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.

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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.

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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 …

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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 , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 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’.

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‘He lets us walk the road as JRRT walked it’: Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Christopher Tolkien

Christopher Tolkien by Charles Noad
Christopher Tolkien at the 1992 Tolkien Centenary Conference in Oxford (Photo: Charles Noad / Tolkien Society)

Today Christopher Tolkien, who died in January after a short illness, would have been 96. He is sorely missed, though it is a delight and consolation to know that at least one further volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, sanctioned by Christopher, will be published next summer: The Nature of Middle-earth, edited by Carl F. Hostetter.

When I wrote Christopher Tolkien’s obituary for the Guardian newspaper, I spoke to several people who had known him or worked closely with him – long, passionate conversations which helped to guide me in my writing even though there was only space to quote very selectively from them.

I also asked Neil Gaiman – a man who needs no introduction – for his comments. This is because in the foreword to The War of the Ring, volume 8 of The History of Middle-earth, Christopher Tolkien thanks him for identifying a reference made by J.R.R.T. From this, it was clear that Neil has been one of the most dedicated readers of Christopher’s extraordinary and meticulous study of the writings of his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. Again, I could use very little of this in the Guardian, but Neil has kindly given me permission to publish the comment in full.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman: ‘It feels like Christopher Tolkien lets us in to his father’s mind’ (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

‘It was in the days before email and the internet. I was a young writer — 27 when The Return of the Shadow came out, and I devoured it. And noticed Christopher Tolkien stating that he had no idea why his father mentioned “The Rhyme for Porringer” when talking about the scansion of ‘Eärendil was a Mariner’.

‘I happened to know. (It was relatively obscure, in those pre-google days, but I’d learned it from a James Branch Cabell short story.) So I wrote to Tolkien c/o the publisher, telling him the poem and its history,  and thought no more of it. He wrote a kind letter back, very happy to have the mystery cleared up. And two years later I opened my copy of The War of the Ring and was thrilled and surprised to find myself thanked in there.

‘Articulating why I find the History of Middle Earth interesting is difficult. I wonder what I would have thought if I’d read it as a boy, when reading and rereading The Lord of the Rings was the best thing in the world. I read it as an author, and I loved it as an author, because it feels like Christopher lets us in to his father’s mind: lets us walk the road as JRRT walked it, all the false starts and dead ends, all the changes of mind and the unstoppable relentless work that went on, that would give us LOTR. It’s like being allowed to see a small part of the underneath of the iceberg, or the roots of the tree.

‘Making that process palatable is difficult, making it interesting borders on the impossible, but Christopher managed it, and in doing it illuminates why Lord of the Rings felt so powerful. It’s the layers beneath, that it was built upon, that make it strong.’

My thanks go to Neil Gaiman for permission to reproduce these words.

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Tolkien’s last friend in Oxford when the world went to war

Colin Cullis and JRR Tolkien

Colin Cullis and J.R.R. Tolkien at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1912 (courtesy of L.L.H. Thompson, R.F. Thompson and H.D.L. Thompson)



‘Not a single man I know is up except Cullis,’ Tolkien lamented at the start of his final year as an Oxford student. It was 1914, war had just broken out, and their friends had left in droves to enlist in the army.

Cullis died one hundred years ago this month – not a victim of war, but as young as many who were. Outside my own books, nothing new has been written about him since Humphrey Carpenter published the snippet above in his 1977 biography of Tolkien. He is not one of the T.C.B.S. – the ‘immortal four’ who play a central role in my Tolkien and the Great War. Yet Cullis was a good friend to Tolkien, and he was one of the few people on hand in that final Oxford year when the Middle-earth legendarium first began taking shape in poetry and Elvish lexicons. A little more about Cullis may be found in my short book Tolkien at Exeter College (including some of the photographs and ephemera mentioned here), but it seems a timely moment to round up, and reflect upon, some of the other material I have gathered about him.

Colin Cullis in childhood

Colin Cullis was born on 28 March 1892 in Streatham, south London, the youngest of eight children (though he lost two siblings before he turned three). His mother Mary was approaching 40.

His father Thomas, secretary of the Surrey Guild commercial dock company, was ambitious for his sons and sent all three to the nearby public (i.e. fee-paying) school. Dulwich College also produced P.G. Wodehouse, inventor of Jeeves and Wooster; C.S. Forester of the swashbuckling Horatio Hornblower novels; and – just before Colin’s arrival – Raymond Chandler, creator of hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. Here from 1905, Colin excelled in French and, in his final year, edited The Alleynian, the school magazine. He was also a talented photographer, commended for ‘artistic feeling’ in one prize-giving and almost sweeping the board in another. Photographs of Colin himself show him as a golden boy.

In December 1910 he took the Oxford University entrance examination and was accepted by Exeter College to read Classics. The college ratified his £80 scholarship on the same day as Tolkien’s £60 open classical exhibition. Both young men appear in the college’s October 1911 photograph of the new intake.

Cullis, apparently more diligent in Classics than Tolkien, borrowed enthusiastically from the college library – tragedies by Aeschylus and Euripides, comedies by Aristophanes, poetry by Hesiod and Lucretius, oratory by Demosthenes and Cicero, philosophy by Plato, and history by Plutarch. His latter-day borrowings included The World of Homer by Andrew Lang, whose fairy books had fed the imaginations of their generation (including Tolkien); and Cults of the Greek States by Lewis Farnell. This last was a canny choice – Farnell was their classics tutor.

Mural of William Morris, Walthamstow, London

Mural of William Morris, Walthamstow, London

Cullis shared Tolkien’s enthusiasm for William Morris, the towering Victorian artist, poet, author, social polemicist and medieval revivalist. This was the place to follow in Morris’s footsteps – literally. Six decades earlier, Morris had been an Exeter College undergraduate himself. Here he had met Edward Burne-Jones and forged a friendship that laid the foundations of both Pre-Raphaelitism and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

From the library, Cullis borrowed books about Morris and by him. There was his poetry debut, The Defence of Guenevere; his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and (in 1914) his verse epic The Story of Sigurd the Volsung. Arthuriana, the Aeneid and the Volsunga Saga had already made their mark on Tolkien’s imagination. Cullis took out Morris’s translation of the Odyssey of Homer in 1915 – just when his room-mate Tolkien was attempting to reimagine the lost Germanic legend of Eärendel, an Odysseus of the northern oceans.

Tolkien’s desire to recover the lost past chimed with an antiquarian streak in the Cullis family. John Brailsford, Colin’s nephew by a younger sister, would become Keeper of the Department of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. More extraordinary was Colin’s elder sister, who had studied at Somerville College, Oxford. Born Mildred Augusta in 1883, in 1915 she underwent baptism as Mary Ældrin Cullis. She appears to have called herself Ældrin – apparently a name concocted to sound Anglo-Saxon. I have seen an undated photograph that shows her grasping a spear and dressed as an Amazonian warrior.

Cullis also shared Tolkien’s taste for clubbable conversation – or perhaps exceeded it. Cullis followed him as president of the Apolausticks, an Exeter College club with a literary focus, founded by Tolkien early in 1912. Cullis also became secretary of the college’s Dialectical Society for philosophical debate, president of the Essay Club, and editor of the college’s Stapeldon Magazine.

Like Tolkien, in autumn 1912 he joined the newly revitalised Exeter College Essay Club. The following term, he delivered a paper on John Masefield, the future Poet Laureate, already famous for ‘Sea-Fever’:

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

Colin Cullis as a young man

Colin Cullis as a young man

As Mark Atherton has said, Masefield’s poem calls to mind ‘To the Sea! To the Sea! The white gulls are crying’ in The Lord of the Rings. When Tolkien gave a paper on the Catholic poet Francis Thompson, Cullis admitted he found Thompson’s religious imagery ‘rather overpowering at times’ and preferred ‘the simple poems of childhood’. Tolkien disagreed – to him, the simple poems and the complex ones were like complementary instruments in a great orchestra. It is probably the revival of the Essay Club that led to the demise of the literary-minded Apolausticks. In 1914, Cullis and Tolkien replaced that with a new club, the Chequers, with a more down-to-earth focus on convivial dinners.

Then there was the Stapeldon, the college debating society. Tolkien supported the equally conservative Cullis on motions that ‘This House deplores the signs of degeneracy in the present age’ and ‘The cheap “Cinema” is an engine of social corruption’.‡ Oxford’s first cinema, the Electric Theatre, had opened in 1910 and by the time of this debate (1914) it had acquired five more.

Yet Cullis found this ‘engine of social corruption’ a handy reference point when describing Tolkien’s writing. As Stapeldon secretary in December 1913, Tolkien had written a parodic account of the meeting that elected him president. At the next meeting, Cullis as new secretary read it out – the first public outing for Tolkien’s epic prose – and recorded that ‘the memory and imagination of the House [was] stirred by the cinematographically vivid minutes of the last meeting’.‡

When Cullis took over as Stapeldon president the following term, he was in for an unusually busy time – in June, the college marked its 600th anniversary. It must have been a relief to reach the sexcentenary dinner on 6 June 1914, when his only duties were to act as a steward and to give the formal reply when Tolkien toasted ‘the College Societies’. His and Tolkien’s signatures are on souvenir menus – among those of many who would not live much longer.

Exeter College by Simon Q via Flickr

Exeter College looking towards the dining hall (by Simon Q via Flickr)

For Cullis (as for the world at large) the froth of activity in June 1914 disguised a tragic malaise.

Like Tolkien, he had managed only a 2nd class in Honour Moderations, the mid-course exams in 1913. While Tolkien switched to the English course and found his academic groove, Cullis continued to read Classics. But as he was embarking upon deep study of Greek and Roman history and philosophy, he began to suffer from heart trouble.

When he failed his Divinity Mods – passages for translation from the Greek New Testament – in June 1913 and December 1914, the college blamed ill health. Cullis was excused from the university’s Officer Training Corps. On doctor’s orders, Cullis was excused from living within college for his final year.

So in October 1914, with war now raging, he took rooms with Tolkien at 59 St John Street, a terraced house round the corner from the Ashmolean Museum. In Oxford slang, they called it ‘the Johnner’. Presumably private lodgings were expected to be quieter and calmer, though one wonders if that is how it turned out. When Tolkien said that not a single man was ‘up’ except Cullis, he cannot have been counting friends outside Exeter. Until the end of the year, his T.C.B.S. friend Geoffrey Bache Smith hung on at Corpus Christi College, and Tolkien found others to socialise with too. For him, at least, life at the Johnner was ‘a delicious joy’ compared with college-bound existence.

Central Oxford, 1911

Central Oxford, 1911, with St John Street top left and Exeter College lower centre (Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)


Cullis spent much of the last term away from Oxford, severely ill, and managed only a 3rd class in his final exams in June 1915. Tolkien dashed into the army, but Cullis failed the medical on repeated attempts. That he could not discharge his duty to his country (as three of his siblings did) was ‘to his never-ceasing regret’, in his mother’s words.† His eldest brother Henry took a furlough from the Indian Civil Service, enlisted with the Rifle Brigade, and was killed in action at Armentières, Northern France, in December 1915. Geoffrey, two years older than Colin, served as a captain in the Royal Engineers and then, until 1921, as a Railway Transport Officer in the Balkans. In 1916–17, Ældrin drove field ambulances in Salonika for the Girton and Newnham Hospital Unit, helping Serbian soldiers laid low by malaria and other sicknesses. (Awarded an MBE in 1920, she then vanishes from the record, apart from her arrival in New York in 1940 on the Scythia and her death as a retired tutor in 1968 in Kent, England.)

Colin found work in London as a temporary clerk, in the Foreign Office from March 1915 and in the Department of Foreign Trade from 1916. He showed keen interest and was offered a permanent job, but instead took a staff position at the Federation of British Industries at Crown Office Row, Inner Temple. He cannot have had an easy war. As a man of fighting age who was not doing his military duty, he would have been judged a shirker and coward. And there was his health. He would probably have been better off living with his parents, who had moved to salubrious Boscombe in Bournemouth on the South Coast.

The war ended in November 1918. Tolkien was officially demobilised on 16 July 1919. On Friday 18 July, central London streets began to fill with people securing their places for the huge victory parade the next day. ‘In Trafalgar-square, the Mall, and on the bridges,’ reported The Times, ‘there was not a position offering any possibility of a view … that was not taken by daybreak.’

Memoir of Colin Cullis by Mary Cullis

Part of a brief memoir of Colin Cullis, written for his mother Mary for Dulwich College

Cullis, who had been living just six minutes’ walk from Trafalgar Square at 15 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, did not live to see the grand parade. On 4 July, he had left work ‘complaining only of a slight indisposition which he attributed to the old heart trouble’.† It was influenza. By 12 July, he had developed septic pneumonia. Even as his nation began this gathering to celebrate survival, Colin Cullis died at Henrietta Street, aged 27.

Family tradition held that Colin died of Spanish flu, his nephew’s widow Mary Brailsford told me in her old age. It is a natural assumption. In a tremendous recent history of the epidemic, Pale Rider, Laura Spinney calls it ‘the greatest tidal wave of death since the Black Death, perhaps in the whole of human history’, and estimates that in the two years from March 1918 it killed 50 million, possibly even twice that number.

But the ‘tidal wave’ circumnavigated the globe in three waves, and in the northern hemisphere the third is generally considered to have been over by May – two months before Cullis’s death. Laura has kindly given me her verdict: the July date means he is unlikely to have been a Spanish flu victim. Still, it is not cut and dried. ‘A pandemic doesn’t end abruptly,’ says Laura. ‘The pandemic strain just gradually mutates into a more benign form, so asking if he was a victim of the pandemic strain per se or a milder “daughter” strain is a little bit like asking how long is a piece of string. A strain closely resembling the Spanish flu one is still likely to have been his downfall.’


Sources: (courtesy of Pat Reynolds); Mark Atherton, There and Back Again: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Origins of The Hobbit (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012); Brailsford family (photographs of Colin Cullis); *Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography; †Mary Cullis, handwritten obituary, and other papers from Dulwich College archives (with thanks to Calista Lucy); Colin Cullis’s death certificate; ‡Exeter College archives (with thanks to Penny Baker); London Gazette; E.S. McLaren, A History of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919); Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017); Stapeldon Magazine (Exeter College); Times Digital Archive.

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The perils of enchantment: Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

The encounter between mortal man and immortal enchantress is always fateful in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, Boromir fears the Elf-queen Galadriel and ignores her wisdom, then dies for his sins.

Tolkien: The Lay of Aotrou and ItrounThe Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, first written in 1930 and previously only published in 1945 in The Welsh Review, is entirely detached from Middle-earth.

But in this 506-line poem, running to the most unhobbity topics of sex, infertility and adultery, Tolkien furnishes just the kind of story that would have fuelled Boromir’s fear.

A man and woman find themselves still childless as the years grow long. In desperation, he obtains a love-potion from a corrigan, a kind of witch or water-fairy, and in this way a daughter and son, and bliss, are attained. But the price he must eventually pay proves dreadful, and his wife, barely comprehending, is drawn into the same doom.

Nothing could be further from the tale of Beren and Lúthien, the mortal-immortal love story at the heart of The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology.

In that 1917 story, love overleaps racial barriers and overthrows prison walls. In the later Aotrou and Itroun, however, we taste the stern piety of the Christian medieval mind, which censured all contact with the fay-folk – remnants as they were of pre-Christian mythology.

That piety chimed with Tolkien’s strict Catholic views on marriage and, I suspect, his distrust of the new science that promised to overcome the failings of nature with eugenics and in vitro technology. Biologist J. B. S. Haldane and literary giant H. G. Wells were blithely predicting a scientifically modified future for humankind; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was just two years away.

A direct adaptation of old traditions, Aotrou and Itroun falls into the same non-Middle-earth category as Tolkien’s Finnish-based Story of Kullervo, his Germanic Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and his British The Fall of Arthur.

The stories that inspired Tolkien in this instance came from Brittany, a little piece of mainland Europe where native Britons fled from the encroaching Anglo-Saxons.

The names Aotrou and Itroun simply mean “lord” and “lady” in Breton. But the poem helps us see how the Elves in Tolkien’s more famous works draw from Celtic wellsprings as well as the Old English ones we tend to think inspired him more.

The corrigan, whom Tolkien borrowed from Breton folklore, grants Aotrou’s wish, then seals his doom. But she leads us all the way to Galadriel herself, as editor Verlyn Flieger points out. Both the corrigan and the Elf-queen of Lothlórien are ageless enchantresses with long golden hair, a fountain, and a magical phial.

The moonlight falling clear and cold
her long hair lit; through comb of gold
she drew each lock, and down it fell
like the fountain falling in the dell.

But in the imagery of this poem there are foreshadowings, too, of the other memorable female Frodo encounters on his journey to Mordor – Shelob:

A witch there was, who webs could weave
to snare the heart and wits to reave,
who span dark spells with spider-craft…

Aotrou and Itroun was written in the era of Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden and modernism. Tolkien’s poem feels nearer to John Masefield (“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky”), who was then poet laureate.

In fact, Pound and Auden each reworked Old English and Norse literature, too. Tolkien, setting out to ‘rekindle an old light’ rather than to ‘make it new’ (Pound’s misleading mantra), has a surer hand. His strategy here is not innovation but distillation.

The haunting Aotrou and Itroun joins a stream of posthumous publications, which now outnumber by more than three to one the books Tolkien saw published in his lifetime. (Christopher Tolkien, who edited almost all the other volumes, has been awarded a Bodley Medal for his work.)

Sceptics dismiss all this as barrel-scraping, but Tolkien left a wine cellar as well stocked as the Elvenking’s in The Hobbit. This latest barrel contains neither dwarf nor hobbit, but is worth broaching for its pale and chilly vintage.

The titular poem occupies just one sixth of this short book. There are also two earlier poems about the corrigan, the original 1930 ‘Aotrou and Itroun’, some beautiful facsimile pages in Tolkien’s hand, and a succinct set of notes.

But the brevity is apt. The cover, a 1914 painting by Tolkien of the Cornish coast, well suits the opening scene of ‘stony shores and stony caves’, from which it is a short step to the forested otherworld threshold.

The language, as we expect from him, is as time-worn as a runic engraving yet clear as a bell. The almost emblematic imagery – ash lance, black horse, green boughs – leaves the imagination free and untrammelled. Here in ancient Brittany, the natural year is a round of blessedness and bitterness. The holy and the unholy imbue everything. It is a world captured in stained glass.

  • The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger. HarperCollins, 125 pages; £8.99 paperback, £16.99 hardback. This review first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 16 November 2016. I present it here, slightly edited, to mark the paperback publication of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun.
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