The mood music of G.B. Smith, T.C.B.S.

In a guest post, Allan Turner, Tolkien scholar and formerly Lecturer in English at the University of Jena, Germany, provides a musical insight into A Spring Harvest, the 1918 anthology of Geoffrey Bache Smith’s poetry co-edited by his friend J.R.R, Tolkien. Smith, a member of Tolkien’s T.C.B.S. circle and a ‘wild and wholehearted admirer’ of his early mythological writings, died of wounds on the Western Front in 1916. Just months later, Tolkien wrote his creation myth, The Music of the Ainur.

Several of the poems in the poems of Geoffrey Bache Smith, edited posthumously by his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman as A Spring Harvest, express a melancholic sense of loss. However one stands out to me as a particularly successful evocation of mood-music, as its title suggests: ‘Schumann: Erstes Verlust’. This is the name of a piano piece, no. 16 in Schumann’s Opus 68, Album für die Jugend (Album for the Young), which Schumann originally composed for his own children. It has always been a favourite for learners of the piano, but is not very often heard in professional recitals, so his close familiarity with it suggests that Smith was an amateur player himself. After all, he was writing at a time when recording was in its infancy, so that people were used to making music for themselves, either alone or with friends. Anyone who doesn’t know it (and sadly, not many young people have the opportunity to learn the piano nowadays) can listen to it here.

The title means ‘first loss’, and the correct form should be ‘Erster Verlust’; it’s notable that either Smith or Tolkien (as editor) or both got their German grammar wrong, so perhaps Smith was writing from memory. However, the music is quietly wistful rather than tragic. The argument of the poem is so slight as to be almost non-existent: a shadowy ‘she’ has gone and the poet’s feeling of despondency is reflected in the dismal late autumn landscape. Here, the mood is everything. This is the poem in full (with images of Schumann and Smith respectively).

Schumann: Erstes Verlust

O, dreary fall the leaves,
The withered leaves;
Among the trees
Complains the breeze,
That still bereaves.

All silent lies the mere,
The silver mere,
In saddest wise
Reflecting skies
Forlorn and sere.

Would autumn had not claimed its own
And would the swallows had not flown.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
And she has passed
And left the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year
And me alone.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
Does she that passed
Dream of the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year,
And me alone?

Not even the most ardent Smith fan would claim that there is anything original about falling leaves, grey skies and the wan light on a pool as symbols of human melancholy, nor is the migration of swallows as a sign of changefulness going to surprise anyone. Similarly, there is no description of individual features that would make the scene come to life in the reader’s imagination. In many poems, including perhaps some in the present collection, such stereotyping would be grounds for criticism, but not in this case. That is because the poem is intended as pure music inspired by the mood of Schumann’s piano piece.

The musicality lies above all in the sounds of the words. Since the lines are almost all short, mostly with only two main stresses each, there is frequent rhyming; in the first stanza, in fact, the rhyming words are almost reduced to single pattern, since leaves/bereaves differs from trees/breeze only by an additional soft fricative. The technique here is quite similar to that used by the French poet Paul Verlaine in his ‘Chanson d’automne’. (We know that Smith was good at French, since he acted in a French play at King Edward’s, so it’s quite likely that as a budding poet he was interested in trends on the other side of the Channel.)

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur

(The long sobs of the violins of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor.)

The poem comes from Verlaine’s first collection, published when he was 22 years old, so about the same age as Smith when he was writing his poems, in a section entitled ‘Paysages tristes’ (sad landscapes), which could also describe so many of Smith’s settings. Verlaine also focuses on a wind and dead leaves, but he establishes an explicit link between the landscape and himself: he feels himself being blown back and forth inwardly like leaves in the breeze, whereas for Smith, as in so many of his poetic landscapes, the scene is purely external without reference to any personal emotions.

However, the musicality comes also from the structure of the poem. In contrast to many other poems in A Spring Harvest, which conform to traditional forms and metres such as the sonnet, the four-line ballad stanza or the long narrative verse-paragraph in iambic pentameter, ‘Erster Verlust’ is much freer in form, with lines of different lengths. The second stanza echoes the first, the fifth repeats the fourth almost word for word, while the two longer lines in the middle seem to act as a pivot. What lies behind Smith’s experiment in sound?

The key is to be found in the Schumann piece that it recalls, not only through the evocative sound patterns but through the whole structure. If you listen to it played on the piano, you will recognise that the words of the first three stanzas correspond exactly to the notes and phrases of the music. The second stanza which echoes the first is the poet’s translation into words of the composer’s repetition, with an altered cadence, of the first 8 bars. As the music moves into a more flowing variation of the first motif, so the poem expands into the two longer lines.

Allan Turner sings G.B. Smith’s poem ‘Erstes Verlust’ to Schumann’s music

The relationship in the last part is more complicated, since the music develops into specifically pianistic figuration in which the two hands imitate one another before reaching a patch of chordal writing, the movement of which can only be hinted at in language, although the rhythm of the last two lines of the poem can be clearly heard in the final phrase of themusic. Furthermore, Schumann indicates that the second half of the piece is to be repeated, which provides the basis for Smith’s very atmospheric echo in the last two stanzas.

Let me be clear: I’m not claiming that Smith wanted to turn a favourite piece of music into a song, because that simply would not have worked given the pianistic nature of the composition. It’s simply an evocation of the mood of the music, using the structure of the piano piece but calling upon the resources of language. For me it is a finely crafted poem, a small work of art which can only suggest the talent that Smith might have been able to develop if he had lived longer.

Allan Turner’s impromptu performance of Smith’s poem to Schumann’s music was part of his presentation at the conference G.B. Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien: a meaningful friendship, held at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on 21–22 March 2023, from which this post has been extracted and enlarged by Allan. To watch his whole conference talk, just go back to the beginning of the video above.

Posted in Guest post, Research tangents | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toad to Tode

I’ve posted this on social media already but I’m going to put it here too because, well, I like it.

Writing about Tolkien’s unfinished Númenor time-travel novel The Lost Road, I almost inevitably mistype it as “The Lost Toad”. That would be rather a different story. His driving (“Charge ’em and they’ll scatter!”) is said to have reminded Oxford contemporaries of Mr Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Mr Toad took out his map and spread it with a flourish on the shiny bonnet of his new car while he held up the damp and mouldy invitation in his other hand.

You see, Ratty? I knew I was right. ‘Beyond the Merlock Mountains, a long and lonely road, through the spider-shadows and the marsh of Tode – here he paused to chortle to himself – ‘and through the wood of hanging trees and the gallows-weed…’ So well be there in a jiffy, you wait and see!”

Mole and Ratty threw each other an apprehensive glance.

E.H. Shephard, Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows, in his driving gear
Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows, in his driving gear, by the inimitable E.H. Shephard

Posted in John Garth’s writing | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Making an ass of yourself, with Geoffrey Bache Smith

I’ve just returned from the first-ever conference focusing on Geoffrey Bache Smith, his poetry, and his influence on his great friend, Tolkien. In a previous post, I spotlighted an under-appreciated aspect of Smith: his sense of humour. In this new post, I will offer some more evidence – in a video this time – and simultaneously make good on a promise I made in that earlier post.

Geoffrey Bache Smith in The Frogs by Aristophanes at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, 1913
Geoffrey Bache Smith and others in The Frogs by Aristophanes at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, 1913

On the serious side, Smith persuaded Tolkien to become a poet and was therefore truly instrumental in turning him into the author we know. Smith sent Tolkien a letter from deepest danger in the trenches of the Great War to declare himself a ‘wild and whole-hearted admirer’ of the first Middle-earth writings, and to urge him to publish them. One of the many ironies of that world war is that although Tolkien could find no publisher for his own poetry, he was able to edit Smith’s poems for publication (A Spring Harvest, 1918). You see, Smith had been killed on the Somme battlefield in 1916, and (as Dr Stuart Lee made clear in his conference paper) there was a demand for good poetry by dead soldiers.

But when Smith wasn’t being serious (and often when he was, too) he could also be very, very funny. His friends knew and loved this about him, and I provide some evidence of this in Tolkien and the Great War. But I knew of nothing beyond the occasional quip… until I realised that an anonymous piece in their old school newspaper was actually Smith’s work. You can read that in earlier blog post, The dream of Geoffrey Bache Smith.

At the conference I grabbed the opportunity to unburden myself of an embarrassing secret that I’ve kept for 20 years. Now don’t get too excited – it’s not embarrassing in that way. It’s a research error that I corrected quietly as soon as I realised what I’d done. But I think it’s a useful cautionary tale for researchers in general. This is what I intended to write about when I said in that previous G.B. Smith post that ‘a mildly embarrassing tale hangs thereto, which I will save for another blog post’.

However, having now told the story at this week’s conference, with all the essential illustrations, I have decided to share the video right here… The link picks up where my seven-minute contribution begins.

The final slide doesn’t seem to have made it into the streaming video, so I reproduce it below. It relates to my final question: whether G.B. Smith (pictured top left as an adult) is one of the cadets in the same 1907 King Edward’s School photograph that Tolkien has been identified in. Tell me what you think. And note that Smith, just 13 at the time, had a 16-year-old brother at the school, Roger. Roger Smith is not known to appear in any surviving photograph, but Tolkien scholar Kris Swank has perceptively noted that the face at top centre in the picture below might actually be his.

Videos of all the talks and discussions at this week’s conference have been shared on YouTube by Corpus Christi College, which hosted the delightful event. Links have been handily gathered here by Trotter of the Tolkien Collector’s Guide.

One of the revelations was that Smith had actually managed to publish more of his poetry during his lifetime than we had ever realised, as Oronzo Cilli demonstrated after some serious detective work. Another was that during his brief Oxford University undergraduate life, he had spent much energy and enjoyed some success at the Oxford Union Debating Society, as Grace Khuri showed. In my own talk, I offered fresh information and insight on Smith’s background, friendships and prospects – including a glimpse of his roots in Mordor (!) and a surprise secret nod, in one of his poems, to his local football team, West Bromwich Albion.

I mention here only the biographical and bibliographical talks, but there was much more. Highlights for me included Allan Turner’s sober assessment of Smith’s poetry as literature – including an unexpected and beautiful rendition of one poem as a song – and Kris Swank’s exploration of a single motif from Longfellow to Smith to Tennyson. For the first time, this week A Spring Harvest received the attention it deserves. Giuseppe Pezzini, Douglas A. Anderson and Oronzo deserve many thanks for organising the conference.

Posted in John Garth’s writing, Research tangents | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

In search of T.W. Earp and the origin of ‘twerp’

In a guest post, Oxford English Dictionary historian and lexicographer Peter Gilliver sheds new light on one of the most curious characters to cross the young J.R.R. Tolkiens path

Peter Gilliver

The classical scholar E.R. Dodds, who matriculated at Oxford a year after Tolkien, wrote in his autobiography Missing Persons: ‘If on leaving Oxford I had been asked which of my English contemporaries were most likely to achieve fame as writers I should have named without hesitation T.W. Earp and Aldous Huxley.’ He would surely have been surprised to learn that the fate of achieving fame as a writer was to fall, not upon Earp, but upon his Exeter College contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien. But who was this figure who showed such promise?

Caricature of Earp at the Oxford Union (Oxford Chronicle 5 Dec 1919)

Thomas Earp as Oxford Union president (Oxford Chronicle, 5 December 1919)

I first encountered Thomas Wade Earp (1892–1958) in what I imagine is the most common way for people to encounter him today: a couple of brief mentions in Tolkien’s letters. To his fiancée Edith in 1914, Tolkien writes: ‘I went and had an interesting talk with that quaint man Earp I have told you of and introduced him (to his great delight) to the ‘Kālevalā’ the Finnish ballads.’ In a 1944 passage, Tolkien tells his son Christopher that he probably met the poet Roy Campbell around 1919–21 ‘when he was a lad, as he lived in O[xford] at the time when we lived in Pusey Street (rooming with Walton the composer, and going about with T.W. Earp, the original twerp …)’.

The second of these references points to the other way in which Earp is likely to come to people’s attention: as the person whose initials and surname are thought to be the origin of the word twerp, denoting a silly or annoying person. The current entry for twerp in the Oxford English Dictionary not only quotes the 1944 Tolkien letter but also quotes Campbell himself in 1957 as saying Earp ‘gave the English language the word twirp, really twearp, because of the Goering-like wrath he kindled in the hearts of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford, when he was president of the Union, by being the last, most charming, and wittiest of the “decadents”’. The entry also notes that Earp arrived at Oxford in 1911, which is relevant because it predates the earliest evidence cited, a 1925 slang glossary. Despite this, the dictionary opts for caution, simply describing the word as ‘Of uncertain origin’.

twerp in Oxford English Dictionary 1986

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for twerp, published in 1986

As an OED lexicographer as well as a Tolkien fan, perhaps it was inevitable that at some point I would begin to wonder about T.W. Earp in two different ways.

Firstly: how much truth is there in the suggestion that the word twerp originates in the ‘wrath … of the rugger-playing stalwarts at Oxford’ (amongst whom, at least initially, Tolkien could be numbered)?

And secondly: who was this man, who evidently created a lasting impression in the minds of at least three of his Oxford contemporaries, but who is now largely forgotten; and how much did Tolkien actually know him?

I’d like to look at these two questions in turn.


The OED entry for twerp is of course not the last word on the subject; the entry has not been significantly revised since it first appeared in Volume IV of the Supplement to the OED in 1986. When it does come up for revision, extensive research – of a kind that has only become possible in the last twenty years or so – will be carried out, and among other things this will involve seeking out the earliest available evidence for the word. It will also, of course, take advantage of research that has already been carried out by other scholars.

One well-known instance of the word which allegedly takes its history back to the First World War – namely its use in the popular wartime song ‘Bless ’Em All’ – has been investigated by the veteran slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter. Although it seems likely that the song may have been written down by the songwriter Fred Godfrey in 1917 – possibly based on a song that had been in circulation among servicemen long before that – no version of the lyrics, and no recording, dating earlier than 1940 (when it was popularized by George Formby) has been traced. And there is some evidence to suggest that the key line – ‘There’s many an airman just finishing his time, there’s many a twerp signing on’ – may have been introduced as part of a rewrite of what had originally been a rather more ribald song (in which the first word of the title was often replaced with something much stronger than ‘bless’) to make it more acceptable for public consumption.

So far, so inconclusive. But my own private research has turned up some definite evidence that the word was in circulation before the OED’s current first date of 1925; and the evidence points fairly clearly to an American origin, and – perhaps disappointingly – away from a connection with T.W. Earp.

My earliest evidence of all (so far) is to be found in the 1917 issue of Corks and Curls, the student yearbook of the University of Virginia, in an anonymous comic piece entitled ‘Mr Dooley at the Corner’. At one point Mr Dooley (apparently Irish) says ‘Dammed if ye ain’t a hell iv a p’lite twerp!’ (In fact I recently discovered that the same quotation was independently discovered by another word sleuth, Stephen Goranson.)

Other instances of the word from the next few years in American student publications suggest that it had some currency as a piece of student slang. (It may have been given wider circulation by Cole Porter: in 1921 the Harvard Lampoon published a poem entitled ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding’ – another of the countless parodies of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – which seems to have come from his pen, and in which a frustrated Hiawatha lambastes an incompetent organ-blower as ‘Little Twirp, the Chronic Nit Wit’. Furthermore, after some fairly extensive searching, I have failed to turn up any instances of twerp (or twirp, or twearp) in Oxford – or indeed British – sources earlier than 1925.

twirp in Harvard Lampoon's Hiawatha's Wedding (1921)

Harvard Lampoon’s ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding’ may have given twirp wider circulation from 1921

So what are we to make of the fact that two men who knew T.W. Earp at Oxford before 1920 both associated him with the word? Tolkien will have met Earp at Exeter College in 1911, the year in which both men matriculated at the college; Roy Campbell met him shortly after arriving in Oxford for the first time in early 1919. At what point did Earp begin to be referred to as a twerp?

The evidence points to the word being a piece of pre-existing American slang, which at some point made its way across the Atlantic, to be picked up by some Oxford wit who noticed how it could be made to fit Earp’s name, and thus become a stick with which the University’s sporting hearties could beat him. In the absence of proof of its currency before 1917, the window during which twerp could have been brought to Oxford while Earp was still a student – he left in 1920 – is narrow. There were certainly American students at Oxford – including some at Exeter – under the Rhodes Scholarship scheme who could have brought their slang with them. But the lack of positive evidence so far (and I have looked quite hard!) is puzzling. Perhaps the research that eventually goes into the revision of the OED entry will turn up something conclusive.


JRR Tolkien (far left) and (far right) TW Earp in a detail from the 1911 Exeter College matriculation photograph

Tolkien and Earp, left and right, flank other Exeter College students at matriculation in 1911 (digital image: Neil Holford)

Thomas Wade Earp was born on 26 Aug 1892, the son of the prosperous Newark brewer (and civic dignitary) Thomas Earp. He was born in London although his parents were at that time resident in Newark, where his father had just been elected Mayor for the second time. He was educated at Magnus Grammar School, where his father had been chairman of the governors and a major benefactor; in 1911 he won a scholarship to Exeter College, making him an exact contemporary of Tolkien. Both men lost no time in becoming active in Exeter College’s various societies and clubs, and their paths will have crossed constantly, not least as they were (initially) both studying classics. John Garth is probably right that ‘The two must have disagreed about almost everything’, but it does at least seem that they were interested in some of the same subjects, most notably literature; and by the summer of 1914 they were on sufficiently good terms to dine and socialize together (the signatures of both men appear on a menu card for a ‘Chequers Clubbe’ dinner on 18 June and on Tolkien’s copy of the programme for Exeter College’s Sexcentenary Ball on 23 June).

And now I come to my second question: who was Earp, and what was the nature and the extent of Tolkien’s dealings with him?

As soon as I began to investigate him, he quickly emerged from the shadows as a vivid figure, who may well not have been Tolkien’s cup of tea, but whom he may well have had good reason to cultivate, and who struck their contemporaries as someone marked out for fame – even if he failed to fulfil this early promise. In writing about him here I earnestly hope that I can raise his stock, and maybe persuade someone to find out (and write) more about him.

John Garth is one of the few Tolkien scholars who has written anything about him at all, and I draw here both on his notes on Earp in Tolkien at Exeter College and on research notes which he has generously shared with me. I have also found useful material in Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s indispensable J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide.

Earp (circled) and Tolkien (hands on vine) at their college’s sexcentenary celebrations in 1914 (Exeter College)

But of course the summer of 1914 also saw the world changed utterly with the outbreak of war. By the time both men had returned to college in the autumn, Tolkien was preparing for war service; Earp, by contrast, would not be enlisting, and in fact seems to have contrived to continue studying at Exeter throughout the war.

There are various accounts of how he managed this; according to one, he ‘fooled the Conscription Board by getting into a very hot bath just before the session and presenting himself in a parboiled state which baffled the examiners’; according to another, he exercised his ‘unique talent for twitching his eyebrows, wrinkling his nose, and waggling his ears … to such horrifying effect that the Tribunal found him unfit for service’.

Quite apart from his escaping military service, there were also the college authorities to be satisfied, and here there is another puzzle: how did Earp contrive to remain an undergraduate for nearly a decade (so that Tolkien could return to Oxford after the war and find him still in residence, still presiding over various college societies)? It has been alleged that he repeatedly – possibly as many as eleven times – failed to pass the scripture examination known as ‘Divvers’, which was a prerequisite for graduating; but it seems distinctly odd that Exeter College allowed him to do so without sanction. (A few years later John Betjeman would be sent down from Oxford by his college after failing for only the second time.) Further investigation in the Exeter College archives is needed.

Whatever the explanation, Earp was able not merely to establish himself on the Oxford undergraduate ‘scene’, but to maintain his position over an extended period. And his position was unquestionably a literary one. Besides his regular contributions to Exeter College’s various literary societies, he was becoming a published poet, with four poems included in a 1914 anthology of student writing entitled Oxford Poetry. Further poems appeared in the successor volume Oxford Poetry 1915, of which he was now a co-editor – and which included, alongside a further six of his own poems, Tolkien’s ‘Goblin Feet’, one of his earliest published pieces. He went on to co-edit several subsequent volumes of the series.

During this time he also became a good friend of fellow undergraduates Aldous Huxley and Philip Heseltine (later better known as the composer Peter Warlock); and in 1916 Huxley introduced him to the exotic artistic milieu of Garsington Manor, where the legendary Ottoline Morrell held court, and where such figures as D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Siegfried Sassoon, and various members of the Bloomsbury Group were regular guests. The same year saw the publication of Earp’s own anthology Contacts, and other poems: an impressive achievement for an undergraduate.

Contacts and Other Poems by T.W.  Earp (Oxford: Blackwell 1916)

It’s clear enough that Earp had the knack of ‘getting on’ in the literary world; and, as such, one can see why Tolkien, who hoped to achieve something with his own poetry, might seek to cultivate his company, notwithstanding the huge differences between the two men in outlook and perspective. For Earp was clearly a ‘literary man’ of a very different cut from Tolkien.

A recollection of the future novelist and publisher Leonard Strong, from 1916, gives a flavour of his person and personality: ‘a young man who was already a legend in the university. A lock of long, soft, fair hair drooped over his forehead, seeming to come halfway down his thin pale face. From under the lock two dark eyes looked out, the liveliest, most alert, most humorous eyes I had seen. This was T.W. Earp, focus and centre of undergraduate literary life.’

His voice, it seems, was also memorable: a striking number of his contemporaries referred to it as ‘high’ and ‘quavering’, and some years later Dylan Thomas even christened him ‘Flute’, a foil to his own ‘Snout’.

Strong also recalls how Earp ‘made me a member of a group which met once a week to read aloud what they had been writing, and exchange criticisms’ – showing that this form of ‘writerly colloquium’ was to be found in Oxford decades before the Inklings, even if Tolkien might have run a mile from this particular incarnation of it.

Earp himself was very conscious of not ‘fitting in’ to the heartier side of life at Exeter College. Some autobiographical notes he made in the 1940s refer to his ‘living in pre-Raphaelite ambience’ among ‘queer characters’. The notes recall Earp being given the mock-honorific post of ‘Public Orator’ in the college’s undergraduate body, the Stapledon Society ‘as an excuse for being ragged’ – that is, made boisterous fun of, something that was meted out especially to aesthetes. More bitterly, these notes refer to the ‘brutality of “Freshers’ Port” and rags’. Freshers’ Port was evidently some kind of alcohol-fuelled initiation. ‘Rags’ (OED: ‘a boisterous prank or practical joke’) were the kind of activities that Tolkien, of course, engaged in when venting his more boisterous side.

1919 issues of the shortlived modernist Coterie magazine, co-edited by the precocious Earp while he was still at Oxford

By the end of the war Earp was firmly established as an Oxford ‘literary type’, and also as something of a literary entrepreneur. The annual volumes of Oxford Poetry – with Earp as co-editor – continued to appear; another volume of his own poetry, The Gate of Bronze, appeared early in 1919; and the same year saw the publication of the first three issues of Coterie, a self-consciously modernist literary magazine, published in London but with Earp and other Oxford figures on its editorial board, which during its short life (the seventh and last issue appeared in late 1920) managed to attract contributions from an impressive array of writers including Eliot, Huxley, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Herbert Read, and Edmund Blunden. Nor was Coterie his first publishing venture: in 1916 he and Huxley had launched – using some of Earp’s own money – the Palatine Review, which lasted about as long as Coterie. His contemporary Eric Whelpton recalls him around this time as ‘the uncrowned king of the undergraduates […] his rooms in Beaumont Street had become the port of call of many writers, poets and painters passing through Oxford.’

He had also assigned himself another role, and one that would have some significance for Tolkien. Robert Graves – who had come to know Earp at Garsington, and pigeonholed him and his fellow writers as ‘exceptionally nice people but a trifle decayed, as you might say’ – recalled in his memoir Good-bye to All That that he ‘had set himself the task of keeping the Oxford tradition alive through the dead years – as president and sole member, he said, of some seventeen undergraduate social and literary societies. In 1919, still in residence, he handed over the minute-books to the returning university. Most of the societies were then re-formed.’ One of the ‘re-formed’ societies was Exeter College’s Essay Club, where Tolkien would soon give a reading of ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, the first time any substantial vision of Middle-earth was given a public audience.

T.W. Earp photographed (with another Garsington guest) by Lady Ottoline Morrell. ‘A lock of long, soft, fair hair drooped over his forehead, seeming to come halfway down his thin pale face. From under the lock two dark eyes looked out, the liveliest, most alert, most humorous eyes I had seen,’ L.G. Strong recalled. (Picture: National Portrait Gallery)


1919 was quite a momentous year for Earp. As mentioned above, it was early in this year that he made the acquaintance of one of the ‘poets passing through’, the 17-year-old Roy Campbell. Earp seems to have been greatly taken by this young (and very beautiful) young man, to the extent that in the summer (or possibly in 1920) he took him on an extended trip to Paris; they are supposed by some to have had an affair, although nothing lasting came of it (indeed both men later married, in 1922). In rather surprising contrast, 1919 also saw Earp elected president of the Oxford Union: by no means an obvious move for a poet with strongly aesthetic leanings, but his term of office (Michaelmas term) seems to have been a successful one. He was praised for ‘his ready wit and courteous manner, with that poetic touch of diffidence peculiarly his own’.

But politics – an obvious future for presidents of the Union – was not where Earp’s heart lay: it was in the world of letters that he wished to shine, and indeed where he had already begun to do so. He had already established good connections to literary London; and when at last he ‘went down’ from Oxford – shortly after stepping down as president of the Union – he moved seamlessly from the role of a student ‘decadent’ to a darling of London café society. It no doubt helped that he was wealthy: he had recently inherited £40,000, and used some of the money to acquire a flat in Regent Square, where various of his friends lodged with him from time to time, including Huxley, Roy Campbell, and Russell Green, another Oxford littérateur (who had edited some issues of Coterie).

In fact London café society would prove to be an inadequate milieu for Earp to spread his wings: he would also disport himself in Paris. His visit with Roy Campbell had evidently given him a taste for the City of Light, where for some years he kept a permanent room at the Hotel Foyot (handy if you can afford it, as he evidently could). An unidentified Exeter College contemporary, writing a dispatch from Paris for the New York Herald in 1924, described Earp as having been ‘hovering between London and Paris for I don’t know how many years’. Extraordinary stories began to accumulate about his escapades in both capitals: a mock duel with wooden swords in the Jardin de Luxembourg, ending with pink champagne at the Café de Flore; being given a cellarful of Chinese wine by his London drinking companion, the composer Constant Lambert (at whose wedding he was a witness); passing out under a tarpaulin in a Covent Garden barrow after a heavy night and waking up the next morning to find that he had been wheeled to a distant part of London.

The Hotel Foyot in Paris, where the young Earp kept a room for several years (Credit: Musée Carnavalet)

Earp evidently knew how to have a good time; but work mattered to him as well as play. He still cherished aspirations as a writer, and continued to write poetry, although there were to be no anthologies after The Gate of Bronze, and in fact he seems to have found it increasingly difficult to bring his own writing projects to fruition (a problem with which Tolkien could of course have sympathized).

He continued to develop close relationships with other writers, notably Dylan Thomas, who could regularly be seen drinking with him in the pubs of London’s Fitzrovia; Thomas even addressed a poem to him, beginning

When next shall we stumble to the stutter of our lewis-gun carols
From bombazine-bosomed bar to a bliss of barrels,
Two period percies frescoed with ladders and banting,
Two spoonered swiss pillars [i.e. piss swillers], tumble falsetting and ranting?

(His criticism of another poet, D.H. Lawrence, led to the latter writing a rather less complimentary poem about him: ‘I heard a little chicken chirp: | My name is Thomas, Thomas Earp, | And I can neither paint nor write, | I can only put other people right.’)

But it was as an art critic that Earp truly found his métier. He wrote the catalogue to Giorgio de Chirico’s first British exhibition in 1928; he became a sensitive critic and champion of the work of Augustus John (and also a close friend: John painted his portrait on several occasions). He wrote art criticism for the New Statesman for a decade, and for the Daily Telegraph for a little over twice as long. He became best known as an expert on French painting – publishing an important monograph on Van Gogh in 1934 – and also on French literature. (A biography of Stendhal was one of his great unfinished projects, although he did manage to publish a translation of Stendhal’s own autobiographical Souvenirs d’Égotisme and of one of his novels.)


Thomas Earp with Osbert Sitwell (‘the author’) and others in Oxford, 1919
(Picture: Gabriel Atkin. Reproduced from Sitwell’s Noble Essences or Courteous Revelations, 1950)

It has to be said that Earp’s output and reputation as a writer falls far short of what had been predicted for him by his Oxford contemporary E.R. Dodds. But I wonder whether he deserves to be remembered rather more for his capacity for friendship.

It is not just that he seems to have ‘known everyone’, although the list of his friends and acquaintances is really quite staggering (Max Beerbohm, Aleister Crowley, Salvador Dalí, Serge Diaghilev, Havelock Ellis, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Alberto Giacometti, Oscar Hammerstein, James Joyce, Henry Moore, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Man Ray, and Bertrand Russell, to name but a few, in addition to those already mentioned). It is striking how, when looking through the reminiscences of so many of these luminaries, one finds ‘Tommy’ (as almost everyone called him) recalled, not merely as someone they knew, but someone they were extremely fond of.

Dylan Thomas, for example, ‘spoke of him [according to the artist and critic Michael Ayrton] with an affectionate awe, as if it were miraculous that this gentle and improbable individual should exist at all’. In fact the qualities of gentleness and diffidence, even shyness, recur in these recollections, all the way back to his undergraduate days; it strikes me as unusual for someone so mild and unassuming – he gave his recreation in Who’s Who as ‘silence’ – to have such a presence in the memories, and indeed the hearts, of so many.

There is a lot more that could be said about Tommy Earp. But I hope that I have been able to sketch the outlines of a personality and a life that are of at least some interest. I would certainly like to know more about the relationship between ‘that quaint man Earp’ and the Exeter College contemporary who referred to him as such; perhaps the more detailed picture of their shared context will shed some light on what that relationship was likely to be, but my second question about Thomas Wade Earp remains only partially answered. For a fuller answer, further research, in the Exeter College archives and elsewhere, is needed. I look forward to the discoveries that that research will bring.

Peter Gilliver

You can read more about the young J.R.R. Tolkien and his student friends in John Garth’s Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth is now available in a new improved edition with revised and updated text on silk-finish paper and with colour cover.

Find out more and order your copy here.

Posted in Guest post, Research tangents | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

The dream of Geoffrey Bache Smith

It’s not often you stumble upon a piece of writing by a key member of Tolkien’s school circle, the T.C.B.S. Today I am pleased as Punch to be able to present such a piece by G.B. Smith, to mark his 127th birthday.

G.B. Smith in his army days – with added colour

Our memory of Smith is burdened with poignancy. He survived the entire five-month Battle of the Somme only to be hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell days after it the battle had finished and miles from the trenches. The wound was so light that he walked to the casualty clearing station. Three days later he was dead from an infection, gas gangrene.

His would seem just another of the innumerable futile deaths in that futile war but for the fact that it gave retrospective force to a letter he had sent Tolkien months earlier, telling him: ‘May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.’ He was thinking of Tolkien’s invented mythology, of which Smith declared himself ‘a wild and wholehearted admirer’ – the first Middle-earth fan.

Smith certainly had a capacity for deep seriousness – seen all through A Spring Harvest, the volume of verse that Tolkien co-edited for publication in 1918.

But he was also a gifted humorist, parodist and joker – as the only identifiable photograph of him demonstrates. It shows him as the Ass in the 1913 school production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs (and a mildly embarrassing tale hangs thereto, which I will save for another blog post).

G.B. Smith as the Ass in Aristophanes’ The Frogs, 1913

These lighter, brighter aspects of Smith meant much to his friends. It feels good and right to remember them. So it pleases me immensely to share this anonymous skit, published around the time of his 18th birthday in October 1912.

It is very funny, and that’s all I have to say on the matter. Well, nearly all.

I spotted the article when browsing the Chronicle, the newspaper produced by schoolboys at King Edward’s School in Birmingham. In fact I certainly saw it when reading through issues of the Chronicle for my research for Tolkien and the Great War about 20 years ago. But the piece is anonymous, and I did not linger long enough to see the evidence that it is by Smith.

There are two bits of evidence, one objective, the other subjective.

First, the piece, titled ‘Träumerei’ (‘Dream’, ‘Daydream‘ or ‘Reverie’), expresses the anxieties of the Secretary of the school’s Debating Society. It is in the October 1912 Chronicle, and the editorial that opens this issue tells us (p.62): ‘The Library and the Debating Society are this year in the hands of Barrowclough, the Debating Society in those of Smith. Both these societies have exceptionally brilliant programmes for this session, but the attendances at their meetings have, so far, been scarcely satisfactory, though we hope to see an improvement in this respect as time goes on.’ (Sidney Barrowclough was another T.C.B.S. member at this time, and so was the writer of the editorial, Ralph Stuart Payton.)

Second, the subjective evidence. In ‘Träumerei’ Smith imagines meeting several great figures of the past and seeking their advice. The first speaks the kind of language the young Tolkien also delighted in: an English stripped of Norman French influences. The last is George Bernard Shaw, leading debater of the era; as I note in Tolkien and the Great War (p.7), it tickled Smith that they shared the same initials. And another of the figures is Samuel Johnson, whose birthplace Smith visited with fellow TCBSite Robert Quilter Gilson on the last weekend the core four members ever met (September 1915). Here Smith displays his knack for 18th-century literary stylings. After another trip with Smith, to Bath, Gilson recalled that the pair had conversed mostly ‘in Johnsonian and Gibbonian periods. G.B. Smith composes excellent Gibbon.’ And excellent Johnson too, it seems.

So without further ado except to thank the Governors of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham for permission to reproduce this piece, here is ‘Träumerei’ by G.B. Smith.

Posted in Research tangents, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Oxford and the Olympics

[This was published in Oxford Today, the university’s alumni magazine, ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. The most dated things about it are the reference to a certain Mayor of London by the name of Boris, and Oxford Today itself, which has since been replaced by Quad magazine.]

Mexico, 1968. The world watches as athletes of 108 nations file in. Past or future Oxford students step forward for Britain, including David Hemery (St Catherine’s) who will win gold in the men’s 400m hurdles; and also for Sierra Leone, New Zealand, the United States, and Norway (King Harald no less, Balliol). The flame from the Olympian grove is plunged into the cauldron high on the ramparts and, on cue, 10,000 pigeons are released. These are dizzying heights for all present.

Literally so for the pigeons. It is 2240m above sea-level and, as Jock Mullard of Keble remembers, ‘Many had difficulty flying and returned rapidly to earth; we spent many happy minutes capturing pigeons.’ Epic and slightly shambolic, the scene recalls both the classicism and the amateurism in which the Olympics were revived in the 19th century. These themes, worth savouring as Britain prepares to host the ever bigger and brasher Olympics, are intertwined in the story of how Oxford and Oxonians have been involved in the modern Games…

Read more …

Posted in John Garth’s writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Testing time for Tolkien, the Inklings and the T.C.B.S.

Even after 30-odd years it still happens. I’m in the middle of dusty nowhere trying to lug a broken television set across Spain, or I’m arguing with some bureaucrat who won’t let me get going, or I’m hopelessly lost in a labyrinthine building, probably still in my pyjamas. When finally I hurry breathless into the exam room and turn over the exam paper, I realise the awful truth. I can’t possibly answer these questions because I haven’t done any revision, I’ve come to the wrong exam, or I’m just incompetent.

These are just bad dreams, of course. I’m extraordinarily lucky that I don’t have more serious things in my nightmares. And on the whole, however badly I felt I was doing as my pen crawled slowly across the page in that dim and distant past, my real exam results turned out to be pretty good. After my last serious exam – three hours on Shakespeare – I emerged into the Oxford sunlight feeling absolutely blissful because the ordeal of finals was over. That was in 1988. Actually my 1984 A-levels seem to haunt me most, perhaps because I was more impressionable. They crop up in my dreams mostly as a mask for some more current anxiety. Exams can leave their mark long after they’re over.

For Tolkien, exams ended up being a different kind of unending nightmare. For much of his career he spent vast amounts of his ‘spare’ time marking them. They must have colossally retarded his literary output – except that, by boring him, they also allowed his mind to wander creatively. It was on the blank page of a student’s exam answer that he famously wrote the words ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’

He set exam questions too, for undergraduates at Leeds and Oxford where he taught, and even – together with his friend C.S. Lewis – for prisoners of war far away in German stalags during the Second World War. In this case, exams were a vital relief from boredom.

One of Tolkien’s exams is published. It’s from 1938, it went on show in the Bodleian Library’s 2018 exhibition, and you can try it out for yourself if you have Catherine McIlwaine’s lushly indispensable accompanying book, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.[1] It was written not for Oxford or Leeds, but for the College of Cretaceous Perambulators. As that name suggests, it was a spoof.

The Cretaceous Perambulators was nothing more than Lewis and those friends of his who enjoyed walking (perambulating) in Britain’s chalk downlands, landscapes that had been laid down as ocean sediments during the Cretaceous Period. I think Diana Pavlac Glyer is probably right to guess that they were slyly mocking themselves as ‘dinosaurs’ because they were out of step with modernity.[2] In 1936 two members, Owen Barfield and Cecil Harwood, put together an exam for Lewis, which he must pass in order to be readmitted into the so-called college.

In April 1938, Tolkien wrote a similar exam for Lewis and Barfield. He had joined them for a jaunt of unrecorded extent in the Hampshire countryside. It certainly took in Basingstoke: it is written on letterheaded paper from the Red Lion Hotel there. It must also have taken in Alton about 12 miles away, because question 4 asks the examinee to

Distinguish between (a) Thursday and Friday, (b) The Man Who Was Thursday and the Man Friday, (c) Basingstoke and Alton, (d) Coming on a walking tour and directing it, (e) gibbets and Hobbits.

Another question asks for the chief weaknesses of the Orpheus, a poem recently written by Barfield which Lewis had just returned to him with some rather random and floundering observations and the plaintive comment, ‘This is rotten criticism: but it’s not an easy poem.’[3]

Percy Simpson of the Oxford English Faculty
Percy Simpson of the Oxford English Faculty

Owain Glendower in a 19th-century image

There are questions relating to favourite reading (a song in George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin) and to favourite writing (The Hobbit, lately published). Question 10 asks for a string of Owens to be identified, running from Owen Glendower to Barfield himself to Growin’, Knowin’ and Glóin, Tolkien’s fictional dwarf.

Most relevant to the post you are reading is question 1, which asks for comment on the line ‘It is no good setting them that. They would know it.’ Lewis had evidently told about how an Oxford English Faculty colleague, Percy Simpson, had said this to him a few years earlier. It’s in his published letters: ‘By the bye Percy Tweedlepippin is my colleague and his principles as an examiner are perhaps worth recording. In answer to a suggested question of mine he retorted ‘Its no good setting that. They’d know that!’)’[4]

Simpson’s comment exposes the truth we all suspect when faced with a challenging exam – that it is nothing to do with fair assessment of ability or hard work, but has been set by a sadist to demolish us completely.

Monty Python Summarise Proust Terry Jones
Terry Jones in Monty Python’s Summarise Proust sketch


Tolkien’s College of Cretaceous Perambulators exam, and the one written by Barfield and Harwood, belong to a tradition. The Oxbridge-based Monty Python team made similar fun with television quizzes where contestants are asked to summarise Proust; or where Marx, Lenin, Mao and Che Guevara assemble as if for questions on communism only to be asked about British footballing history.

Another in the same tradition is reproduced here in full, just so you can try it out for yourselves.

The Camford and Oxbridge Examination Board’s Examination in Mathematics is anonymous but I’m confident it was written by Tolkien’s best friends, members of the now-famous T.C.B.S. It was published in the December 1911 King Edward’s School Chronicle, one of several issues edited by Christopher Wiseman and Rob Gilson. It was their final year at the prestigious school in Birmingham, and in December they each sat the real entrance exam to get into Cambridge University.

The Pythonesque exam is wildly unlike other Chronicle humour. As a pair, Gilson and Wiseman were almost irrepressibly humorous, and their issues of the Chronicle are markedly parodic compared to those before (including Tolkien’s).

Prefects at King Edward's School, Birmingham, 1910/11, with Rob Gilson back left next to Tolkien, and Christopher Wiseman front right
Prefects at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, 1910/11, with Rob Gilson back left next to Tolkien, and Christopher Wiseman front right

The October Notes and News section had listed, in its usual sober fashion, the school officers (Wiseman was school captain, general secretary, and sports’ secretary; Gilson was librarian, secretary of the literary and dramatic societies, and shooting captain) and the school careers of those who had just then started at Oxbridge (Tolkien among them). But beside these names and several others, they had added asterisks pointing to a footnote: ‘Also member of the T.C., B.S., etc., etc.’ This was an in-joke, because no one else knew what those august initials meant: the librarians’ illicit Tea Club and the so-called Barrovian Society that met for idle japery in the tea rooms of Barrow’s department store.

Wiseman and Gilson were certainly responsible for that slyly subversive reference to their secret society. The spoof exam, too, seems to have their anarchic fingerprints all over it. As editors of the Chronicle, they had a magazine to fill, and it seems just the kind of item they could cook up together, perhaps with others – in other words, a T.C.B.S. collaboration. Here it is.[5]

'Camford and Oxbridge Examination in Mathematics', King Edward’s School Chronicle, December 1911 p1
'Camford and Oxbridge Examination in Mathematics', King Edward’s School Chronicle, December 1911 p2
‘Camford and Oxbridge Examination in Mathematics’, King Edward’s School Chronicle, December 1911. (Reproduced with permission of the Governors of the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham)

Though this purports to be a maths exam, only two questions pertain to maths – one laughably easy, the other not so much. It probably shows the hand of Wiseman, who went on to read maths at Cambridge.

Names are picked for their oddity or peculiar euphony rather than (I think) for anything you might find in an encyclopaedia or contemporary news: Putbus (a town on Germany’s Baltic coast), Kirjath-Jearim (a biblical town), Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (a village in Wales whose name also comes in a record-breaking longer version). Sparkbrook, listed in question 2 after these others, adds a touch of bathos: a rather ordinary suburb of Birmingham.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyll railway station sign (Roy Tait via Geograph/Wikimedia Commons)
Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, et cetera, et cetera (Roy Tait via Geograph/Wikimedia Commons)

All the questions are wildly random. No one person could know all these references, let alone be equipped to write the kinds of answers demanded – even if answers were possible.

One such question especially struck me when I first saw this issue in the British Library while researching Tolkien and the Great War. The student is asked to translate into ‘Greek Hendecademisemiquavers’ (NB. there’s no such thing) several lines of verse in a language I didn’t recognise. Momentarily I thought I’d stumbled upon a fragment from some early invented language of Tolkien’s; after all, why wouldn’t they throw that in, just for laughs? However, I soon discovered I was wrong.


The lines turn out to be Old Irish, which would have been just as baffling to readers of the Chronicle – and which is just as intriguing for us. They come from the Voyage of Bran, an Otherworld tale in the same genre that Tolkien himself much later tapped for his poem about St Brendan, Imram.[6] I pointed the exam paper out to Kris Swank, whose work focuses closely on Tolkien’s use of the Celtic Otherworld theme, and who has been sleuthing out his earliest recorded contacts with Celtic language and legend.

She believes that Geoffrey Bache Smith is most likely to have been responsible for the Voyage of Bran question. Whether or to what extent he was a T.C.B.S. member at this point is mysterious, but he was in neither their class nor their house nor their ‘classical’ side of the school.

But as Kris observes in a paper on Smith’s poetry, ‘In a way, he filled a gap that Tolkien had left when he went up to Oxford.’[7] Tolkien had indeed left a chasm in his friends’ lives, and this observation seems spot-on.

I can bring some extra context. It was immediately after Tolkien’s departure that Smith – almost three years his junior – emerged into the limelight at school. His father had died suddenly on 17 January 1911, aged 59, having caught a chill watching his beloved West Bromwich Albion play football that Saturday.

Perhaps in Geoffrey Smith the loss loosened some reticence, encouraged him to seize the day. There are no references to him in the Chronicle before October 1911, but suddenly he there in the full force of his personality, joking about the Kaiser’s whiskers in his maiden speech to the Debating Society, enthusing about Early English ballads to the Literary Society, and winning praise for playing ‘the difficult and thankless part of Faulkland’ in Sheridan’s The Rivals.

Rob Gilson directed, and Gilson must have cast Smith in this 21 December production – ostensibly staged by the Dramatic Society, but effectively a showcase for the comic talents of the T.C.B.S., with Gilson as Captain Absolute and Wiseman as Sir Anthony. Even Tolkien was in the play, returning as an Old Boy – in drag, playing Mrs Malaprop.

It was after this that Smith was accorded T.C.B.S. membership, and became firm friends with Tolkien. As Swank notes, it was Smith who was the committed Celticist, while Tolkien looked mostly northward to Germanic and Finnish language and legend. In due course, in 1915–16, Smith became foremost among the first admirers of Tolkien’s budding legendarium, and spoke of how he, Gilson and Wiseman could see their influence upon it: ‘We believe in your work, we others, and recognise with pleasure our own finger in it.’[8]

Perhaps here, amid the jokes in this spoof exam, we see Smith’s first contribution to any T.C.B.S. collaboration: something from the heart, filled with the delight in the Celts and their faërie Otherworlds that he would soon impart to Tolkien.

[1] Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth (Oxford: Bodleian, 2018) 244–5.

[2] Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007) 160, note 7.

[3] C.S. Lewis to Owen Barfield, 28 March 1938, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Vol. 2, ed. Walter Hooper.

[4]  C.S. Lewis to W.H. Lewis, 14 June 1932, and endnote 74, Collected Letters, Vol. 2.

[5] King Edward’s School Chronicle, December 1911, 95–6.

[6] Tolkien, Sauron Defeated, 296–9; originally published in Time and Tide, 3 December 1955.

[7] Kris Swank, ‘The Poetry of Geoffrey Bache Smith with Special Note of Tolkienian Contexts’ (unpublished; presented to the Tolkien Symposium, 8 May 2021, sponsored by Tolkien@Kalamazoo).

[8] Garth, Tolkien and the Great War (London: HarperCollins, 2003), 253.

Posted in Research tangents, Tolkien’s creative spirit | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

How I’ve helped to craft a Dickensian dystopia

An unexpected delight of the past year has been editing Kid: A History of the Future by Sebastian De Souza, better known as an actor in The Great, Normal People, The Borgias and Skins. The job went a long way beyond the usual copy-edit and was an absolute joy. Sebastian made some kind comments in his acknowledgements, which I share here.

‘Gargantuan thanks must go to John Garth who took that bowl of literary scrambled eggs and – as editor, brainstormer, and occasional co-writer – turned it into the three-course meal that you have just devoured. Without John’s wisdom and intelligence, his tireless work with me on the plot and his almost extraterrestrial attention to detail, it is unlikely that we would have published this book and, even if we had, it would have been a completely different story and nowhere near as good a read.’

Kid: A History of the Future is a novel set in London of 2078, a city left derelict and almost deserted thanks to climate catastrophe, pandemics, terrorism, and other factors. Chief among these is the lure of an easier, safer life in purpose-built homes where people can effectively live online in a massive virtual-reality universe called Perspecta. The megacorps behind Perspecta has become the dominating force on the planet, with only a tiny minority of dissidents determined to struggle on in the infinitely more challenging offline world – the real world.

As an author, Sebastian wears his heart on his sleeve; and this is a book with a passionate message about a real peril.

The life of these dissident Offliners in Soho is wonderfully evoked, and Sebastian has really hit the nail on the head by describing his book as a ‘Dickensian dystopia’. It’s also laden with nostalgia for the post-war era up to about now – the era the Offliners call the Golden Dusk, when people moved freely and made great music and had great fun together. All this was conceived before Covid 19 and turned out to be amazingly prescient of the pandemic year.

Upping the ante marvellously, he imagines what it would be like if someone from this future could send a message to us now. Protagonist Joshua ‘Kid’ Jones, a 17-year-old simmering with verve and angst, discovers he can communicate with the past – with 2021. There he makes contact with a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Isabel Parry, a tremendous brew of physics nerd and Kardashian fan who is equally troubled in her own way. A lot of fun is had with how each assumes the other is some kind of hoaxer … and when they get over that, things get even more interesting.

The book is marketed for a Young Adult audience, but really it’s for anyone who enjoys a vivid, exciting, intriguing page-turner set in the now and near future. I’ve been dipping into it again recently to put together the teasers and recaps for the audio series (currently being podcast every Sunday). I’m constantly pinching myself to realise I’ve been part of a story that’s so funny and touching and thrilling.

Sebastian is far too modest about his own work. In fact his dialogue is perfectly pitched and his eye is keen for scenery; he has a tremendous fluency for bringing these to life in engaging characters and vivid settings; and he has a gift for plot and scenario that beautifully mix the ordinary with the extraordinary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has a cinematic talent.

I’ve done what a good editor should, which is to make the book speak as clearly as possible. It was also fun working out some of the mechanics: synchronising different timelines, imagining a scifi method for communication between decades, compiling a glossary and character list, and sketching the maps to be redrawn by a professional artist.

Beyond all that, I ended up brainstorming problems with Sebastian, helping him to come up with creative solutions, and even making my own contributions to the writing.

That was the ultimate thrill. My own past attempts at fiction have foundered very quickly from a lack of sustainable plot and characters – or perhaps just because I haven’t had enough patience and self-belief. But with Kid, Sebastian had already come up with all of that. I discovered I could take his characters and situations and run with them – and thoroughly enjoy every minute of it. There were some intense discussions about particular ideas of mine, one or two of which ended up on the cutting room floor, but mostly (I’m delighted to say) Sebastian was enthusiastic. I think the end result is seamless – and I’m looking forward to helping on the sequel.

Meanwhile Kid: A History of the Future is available from your source of choice. Do give it a spin. You won’t regret it.

Posted in John Garth’s writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth

‘Magnificent. The commentary is great, really thoroughly researched; the pictures are stunning’ — Tom Shippey, author of The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

From world-renowned Tolkien expert John Garth comes the authoritative exploration of the real-world locations behind the legendarium, and the wider inspirations behind Middle-earth’s incomparably rich landscapes, realms, towers, and more.

Packed with insights and gorgeous images, including many artworks by Tolkien.

◼︎ Read an excerpt at LitHub.

◼︎ Unboxing video by John Garth with chapter-by-chapter comments.

◼︎ John Garth talks about The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Prancing Pony Podcast, the Marion E. Wade Center for the study of Tolkien and others, AbeBooks’ Behind the Bookshelves podcast, and the German Tolkien Society (in English apart from the brief introduction).

◼︎ Available now in English (UK and US), French, Russian, Czech, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Hungarian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Croatian, Serbian and Slovak (see below for links).

What readers and critics say

◼︎ ‘A fascinating, gorgeously illustrated and thought-provoking examination of the landscapes, cities and architecture that inspired Tolkien during his lifelong creation of Middle-earth. Garth, a journalist as well as a Tolkien scholar, proves an exceptional guide to Middle-earth … Masterful book.’ — Elizabeth Hand, Washington Post.

◼︎ ‘Magnificent. The commentary is great, really thoroughly researched; the pictures are stunning.’ — Tom Shippey, author of The Road to Middle-earth and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.

◼︎ ‘John Garth is the leading Tolkien critic of the present generation as T.A. Shippey is in his. Garth … fills this new book with beautiful, opulent maps and photographs that animate the lush atmosphere of Tolkien’s real and conjured worlds and yield great visual pleasure. At the same time Garth provides deep access to Tolkien’s craft.’— Nicholas Birns, American Library Association’s Choice magazine.

◼︎ ‘Not only a wonderfully rich and learned book, but beautiful as well. I’m sure Tolkien would have loved it.’ — Historian Tom Holland, author of Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.

◼︎ ‘A guide to the inside of Tolkien’s mind, in its geographic, landscape, and geological facets … There is no guesswork or blithe assumption in this book… This is a well-researched work of synthesis, reinforced by Garth’s sharp and clear understanding of how Tolkien’s mind worked… One of the most valuable books out there for understanding Tolkien.’ — Tolkien Studies editor David Bratman.

◼︎ ‘If you love Tolkien’s work and want to know more about where it came from, this book is for you. And if you know anyone else who is, and does, their next birthday or Christmas present is sorted.’ — Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve.

◼︎ ‘From tree-woven lands to waterworlds, if you like Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings then you need this book on your shelves. A beautiful tome, crammed with fantastic images & research beyond excellence … Landscape history meets literature.’ — Mary-Ann Ochota, broadcaster and author of Secret Britain: Unearthing Our Mysterious Past

◼︎ Masterful study … Each page illuminates with insights and dazzles with details.’ — Mike Foster, Mythlore.

◼︎ ‘This wonderful book is a collectable must … a scholarly work of art.’ — Weekend Sport.

◼︎ ‘Really is a fine achievement, wonderfully well supported by the gallery of illustrations and notes … There’s scarcely a page margin that I haven’t pencil marked, and I’ll certainly be revisiting the book. I’ve ended by learning a great deal and thoroughly enjoying myself.’ — Norse Myths author Kevin Crossley-Holland.

◼︎ ‘John Garth has written excellently on Tolkien’s formative wartime experiences in Tolkien and the Great War. The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien now brings near-nerdish knowledge to bear on other parts of Tolkien’s thought-universe, investigating other influences that molded Middle-earth … Erudite and exhaustive exploration of Tolkien’s compelling creation’ — Derek TurnerChronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

First published in 2020

UK: Frances Lincoln, 9 June
◼ Buy at Amazon, Blackwells, Hive

US: Princeton University Press, 9 June
◼ Buy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble

France: Hachette Heroes, 25 November
Les Mondes de Tolkien: Les lieux qui on inspiré la Tierre du Milieu

Translated by Xavier Hanart
︎ Buy at FNAC, Decitre, Amazon

Russia: AST, 27 November
Миры Дж. Р. Р. Толкина. Реальный мир легендарного Средиземья

Translated by Constantin Pirozhkov
︎ Buy at Book24

Published in 2021

Spain: Minotauro, 3 February
Los Mundos de J.R.R. Tolkien: Los Lugares que Inspiraron al Escritor
Translated by Martin Simonson
◼︎ Buy at PopularLibros, Amazon, Fnac

Germany: WBG, 4 February
Die Erfindung von Mittelerde: Was Tolkien zu Mordor, Bruchtal und Hobbingen inspirierte
Translated by Andreas Schiffmann
◼︎ Buy at KulturKaufhaus, Amazon

Czech Republic: Argo, 5 February
Světy J.R.R. Tolkiena: Místa, Která Inspirovala Středozem
Translated by Vít Penkala
◼︎ Buy at Kosmas, Martinus

Italy: Mondadori, 16 February
I Mondi di J.R.R. Tolkien: I luoghi che hanno inspirato la Terra di Mezzo
Translated by Stefanno Giorgianni
◼︎ Buy at IBS, Amazon, Libraccio

Finland: WSOY, 26 February
J.R.R. Tolkienin Maailmat: Näin syntyi Keski-Maa
Translated by Jaakko Kankaanpaa
◼︎ Buy at Adlibris, Akateeminen, Suomalainen

Hungary: Corvina, 26 February
Tolkien Világai: Középfölde Helyszíneinek Ihletői
Translated by Németh Anikó
◼︎ Buy at Libri

Japan: Hyoronsha, 1 October 2021, ISBN
J.R.R.トールキンの世界: 中つ国の生れた場所 大型本
Translated by Kaori Numata, Tsukusu Ito and Junko Setogawa
◼︎ Buy at Amazon

Published in 2022

Poland: Arkady, 16 February
J.R.R. Tolkien i jego światy. Miejsca, z których wyrosło śródziemie
Translated by Joanna Kokot
◼︎ Buy at Lubimy Czytać

Croatia: Lumen, 11 March
Svjetovi J.R.R. Tolkiena – Mjesta koja su nadahnula Međuzemlje
Translated by Marko Maras
◼︎ Buy at Školska Knjiga

Serbia: Data Status, September
Svetovi Dž.R.R. Tolkina: Mesta Koja Su Bila Nadahnuće Za Srednju Zemlju

Slovakia: Slovart, September
Svety J.R.R. Tolkiena: Miesta, ktoré inšpirovali Stredozem

Translated by Katarína Varsiková
◼︎ Buy at Martinus

Published in 2023

China: YoYoYo iDearBook, early 2023 (provisional)
Translated by Joy Teng and Ecthelion

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ursula Le Guin, the language of Earthsea, and Tolkien

A tribute embedded in A Wizard of Earthsea?  

I used this question to introduce a social media post yesterday. Is should have waited until today, because this turns out to be the anniversary of Ursula Le Guin’s passing, a fact that I had overlooked. So now I seize the day in order to enlarge and refine my observation here, where it can more easily be found.

What happens if you want to translate the name of Ursula Le Guin’s world, Earthsea, into the Old Speech (or True Speech), the language of magic there? Let’s see…

Ursula Le Guin’s map of Earthsea, a primary piece of world-building by name-making

The word for ‘sea’ is easy. The Master Namer of the wizard isle of Roke tells it to our hero Ged: ‘We call the foam on waves sukien: that word is made from two words of the Old Speech, suk, feather, and inien, the sea. Feather of the sea is foam.’

‘Earth’ is a little trickier, but there’s a telling comment by the Master Hand, teaching Ged the lesser arts of Changing:

‘This is a rock; tolk in the True Speech,’ he said, looking mildly up at Ged now. ‘A bit of the stone of which Roke Isle is made, a little bit of the dry land on which men live.’

So the stuff of the earth is called tolk and the sea is called inien. Put them together. Elide the middle syllable as is done to produce sukien. What do you get?


This is just a guess, a hypothesis. But it’s rather pleasing, no?

What would it imply? Simply a tip of the hat from one world-builder to a predecessor? Rather more than that, I think. Le Guin (born 1929) once thanked her lucky stars that she hadn’t encountered Tolkien’s work when, as a child, she began writing her own stories, because if she had, ‘that achievement might have overwhelmed me’.[1] Instead she was able to begin forging her own path before it crossed his.

Ursula Le Guin

Nonetheless she paid her dues: ‘To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.’[2]

The fact that I unwittingly tweeted this on the eve of the anniversary of Le Guin’s death serves as a reminder that coincidences happen. But it’s not as if I’m cherry-picking from a vast vocabulary. If I were, it would make coincidence much likelier.

Actually there’s very little of the Old or True Speech in the Earthsea sequence. As Le Guin said, ‘No use trying to make a lexicon of Hardic [the daily language of the archipelago] or of the True Speech; there’s not enough in the books. It’s not like Tolkien, who in one sense wrote The Lord of the Rings to give his invented languages somebody to speak them.’[3]

In Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin refers to language invention as ‘what an illustrious predecessor referred to as the Secret Vice’.[4] She meant Tolkien, whose essay ‘A Secret Vice’ had recently been posthumously in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983).

All this should dispel any thought that Le Guin was casual (not the same thing as playful) about language invention. And her comments make clear she knew Tolkien was the master of that craft.

Tolkien in the 1930s

What better way to pay tribute than by inscribing it in the language – and in the language rules – of her invented world? Kris Swank gives it a modern spin by calling it an Easter egg. But what better way than to do it privately, secretly, like speaking a spell to the air?

The two conversations I’ve cited contain almost the only examples of Old Speech in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). And yet they provide the bare essentials for construing that people in Earthsea would call Earthsea Tolkien.

Every word counts.

Tolk is mentioned repeatedly in the Earthsea books. It is the first word of the Old Speech mentioned in the stories; it is the first taught by Ged to Tenar in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan (1972; my favourite); and it is the first taught by Tenar to her adoptive daughter in the fourth book, Tehanu (1990). The thought that tolk resembled the name Tolkien struck me a long time ago (and I now hear that it has struck quite a few readers). But I construed nothing further from it. I did not see that it could directly point to Tolkien as a major part of the bedrock of inspiration for Earthsea.

In a foreword to Earthsea, Le Guin tops her list of inspirational dragons with ‘Smaug, magnificently’. Of The Lord of the Rings, she wrote, ‘I have no idea how many times I have read it myself. I reread a great deal, but have lost count only with Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien.’[5]

Tolkien references go back to one of Le Guin’s first Earthsea stories, ‘The Rule of Names’, published in Fantastic magazine in 1964 before the books were conceived. There the dragon Yevaud is first introduced, like Frodo at Bree, as Mr Underhill.

The archipelago certainly includes other playful bits of nomenclature. ‘Three small islands,’ Le Guin said in the same account of the origins of Earthsea, ‘are named for my children, their baby-names; one gets a little jobial and irresponsible, given the freedom to create a world out of nothing.’[6]

There’s also the interesting question of whether Le Guin, in naming the westernmost isle of Earthsea Selidor, knew Tolkien’s observation that ‘most English-speaking people … will admit that cellar door is “beautiful”, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling).’ But as Nelson Goering has reminded me, that idea is peculiarly widespread in writing about phonaesthetics, and certainly predates Tolkien’s comment.

Of course, I can’t be certain that I’ve hit the bullseye with Tolkien = ‘Earthsea’, even though most reactions on Twitter and Facebook have been positive, with a few people enthusiastically declaring themselves convinced. (Nice to have my friend Michael Ward onside, whose book Planet Narnia advances an even more audacious hypothesis about C.S. Lewis’s hidden intentions!)

Don Standing reminds me that Le Guin’s world has a legend of the Creation of Éa, and Tolkien’s legendarium begins with the Creation of Eä. Barring the slight possibility that Le Guin heard the name in some unpublished letter from Tolkien, or heard it on the grapevine (the world of 1960s fantasy fandom was small but intense), this must be coincidence. Tolkien coined for his universe in 1951, but the name didn’t appear until 1977 with the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion. Le Guin’s Éa, an island not a universe, was coined in between.

Tolkien scholar Luke Shelton sounds the only real note of caution about Tolkien as the Earthsea name for ‘Earthsea’: ‘I like the idea behind this theory, and I so wish it to be true! Unfortunately, I don’t think it would hold up with Le Guin’s rules for language. If tolk is “rock”, then there is certainly a different word for earth. Just as each part of the ocean has its own true name.’

Yes, Ged is warned you can’t use inien ‘sea’ to command the whole sea because each bit of sea also has its own true name. As the Master Namer tells him in A Wizard of Earthsea, ‘So if some Mage-Seamaster were mad enough to try to lay a spell of storm or calm over all the ocean, his spell must say not only that word inien, but the name of every stretch and bit and part of the sea through all the Archipelago and all the Outer Reaches and beyond to where names cease.’

Nonetheless, inien still means ‘sea’, even if it can’t be used magically to command the sea as a whole.

Meanwhile, tolk is used for various specific rocks on Gont and Roke, but it seems reasonable to interpret the Master Hand as saying that it also means ‘the dry land on which men live’.

Actually, I believe have made one error in my original assertion. When the Master Namer derives sukien from suk and inien, he is illustrating to how the words of the Old Speech ‘lie hidden and changed among our Hardic words’. Hardic is the chief daily language of the archipelago, descended from but distinct from the Old Speech of creation and magic. Sukien is Hardic, and probably Le Guin meant the elision from suk+inien as an example of how the Old Speech is changed in Hardic. By that logic, Tolkien could be ‘Earthsea’ in Hardic, but probably not in the Old Speech.

I can’t claim any special insight into the workings of Le Guin’s mind. But I did once construe the unpublished birthdate of Colin Whisterfield in Alan Garner’s Boneland – and Garner told me I’d got it right.

If only I’d thought of Tolkien as Hardic for Earthsea by 2004! That’s when a mutual friend, the Tolkien scholar Marjorie Burns, kindly passed a copy of my book Tolkien and the Great War to Le Guin. I’d definitely have asked her if I was right.

I can imagine two responses: You found me out! Or How neat. I wish I’d actually thought of that!

[NOTE: I’ve made a couple of edits the morning after publishing this – adding dates for some publications, reference to Éa and , and mention of Michael Ward and Planet Narnia. I’ve also corrected my assertion, from memory, that the tolk and sukien passages contain the only samples of Old Speech in A Wizard of Earthsea (there are also a couple of untranslated charms, the untranslated ‘true names’ of characters, and the word kest ‘minnow’.)]

UPDATE, 25 January 2021. Julian Bradfield has pointed out to me that the tolkien observation has been made at least twice before, once in a 2015 blog post by Keith Miller about a talk given by Le Guin; and once in an online encyclopedia entry no later than 2005 (though this one just posits tolkien as a viable Earthsea word ‘presumably meaning “rock of the sea”’). Julian suspects the idea was in circulation before that too. I find a couple of further references, one on the TV Tropes website (no date) and one in a 2020 comment on a blog post by Sean Guynes. All this makes me even more intrigued to know whether Ursula Le Guin herself formulated the idea or heard of it and responded to it. I am grateful to Keith Miller for clarifying his blog post by stating in an email to me today, ‘Ursula didn’t mention it in the talk my wife and I attended.’

[1] ‘A Citizen of Mondath’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves: The Selected Non-fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin (London: Gollancz, 2018).

[2] ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’ (1973), in Dreams Must Explain Themselves.

[3] ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’ (1973). Thanks to Kris Swank for drawing my attention to this essay.

[4] Thanks go to Krzysztof Grzesik for pointing this out to me.

[5] ‘The Staring Eye (1974), in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction (rev. ed. London: Women’s Press, 1989) 149.

[6] ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’.

Posted in Research tangents | Tagged , , , | 28 Comments