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George Sayer stopped Tolkien burning Lord of the Rings before it was published


Registered User
Mar 9, 2005
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Consigned to the salt mines of Núrnen…
Margaret Sayer, widow of George Sayer, late Head of English at Malvern College in Worcester, says Tolkien visited her husband in 1952. Tolkien, who was having difficulty getting his masterpiece Lord of the Rings published, decided to burn the draft in the fire. Sayer prevented him, and praised the work. The Fellowship of the Ring was finally published on 29 July 1954, two years later.

The story by Patrick Sawer and Sally Jones, “How man saved Lord of the Rings from a fiery death”, published in today’s London Telegraph, is behind a paywall; however, it also appears in today’s New Zealand Herald, where reading it is not restricted. From the story,
Mrs Sayer said: "In one of his visits to our home in Malvern, while sitting around the fire, Tolkien was down about struggling to find a publisher.

He even threatened to destroy the whole thing, but George reassured him and asked him to read some passages from it aloud. He told him that it certainly deserved a publisher and that he might even be able to find one."

It is possible Tolkien may have earlier also discussed his early drafts of The Hobbit with Sayer, before its publication in 1937.
George Sayer (1914-2005) was tutored by C.S. Lewis, and after Lewis’s death in 1963 (on the same day President John F Kennedy was assassinated) became the executor of Lewis’s estate. Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham says the biography Sayer wrote about his stepfather is the best available.

There are two issues with this article.
  1. The article calls Sayer “Tolkien’s close friend and mentor”. There can be no doubt Sayer and Tolkien were friends, since Sayer was very close to C.S. Lewis, who was Tolkien’s closest friend (and staunchest supporter of his writing Lord of the Rings, according to Tolkien himself (see Letters 276)) at that time. Sayer recorded Tolkien reading from the Lord of the Rings in 1952, the same year this incident is reported to have taken place, perhaps even just after Tolkien calmed down after threatening to burn his book. These recordings have since been published. But Sayer was 22 years Tolkien’s junior: he was not Tolkien’s “mentor” as the article states.
  2. Margaret Cronin Sayer, George Sayer’s widow, is his second wife. They were married in 1983. His first wife died in 1977 following “a long illness” after 37 years of marriage. While his first wife may well have witnesses this incident, it is unlikely his widow also witnessed it. She must be recounting a story told her by her late husband.
Other than this nitpicking, the story certainly sounds true. Tolkien was extremely frustrated with his publisher, Allen & Unwin, and sought unsuccessfully to publish through Milton Waldman’s firm Collins beginning in 1950.

Huzzah to George Sayer, and thanks to his widow for sharing the story.


Well-Known Member
Feb 14, 2016
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An interesting story, thanks for sharing it.

I remember I once read that JRRT got very upset about his relations with the publishers at times. This story certainly confirms this.

I find it harder to believe that he really meant what he said though. It's like after a storekeeper calculated you too much three or four times, that you'd say: "This time I kill him", but of course you won't do that.

Therefore I very much doubt that he really would have destroyed his writings. Although... Franz Kafka is known to have burnt much of his (but that is not relevant here).

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