Tolkien at Exeter College: Birth of a legend

In which I blow my own trumpet…

When you picture J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s probably as a member of Oxford’s Inklings, writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1930s and ’40s, or in old age when fame caught up with him in the 1960s. Yet he first wrote about Middle-earth in 1914–15 while studying at Exeter College, Oxford University. My 2003 book Tolkien and the Great War started a shift in interest towards the author’s early development. In Tolkien at Exeter College, published by the college in 2014, I return to focus tightly on his undergraduate years.

So how did Tolkien first strike his lifelong creative seam? It’s an unlikely and fascinating tale, involving Beowulf, Hiawatha, the outbreak of war, and – most crucial of all – the college library’s Finnish Grammar. We meet a fresh Tolkien – a classicist who nearly failed Mods; a socialite and slacker who climbed college walls, ‘hijacked’ a bus, and was arrested during a town-versus-gown confrontation. We see his fortunes transformed by an extraordinary sensitivity to language and by a yearning to imagine the dim unrecorded past.

With the help of a series of diverting sidebars, we also see him in context of an Oxford that is both familiar and unfamiliar. There are the student meetings which he recorded in inimitable style as secretary (including one prototypical epic of battle between order and chaos); and the parties and performances he attended. There is a shocking tragedy just a couple of flights of stairs from his room; and the official machinations which allowed him to switch from Classics to English. We meet the friends he gathered in a kind of proto-Inklings, and we follow them into the Great War.

At the same time we trace the invention of ‘Elvish’ and of the first Middle-earth hero, Eärendil the star mariner. And we hear of Tolkien’s return to the college as a Somme veteran to read aloud his first mythological epic of battle.

With Peter Jackson, Exeter College, July 2015

I first spoke about Tolkien’s Exeter life at a Tolkien conference hosted by the college in 2006. In writing Tolkien at Exeter College, I enjoyed the amazing support of former Rector Frances Cairncross, who invited me to showcase my work at Founder’s Day and in the 2014 City Lecture. It was a delight to to broach Tolkien’s own college memorabilia at the Bodleian Library, and to revisit the college archives with the assistance of archivist Penny Baker and librarian Joanne Bowring. When Sir Peter Jackson came to Oxford to give a lecture in 2015, it was my privilege to show those archives to him and his partner Fran.

By the kindness of the college, the Tolkien Trust, and some hardcore Tolkien collectors, I’ve been able to include in Tolkien at Exeter College a wealth of rare archival images – some previously unseen, including a 1911 matriculation line-up, a photo of Tolkien haring up the rugby pitch, and his own sketches of Exeter College Hall and Broad Street. Matt Baldwin in the Development Office has laid it all out beautifully.

Tolkien at Exeter College, by John GarthTolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth (64pp, black-and-white) was a finalist in the prestigious 2015 Mythopoeic Awards for Scholarship (won by Tolkien and the Great War in 2004). Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, has described it as ‘a must-read for all Tolkien aficianados’. According to Mythlore, it is ‘a very good thing indeed … belongs on the bookshelf of every Tolkien scholar’. Holly Ordway, in an article on her books of the year, called it ‘an excellent complement’ to Tolkien and the Great War which ‘deepens our understanding of the origins of Tolkien’s lifelong work on The Silmarillion’.

Do you have your copy? Buy it from my website.

This is an updated version of a 2015 article I wrote for Exeter College’s Exon magazine, left.

Posted in 100 years of Middle-earth, Book news and reviews, John Garth’s writing, Tolkien in the First World War, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars

Discovering the dates of The Fall of Númenor and Out of the Silent Planet


A few months ago I revealed what I think is an exciting new find about the origins of J R R Tolkien’s Atlantis story, The Fall of Númenor, the ultimate predecessor of the accounts of Númenor given in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I announced my discovery in an article for the Sunday Telegraph which also touched on the role played by Tolkien’s friend C S Lewis. The article can be read at the Telegraph website (sign-up is free for one ‘premium’ article per week), and I won’t now repeat everything it says. But I will recap here the main points I made there about when exactly the Númenor idea struck Tolkien. And I can add some refinements.

That’s because I have now made a further advance, which I hope will prove especially valuable to Lewis scholars. What follows may seem a thicket of facts, and less welcoming than my other blog posts, but its sole purpose is to give and weigh evidence.

The Fall of Númenor has generally been seen as a product of the writers’ ‘wager’ that produced The Lost Road and Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, in which humans travel for the first time to Mars. All these writings, including Lewis’s, have been dated to 1936–7. Christopher Tolkien favours 1936 (The Lost Road and Other Writings, 9); Christina Scull and Wayne G Hammond suggest ‘?1936–1937’ (J R R Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, 180). Humphrey Carpenter over-estimates the gap between The Fall of Númenor and The Lost Road, saying that the first was written ‘perhaps in the late nineteen-twenties or early thirties’ (J R R Tolkien: A Biography, 170). But he is on the mark insofar as The Fall of Númenor carries no indication that Tolkien initially wrote it in connection with any time-travel story.

Letters of JRR TolkienA clear statement by Tolkien, which seems to have been universally overlooked, identifies the immediate spur for Númenor as a blurb he wrote for The Hobbit in which he ‘spoke of the time between the Elder Days and the Dominion of Men’. ‘Out of that came the “missing link”: the “Downfall of Númenor”, releasing some hidden “complex”,’ he told a reader (Letters, no. 180, 14 January 1956, to ‘Mr Thompson’).

The recollection came twenty years after the fact. Yet it is solid, to judge by another in the same letter where Tolkien describes writing the chapter ‘Treebeard’ for The Lord of the Rings ‘without any recollection of previous thought: just as it is now.’ Christopher Tolkien confirms, ‘This testimony is fully borne out by the original text. “Treebeard” did indeed very largely “write itself”’ (The Treason of Isengard, 411).

Though I had read that 1956 letter to ‘Mr Thompson’ a number of times, the significance for the date of The Fall of Númenor had previously eluded me – as it seems to have eluded everyone else. However, it turns out that all the information necessary for its elucidation has already been published long ago.

This reveals that a publicity paragraph about The Hobbit was requested by the publishers, George Allen & Unwin, on 4 December 1936. Tolkien, who probably received the request the next day, sent a paragraph on 8 December, complete with the phrase ‘the ancient time between the ages of Faerie and the dominion of men’ (Chronology, 188; Wayne G Hammond, Bibliography, 8). That is obviously the phrase he slightly misremembered in his letter of 1956, by which time he had long ceased to use terms like ‘Faërie’ in connection with his legendarium. In September 1937, the paragraph was used as the dustjacket blurb for the first edition of The Hobbit.

Tolkien’s recollection that writing the Hobbit blurb was the spur for Númenor, therefore, shows that the Númenor idea arose between 5 and 8 December 1936, or in the days immediately following. The Oxford University Christmas vacation had just begun, and may well have afforded time to push it forward. There was a rapidly jotted story outline. A full version of The Fall of Númenor, also written at speed, followed probably immediately.

At some point in the following days, weeks, or months Tolkien used the Númenor story as the basis for the unfinished time-travel novel The Lost Road.

Lewis – Collected Letters 2 – USIn my article for the Telegraph, I argued that the ‘wager’ with Lewis may have been struck at the same time as Tolkien had the initial Númenor inspiration – that is, in the days immediately following Allen & Unwin’s request for a Hobbit publicity paragraph. I’m still inclined to think that may have been the case. But further methodical work with Lewis’s letters has now uncovered another important and hitherto unnoticed detail about the wager and its results. (The Collected Letters of C S Lewis, as I say in my 2006 Observer review of the third and final volume, is a marvellous resource and a tremendous read.)

Editing The Fall of Númenor and The Lost Road, Christopher Tolkien infers from physical and textual similarities that both of them ‘arose at the same time and from the same impulse’ (The Lost Road and Other Writings, 9). It is now clear, though, as Tolkien’s 1956 letter shows, that two separate impulses were at play. The Númenor idea itself first arose from the Hobbit ‘blurb’ of early December 1936. But Tolkien’s novel of time-travel to Númenor, The Lost Road, arose from Lewis’s proposition that they should each write ‘an excursionary “Thriller” … discovering Myth’ (Letters, no. 24, to Stanley Unwin, 18 February 1938). This was the basis of their so-called wager. And the wager may or may not have coincided with the impulse for the initial Númenor legend at the time Tolkien wrote the Hobbit blurb.

Williams – The Place Of The LionThe roots of Lewis’s idea certainly go further back. He had seen the potential for conveying serious spiritual ideas in adventure thrillers and science-fiction after reading David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (Lewis to Charles A Brady, 29 October 1944; to Ruth Pitter, 4 January 1947; and to William L. Kinter, 28 March 1953). Lewis had not yet read that book on 7 December 1935 when he mentioned it in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves. Another revelation of the potential value of genre fiction, particularly in conveying spiritual or theological ideas, was the work of Charles Williams (later welcomed into Lewis and Tolkien’s circle of Oxford friends, the Inklings). Lewis told Arthur Greeves on 26 February 1936 that he had ‘just read’ Williams’ The Place of the Lion. By the time of a 24 June letter to Leo Baker, Lewis had also read Williams’ Many Dimensions.

What seems to have gone unremarked in previous discussions of the chronology of the wager is that Lewis identified two later – and therefore more immediate – catalysts for his space-travel novel Out of the Silent Planet. The first was reading Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (no earlier than May 1937). The second was a conversation with a pupil (probably in June 1937).

Stapledon – Last and First Men – Pelican smallCrucially, the Pelican edition of Last and First Men which Lewis read was not published until May 1937. (See James Pardey, The Art of Penguin Science Fiction. In a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green on 28 December 1938, Lewis refers to this as the ‘Penguin Libr.’ edition, because Pelican was an imprint of Penguin, the hugely successful publishing house launched in 1935.)

Equally crucially, we may put a close date to Lewis’s comment that ‘What set me about writing the book was the discovery that a pupil of mine took all that dream of interplanetary colonisation quite seriously, and … that a “scientific” hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity’ (to Sister Penelope, 9 August 1939). The discovery is surely described contemporaneously to Dom Bede Griffiths on 27 June 1937: ‘I was talking the other day to an intelligent infidel who said that he pinned all his hopes for any significance in the universe on the chance that the human race by adapting itself to changed conditions and first planet jumping, then star jumping, finally nebula jumping, could really last forever and subject matter wholly to mind.’ (It would be great to know who this ‘intelligent infidel’ was!)

The upshot of all this is that Out of the Silent Planet cannot have been begun until May, or more likely late June, when Oxford’s summer ‘long vacation’ had begun. And the wager, assigning time-travel to Tolkien and space-travel to Lewis, may have been struck at any point between the reading of The Place of the Lion and the commencement of Out of the Silent Planet in summer 1937. The accumulation of catalysts seems to favour the latter part of the sixteen-month span. It still seems possible that the writers’ bargain was made in December 1936 when Númenor was first invented. Tolkien recalled that The Fall of Númenor ‘attracted Lewis greatly, as heard read’ (Letters, no. 294, to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February 1967). But a further half year passed before Lewis began writing, and that gives scope for The Fall of Númenor to have percolated alongside Lewis’s thoughts on the serious potential of genre fiction. Indeed, unless the two writers literally ‘tossed up’ over the division of space- and time-travel, their wager may even have been prompted by Lewis’s own space-travel story idea in summer 1937.

LotR Baynes frontThe rest is well known. In November 1937 the Lost Road chapters so far written were presented by Tolkien to Allen & Unwin in the wild hope that it might serve as a follow-up to the very successful but utterly different Hobbit. It was the publisher’s rejection of The Lost Road (not to mention The Silmarillion and The Lay of Leithian, a long narrative poem about the lovers Beren and Lúthien) that prompted Tolkien to embark with the greatest reluctance on ‘a new story about Hobbits’ by 19 December 1937 (Letters, no. 20, to C A Furth). This, of course, became The Lord of the Rings.

Doomed by Tolkien’s decision to deliver more about hobbits, The Lost Road never got any further than four chapters. But it had been a vital phase in the development of the Númenor story that underpins the history and destiny of Aragorn, of Gondor, and of Gondor’s age-long war with Sauron.

Conceived and begun, as we now see, in summer 1937, Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet was finished with astonishing speed by 2 September (Lewis to Owen Barfield). Published in 1938, it became the first instalment of a ‘cosmic trilogy’ also comprising Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), and established Lewis as a fiction writer of substance.

 

(Note: A day after publication, this article was slightly edited for clarity, and enlarged to include Tolkien’s quote on Lewis’s pleasure in The Fall of Númenor.)

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Tanks at Gondolin

Here’s an excerpt from my book Tolkien and the Great War to mark the centenary of Tolkien’s discharge on 9 December 1916 from military hospital, where he had begun writing his first ‘lost tale’ of Middle-earth, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’. He had contracted chronic trench fever in October after nearly four months on the Somme battlefield, where the British secret weapon, the tank, had been unleashed. For an overview of the embryonic mythology as it stood just prior to this point – very different in many details and names from the later Silmarillion – see here.

fall_of_gondolin_by_roger_garland

The Fall of Gondolin as depicted by Roger Garland

Tolkien had listed several monstrous creatures in the ‘Poetic and Mythologic Words of Eldarissa’ and its ethnological chart: tauler, tyulqin and sarqin, names which in Qenya indicate tree-like stature or an appetite for flesh. All these new races of monsters proved transitory, bar two: the Balrogs and the Orcs. Orcs were bred in ‘the subterranean heats and slime’ by Melko. ‘Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal….’ The name had been taken from the Old English orc, ‘demon’, but only because it was phonetically suitable. The role of demon properly belongs to Balrogs, whose Goldogrin name means ‘cruel demon’ or ‘demon of anguish’. These are Melko’s flame-wielding shock troops and battlefield captains, the cohorts of Evil.

Orcs and Balrogs, however, are not enough to achieve the destruction of Gondolin. ‘From the greatness of his wealth of metals and his powers of fire’ Melko constructs a host of ‘beasts like snakes and dragons of irresistible might that should overcreep the Encircling Hills and lap that plain and its fair city in flame and death’. The work of ‘smiths and sorcerers’, these forms (in three varieties) violate the boundary between mythical monster and machine, between magic and technology. The bronze dragons in the assault move ponderously and open breaches in the city walls. Fiery versions are thwarted by the smooth, steep incline of Gondolin’s hill. But a third variety, the iron dragons, carry Orcs within and move on ‘iron so cunningly linked that they might flow … around and above all obstacles before them’; they break down the city gates ‘by reason of the exceeding heaviness of their bodies’ and, under bombardment, ‘their hollow bellies clanged … yet it availed not for they might not be broken, and the fires rolled off them’.

british_mark_i_male_tank_somme_25_september_1916The more they differ from the dragons of mythology, however, the more these monsters resemble the tanks of the Somme. One wartime diarist noted with amusement how the newspapers compared these new armoured vehicles with ‘icthyosaurus, jabberwocks, mastodons, Leviathans, boojums, snarks, and other antediluvian and mythical monsters.’ Max Ernst, who was in the German field artillery in 1916, enshrined such comparisons on canvas in his iconic surrealist painting Celebes (1921), an armour-plated, elephantine menace with blank, bestial eyes. The Times trumpeted a German report of this British invention: ‘The monster approached slowly, hobbling, moving from side to side, rocking and pitching, but it came nearer. Nothing obstructed it: a supernatural force seemed to drive it onwards. Someone in the trenches cried, “The devil comes,” and that word ran down the line like lightning. Suddenly tongues of fire licked out of the armoured shine of the iron caterpillar … the English waves of infantry surged up behind the devil’s chariot.’ The war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote later that the advance of tanks on the Somme was ‘like fairy-tales of war by HG Wells’.

Indeed, there is a whiff of science fiction about the army attacking Gondolin, a host which has ‘only at that time been seen and shall not again be till the Great End’. In 1916, Tolkien was anticipating the dictum of Arthur C Clarke, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ From a modern perspective this enemy host appears technological, if futuristic; the ‘hearts and spirits of blazing fire’ of its brazen dragons remind us the internal combustion engine. But to the Noldoli the host seems the product of sorcery. ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, in Tolkien’s grand unfolding design, is a story told by an Elf; and the combustion engine, seen through enchanted eyes, could appear as nothing other than a metal heart filled with flame.

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Unseen Tolkien: sex, infertility, adultery and the birth of Galadriel

aotrou-and-itroun-coverThe 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.

The 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…

Continue reading at the Telegraph… (free registration required)

 

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Beren and Lúthien, a centenary publication

In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw as the ‘kernel’ of his mythology. A century on, in 2017 the love story of Beren and Lúthien will finally appear as a book in its own right.

beren-and-luthien-coverPotentially a landmark among Tolkien’s many posthumous publications, it will appear in May from HarperCollins in the UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US with a cover and illustrations by Alan Lee. I am astonished and delighted, not least because its editor, Christopher Tolkien, is now approaching his 92nd birthday.

J R R Tolkien’s experiences and development as a writer in 1914–18 are traced in detail in my book Tolkien and the Great War. I’ll only mention here that he had married Edith in March 1916, fought from July for four months in the terrible Battle of the Somme – losing two of his dearest friends – and been invalided home in October. The walk in the wood near Roos, East Yorkshire, came after a winter of sorrow, lingering nightmare, and creative catharsis.

The central scene of the story he then wrote, in which the battle-worn warrior Beren sees the elf-princess Lúthien Tinúviel dance in a wood, has been known to readers ever since 1954 and the publication of the first volume of The Lord of the Rings. In the Appendices, Tolkien promised that ‘the full tale’ would be told in The Silmarillion – the legends and history that give Middle-earth its unique sense of depth and credibility.

Readers had to wait until 1977 to hear more about Beren and Lúthien – at about 12,000 words, a substantial chapter of the whole Silmarillion. By then Tolkien had been in the grave for four years alongside Edith. There can be no more eloquent testimony to the personal importance of the story than the fact that on their headstone, along with their own names, those of Beren and Lúthien are carved.

Only the work of their son Christopher saved The Silmarillion from oblivion. As an editorial contruct from multiple overlapping texts written between the 1930s and 1960s, it is a marvel of consistency. Even more marvellous – considering its gestation – is that it stands as an extraordinary work of literature. The full complexity and labour behind it will only be apparent to readers of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth, which appeared in twelve volumes during the 1980s and 1990s.

Given all this, what might actually appear in a standalone Beren and Lúthien?

The primacy of this story, together with the Alan Lee jacket, makes this reminiscent of The Children of Húrin, published in 2007. That book enabled us to read the tragic story of Túrin and his sister Nienor as fully as possible, straight through without interruptions, as a work of literature. The Children of Húrin accords in detail with The Silmarillion, but contains much else. It also matches The Silmarillion in construction, as the best text that could be pieced together from multiple overlapping and ever-varying portions. But it reflects Tolkien’s urge to write Túrin’s story in a form much fuller and richer than The Silmarillion would accommodate.

To judge by information available now, however, a rather different method of presentation has been chosen for Beren and Lúthien. Here is the HarperCollins press release (as quoted on the blog of Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond):

[Christopher Tolkien] has attemped to extract the story of Beren and Lúthien from the comprehensive work in which it was embedded; but that story was itself changing as it developed new associations within the larger history. To show something of the process whereby this legend of Middle-earth evolved over the years, he has told the story in his father’s own words by giving, first, its original form, and then passages in prose and verse from later texts that illustrate the narrative as it changed. Presented together for the first time, they reveal aspects of the story, both in event and in narrative immediacy, that were afterwards lost.

[Edit: The full official description has now been drawn to my attention, though it does not fully resolve the questions I discuss here.]

So Beren and Lúthien will, like The Children of Húrin, include a narrative with beginning, middle and end. However, this will not be a ‘best text possible’, edited from multiple texts. Rather, what is called ‘its original form’ will be used as the basis for an account of the evolution of the story, illustrated by extracts from later versions.

On the face of things, ‘its original form’ must refer to the 1917 version – or rather the second version in ink written over it soon afterwards. Publication of Beren and Lúthien marks the centenary of the original writing, so that would be an apt choice. It would also permit the evolution of the story to be presented in order from its very beginnings.

Still, there might be reasons to use one of the later versions for the main text. Whatever their vigour and freshness, the ink ‘Tale of Tinúviel’ has already been published in full in The History of Middle-earth as part of The Book of Lost Tales – a collection of stories very different from the later Silmarillion in mode, manner, rationale and nomenclature. Lúthien is not yet called by that name, and the mortal–immortal pairing of lovers is not yet fully realised. As for the demonic opponent who holds Beren captive, in this earliest text – a tribute to medieval beast fable – he is not Sauron lord of werewolves, but instead Tevildo, prince of cats.

Though the Beren and Lúthien publicity also mentions the verse versions (1925–31 and c. 1951), I imagine these will only be presented in small samples, because they appear in full in The Lays of Beleriand (volume 3 of The History of Middle-earth).

Both the 1926 ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ version and the somewhat fuller 1931 ‘Qenta Noldorinwa’ versions of the Beren and Lúthien sequence might be reproduced in full, but I don’t think either would stand as the main Beren and Lúthien text: they are transitional, synoptic and quite brief (and both appeared in The Shaping of Middle-earth, volume 4 of The History of Middle-earth).

In volume 5 of the History, titled The Lost Road and Other Writings, we reach the latest form Tolkien gave the Beren and Lúthien story – a retelling for the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ of 1937. This was the version used by Christopher as the basis for the chapter ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’ in the published Silmarillion. Rather than reproduce all that text again, The Lost Road refers us to The Silmarillion and simply provides a list of significant differences from the editorial form it takes there. So we don’t actually have Tolkien’s unedited version – and it would be most welcome if it were to appear in Beren and Lúthien. However, there is clearly no way to interpret ‘its original form’ to mean the final form Tolkien gave the prose story.

There is another possibility, though it seems a slight one. In his efforts to produce a version of the story for ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ in 1937, Tolkien started a prose version (Christopher labels this rough draft ‘A’) of the long verse Lay of Leithian. He soon gave up, realising he was including so much detail that it would be wholly out of proportion as part of the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’. There followed a series of texts by which Tolkien eventually achieved the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’ form. But Tolkien did still envisage writing the story more fully as a standalone tale, separate from The Silmarillion – as he did with The Children of Húrin. The first full-length version of the Beren and Lúthien story in the 1937 phase (labelled by Christopher ‘B’), though a rough draft, is indeed told in more detail than in the ‘Quenta Silmarillion’. It is, in Christopher’s words, ‘the basis for’ the final forms.

At a stretch, ‘its original form’ might refer to this, the first recounting of the story of Beren and Lúthien as a full prose narrative. If that is planned for Beren and Lúthien, there will still be scope to illustrate later developments with extracts from other versions. Publication of this fullest 1930s prose version of Beren and Lúthien’s story would give us a wholly unseen narrative – and one which accords fairly closely with how Tolkien left it when he began The Lord of the Rings.

There, the key scene in their tale is sung by Aragorn to the hobbits on the hill of Weathertop – a song of joy amid darkness, and one filled with historical consequence for the singer and the world at large. All too fleetingly, it helps ward off the oppressive fear of the Ringwraiths who hunt Frodo’s ring (they attack later that night). Later we learn that Beren and Lúthien are ancestors both of the mortal Aragorn and of Arwen, the elf-woman to whom he is secretly betrothed.

In an even larger scheme, the story links the entire Silmarillion – the legends and histories of the remote past in Middle-earth – with the events of The Lord of the Rings. It tells how one of the holy jewels, the Silmarils, is liberated from the hands of the satanic enemy Morgoth. That jewel passes to the mariner Eärendil and effects his transformation into the Evening Star, Venus – a story conceived even earlier than ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’, in 1914, when it appears in a poem that stands as the very first expression of the creative impulse that built Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings, the light of Eärendil’s jewel fills the star-glass that helps Frodo and Sam pierce the shadows of Mordor.

Whatever appears in May, Beren and Lúthien stand ever in the background to The Lord of the Rings, and as the keystone to the entire edifice of Tolkien’s legendarium.

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Teaching Tolkien in Las Vegas

vegas-skyline-at-nightVegas brought out my worst vices. Handed carte blanche to indulge recklessly and obscenely for twelve months, I borrowed books from the university library in such numbers that when it came to returning them, I had to use a suitcase. I even inadvertently smuggled one home to England.

I had indeed gone to Sin City to spend my time in the empire of books, not bookmakers. I had been wordily appointed 2015 Fellow in Humanistic Studies at the Carol C Harter, Beverly Rogers Black Mountain Institute, a literary centre affiliated with the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where I stayed on a three further months as a visiting professor.

Read more at Oxford Today

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Photos: John Garth

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Robert Quilter Gilson, TCBS – a documentary

Gilson soldier montage – Weavers

When Tolkien writes in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings that ‘by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead’, he is referring to his friends in a clique formed at school but later bonded by the First World War – the TCBS. Of these, Robert Quilter Gilson was the first to be killed, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago this July. Tolkien’s shock and grief infuses one of the first items in The Letters of JRR Tolkien: ‘His greatness is … a personal matter with us – of a kind to make us keep July 1st as a special day for all the years God may grant to any of us…’

Geoffrey Bache Smith never returned from the Somme either; only Tolkien and Christopher Luke Wiseman, a naval officer, survived the war. The letters written by Tolkien, Gilson, Wiseman and Smith form the heartbeat of my book Tolkien and the Great War. For Gilson, thanks to the wonderful generosity of his relatives, I was also able to draw a little from the many letters he wrote home from the training camps and trenches to his family and to the woman he loved.

Now, with my help, Gilson’s letters have been used as the basis for a 40-minute documentary by the school, King Edward’s in Birmingham.

The producers, Elliot and Zander Weaver, were also responsible for the splendid 2014 documentary Tolkien’s Great War, and once again they have taken my breath away. As I wrote to them last week, when I saw the new film, ‘I’m sure you’re very familiar now with the oddly disconnected feeling one gets when spending long periods working on material that should, by rights, stir the deepest emotions. Suddenly some glint catches the eye, and the whole web comes into focus, and those buried emotions well up again. Well, this past 40 minutes brought more than a glint. They reawoke for me much of the intensity of first reading Rob’s letters.’

The film was launched last week at the school, with many of Rob’s relatives in the audience, followed by a talk on the Somme by military historian Sir Hew Strachan. It’s part of the school’s larger efforts to remember former pupils caught up in the First World War, including an exhibition in the chapel where the names of Rob, GB Smith, and many of their friends are recorded on the war memorial.

I’m proud and honoured to have been able to help Rob’s voice reach across the years from that terrible time. I’ve made further use of his letters in a biographical sketch, ‘Robert Quilter Gilson, TCBS: A Brief Life in Letters’, published in Tolkien Studies 8 (2011) and available online for those with Project Muse access. It will also be available from next month (June 2016) in the proceedings of the Tolkien Society conference The Return of the Ring.

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Bottling the essence of languages: Tolkien’s ‘A Secret Vice’

From sound aesthetic to Finnegans Wake, a new book explores Tolkien’s relationship to language. Here’s my review for the New Statesman.

A Secret ViceA Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages
Ed. Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins
HarperCollins (223pp, £16.99)

Horsemen, barbaric yet noble, chant ­battle cries. Ridge-browed aliens do the same. Their words are harsh and guttural – as warlike as their weapons. Yet the Dothraki, from Game of Thrones, and the Klingons, from Star Trek, are also standard-bearers for an activity that is solitary, cerebral and painstaking: their languages are entirely made up. For the first time since the pre-1914 vogue for “international auxiliary languages” such as Esperanto, Dothraki has helped to make language invention cool.

Unlike Esperanto, Dothraki and Klingon were not created as communication aids. You can read Hamlet in Klingon, but the language was devised solely to lend a space opera atmosphere and realism. As with Dothraki, its complex grammar and substantial lexicon are far less important than its distinctive, evocative sound. And “sound aesthetic” is central to the older inventions of J R R Tolkien, without whom neither Dothraki nor Klingon is likely to have been conceived. In The Lord of the Rings, we read elegies in Elvish (“Ai! Laurië lantar lassi súrinen . . .”), battle cries in Dwarvish (“Khazâd ai-mênu!”) and slander in Orkish (“Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai”).

Like a linguist version of the ­super-sniffing hero of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Tolkien wanted to bottle the essence of languages…

Continue reading at the New Statesman…

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A turbulent darkness: Tolkien’s first story

Tolkien – The Story of KullervoHere’s a short review of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo that I wrote for the Mail On Sunday when the book came out in September 2015. I reproduce it here, with permission, as the book becomes available in the USA, where I’m currently based as Fellow in Humanistic Studies at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, UNLV, Nevada. I’ve restored my original phrasing and made one factual correction. The newspaper headline was ‘Tolkien before he took up The Hobbit’.

The Story of Kullervo by J R R Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (US: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; UK: HarperCollins)

‘I am so glad I am coming back to see you it is such a long time since we came away.’ So J R R Tolkien, aged four, wrote from England in 1896 to his father back in southern Africa. Poignantly, the letter was never posted, because his father died of rheumatic fever the very next day. Tolkien went on to lose his mother at 12.

Small wonder, then, that in his first attempt at a long story – the Story of Kullervo, written at 22 – Tolkien wrote of a hapless orphan seemingly cursed by fate. It was 1914, and the First World War meshed with his own creative ferment, bringing a turbulent darkness to plot and character.

The titular hero is born the slave of his uncle, a sorcerer who has killed Kullervo’s father. The boy is ugly, clumsy, rash and too strong for his own good, and his only affection is for his ‘wild, lone-faring’ sister Wanōna. Yet his sufferings and doggedness win our sympathy. And so, when tragic circumstance reunites brother and sister in the most disastrous way, we are drawn into the knot of tragedy.

Tolkien took the story from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, which he found strange, unruly, and invigoratingly unlike the overfamiliar Greek, Norse and Celtic mythologies.

However, 1914 was the Big Bang for Tolkien’s imagination, and in The Story of Kullervo you can just about sense Middle-earth waiting to take shape just months later. It’s there in the northernness, the rivers and blue woods; in the glorious acts of defiance against tyranny; in the mix of high enchantment and epic with down-to-earth comedy.

Garth review of Tolkien's Story of Kullervo, Mail On SundayIt’s there in the strange, beautiful names – Ilu, Sāri, Kemenūme and others – which look Finnish but are actually a rudimentary form of what Tolkien was soon calling Elvish.

The Story of Kullervo is frustratingly unfinished, like so much else by its author (about three quarters of whose books have therefore been published posthumously). But editor Verlyn Flieger gives us Tolkien’s projected finale, plus much else to illuminate the work. And anyone who wants to know what Tolkien eventually did with the tale of the doom-laden siblings can go on to read his mature Middle-earth masterpiece The Children of Húrin.

Those who enjoy Tolkien will treasure this excursion into the imagination of a young man who defied his own tragic circumstance – the early loss of parents and the deaths of friends in the Great War – to leave an indelible mark on modern culture.

 

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Tolkien’s ‘immortal four’ meet for the last time

  • Best Article, Tolkien Society Awards 2016
  • Also available in Spanish and Portuguese.

One hundred years ago today, four young men convened in an English town, not having seen each other for some time. What makes this trivial event significant is that one of them was J R R Tolkien, and the four comprised his first ‘fellowship’, the TCBS – a group with a profound impact on his youth and on his legendarium. This reunion, on 25 and 26 September 1915, was the last time the four met before they were separated, permanently, by war.

The reason for today’s article is the discovery of a small archival treasure marking the event. The signatures of two TCBS members, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Robert Quilter Gilson, have been discovered in the guest book at the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, the author and lexicographer. (Tolkien, of course, looked rather further back for his inspirations, to the Middle Ages and beyond; though his Times obituarist did note that he had a ‘Johnsonian horror of going to bed’.)

Signatures of R Q Gilson and G B Smith in the guestbook at Samuel Johnson's birthplace, Lichfield

Signatures of R Q Gilson and G B Smith in the guestbook at Samuel Johnson’s birthplace, Lichfield

Both Smith and Gilson were fascinated by the era – Smith by its literature, Gilson by its architecture. On a recent visit to Bath, as Gilson wrote,

we have immersed ourselves in an eighteenth century atmosphere — Bath does it of its own accord — and conducted most of our conversation in Johnsonian and Gibbonian periods. GB Smith composes excellent Gibbon. He is at present reading Amelia and revelling in it. I very quickly catch his enthusiasm for that extraordinary century. It really did know how to build private houses.

As well as their addresses – Marston Green near Birmingham for Gilson and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, for Smith – they append ‘T.C.B.S.’ to their names. It is a poignant sign of the value they placed in their fellowship.

The friendships had been formed at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, coalescing in 1911 into a kind of secret society that brewed clandestine teas in the library office, where Tolkien was in charge. They would also meet in the tea rooms of Barrow’s Stores. So they had called themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, eventually just the ‘TCBS’. Though its members had dominated school cultural life – the debating and literary societies, and so forth – the youthful TCBS had been at least as much about drollery and japes. When Tolkien left for Oxford University, he formed another club there, the Apolausticks, in a similar vein; but the TCBS continued to meet.

Gilson with 11th Suffolks

R Q Gilson, at right and facing the camera, marches with soldiers from his 11th Suffolks battalion during training (Image courtesy of Julia Margretts)

Under the shadow of war, from 1914 the TCBS had acquired a powerful sense of itself as a serious force, as I tell in Tolkien and the Great War. It had halved its numbers to just four – Tolkien, Gilson, Smith and Christopher Luke Wiseman, who had sealed their bond with a December 1914 meeting dubbed ‘the Council of London’. They were all four exceptional young men, and they were rapidly forming the idea that somehow they could change the world for the better through art and writing. For Tolkien, who had just been making his first steps at serious creative writing (see my articles here and here), the Council of London changed everything.

Steps became strides, and 1915 had seen him laying the foundations of Middle-earth in poems and an invented ‘Elvish’ language. He wrote to Smith later, ‘That Council was as you know followed in my own case with my finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me:— I have always laid that to the credit of the inspiration that even a few hours with the four always brought to all of us.’ He shared his early poems with the TCBS, and it is quite clear they had a deep though indefinable influence on aspects of his Middle-earth writings.

G B Smith and fellow officers from the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers

G B Smith, second from left at the back, with fellow officers from the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers

By September 1915 all four were undergoing military training for the war that had been raging for more than a year. Wiseman was in the Navy. Smith and Gilson had enlisted in the Army much earlier than Tolkien, and knew that it could not be long before they were sent to the front to fight. Tolkien’s training battalion, the 13th Lancashire Fusiliers, was based at Whittington Heath near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Gilson had written to him from hospital, where he was recovering after a serious bout of influenza. Here I’ll let my book Tolkien and the Great War take up the tale:

Tolkien now sent him a second sheaf of his poems and Gilson, feeling revivified by the TCBSian spirit, promised to criticise them. Abruptly he had learned he was about to be released from hospital, and was going on leave…. He determined to visit Tolkien at Lichfield, and sent telegrams summoning Smith and Wiseman as well. ‘At times like this when I am alive to it, it is so obvious that the TCBS is one of the deepest things in my life,’ he told Tolkien, ‘and I can hardly understand how I can be content to let slip so many opportunities.’ Wiseman came up from Greenwich, where he had begun his navigation course, and Smith travelled from Salisbury Plain, where the Salford Pals [his battalion, the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers] were now encamped. Arriving first, Smith and Gilson — now no longer the comfortably rounded figure of school and college days — visited the cathedral and the birthplace of Dr Johnson. Tolkien joined them, and finally Wiseman, and the four stayed at the George Hotel for an evening of ‘that delightful and valued conversation which ever illumines a council of the TCBS’, as Smith put it. The four were assembled for the last time. It was Saturday 25 September. In northern France, in a foretaste of the battle which lay in store for three of the TCBS, the British army at Loos (including the first Kitchener volunteers) launched an assault so disastrous that, as the attackers turned to retreat, the German machine gunners who had mowed down eight thousand men ceased firing, finally overcome with pity.

Two of Tolkien’s friends from Exeter College’s Apolausticks – Max Windle (Michael William Maxwell Windle) and Osric Staples – died on 25 September 1915 at Loos. It was a harbinger of the losses that lay ahead for the TCBS itself. Rob Gilson was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. G B Smith, a poet who perhaps shared Tolkien’s youthful vision most closely, died on 3 December 1916 of wounds sustained from a shell burst three days before. He was several miles behind the Somme front line, organising a football match for his men.

Many months earlier, ahead of a perilous night patrol in which he thought he might be ‘scuppered’, Smith had written what he thought might be his final letter to his friend, declaring himself ‘a wild and whole-hearted admirer’ of Tolkien’s work; we might now call him the first ‘Middle-earth fan’. Fearing the worst for the night patrol, Smith was defiant:

… the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS.… Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!

Signatures of R Q Gilson and G B Smith in the guestbook at Samuel Johnson's birthplaceSmith’s and Gilson’s signatures were found by Joanne Wilson of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum after an enquiry by Marty Smith of the Ridware History Society, who had heard about the ‘Council of Lichfield’ in a talk by David Robbie, an expert on Tolkien’s time in Staffordshire. It is intended that the visitor book will go on display in an exhibition about Tolkien in Staffordshire being planned by the Haywood Society, the Staffordshire Library Service and the Museum of Cannock Chase for next year.

I can’t account for the date ‘24th’ next to signatures: it’s perfectly clear from their correspondence that Smith and Gilson arrived on 25 September and visited the Johnson birthplace that day. The entry stands as a quiet testimony to a bond of fellowship that underpinned the beginnings of Tolkien’s Middle-earth – and to two young men who did not survive to see his work reach fruition.

  • I’d like to thank David Robbie for alerting me to the guestbook entries; the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Trust for allowing me to reproduce them; and Julia Margretts for permission to use the Gilson photograph.
  • I’d also like to thank the members of the Tolkien Society who voted this Best Article in their 2016 awards. It comes after another article of mine, ‘Tolkien and the Boy who didn’t Believe in Fairies’, was named Best Article in the Tolkien Society Awards 2014.
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