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.