It’s 60 years since the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s first volume of The Lord of the Rings. Why was he so inspired by the Great War—and a group of school friends?
War runs like iron ore through the bones of Tolkien’s Middle-earth—and most of all through The Lord of the Rings, the masterpiece which first saw the light 60 years ago today.
The Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of three, was published on July 29, 1954, a date picked by his publisher for solely practical reasons. Yet it is a curious coincidence that it was almost exactly the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Because it was during that war that Tolkien first created Middle-earth.
Through 1914–1918 and beyond, he used his mythology to examine mortality and the hope of deathlessness, fear and courage, fellowship and loss, despair and unexpected hope. The intertwining relationship between the life and the art in these years is a subtle and fascinating one, mapped out in my biographical book Tolkien and the Great War. Since that came out, it is now widely accepted that the Great War continued to resonate through Tolkien’s work, including in the dark and desperate climax to The Hobbit, set for the big screen in the final part of Peter Jackson’s trilogy (the trailer of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was released to hungry fans yesterday).
Today, fittingly enough in the light of these anniversaries, I’m putting the finishing touches to a talk about one of the key figures in Tolkien’s life, his schoolfriend Robert Quilter Gilson. Gilson’s story is worth hearing because he wrote it himself, in a fascinating and deeply moving series of letters home from the army training camps and trenches of 1914–1916.
I was fortunate enough to track down Gilson’s relatives when I was researching my book Tolkien and the Great War, and to be shown those letters. They shed valuable light on Tolkien’s own first “Fellowship.”
This was a clique or semi-secret club that he and Gilson had formed with others at their school—a fairly typical activity for boys of that pre-war era and in an aspirational school like theirs. It was a circle of exceptionally bright teenagers who revelled equally in wit and in culture. Members made tea in the school library office—an illicit activity—and also met in the tea-drinking rooms of a department store called Barrow’s. Accordingly they called themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society—a name fusing hobbity comfort and grandeur (though here it is mock grandeur) in rather Tolkienian fashion. This mouthful they abbreviated to T.C.B.S.
“May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.”
The T.C.B.S. started off in comfort in 1911 but were hurled into darkness from 1914. The outbreak of war drew the core members into a tight bond, sparked them into bright life, made them acutely aware that death might lie just around the corner. They dreamed of making art that would create a better world, and for Tolkien a T.C.B.S. gathering in December that year was followed by “finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything”—the beginning of Middle-earth.
One T.C.B.S. member, Geoffrey Bache Smith, facing a desperately dangerous night patrol in the trenches in early 1916, took the opportunity to write a valediction to Tolkien, urging him to publish. I can never read it without being moved by its generosity, its love, and its vision:
“I am a wild and whole-hearted admirer, and my chief consolation is, that if I am scuppered to-night—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S… Yes, publish…. You I am sure are chosen, like Saul among the Children of Israel. Make haste, before you come out to this orgy of death and cruelty... May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.”
Smith survived the night patrol, and met Tolkien again on the fringes of the Battle of the Somme that summer. But by that time Gilson was dead, killed as he led his men across no man’s land on the first day of the battle—just one among 20,000 British soldiers killed on that calamitous day. Smith himself outlived the five-month battle, only to be fatally hit by a stray shellburst while organising a football match four miles from the front line.
Tolkien later wrote of The Lord of the Rings: “Personally I do not think that either war ... had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding.” Yet his foreword to the book makes clear reference to the experience of the First World War and the deaths of Smith and Gilson, as if to say to critics: that was my war, and that is where you must look for an originating influence. His real objection was to the kind of reading that seeks to map plot points with real historical events; and I agree that it would be futile and reductive to try and identify, for example, each of the four hobbit heroes with the four T.C.B.S. members. Yet it is plain as a pikestaff that his own memory of the T.C.B.S. being scattered across the battlefront, cut off from each other in their worst ordeal, infuses his account of Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin as each takes his path through fear and peril.
In the Second World War, Tolkien’s sons Michael and Christopher did military service in their turn. Their father was forced to sit on the sidelines, powerless to protect but desperate to impart comfort and such wisdom he had gained from his own experiences in youth. His letters to them show how their predicament brought his own vividly back to him. He tells Christopher, in training as a fighter pilot and oppressed by military life: “Keep up your hobbitry in heart, and think that all stories feel like that when you are in them. You are inside a very great story!”
He was working on The Lord of the Rings at the time of that letter. So the darkness of 1939–1945 combines with the memories of 1914–1918 to give the book its heart and enduring power.
And very soon after that letter to Christopher, Tolkien put the same idea about stories into the mouth of Sam Gamgee, when, on the edge of Mordor, he talks to Frodo about the ancient tale of Eärendil the star-mariner. It is significant, I think, that Eärendil was the very first character Tolkien devised for his Middle-earth mythology, in a September 1914 poem which set off the whole lifelong creative endeavour.
Sam says: “That’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Eärendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”
For Tolkien, the tale into which 1914 had plunged him never ended.