Daphne Castell studied under Professor Tolkien at Oxford University in the 1950s and established herself as an important new voice in British science fiction writing. She was one of the first new female contributors to New Worlds, a leading edge science fiction magazine edited by the prominent fantasy author Michael Moorcock. Brian Aldiss also regarded her highly. In his 1973 history of science-fiction, Billion-Year Spree, he included her along with Christopher Priest in a short list of ‘writers of promise’. Michael Moorcock considered her one of his favourite contributors to New Worlds, remembering her as “writer, scholar, sailor and supermum, who died far too young”.
In the mid-sixties J. R. R. Tolkien was a reasonably popular hardback author, but in no way a household name. In the United States things were very different: the unauthorized Ace paperback edition in 1965 and subsequent furore over its publication imprinted Tolkien upon the consciousness of an increasingly disaffected youth culture. In 1966 Moorcock thought about the fact that Daphne Castell lived in Oxford, had studied under J. R. R. Tolkien, and was still an acquaintance of his. He therefore chatted to her about approaching Tolkien for a short interview as part of a brief introduction to his work in New Worlds. The result was a remarkable interview that vividly captured the personality and mannerisms of the author of The Lord of Rings, provided substantial new insights into the origins of Middle-earth (The Silmarillion was not published until over ten years later), revealed much about the importance of language in his work. It also allowed the Professor to express his positive views about the affinity between fantasy and much of science fiction (he in fact clearly enjoyed reading the genre). This interview, which today is difficult to obtain, is republished in this issue of our magazine. I long ago photocopied the interview from my copy of New Worlds, as my constant reference to it created the danger of its yellowing pages falling apart.
Daphne Castell was one of the earliest fans of The Lord of the Rings. She read the very first edition as the three volumes appeared in 1954-55. She even named her house in Botley, Oxford, Ithilien. Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien are today called “Ringers”. By coincidence, along with her love for literature, yachting, science fiction, fantasy and the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, she was an enthusiastic “ringer” in another sense. Throughout her life she was part of a bell-ringing team in several churches, She was particularly fond of ringing at St Giles Church, Oxford, the bells of which date from 1602.
Her origins were in Southport, Lancashire. She was born there in 1929, the first of what was to be three sisters. The family moved about but settled eventually in Oxfordshire, where she was educated. She won an Open Exhibition Scholarship to St Anne’s College in 1947, where she gained a BA then an MA. Her studies at started. She embarked on a B.Litt. and this is when her friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien began. He supervised her thesis, the subject of which was Thomas Chatterton. He called such students his “research mice”. Unfortunately, her funding dried up, and she was forced to abandon her thesis, never completing it. Her Professor clearly thought of her with affection, for he agreed to her request for an interview (he increasingly turned such requests down), and he welcomed the suggestion that her eleven-year-old son, Jonathan, a fan of his books, should come to tea to discuss them with him. Sadly, J. R. R. Tolkien died a week or so before the arranged visit.
Her dreams of a scholarly life in fragments, Daphne Castell became Deputy Librarian of the Forestry Institute in Oxford, after working as a librarian in the City Library. In 1955 she married Malcolm Cloke, and had three children, Geoff, Gill and Jonathan. Her main employment became that of a remedial teacher, working in nearby Bicester, then at Wood Eaton School, Oxford, helping children with special needs. Her three children were regularly mentioned in her popular broadcast talks for BBC Radio Oxford. Aspects of their lives were turned into humorous anecdotes. They became almost fictional characters as she talked. Her son Geoff has memories of school where friends asked him “if it was true that we'd built a concord out of milk bottle tops because that's what mum said on the radio”. She also supplemented her income by writing science-fiction stories, which appeared in periodicals like New Worlds and anthologies. She a stories on BBC national radio’s Morning Story, and gave talks on the popular BBC radio Woman’s Hour. One story, “Christina,” was dramatized for BBC radio. Daphne’s husband Malcolm coached the family so that the first time her voice was heard on the radio in the Cloke household (it was a recording) one of the children shouted, “Come on out of that wireless, Mummy!”
Daphne Castell was treated for cancer around 1980, then completed an MPhil in special education at Birmingham University before the cancer returned and took her life away in 1983. At Birmingham she won a prize for the best dissertation of her year on the “Acquisition of Language” but was too ill to collect the prize, dying a few days later. In her last months she tidied up her writings and sold various mementoes of J. R. R. Tolkien such as letters and notes to help to provide a trust fund for her children. These included signed first editions of the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.
Special thanks to Geoff Cloke, Gill Cloke and Lindy Castell for their help in preparing this account. Gill Cloke in addition supplied some bibliography.
|Preliminary bibliography of Daphne Castell (1929–1983)
1964. Dear Aunty, Science Fantasy, v22 #66, July-August ( Kyril Bonfiglioli Roberts & Vinter Ltd.)
1968. Who's in There with Me? England Swings SF, Judith Merril (Garden City, NY: Doubleday); reprinted in The Space-Time Journal, ed. Judith Merril 1972 (Panther)
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