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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A friend of Tolkien’s TCBS tells a neglected truth of war

George Henry Bonner

George Henry Bonner was at school with Tolkien in Birmingham before going to Oxford and on to war service

The official death figures for the First World War, though incomprehensibly vast in themselves, fall well short of the full tally of fatalities, and give the barest indication of the suffering of soldiers and their loved ones. Today that is borne out anew by a small tangent in the story of Tolkien’s school clique, the T.C.B.S.

I’ve previously described the remarkable chain of events that led to my discovery of missing issues of the Hydra, the journal put together during the First World War by soldiers being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart Military Hospital. It’s famous now because war poet Wilfred Owen edited it and because the journal also carried poems by his friend Siegfried Sassoon. I’d been led to it in the course of my research into Tolkien and the T.C.B.S., about whom Tolkien and the Great War has much to say. The copies I found had belonged to another figure from Tolkien’s school who hovered on the edge of the group, George Henry Bonner (1895–1929) – a writer who also edited the Hydra but who never found real fame. You can read my original blog post here. What I did not mention in that piece, because his son Austin asked me not to, was the nature of Bonner’s death.

Since then, Austin himself has passed away: he died on 5 February 2015, aged 89, at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, after a short illness. Some brief impression of a life of essential scholarly service at the Bodleian Library can be gleaned from Austin’s obituary at the website of Oxford Today (it’s about halfway down the page). He was also involved in the Fintry Trust, an educational charity, and closely linked with All Saints’ Church in Headington, Oxford. Not the least of his good works was the donation, initially anonymously, of his father’s papers to the archives of Magdalen College, Oxford, where both the Bonners had studied; and of copies of the Hydra to the archives of Craiglockhart held at Edinburgh Napier University.

I have since been contacted by archivist Liz Palmer from Birmingham Library, who has been working with records of the 1929 inquest into George Bonner’s death. With the permission of Austin’s executor, she has prepared an account which gives the final, terribly sad details of how the trenches haunted George Bonner, and led in the end to his suicide.

It’s easy to speculate on Austin Bonner’s motives for preferring not to publicise the cause of his father’s death. I hope he was spared the full details as revealed in the inquest held when he was just three years old. Yet whatever a dutiful son felt, it now seems right that the full story should be told. Otherwise we will seriously underestimate the gravity and awful tenacity of the condition that took George Bonner to Craiglockhart — an underestimate all too easy to make on a casual reading of the Hydra, in which the horror of the war is almost wholly suppressed or sublimated. And so we would miss how George’s story adds to the bigger picture, still so relevant today: the legacy of war trauma. His son suffered from that legacy too, in the loss of a father at the age of four, and doubtless in the struggle to come to terms with it. So, clearly, did George’s mother, who testified at the inquest, and his wife Eleanor, née Ford.

There’s one additional facet to the Bonners’ story which appears neither in my article nor in Liz Palmer’s. I did mention that Austin Bonner was named after an uncle — George’s younger brother, who was in the Royal Flying Corps and was killed in 1917 over France. But the younger Austin also had a middle name, Ralph. That was given in memory of Ralph Payton, who makes more than a passing appearance in Tolkien and the Great War: nicknamed by his friends ‘the Baby’ as the younger of two Payton brothers who belonged to the T.C.B.S., Ralph was killed in 1916 with the 14th Royal Warwickshires (also known as the 1st Birmingham Battalion) in a night assault on high ground between High Wood and Delville Wood on the Somme.

Ralph Payton had been engaged to marry Eleanor Ford, her son told me. In his naming, Austin Ralph Bonner was doubly marked by the war’s tragedy and by his parents’ loss.

Liz Palmer’s research, which throws light not only on George Bonner’s death but also on his happier days, can be read here.

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Dragon scale: Why it’s impossible to size up Tolkien’s Middle-earth

A piece of fan art illustrating the relative size of Tolkien’s dragons raises a far more interesting issue than how big was Smaug or Glaurung or Ancalagon the Black. It’s an issue that should give pause for thought in any attempt to treat Tolkien’s legendarium as a piece of history, and especially in any attempt to depict it visually – whether in illustrations or movies.

The artist has ranged Middle-earth’s dragons in order of size, from Smaug (merely huge) to Ancalagon (truly gargantuan, even in the Godzilla order of things). The justification for this is provided here – the sizes depicted are inferred from Tolkien’s descriptions and from his artwork.

Key points are the size of Glaurung (or Glorund as Tolkien called him at the time) relative to the background of Nargothrond in the illustration ‘Glorund sets forth to seek Túrin’ (Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, p. 59); the size of Smaug relative to Bilbo in ‘Conversation with Smaug’ (The Hobbit); and this passage in The Silmarillion: ‘Before the rising of the sun Eärendil slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragon-host, and cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin.’ The size of Thangorodrim, the mountain above the stronghold of the primal dark lord Morgoth, is based on Tolkien’s drawing ‘The Vale of Sirion’ (Artist and Illustrator, p. 59) and Karen Wyn Fonstad’s observation in her Atlas of Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin, p. 22 in the 1991 edition) that it suggests a mountain 35,000 feet in height. Ergo, Ancalagon would have to be very, very big to ‘break’ Thangorodrim.

The art is evocative and impressive, and I certainly don’t mean to diminish the visual skills of its creator, who calls herself Hæddre – let alone impugn her passion for the topic. And it’s clear that many, many Tolkien fans have a thirst both for ‘facts’ about Middle-earth and convincing pictures of its multifarious creatures, places and things. This is clear just from Hæddre’s own post carrying her dragon chart, which has been liked, shared or commented upon more than 116,000 times as I write.

However, there’s a major flaw in the suppositions behind the dragon chart. Tolkien’s pictures cannot be taken as empirical evidence. They are heavily stylized, as befits a story with medieval or legendary/fairy-tale overtones. So, frequently, are his Middle-earth writings.

Tolkien admitted that his Bilbo in ‘Conversation with Smaug’ is not depicted to scale. ‘The hobbit in the picture of the gold-hoard, Chapter XII, is of course (apart from being fat in the wrong places) enormously too large. But (as my children, at any rate, understand) he is really in a separate picture or “plane” – being invisible to the dragon’ (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 27, c. March/April 1938, to Houghton Mifflin, the American publishers of The Hobbit).

Reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem (from William of Tyre, ‘Histoire d’Outremer’)

Reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem (from William of Tyre, ‘Histoire d’Outremer’)

It’s clear that the picture ‘Glorund sets forth to seek Túrin’ is even less likely to represent actual proportions: it is explicitly medieval in style, where ‘Conversation with Smaug’ has more in common with the classic children’s book illustration of the late 19th and early 20th century – Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, and so on. If we were to take actual medieval pictures as evidence for what life was like in the Middle Ages, we might have to assume that people were giants in those days.

In a conversation about this on the Tolkien Society Facebook page, Deborah Sabo picks up on the line about Ancalagon ‘breaking’ Thangorodim, and rightly points at that we should be wary of trying to mine Tolkien’s prose (and poetic) fiction for empirical evidence. It could be ‘poetic diction in a mythic style’, she observes, and the phrase might simply mean ‘breaking the mountainsides’.

Tolkien was a masterful mixer of the modern and the medieval. At certain points (particularly in many of the descriptions of landscapes traversed in The Lord of the Rings) he is using modern-day realism to create an air of verisimilitude. This is what allows so many of us to feel as if we are reading about something that really happened, or that we are making the journey ourselves. But at other points Tolkien uses profoundly figurative language – particularly when describing distant events in semi-legendary past. It’s quite right that Ancalagon’s fall should be told this way.

This mixing of medieval and modern styles matches the fact that his hobbits are much like people of the recent past (the past of Tolkien’s rural English childhood) yet venture out into an older world of legend and saga. It’s one of the elements that helps create the tremendous sense of deep perspectives in Tolkien’s legendarium, like a landscape in which the foreground is crystal clear but the distances blur into mist.

In a sense, therefore, exercises like this chart of dragon sizes are misconceived. And so are the segments of Fonstad’s Atlas devoted to the First and Second Ages, where the evidence is almost all in the mode of medieval chronicle. It’s a problem which also bedevils the depiction of Middle-earth in Peter Jackson’s screen adaptations. It is with marvellous economy that Tolkien’s writing conveys a sense of grandeur and scale; but in order to achieve a similar effect Jackson’s movies, locked into a photorealistic mode, only have recourse to making things really, really big. Barad-dûr is a prime example: unfeasibly tall.

While I admire the art of Alan Lee and John Howe, which underpins the films, and while I also admire the art of Ted Nasmith and others who paint or draw in a similarly realist mode, I’m not always convinced this the best possible way to illustrate the more mythic elements of Middle-earth. By contrast, Pauline Baynes’s Barad-dûr may be unfeasibly massive, but everything in her picture of Mordor (used on the cover of various 1960s and 1970s editions of The Lord of the Rings) is unrealistic, and wonderful. Likewise Tómas Hijo’s Smaug cannot be taken as a guide to the dragon’s ‘actual’ size, no more than Hijo’s people can; he’s drawing with a medieval artist’s freedom and panache.

On the other hand, it is inevitable that we should want to see more clearly into the misty distances – in fact, that’s exactly the sense of yearning that Tolkien aimed to instil. He wrote to his son Christopher (Letters no. 96, 30 January 1945: ‘I think you are moved by [the name] Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached – or if so only to become ‘near trees’ (unless in Paradise or N’s Parish).’ This was an emotion, he said, ‘that moves me supremely and I find small difficulty in evoking: the heart-racking sense of the vanished past’.

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