Tolkien’s Middle-earth began in 1914. That may come as a surprise, considering The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954–5 and even The Hobbit appeared no further back than 1937. But the fact is that before and beneath those two books there already existed a huge foundation of creative work: the vastly ambitious cycle of stories that became The Silmarillion, as well as annals, cosmographical description, poetry, illustrations, maps and, of course, several invented languages and writing systems.
The first identifiable fragment of Middle-earth emerged on 24 September 1914, when Tolkien (pictured here in June) was staying as a guest at his aunt’s Nottinghamshire farm. War had just broken out in Europe, the whole world seemed in ferment, and Tolkien set foot on the path he would follow for the rest of his life. But we’ll come to that in due course.
Today, 26 January 2014, is the 100th anniversary of the first known public reading of Tolkien’s epic prose. It’s not what you might expect: there are no cavalry charges here, nor mythological monsters, nor swordplay. These are the official minutes of a college meeting – a session of Stapeldon Society, the body of undergraduates attending Exeter College, Oxford.
It’s difficult to imagine a topic less likely to stir the imagination, and in other hands it would doubtless have been mildly amusing at best, drably utilitarian at worst. However, it was Tolkien who was tasked with writing it up.
He had been the Stapeldon secretary for the term, and this was his final duty in that role. What’s more, it’s at this meeting that he was elected president for the following term. So you must picture the scene on 26 January 1914, with the 22-year-old Tolkien in the chair for the first time, and his successor as secretary – his friend Colin Cullis – reading out the vivid account from which these excerpts are taken:
At the 791st meeting of the Stapeldon Society held on December 1st 1913 one of the world’s great battles between democracy and autocracy was fought and won, and as is usual in such conflicts the weapons of the democracy were hooliganism and uproar…
Long before the officers had even passed the curtain the ominous sounds of a gigantic house athirst for their blood could be heard. Even in the Porch a dull booming murmur like the bay of the Bloodhound in “Red Axe” reached the ears of loafers; who promptly swelled the throng, entering when the door jammed, by way of the windows…
[The outgoing president, R. H. Gordon, had brought a bottle of port, and other students followed suit, so the meeting declined into insobriety. A questionable presidential ruling led to a widespread eruption of displeasure.]
The House — especially typified by Mr H.S. Price — flushed in his face and with the veins of anger bulging in his forehead — protested against this ruling with an extraordinary uproar the like of which has never been heard in this room before. Man after man arose to speak flushed with the wine of wrath, and man after man was quashed, crushed, and squashed into oblivion with the magic of Rule 9 section (b); until the House began to resent Rule 9(b) as a personal foe, and to heave with an uncontrollable antagonism on each mention of it.
The only way in which members in the further corners could tell of the progress of business was by the changes of colour in the presidential countenance, which ranged from a rich violet to a dull cream.…
When Mr Trevor Oliphant arose with the white face of bitter determination, and demanded that the House go back to Private Business for the discussion of the shelved constitutional question, all bounds, all order, and all else was forgotten; and in one long riot of raucous hubbub; of hoarse cries, brandished bottles, flying match-stands, gowns wildly flourished, cups smashed, and lights extinguished, the House declared its determination to have its will and override the constitution. From the midst of this uproar a Red Devil of Fu-ji-ya [a brand of match] leapt from Mr Palmer’s bosom and hit the secretary [Tolkien himself] square on the nose.
For precisely one calendar hour did the House battle with noise and indignation for its desire. It was at one time on the point of dissolving and becoming another society; at another it was vociferating for Rule 40; at another for Rule 10; at another for no Rules at all, or for the President’s head, or his nether-garments.*
Mock-epic rather than straightforwardly epic, yes. But here we glimpse Tolkien, 100 years ago, limbering up for the work that has since made Middle-earth a household name worldwide.
You’ll be able to read more about Tolkien the undergraduate and the origins of Middle-earth in my forthcoming booklet published by Exeter College.
*Excerpts from the minutes of the Stapeldon Society are reproduced with permission of the Rector and Fellows of Exeter College.
This post is also available in Portuguese at the Tolkien Brasil website.