‘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.’



Ancestry.com (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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Interlude with eels and whalebones

A whale's skeleton on the Atlantic ocean floor, picked clean four months after its death (BBC). http://bit.ly/2h6bgtG

A whale’s skeleton on the Atlantic ocean floor, picked clean four months after its death (BBC). http://bit.ly/2h6bgtG

A change is as good as a rest, they say. So here’s a poem.

I wrote it about 20 years ago, inspired by some personal crisis now half-forgotten, and by an old Chambers Cyclopaedia I’d picked up cheap in a charity shop. The science was probably out of date even when I wrote it. But I am inspired to haul it up from the depths after watching the BBC’s Blue Planet 2, which today (accompanied by the voice of David Attenborough) plunged into the ocean deeps. Among other, more beautiful scenes the programme featured a whale carcass drifting down to be feasted upon by idiot fish. Jaw-dropping, literally.

In the Abyss

Beneath light, where pressure smothers motion
and leaden miles of inspissating liquid
tower upon the backs of lice, the ocean
drops its dead among the pennatulids,

clamp-jawed eels, crinoidea, polyp masses,
huge octopods and prawns upon audacious
stilts, antennae reaching through molasses
like worms in the gut, blank, voracious.

After its pilgrimage around the world
(if it escapes the whaling fleet) the whale
rots to mulch here, its nerves in leagues uncoiled
for idiot fish to feast upon its deshabille.

This sliver between receding sky
and the deep, this urgent silvery brim
floats on its dying generations’ lye
below the nine-day plummet of the Seraphim,

morass and slough of half the globe.
All things slip down, disintegrate and scatter,
but in monastic silence monsters probe
preposterous on unseen legs the slew of matter.

© John Garth, 2017. No reproduction without permission.

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Tolkien the opera composer

Peter Gilliver

Peter Gilliver

A guest post by Peter Gilliver

No, not that Tolkien – though he was in fact a fairly close relative. I was intrigued to discover that Frederick Tolkien (1848–1939), first cousin once removed of JRRT, was a composer, with at least three operas to his name … and that one of those operas was premiered in Leeds during the time that JRRT was living and working there. I’d like to think that the name Tolkien was sufficiently unusual that someone seeing it on a poster in 1922 would have drawn the performance to the attention of his namesake in Leeds University’s English department. I have no evidence that this actually happened; but I thought I would write up the small collection of pieces of information that I’ve been able to accumulate about Frederick Tolkien, for the mild interest of fellow Tolkienians – and in case anyone can add to them.

Frederick Tolkien was born in Rugby in 1848, the son of Septimus Tolkien, who was the brother of JRRT’s paternal grandfather John Benjamin Tolkien. He married Margaret Fleming; the marriage produced at least two children; and he died at Eastbourne in 1939. By profession he was an industrial chemist, with at least one patent (for a kind of artificial rubber) to his name; but he also tried his hand at composing music. His output includes choral and orchestral music as well as opera. The compositions I know of are as follows:

  1. A substantial setting of the Te Deum in 1886 for solo voices, choir, and orchestra, written in honour of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee the following year.
  2. Another setting of the Te Deum written for the Diamond Jubilee a decade later.
  3. A three-act opera, Adela (1895).
  4. A one-act opera For Love (1898).
  5. A three-act opera Lola Descartes (1912).
  6. An orchestral tone poem Antony and Cleopatra (1915).

Of these compositions, the only ones which I know (or think I can be fairly sure) to have been performed are the operas Adela and Lola Descartes. The first of these was apparently premiered in Wigan in 1897; the second was staged at the Theatre Royal in Leeds, by the O’Mara Opera Company, on 20 November 1922. It also seems reasonably likely that the orchestral tone poem was the one billed as ‘Cleopatra (Tolkien)’ in a notice about an upcoming concert by the Dulwich Philharmonic Society which appeared in the Musical Times of 1 November 1923.

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The Musical Opinion reviews Tolkien’s second Te Deum in September 1897

The publication of his 1886 Te Deum was noticed in several contemporary musical periodicals—in which newly published music was often reviewed irrespective of whether a performance had taken place (or was expected to do so)—and also in the general press. The Graphic of 24 July 1886 described it as ‘a thoroughly musicianly composition, much above the average of pièces de circonstance in general’. The Musical World of 22 May 1886 was rather less favourable, commenting acidly on the piece’s ‘uncertainty of tonality’ and its ‘plentiful crop of consecutive fifths’ (such things being regarded as the mark of an amateur); the reviewer suggested that, while familiar with Handel’s choral writing, the composer had not produced a very satisfactory imitation of his style, in which the ‘chromatic treatment … would have made the illustrious composer’s hair stand on end underneath his wig’.

The Musical Times of 1 August 1886 was not quite so harsh, but the efforts to find something to praise in the work are if anything more damning: ‘The composer has wasted his time and labour. His ideas of tonality are of the vaguest, and his part-writing shows a lamentable ignorance of the capacity of the human voice … although it is impossible to speak of Mr. Tolkien’s Te Deum as a musicianly achievement, it bears unmistakable traces of natural talent. Here and there impressive and beautiful phrases may be discovered, like oases in a desert, and encourage us to hope that with careful study the composer may produce something worthy of a hearing.’

The reception accorded Adela on its publication seems to have been a little more favourable. The Daily News (11 February 1896) described it as ‘a very good specimen’ of English opera, and praised ‘some very pretty songs and duets’ and ‘well written and effective’ choruses; the Stage (22 April 1897) observed that ‘the greater part of the music is, without doubt, excellent, but the libretto [written by Tolkien himself] is feeble and commonplace’. The Musical Standard (23 November 1895) commented more guardedly: ‘The music appears to have fair merit, yet it would be better to hear it performed before speaking definitely.’

In fact the opportunity to hear it performed came soon enough: the premiere took place on 14 April 1897, given by Neilson’s Opera Company. I don’t know how it was received in the local press, but the review in the London Era of 24 April 1897 called it ‘entertaining and meritorious’, singling out Marie Elster for her ‘charming’ performance in the title role, and Somers Grime as ‘excellent’ in the role of her lover Ricardo. (A brief recent assessment of the opera is given by Paul Rodmell in his Opera in the British Isles 1875–1918 (Routledge 2013): ‘Tolkien’s score is ambitious, and its structure influenced by Wagner and late Verdi.… The work lacks direction. Although securely tonal, there are some interesting harmonic devices but also some inept modulations.’ Rodmell comments that ‘virtually nothing is known’ of Tolkien himself.)

The one notice of Frederick Tolkien’s second setting of the Te Deum that I’ve been able to find – in Musical Opinion of September 1897 – suggests that his compositional technique has improved since the first: ‘the present [setting] seems to us to bear evidence of somewhat exceptional power.… It would, we think, be difficult to find finer modern examples of jubilant sacred utterance than the choruses, “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ,” “Day by day,” and the final chorus.’ The work is ‘well worthy of figuring in the program of a musical festival, and eminently fitted to employ the resources at hand on such an occasion’.

Tantalizingly, however, I have not yet been able to find any contemporary reviews of the Leeds performance of the opera Lola Descartes in 1922. Perhaps someone with access to the Leeds papers can find something? (Rodmell’s 2013 study cited above merely mentions the Leeds premiere, without comment on the music or the performance.)

One might suppose the title character of Lola Descartes to be the wife of a famous French philosopher – leading one to imagine, as John Garth did when I first mentioned the opera, that it really ought to be part of a surreal trilogy with companion works called Desdemona Kant and Kitty Wittgenstein. Alas, Lola is instead an innkeeper’s daughter who falls in love with a king. From such characters are opera plots more usually constructed … more’s the pity.

Finally: as I was putting the finishing touches to this article, I discovered a tweet from British music enthusiast Mark Henegar, dating from 2015, to the effect that he had just finished ‘re-typesetting Frederick Tolkien’s tone poem “Antony and Cleopatra”’. Whether that brings a 21st-century performance of music by JRRT’s obscure cousin closer to reality, who knows?

Peter Gilliver is a senior lexicographer and Associate Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. I recently interviewed him about magnum opus The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. I’ve previously reviewed The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, which he co-wrote with Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner

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Win over £1,000/$1,000 worth of Tolkien books and help Oxford University preserve First World War history

I’ve donated five signed copies of Tolkien and the Great War to help raise money for this appeal. There are some substantially more valuable prizes too. It is only thanks to the personal letters and photographs preserved by various Great War veterans, by families and by museums that I was able to bring to life the experiences of Tolkien and his friends in the training camps and trenches of the war. If you can donate, please do. Whether you can or can’t, perhaps you will share this announcement:—

Oxford University is currently crowd-funding a project to run a mass-digitization initiative of publicly-held material from the First World War and as is well known the experiences JRR Tolkien underwent in 1916 in the Battle of the Somme had a profound effect on him and his writing. To assist with our major crowd-funding appeal we have been generously supported by Tolkien scholars and publishers, allowing us to present a prize draw opportunity to win three major publications amounting to over £1,000. Our sincerest thanks go to John Garth, Wiley/Blackwells, and Routledge for their help.

To enter the prize draw go to: https://oxreach.hubbub.net/p/lestweforget/

If you sponsor us by pledging £1 or more (or equivalent) you will be entered into a draw to win one of five copies signed by John Garth of his Tolkien and the Great War (pbk, HarperCollins, 2011 – RRP: £9.99; $12.00; €11.99).

If you sponsor us by pledging £5 or more (or equivalent) you will also be entered into a draw to win one of three copies of A Companion to JRR Tolkien (hbk, Wiley/Blackwells, 2014) signed by the editor (RRP: £125; $140; €150).

Finally, if you sponsor us by pledging £10 or more (or equivalent) you will also be entered into a draw to a full set set of JRR Tolkien: Critical Assessments of Major Writers (4 volumes, hbk, Routledge, 2017) signed by the editor (RRP: £900; $1,180; €930)

In addition to these chances of winning, you will also be helping to save and preserve important objects from the First World War which are in danger of being lost on a daily basis.

Please donate at: https://oxreach.hubbub.net/p/lestweforget/

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Gardening the corner of a foreign field

As the Commonwealth War Graves Commission marks its centenary, I recall a 2014 visit to Flanders and northern France when I spoke to the gardeners who keep the cemeteries pristine.

Inside the Menin Gate

With its postcards of poppies and memorials, its hotels and restaurants, its chocolateries and its 1914–18 bookshops, Ypres is proof that war is good for business. The Menin Gate stands uneasily on the edge of it all, its stone and its lawns immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Here, the Last Post can provide a moment of reflection – so long as you ignore the iPads raised to film it.

If the missing whom it commemorates could rise again, would they (in the words of Siegfried Sassoon) ‘deride this sepulchre of crime’? Or would they feel the Menin Gate’s austere dignity is better than the triumphal monuments of previous wars – better than no memorial at all?

The manicured war cemeteries beg the same questions. The war writer Edmund Blunden felt such peaceful landscapes in France and Flanders ‘would have appeared sheer fantasy’ to the trench soldier. So who is all this meticulous planting and maintenance for?

Tyne Cot Cemetery, near Zonnebeke, on the former Ypres Salient

The Commission’s gardeners take different views. Asked whether the dead care, Mark Heaysman, 54, says: ‘I think they do. In a way you’re giving them a service.’

Retired colleague Billy Jones, 65, is practical. ‘It’s for the families, the living. They can come here and look at the grave; it’s a beautiful setting. Can you imagine if you come, the headstone’s dirty, the grass is up to your kneecap and there’s no plants there, only weeds?’

The cemeteries would surely have consoled those who lost loved ones in the Great War. Seeking out the Somme grave of Robert Quilter Gilson (friend to JRR Tolkien in his ‘TCBS’ fellowship) his sweetheart Estelle King wrote to the Gilson family in 1919 about the small battlefield cemetery of wooden crosses she found:

‘They are going to put up marble stones, for which I am sorry but I expect it is best.

‘There will then be 18 inches for flowers and the grave will be covered with grass. I am asking to have a rose tree put, because I think it may last, and there is a young Englishman here who has said he will see to it. I think it will not make it conspicuous. It is just what I like. So quiet in a little less desolate part of this poor torn country.’

She also noted: ‘One or two graves were dressed up and somehow I resented it. Or no – felt it a pity.’ She was expressing an egalitarian view which was quickly becoming a matter of policy, and one today’s gardeners back to the hilt.

Previously, wealthier families would have had their own dead brought home for burial, leaving the rest dotted among overseas civilian plots going to seed. But the Commission has treated all graves with equal honour, regardless of rank. The focus falls on the man, lying where he died alongside those who died beside him.

The same principle of equal treatment applies on national, religious and cultural differences. Though much of the planting is in the style of an English country garden, this is not ‘some corner of a foreign field that is forever England’, in Rupert Brooke’s famous words: it is British and Commonwealth, and maple may be planted where significant numbers of Canadians are buried, or hebe for the ANZACs.

At Bedford House Cemetery near Ypres, I am shown a line of headstones with Arabic or Hindi inscriptions, commemorating men from India. At Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery in France, small white stones have been placed on one headstone by Jewish custom. Until the time comes to spray against lichen and algae, these will stay unless they are discolouring the headstone.

In all the cemeteries, a general sequence of plant types repeats every fourth headstone. It includes eyecatching ‘spot plants’ such as roses. Low ‘splash plants’ such as phlox and campanula protect from mud spatters but do not obscure the inscriptions. Seasonal plantings ensure colour most of the year. Despite their symbolism, poppies – which propagate wildly – are not included.

Gardeners discourage DIY plantings. ‘If somebody puts in a plant, we’ll try and leave that plant as long as possible,’ says Billy Jones. ‘But some people will come and try and plant an oak tree in front of an headstone – we do have to remove that!’

The equality of care may be the key to why the cemeteries draw reverence from military families and pacifists alike. ‘Still the British clip and mow and prune as assiduously as if the cemeteries were the palace gardens themselves,’ architect Paul Shepheard has written. ‘If you have ever wondered how it is possible to commemorate the dead without glorifying the war, they have discovered it.’

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, set up early in the war by a Red Cross unit commander and given a royal charter in 1917, now maintains 23,000 cemeteries or memorials across 153 countries. They include Brookwood in Surrey, where men who died of wounds in London hospitals would be sent on the midnight train so the public would not see. The latest is at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) in France, built for 250 British and Australian dead whose remains were only discovered in 2009. In all, 1.7million servicemen and women from both world wars are interred in its cemeteries or commemorated on its monuments.

When I point out that their job does not seem especially cheery, the gardeners laugh. ‘Well, are we miserable?’ says Billy Jones. Does he ever try to visualise what it was like for the soldiers? ‘Yes, when it’s raining very hard.’ But it is a joke with a serious undertone. ‘What they talked about was mud – standing on duckboards because if you stepped off them you’d drown in the mud.’

At Berks Extension Cemetery near Messines, site of a colossal battle in 1917, gardener Hugh Stewart recalls arriving from Dunbar at 22, half a lifetime ago: ‘There were 11,000 dead in the first cemetery where I worked, and some of them were a lot younger than me – 15 or 16 years old. It was moving, and I was quite shocked. You get used to it.’

The men six feet beneath might have understood. High standards and esprit de corps are the key for gardeners, as for many soldiers. Doug Sainsbury, 54, started his career gardening Wirral recreation grounds, and would sometimes be seconded to clean up civilian cemeteries. ‘That’s the last thing I’d want to do,’ he says.

‘But this is a high horticultural standard, very efficiently and professionally maintained. I’m part of 900 gardeners on the War Graves Commission worldwide. Nobody else in the world has a gardening crew like that these days. Is there anything depressing about this site? At the end of the day you look over the gate and you think, “Wow! It was worth coming.”’

Tyne Cot near Ypres takes the breath away. Within a horseshoe perimeter wall inscribed with the names of men with no known grave, the white gravestones extend seemingly forever. There are 12,000, including more than 8,300 marking bodies never identified. This, the Commission’s biggest single cemetery, is an iconic site.

In fact, that is its official designation, determining the amount of attention it must get. A team works all year round to keep the grass mown, borders edged, flowers flourishing. Pascal Wostyn, the Belgian in charge, has to factor in interruptions from regular ceremonies, from the bigger centenary events, and from filming, as well as from new interments. The gardeners – the real public relations face of the Commission – also field regular questions about the six VCs buried here.

For the Great War centenary, the number of ‘iconic sites’ is growing – even while the number of gardeners is falling. Doug Sainsbury is uneasy about this official ranking of cemeteries. ‘It’s a bit strange for me because all my career has been spent on giving everybody the same treatment.’

Of the sites we visit, Gourock Trench Cemetery near Arras is most likely to suffer. The small walled plot in the middle of an industrial area has 44 graves. Somehow the mobile team of gardeners responsible for this and other sites will have to keep up standards while time and funds are diverted towards the big iconic ones.

American and German policies on burial avoided such problems: both would remove their dead from battlefield sites to gather them in big, concentrated cemeteries. But this stretches or severs the link with the battlesite – such a powerful trigger for deep reflection by visitors to the Commonwealth graves.


For bikers, it’s motorcycle marques. For the gardeners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it’s lawnmowers. The brand names John Deere, Husqvarna, Honda and Walker trip off their tongues. Likewise the various chemical treatments against insect and lichen. They compare the rose species with even deeper passion: Super Trouper, Rotilia, Trumpeter, Fellowship.

At Bedford House Cemetery, recently retired Billy Jones shows off the system which uses largely natural processes to create compost for all the Belgian sites and incidentally feeds a small on-site lake teeming with fish and other life. ‘For the frogs this is like the Hilton Hotel,’ he says.

The gardeners face perennial challenges. The Belgian rain and the clay soil are the same combination that put a curse on Passchendaele. The biggest cemeteries, Tyne Cot and Lijssenthoek, are located precisely where the soil is wettest – a telling sign of the fatal role played by the mud in the First World War. The gardeners’ work can be impossible when the borders flood.

At least here bones do not tend to emerge from the ground, which they sometimes do in sandier coastal areas. ‘Mostly soldiers are buried deep – in blankets tied with wire, though the Canadians and Americans had coffin burials,’ says Billy Jones.

Alarmingly, live munitions are still found on the old battlefields – and therefore also in the cemeteries, especially during periodic re-levellings of the ground. At Bedford House the composter had a close encounter, as Billy recalls. ‘He’s got a machine that actually shreds the soil – hammers it. What came flying out? A hand grenade.’ At least if the British Mills bomb had exploded, its fragments would not have penetrated the machine’s thick metal.

A shell might have been a different matter. ‘If you see the head still on a shell, run in the opposite direction,’ says Billy, an ex-Army man. He tells how two construction workers were killed and two more injured in Ypres when a First World War shell exploded in March. Rumour has it they had been hammering at it to salvage the brass. Mercifully for the other workers – and for the neighbours – it was not mustard gas.

Billy tells of one tourist who found a battlefield shell, put it in his suitcase and went to carry it onto the Eurostar, where it was caught in the X-ray. It was still primed. ‘A lot of civilian people think, “It’s a shell, it’s old, it won’t explode,’ he says. ‘But even a hundred years later, they will go off.’

No gardeners have been injured by explosives. Infrequently, there have been falls from the backs of van and fingers caught in mole traps, but the Commission seems responsive.

One recurrent challenge for gardeners used to be that the Commission would transfer them to another site, perhaps in another country, with just six weeks’ notice. It was like being in the military, except the Commission provided no housing and little help with reorientation.

Derek Richardson, who arrived from Dublin with his wife, spent three years in Belgium, eleven in France, then nine in Germany, and has now been back in Belgium for three years. He says: ‘Sometimes you’re quite happy where you are. If it’s a change of country, it’s a big change – language, culture, education for your children, et cetera.’ Billy Jones puts in: ‘I think we had a higher divorce rate than the Army.’ Now only those who apply are relocated.

Under the current drive for efficiency, the big issue for the gardeners is stress. Innovations such as mulching – where the mowers leave the cut grass lying rather than taking it away – may not save the time promised by managers. Meanwhile staff numbers are being allowed to fall, with no one replacing gardeners who leave, and no extra hands in emergencies anymore. When I see a mower in action, I am astonished: he could qualify for Le Mans.

Visitors rarely see mowing in progress, and the cemeteries seem to be kept pristine by magic. The illusion is down to the sheer scale of the job. One mobile team of 12 (previously 14) may have to maintain more than 60 sites, and speed is essential. ‘It’s carefully calculated,’ says Doug Sainsbury. ‘We go there for a purpose, we complete it and then we move on to the next site.’

The original workforce included many demobbed soldiers who saw a purpose in honouring their fallen comrades, and most were British. Sons would follow them into the profession.

But now Britons are a dwindling minority. When they leave they are replaced by locals recruited straight from school, factory or dole. ‘Gardening in Belgium tends to be low-rated,’ says Mark.

Bedford Park Cemetery

A bigger issue is raised by Chris Kaufman, former Unite national secretary for agricultural workers. ‘The gardeners are not just horticulturalists – they are social workers, because people come to the cemeteries and they are suddenly hit by the enormity of it all. They come to find their old relations and they suddenly find they were 17 years old when they were killed.’

It’s a down-to-earth variation on a theme voiced by Rudyard Kipling – the man who advised the Commission on its headstone inscriptions – in a story called ‘The Gardener’, in which the man seen tending the graves at the end is clearly meant to be understood as Christ. The gardeners have always stood for far more than the practical sum of their work.

As Chris Kaufman points out, even while the numbers of British gardeners fall, visits from Britain to the cemeteries are increasing, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? and the war centenary.

Will the work and workforce be reduced and the cemeteries run down after 2018? That is an anxiety. But the gardeners are confident the Commission’s work will go on, even though the most recent figures put the annual cost above £55million – more than three quarters of it from the British Treasury.

As Mark Heaysman says, ‘Which government is going to turn round and say, “We’re not going to look after the war dead anymore”?’


All photographs © John Garth. Lines from a letter from Estelle King are reproduced with permission of Julia Margretts. This is an edited version of an article written for Unite the Union, and is also reproduced by permission.

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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 , , , , , , , , , , | 26 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.


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.

Posted in 100 years of Middle-earth, Tolkien in the First World War, Tolkien’s creative spirit | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments