College, London
  • 1965 Cleanth Brooks, BA, BLitt: Professor of English in Yale University
  • 1968 Gwyn Jones, CBE, MA: Professor of English at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire
  • 1970 Eyvind Fjell Halvorsen, DoctPhilos: Professor of Norse Philology in the University of Oslo
  • 1972 John Frank Kermode, MA: Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature in University College, London
  • 1974 Denis Donoghue, MA, PhD: Professor of Modern English and American Literature in University College, Dublin
  • 1976 E Peter M Dronke, MA: University of Cambridge
  • 1979 Francis Berry, MA: Department of English at Royal Holloway College, University of London
  • 1981 Ian Dalrymple Mcfarlane, MBE, MA, DUParis, FBA: University of Oxford
  • 1983 William Lobov: University of Pennsylvania
  • 1986 George Steiner, MA, DPhil
  • 1995 Lee Paterson: Yale University

R.W. Chambers was an appropriate choice for the very first W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture, since he succeeded W.P. Ker as Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at UCL. Chambers also famously declined to accept the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and so the post went instead to Tolkien. Chambers and Tolkien knew and admired each other’s work, especially on the Old English epic poem Beowulf. You can see a letter from Tolkien to Chambers here.

Lord David Cecil was an Oxford academic, working as a historian and biographer, who often attended meetings of the Inklings.

Sir William Craigie was a philologist. Tolkien succeeded him as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon when Craigie resigned to join the University of Chicago (where he still was when he delivered the W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture).

W.H. Auden was, of course, a celebrated poet who – at the point of delivering the W.P. Ker Lecture – had just been appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford. He attended some of Tolkien’s lectures when a student in Oxford, and the two later became friends and corresponded regularly. Auden also praised highly The Lord of the Rings in his review.

C.S. Lewis, well, needs no introduction, really! He was the epicentre around whom the Inklings gathered, and one of Tolkien’s best friends, and, perhaps most importantly, someone who encouraged Tolkien to finish (some of!) his work!

Gwyn Jones was a scholar and writer who founded The Welsh Review, in which Tolkien’s The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun was first published in 1945.

A few more interesting names that crop up in this list (no Tolkien connections this time!):

  • T.S. Eliot – the Nobel-prize-winning poet (1941 W.P. Ker Lecture)
  • E.M. Forster – novelist (1944 W.P. Ker Lecture)[iii]
  • Edwin Muir – Scottish poet and novelist (1946 W.P. Ker Lecture)

The W.P. Ker Lectureship seems to have attracted some of the most illustrious minds of its time, from academics to creative writers. I am grateful to Michael Moss, Moira Rankin and Lesley Richmond who compiled the book Who, Where and When: The History & Constitution of the University of Glasgow, which gives the full list of the W.P. Ker lecturers as reproduced above.

On 27 April 2023, the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow held an event to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Tolkien’s W.P. Ker Memorial Lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. You can watch it here:


[i] “‘iþþlen’ in Sawles Warde”. English Studies, vol. 28, issue 1-6, 1947, pp. 168-170.

[ii] Moss, Michael, Moira Rankin, and Lesley Richmond. Who, Where and When: The History & Constitution of the University of Glasgow. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2001.

[iii] Well, there is a sort of Tolkien connection here: Tolkien nominated Forster for the Nobel Prize in 1954. Dennis Wilson Wise has written on Tolkien’s possible reasons for this nomination – see here: Forster was nominated for the Nobel Prize many times but never won.

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