Majesty & Grace VII: The Lives & Times of the Windsors – Epilogue (i) – The Coronation of Elizabeth II; Dawn of a New Era & Dusk of Empire, 1953-58.

Map of the Coronation Procession, 2nd June 1953:

The Map below commemorates a day which brought a sense of relief to the people of the United Kingdom after the trials and tribulations of the Second World War and the years of austerity which had followed it. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953 was a moment for the nation to celebrate with lavish ceremony and age-hallowed pageantry. The procession through London’s streets, which followed the coronation ceremony itself, snaked through the city’s historic heart, beginning at Westminster Abbey, before arriving back at Buckingham Palace nearly two hours later.

The Second World War had swept away much that was familiar; not just the buildings brought down by the Blitz, but the sense that the old world had passed. In housing, there were grave shortages, partly caused by the bombing, but in large part by the lamentable state of the pre-war housing stock, while the reintegration of millions of service personnel into the economy had caused severe disruption. There was a yearning for something new, for an escape, a need partly met by the arrival of the ‘New look,’ a fashion trend that tried to make the most of limited means with long, swirling skirts. Conversely, there was a political flight to safety when the Labour government was defeated in the 1951 general election and the ageing, yet familiar face of Winston Churchill returned to Downing Street.

George VI, who had been the nation’s figurehead throughout the war, died on 6th February 1952, leaving his twenty-five-year-old daughter Elizabeth to succeed him. The planning for the new Queen’s Coronation began almost immediately, but the actual ceremony only took place fourteen months later. British coronations were always occasions for pomp and display, but Elizabeth II’s took place under the glare of unprecedented publicity. After a bitter behind-the-scenes argument, television cameras were allowed to film the ceremony, leading to the event being watched by over twenty million viewers, at a time when there were only 2.7 million television sets in Britain, many of them bought specifically to watch the Coronation.

The three million who lined London’s streets did not see the Queen enter the Abbey preceded by St Edward’s Crown, based on the medieval original, and used since the Coronation of Charles II, nor her gown designed by Norman Hartnell embroidered with emblems from the main Commonwealth countries (a Tudor rose for Great Britain, a maple leaf for Canada, a wattle for Australia and a lotus flower for India), but they did catch a glimpse of the fairy-tale carriage in which she was carried down Whitehall, Piccadilly, Oxford Street and Regent Street along the circuitous five-mile route back from the Abbey to the Palace. The line of the ten thousand servicemen who marched as part of the parade stretched for almost two miles.

People began to speak of a new Elizabethan age following the death of George VI and the accession of his daughter in 1952 and in anticipation of the great national event of the Coronation. The Establishment took up their usual positions at Westminster Abbey. Sir Henry Chips Channon occupied almost the same seat as the one he had at the previous Coronation. He wrote the following account in his diary:

… All was comfortably, smoothly arranged … as a covered bridge had been built from St Stephen’s entrance to the East Door. But there was a slight drizzle and an overcast sky. … Below, empty in the golden light, stood the throne. Opposite, the peeresses benches were gradually filling up; the front row of thirteen Duchesses was a splendid sight. … The long wait was enthralling as every few minutes a procession of distinguished guests, relations, minor royalties entered and were escorted to their seats. Finally, the Royal Family. …The Duchess of Kent was fairy-like, as she walked in with her children…

… Finally came the magic of the Queen’s arrival: she was calm and confident and even charming, and looked touching and quite perfect, while Prince Philip was like a medieval knight – the Service, Anointing, Crowning, Communion were endless, yet the scene was so splendid, so breath-taking in the solemn splendour that it passed in a flash. The homage was impressive… The Great Officers of State swished their robes with dignity… Privy Councillors in their uniforms, men in levee dress, the little Queen at one moment simply dressed in a sort of shift, and then later resplendent: the pretty pages; the supreme movements… the nodding, chatting, gossiping Duchesses; the swan-like movements when they simultaneously placed their coronets on their heads… it was all finer, and better organised than the last time, although the Archbishop’s voice was not as sonorous as that of the wicked old Lang..

What a day for England, and the traditional forces of the world. Shall we ever see the like again? I have been present at two Coronations and now shall never see another. Will my Paul be an old man at that of King Charles III?

Sir Henry Channon (1967), Diaries, edited by Robert James, pp 475-477.

Paul Channon was Sir Henry’s only son (b. 1935), and succeeded his father as MP for Southend West, serving from 1959 to 1997. He became Minister of State at the Civil Service Department when the Conservatives returned to power in 1979 led by Margaret Thatcher. He joined the Privy Council in 1980. After the Civil Service department was abolished in 1981, he became Minister for the Arts, then Minister of State for Trade at the Department of Trade and Industry following the 1983 general election, finally serving as Secretary of State for Transport from 1987 until 1989. He died in 2007, aged 71, fifteen years before Her Majesty, so will not be present at the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III. Clearly, like so many others present that day, ‘Chips’ Channon could not envisage the young Queen reigning for another sixty-nine years.

It seemed truly the beginning of a new Elizabethan age, filled with hope. That news of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s first ascent of Mount Everest reached London on Coronation Day only added to the excitement. Later, Hillary gave his account of the final ascent to the summit which had taken place earlier that morning:

The ridge curved away to the right and we had no idea where the top was. As I cut around the back of one hump, another higher one would spring into view. Time was passing and the ridge seemed never-ending. … I went on step-cutting. I was beginning to tire a little now. I had been cutting steps for two hours, and Tenzing, too, was moving very slowly. As I chipped steps around anothe corner, I wondered rather dully just how long we could keep it up. Our original zest had now gone and it was turning more into a grim struggle. I then realised that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away, … I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running up to a snowy summit. A few more whacks of the ice-axe and we stood on top.

‘My initial feelings were of relief – relief that there were no more steps to cut – no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalise us with high hopes of success. I looked at Tenzing and in spite of the balaclava, goggles and oxygen mask all encrusted with long icycles that concealed his face, there was no disguising his infectious grin of pure delight as he looked all around him. We shook hands and then Tenzing threw his arm around my shoulder and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless. It was 11.30 a.m.’

But the country still had Everests to climb. The real future challenges it faced were its continuing near-bankruptcy after the war, the growing demands for independence among the colonies, and its economic retardation behind both the United States and the resurgent nations of Europe and the Far East.

An Era of Lost Content:

Between the fall of Clement Attlee’s Labour government and the return of Labour under Harold Wilson in 1964, Britain went through a time that some contemporary commentators and historians described as a gold-tinted era of lost content. For others, however, the period was grey and conformist, thirteen wasted years of Tory misrule. Andrew Marr (2009) argues that either way, in this part of Britain’s past, the country was truly a different country from that of the 1930s and ’40s as well as from that of the later 1960s onwards. The British imagination was still gripped by the Second World War. National Service had been introduced in 1947 to replace wartime conscription and began properly two years later, lasting until 1963. More than two million young British men entered the forces, most of them in the Army. It brought all classes together at a young and vulnerable age, subjecting them to strict discipline, a certain amount of practical education, often to privation and sometimes to real danger.

Teenagers were introduced to drill, cropped haircuts, heavy boots and endless polishing, creasing and blanching of their kit. In due course, some would fight for Britain in the Far East, Palestine, Egypt and East Africa. Most would spend a year or two in huge military camps in Germany and Britain, going quietly mad with boredom. An estimated 395 conscripts were killed in action in the fifty-plus engagements overseas during National Service. A generation of British manhood was disciplined, helping to set the tone of the times. The civilian habits of polishing, dressing smartly and conforming to authority in millions of homes originated in National Service, keeping the atmosphere of the forties alive for a decade longer than might have been expected. There was also an urge for domestic tranquillity with women at home while men worked well-ordered and limited hours, a response to the suffering and uncertainty of 1940-45 and the continuing fears of nuclear war. To be at home was a kind of quiet liberation. The return of Winston Churchill in 1951 added to the middle-class impressions that Britain was returning to social order and political hierarchy after the post-war period of radical change.

Nevertheless, successive Conservative governments in the 1950s and 1960s, including Churchill’s from 1951 to 1955, and from 1957 to 1963 that of his old disciple Harold Macmillan, decided against reversing most of the essential institutions of Labour’s new Britain: the NHS created by Bevan; the public ownership of railways, steelworks and mines; and especially the commitment to building publicly owned council housing for renting. Macmillan, a radical critic of the Conservative-led National Government in the thirties, had spoken of British miners as ‘the salt of the earth,’ and in 1938, he had published a little book, The Middle Way, advocating, among other things, the abolition of the Stock Exchange.

Developing Britain’s Transport System & Infrastructure, 1952 – 1963:
1.) Roads & Airports:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain’s inland transport was dominated by the railways. But increasingly cheap and flexible motor transport took an ever-greater share of passengers and freight. As the car replaced the railway as Britain’s preferred form of transport in the second half of the twentieth century, it became progressively difficult for the road system to cope with the increase in traffic. A motorway system became imperative. But between 1939 and 1952 there had been practically no major road improvement or new road construction. Road transport recovered slowly from vehicle and fuel shortages during and after World War II. Road haulage was assisted by a succession of regulations, including, in Britain, the lifting of the twenty-five limit on road freight consignments. By the 1960s, British road transport had eclipsed railways as the dominant carrier of freight.

Motorways were meant to ease congestion on the roads; the planners never envisaged that car ownership would reach twenty million by 1990.

In December 1958 Macmillan opened the Preston bypass, the first eight miles of dedicated, high-speed, limited-access motorway in Britain, and the following month the M1 was opened. Motorways were meant to ease congestion on the main roads. By the early 1960s, traffic flow had been eased by a total of a hundred miles of motorway. Between 1953 and 1963, vehicle numbers more than doubled: motorways allowed fast, convenient commercial and social travel, household incomes were rising, and the real cost of personal motoring was falling. Workplace, retail and residential decentralisation encouraged the desertion of trains and car dependency.

The M1 at Luton Spur opened in November 1959.

The first jet aeroplane to carry passengers was called the Comet, which began regular passenger services in 1952. But it was very small compared with modern ‘jumbo jets’ and could not carry many people, only a small fraction of the five hundred that can be carried by a jumbo seventy years later. In the late fifties and early sixties, people began to spend more of their growing income on foreign holidays. They no longer wanted to spend holidays in Britain, due to the unpredictable weather. Package holidays became popular and airports like Gatwick (below), opened as an aerodrome in the late 1920s; it has been in use for commercial flights since 1933 but was used by the RAF during the war. It was redeveloped and re-opened in May 1958 for commercial fights from two terminals. This gradually made package holidays cheaper and easier for families.

2.) Railways & Ports:

Reinvesting in exhausted railways was not a priority after World War Two. Railway nationalisation was followed by railway rationalisation (closures) as the railways were made more efficient. In 1952, the railways’ share of total passenger miles was still at a level of twenty per cent, and rail passenger mileage was stable for most of the second half of the century. Yet by 1953, nearly twelve hundred miles of railway had been closed to passenger traffic in Britain. This was largely the result of the industrial changes that brought the loss of staple coal and textile traffic. Britain’s compact industrial geography also diminished any long-haul advantages that railways had over modern road transport. Comparatively low-cost rural bus services damaged the railways still further.

The start of Britain’s largest-ever road-building programme in the 1960s coincided with an increase in the tempo of the railway closures. Roughly half of Britain’s branch-line railways and stations had become uneconomic. The closure of almost six thousand miles of track and two thousand stations resulted from the notorious Beeching Report in 1963. However, the least utilised third of the track had previously carried little more than one per cent of passengers and freight; henceforth, the railways were to concentrate on fast inter-city services. In 1966, the first electrified Intercity train was used, which could travel much faster than steam or diesel engines.

The docks also began to be modernised, with the development of container ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe hastening the decline of ports like London, which could not handle containerised freight. Airports also increased in number to meet an ever-growing demand.

3.) From Coal to Nuclear Power:
A coal mine in South Wales in the 1950s.

Until the early 1960s, most of Britain’s energy came from coal. It heated homes, offices and schools, and was also used in power stations and to power steam trains. The coal mines were finally nationalised by the Labour government in 1947, and the Conservatives kept them under public control by the National Coal Board. In 1955, there were still nine hundred coal mines throughout Britain. Gradually, cutting machines were introduced, putting many colliers out of work. But when new sources of energy were introduced and developed, especially oil and gas, many collieries were closed. By 1965, the number left was about half that of ten years earlier. The unemployment and hardship of the 1930s returned to the coalfield communities, especially those in South Wales, once one of the largest coal-mining areas in Britain, where the coal industry was still the major employer. In October 1956 Calder Hall became Britain’s first nuclear power station. Despite a major fire in 1957 at the nuclear waste processing plant, Windscale (renamed Sellafield), which produced widespread contamination, a series of Magnox power stations were built throughout the country.

The Affluent Society – Reality or Illusion?:

Real wages grew, on average, by fifty per cent between 1951 and 1964, and the Financial Times index of industrial shares rose from 103 in 1952 to 366 in 1961. By 1963, three out of every four households had a vacuum cleaner, one in three had a fridge and one in five had a washing machine. Perhaps most significant of all, four out of five had a television set. BBC TV, begun in 1936 and appealing to the small minority who could afford sets, went from strength to strength. Commercial television began in 1955, and by 1959 new transmitters allowed ninety per cent of the population to receive pictures, by which time three-quarters of the population already had a set. In 1964, BBC2 started to provide more ‘high-brow’ programming.

Watching television quickly became the most popular leisure activity in the country, while cinema attendance fell from 26.8 million in 1950 to 37 million by 1970. For the mass of viewers, programmes like ‘Cathy Come Home’ made the public aware of the poverty that remained in the midst of Britain’s affluence. But in his famous speech in July 1957, Harold Macmillan claimed that most people were better off after six years of Tory rule:

“Let’s be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial areas, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime.”

Harold Macmillan’s Speech, 20 July 1957.

But six years after Macmillan’s speech, British economic growth rates did not match those of competitor states, and it was partly for this reason that in 1961 Britain applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC), formed by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. However, its entry was vetoed by France under President De Gaulle, who was concerned about the implications of Britain’s economic dependence on the USA.

J. K. Galbraith’s book on the affluent society, published in 1958, was seen by many as symbolising attitudes in the late fifties. Though primarily concerned with the United States, his work was hailed in Britain as a masterpiece which truly reflected the nature of British society. His work fitted the mood of Britons at the time. Austerity, with its characteristic lack of consumer goods, was replaced by affluence with the plethora of consumer products which still characterised the country in the 1980s. But how did Galbraith define an affluent society? He seems to suggest that it is one where…

… the ordinary individual has access to amenities – foods, entertainment, personal transportation and plumbing – in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago. So great has been the change that many of the desires of the individual are no longer evident to him. They become so only as they are synthesised, elaborated, and nurtured by advertising and salesmanship, and these, in turn, have become among our most important and talented professions. Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an ad-man to tell them what they wanted. … The affluent country which conducts its affairs in accordance with rules of another and poorer age also forgoes opportunities. And in misunderstanding itself it will, in any time of difficulty, implacably prescribe for itself the wrong remedies.

However, not everyone fell under the Galbraith spell. M. Shanks’ work on the stagnant society, published in 1961, showed another side to the economy and government policy. He saw Conservative policy as leading to inflation based on consumer demand and thought that there was a failure to deal with the problems facing the economy. He argued that since the 1940s there had been no lack of new ideas, techniques or machines, and in the same way there was no lack of knowledge as to how the economic system worked. He pointed out:

We are no longer powerless to avert depressions or to prevent massive unemployment. We are no longer compelled to look on powerless at the catastrophic fluctuations of the trade cycle, unpredictable as a force of nature. If we cannot tame this monster now, it is due to incompetence and not ignorance. …

And yet it works much less smoothly. Why is this? Three main reasons stand out, all interconnected. The first is that the measures required to contain inflation, unlike those required to stimulate demand, are unpleasant and painful. It is much easier psychologically and to encourage people to do things they would like to do but are afraid to … than to stop them doing what they would normally want to do. …

The second reason is rather more complicated. Inflation manifests itself in a tendency for production costs and prices to rise sharply and progressively. … a country like Britain which depends on international trade cannot let its costs and prices get out of line with the rest of the world because of the danger to its balance of payments. …

The third reason for the difficulty of imposing an effective anti-inflationary policy is that one is making a real choice between evils. … In 1955, when, as a result of a government-assisted boom in industrial investment, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became overstrained. … The cost of living was deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Mr Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury. … It was only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. …

It did eventually succeed in slowing down the pace of wage increases, which was one of the main factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete industrial standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes. … One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector – an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.

M. Shanks (1961), The Stagnant Society, pp. 30, 33-9, 40-42.
From Cost of Living to Quality of Life:

Outside work, leisure and home, the public was ordered and monitored by self-confident officialdom, hospital consultants and terrifying matrons, bishops and park-keepers, bus conductors and police officers. Ten National Parks had been designated between 1951 and 1957, protecting these areas from many forms of industrial and commercial development. There was also a continuing expansion of education. Higher education saw particular expansion. In 1938, there had been just twenty thousand students, a figure that rose nearly six-fold to 118,000 in 1962. But the real explosion in numbers came thereafter, as new ‘plateglass’ universities were formed and former colleges were given university status. Hanging, corporal punishment of young offenders, and strong laws against abortion and homosexual behaviour among men, all framed a system of control that was muttered against and often subverted but never directly or significantly challenged throughout the early fifties. The country was mostly orderly, and the people were more or less obedient subjects. Patriotism was publicly proclaimed, loudly and unselfconsciously, in a way that was later difficult to imagine.

In keeping up a public front of self-confidence after the Coronation in 1953, there was much continuing talk of the New Elizabethan Age, a reborn nation served by great composers, artists and scientists. In retrospect, not all of this was false or exaggerated. In Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, Britain did have some world-class musical talents. W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot were among the greatest poets of the age. Many contemporaries also saw the sculptor Henry Moore and the painter Graham Sutherland as world-class figures. In popular culture, the steady rise of television brought, at first, a traditionalist upper-class view of the world to millions of homes. This was the age of ‘Watch with Mother’, of Joyce Grenfell and Noel Coward. It was also the time of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile. In 1955, Bannister wrote his own account of his record-breaking run. Here he describes the final two hundred yards:

I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride. The air I breathed filled me with the spirit of the track where I had run my first race. The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. … I had now turned the bend and there were only fifty yards more. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle … I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the cavern that threatens to engulf him. … The announcent came – ‘Result of one mile … time, three minutes…’ — the rest lost in the roar of excitement*

Roger Bannister (1955), The First Four Minutes. pp. 163-5. *The time was 3 min. 59.4 secs.

It was also a time of great British achievements in yachting and football. Billy Wright, England’s captain in their 6-3 defeat by Ferenc Puskás’s Hungary in 1953, led his club side Wolverhampton Wanderers out onto their Molineux turf to face Puskás’s Honved Budapest (Army) team in December 1954.

Billy Wright (left) & Ferenc Puskás (right) lead out their teams at Molineux on 13 December 1954.

Wolverhampton Wanderers were unofficially crowned as champions of the world after their 3-2 victory over the ‘Mighty Magyars’ in the season after the Hungarian national team, containing many of the same players, had been the first continental team to beat England on home soil, at Wembley Stadium, in what was the centenary season of the English Football Association. ‘Wolves’ therefore gave English football a much-needed boost. The morale of National Servicemen throughout the country also received a boost, as the following recollection from the Wolves’ archivist Graham Hughes shows:

‘In 1954, I was serving with the Royal Corps of Signals, stationed at Sherford Camp near Taunton. On the day of the Wolves game with Honved our orders were to more chairs into the NAAFI so the servicemen could watch the BBC broadcast of the game. Myself and my two friends, Taffy Townsend and Les Cockin, being from Wolverhampton, were guests of honour and given front-row seats; it was great! When Wolves scored the winner everybody jumped up, shouting and cheering: Scousers, Cockneys, Geordies, the lot; even the officers. In fact, the officers were so pleased they ordered the NAAFI to stay open so we could celebrate Wolves win properly. Fantastic!’

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against The World: European Nights 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing. pp. 44-46.

These scenes were repeated in many NAAFIs (Servicemen’s clubs) throughout the country. The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 proved to be the end of this great ‘golden team’ led by Ferenc Puskás, which was touring at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Many of the players, including Puskás, decided against returning to their homeland, preferring instead to ply their skills in the free world.

But there is also a lesser-recalled sequel to this story. On Tuesday 11th December 1956, Wolves welcomed another Hungarian team to their Molineux ground, ‘Red Banner’ (MTK), another team from Budapest who, like Honved, was packed with internationals, including Palotás and Hidegkúti, who had played in the humiliating victories over England three years earlier. Wolves had agreed to host the benefit match against MTK, as they preferred to be known, with the proceeds donated to the Hungarian Relief Fund. The attendance at the match was 43,540 and it finished in a 1-1 draw with both goalkeepers making a string of acrobatic saves. The solemnity of the occasion, set against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation and crushing of the uprising, perhaps produced a match which didn’t live up to the encounter with Honved two years earlier.

At the pre-match banquet, the Hungarian team had pledged to play the very best football they could in honour of their gracious hosts and they certainly tried hard on the pitch. Responding, the Wolves Chairman James Baker told his guests that the motto of both the town and its famous football club was Out of darkness cometh light and that he hoped that very soon that would be the way in their native land. The day after the match, the Hungarians were on their way to Vienna, from where their future movements would be dictated by the course of events in their stricken country. The match had raised two thousand three hundred pounds for their compatriots who were fleeing in the opposite direction in hundreds of thousands, many of them eventually finding refuge in Britain.

Beginning of the End of Empire – The Suez Crisis, War & its Aftermath:

Britain’s disengagement from its empire was not entirely voluntary. The dissolution of the British Empire was accomplished in two main waves. The first, presided over the Labour governments of the 1940s, centred in Asia, which incorporated India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma and Palestine. Britain’s comparative international weakness in the two decades after the end of World War II required that it grant independence to territories in Asia that were rapidly becoming ungovernable. By October 1951, when Labour left office, nationalist demands in the empire were already beginning to run on far ahead of Britain’s willingness to concede them, and colonial policy was taking on the appearance of a power struggle between government and nationalists. Further retreats were forced on the Conservative governments by Britain’s inability to sustain a world role.

The next eight or nine years, from October 1951, were the most difficult of all for the post-war empire, as nationalist demands became bolder and their methods more drastic, and as the new government came to terms only very slowly and painfully with the full reality of the situation and all its implications. Conflict sometimes erupted violently. There were colonial wars in Malaya (1948-58), Kenya (1952-56) and Cyprus (1954-59), and lesser ‘skirmishes’ elsewhere. In the mid-fifties, however, Britain was still a worldwide player, connected and modern. Her major companies were global leaders in the production of oil, tobacco, shipping and finance. The Empire was not yet quite gone, even if both name and organisation it had been, for some decades, transforming itself into ‘the Commonwealth’. Royal visits overseas featured heavily in news broadcasts and weekly magazines. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were promoted as places for holiday cruises or emigration; sunlit, rich and empty.

Then, in 1956, in a late flourish of imperial self-assertion, Britain sent troops to the Suez Canal to safeguard its strategic and economic interests in the old proprietorial way, with humiliating results. The Conservatives reacted every time Britain was faced with an inconvenient nationalist who threatened to repatriate imperial assets like the Suez Canal. The Suez Crisis was described soon after as the last dying convulsion of British Imperialism (Nutting, 1967). All this was in a desperate scramble to find some sort of handhold, a defensible position, to halt the fall from imperial pre-eminence which had started with Indian independence in 1947. The attempt failed, yet it may still have been necessary for the Conservatives’ peace of mind to make it.

‘Suez’ is often portrayed as a very short era of bad judgement. However, it was a crisis which resulted from Britain’s colonial heritage. It may have begun as something intensely personal, a duel between an English politician of the old school and an Arab nationalist leader of the new post-war world. If Eden was the model of an aristocratic kind of Englishness, Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser was the original anti-colonialist autocrat who would become familiar over the decades to come – charismatic, patriotic, ruthless and opportunistic. Driving the British from Egypt was the cause that had burned in him from his teenage years and, not surprisingly, although nominally independent under its own king, Egypt had been regarded as virtually British until the end of the Second World War. Before the war, Egypt had been forced to sign a treaty making it clear that the country was under Britain’s thumb. The Suez Canal was the conduit through which a quarter of British imports and two-thirds of Europe’s oil arrived.

In the early fifties, Nasser was soon at the centre of a group of radical army officers, Egypt’s Free Officers Movement, discussing how to get the British out and how to build a new Arab state, socialist rather than essentially Islamic. A quietly determined man who naturally attracted followers, when King Farouk was eventually ousted by the Free Officers, it took Nasser just two years to seize control of the country. After the war Arab nationalism made things much tougher for Britain in the Middle East. Its oil interests were challenged and visiting British ministers suddenly found themselves being stoned by Arab crowds. Almost as suddenly, The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was nationalised in 1951. In Iraq, a British-sponsored king and prime minister were holding on to power by their fingertips and were later murdered by mobs. In Jordan, the young King Hussein decided to replace the British soldier, John Glubb, the commander of the Arab League since 1939, with an Arab. But it was Egypt where the decisive confrontation between the colonial power and Arab nationalism was bound to take place.

Britain’s military base at Suez, guarding its interest in the canal, was more like a small country than a barracks, with a vast border that was expensive and difficult to defend. It depended for its survival on supplies from the surrounding towns and villages. But as tensions rose, it was boycotted by the nationalists. Off-duty British servicemen were shot, and after one act of bloody retaliation, involving the killing of a poorly armed Arab policeman holed up in a building by British soldiers, the Cairo crowds turned on foreign-owned clubs, hotels, shops and bars and set them alight. Britain was facing a guerilla war. London began to negotiate a British withdrawal in favour of using bases in Cyprus and Jordan. Eden, then Foreign Secretary, came to think that withdrawal was inevitable. He reached an agreement with Nasser in which Britain would keep its rights over the canal, a deal soon to be broken by Nasser. Yet he would have remained a local irritant had it not been for a catastrophic blunder by Washington.

Nasser’s great ambition was the creation of the so-called High Dam at Aswan. Three miles wide, it would be used to create a three-hundred-mile-long lake which would increase the electricity supply eightfold and give the Egyptians a third more fertile land. Nasser talked of it being seventeen times taller than the greatest pyramid. With Aswan, there was a new Pharoah bringing a new age to Egypt after centuries of humiliation by the imperial powers. The problem was that such a dam was also far beyond the resources of Nasser’s Egypt. Loans had been discussed for years and in 1956 Nasser had every reason to think that the Americans, followed by the British, were about to sign the cheques. Nasser’s ambassador then claimed that they could get help from the Russians and Chinese if the US terms were not favourable enough. In July, the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles abruptly cancelled their cheque, followed within a few days by the British government doing likewise. For Nasser, the Aswan Dam was a symbol of the rebuilding of Egypt and Arab nationalism, and the withdrawal of Western aid in this peremptory manner was a stinging personnel rebuff. According to Kilmuir, …

‘The British decision was reached almost entirely for economic reasons; the immense political implications of the step do not seem to have been apparent to the Americans or to the Foreign Office. I, certainly have recollection of this crucial aspect of the situation being brought home to Ministers. And thus the decision was taken which was to plunge the world into a desperate crisis.’

Earl of Kilmuir (1964), Memoirs, p. 267.

Nasser was livid and abruptly retaliated by seizing control of the Suez Canal, triggering the coup with the code words given to a mass public rally.

The man who split Britain over Suez, Anthony Eden.

On 25th July 1956, Harold Nicolson was a guest at a party given by Bob Boothby, then a leading Conservative backbencher. Political gossip dominated the conversation, particularly about the new Conservative PM, Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Churchill in April 1955. Eden, the gossipers had decided, was a ‘dud,’ with no leadership qualities. Aneurin Bevan, the former Labour minister, was also present and said that “the decay of the present government is due entirely to Eden who is incompetent and tricky.” Boothby joined in the discussion with the remark, “Eden is loathed by his colleagues and bullies them.” Writing retrospectively, in 1965, Reginald Bevins gave this more considered and sympathetic, but equally candid critique of the former premier and Foreign Secretary:

Eden showed a curious mixture of strength and weakness. In my view, and I say this with sorrow, he ought never have been Prime Minister. His performance prior to Suez had been feeble. He forever temporised and chopped and changed his mind. He busied himself absurdly with detail. He was no judge of men; no favourite of Eden’s ever did any good. While he had a natural charm he was also nervy, jumpy and bad-tempered.

Reginald Bevins (1965), The Greasy Pole. p. 37

Eden’s handling of the ensuing crisis, highlighted by his incompetence and trickery, would lead eventually to his downfall. He had already convinced himself that Europe was reliving the 1930s and saw in Egypt’s president a Levantine Mussolini, whose violation of treaty agreements and ‘grab’ of the Canal must at all costs be resisted if the torch of freedom were not to go out in the Middle East. Hugh Thomas thought that Eden saw Egypt through a forest of Flanders poppies and gleaming jackboots. Nasser’s sudden nationalisation of the Canal in July provoked a petulant and enraged reaction from the British government. The débacle which followed led to an agonised and bitter conflict in British public opinion, which was as divided as it had been in 1938, the disapproval of nearly every other nation in the world, including much of the Commonwealth, the active opposition of the United States, the nadir of Anglo-American relations and the downfall of Eden himself.

A day after Boothby’s party, Egypt’s President, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. He spoke quite clearly about what he was doing and why he was doing it:

‘This is… a battle against imperialism, and a battle against Israel, the vanguard of imperialism, which was created… in an effort to annhilate our nationalism in the same way as it annihilated Palestine. … Britain left Egypt, believing… that she could have no place there. This was because the people of Egypt were awakaned; because <they> had pledged themselves to achieve for Egypt freedom of life.

‘… As I told you, Arab Nationalism feels its existence, its structure and strength. It also believes in its right to life. These are the battles which we are entering. … The Suez Canal was dug by the efforts of the sons of Egypt – 120,000 Egyptians died in the process. The Suez Canal Company, sitting in Paris, is a usurping company. It usurped our concessions. … The Suez Canal was one of the facades of oppression, extortion, and humiliation. … Today … we declare that our property has been returned to us.’

Speech by Colonel Nasser, 26 July 1956, in D. C. Watt (ed.) (1957), Documents on the Suez Crisis, 26 July to 6 November 1956. pp. 85-6.

At first, public opinion was unanimous in condemning Nasser’s move. Harold’s first reaction – that is a pretty resounding slap in our face – was entirely predictable, and wholly representative of contemporary political opinion. He was kept fully conversant with events in parliament and government through his son Nigel, MP for Bournemouth East, and Hugh Thomas, then a young Foreign Office civil servant, who became a distinguished historian and wrote a dispassionate account of The Suez Affair. Nicolson feared a fearful loss of prestige for Britain and increased tension in Anglo-American relations. Apart from Eden’s bumbling, his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, inspired little confidence; his pretentious sabre-rattling at the Foreign Affairs Committee was anathema to Harold’s diplomatic style. Should Britain use force or even threaten it? He was not ‘absolutely sure.’ One thing was self-evident: ‘The Government have shown their accustomed irresolution and confusion of purpose,’ he wrote in his diary.

Initially, though, Eden’s tough line with Nasser was hugely popular. The Conservative Party was roaring its support. The Labour Opposition followed suit, under Hugh Gaitskell, who sounded more bellicose than any opposition leader before or since. With a couple of exceptions – the Manchester Guardian and the Observer – the press, commentators and cartoonists were all on-side and demanding swift punishment. The new science of opinion polling, and individual messages of support pouring into Downing Street, showed that public opinion agreed.

Under American pressure, there followed weeks of diplomatic manoeuvring during which Eden and his passionately anti-Nasser Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, began to lose the initiative. There were international conferences, promised compromise deals and intensive negotiations at United Nations. Britain kept hinting that it might yet come to war, but Eisenhower and Dulles insisted that a peaceful solution should be found. Nonetheless, by openly declaring that the USA would have no part in trying to shoot our way through to the Canal and by referring to the general problem of colonialism, they encouraged Nasser to resist all outside initiatives.

President Dwight Eisenhower, however, was running for re-election to the White House on a platform of peace and prosperity, was not willing to back the use of force, and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was similarly cautious. Initial efforts to get Nasser to ‘disgorge’ what he had seized, via diplomacy backed by coded threats, were unsuccessful. Both men might have been willing to turn a blind eye to a spot of old-fashioned colonial atavism if the British and French had simply got on with it and launched an attack. Yet British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had a reputation to protect as an internationalist and a man of peace. To the frustration of his French allies, there was delay after delay as he looked for a pretext for action that would allow him to destroy Nasser and satisfy world opinion.

The answer was a covert plan which, to the increasingly desperate occupant of Downing Street, looked ingenious, but which was in reality deeply flawed. The notorious Sèvres Protocol, signed by Britain, France and Israel, committed the three powers to collusion with one another. Israel would attack the Sinai Peninsula, creating the excuse for Anglo-French intervention, to be undertaken ostensibly because the UN would not be able to act quickly enough to restore peace. Few people outside Britain were fooled – certainly not the Americans, who were deeply angered by the attempt to deceive them.

As the crisis moved through its well-documented stages, from the London Conference of the eighteen most-interested nations to the Suez Canal Users Association, which Hugh Thomas claimed was provocative and likely to lead to war, to the final Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, Harold Nicolson’s position hardened against government policy, and in particular against Eden. All efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement petered out in deadlock. Harold knew why: France ‘clearly wants a showdown with Nasser because of Algeria,’ and was dragging Britain along. On 29th October, Israel, in a three-pronged strike, swept into the Gaza strip and Sinai, driving swiftly towards the Canal and Sharm el-Sheikh. Harold’s first, instinctive reaction was to see this as part of a ‘preventative war’ to protect Israel from Fadayun attacks on its territory. The following day Britain and France quickly issued an ultimatum to both sides to stop fighting. On the 31st, Halloween, Harold Nicolson wrote to his wife, Vita Sackville-West:

‘… The news broke only at 4 p.m. How they can have done such a thing with the whole of world opinion against us passes my comprehension. We shall now be accused of exploiting the crime of the Jews in invading Sinai in order to resume control of the Canal. To do this we have sacrificed our principles and practically destroyed UNO and the Charter. We are in danger of being denounced as aggressors. Of course, if the occupation of Port Said, Ismaila and Suez proceeds without a hitch or much loss of life, and if we can maintain ourselves on the Canal against the united armies of Arabia, then the Tories will acclaim it as an act of great resolution and courage. But to risk a war with more than half the country against you, with America and UNO opposed, and even the Dominions voting against us, is an act of insane recklessness and an example of lack of all principle.’

Harold Nicolson (1968), Diaries and Letters 1945-62, p. 312.

Thus the two powers would be able to claim that, as stated in their ultimatum, they were upholding the freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal on which the economic life of many nations depends. They would then be able to justify their lack of consultation with both the United States and the United Nations on the basis that they were acting on behalf of the international community. They were separating the combatants and extinguishing a dangerous fire, while actually seizing control of the entire waterway and its terminal ports. This would not only restore the running of the Canal to Anglo-French management but also enable these two powers to supervise all shipping movements through the Canal and thereby break the Egyptian blockade of Israel. On 30th October, an Anglo-French ultimatum was issued to Cairo and Jerusalem to stop the fighting between them, withdraw their troops behind a ten-mile strip along the Canal, and for the Egyptians to allow allied forces to occupy, temporarily, key points along the waterway. Non-compliance, they threatened, would lead to intervention. “Eden is mad! Eden is mad!” Hugh Thomas exclaimed, representing informed opinion in the Foreign Office.

Nicolson, among others, now suspected ‘a conspiracy … a very nasty plot,’ with the French masterminding it: ‘It is truly one of the most disgraceful transactions in the whole of our history.’ Eden had acted dishonestly and put Britain in breach of international law. Controversy continued long afterwards about the extent to which Britain and France were in collusion with Israel in their war with Egypt. According to Anthony Nutting (1967), who was working in the Foreign Ofice at the time as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs since 1954, there was a French-Israeli plan that Israel should first attack across the Sinai Peninsula and that France and Britain should then order both sides to withdraw their forces from the Suez Canal, in order to permit an Anglo-French force to intervene and occupy the canal on the pretext of saving it from being damaged by the fighting. Nutting’s resignation, Nicolson wrote, was…

‘… extremely important, since it deprives back-bench Members of the excuse, “The Government must know best”. Nutting knew everything, and has decided that it is evil. The central fact remains that Eden has deliberately ignored a recommendation passed by the overwhelming majority of the United Nations Assembly . This is a breach of law. I am not surprised that the House, at their special meeting yesterday, should have burst into disorder.’

Harold Nicolson (1968), Diaries and Letters 1945-62, p. 315.

It later became clear that the French had made at least preliminary soundings with the Israeli government, which they then shared with the British Foreign Office. Doing his best to conceal his excitement at the French plans, Eden replied to their approach by saying that he would give them very careful consideration. In fact, the PM had already made up his mind to go along with the French plans, however strongly his Foreign Office advisers might have warned against the venture. In the Commons, on 31st October, the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, was asked about collusion with the Israelis, since the previous day’s demands were made at a time when the Egyptian army was still engaging the Israelis at distances of more than seventy-five miles to the east of the Canal. Lloyd replied:

“… Every time any incident has happened on the frontiers of Israel and the Arab States, we have been accused of being in collusion with the Israelis about it. That allegation has been broadcast from Radio Cairo every time. It is quite wrong to state that Israel was incited… by Her Majesty’s Government. There was no prior agreement between us about it. It is, of course, true that the Israeli mobilisation gave some advance warning and we urged restraint upon the Israeli Government and in particular drew attention to to the serious consequences of any attack upon Jordan.”

A. Nutting (1967), No End of a Lesson. Constable, pp. 93-95, 116, 126.

According to Kilmuir (1964), the scenes in the Commons were the worst since the bitter clashes between Liberals and Unionists in 1911. A storm of booing would break out as soon as Eden entered the House and…

‘… would rise to a crescendo of hysteria when he actually rose to speak. At one point the chances of fighting actually breaking out between Members was very real, so intense was were the passions on each side. On November 1st, ‘Shakes’ Morrison, with consummate timing, adjourned the House for half an hour to let tempers cool, and things were never quite so bad afterwards.

I was told that Anthony made the speech of his life after the House reassembled, and when he sat down the Opposition could hardly raise a single boo, which was little short of astonishing. The courage with which Anthony faced this daily tumult won the admiration of his colleagues, supporters, and even of some members of the Opposition.

If the proceedings of the Commons had been televised, the effect on public opinion of the screaming mass of Labour Members would have been traumatic. As it was, the Press reports of the calculated howling down of the Prime Minister resulted in a great revulsion of public opinion.’

The Earl of Kilmuir (1964), Memoirs, pp. 273-4.

There was no compliance with the terms of the ultimatum by the Egyptians and, on 5 November, Anglo-French forces invaded Egypt in order to ‘separate the combatants’. The operation was a military success – and a catastrophic political failure. For Nicolson, the destruction of the Egyptian airforce left him unimpressed: ‘success does not render a dirty trick any less dirty.’ Britain and France’s actions had been based on a lie and a pretty see-through one at that. The real motivation was to overthrow Egypt’s President Nasser who, in Paris and London, was seen as a threat to Western Europe’s oil supply and to international order more generally.

Nikolai Bulganin, the Soviet Prime Minister, certainly took a hard line against the ‘triumvirate’. Notes of the most menacing nature had been issued to the ‘aggressor’ nations – Britain, France and Israel – threatening the use of ‘every kind of destructive weapon’ unless they withdrew. This was, in part at least, a cover-up for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary and its crushing of the people’s rebellion there. Throughout the autumn, there had been an intense worry in Washington about the menacing noises from Moscow about Imre Nagy’s reform communist government emerging in Hungary and its liberalisation of society there following the Uprising of 23rd October. At the beginning of November, a substantial Soviet Army occupied Budapest and other major towns and cities. Allied action in Egypt deprived the British and French governments of any moral right to indict the Soviet Union for its aggression. Nicolson commented:

‘The Russians have sent seven divisions into Hungary and are closing in on Budapest. But we have no right to speak a word of criticism.’

Harold Nicolson’s Diaries, 4 Nov 1956, 315.

It wasn’t just Nicolson who thought that, at this moment, the world seemed to be going mad. The Israeli-British-French triumvirate’s dead-of-night intervention in Egypt to prevent Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal made the outcome of the Hungarian revolution dependent on superpower bargaining. Neither the USSR nor the USA was interested in military confrontation, but both were concerned to defend their strategic interests; the Soviets were willing to remain passive in the Middle East if they received assurances that there would be no Western intervention in Hungary. This was also agreed upon by the end of Tuesday 30 October.

This tacit agreement meant that the promise which had been expressly given by Radio Free Europe on Eisenhower’s behalf, which played no small role in the resolve of the Hungarian insurgents, was thus broken, while the Soviet leaders sought and obtained the agreement of Tito to their planned alternative of intervention. Alex von Tunzelmann believes that, in return, the situation in Hungary helped to push an already volatile situation between the superpowers closer to the brink. Khrushchev had to think very carefully about Suez when he was dealing with Hungary, just as Eisenhower had to think carefully about Hungary when he was dealing with Suez:

Both crises were referred to the UN, which was awkward because normally Britain would have stood by the US and condemned Soviet aggression – but since it was doing exactly the same thing, the UN was hamstrung. The US went against Britain and France at the UN for the first time, so this was the real danger to that alliance.

The turning point for the Soviets came on 31st October with the news that the British and French governments had issued their ultimatum threatening to attack Egypt. The Israelis, in a secret agreement with the British and French, had launched an invasion of Egypt across the Sinai desert. The Suez Crisis proved a disastrous venture for the prestige of Britain and France more broadly across the Middle East. The military intervention was universally denounced and seen as the dying act of the imperialist powers. The US government was furious; it had not been consulted on the military operation and was opposed to it. With the presidential elections only a week away, Washington was now presented with two international crises simultaneously. This was, potentially, an even more disastrous situation for Hungary. Tom Leimdorfer, then a fourteen-year-old in Budapest, who soon after became a refugee in Britain, remembers the flurry of worried phone conversations at the end of October:

‘Everyone agreed that this was the worst possible news. The UN and the West would be preoccupied with Suez and leave Hungary to its fate. Still it seemed that the streets which were not the scenes of the worst battles were returning to some semblance of normality. Some trams and buses started to run, the railways were running, many people walked or cycled to their places of work, but still no school of course. … At the same time there were daily political bulletins with mixed news. The most sinister of these were reports of increasing Soviet troop movements.’

Tom Leimdorfer’s personal family memoir, unpublished.

The Suez affair did indeed distract attention from events in Hungary, just as they entered their most critical phase, with PM Imre Nagy having restored order and set to consolidate the revolutionary gains of the previous eight days. It split the western camp and offered Moscow, with all eyes temporarily on Suez, a perfect cover for moving back into Budapest at the beginning of November. At first, however, it had the opposite effect, delaying Moscow’s intervention in Hungary, for Khrushchev himself did not want to be compared to the “imperialist aggressors” in Egypt. After all, he had withdrawn Soviet troops from Poland when confronted by Gomulka; perhaps now he would rely on the Hungarian Prime Minister to keep Hungary in line.

The US attitude also encouraged Moscow, which led the diplomatic charge against Britain and France. Throughout the episode, and despite the concurrent crisis caused by the USSR’s crushing of the Hungarians, Washington and Moscow stood shoulder-to-shoulder against London and Paris. Suez had become the most decisive issue in British politics since Munich. With Hugh Gaitskell now appealing to the Tory dissidents to vote against the government, and unprecedented mass demonstrations in Trafalgar Square calling for its resignation, Eden’s administration was tottering on a political precipice. Suez split Britain down the middle, dividing families and friends. It brought the Prime Minister into angry conflict with establishment grandees. Lord Mountbatten is said to have warned the young Queen that her government were “behaving like lunatics” and a former Royal aide believed that Her Majesty thought her premier had gone mad. Even the military was affected. The call-up for Suez provoked widescale desertions and minor mutinies across Britain. Some twenty thousand reservists were called back and many declined to come, some scrawling ‘bollocks’ across their papers. In Southampton, Royal Engineers pelted a general with stones. In Kent, there were similar scenes among reservists:

More or less to a man they refused to polish boots or press uniforms or even do guard duty. They spent most of their time abusing the career soldiers for being idiots. The army could do nothing…

Tom Hickman (2004), The Call-Up: A History of National Service. Headline.

In the House of Commons, Eden and Selwyn Lloyd made ‘revoltingly unctuous statements’ about Hungary. For Harold Nicolson, this was rank hypocrisy. He indulged in a telling comparison between these statements and British imperial policy in Cyprus. In Hungary ‘when people rise against foreign repression, they are hailed as patriots and heroes’ but in Cyprus ‘the Greeks whom we are shooting and hanging are dismissed as terrorists. What cant!’ Whether or not the Soviets were bluffing, more cogent considerations persuaded the British government to back down. The public mood in Britain was also changing. Anti-Colonialism, the rule of law and the rights of young countries were all issues which enthused Labour and the left more generally. The United Nations, NATO and the European Convention on Human Rights were all established as part of the architecture of the post-war world. As US hostility to military action became clearer, some MPs and commentators began to have second thoughts. Eden claimed that left-wing intellectuals were stirring up opposition to him, while…

“the BBC is exasperating me by leaning over backwards to be what they call neutral and to present both sides of the case.”

Eden made threatening noises about taking the BBC under direct government control. The reality was that the government was becoming increasingly isolated in the international arena and that Eden had misinterpreted the signals coming out of Washington and was on the verge of virtually destroying Anglo-American relations. Eisenhower, up for re-election on 6th November, would not countenance lending any support to what would be seen by the US voters as a foreign, imperial adventure.

In Malta, Grenadier Guards marched through their camp, angry about conditions as much as by politics, earning a stiff lecture from their commanding officer about the dire consequences of mutiny. Shortly afterwards, the Reservists of the 37th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery marched through the Maltese camp to protest, shouting down their regimental sergeant-major. These incidents were minor, but the headlines in the press about army mutinies and protest marches sent shockwaves through the forces.

From Eden’s point of view, the US was preventing any real pressure against Nasser while talking grandly about international law. He thought he had given enough broad hints for the White House to realise that he and the French prime minister were ready to use force. At different times Eisenhower’s administration gave the impression that they accepted force might be necessary. So while Britain could not tip off the Americans about their dangerous and illegal agreement with Israel, or give military details once the operation was underway, there was a general belief that the Americans would understand. This was an error.

On 5th-6th November, Anglo-French paratroop forces landed at Port Said and Port Faud. A huge British convoy which had been steaming for nine days from Malta arrived with tanks and artillery and the drive south to secure the Suez Canal began. So far, only thirty-two British and French commandos had been killed, against two thousand Egyptian dead. In a military sense, things had gone smoothly, but the politics were a different matter. When the invasion happened, Eisenhower and Dulles exploded with anger. According to the White House correspondents, the air at the Oval Office turned blue in a way that had not happened for a century. The US found itself in an extraordinarily difficult  position, as Alex von Tunzelmann has recently reiterated in her book, Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis that Shook the World:

… they were trapped between a lot of competing alliances. Britain and France had lied to them, and were continuing to lie, when it was perfectly obvious what was going on. It was also complicated because, although the US and Israel didn’t have quite as solid a relationship as they do now, it was still a pretty solid relationship.

It had therefore been widely expected in Britain, France and Israel that the US would not go against Israel in public, but in fact they did – extremely strongly. This was all happening in the week leading up to Dwight D Eisenhower’s second presidential election, too, and it was assumed that he wouldn’t stamp down on Israel because he would lose the election if he lost Jewish votes in the US. But actually Eisenhower was very clear that he didn’t mind about losing the election, he just wanted to do the right thing.

Above: British paratroopers in the Suez Canal Zone, November 1956.

Dulles appeared seriously to compare the Anglo-French action to that of the Soviets in Budapest. Meanwhile, Nasser had done the very thing Eden’s plan had been designed to prevent; he had blockaded the Canal by filling forty-seven ships with concrete. For the first and last time, the USA made a common cause with the USSR at the UN to demand a stop to the invasion. The motion for a ceasefire was passed by a crushing sixty-four votes to five. The Soviet Union threatened to send fifty thousand ‘volunteers’ to the Middle East. A day later, as the British troops were moving south towards Cairo, having taken Port Said, they were suddenly ordered to stop. The operation was halted and an immediate ceasefire was declared by London, to be followed by a swift pull-out. Harold recorded:

‘It is about the worst fiasco in history. Nasser regarded as a hero and a martyr … our reputation is tarnished … at the first serious threat from Bulganin, we have had to climb down.’

Harold Nicolson’s letter to Vita Sackville-West, 7 Nov., 1956.

On the ground, the French were prepared to keep going, clear-sighted about their national interest and uninterested in American anger. By then, the Egyptian air force had been destroyed and 13,500 British troops, with 8,500 French troops had landed at Port Said and were making their way south towards the Canal. Rather embarrassingly, the Israelis, led by Ariel Sharon, future PM, had long ago reached their destination and stopped, so there was no need for the Anglo-French forces to ‘separate’ anyone. From Eisenhower’s perspective, his old allies had dropped him in the dirt at the worst time possible, during a presidential election and when the Soviets were brutally crushing the Hungarian revolution with four thousand tanks. News of the Suez invasion, coinciding with American elections, helped bring home the hopelessness of Hungary’s situation to the citizens of Budapest. The West continued to be preoccupied; Hungary did not matter so much. Moreover, Britain and France had given the Soviets the perfect excuse for re-occupying the country in order to ensure that it stayed within the Soviet sphere of influence.

The US administration had failed to pick up on worrying reports from CIA agents in Paris and London about the Suez Crisis, just as they had failed to understand the consequences of cancelling their financing of the Aswan dam. The USA in the mid-fifties was a young superpower, and this time it had been fooled by both sides. In any event, President Eisenhower was so aghast at this independently planned Anglo-French campaign that the US led the call for a UN resolution issuing an ultimatum for the British and French to withdraw from Suez. To many, it seemed as if NATO itself was on the verge of breaking apart. In the end, American financial pressure was enough to force a humiliating British withdrawal and climb down. The crunch appears to have come when the US refused help for the critically ailing pound unless a truce was signed. Harold Macmillan had turned to the USA and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. The US Treasury Secretary told the UK’s ambassador to Washington:

“You’ll not get a dime from the US government if I can stop it, until you’ve gotten out of Suez. You are like burglars who have broken into somebody else’s house. So get out! When you do, and not until then, you’ll get help!”

With the country divided from Buckingham Palace to the barrack room, Eden’s health and nerves gave way. After a brutally direct phone call from Eisenhower, ordering him to announce a ceasefire, Eden called his French opposite number, Guy Mollet, who begged him to hang on. According to French sources, Eden told him:

“I am cornered. I can’t hang on. I’m being deserted by everybody. My loyal associate Nutting has resigned as minister of state. I can’t even rely on unanimity among the Conservatives. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church, the businessmen, everybody is against me! The Commonwealth threatens to break up … I cannot be the gravedigger of the Crown. And then I want you to understand, really understand, Eisenhower phoned me. I can’t go it alone without the United States. It would be the first time in the history of England … No, it is not possible.”

Jean-Raymond Tourneaux (1960), Secrets d’Étát: Paris. Quoted in Herman Finer (1964), Dulles over Suez: Heinemann.

Macmillan, the only strong man left in the cabinet, once hot for military action, now blew cold, informing his colleagues that he could no longer be responsible for ‘Her Majesty’s Exchequer’ unless there was a ceasefire. The cabinet duly agreed to sign a truce, in what was a vivid lesson for every British politician in the general relationship between power and freedom, and in the realities of where global power lay at that time. The ceasefire and the withdrawal that followed were a disaster for Britain, which left Nasser stronger than ever. It finished Eden, though not before he lied to the Commons about the Anglo-French-Israeli plot at Sévres, outside Paris. In December, Eden also claimed in the House that there was no foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt. This can be compared with the French copy of the Sévres protocol agreed upon six weeks earlier which begins by stating quite bluntly:

‘Les forces Israeliennes lancent le 23 Oct 1956 dans la soirée une operation d’envergure contre les Forces Egyptiennes… ‘

In the face of global condemnation, and more importantly a severe run on the pound, the British had quickly called a ceasefire and U-turn. Eden hung on for a few more weeks in office but was not in power. He eventually resigned on 9th January 1957 on grounds of ill health. Suez was a humiliation not just for him but for the British nation as a whole. At the time, MPs and commentators remained suspicious of what took place between Britain, France and Israel at their meeting at Sévres, especially in the context of earlier secret agreements in the twentieth century, most notably the Treaty of London (1915), the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) and the Hoare-Laval Pact (1935). In 1957, D. C. Watt also concluded that the Anglo-French actions were prevented from winning any degree of international support by…

‘ … the immediate acceptance by considerable sections of opinion of allegations that the British and French governments either had definite foreknowledge of the Israeli attack on Egypt, or that their ultimatum and intervention were concerted with the Israeli government.’

D. C. Watt (ed.) (1957), Documents on the Suez Crisis, 26 July to 6 November 1956.

In her recent interview for the BBC History Magazine, historian Alex von Tunzelmann was asked why she thought the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt was so badly bungled. She pointed out that the military plans from the time show that they were full of gaps and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were clearly opposed to the whole operation. Indeed, they themselves had advised the British Prime Minister that the consequences of the action could be terrible, but he had chosen to ignore their advice. They were proved right, but partly because the weight of world opinion was so heavily against them, by the time the British and French forces got a third of the way down the canal, they had to stop. Israel achieved its objective of taking Sinai but soon lost it again. Neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives, and all that they succeeded in doing was strengthening Nasser’s control in the Middle East while his ally, the Soviet Union, reasserted its control over its satellite states. In addition, people no longer talked about Britain as a significant world power. From this point on, there were just two ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the following years and decades, Britain was reduced to playing the junior partner in its ‘special relationship’ with the USA.

It has long been argued that the 1st November declaration of neutrality by the Nagy government was the trigger which set off the Soviet invasion of Hungary three days later. From the Soviet perspective, this may well have been the case but, as we now know from the Kremlin Archives, the decision to invade had already been taken in there the day before, 31st October, the same day that the ‘liberal’ Soviet declaration of the 30th was published by Pravda. Also on the 30th, the Anglo-French Ultimatum to the Governments of Egypt and Israel had been laid in the Library of the House of Commons. Notes taken at the Soviet Party Presidium on 31st October indicate that the about-turn was initiated by Khrushchev himself, on the grounds of international prestige and against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis. No doubt under pressure from hard-liners in the politburo, he had exchanged his early view of occupying higher moral ground for a conviction that, as he is quoted as saying:

‘If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English and French – the imperialists. They will perceive it as weakness on our part…’  

Eisenhower was not, in fact, in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jnr., pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective.

UNEF soldiers from the Yugoslav People’s Army in Sinai, January 1957

Without a further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF (United Nations Emergency Force). Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the U.S. refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result.

F/L Lynn Garrison crew with UNEF DHC-3 Otter, Sinai, 1962

Reading the newspaper accounts of the Autumn of 1956, von Tunzelmann was struck by the speed of the events both in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the way in which both sets seemed simultaneously to be upsetting the existing order of the world. In the climate of world opinion against Britain and France, the Soviet Union was able to avoid large-scale diplomatic repercussions from its violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and even to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small nations against imperialism. In addition, the Soviet Union made major gains with regard to influence in the Middle East. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote about the aftermath of the crisis:

When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there.

The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might have thought, would win the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.

By 22nd December, the evacuation of Anglo-French troops from Egyptian territory was complete. Hugh Thomas commented that it was tragic to see great imperial countries ending their pretensions in comic style. Harold Nicolson placed the blame for this fiasco squarely on Eden’s shoulders. The utterly disgraceful tale of collusion between France of Israel, to which Britain was a party, flew in the face of everything he had held dear as a diplomat and politician. He coldly listed Eden’s failings:

‘breaking election pledges; lying; bringing about international isolation; endangering relations with US; blocking the Canal and disrupting oil supplies; and robbing Israel of fruits of its victory’.

Harold Nicolson’s Diaries, 9 November 1956.

Eden, he concluded, had done more ‘to dishonour his country than anyone since Lord North.’ Suez soon became a four-letter word for the moment when Britain realised its new place in the world. It was left stripped of moral authority and rebuked by Washington. The Canal was eventually reopened and reparations were agreed upon, though the issue of oil security then assumed fresh importance. Other consequences were less predictable. It provoked the arrival of the mini car in Britain, designed in the wake of the petrol price shock caused by the seizure of the Canal. It even accelerated the decline of the shipyards of Clydeside and Tyneside, whose small oil tankers were soon replaced by supertankers built at larger yards overseas. These, it was discovered, could sail around the Cape and deliver their cargo just as cheaply as smaller ships using the Canal.

From the perspective of more recent Arab-Israeli wars, conflicts and crises, the Suez War has long receded in significance, but it does show how difficult it was for politicians to learn definite lessons from their countries’ pasts. The perspectives of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries enable us to see the impossibility of Britain and France withstanding the forces of nationalism and expansionism when their own nationalism and imperialism had been so readily deployed in Europe, Africa and the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although Suez has often been a defining moment at the End of Empire, historians now tend to emphasize the continuities rather than seeing 1956 as a sharp break. At the time, however, the Conservatives did not offer a blind, intransigent resistance to the nationalist onslaught. Eden’s government was not reactionary, though it had some reactionary supporters. They did not mean to reverse the trend, or even to halt it entirely. They had professed, at the beginning of their term, an intention to continue the process towards self-government within the Commonwealth, and they put no great obstacles in the way of this process in the colonies – like the west African colonies, the Sudan and the West Indies where it was already too far advanced. It has to be remembered that Egypt was no longer a colony at the time of the Suez Crisis, though control of the Canal was a Nationalist-Imperialist issue for both Britain and France.

Within Whitehall, politicians and officials continued to seek an ongoing global British leadership role. It took fifteen years for the subsequent ‘turn to Europe’ to take shape and bear fruit, due to resistance from France. Moreover, the Conservative Party – although not Eden himself – quickly bounced back. This was partly possible because it took over ten years for the full facts about the collusion to become known – even though it had been immediately suspected at the time. As late as 1960, a Central Office of Information film claimed that the Anglo-French action had been beneficial for the UN and the world.

(to be continued…)





Faith, Fantasy & Fairy Tales – Tolkien, ‘Jack’ Lewis & ‘The Inklings’, 1926-66: Part Two – ‘Shadowy Abstractions’

Hobbits and Narnians:

There were eighteen long years between Jack Lewis’s conversion on the way to Whipsnade and the beginning of his writing of the Tales of Narnia. Throughout this time, while Tolkien was writing his Hobbit stories, Lewis was musing on the physical similarities that men and beasts have in common.

Ernest H. Shepherd’s 1959 colour illustration for Kenneth Grahame’s (1908) book, The Wind in the Willows. London: Methuen.
Chapter II: The Open Road: ‘Sitting by the side of the cart, Toad talked about all he was going to do.’

This is why he felt that Kenneth Grahame, in The Wind in the Willows, made the right choice in giving his principal character the form of a toad (pictured above). The toad’s face, with its fixed ‘grin’, bears such a striking resemblance to a specific type of human face that no other animal would have suited the part so well. Lewis saw these physical similarities as extending still further: some animals can be most interestingly used in picture books and children’s literature as representing the actual archetypes of some human and animal characteristics. He had an uncanny eye for their specific traits.

The illustration on the cover is from The Voyage of the Dawntreader, the third book of the Chronicles of Narnia written by Lewis

Walter Hooper was born in 1931 in North Carolina and began corresponding with C. S. Lewis in 1954 while serving in the US Army. After his service, he read theology and lectured on Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Kentucky. Early in 1963, he visited Lewis in Oxford and subsequently became his secretary during Lewis’s long illness. Following his death in November, Hooper became the Trustee of the C. S. Lewis estate. In his 1980 paperback, Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to the Chronicles of Narnia, Hooper argued that there was also an essential relationship between Lewis’s experience of intense longing and the Narnian Chronicles.

A Heartfelt Longing for Heaven:

The Pilgrim’s Regress, partly autobiographical, is the story of the Pilgrim’s quest for a far-off island, whose vision stung him with ‘sweet desire’. When Lewis realised that the word Romanticism in the subtitle was misunderstood, he wrote a preface to the third edition (1943) explaining the meaning he gave the word. For him, it meant ‘Joy’, the same Joy, or longing, that we can feel for our own far-off country, as in the Welsh word hiraeth, meaning a ‘heartfelt longing’: a longing which, although painful, is felt somehow to be a delight. A hunger more satisfying than fullness; poverty better than any wealth. A desire that is itself the object of desire, so much so that the new desire becomes an instance of the original one. We feel we know what the object of our desire is, but in the final achievement of that desire, we know that the real object of our desire is somewhere else entirely …

eluding us like the cuckoo’s voice or the rainbow’s end. “All I want”, someone will say, is a university degree, or a happy marriage, or a steady job … But when he is married or settled into the right job, or gets whatever it was he wants, it proves itself to be a cheat. It is not enough. It is not what he is actually looking for.

Lewis reasoned that if we find in ourselves a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for a different world. A happy marriage or a successful career was never intended to fulfil our desire for the far-off country; more likely, they were meant to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. The far-off land is Heaven, and nothing other than God can be our ultimate bliss. Lewis wrote that there is also a connection between our longing for Heaven and fairy tales. However, every aspect of modern life fixes our minds on this world, and to bring up the subjects of Heaven and fairy tales in some quarters was to be howled down as nostalgic, romantic, sentimental, or adolescent.

By 1940, Lewis was already an established writer of serious books on literature and religion, but, as a bachelor who did not know many children, he had never thought of writing a book for young readers. However, when he visited Northmoor Road, the Tolkien children liked him because he did not talk too condescendingly to them; and he gave them books by E. Nesbit, which they enjoyed. The nature of the Second World War changed Lewis’s perspective in that because it was ordinary citizens, including children, who suffered most, as their small island home was bombarded by four hundred planes a night in the infamous “Blitz” that changed the face of war, turning civilians and their cities, big and small, into the front lines.

The Railway Children was an Edwardian ‘classic’, first published during Lewis’ own childhood in 1906.

It was also during the Second World War when children from London were being evacuated to the country, four youngsters were billeted at Lewis’s home, The Kilns, in the Oxford suburb, Headington. Surprised to find how few imaginative stories his young guests knew, ‘Jack’ decided to write one for them and scribbled down the opening sentences of a story about four children who were sent away from London because of the air raids and went to stay with an old professor in the country. That is all he wrote at the time, but several years later, he returned to the story. The children (now named Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) found their way into another world, which he eventually called ‘Narnia’. More pictures came into his mind: a ‘queen on a sledge’ and ‘a magnificent lion’. But, for a long time, he did not know what these meant nor what the story was about.

Ross Wilson’s statue of Professor Kirke (Digory) in front of the wardrobe from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in East Belfast
By “Genvessel” – https://www.flickr.com/photos/genvessel

After that, all kinds of elements went into the making of Narnia. There was the intriguing question of the youngest evacuee as to what was behind the big old wardrobe which stood in The Kilns. And there were his childhood memories: how he and his brother, Warnie, used to climb into that very wardrobe, made by their grandfather, and tell each other stories in the dark. Some of Jack’s inspiration came from the books he had loved as a child: the talking animals in the tales of Beatrix Potter; the magical adventures that happened in the stories of E. Nesbit, such as The Railway Children (1906); the wicked queen from a Hans Andersen fairy tale; the dwarves from the old German myths; Irish folk tales, myths and legends, and mythological creatures from the legends of Ancient Greece. But these were just some ingredients for what Jack mixed into an entirely original confection of the oldest stories ever told, those of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.

The Narnian Books – Allegories & Moral Tales?

In his History of Modern Britain, chronicling political and cultural events since the Second World War, Andrew Marr has described what emerged from Lewis’s pen as the Narnia books as a religious allegory for children. He characterises it as part of a period in which:

… there still existed an Anglican sensibility, a particularly English, sometimes grave, sometimes playful Christianity, with its own art and thought. It may have been wispy and self-conscious but it was also alive and argumentative, as it is not today. It was of course a limited and élite movement. Already, saucy revelations were where most people turned when they thought of immorality, not to sermons. … Were the British in the forties any more moral… than the modern British? This is one of the hardest questions to answer. Conventions and temptations were just so different. On the surface, it was certainly it was certainly a more discreet, dignified and rule-bound society. Divorce might have been becoming more widespread, but it was certainly still a matter for embarrasment, even shame.

In the early thirties, the average number of divorce petitions in Britain was below five thousand per year. During the war, it jumped to sixteen thousand. By 1951, with easier divorce laws, it was more than thirty-eight thousand. In the forties and fifties, it still carried a strong stigma across classes and reached up to the aristocracy and monarchy. As late as 1955, when Princess Margaret wanted to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, the innocent party in a divorce case, a Tory cabinet minister, Lord Salisbury, warned that he would have to resign from the government if it allowed such a flagrant breach of Anglican principles.

This became a significant issue for a devout Catholic like Tolkien in the late 1950s when Lewis decided to marry divorcée Joy Davidman. Its role in the relationship of the two men should not be underestimated by those looking back to the period with more modern, socially liberal and secular eyes. Yet there was also a good deal of hypocrisy behind the fifties’ supposedly more morally ‘upright’ social attitudes. Tolkien was probably well aware of the continuance of the wartime boom in domestic adultery and homosexuality in Oxford. Still, he might have been shocked by the vast number of prostitutes in the red light districts of other cities, such as in Edgbaston in Birmingham, where he spent much of his childhood and adolescence. ‘Discretion’ was a keyword for Tolkien and his colleagues, and their issue with Lewis was over this in the late fifties rather than with the morality of divorce itself.

Finishing Frodo & Sam’s Quest – Into The Mountains of Shadow:

Map showing Mordor and part of Gondor, showing the Dead Marshes, The Dark Tower and Mount Doom

By the beginning of 1944, The Lord of the Rings had lain untouched for many months, and Tolkien wrote: I do not seem to have any mental energy or invention. But Lewis had noticed this and provided the impulse for him to get going again and finish the story. Tolkien admitted that he needed its pressure and would ‘probably respond’. So, at the beginning of April, he resumed work, beginning to write what eventually became the fourth book, which takes Frodo and Sam Gamgee across the Dead Marshes marshes towards Mordor, where they hope to destroy the Ring by hurling it into the Cracks of Doom. Tolkien was already writing long letters to his son, Christopher, who had been called up into the RAF and sent for training in South Africa. These letters carried detailed accounts of the book’s progress and his reading to the Lewis brothers and Charles Williams in the ‘White Horse’, at that time their favourite pub. The following extracts reveal the continuing role of Jack Lewis, in particular, on Tolkien’s writing:

Tuesday 18 April:

‘I hope to see C. S. L. and Charles W. tomorrow morning and read my next chapter – on the passage of the Dead Marshes and the approach to the gates of Mordor, which I have now practically finished. Term has almost begun...

Sunday 23 April:

‘I read my second chapter, Passage of the Dead Marshes, to Lewis and Williams on Wed. morning. It was approved I have now nearly done a third: Gates of the Land of Shadow. But this story takes charge of me, and I have already taken three chapters over what was meant to be one! And I have neglected too many things to do it. I am just enmeshed in it now, and have to wrench my mind away to tackle exam-paper proofs and lectures.’

Wednesday 31 May:

The Inklings meeting was very enjoyable. Hugo was there: rather tired looking, but reasonably noisy. The chief entertainment was provided by a chapter of Warnie Lewis’s book on the times of Louis XIV (very good I thought it); and some excerpts from C. S. L.’s “Who Goes Home” – a book on Hell, which I suggested should have been called rather “Hugo’s Home”. I did not get back until well after midnight. The rest of my time, barring chores … has been occupied by the desperate attempt to bring “The Ring” to a suitable pause, the capture of Frodo by the Orcs in the passes of Mordor, before I am obliged to break off by examining. By sitting up all hours I managed it and read the last two chapters (“Shelob’s Lair” and “The Choice of Master Samwise”) to C. S. L. on Monday morning. He approved with usual fervour, and was actually affected to tears by the last chapter, so it seems to be keeping up’.

Book IV of The Lord of the Rings was typed and sent to Christopher in South Africa. By this time, Tolkien was mentally exhausted by his feverish burst of writing. When my weariness has passed, he wrote to his son, I shall get on with my story. But in August, he wrote: I am absolutely dry of any inspiration for the Ring. By the end of the year, he had produced nothing new except a draft synopsis for the remainder of the story. Instead, he turned to other projects, including the idea of collaborating with Lewis on a book about the nature, function and origin of Language. But this came to nothing, and Lewis, referring sometimes later to this omission, described Tolkien as that great but dilatory and unmethodical man. ‘Dilatory’ was not altogether fair, but ‘unmethodical’ was often true. Tolkien made little, if any, progress on the story during 1945. On 9 May, the war in Europe ended, the same day that Charles Williams was taken ill. He died a week later, and though he and Williams had not always agreed on literature, they had become good friends by this time, and Tolkien felt the loss very deeply. It was a sign for him that peace would not bring an end to all troubles, something that Tolkien wrote in one of his letters to Christopher:

‘The War is not over (and the one that is, or part of it, has largely been lost). But it is wrong to fall into such a mood, for Wars are always lost, and The War always goes on; and it is no good growing faint.’

In the autumn of 1945, Tolkien became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and, therefore, a Fellow of Merton College, which he found ‘agreeably informal’ after Pembroke. However, C. S. Lewis was passed over for the Merton Professorship of English Literature. Tolkien was one of the electors for this, and though there is no reason to suppose that he did not support Lewis in the election, the gap between the two friends widened again. There was undoubtedly a cooling on Tolkien’s part, which Lewis overlooked at first, and when he did notice it, he was disturbed and saddened. Nevertheless, Tolkien continued to attend gatherings of the Inklings, together with his son Christopher, who had resumed his studies at Trinity College. He was invited to read aloud from The Lord of the Rings typescript, as Lewis joked that he read better than his father. He later became an Inkling in his own right. But there was no longer the same ‘intimacy’ as of old between his father and Lewis. This may have been hastened by Lewis’s sometimes severe criticisms of details of The Lord of the Rings, particularly his comments on the poems, which he tended to dislike. Tolkien was often hurt by Lewis’s comments and generally ignored them, so Lewis later remarked, No one ever influenced Tolkien.

In the summer of 1946, Tolkien told Allen & Unwin that he had made a great effort to finish The Lord of the Rings but had failed to do so; the truth was, however, that he had scarcely touched it since the late spring of 1944. Nevertheless, he told them that he hoped to have it done by the autumn and did manage to resume work on it in the following weeks. By the end of the year, he told his publishers that he was “on the last chapters,” but then he moved house to the centre of Oxford, to a Merton College house which became available for rent. He and Edith moved in with Christopher and Priscilla in March 1947. By then, John was working as a priest in the Midlands and Michael, married with an infant son, was a schoolmaster. But the new home was very cramped, even for the four of them. Ronald had no proper study, only an attic ‘bed-sitter’, so it was agreed that the family would move again as soon as a bigger house as soon as one became available, but for the time being, they would have to ‘make do.’

Meanwhile, Rayner Unwin, the son of Tolkien’s publisher, who as a child had written the report that secured the publication of The Hobbit, had secured himself a place as an undergraduate at Oxford, and he made the acquaintance of Professor Tolkien. In the summer of 1947, Tolkien decided that The Lord of the Rings was sufficiently near completion for Rayner to be shown a typescript of the greater part of the story. After reading it, he reported to his father at Allen & Unwin that it was a weird book but a brilliant and gripping story. He remarked that the struggle between darkness and light made him suspect allegory, and he further commented:

Quite honestly I don’t know who is expected to read it: children will miss something of it, but grown-ups will not feel ‘infra dig’ to read it; many will undoubtedly enjoy themselves.

He had no doubt that the book deserved publication by his father’s firm and suggested that it would have to be divided into sections, commenting that in this respect, Frodo’s Ring resembled that of the Nibelungs. Stanley Unwin passed his son’s comments on to Tolkien, who was always annoyed by the comparison with the Nibelungenlied and Wagner. He once said that both rings were round, and the resemblance ceased. Then, on suspicion of allegory, he replied:

‘Do not let Rayner suspect “Allegory”. There is a “moral”, I suppose, in any tale worth telling. But that is not the same thing. Even the struggle between darkness and light (as he calls it, not me) is for me just a particular phase of history, one example of its pattern, perhaps, but not The Pattern; and the actors are individuals – they each, of course, contain universals, or they would not live at all, but they never represent them as such.’

However, on the whole, he was delighted with Rayner’s enthusiasm for the book and concluded by declaring: The thing is to finish the thing as devised and then let it be judged. Yet even then, he did not finish ‘the thing’; he revised, niggled and corrected earlier chapters, spending so much time on it that his colleagues began to regard him as lost to philology. So the final full stop seemed further away than ever. But in the late summer months, ‘the thing’ finally reached its conclusion. Tolkien recalled that he ‘actually wept’ when writing the account of the welcome given to the hobbit heroes on the Field of Cormallen. He had long ago resolved to take the chief protagonists across the sea to the West at the end of the book, so with the writing of the chapter that describes the setting sail from the Grey Havens, the huge manuscript was almost complete. But not quite, for Tolkien, as he had once said, liked ‘tying up loose ends,’ and he wished to make sure that there were no loose ends in his epic story. So he wrote an epilogue with Sam Gamgee telling his children what happened to each of the principal characters who did not sail West. It ended with Sam listening to the sigh and murmur of the sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.

The Cracks of Doom

But now Tolkien had to revise, over and over, until he was completely satisfied with the entire text, which took many more months. It was not finished until the autumn of 1949, though it was still not ready for publication. Earlier in the year, however, his Farmer Giles of Ham had been published. Tolkien now lent the completed typescript of The Lord of the Rings to C. S. Lewis, who replied after reading it:

My dear Tollers,

‘Uton herian holbytlas’ indeed. I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst. Once it really gets under weigh the steady upward slope of grandeur and terror (not unrelieved by green dells, without which it would indeed be intolerable) is almost unequalled in the whole range of narrative art known to me. In two virtues I think it excels: sheer sub-creation – Bombadil, Barrow Wights, Elves, Ents – as if from inexhaustible resources, and construction. Also in ‘gravitas’. No romance can repel the charge of ‘escapism’ with such confidence. If it errs, it errs in precisely the opposite direction: all victories of hope deferred and the merciless piling up of odds against the heroes are near to being to being too painful. And the long ‘coda’ after the eucastrophe, whether or not you intended it or no, has the effect of reminding us that victory is as transitory as as conflict, that is (as Byron says) ‘there’s no sterner moralist than pleasure’, and so leaving a final impression of profound melancholy.

Of course this is not the whole story. There are many passages I could wish you had written otherwise or omitted altogether. If I include none of my adverse criticisms in this letter, it is because you have heard and rejected most of them already (‘rejected’ is perhaps too mild a word for your reaction on at least one occasion!). And even if all my objections were just (which is of course unlikely) the faults I think I find could only delay and impair appreciation: the substantial splendour of the tale can carry them all. ‘Ubi plura nitent in carmine non ego paucis offendi maculis.’

I congratulate you. All the young years you have spent on it are justified.


Jack Lewis

Tolkien himself did not think the book was flawless, but we don’t know how he received Lewis’s response. Based on previous reactions to his friend’s criticisms, we can guess that he was not altogether pleased with it, despite the generally favourable terms in which his criticisms were ‘topped and tailed.’ But probably mindful of Lewis’s comments, he told Stanley Unwin:

It is written in my life-blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can do no other.

Narnian Nymphs & Fauns – Fairy Stories of Other Worlds:

The continuing coolness between Lewis and Tolkien was probably due, on Tolkien’s side at least, to his open dislike of Lewis’s Narnia stories for children. In 1949 Lewis began to read the first of them, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, aloud to Tolkien. It was greeted with a snort of contempt as Tolkien told Roger Lancelyn Green:

“It really won’t do! I mean to say: ‘Nymphs and their ways, The Love-life of a Faun’!”

Nevertheless, Lewis completed it, and when it and its successors were published, Narnia found as broad and enthusiastic an audience as The Hobbit had enjoyed. Lewis said that ‘marvellous’ literature evoked his desire for Heaven; at the same time, he believed that there is no literature less likely to give a person a false impression of the world than fairy tales. His thoughts on the subject are clearly revealed in his essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children. In it, he first draws our attention to a fundamental point made by his friend Tolkien that fairy tales were not originally written for children but gravitated to the nursery when they became unfashionable in literary circles.

Some children and some adults like fairy stories; some do not. Lewis maintained that so-called ‘realistic’ stories are far more likely to deceive than fairy tales because, though their adventures and successes are possible, they are almost infinitely improbable. While it is possible to become a duke with a palace or a millionaire with a yacht, it is unlikely that this will happen to all but a very few of us. On the other hand, no one expects the real world to be like that of fairy tales. The longing for fairyland is different, for it cannot be supposed that the boy who longs for fairyland really longs for the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale. Lewis wrote further on this theme in his essay:

It would be much truer to say that fairyland arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension in depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. This is a special kind of longing.

C. S. Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

But Lewis maintained that at first, there was nothing specifically Christian about the pictures he saw in his mind, but that that element, as with Aslan, pushed its way in of its own accord. In another of his essays in Of Other Worlds; Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said, touching directly on the Narnian stories, Lewis wrote that he chose the fairy tale as the form for his stories because of its brevity, its severe restraints upon description, its flexible traditionalism, its inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’.

From Chapter Nine of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’: ‘The Lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song. It was softer and more lifting than the song by which he had called up the stars and the sun; gentle, rippling music. And as he walked and sang, the valley grew green with grass. It spread out from the Lion like a pool. It ran up the sides of the little hills like a wave.

It was a form he had long been in love with, and when the time came, he felt he would burst if he did not write one. Choosing that form, he said, was allowing the author in him to have its say. But then the man in him began to have his turn. He also saw how stories such as he had in mind could ‘steal past’ certain inhibitions that he had had in childhood. He believed that the reason we find it so hard to feel as we ought to about God and the sufferings of Christ is that an obligation to do so freezes feelings.

The stories in these seven books began as a series of pictures in the author’s head. Then, when he was forty, he decided to try to make a story out of it. He once said, “People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself.” In doing so, he wrote books millions of others also wanted to read. The first of these to be written was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950 with illustrations by Pauline Baynes, a young artist who perfectly captured, in line drawings, the pictures that ‘Jack’ Lewis had imagined. It began with the image of a snowy wood with a little goat-footed faun scurrying along carrying an umbrella and a pile of parcels. He later recalled that this picture had been in his mind since he was about sixteen.

Illustrating Narnia:
“Do not fly too high,” said Aslan. “Do not try to go over the tops of the great ice mountains. Look out for the valleys and the green places, and fly through them. There will always be a way through. And now be gone with my blessing.” “Oh, Fledge!” said Digory, leaning forward to pat the Horse’s glossy neck. “This is fun. Hold on to me tight, Polly.” The Magicians Nephew, chapter twelve.

Lewis, aged forty-eight.

Excellent as Lewis’s descriptions are, the books are so enhanced by the illustrations of Pauline Baynes that it would be a serious omission not to refer to her part, right from the start, in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ as the collection of successful books eventually became known. The combination of stories and illustrations is one of the happiest collaborations in children’s literature. Recalling, in 1978, her early meetings with the author, she told a documentary film-maker:

C. S. Lewis told me that he had actually gone into a bookshop and asked the assistant there if she could recommend someone who could draw children and animals. I don’t know if he was just being kind to me and making me feel that I was more important than I was or whether he’d simply heard about me from his friend Tolkien.

Lewis had indeed admired Pauline Baynes’ illustrations of Tolkien’s Farmer Giles of Ham (1949). Later, he wrote to Walter Hooper that he had endless admiration for her illustrations of his Narnian books, particularly her drawings of his animal characters. Hooper wrote that she was very near the top of the list of all those who had drawn anthropomorphic beasts and fantasy creatures. 

As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamppost in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard the pitter-patter of feet coming towards her. And soon after that, a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamppost.’
Chapter One, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The seventh and last book for children in C. S. Lewis’ Tales of Narnia is The Last Battle, first published in 1956. This was just a year after the ‘first’ book of the ‘Chronicles’, The Magician’s Nephew, was published in 1955, though actually, the sixth book Lewis wrote. It told of how the journeying between the two parallel worlds, ours and Narnia, began, as well as explaining various mysteries, such as how the wardrobe came to be a door into Narnia, and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood.

And so Lucy found herself walking through the wood arm in arm with this strange creature as if they had known one another all their lives.’
Chapter Two, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

In the opinion of Walter Hooper, The Last Battle is the best written and the most sublime of all the tales of Narnia, the crowning glory of the whole Narnian creation. Everything else in all the other six stories finds its ultimate meaning in relation to this seventh and final book. Lewis’s didactic purpose should be apparent to those conversant with orthodox Christianity. He uses his own invented world to illustrate what the Church has been teaching since its beginning, which was becoming increasingly neglected or forgotten. Namely, this world will end; it was never meant to be our real home – that lies elsewhere; we do not know, nor can we, when the end will come, but we know that it will come from without, not from within.

The drowning of Narnia by a great ‘tidal wave’ or ‘tsunami’ from The Last Battle.

As the cover of its 1961 reprint (below) shows, this final book, The Last Battle, won the Carnegie Award for the best children’s book of 1956, then the highest mark of excellence in children’s literature. Yet, even then, Ronald Tolkien could not find it in his heart to reverse his original opinion. In 1964, in the year following Lewis’s death and five years after the last story, The Last Battle, had been published, he wrote, albeit somewhat mournfully:

‘It is sad that “Narnia” and all that part of C. S. L.’s work should remain outside the range of my sympathies, as much of my work was outside his.’

Lucy: “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the one below. … I see … world within world, Narnia within Narnia.” The Last Battle, chapter sixteen.

Tolkien probably felt that Lewis had, in some ways, drawn upon Tolkien’s ideas and stories in the books. Just as he resented Lewis’s progress from ‘the convert’ to ‘the popular theologian,’ he was perhaps irritated by the appearance that the friend and critic who had listened to his tales of Middle-earth had, as it were, got up from his armchair, gone to the desk, picked up the pen, and ‘had a go’ himself. Moreover, the sheer number of Lewis’s books for children and the apparent haste with which they were produced undoubtedly annoyed him. The seven Chronicles of Narnia were written and published within seven years, fewer than half the number of years it took Tolkien to write and publish The Lord of the Rings. This provided another wedge between the two friends and colleagues.

The Fellowship of the Ring:

When Lord of the Rings was finally accepted for publication in 1952, C. S. Lewis wrote to congratulate his old friend and colleague, remarking: I think the prolonged pregnancy has drained a little vitality from you: There’ll be a new ripeness and freedom when the book’s out. But at that particular moment, Tolkien felt anything but free. He wanted to read the typescript of the book once more before it went to the printers and to iron out any remaining inconsistencies. Moreover, this was at a time when he had decided to move house again because the place the Tolkien’s had been living in since 1950 was made almost unbearable by the stream of motor traffic that roared past, day and night. So by the spring of 1953, Ronald had found a house in Headington, then a quiet suburb to the east of the city. He and Edith moved there in March.

The covers of the three ‘sub-titles’ as they appear today (see text below).

Despite the dislocation, Tolkien completed the first volume of The Lord of the Rings by mid-April and the second volume soon afterwards. Although the book was one continuous story and not a ‘trilogy’ – a point that Tolkien was always keen to emphasise – the publishers felt that it was best if it came out volume by volume, in three books, each with a separate title. Tolkien and Rayner Unwin eventually agreed upon The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King as the three titles. When Lewis was elected to a new chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge in 1954, which obliged him to spend much of his time away from Oxford, he and Tolkien met on comparatively few occasions after that. But despite this apparent widening of the ‘distance’ in their relationship, on 14 August 1954, a few days after the first volume had been published, C. S. Lewis published a review of The Fellowship of the Ring in Time and Tide, as he had done for The Hobbit seventeen years previously:

This book is like lightning from a clear sky. To say that in its heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, it has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism, is inadequate. To us, who live in that old period, the return – and the sheer relief of it – is doubtless the important thing. But in the history of Romance itself – a history which stretches back to the Odyssey and beyond – it makes not a return but an advance or revolution: the conquest of new territory.

Perhaps it was a little excessive for Lewis to contribute to the publisher’s ‘blurb’ and review the book, but he was determined to do everything he could to help Tolkien. However, before sending his contribution to Rayner Unwin, he had warned Tolkien that his name might do him more harm than good. Many literary critics writing in the 1950s and early 1960s equated ‘fantastic’ literature with ‘escapism’ and wishful thinking. More than one critic reviewing Tolkien’s book in August 1954 displayed an extraordinary personal animosity towards Lewis. But J. W. Lambert, writing in The Sunday Times, at least focused on the story, which he said had two odd characteristics: no religious spirit of any kind and, to all intents and purposes, no women. Neither of these statements was entirely fair, but both were reflected in the comments of later critics. But he also wrote that it sweeps along with a narrative and pictorial force. Tolkien wrote that the reviews were better than he had thought. After all three volumes had appeared, the critics could fully assess The Lord of the Rings as a whole story. Lewis paid another tribute in Time and Tide:

The book is too original and too opulent for any final judgement on a first reading. But we know at once it has done things to us. We are not quite the same men.

High praise also came from Bernard Levin, by then already a well-known writer and broadcaster, who wrote that he genuinely believed the book to be one of the most remarkable works of literature in our, or any, time. He added that it was comforting, in this troubled day, to be once more assured that the meek shall inherit the earth. But opinions were firmly polarised. The book had acquired its champions and enemies. As W. H. Auden wrote, nobody seemed to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, they consider it a masterpiece of its genre, or they cannot abide it.

The ‘Clubbable’ Bohemian retires; Jack dies:

This is how it remained for the rest of Tolkien’s life: extreme praise from one faction, total contempt from the other. But it soon ceased to bother him much so long as he had a close group of friends and colleagues. C. S. Lewis wrote that he was a man of ‘cronies’… always best in some small circle of intimates where the tone was at once Bohemian, literary and Christian. So, when he retired from the Merton Professorship in the summer of 1959, he experienced a measure of unhappiness. In these later years, he still saw a little of Lewis, making occasional visits to the Bird and Baby and to ‘the Kilns’, Lewis’s house on the other side of Headington.

Tolkien and Lewis might have recovered and preserved something of their old friendship had Tolkien not been puzzled and even angered by Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman, which lasted from 1957, after Lewis had finished his Chronicles of Narnia, to her death in 1960. Some of Tolkien’s attitudes may be explained by her having been divorced before she married Lewis and by the more widely felt resentment at Lewis’s expectation that his friends should ‘pay court’ to his wife. In contrast, in the thirties, Lewis had regularly ignored the fact that his friends had wives to go home to. It was also almost as if Tolkien resented the intrusion of a woman into his friendship with Jack, just as Edith had resented his intrusion into her marriage. Ironically it was Edith who became the closest of friends with Joy.

The cessation in the mid-fifties of Tolkien’s regular meetings with Jack Lewis marked the closing of the ‘clubbable’ chapter in the life of ‘Tollers’, a chapter which had begun nearly fifty years earlier with the TCBS, the ‘Tea Club’ in Birmingham, and had culminated in the Inklings at Oxford. From this time, he was a solitary man who spent most of his time at home, taking care of Edith’s health and well-being as she became increasingly immobile. This was also a deliberate withdrawal from university society, for Oxford itself was changing. His generation was making way for a different breed of men, less discursive, less sociable and certainly less Christian. Besides, he still had The Silmarillion to complete, which Allen & Unwin were highly keen to publish, having been waiting for it for several years. During the sixties, Tolkien completed two other books for publication. Then, in 1961, his aunt Jane Neave, then eighty-nine, wrote to ask him if he wouldn’t get out a small book with Tom Bombadil at the heart of it, the sort of size of book that we old ‘uns can afford to buy for Christmas presents. The result was The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. The verses Tolkien selected for this book had been written mainly during the 1920s and ’30s, the exception being Bombadil Goes A-Boating, which was composed especially for the book. Again illustrated by Pauline Baynes, the book was issued in 1962, just in time to delight his Aunt Jane, who died a few months later.

The following year, he lost his friend of nearly forty years. Jack Lewis died on 22 November 1963, aged sixty-four, after a year-long illness. A few days later, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla:

So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age – like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an ax-blow near the roots.

Despite these emotions, or perhaps because of them, he refused to write an obituary for Jack, who, as we now know, had already written one for him. Tolkien also turned down an invitation to contribute to the memorial volume. Instead, soon after Lewis’s death, he began to keep a diary again, something he had not done for many years. Like all of his previous journals, this was more often a record of sorrows than joys, so it does not provide a balanced picture of his ‘life after Jack’ at Sandfield Road, Headington. It does, however, indicate the appalling depths of gloom to which he now sank, albeit for only a short period. Typically, just as his despair over his failure to finish The Lord of the Rings led to him writing Leaf by Niggle, so his anxiety about the future and his growing grief about the onset of old age led him to write Smith of Wootton Major.

A Return to ‘Heroic Romance’:

Tolkien’s revision of the lecture, On Fairy Stories, was then published in 1964 together with Leaf by Niggle under the overall title Tree and Leaf, but he had not begun anything new. An American publisher had asked Tolkien to write a preface for a new edition of George Macdonald’s The Golden Key. He usually rejected such requests, but perhaps because Lewis had been passionately devoted to Macdonald’s work, he accepted. He set to work on it at the end of January 1965, when his spirits were at their lowest. He found much of Macdonald’s writing spoilt for him by its moral allegorical content. But he pressed on with the task as if he had to get something finished to prove that he was capable of doing so. He began to explain the meaning of the term Fairy to the young readers for whom the edition was intended. He wrote:

Fairy is very powerful. Even the bad author cannot escape it. He probably makes up his tale out of bits of older tales, or things he half remembers, and they may be too strong for him to spoil or disenchant. Someone may meet them for the first time in his silly tale, and catch a glimpse of Fairy, and go on to better things. This could be put into a short story like this. There was once a cook, and he thought of making a cake for a children’s party. His chief notion was that it must be very sweet …

The story was only meant to last for a few paragraphs, but it went on and on until Tolkien stopped, realising that it had acquired a life of its own and should be completed as something separate from the preface. The first draft was called ‘The Great Cake’, but he soon adopted the title Smith of Wootton Major. Tolkien called it an old man’s story, filled with the presage of bereavement, and said that it was written with deep emotion, partly drawn from the experience of the bereavement of “retirement” and advancing age. Like Smith, the village lad who swallows a magic star and so obtains a passport to Faery, Tolkien had, in his imagination, wandered through mysterious lands. Now, he felt the end approach and knew he would soon have to surrender his own star, his imagination. So it was the last story he ever wrote. He showed it to Rayner Unwin, who was delighted with it, and it was published in Britain and America in 1967, with illustrations by Pauline Baynes. It was well received by the critics, though some of them detected an element of allegory, which Tolkien duly and firmly denied. The Macdonald preface was never finished, however.

Tolkien, in retirement at Merton Street.

By the mid-sixties, much of Tolkien’s writing appealed to American students and its implied emphasis on protecting natural landscapes against the ravages of industrial society harmonised with the growing ecological movement. But its chief appeal lay, as Lewis had seen, in its unabashed return to heroic romance. Harsher critics called it ‘escapism’ and compared its influence to that of hallucinatory drugs in some student circles. However, The Lord of the Rings became the ‘go-to’ book of millions of young Americans, surpassing all previous best-sellers. At the end of 1966, at Yale University, it was selling better than William Golding’s Lord of the Flies at its peak; at Harvard, it was ‘outpacing’ J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Branches of the Tolkien Society ‘mushroomed’ along the West Coast and in New York State and eventually grew into the Mythopoeic Society, devoted also to studying the works of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. At the same time, an interest in Tolkien’s books showed a marked increase in Britain, partly as a reflection of the cult that had grown up in America. British book sales rose sharply, a Tolkien Society began to meet in London and students at Warwick University renamed the ring road around their campus ‘Tolkien Road’.

Nightmares – ‘The Human Race’ against the ‘Modern Reformer’:

The Last Battle

Many professional educators of the 1950s and ’60s claimed that the Narnian battles and wicked characters frightened children and gave them nightmares. While Lewis agreed with them that nothing should be done likely to give the child those haunting, disabling pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless, he was strongly opposed to the notion that we must keep out of the child’s mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. In this matter, he declared himself to be on the side of the human race against ‘the modern reformer’:

Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.

“Stop!” said the Witch. “Let him first be shaved.”
From The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Early in 1963, Walter Hooper had travelled to Oxford simply to have afternoon tea with C. S. Lewis. Within a week, the Professor asked him to become his ‘companion-secretary’, a post he fulfilled for the remaining months of the Professor’s life, also becoming the son I should have had. Besides being the joint author of a biography of Lewis, he edited ten volumes of Lewis’s works and continued to deal with a lot of the Professor’s ‘fan-mail’, much of it from children. Hooper claimed that while he had met some adults who considered Lewis’s fairy tales too violent for children, he had never met a child who did not love the Narnian adventures intensely. During his lifetime, Lewis received thousands of letters from children, and seventeen years after his death, Hooper still had to answer these letters, which children from all over the world continued to address to the author.

Stealing past Dragons – Writing for Children:

It would, perhaps, have been an intelligent guess to assume that Lewis began with the things he wanted to say about Christianity and other interests and then fixed on the fairy tale as a way of expressing them. But that is not what happened. Lewis said he could not and would not write that way and never actually ‘made’ a story. Instead, it all began with seeing ‘pictures’; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. It was, he remembered, more like ‘bird-watching’ than talking or building. Sometimes a whole set of images would join themselves together. Still, it was necessary to do some ‘deliberate inventing’, contriving reasons as to why characters should be doing multiple things in various places. But all this invention was done to use his fairy tales as a means to ‘steal past’ the usual treatment of Biblical stories:

The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all of these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

A stained-glass depiction of an angel from
the Old Testament story of Jacob’s Ladder.

But Lewis shared Tolkien’s dislike of allegory. Even those likenesses that seem to bear the closest resemblance to historical events in this world can be similar without being the same. These similarities did not need a mature theological analysis for their perception; Lewis regarded children as the most aware of his readers. They were the first to respond to the ultimate likeness, as his reply to one little girl in 1960 reveals:

All your points are in a sense right. But I’m not exactly ‘representing the real (Christian) story in symbols. I’m more saying, ‘suppose there were a world like Narnia, and it needed restoring and the Son of God (or the Great Emperor-Over-Sea) went to redeem it, as He came to redeem ours, what might it, in that world, all have been like?’

Hooper argues that such parallels, variously transfigured as they are in Narnia, are not what the books are about. It is not the identifiably biblical elements which make us think of the Narnian stories as Christian. On the contrary, almost every page of every book is suffused with the moral quality that no one, whatever their confessional beliefs, could object to. The tales are not based on premeditated moral themes, but these themes grew out of the telling and are as much a part of the narrative as scent is to a flower. So, Lewis did not see his Narnian books as moral manuals for children, and he insisted that the stories were not ‘allegories’ in the traditional sense of the term.

By allegory, he meant using something real and tangible to stand for something real but intangible. Anything immaterial can be allegorised and represented by physical objects, but Aslan the Lion, for example, is already a physical object. To try to convey what Christ would be like in Narnia is to turn one physical being into another. That does not fall within Lewis’s definition of what constitutes an allegory. On the other hand, there is much in the tales, especially in The Last Battle, which would fit Lewis’s own description of symbolism, that we are the ‘frigid personifications’; the heavens above us are the ‘shadowy abstractions’. He believed that Heaven is the real thing, of which earth is an imperfect copy.

By the time C. S. Lewis became a Christian, he had already come a long way towards seeing that ‘Joy’, the deepest of longings of all men, is, at the bottom, a desire for Heaven. In this context, from the last book that C. S. Lewis was to write, Letters to Malcolm, the final paragraphs have become possibly the most famous he was ever to pen:

I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity, I do think that while we are in this ’valley of tears’, cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial  condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.

For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate and beautiful order?  How can you find any image of this in in the ’serious’ activities  either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some ways, a ’via crucis’…

… It is only in our ‘hours-off’, only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. … But in this world, everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

Following his friend Jack’s death, Ronald Tolkien apparently spent many hours pondering these thoughts and others from C. S. Lewis’s last book. But from death and grief, as Lewis wrote, Christians must move on to the culmination of the triumphant theme of Joy as the serious business of Heaven.

“Reepicheep!” from the end of The Last Battle.


Humphrey Carpenter (1977, 2016), J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin/ HarperCollins Publishers.

The Tolkien Estate Limited, http://www.tolkien.co.uk

Walter Hooper (1980), Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. London: Fount Paperbacks (Collins).

Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

C. S. Lewis (1956, 1961), The Last Battle: A Story for Children. London: The Bodley Head.

C. S. Lewis (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Harper Collins.

C. S. Lewis (1944, 1952), Mere Christianity. London: William Collins (HarperCollins).

A. J. Chandler, C. S. Lewis’s Tales of Narnia, from Genesis to ‘Shadowlands’ – Stealing Past Dragons. Online article@chandlerandrewjames:


Faith, Fantasy & Fairy Tales – Tolkien, ‘Jack’ Lewis & ‘The Inklings’, 1926-66: Part One – Creator & Sub-creators.

Entertaining Angels Unawares:

Statue of Mary Magdalene, on the facáde of Magdalen College, Oxford.

When Tolkien returned to Oxford in 1925, an element was missing from his life. It had disappeared with the breaking of his fellowship of the TCBS at the Battle of the Somme, for not since those days had he enjoyed male friendship to the extent of emotional and intellectual commitment. He had continued to see something of the other surviving TCBS member, Christopher Wiseman, but Wiseman was now heavily involved with his duties as the headmaster of an independent Methodist school, Queens College in Taunton, which Tolkien’s grandfather had attended as one of its earliest pupils. When the two men met, they found little else in common. Then, on 11 May 1926, Tolkien attended a meeting of the English Faculty at Merton College. A new arrival stood out among the familiar faces, a heavily-built man of twenty-seven in baggy clothes who had been recently elected Fellow and Tutor in English Language and Literature at Magdalen College. This was Clive Staples Lewis, known to family and friends as ‘Jack’. At first, the two men were wary of each other. Tolkien knew that Lewis, although a medievalist, was in the ‘Lit.’ camp and thus a potential adversary, while Lewis wrote in his diary that Tolkien was a smooth, pale, fluent little chap, adding No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.

A Life Between Faith and Mythology:
The Mountains of Mourne in Ireland inspired Lewis to write about the landscape in The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis wrote, “I have seen landscapes … which, under a particular light, make me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge.”
Photo by Marksie531 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Clive Staples Lewis became the most famous defender of orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world in the mid-twentieth century. Born in Belfast in 1898, he was the son of a solicitor and was brought up first as an Ulster Protestant, then as an Anglican, and educated at Malvern College. So he knew parts of the Worcestershire countryside that Ronald Tolkien grew up in and the very different landscape of Northern Ireland, shown above. During adolescence, he had professed agnosticism; instead, he had discovered that his greatest delight was to be found not in Christianity but in pagan mythologies. Like Tolkien, as a young man, C. S. Lewis had served in the trenches of World War One, and by the time he went to Oxford in 1917, he had become an atheist. Nevertheless, Lewis was determined that there were to be no flirtations with the idea of the supernatural.

Clive Staples ‘Jack’ Lewis, aged forty-eight

Bands of Brothers, bonds of brotherhood:

This sense of male companionship, which developed in the School of English at Oxford in the 1920s, was partly the result of the First World War, in which so many friends had been killed that the survivors naturally felt the need to stay close together. In particular, we can find something of the ties of male comradeship between Tolkien and Lewis expressed in both men’s work, especially in The Lord of the Rings. Despite their initial diffidence towards each other, Lewis soon came to have a strong affection for his keen-eyed elder, who liked good conversation, laughter and beer. At the same time, Tolkien warmed to Lewis’ quick mind and generous spirit. By May 1927, Tolkien had enrolled Lewis into the literary fraternity of the ‘Coalbiters’ to join in the reading of the Icelandic sagas, and a long and complex friendship had begun.

The comradeship between Tolkien and Lewis between 1925 and 1931 was remarkable and, at the same time, almost inevitable, given their shared experiences at the front and in the trenches. It was not homosexual nor misogynistic, yet it tended to exclude women, particularly Edith. This made it the great mystery of Ronald Tolkien’s life and, latterly, during his relationship with Joy Davidman, that of ‘Jack’ Lewis. On the occasions when, as a bachelor, Lewis visited Northmoor Road, he was shy and ungainly in his approach to Edith. Consequently, she could not understand the delight that Ronald took in his company, so she became a little jealous. After their move from Leeds, it quickly became clear to Ronald that Edith was unhappy with Oxford and especially resentful of his men friends. Indeed, he perceived that his need for an exclusively male company was not entirely compatible with married life. But he also believed that, on the whole, a man had a right to male pleasures and should, if necessary, insist upon them. In answer to a letter from one of his sons contemplating marriage, he wrote:

There are many things that a man feels are legitimate even though they cause a fuss. Let him not lie about them to his wife or lover! Cut them out – or if worth a fight: just insist.

There was also, in this context, the issue of Edith’s continuing lukewarmness towards Catholicism. Before they were married, Ronald had persuaded her to leave the Church of England and become a Catholic, and she had resented this a little at that time. However, in the second decade of her marriage, her anti-Catholic feelings hardened, and by the time the family returned to Oxford in 1925, she had almost given up going to mass. She also began to resent Ronald for taking the children to church so frequently, especially to confession, which she had hated from the beginning. For Ronald, his religious beliefs stemmed mainly from his emotional attachment to his mother’s memory, so he could not discuss her feelings rationally and lucidly demonstrated in his theological debates with Jack Lewis. Occasionally, her smouldering resentment would burst into fury, but after one such outburst in 1940, she and Ronald reconciled, and she decided to return to the Anglican church. She did not return to church-going, either as an Anglican or a Catholic, but remained respectful of church affairs for the rest of her life, showing no further resentment.

From the Left: Michael, Priscilla (front), John, Ronald, Christopher.

Although to some extent, they lived separate lives at Northmoor Road, it would be wrong to picture Edith as being totally excluded from his work. During these years, she did not share his writing as fully as she had done at Great Haywood when he began working on The Book of Lost Tales. Yet she invariably shared in the family’s interest when he was working on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Although not published until 1937, letters from Ronald himself and Christopher, his son, confirm that The Hobbit was begun in 1930 or 1931 in manuscript form, though not completed in typescript until 1936. It was read to the three brothers (and probably listened to by Edith) in the family’s “Winter Reads” after tea-times in 1930-31, and there was a completed typescript of all but the final chapters in time for it to be sent to C. S. Lewis in 1932. Edith was also the first person to whom he showed two of his later stories, Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major, and he was always warmed and encouraged by her approval. Ronald and Edith also shared many friends, including former students and colleagues such as Simonne d’Ardenne, Elaine Griffiths, Stella Mills and Mary Salu. These were family friends, as much a part of Edith’s life as Ronald’s, providing a binding force between them.

Those who knew the couple over the years never doubted that there was a deep mutual affection between them. But the essential source of their happiness was their shared love of family. They were proud of Michael when he won the George Medal for his action as an anti-aircraft gunner defending aerodromes in the Battle of Britain and equally proud when John was ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church shortly after the war. Tolkien was immensely kind and understanding as a father, never shy of kissing them in public even when grown men, and never reserved in his display of warmth and love.

Map of Oxford from North to South, showing Pembroke College and Merton College.

The particular friendship that developed between Tolkien and Lewis was not simply the result of shared wartime experiences and losses, however, but owed much to their shared sense of ‘Northernness’, not just relating their own’ north of Oxford’ origins but also to their mutual captivating with everything Anglo-Saxon and Norse. Since early adolescence, Lewis had been fascinated by Norse mythology. When he found in Tolkien another who delighted in the mysteries of the Edda and the complexities of the Völsunga saga, it was clear they had much in common academically. They began to meet regularly in Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen, talking of this legendarium or discussing the politics of the English School. They also commented on each other’s poetry. Tolkien lent Lewis the typescript of his long poem, The Gest of Beren and Lúthien, and after reading it, Lewis wrote to him,

I can quite honestly say that it is ages since we had an evening of such delight: and the personal interest of reading a friend’s work had very little to do with it – I should have enjoyed it just as well if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author.

Quoted by Carpenter (see below), p. 194.

He also sent Tolkien detailed criticisms of the poem, which he jestingly couched in the form of a mock textual, complete with the names of fictional scholars, who suggested that weak lines in the poem were simply the result of scribal inaccuracies in the manuscript, and could not be the work of the original poet. Tolkien was amused but accepted only a few of Lewis’s suggested emendations. But, on the other hand, he did rewrite almost every passage that Lewis had criticised so extensively that the revised version was scarcely the same poem. Lewis soon found this to be characteristic of his new friend, commenting that:

He has only two reactions to criticism. Either he begins the whole work again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Carpenter, p 195.

By the end of 1929, Lewis was supporting Tolkien’s plans for the English School, and the two of them discussed strategies. Lewis wrote conspiratorially to Tolkien, forgive me if I remind you that there are orcs behind every tree. Together they fought a skilful campaign, and it was partly due to Lewis’s support on the Faculty Board that Tolkien managed to get his reformed syllabus accepted in 1931. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote that his friendship with Tolkien…

… marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world, I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly), never to trust a philologist. Tolkien was both.

Soon after the second prejudice had been overcome, their friendship moved on to confront the first.

Seeking Joy Within:

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis defines ‘Joy’ by first recording three experiences from his early childhood. While standing by a flowering currant bush on a summer day, there arose in him the memory of a yet earlier morning in which his brother had brought into the nursery a toy garden. This memory within a memory caused a sensation of desire to break over him. Before he could know what he desired, the desire itself was gone, and he was left with a longing for the longing that had just ceased. His second ‘glimpse of Joy’ came through Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin. This little book troubled him with the ‘Idea of Autumn,’ and he was plunged once more into the experience of intense desire. The third came to him while reading Longfellow’s poem Tegner’s Drapa. When he read,

I heard a voice that cried,

Balder the beautiful

Is dead, is dead …

… his mind was uplifted into huge regions of the northern sky. At the very moment he was stabbed by desire, he left himself falling out of that desire and wishing he were back in it. Lewis tells us that Joy, the quality common to these three experiences, is an unsatisfied longing that is more desirable than any other satisfaction. When he went to boarding school in Malvern, Worcestershire, his eyes fell on one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods, and his sense of joyful longing returned. In an instant, he was plunged back into the past of Balder and sunward sailing cranes and felt the old inconsolable urge. The memory of his own past Joy and the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ flowed together, he said, …

into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which … had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say “It is”.

The young Lewis made many mistakes in his pursuit of Joy. As the old thrill became less frequent, he attempted most desperately to ‘have it again’. He turned from one medium of Joy to another, hoping always to find permanent satisfaction. He shifted to erotic pleasure, only to find that Joy is not a substitute for sex. Sex is very often a substitute for Joy. Lewis’ lost his virginity’ while at Malvern. Still, the ‘potent, ubiquitous and unabashed’ eroticism of William Morris’s romances chiefly persuaded him that sex might be the substance of Joy.

When, after the Great War, he became an atheist, all the images he associated with Joy were, he concluded, sheer fantasies. He had at last seen through them, and the important thing was to get ahead with the ‘good life’ without Christian’ mythology’. But by the mid-twenties, he had receded a little from this standpoint, and after taking a First Class in the English School (and earlier a double first in Classics) and while making a precarious living as a tutor, he arrived at what he called his New Look, the belief that the Christian’ myth’ conveys as much truth as most men can comprehend. By 1926 he had moved further back to the Christian’ fold’, coming to a conclusion that, in effect, his search for the source of what he called ‘Joy’ was a search for God. Soon it became apparent to him that he must accept or reject God. It was at this juncture that he met and became friends with Tolkien.

It is therefore surprising how, one by one, all of Lewis’s reservations about the Christian faith were swept away, as described in Surprised by Joy. But in Tolkien, Lewis found a person of wit and intellectual verve who was nevertheless a devout Christian. During the early years of their friendship, there were many hours when Tolkien would lounge around in one of Lewis’s armchairs in the centre of one of the big sitting rooms at Magdalen while Lewis, smoking his pipe, would pace up and down, suddenly swinging around and exclaiming “Distinguo. Tollers! Distinguo!” while Tolkien, also wreathed in pipe smoke, made too sweeping an assertion. But Lewis, in the matter of belief, was beginning to admit that Tolkien was right. So finally, after long searching and much reluctance, he was brought to his knees in the summer of 1929 and forced to acknowledge God was God. As Walter Hooper, his correspondent and secretary from 1954 to 1963, remarked, He who is the Joy of all men’s desiring came upon him and compelled him by divine mercy to surrender a long-besieged fortress. His surrender, however, was to become a Theist. He was not yet a Christian.

Finding Joy Within:

Map of the Oxford colleges from East to West, showing Magdalen College to the East of the High Street, and the Eastgate Hotel, no. 81, pictured below.

The Eastgate Hotel

The second stage of his conversion came two years later. Usually, his discussions with Tolkien took place on Monday mornings, when they could talk for an hour or two and then conclude with beer at the ‘Eastgate’, a nearby pub. But on Saturday 19 September they met in the evening. Lewis had invited Tolkien to dine at Magdalen, and he had another guest, Hugo Dyson, whom Tolkien had first met during his time at Exeter College in 1919. Now Lecturer in English Literature at Reading University, Dyson paid regular visits to Oxford. He was a Christian and a man of great wit. After dinner, the three men went for a walk, discussing the purpose of mythology. Lewis could not yet understand the function of Christ in Christianity, especially the meaning of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. He declared that he had to understand the purpose of these events and how, as he later expressed it in a letter to a friend,

… how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now – except in so far as his example could help us.

Magdalen Tower (see the number 2 on the map above for location)

As the night wore on, Tolkien and Dyson showed him that he was making a totally unnecessary demand. When he encountered the idea of sacrifice in the mythology of pagan religion, he admired it and was moved by it; indeed, the idea of the dying and reviving deity had always touched his imagination since he had read, as an adolescent, the story of the Norse god Balder in Longfellow’s poem (quoted above). But from the Gospels (they said), he required something more, a clear meaning beyond the myth. Could he not transfer his comparatively unquestioning appreciation of sacrifice from the myth to the true story? The following is an account of the continuing conversation based on Tolkien’s poem, Mythopoeia (‘the making of myths’ or Mysomythos), the manuscript of which his friend marked…

For C. S. L.

“But”, said Lewis, “myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.”

“No”, said Tolkien, “they are not”.

And, indicating the great trees of Magdalen Grove as their branches bent in the wind, he struck out a different line of argument.

You call a tree a tree, he said, and you think nothing more of the word. But it was not a ‘tree’ until someone gave it that name. You call a star a star, and say that it is just a ball of matter moving on a mathematical course. But that is merely how you see it. By so naming things and describing them you are only inventing your own terms about them. And just as speech is invention about objects and ideas, so myth is invention about truth.

We have come from God (continued Tolkien), and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only the myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards one true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.

In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology, Tolkien had laid bare the centre of his philosophy as a writer, the creed at the heart of The Silmarillion. Lewis listened as Dyson affirmed in his own way what Tolkien had said. Then Lewis asked,

You mean, that the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened? In that case, … I begin to understand.

Finally, they were driven inside by the wind, and they talked on in Lewis’ rooms till three a.m., when Tolkien went home. After seeing him out into the High Street, Lewis and Dyson talked as they walked up and down the cloister of New Buildings at Magdalen College until the sky became light. A week later, Lewis rode to Whipsnade Zoo in his brother’s motorcycle sidecar. He later wrote that when they left Oxford, he did not believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God; when they reached the zoo, he did. After that, the old ‘bittersweet stabs of Joy’ continued as before. But now he knew to what, or rather to whom they pointed. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves:

‘I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity. … My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.’

Meanwhile, Tolkien had been invigilating in the Examination Schools while composing the long poem Mythopoeia, which recorded all that he had said to Lewis, including that quoted above. He also wrote in his diary:

‘Friendship with Lewis compensates for much, and besides giving constant pleasure and comfort has done me much good from the contact with a man at once honest, brave, intellectual – a scholar, poet, and a philosopher – and a lover, after a long pilgrimage, of Our Lord.’

The quad of the Examination Schools in Merton Street, where Tolkien composed his poem Mythopoeia for Lewis in 1931. No. 82 on the map above.

So, after a long intellectual battle, Jack Lewis became a Christian in the summer of 1931. His autobiography, Surprised by Joy, traces the story of his conversion in his own words. But one of his reasons for writing the book was that he felt it to be a shared experience, easily misunderstood, difficult to bring to the forefront of consciousness, and of immense importance. The Pilgrim’s Regress, which is partly autobiographical, echoes this theme in the story of the pilgrim’s quest for a far-off island, the vision of which has stung him with ‘sweet desire’.

When Lewis realised that the word Romanticism in the subtitle was misunderstood, he wrote a preface to the third edition (1943) explaining the meaning he gave the word. For him, it meant ‘Joy’, the same Joy or longing that we can feel for our own far-off country: the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, as he wrote in the Weights of Glory, published posthumously in 1965. A longing which, although painful, is felt somehow to be a delight. A hunger more satisfying than fullness; poverty better than any wealth. A desire is itself the object of desire, so much so that the new desire becomes an instance of the original one. We feel we know what the object of our desire is, but in the final achievement of that desire, we know that the real object of our desire is somewhere else entirely …

Anyone who wants to know what Tolkien and Lewis contributed to each other’s lives and careers should also read Lewis’s essay on ‘Friendship’ in his book The Four Loves, published in 1963, shortly before his death. It gives an account of how two companions became friends when they discovered a shared insight, how their friendship is not jealous but seeks out the company of others, how such friendships are necessary between men and how the greatest pleasure of all is for a group of friends to come to an inn at after a hard day’s walking. Lewis wrote:

Those are the golden sessions, when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when all when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim to the responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give.

C. S. Lewis (1963), The Four Loves: Fontana, p. 68
The ‘Inklings’:

From the early thirties, the two men depended less exclusively on each other’s company and more on that of other professors, masters and fellows. In The Four Loves, Lewis states that two, far from being the necessary number for friendship, is not even the best, and he suggests that every new member added to a group brings out some particular attribute in the others. Tolkien had experienced this in the TCBS (Tea Club): the knot of friends, which now began to come together, was the ultimate expression of the principle based on the ‘clubbable’ urge that Tolkien had felt since these adolescent days. This group was known as ‘The Inklings’. It began to form about the time (in the early thirties) when the ‘Coalbiters’ ceased to meet, having fulfilled their aim of reading all the principal Icelandic sagas and the Elder Edda. ‘The Inklings’ was originally the name of a literary society founded in 1931 by a University College undergraduate. Lewis and Tolkien attended the meetings where unpublished compositions were read and criticised. After its founder Tangye Lean left Oxford, its name was transferred half jestingly to the circle of friends who gathered around Lewis regularly.

The Inklings have now entered literary history, and a good deal has been written about them. They were simply several friends, all male and all from different Christian backgrounds, who were interested in literature. There was no formal membership. Some regularly attended at specific periods, while others were only occasional visitors. Lewis was the invariable nucleus, without whom any gathering would have been inconceivable. Besides him and Tolkien, who were almost invariably present, other regular attendees in the years before and during the Second World War were Major Warren Lewis (C. S. Lewis’s brother, ‘Warnie’), R. E. Havard (an Oxford doctor who attended both the Lewis and Tolkien households), Lewis’s long-standing friend Owen Bayfield, and Hugo Dyson.

It was a very casual grouping, but there were certain invariable elements. It would meet on a weekday morning, usually in a pub, generally on Tuesdays in the ‘Eagle and Child’ (nicknamed ‘The Bird and Baby’), and on Thursday night in Lewis’s big Magdalen sitting room, congregating some time after nine o’clock. Tea would be made, pipes lit, and Lewis would ask for readings. Someone would produce a manuscript and begin to read it out loud – a poem or story or a chapter. Then there would be appreciation or criticism. There might be more readings, but soon there would be discussions of all kinds, sometimes heated debate, and the proceedings would terminate at a late hour. By the late thirties, the Inklings were an essential part of the lives of both Lewis and Tolkien, and among the latter’s contributions were readings from the still unpublished manuscript of The Hobbit. When war broke out in 1939, another man was recruited to the group of friends, Charles Williams, who worked for the Oxford University Press in London and was transferred to Oxford with the rest of the staff. Williams was in his fifties, and his writings were well-known and respected, albeit by a small circle of readers. Lewis had known and admired his work for some time, but Tolkien had only met him once or twice and soon developed a ‘complex’ about him.

Clearly, there was a little jealousy towards Williams on Tolkien’s part, for Lewis’s enthusiasm seemed to shift from himself to Williams. He wrote, uncharacteristically, that Lewis was a very impressionable man. So Williams’s arrival in Oxford marked the third phase in Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis, one marking a faint cooling on Tolkien’s part, which, as yet, Lewis probably hardly noticed.

Mere Christianity:

Something else made Tolkien cooler towards Lewis, something even more subtle yet more significant: Lewis’s growing reputation as a Christian apologist. As Tolkien had played such an essential role in Lewis’s conversion, he had always regretted that his friend had not become a Catholic but had begun to attend his local Anglican church, resuming the religious practices of his childhood and early adolescence. Tolkien maintained a deep resentment towards the Church of England, which he sometimes extended to its buildings, declaring that his appreciation of their beauty was marred by his sadness that they had been, as he considered, perverted from their rightful role in what he considered to be ‘the one, true faith.’ When Lewis published his prose allegory, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Tolkien thought the title ironical. He commented,

‘Lewis would regress. He would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again he would also take up again, or reawaken, the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland protestant.’

In his Broadcast Talks for the BBC in 1942-44, published in 1952 in his book Mere Christianity, Lewis set out his attitude toward Catholicism and a variety of Christian traditions and doctrines. In it, he answers what he called unwarranted conclusions drawn from the fact that he never says more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin Birth of Christ. But to say more, he said, would take him at once into highly controversial regions which need delicate treatment. When Lewis was writing, the Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject were tough to dissent from in a manner which would not brand the dissenter as a heretic. On the other hand, Protestant views on the subject called forth feelings that go down to Monotheism’s very roots. To radical Protestants, it seemed that the distinction between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperilled. Polytheism, he said, would have risen again. If any topic could be relied upon to wreck a book about ‘mere’ Christianity for those who do not yet believe that the virgin’s son is God, he wrote, surely this was it.

Having served, like Tolkien, as a young man in the awful trenches of World War One and then in 1940 as an ARP Warden when the bombing of Britain began, the talks on which his book was based were given to men in the RAF who knew that, on average, after just thirteen bombing missions, most of them would be dead or missing. Tolkien, whose son was training in South Africa to fly such missions, was nevertheless far more ambivalent in his attitude towards aerial warfare in particular and Britain’s war aims in general, especially its alliance with the Soviet Union. For Lewis, it was the situation of these young men ‘on the front line’ of the conflict which prompted him to speak about the problems of suffering, pain, and evil, work that resulted in his being invited by the BBC to give a series of wartime broadcasts on the Christian faith.

At the same time, he admitted in the preface that the danger he faced was that of putting forward as common Christianity anything peculiar to the Church of England. He guarded against this by sending the original script of the section of his book dealing with What Christians Believe to four clergymen – Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic – asking for their criticism. The Roman Catholic thought he had gone too far about the comparative unimportance of theories of the Atonement. Otherwise, he wrote, all five of them agreed. Besides, in dealing with morals, he noted that:

Ever since I served as an infantryman in the First World War, I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. I am not a woman nor even a married man, nor am I a priest. I do not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so.

This stance, of course, marked another significant difference between Lewis and Tolkien, especially over the issue of divorce, which the two ‘fell out over’ when Lewis decided to marry Joy Davidman, an American divorcée in the late 1950s, first to secure her status as a British resident, and subsequently in a Christian ceremony in hospital, where she was terminally ill, performed by an Anglican priest.

The New Hobbit:

Despite their growing literary and religious differences, Tolkien remarked that it had been from Lewis, in about 1929, that he got the idea that his ‘stuff’ could amount to more than a hobby of writing stories for his children. There was, however, a good stretch of time between Lewis’s conversion on the way to Whipsnade and his writing of his Christian books for children, The Tales of Narnia. During this time, Tolkien had written and published The Hobbit, primarily by 1931 but not published until September 1937. Tolkien was a little nervous about Oxford’s reaction to how the story could be seen as the major fruits of research. But he need not have worried: initially, Oxford paid almost no attention. A few days after publication, however, the book received an accolade in the columns of The Times:

All who love that kind of children’s book which can be read and re-read by adults should take note that a new star has appeared in this constellation. To the trained eye some characters will seem almost mythopoeic.

The eye in question was that of C. S. Lewis, a regular reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement, who had managed to get this notice of his friend’s book into the parent newspaper. He also reviewed the text in glowing terms in the Supplement itself. There was an equally enthusiastic reaction from many other critics. However, some took delight in pointing out the ineptness of the publisher’s ‘blurb’ that compared the book to Alice in Wonderland simply because Lewis Carroll had also been an Oxford don. There were a few dissenting voices, but by Christmas had sold out. When the American edition was issued a few months later, it received approbation from most critics. It was awarded the New York Herald Tribune prize for the best juvenile book of the season. Stanley Unwin, the publisher, realised that he had a children’s best-seller on his list and wrote to Tolkien:

‘A large public will be clamouring next year to hear more from you about Hobbits!’

Tolkien duly set to work on the second book, based on much of the material he had already written in his legendarium. At about the time that he decided to call the book, The Lord of the Rings, Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement with Hitler. Tolkien, like many others at the time, was suspicious not so much of German intentions as of those of Soviet Russia; he wrote that he had a loathing of any side that includes Russia and added:

‘One fancies that Russia is probably ultimately far more responsible for the current crisis and choice of moment than Hitler.’

The maps above and below show the location of Mordor.

However, this does not mean that the placing of Mordor (the seat of evil in the book) in the East is an allegorical reference to contemporary world politics, as some have suggested, for as Tolkien himself affirmed, it was a simple narrative and geographical necessity. In his previous book, he had already mapped out a large part of the Western part of Middle-earth (as shown in the maps above). Elsewhere he made a careful distinction between allegory and applicability:

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

C. S. Lewis wrote about The Lord of the Rings,

These things were not devised to reflect any particular situation in the real world. It was the other way round, real events began, horribly, to conform to the pattern he had freely invented.

Quoted in Carpenter, p. 253.

Tolkien hoped to continue the work on The Lord of the Rings in the early months of 1939. Still, there were endless distractions, among them his commitment to deliver the Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews at the beginning of March. For his subject, he had chosen the topic initially promised to the undergraduate society at Worcester College a year previously: fairy stories. It was appropriate to the occasion, being a subject that had much concerned Lang himself, and it was also much in Tolkien’s mind while he was writing his new story. The Hobbit was clearly written for children and The Silmarillion for adults, but he was aware that The Lord of the Rings was less easy to categorise. In October 1938, he had written to Stanley Unwin that the story, seemingly taking on a life of its own, was getting out of control in forgetting “children” and becoming more terrifying than ‘The Hobbit.’ He added that it may prove quite unsuitable. But he felt strongly that fairy stories are not necessarily only for children, and he decided to devote much of his lecture to the proof of this belief. In doing so, he would touch on the crucial point in the poem Mythopoeia that he had written for C. S. Lewis years before, which he also decided he would quote in the lecture:

The heart of man is not compound of lies,

but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,

and still recalls Him. Though now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Dis-graced he may be, though he is not de-throned,

and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light

through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Though all the crannies of the world we filled

with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build,

Gods and their houses of dark and light,

and sowed the seeds of dragons – ’twas our right

(used or misused). That right has not decayed:

we make still by the law in which we’re made.

Man, the ‘sub-creator,’ was, in one sense, a new way of expressing the author’s motivation in the reader of what is often called the willing suspension of disbelief, and Tolkien made it the central point of the lecture. He wrote that what really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’, creating a secondary world into which your mind can enter. Inside it, what the ‘sub-creator’ relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. The reader, therefore, believes it as long as they are ‘inside’. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken: the magic, or the art, has failed. They are then out in the primary world again, looking at the secondary world from the outside. At the end of the lecture, he asserted that there is no higher function for mankind than the ‘sub-creation’ of a secondary world such as he was already making in The Lord of the Rings. He hoped that, in one sense, the story and its entire related mythology would be found to be ‘true’. He went so far as to say it was a Christian venture to write such a story as he was now engaged in writing. He argued that:

The Christian may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.

The lecture was delivered at St Andrew’s in March 1939, and then Tolkien returned with renewed enthusiasm to The Lord of the Rings. Now, ‘the Ring’ was as important to him as ‘the Silmarils.’ In fact, it was now clear to him that the ‘new’ story was not so much a sequel to The Hobbit, at the instigation of his publisher, as a sequel to The Silmarillion. Every aspect of his early work was now playing a part in the new story: the mythology, which provided both a historical setting and a sense of depth, and the elvish languages he had developed so painstakingly and thoroughly over more than twenty-five years. Yet, Tolkien referred to the story in modest terms as ‘the new Hobbit’ to his friends.

Everyman’s Theologian:

Lewis’s conversion in 1931 had begun a new stage in their friendship. Gifted with an extraordinary intellect, it also triggered off a rich variety of individual creativity in Lewis. By the mid-1940s, he was receiving a great deal of publicity in connection with his Christian writings, The Problem of Pain and his international best-seller, The Screwtape Letters (1942), which won him the reputation of being able to ‘make righteousness readable’. But although he dedicated it to Tolkien, his friend thought the publicity now surrounding Jack was ‘too much for his or any of our tastes.’ As he observed his friend’s increasing fame in this respect, Tolkien perhaps felt as if a pupil had speedily overtaken his master to achieve almost unjustified fame. Not altogether flatteringly, he once referred to Lewis as ‘Everyman’s Theologian’. Lewis wrote many other works of theology and fantasy with theological dimensions but remained primarily a Professor of English Literature, first at Magdalen College, Oxford, until 1954, and then at Cambridge.

Magdalen College, Oxford.

Over the years, he also wrote many works of literary criticism, the best known being The Allegory of Love. Lewis achieved further fame as a preacher, debater, and a brilliantly effective ‘apostle to the sceptics’. Believing, as he said, that all that is not eternal is eternally out of date, he was utterly orthodox and therefore admired by Christians from all branches of the church. A jovial and ‘saintly’ man, he was a prolific author and could have amassed a fortune, but following his conversion, he gave away most of his earnings to charities. Any negative thoughts in Tolkien’s mind in the early nineteen-forties were well below the surface. He still had an almost unbounded affection for Lewis and perhaps still cherished the occasional hope that his friend might one day become a Catholic. And the ‘Inklings’ continued to provide much delight and encouragement to him. He wrote a parody of the opening lines of Beowulf in praise of the ‘brotherhood’:

Hwoet! We Inclinga! On aerdagum searopancolra snyttru gehierdon. Lo! We have heard in old days of the wisdom of the cunning-minded Inklings; how those wise ones sat together in their deliberations, skilfully reciting learning and song-craft, earnestly meditating. That was true joy!

(to be continued… )


Humphrey Carpenter (1977, 2016), J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: HarperCollinsPublishers.

Walter Hooper (1980), Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. London: Fount Paperbacks (Collins).

Tim Dowley (ed.) (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

C. S. Lewis (1998), The Chronicles of Narnia. London: Harper Collins.

C. S. Lewis (1944, 1952), Mere Christianity. London: William Collins (HarperCollins).


The Making of an English Mythology; from Reality to Fantasy and back again, 1917-1954: Tolkien’s Creative Years.

Men of the 1st Battalion in Tolkien’s Regiment, The Lancashire Fusiliers, in a communication trench near Beaumont Hamel,
during the 1916 Battle of the Somme.
Beginning the Epic – Great Haywood and Hull:

Following his recovery from the Somme and ‘trench fever’ on his return from France in 1916, Tolkien was determined to create an entire mythology for England. He had hinted at this during his undergraduate days at Oxford when he studied and wrote of the Finnish Kalevala: I would that we had more of it left – something of the sort that belonged to the English. This idea grew during his recuperation until it reached ‘epic’ proportions. This is how Tolkien expressed it when recollecting many years later:

Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen), I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large to the cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy-story – the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths – which I could dedicate simply: to England, to my country.

It should possess the tone and quality of that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our “air” (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain the hither parts of Europe; not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East), and, while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic (though it is rarely found in genuine Celtic things), it should be “high”, purged of the gross, and fit for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales of fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd!

He was once more with Edith in Great Haywood in the English Midland countryside, which once more inspired him. His fellow surviving King Edward’s friend and member of the Tea Club – Burrovian Society (TCBS), Christopher Wiseman, was far away at sea. Still, he sensed something was about to happen and wrote to Tolkien, telling him that he ‘ought to start the epic.’ On the cover of a notebook, Tolkien wrote the title he had chosen for his mythological cycle: The Book of Lost Tales. Inside the notebook, he began to compose what eventually became known as The Silmarillion.

The Earthly Paradise & The Silmarillion – Tolkien’s Truth:

The device that linked the stories in the first draft of the book (which he later abandoned, to be completed by his son, Christopher and published in 1977) owes something to William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise. In the story, a sea-voyager arrives at an unknown land where he is to hear a succession of tales. Tolkien’s voyager was called Eriol, a name he explains as meaning one who dreams alone. But the stories that Eriol hears – grand, tragic and heroic – cannot be defined as the mere product of literary influences and personal experiences. When Tolkien began to write, he drew upon something more profound, a richer seam of his imagination than he had yet explored; and it was a seam that would continue to yield for the rest of his life. The first of the ‘legends’ that make up The Silmarillion tell of the creation of the universe and the establishment of the known world, which Tolkien, recalling the Norse Midgard and the equivalent words in Old English, calls Middle-earth. This was not intended to be another world or part of one, but our world, as he wrote, adding:

I have (of course) placed the action in a purely imaginery (though not wholly impossible) period of antiquity, in which the shape of the continental masses was different.

Later stories in the mythological cycle deal chiefly with the Silmarilli, the three fabulous jewels of the elves, which give the book its title, their theft from the blessed land of Valinor by the evil power Morgoth, and the subsequent wars in which the elves try to regain them.

Some theologically-oriented critics have puzzled over the relationship between these stories and Tolkien’s Christianity. They have found it difficult to understand how a devout Roman Catholic could write with such conviction about a world where God does not seem to be worshipped. However, there is no real mystery in his mythology. On the contrary, the Silmarillion is the work of a profoundly religious man who does not contradict Christianity but compliments it. True, in the legends, there is no worship of God, yet God is present implicitly and more explicitly in The Silmarillion than in the work that grew out of it, The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s universe is ruled over by God, The One. Beneath him in the hierarchy are The Valar, the guardians of the world, who are angelic powers, holy and subject to God; at one juncture in the story, they surrender their power into His hands. Tolkien cast his mythology in this form because he wanted it to be remote and strange, yet at the same time, not to be a lie. He wanted the mythological and legendary stories to express his own moral view of the universe; as a Christian, he could not place that view within a cosmos without the God he worshipped. At the same time, to set his stories ‘realistically’ in the known, historical world, with explicitly Christian beliefs, would deprive them of imaginative colour. So while God is present in Tolkien’s universe, He remains unseen in every sense.

In one sense, Tolkien believed that when he wrote The Silmarillion, he was writing the truth. He did not suppose that precisely such beings as he described, ‘elves’, ‘dwarves’ and malevolent ‘orcs’, had walked the earth and done the deeds he recorded. But Tolkien did feel, or hope, that his stories did embody profound truths. This is not to suggest that he was writing an allegory: far from it. Time and time again, he expressed his distaste for that form of literature; once writing, I dislike allegory wherever I smell it. Similar phrases can be found in his letters to readers of his books. So, in what sense did he regard The Silmarillion as ‘true’? A tentative answer can be extracted from his essay On Fairy-Stories and in his story, Leaf by Niggle, both of which suggest that a man may receive from God the gift of recording a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. Indeed, while he was writing The Silmarillion, Tolkien believed that he was doing more than inventing a story. He wrote of the tales making up the book:

They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, seperately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour… since the mind would wing to the other pole and spread itself on the linguistics: yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere, not of “inventing”.

The first story to be put on paper was written out during Tolkien’s convalescence at Great Haywood early in 1917, although it occupies a place towards the end of the cycle as published. This was The Fall of Gondolin, which tells of the assault on the last elvish stronghold by Morgoth, the prime power of evil. After a terrible battle, a group of the inhabitants of Gondolin make their escape, and among them is Earendel, grandson of the king. This provides the first link with the early Earendel poems, the first sketches of his mythology. The style of The Fall of Gondolin suggests that Tolkien was influenced by William Morris.

It is not unreasonable to suppose that the great battle which forms the central part of the story owes its inspiration, at least partly, to Tolkien’s experiences at the Somme, or to his reactions to them, for the fighting at Gondolin has a heroic grandeur entirely lacking in modern warfare. But these can only be superficial influences, for Tolkien used no models or sources for his strange and exciting tale. Its two most notable characteristics were entirely his own devising: the invented names and the fact that most protagonists were elves.

It could be said that the elves of The Silmarillion grew out of the ‘fairy folk’ of Tolkien’s early poems, but in reality, there is little connection between the two. Elves may have arisen in his mind through his enthusiasm for Francis Thompson’s Sister Songs and Edith’s fondness for ‘little elfin people.’ Still, the elves of The Silmarillion have nothing to do with the ‘tiny leprechauns’ with ‘Goblin Feet’. They are, to all intents and purposes, men: or rather, they are Man before the Fall, which deprived him of his powers of achievement. Tolkien believed that there had once been an Eden on earth and that man’s original sin and subsequent dethronement were responsible for the ills of the world; but his elves, though capable of sin and error, have not ‘fallen’ in the theological sense, and so can achieve much beyond the powers of men. They are craftsmen, poets, scribes, and creators of works of beauty far surpassing that of human artefacts.

They are made by man in his own image and likeness: but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him. They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.

Tolkien’s illustration from The Hobbit.

The names of persons and places in The Silmarillion were constructed from Tolkien’s invented languages, which were a raison d’étre for the whole mythology; it is perhaps not so surprising, therefore, that he devoted just as much time and attention to them as to the stories themselves. He had sketched several invented languages as an adolescent and had developed some of these to a level of some complexity. But his favourite was the one he based on Finnish, called Quenya. By 1917 it had become very sophisticated, with a vocabulary of several hundred words, though based on a more limited number of word stems.

From this ‘Primitive Eldarin‘, Tolkien developed a second Elvish language, spoken by different peoples among the elves. This he called Sindarin, and he modelled its phonology on Welsh, the language which after Finnish was closest to his own personal taste. However, he could not have chosen a more different basis for his main ‘elvish’ languages. He invented more, but the elvish names in The Silmarillion were constructed almost exclusively from Quenya and Sindarin. Later, he dismissed many of his earlier invented names as ‘meaningless’ and subjected others to severe philological scrutiny to discover how their development could be explained. He came to regard his own invented languages and ‘historical’ chronicles as ‘real’. This grew from his belief in the ultimate truth of his mythology.

Returning to the North & The Children of Húrin:

He began this work on sick leave from the army at Great Haywood in 1917. Edith helped him, making a fair copy of The Fall of Gondolin in a large exercise book. Working together like this provided an interlude of rare contentment. In the evenings, Edith played the piano, and John Ronald recited his poetry or made sketches of her. At this time, she also conceived a child. But the month in hospital in Birmingham had all but cured Tolkien of his trench fever, and he was called back to service in France by his battalion. He was posted temporarily to Yorkshire. Edith and her cousin Jennie packed their belongings once more and followed him north, moving into furnished lodgings a few miles from his camp at Hornsea. But after returning to duty, he went sick again and was placed in a Harrogate sanitorium. He was then sent for further training at an army-signalling school in the Northeast.

But by the second week in August, he was back in a hospital, this time in much more congenial circumstances at the Brooklands Officers’ Hospital in Hull. A friendly group of patients provided good company, among them a friend from the Lancashire Fusiliers. He could also continue with his writing. Meanwhile, Edith was heavily pregnant and living with her cousin in miserable seaside lodgings. There was no piano in the boarding house, food was desperately short due to the sinking of British ships by the U-boats, and she hardly ever saw Ronald, whose hospital was far from Hornsea. Edith regretted giving up her house in Warwick and decided to return to Cheltenham, where she had lived for three years before marrying Ronald, the only town she had ever really liked. She and Jennie could stay in rooms until the time came to give birth in a comfortable hospital.

At about this time, while in the Hull hospital, Tolkien composed another major story for The Book of Lost Tales. This was the tale of Túrin, to which he eventually gave the title The Children of Húrin. Again, specific early literary influences on Tolkien can be detected: the hero’s fight with the great dragon suggests a comparison with the deeds of Sigurd and Beowulf. At the same time, his unknowing incest with his sister and his subsequent suicide were derived from the story of Kullervo in the Kalevala. But these ‘influences’ were only superficial. The Children of Húrin is a powerful fusion of Icelandic and Finnish traditions. Still, it surpasses this to achieve a degree of dramatic complexity and subtle characterisation not often found in ancient legends.

The Tale of Beren and Lúthien:

On 16 November 1917, Edith gave birth to a son in a Cheltenham nursing home after difficult labour in which her life was in danger. Although discharged from his hospital, Ronald could not get leave to travel south until almost a week after the birth, by which time Edith had begun to recover. They decided to name the child John Francis Reuel in honour of Father Francis Morgan, Ronald’s former guardian (pictured below), who travelled from Birmingham to baptise the child. After the christening, Edith brought the baby back to Yorkshire, where she moved into furnished rooms at Roos, a village north of the Humber estuary and not far from the camp where Ronald was stationed and promoted to lieutenant.

By this time, however, it seemed unlikely that Ronald would be posted to France again. So on days when he could get leave, he and Edith went for walks to a small wood where she sang and danced among the hemlock, and from this came the story that was to be the centre of The Silmarillion: the tale of the mortal man Beren who loves the immortal elven-maid Lúthien Tinúviel, whom he first sees dancing among hemlock in a wood.

This profoundly romantic fairy story encompasses a broader range of emotions than anything Tolkien had previously written, achieving at times a Wagnerian intensity of passion. It is also Tolkien’s first quest-story; the journey of the two lovers to Morgoth’s terrible fortress, where they hope to cut a Silmaril from his Iron Crown, seems as doomed to failure as Frodo’s attempt to carry the Ring to its destination. Of all his legends, The Tale of Beren and Lúthien was the one best loved by Tolkien, not least because he identified the character of Lúthien with his own wife. After Edith’s death more than fifty years later, in 1971, he wrote to his son Christopher, explaining why he wished to include the name Lúthien on her tombstone:

She was (and knew she was) my Lúthien. I will say no more now. But I should like ere long to have a long talk with you. For if, as seems probable, I shall never write any ordered biography – it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths – someone close in heart to me should know something about things that records do not record: the dreadful sufferings of our childhoods, from which we rescued one another, but could not wholly heal wounds that later often proved disabling; the sufferings that we endured after our love began – all of which (over and above personal weaknesses) might help to make pardonable, or understandable, the lapses and darknesses which at times marred our lives – and to explain how these never touched our depths nor dimmed the memories of our youthful love. For ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.’

The young Tolkien family’s time at Roos ended in the spring of 1918 when he was posted to Penkridge, one of the Staffordshire camps where he had trained before going to France in 1916. By this spring, those of his battalion who had not been invalided out of France had all been killed or taken prisoner at Chemin des Dames. Edith travelled south with the baby and Jennie to be with her husband but was now tiring of her life, which she called a miserable, wandering, homeless sort of life. When Ronald was almost immediately recalled to Hull, Edith refused to go with him. She wrote to him assertively that she would never go round with you again. When he was again taken ill, returning to the officers’ hospital, she also wrote, I think you ought never to feel tired again, for the amount of bed you have had since you came back from France nearly two years ago is enormous. In the hospital, besides working on his mythology and elvish languages, he began to learn Russian and improved his Spanish and Italian.

Oxford again – Our home together:

He was discharged from hospital in October, and, with peace seeming a little nearer, he began to look for an academic job in Oxford. When the war ended on 11 November 1918, Tolkien contacted the army authorities and obtained permission to be stationed at Oxford to complete his education until demobilisation. He found rooms near his old digs in St John’s Street, and in late November, he and his family, together with Jennie Grove, took up residence there. Tolkien had long dreamt of returning to Oxford. But, throughout his war service, he had suffered an ache of nostalgia for his friends, his college and the way of life he had led for four years. He was also uncomfortably conscious of wasted time, for he was now twenty-seven, and Edith was thirty. But, finally, they could enjoy what they had long hoped for: Our home together.

Following demobilisation, Tolkien went to work as an assistant lexicographer for the New English Dictionary, the later parts of which were still being compiled at Oxford. The work-room was in the Old Ashmolean building where a small group of experts laboured away at producing the most comprehensive dictionary of the English language ever compiled. They had begun their work in 1878, and by 1900 the section covering the letters A to H had been published; eighteen years later, U to Z was still incomplete after the delays resulting from the war. Tolkien enjoyed working at the dictionary and liked his colleagues, especially the accomplished C. T. Onions.

For the first weeks, he was given the job of researching the etymology of warm, wasp, water, wick (lamp) and winter. Although wasp may not be a difficult word to define, the paragraph dealing with it cites cognates in Old Saxon, Middle Dutch, Modern Dutch, Old High German, Middle Low German, Middle High German, Modern German, Old Teutonic, Lithuanian, Old Slavonic, Russian and Latin. Not surprisingly, Tolkien found that this kind of work taught him a good deal about languages, and he once said of the period 1919-20 when he was working on the dictionary: I learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life. He did his job remarkably well, even by the high standards of the dictionary, and Dr Henry Bradley, his supervisor, reported of him that:

His work gives evidence of an unusually thorough mastery of Anglo-Saxon and of the facts and principles of the Germanic languages. Indeed, … I have never known a man of his age who was in these respects his equal.

Bradley was not a demanding taskmaster as far as hours were concerned; in any case, the work was scarcely supposed to occupy Tolkien’s entire working day. Like many of his colleagues, he was expected to fill out his time and income by teaching at the university. He made it known that he was willing to expect students, and the colleges began to respond, especially the women’s colleges, which needed someone to teach Anglo-Saxon to their young ladies. Tolkien had the advantage of being married, so a chaperon was not required to be sent to his home when he was teaching them.

As a result of this boost to their income, Ronald and Edith decided that they could afford to rent a small house, and they moved into one close to their rooms, into which they moved in the summer of 1919, engaging a cook-housemaid. Edith’s piano was brought back from storage, so she could play regularly for the first time in years. She was pregnant again, but she could now give birth in her own home and bring her second child up there. By the following spring, Ronald was earning enough from tuition to be able to give up the Dictionary work. Meanwhile, he continued to write The Book of Lost Tales, and one evening, he read The Fall of Gondolin to the Essay Club at his old college, Exeter. It was well received by the undergraduate audience.

Leeds and The Book of Lost Tales:

Suddenly, however, the family’s plans changed again when Ronald applied for the post of Reader in the English Language at the University of Leeds. He scarcely expected to be considered, but in the summer of 1920, he was called for an interview. He was met at the station by the Professor of English, George Gordon, who had been a prominent member of the English school at Oxford before the war. Tolkien knew before he left Leeds that he had got the job, but he soon had serious misgivings about his decision to accept the post and his family’s resulting move to the grimy, industrial north of England of that time. At first, life was difficult for him, especially since, soon after the beginning of the term in October, Edith gave birth in Oxford to a second son, who was christened Michael Hilary Reuel. Ronald was living in a bedsitting room in Leeds during the week, making the long train journey to Oxford at the weekends to see his family.

Not until the beginning of 1921 were Edith and the baby ready to move north, and even then, Tolkien could only find temporary accommodation for them in furnished rooms in Leeds. However, at the end of the year, they took the lease of a small, terraced house on a side street near the university, where they established their new home. The English Department was still small, but George Gordon was a good organiser and was building it up. He gave space in his office to Tolkien and showed concern for his domestic arrangements. Most importantly, he handed over responsibility to Tolkien for all the linguistic teaching in the department. Gordon had decided to follow the Oxford pattern and divide the Leeds English syllabus into two options, one in post-Chaucerian literature and the other concentrating on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English.

The latter course had just been established, and Gordon was keen for Tolkien to organise a syllabus that would be attractive to undergraduates and provide them with sound philological training. Tolkien immediately threw himself into the work, although at first, he was a little glum at the sight of solid-looking, somewhat dour Yorkshire students. However, he soon came to have great admiration for many of them and once wrote:

‘I am wholly in favour of the “dull stodges”. A surprisingly large proportion of them prove “educable”: for which a primary qualification is the willingness “to do some work”.

Many of his students at Leeds worked very hard and were soon achieving excellent results. But at the end of 1921, Cape Town University offered him the new De Beers Chair. In many ways, he would like to have accepted. It would have meant a return to the land of his birth, and he had always wanted to see South Africa again. But Edith and the baby were in no fit state to travel, and he did not want to be separated from her as his mother and father had been from each other when his father died. However, early in 1922, a new junior lecturer was appointed to the language side of the English Department at Leeds, a young man named E. V. Gordon. A small Canadian, unrelated to the Professor, he had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where Tolkien had tutored him during 1920. So now he made him welcome in Leeds, writing in his diary that Eric Valentine Gordon has come and got firmly established and is my devoted friend and pal.

Soon after E. V. Gordon’s arrival, the two men began collaborating on a significant piece of scholarship. Tolkien had been working for some time on a glossary for a book of Middle English extracts. This meant, in effect, compiling a small Middle English dictionary, a task that he undertook with infinite precision and great imagination. The glossary took a long time to complete, but it reached print early in 1922, by which time Tolkien wanted to turn his hand to something that would give greater scope to his scholarship. He and E. V. Gordon decided to compile a new edition of the ME poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as there was no suitable edition for undergraduates. Tolkien was responsible for the text and glossary, while Gordon would provide the greater part of the notes. Tolkien found he had to work fast to keep up with Gordon. They finished in time for publication by the Clarendon Press early in 1925. It was a significant contribution to the study of Medieval literature.

Home life for the Tolkiens was generally happy at this time. Edith found the atmosphere in the university refreshingly informal after Oxford, and she made friends with other wives. Money was not plentiful, however, and they were saving to buy a house, so family holidays were few and far between. He had been composing a good deal of verse over these years in Leeds. Much of it concerned his mythology, some of which found its way into print in the Leeds University magazine, The Gryphon, in a local series called Yorkshire Poetry, and in a book of verses by members of the English Department entitled Northern Venture. In addition, he began a series of poems called Tales and Songs of Bimble Bay. One, The Dragon’s Visit, describes the ravages of a dragon who arrives at Bimble Bay and encounters Miss Biggins. A third, Glip, tells of a strange, slimy creature who lives beneath the floor of a cave and his pale luminous eyes. All were glimpses of essential things to come.

In May 1923, Tolkien caught a severe cold which turned into pneumonia. His grandfather, John Suffield, then ninety, was staying with the family at the time, and Ronald recalled a vision of him standing at the foot of his bed, speaking to him in contempt, to the effect that I and my generation were degenerate weaklings. Nevertheless, the old man lived on for another seven years, spending much time with his youngest daughter, Tolkien’s Aunt Jane. She had left Nottinghamshire and had taken a farm at Dormston in Worcestershire. It was at the end of a lane which led no further, and the local people called it Bag End. When Tolkien had recovered from pneumonia, he went with Edith and the children to stay with his brother, Hilary, who, on leaving military service, had bought a small orchard and market garden near Evesham, the ancestral town of the Suffields. The Tolkien brothers flew kites with the children, and Ronald also managed to find time to do some work, turning again to his mythology.

From Tolkien’s illustrations for The Hobbit.

The Book of Lost Tales was almost complete. At Oxford and at Leeds, Tolkien had composed the stories that tell of the creation of the universe, the fashioning of the Silmarils and their theft from the blessed realms of Valinor by Morgoth. The cycle still lacked a clear ending, but Tolkien wanted to conclude it with the voyage of Earendel’s star-ship, which had been the mythology’s first element to take hold in his imagination. But some of the stories were still only in synopsis form, and a little more effort was required to bring the work to its conclusion. Rather than pressing on towards this objective, however, Tolkien decided to rewrite it, almost as if he didn’t want to finish it. So he did not complete the work but went back and altered, polished and revised it. He also began to recast the two principal stories as poems. For the story of Túrin, he chose a modern equivalent of the type of alliterative measure found in Beowulf, and for The Tale of Beren and Lúthien, he decided to work in rhyming couplets.

Meanwhile, Ronald’s career at Leeds took a significant step forward. In 1922 George Gordon left to go back to Oxford to take the Chair of English Language and Literature. Tolkien did not get the vacated chair at Leeds, but the Vice-Chancellor promised him that the university would soon create a Professorship of the English language, especially for him. Two years later, in 1924, he became a professor at thirty-two, remarkably young by the standards of British academia at that time. In the same year, he and Edith bought a house in West Park, on the outskirts of Leeds. It was much larger than the house in St Mark’s Terrace and was surrounded by fields where they could take the children for walks. Edith was pregnant again, and when a third baby boy was born, they baptised him Christopher Reuel in tribute to Christopher Wiseman.

Return to Oxford & Resettlement – The Suburban Professor:

Then, early in 1925, came the word that the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford was shortly to fall vacant; the post was advertised, and Tolkien applied. In theory, his chances were slim, for he was up against three other excellent candidates, including his old tutor at Oxford, Kenneth Sisam. Both the other two candidates withdrew, leaving Sisam, who was well-supported in Oxford, and Tolkien. He was also backed by many, including George Gordon, a master at intrigue. In the election, the votes came out equal, so the Vice-Chancellor had to cast his vote and did so in Tolkien’s favour. With that one act, Ronald had returned to Oxford, this time for good.

In one of the North Oxford streets, Tolkien found and bought a modest new house. The family travelled down from Leeds at the beginning of 1926 and moved in. Here, in Northmoor Road, they remained for twenty-one years but not in the same house. Later, in 1929, the Tolkiens bought a larger neighbouring house from Basil Blackwell, the bookseller and publisher, and they moved from number twenty-two to number twenty early in the new year. Shortly before the move, a fourth and final child was born, the daughter Edith had long hoped for, who was christened Priscilla Mary Reuel. After these two events, life at Northmoor Road was uneventful, a life of pattern and routine in which there were minor interruptions but no significant change.

So the Tolkiens had resettled in Oxford, where Ronald was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon for twenty years, was then elected Merton Professor of English Language and Literature and went to live in a conventional Oxford suburb where he spent the early part of his retirement, then moved to the coast, returning to Oxford after Edith’s death in 1971 and himself died a peaceful death at the age of eighty-one, two years later. In biographical detail, it was an ordinary, unremarkable life led by countless other scholars, a life of academic brilliance, but only in a narrow field of little or no interest to the layman. And that would be that, wrote his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, in the late seventies, …

… apart from the strange fact that during these years when ‘nothing happened’, he wrote two books which have become world best-sellers, books that have captured the imagination and influenced the thinking of several million readers. It is a strange paradox, the fact that ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are the work of an obscure Oxford professor whose specialisation was the West Midland dialect of Middle English, and who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.

Carpenter (1977, 1982, 2016), J. R. R. Tolkien: London: HarperCollins Pubishers, p. 150.

Both from his letters and diaries, and the photographs of him with colleagues, students and family, it seems that Ronald Tolkien was entirely conventional in the places he lived in, even in the areas he visited. He occupied a North Oxford house, both inside and outside, almost indistinguishable from hundreds of others in that district (if anything, it was less flamboyant than many of its neighbours). He took his family on holiday to ordinary places. During the central years of his life, the richest period of creativity, he made no journeys outside the British Isles. This was mainly the result of straightened financial circumstances, for he did not lack the desire to travel, just the means. For instance, he would have liked to have followed E. V. Gordon’s example in visiting Iceland. Later in life, when he had fewer family ties and more money, he did make a few journeys abroad. But travel never played a large part in his life, simply because his imagination did not need to be stimulated by unfamiliar landscapes and cultures.

The Worcestershire countryside near Sarehole, looking west towards the Malvern Hills and the Welsh hills, as it looked in the 1890s.
The Thirties – Explorations & a Return to Sarehole:

In the 1930s, when he owned and drove a car, he loved to explore the villages of Oxfordshire, especially those in the east of the county, then still known as ‘Banburyshire’ by many villagers. But he was not by habit a long-distance walker, and only once or twice did he join his friend, C. S. Lewis, on the latter’s cross-country walking tours. He knew the Welsh mountains but rarely visited them; he loved the coasts, but his only expeditions to them took the form of conventional family holidays at seaside resorts. But he was not indifferent to his surroundings, for man’s destruction of the environment and the landscapes of England moved him to anger. Here, from his diary, is an anguished description of his 1933 return to his beloved childhood landscape near Sarehole Mill when he was driving his family to visit relatives in Birmingham:

‘I pass over the pangs to me of passing through Hall Green – become a huge tram-ridden meaningless suburb, where I actually lost my way – and eventually down what is left of beloved lanes of childhood, and past the very gate of our cottage, now in the midst of a sea of new red-brick. The old mill still stands, and Mrs Hunt’s still sticks out into the road as it turns uphill, but the crossing beyond the now fenced-in pool, where the bluebell lane ran down into the mill lane, is now a dangerous crossing alive with motors and red lights. The White Ogre’s house (which the children were excited to see) is become a petrol station, and most of Short Avenue and the elms between it and the crossing have gone. How I envy those whose precious early scenery has not been exposed to such violent and peculiarly hideous change.’

(Please note that 264 Wake Green Road is a private residence, as it was in 1896 when the Tolkiens lived there.)
From ‘The Birmingham Tolkien Trail’, a leaflet produced by Birmingham Museums (www.Birminghammuseums.org.uk). Gracewell cottages can be seen to the left of the road. The photograph on the left above dates from around 1896-1900, when the family lived in number 5, now 264.

He had spent four years of his childhood, his happiest, at Sarehole, where he lived in one of the small terraced ‘cottages’ with his mother and brother. Then it was still a Worcestershire hamlet outside the Birmingham boundaries.

Gracewell Cottages, Wake Green Road, today.

He was similarly sensitive to the damage inflicted on the Oxfordshire countryside by the construction of war-time aerodromes and the ‘improvement’ of roads. Later in life, when his strongest-held opinions began to become obsessions, he would see a new road that had been driven across the corner of a field and cry, “There goes the last of England’s arable!” By this time of his life, he would maintain that there was not one unspoilt wood or hillside left in the land, and if there was, he would refuse to visit it for fear of finding it contaminated by litter. However, he also believed that this was the penalty mankind paid for living in a fallen world, the result of man’s own sin. If this were not the case, he would have spent an entire undisturbed childhood with his mother in a paradise such as Sarehole had become in his memory. Instead, he believed his mother had been taken from him through the cruelty of her own family, and now even the Sarehole landscape itself had been wantonly destroyed.

Above: Moseley Bog today.

But although Tolkien lamented the encroachment of the suburbs on his former home and the cutting down of his favourite trees in his surroundings, there was one place that ‘civilisation’ had missed; Moseley Bog. It had been an ideal place for his childhood adventures. It was once a storage pool for Sarehole Mill and is also the site of two Bronze Age burnt mounds (see the recent photograph below). The Bog was later recalled in Tolkien’s description of the Old Forest, the last of the primaeval wild woods where Tom Bombadil lived. If he had stopped his car in Hall Green, Tolkien would have also been able to show his family one of the few remaining fords in the Cole Valley, still there today, where he and his brother learnt the West Midland dialect by playing with the children of nearby Hall Green (see the ‘sepia’ panel picture, top right).

The Bronze age ‘burnt mounds’ in Moseley Bog, on the bank of the millstream or ‘leat’. Recent photos by Andrew J Chandler.

In a world where perfection and true happiness were ultimately impossible, did it matter in what surroundings one lived? In the end, they were all merely transient. In this sense, Tolkien’s attitude was profoundly evangelical and ascetic, not to be confused with modern secular environmentalism. In his writing, one of the final chapters of Lord of the Rings (chapter eight of The Return of the King, The Scouring of the Shire) reflects Tolkien’s attitude through the discatastrophe they describe. Just as light is unperceivable without darkness, eucatastrophe is meaningless without the presence of discatastrophe or “sorrow and failure” (On Fairy-Stories: 153). This duality of light and dark, hope and despair, victory and defeat is integral to Tolkien’s created world. 

A more straightforward explanation of his personal passivity on environmental discatastrophe might be that by the time he reached middle age, his imagination no longer needed to be stimulated by experience. It had received all the stimulus it required in the early years of his life, the eventful years with changing places; now, it could nourish itself upon these accumulated memories. He explained this himself when describing the creation of Lord of the Rings:

One writes such a story not out of the leaves of the trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and social-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mould is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.

Tolkien is saying here that it was almost exclusively upon his early experience, sufficiently broken down by time, that he nourished the seeds of his imagination. Further experience was not necessary, and it was not sought. What he now required was more linguistic material. Besides being a professor of English language and philology, Tolkien read in thirty-five languages, everything from Old Norse to Lithuanian. He had invented his first ‘created’ language when he was just a teenager, and his later tales were then created around these carefully constructed languages, including fifteen Elvish dialects and languages for the Hobbits, Ents, Orcs, and Dwarves. I have already written about his emotional responses to Finnish, Welsh and Gothic and their strange sounds and words. While working on the Oxford Dictionary, he acquainted himself with several other early Germanic languages. He also read widely in Icelandic.

A West Midlander by blood – Dialects of Middle English:

Why, then, should he choose to specialise in early English? Someone so fond of strange words would be more likely to have concentrated his attention on foreign languages. But, to understand his choice, we need first to realise that something exciting happened to him when he first discovered that a large proportion of the poetry and prose of Old English and Middle English was written in the dialect that had been spoken by his mother’s ancestors. In other words, it was, at one and the same time, both remote in time and intensely and immediately personal. I have written in earlier articles about his deep attachment to the West Midlands and his belief that the town of Evesham and its surrounding county of Worcestershire had been the home of his ancestral maternal family, the Suffields. He once wrote to W. H. Auden:

I am West-midlander by blood, and took to early west-midland Middle English as to a known tongue as soon as I set eyes upon it.

Source: Freeborn (see source list below).

If we define a known tongue as something that already seemed familiar to him, we might be tempted to dismiss this as a ludicrous exaggeration. How could he recognise a language that was seven hundred and fifty years old, in which only two known texts survived, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written in the northern variety of the dialect, placing it as anywhere between Salop (Shropshire) and (today’s) south Lancashire, and Piers Ploughman, written, in Tolkien’s southern variety by an author, Langland, whose exact whereabouts we know nothing about? Yet this was what he believed, and once this idea had occurred to him, it was inevitable that he should study the dialect closely and make it the centre of his life’s work as a scholar. This is not to suggest that he only studied the early English of the West Midlands. On the contrary, he became well versed in all the dialects of Old English (OE) and Middle English (ME).

Inside Language – The Teacher & Entertainer:

By the time Tolkien began teaching at Leeds University in 1920, he had extensive linguistic knowledge covering continental and ‘British’ languages (‘Celtic’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’). But this was not just dry academic knowledge. In the lecture theatre, his recitations of Beowulf, for example, became dramatic performances, an impression of an Anglo-Saxon bard in a mead hall, impressing generations of students because it brought home to them that that the poem was not just a set text to be read for examination purposes but a piece of poetry originally recited for its dramatic effect. One former student, the writer J. L. M. Stewart, described the impact of Tolkien’s performance as follows:

He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall in which he was the bard and we were the feasting, listening guests.

Another former student, W. H. Auden, wrote to Tolkien many years later:

I don’t think I have ever told you what an unforgettable experience it was for me as an undergraduate, hearing you recite ‘Beowulf’. The voice was the voice of Gandalf.

Besides being a teacher of philology, Tolkien was already an accomplished writer and poet by the mid-twenties, a man who not only studied words but knew how to use them for poetic effect. Of course, he could find poetry in the sound of words themselves, as he had done since childhood, but he also had a poet’s understanding of how language is used. This was expressed in a memorable phrase in The Times obituary of him, almost certainly written by C. S. Lewis (pictured below), which talks of his unique insight … at once into the language of poetry and … poetry of language. Thus, he encouraged students of early texts to treat them not as exemplars of a developing language but as literature deserving serious appreciation and criticism. Lewis also suggested in his obituary that Tolkien’s proficiency in the technical details of the language was the product of his long attention to private languages and their invention:

Strange as it may seem, it was undoubtedly the source of that unparalleled richness and concreteness which later distinguished him from all other philologists. He had been inside language.

Lewis, at age 48, a photograph by Arthur Strong, 1947. https://timfall.files.wordpress.com

Tolkien’s mentor in philology, Joseph Wright, had been trained in Germany, where the discipline first developed in the nineteenth century. Much as he loved his old tutor and found his books invaluable for their contribution to the science of language, Tolkien was possibly thinking of Wright when he wrote of the bespectacled philologist, English but trained in Germany, where he lost his literary soul. This could not be said of Tolkien himself; his philological writings invariably reflected the richness of his mind. He brought to even the most intricate aspects of his subject a ‘grace’ of expression and a greater sense of the significance of this matter. This is well demonstrated in his article on the Ancrene Wisse (1929), a medieval book of instruction for a group of anchorites, which probably originated in the West Midlands. Tolkien showed that the language of two important manuscripts of this text (one in Cambridge, the other in the Bodleian) was no mere unpolished dialect but a literary language with an unbroken tradition going back before the Norman Conquest. He expressed this conclusion in the context of writing about his beloved West Midland dialect as a whole:

It is not a language long relegated to the ‘uplands’ struggling once more for expression in in apologetic emulation of its betters or out of compassion for the lewd, but rather one that has never fallen back into ‘lewdness’, and has contrived in troublous times to maintain the air of a gentleman, if a country gentleman. It has traditions and some acquaintance with books and the pen, but it is also in close touch with a good living speech – a soil somewhere in England.

This kind of writing, forceful in its imagery, characterised all his articles and lectures, however abstruse or unpromising the subject might seem. In this respect, he almost founded a new school of philology; certainly, there was no precedent for the humanity he brought to the subject. It was an approach which influenced many of his most able students, who themselves became philologists of distinction. Even by the usual standards of comparative philology, Tolkien was extraordinarily painstaking in his research and preparation for classes, though some students found it difficult to follow his discourse. His concern for accuracy and flair for detecting patterns and relations should not be underestimated. He also demonstrated his deductive abilities in major and minor linguistic matters. When discussing a word or phrase with students, he would cite a wide range of comparative forms and expressions in other languages.

He was expected to give a minimum of thirty-six lectures a year. Still, he did not consider this sufficient to cover both Old and Middle English. In his second year after being elected Professor, he gave a hundred and thirty-six lectures and tutorials. Throughout the 1930s, he continued to provide at least twice the statutory number of classes each year, more than most of his colleagues, despite the appointment of an assistant, Charles Wrenn. In addition, he undertook a good deal of ‘freelance’ work as an external examiner to other universities, for with four children to bring up, he needed to augment his income.

The ‘Legendarium’ of Middle-earth:

Frontispiece to the Fifth HarperCollins edition of The Hobbit, 1995.

Turning to his story-telling, after becoming a professor at Oxford in 1925, he wrote his elaborate fantasy tales in his spare time, mainly for his own children. The longest and most important of these was The Hobbit, which he began in 1930 as a coming-of-age fantasy. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion were to form a connected body of tales, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays about the make-believe world of ‘Middle-earth’. Tolkien gave the word ‘legendarium’ to his collection of works on this fictional realm.

Meanwhile, he revised the syllabus at the university, and for the first time in the history of the Oxford English School, something like a genuine rapprochement was achieved between ‘Lang.’ and ‘Lit.’ This was partly due to the active support of C. S. Lewis and others who had initially opposed his proposals. Tolkien’s contemporaries also had high hopes of him in terms of original research, for his glossary to Sisam’s book, his edition with E. V. Gordon of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and his article on the Ancrene Wisse manuscripts demonstrated that he had an unrivalled mastery of the early Middle English of the West Midlands. They expected him to continue contributing meaningful work in this field, and he had every intention of doing so. But his promised edition of the Cambridge Manuscript of the Ancrene Wisse for the Early English Text Society did not materialise for many years, while the more significant part of his research never reached print.

The delays were partly due to his decision to devote most of his time at Oxford to teaching, thus limiting his possibilities for original research. In addition, marking examination papers for widespread institutions throughout the British Isles to provide money for his family also ate into his available time.

But besides these necessary pressures, Tolkien’s perfectionism would not allow any of his work, whether stories or academic monographs, to reach the printer until it had been revised, reconsidered, and re-polished. In this respect, he was the exact opposite of C. S. Lewis, who sent manuscripts off for publication without a second glance at them. Lewis, well aware of this difference between them, wrote of Tolkien:

‘His standard of self-criticism was high and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision, in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one.’

But what he did publish during the thirties was a significant contribution to scholarship. His paper on the dialects of Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale soon became required reading for anyone who wished to understand the regional variations of fourteenth-century English. He read it to the Philological Society in 1931. Still, it was not published until 1934, with an apology for the lack of what he considered a necessary amount of revision and improvement. And his lecture Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, delivered to the British Academy in November 1936 and published in the following year, is a landmark in the history of criticism of the Old English poem. In his lecture, he declared that although Beowulf is about monsters and a dragon, this does not make it negligible as heroic poetry. He told his audience:

“A dragon is no idle fancy. Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who have yet been caught by the fascination of the worm.”

Above: The Great Worm

This was Tolkien talking not primarily as a philologist or literary critic but as a storyteller. Just as Lewis said of his philology, He had been inside language, so it might also be remarked that when he talked of the Beowulf dragon, he was speaking as the author of The Silmarillion and, by this time, The Hobbit. This was first published with Tolkien’s illustrations in 1937 and was so popular that the publisher asked for a sequel, which did not arrive until 1954.

Thror’s Map from The Hobbit, showing the origins of the ‘Great Worms’, etc.

By the late thirties, Tolkien had planned to do much more: besides his much-delayed work on the Ancrene Wisse, he intended to produce an edition of the Old English poem, Exodus. He nearly completed this task, but it was never completed to his satisfaction. He also planned further joint editions with E. V. Gordon, particularly of Pearl and the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ elegies, The Wanderer and The Seafarer. But Gordon and Tolkien were now geographically distant from each other, and Gordon had moved from Leeds to take up a chair at Manchester University. As a result, the collaboration between them was technically less easy.

Gordon had done a great deal of work on all three projects, using Tolkien as a consultant rather than a full co-editor, but nothing had reached print by 1938. In the summer of that year, Gordon died suddenly from an unsuspected kidney disorder at forty-two. This unexpected event robbed Tolkien not only of a close friend but also of the ideal professional collaborator, whom he needed if only to make him surrender material to the printer. Tolkien had intended to complete Pearl but found himself unable to do so, as, by this time, he was absorbed in writing The Lord of the Rings.

Reality Intervenes again, 1938-53:

As war approached, Tolkien found another philologist who was an excellent working partner. This was Simmone d’Ardenne, a Belgian graduate who had studied Middle English with him for an Oxford B.Litt. in the early thirties. Tolkien contributed to her edition of The Life and Passion of St Juliene, a medieval religious work written in the Ancrene Wisse dialect. Indeed, her work contains more of Tolkien’s views on early Middle English than anything he ever published under his own name. Mlle d’Ardenne became a professor at Liége, and she and Tolkien an edition of Katerine, a Western Middle English text. But the war intervened and made communication impossible, and after 1945 nothing was achieved by them, barring a couple of short articles on topics concerned with the text’s manuscript. Although Tolkien was able to work with her when he attended a philological congress in 1951, she soon realised that by then, his mind was almost entirely on his stories.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, 1954 – High Fantasy & Discatastrophe:
The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

The translation of Gawain was finished in time for it to be broadcast by the BBC in 1953, Tolkien himself recording a short introduction and a longer concluding talk. Then, in 1954, his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts, carrying over the essential elements from The Hobbit, particularly the ‘One Ring’ that must be destroyed before it can be used by the Dark Lord, Sauron. The Lord of the Rings was also an extension of the tales of the Silmarillion.

Coventry Cathedral, 14 November 1940

The Trilogy is representative of the struggle between good and evil in epic terms and reflects some of the events of the early twentieth century, including the Blitz on Coventry of November 1940, which Tolkien could observe from his North Oxford garden, thirty miles away. It formed the ‘inspiration’ for the story of the burning of the Shire at the end of the third book, The Return of the King.

This was another example of Tolkien’s use of actual events to inform and influence his fictional discatastrophising. Still, his books were not intended, as both he and C. S. Lewis clearly testified, an allegory of the events of the two world wars.

Following the success of The Lord of the Rings, his publishers Allen and Unwin determined to issue the Gawain and Pearl translations in one volume. With this in view, Tolkien made extensive revisions to both translations, but an introduction was required, and Tolkien was uncertain of what to explain to the non-expert readers for whom the book was intended. So, once again, the project lapsed, and it was not until after his death that the two translations were published, with an introduction by Christopher Tolkien, making use of notes found among his father’s papers. Most importantly, the volume brings these poems to an audience that could not have read them in Middle English. For this reason, they are a fitting tribute to the work of a man who believed that the primary function of a linguist is to interpret literature.

Tolkien also wrote several shorter works during his lifetime. These included poetry related to his ‘legendarium’; Tree and Leaf, a mock-medieval story, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book. But Tolkien’s success with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings led to his accolade as ‘the father of modern fantasy literature,’ otherwise known as High Fantasy. However, rather than venturing too far into the fascinating labyrinth of ancient myths and languages, which some are keen to do, we may conclude that the enduring greatness of Tolkien’s fantasy literature for many lies in its exploration of the changing realities of a world being made modern. It is not allegorical in doing this, but it reflects those realities woven into a reimagining of fairy stories, sagas and folk tales.




J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977, 1982, 2016), London: HarperCollinsPubishers.

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English. Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.


J. R. R. Tolkien & Birmingham; the Formative Years, 1896-1916: Part Two (1908-16) – ‘Lang.’, Lore & Love.

Inventing Language:

As a result of his insatiable love of words, Ronald started to invent his own languages. Some children have rudimentary private languages that they like to share together. This was what Ronald’s cousins Mary and Marjorie Incledon had done. They now lived outside Birmingham at Barnt Green, the neighbouring village to Rednal, and Ronald and Hilary spent their school holidays there. When the elder sister lost interest in their invented language, Mary and Ronald collaborated to invent a new and more sophisticated ‘nonsense’ language called ‘Nevbosh’, in which they wrote limericks. In adult life, Tolkien believed that his impulse toward linguistic invention was similar to that felt by many schoolchildren. He once remarked, while talking about the invention of languages:

“It’s not that uncommon, you know. An enormously greater number of children have what you might call a creative element in them than is usually supported, and it isn’t necessarily limited to certain things: they may not want to paint or draw, or have much music, but they nevertheless want to create something. And if the main mass of education takes a linguistic form, their creation will take a linguistic form. It’s so extraordinarily common, I once did think that there ought to be some organised research into it.”

When the young Tolkien first set to work on his linguistic inventions on an organised basis, he decided to take an existing language as a model or at least a starting point. Unfortunately, Welsh was not available to him in sufficient quantity, so he turned to another favourite source of words, the collection of Spanish books in Father Morgan’sMorgan’sis guardian spoke Spanish fluently, and Ronald had often begged to be taught the language. Still, nothing came of it, though he was given the freedom of the books. So now he looked at them again and began working on an invented language called ‘Naffarin’. It showed a good deal of Spanish influence, but it had its own system of phonology and grammar. He worked at it now and then and might have developed it further had he not discovered a language that excited him far more than Spanish.

One of his school friends had bought a book at a missionary sale but found that he had no use for it and sold it to Tolkien. It was Joseph Wright’s Primer of the Gothic Language, and on opening it, Ronald was immediately delighted with its contents. Gothic had ceased to be spoken with the decline of the Gothic peoples in northern Europe, but written fragments survived for posterity, and Tolkien found them immensely attractive. He was not content simply to learn the language but began to invent ‘extra’ Gothic words to fill gaps in the limited vocabulary that survived and to move on from this to the construction of a supposedly unrecorded but historical Germanic language. He communicated his enthusiasm to Christopher Wiseman, who was a sympathetic listener since he was studying Egyptian hieroglyphics. Tolkien also began to develop his invented languages backwards, to posit the hypothetical ‘earlier’ words which he found necessary to establish an organised ‘historical’ system. He was also working on invented alphabets; one of his notebooks from his school days contains an outline of coded symbols for each letter of the English alphabet. But it was the foreign languages that occupied him most, and on many days he closeted himself in the room he shared with Hilary and, as he wrote in his diary, ‘did a lot of private lang.’

Duchess Road & Edith:

Father Francis had done much for the Tolkien boys since their mother’s death. Every summer, he took them on holiday to Lyme Regis, where they stayed at the Three Cups Hotel and paid visits to his friends in the neighbourhood. Ronald loved the scenery of Lyme Bay and enjoyed sketching it on wet days, but on fine days he was happiest exploring along the Jurassic Coastline, looking for fossils. Once, he discovered a prehistoric jawbone there and pretended it was a piece of a petrified dragon. On these holidays, Father Morgan talked a good deal with the boys and discovered how unhappy they were in the drab lodging provided for them by their Aunt Beatrice. Back in Birmingham, he looked for something better and thought of a boarding house in Duchess Road behind the Oratory, run by a Mrs Faulkner. He decided that her house might be a more pleasant home for Ronald and Hilary. Mrs Faulkner agreed to take them, and early in 1908, the boys moved into 37 Duchess Road. Nevertheless, it was a gloomy creeper-covered house hung with dingy lace curtains. Ronald and Hilary were given a room on the second floor. The other occupants of the house were Mr Faulkner, a wine merchant, their daughter Helen, Annie the maid, and another lodger, an orphaned girl of nineteen who lived on the first floor beneath the boys’ room and spent most of her time at her sewing machine. Her name was Edith Bratt.

She was remarkably pretty, small and slim, with grey eyes, firm clear features and short dark hair. She was an illegitimate orphan, her mother having died five years earlier and her father sometime before that. Her mother, Frances Bratt, had given birth to her in January 1889 in Gloucester, but her home was in Wolverhampton, where her family were industrialists. She was thirty at the time of Edith’s birth and moved to Handsworth, an old suburb of Birmingham, after the birth. The father’s name was not mentioned on the birth certificate, though Frances preserved his photograph, and his identity was known to the Bratt family. It is unlikely that Edith knew it; if she did, she never passed it on to her own children. Frances never married. Edith’s childhood had been moderately happy, brought up in Handsworth by her mother and older cousin, Jennie Grove. The Grove connection was much valued by the Bratts, for it linked them with Sir George Grove, the renowned editor of the musical dictionary.

Edith proved to have a talent for music. She played the piano well, and when her mother died, she was sent to a girls’ boarding school specialising in music; by the time she left school, she was expected to make her career as a piano teacher or possibly as a concert pianist. But her guardian, the family solicitor, did not know what he should do for the best. He found a room for her at Mrs Faulkner’s, supposing that her landlady’s enthusiasm for music would provide a suitable atmosphere as well as a piano for practising. In any case, Edith had inherited a small amount of land scattered through various parts of Birmingham, and the rent from this provided just enough to keep her. Edith stayed on at Mrs Faulkner’s, but she soon found that while her landlady was delighted to have a lodger who could play and accompany soloists at her ‘soirées’, she was not so fond of having her practice in the parlour. She would curtail this, with Edith retiring sadly to her room and sewing machine. Then the Tolkien brothers arrived in the house, and she found them enjoyable companions. She particularly liked Ronald, with his serious face and perfect manners. Though he was acquainted with few girls of his own age, he soon discovered that familiarity conquered any shyness on his part, and they struck up a friendship.

True, Edith was nineteen, and he was sixteen, but he was mature for his age, and she looked young for hers, neat and trim and exceptionally pretty. Indeed, she did not share his interest in languages and had received only a limited formal education, but her manner was brilliant and engaging. They became allies against ‘the Old Lady’ as they called Mrs Faulkner. Edith would persuade Annie, the maid, to smuggle titbits of food to the hungry boys on the second floor, and when the old lady was out, the boys would go to Edith’s room for secret feasts. Edith and Ronald frequented Birmingham’s tea shops, especially those with a balcony from where they would throw sugar lumps onto the hats of passers-by. Romance was bound to flourish between two people of their personalities and social positions. Both were orphans needing affection, and they found that they could give it to each other. During the summer of 1909, they knew they had fallen in love. Writing to Edith long afterwards, Ronald recalled:

‘… my first kiss to you and your first kiss to me (which was almost accidental) – and our goodnights when sometimes you were in your little white nightgown, and our absurd long window talks; and how we watched the sun come up over town through the mist and ‘Big Ben’ toll hour after hour , and the moths almost used to frighten you away – and our whistle-call – and our cycle rides – and the fire talks – and the three great kisses.’

‘Big Ben’ was probably the bell in the clock tower of Birmingham University, pictured above. At night, the tower’s brightly illuminated clock face is thought to have provided Tolkien with the idea for the terrifying Eye of Sauron.

Ronald was supposed to be working for an Oxford scholarship, but it was hard for him to concentrate when one half of his mind was occupied with inventing languages and the other with Edith. There was also a new attraction at school: the Debating Society, highly popular with the senior boys. He had not yet spoken in debates, probably because of his still adolescent voice and his reputation, already acquired, as an indistinct speaker. But this term, spurred on by his newfound confidence, he made his maiden speech on a motion supporting the objects and tactics of the suffragettes. It was judged a reasonable effort, though the school magazine thought that his talents as a debater were somewhat marred by faulty delivery. In another speech, on the motion that this house deplores the occurrence of the Norman Conquest, he attacked, according to the magazine, the influx of polysyllabic barbarities which ousted the more honest if humbler native words; while in a debate of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays he poured a sudden flood of unqualified abuse upon Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character. He also achieved much success on the Rugby pitch. Although thin, almost scrawny, he had already learnt to compensate for lack of weight by playing with ferocity.

Dangerous Liaisons:

Then one day, towards the end of the autumn term of 1909, he arranged secretly with Edith that they should go for a ride into the countryside. ‘We thought we had managed things very cleverly,’ he wrote. ‘Edith had ridden off on her bicycle nominally to visit her cousin Jennie Grove. After an interval, I rode off “to the school sports ground”, but we reassembled and made for the Lickeys.’ They spent the afternoon on the hills and then went into Rednal village in search of tea, which they were given at a house where Ronald had previously stayed while working for his scholarship. Afterwards, they rode home, arriving separately at Duchess Road so as not to arouse suspicion. But they had reckoned without gossip. The woman who had given them tea told Mrs Church, the caretaker at the Oratory House, that Master Ronald had been to call and had brought an unknown girl with him. Father Francis then got to know about it. His feelings can be imagined when he learnt that the ward on whom he had lavished so much affection, care and money was not concentrating on his vital schoolwork but was, as he soon found out, conducting a ‘clandestine affair’ with a girl three years his senior who was living ‘under the same roof.’ He summoned Ronald to the Oratory, told him how deeply he was shaken and demanded that the affair should stop. He arranged for Ronald and Hilary to move to new lodgings to get Ronald away from ‘the girl.’

From the perspective of over a century later, it may seem strange that Ronald did not simply disobey Father Francis and continue the romance openly. But the social conventions of the time demanded that young people should obey their parents or guardians in all things. Moreover, Ronald had great affection for his guardian, besides the simple, practical matter that both he and his brother depended upon Father Morgan for money. Neither was he a naturally rebellious young man. Given all this, it is entirely believable that he agreed to do as he was told. At the height of the storm, Ronald had to go to Oxford for the scholarship exam. Oxford was new to him in every way, for none of the previous generations nor his ancestors had been university people. This was his chance to win honour for the Suffields and the Tolkiens, repay Father Francis’s affection and generosity and prove that his amorous liaison with Edith had not distracted him from his task. But it was not easy to achieve, and looking at the board after the examination, he saw that he had failed to win an award. As he turned his back on Merton Street and Oriel Square and headed back to the station, he must have wondered if he would ever return. But in truth, this first failure was not as catastrophic for him as it might have seemed. Competition for scholarships was consistently severe, and he could try again the following December. By that time, however, he would be nineteen; if he failed again, there would be little chance of his getting into Oxford. The commoner’s fees would be beyond even his generous guardian’s pocket. He would simply have to work harder. His first entry in his first diary on New Year’s reflected his mood in no uncertain terms:

‘Depressed and as much in dark as ever. God help me. Feel weak and weary.’

He was also faced with a dilemma, for though he and Hilary had moved to new lodgings, they were not far from Mrs Faulkner’s house, where Edith was still living. Father Francis had demanded that the love affair be ended, yet he had not explicitly forbidden Ronald to see Edith. Ronald hated to deceive his guardian for a second time, but he and Edith secretly exchanged letters and decided to meet clandestinely. They spent an afternoon together, taking a train to the countryside and discussing their plans. Edith gave Ronald a pen for his eighteenth birthday, and the next day he gave her a wristwatch for her twenty-first, which they celebrated in a Birmingham tea shop. Edith also told him she had accepted an invitation to go and live in Cheltenham with an elderly couple who had befriended her. Ronald wrote Thank God! in his diary, for it was the best solution to their immediate predicament. But once again, they had been seen together, and Father Morgan clarified his position this time. Ronald must not meet or even write to Edith. He could only see her once more to say goodbye when she left for Cheltenham. After that, they must not communicate again until he was twenty-one when the priest’s guardianship would end. This meant a complete separation of three years. Ronald wrote in his diary: ‘three years is awful.’

A more rebellious and less religious young man might have refused to obey, and even Ronald, loyal to Father Francis, found it hard to follow his guardian’s wishes. He prayed that he would see Edith by accident, and his prayers were answered when he saw her twice on the street, once when she was coming from the Cathedral, where she had prayed for him. But though these meetings were accidental, there was the worst possible consequence. At the end of February, Ronald received a threatening letter from Father Francis saying that he had been seen with Edith again, which was ‘evil and foolish’. He threatened to cut short his university career if he did not stop. When Edith learnt what had happened, she wrote to Ronald, ‘Our hardest time of all has come.’ At the beginning of March, Edith set out from Duchess Road for Cheltenham. Despite his guardian’s ban, Ronald prayed that he might catch a final glimpse of her. When the time came for her departure, he scoured the streets for her and finally, at Francis Road corner, she passed me on the bike on the way to the station. I shall not see her again, perhaps for three years.

Father Morgan was not a clever man for all his devotion and generosity. He did not perceive that by compelling Ronald and Edith to part, he was transforming a teenage love affair into a thwarted romance. Ronald himself wrote, thirty years later, that probably nothing else would have hardened the will enough to give such an affair (however genuine a case of true love) permanence. In the weeks after Edith’s departure, Ronald was mortified and depressed. There was little help to be gained from Father Francis, who was still deeply offended by the deception practised upon him. At Easter, Ronald asked for his guardian’s permission to write to Edith, which was granted, albeit grudgingly. He wrote, and she replied that she was happy in her new home and that all that horrid time at Duchess Road seems only a dream now.

The Tea Club (Barrovian Society):

For Ronald, the school now became the centre of life. Relations with Father Francis were still strained, and the Oratory could not entirely retain its former place in his affections. But at King Edward’s, he found good company and friendship. It was a day school, but it was an all-male society, and it was into this that Tolkien now threw himself. At the age when many young men were discovering the charms of female company, he was endeavouring to forget these and push romance into the back of his mind. All the pleasures and discoveries of the next three years were not to be shared with Edith but with others of his sex so that he came to associate the male company with much that was good in life. The school library was nominally under the control of an assistant master, but in practice, it was administered by a group of senior boys who were granted the title of Librarian.

In 1911, Ronald was one of these, along with Christopher Wiseman, R. Q. Gilson (the headmaster’s son) and three or four others. This little group formed itself into an unofficial society called the Tea Club. At first, they met in the library, but in the summer term, they moved to Barrow’s Stores on Corporation Street and changed their name to the Barrovian Society. In the Tea Room was a sort of compartment, a table for six between two settles, relatively secluded, known as the ‘Railway Carriage’. The Society’s membership varied, but it retained a nucleus of Tolkien, Wiseman and R. Q. Gilson. Tolkien’s contribution to the ‘TCBS’ as it came to be called, reflected the wide range of reading he had already encompassed. He delighted his with recitations of Beowulf, the Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also recounted horrific episodes from the Norse Völsungasaga, with a passing jibe at Wagner, whose interpretation of the myths he held in contempt.

Later a fourth member was added to the group. This was Geoffrey Bache Smith, nearly three years younger than Tolkien. He was not a classicist like the others but lived with his brother and widowed mother in West Bromwich and possessed what his friends considered a ‘Midland wit’. He was also knowledgeable about English literature, especially poetry; he was a poet of some competence, and under his influence’ the TCBS became more aware of the significance of poetry. Tolkien was already interested in this and was beginning to write verse himself. His early efforts were rather juvenile in content, at least, about fairy spirits dancing on a woodland carpet. In April 1910, he had seen J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan at a Birmingham theatre and wrote in his diary:

Indescribable but shall never forget it as long as I live. Wish E. had been with me.

Fairy Tales & Folklore:

But perhaps of more importance was his enthusiasm for the Catholic mystic writer Francis Thompson. By the end of his school career, he was familiar with Thompson’s verse and later became quite an expert on him. In July 1910, he wrote a descriptive piece about a forest scene, Wood-sunshine, which resembled the first part of Thompson’s Sister Songs, where the poet sees first an elf and then a swarm of woodland sprites in the glade; when he moves, they vanish. Dancing elves appear in many of Tolkien’s early poems. But in 1910, his principal concern was to work for his second attempt at an Oxford scholarship. He put in as many hours of private study as possible, but there were still many distractions, including Rugby. He spent many afternoons on the school sports ground on Eastern Road, from which there was a long ride home by bicycle. He also spent a lot of time working on historical languages, including Latin and Greek, and his invented ones. He also devoted himself to the Debating Society. On one occasion, he astonished his school-fellows when he broke into fluent Gothic in the character of a barbarian envoy; on another occasion, he spoke in Old English. These activities occupied many hours, so he could not claim that he was well prepared for his scholarship examination when he set off for Oxford in December 1910. However, he had rather more confidence in his chances this time.

On 17 December 1910, he learnt that he had been awarded an Open Classical Exhibition to Exeter College. This result was not, however, as pleasing as it might have been, for he could have won a more valuable scholarship. However, it was no mean achievement, and with the aid of a school-leaving bursary from King Edward’s School and additional help from Father Francis, he would now be able to realise his dream of a place at Oxford. Now that his immediate future was secured, he was no longer under pressure in his schoolwork. Yet plenty was still to occupy him in his final terms at King Edward’s. He became a prefect, Secretary of the Debating Society, and Rugby Football Secretary. He read a paper to the school Literary Society on Norse Sagas, illustrating it with readings in the original language. At about this time, he also discovered the Finnish Kalevala or ‘Land of Heroes,’ the collection of poems which is the principal repository of Finland’s mythology. Not long afterwards, he wrote appreciatively of…

this strange people and these new gods, this race of unhypocritical lowbrow scandalous heroes. … the more I read of it, the more I felt at home and enjoyed myself.

The summer term of 1911 was his last at King Edward’s. It ended as usual with the performance of a Greek play with choruses set to music-hall tunes. This time the choice was Aristophane’s, The Peace, in which Tolkien took the part of Hermes. He had loved his school, and now he hated leaving it. He said he felt like a young sparrow kicked out of a high nest.

Tolkien as a young student at Oxford, 1911.

In the summer holiday that followed, he made a journey to Switzerland. He and his brother Hilary were among a party organised by the Brookes-Smith family on whose Sussex farm Hilary had been working, leaving school early to take up agriculture. Their Aunt Jane, now widowed, joined them, and they reached Interlaken, setting out on their Alpine hike. Before setting off on the return journey to England, Tolkien bought some picture postcards. Among them was a reproduction of a painting by a German artist. The mountain spirit called Der Berggeist showed an old man sitting on a rock under a pine tree, wearing a wide-brimmed round hat and a long cloak. He is talking to a white fawn, nuzzling his upturned hand, and has a humorous but compassionate expression; there is a glimpse of rocky mountains in the distance. Tolkien carefully preserved this postcard, and long afterwards, he wrote on the paper cover where he kept it: ‘Origin of Gandalf’.

Exeter College, Oxford:

In September, back in Birmingham, Tolkien packed his possessions, and at the end of the second week in October, he accepted a lift from his old schoolmaster, ‘Dickie’ Reynolds, and was driven to Oxford for the first time to start his first term. Although Tolkien never lived in the city again, he referred to Birmingham as his hometown and himself as a ‘Birmingham man’ for the rest of his life. Later in life, he explained that he drew inspiration for his writing from the people and landscapes of the city and the surrounding countryside. However, as the car bowled into Oxford, he had already decided he would be happy there. To the eyes of a casual observer, his own college, Exeter, was not, architecturally, the loveliest in the university. Its insipid frontage by George Gilbert Scott and its chapel, a tasteless copy of the Sainte Chapelle, made it no more remarkable than Barry’s mock-gothic school in Birmingham. But to Ronald Tolkien, it was his own college, his home, the first real home he had known since his mother’s death.

Tolkien spent Christmas with his Incledon relatives at Barnt Green near Birmingham. As usual in that family, as in many lower middle-class Midland families at that time, the season was enlivened by theatricals, some of which Ronald wrote, also taking leading roles. One of these was as a penniless student who meets a lost heiress in the lodging house where they both live and falls in love with her. But she has to remain undiscovered by her father until her twenty-first birthday in two days, after which she will be free to marry. This piece of family nonsense was even more topical than the Incledons realised. Not only was Ronald due to celebrate his own twenty-first, but a few days later, he also intended to reunite himself with Edith Bratt, for whom he had waited almost three years and who he was quite sure had waited for him. So as the clock struck midnight, marking the beginning of 3 January 1913, his coming of age, he sat up in bed. He wrote a letter to her, renewing his declaration of love and asking her: ‘How long will it be before we can be joined together before God and the world?’ But when Edith replied, it was to say that she was engaged to George Field, the brother of her school friend, Molly.

The Reunion and Religion:

Ronald could have decided to forget all about Edith. His friends knew nothing of her existence, and his aunts, uncles, and cousins had never been told about her. Only Father Francis knew, and even though he was no longer Ronald’s legal guardian, he had no wish that the affair should recommence. So Ronald could have torn up Edith’s letter and left her to marry George Field. Yet there had been declarations and promises in the Duchess Road days that Ronald felt could not lightly be broken, at least on his part.

So, on 8 January 1913, Ronald took’ a train to Cheltenham, where Edith met him on the platform. They walked out into the country and sat under a railway viaduct where they talked. By the end of the day, 8 January, she declared that she would give up George and marry Ronald. She wrote to George and sent back his ring. He was naturally distraught, and his family felt insulted and angry. But eventually, their friendships were restored. Edith and Ronald did not announce their engagement, being nervous about family reaction and wanting to wait until Ronald’s prospects were more certain. But Ronald returned to his new term at Oxford in a ‘bursting happiness’. He wrote to Father Francis explaining that he and Edith intended to be married. Though Ronald’s guardian’s reply was far from enthusiastic about this prospect, it was calm and resigned in tone and content. This was just as well for Ronald, as he was still dependent upon the priest’s financial support, so it was still essential that his former guardian tolerate the engagement. Ronald now had to turn his full attention to his degree examinations in Classics. He was relieved when he learnt that he had achieved a Second Class, but was advised to change to the English School and become a philologist. Tolkien agreed and, at the beginning of the summer term of 1913, began to read English.

In the months following their reunion, the question of Edith’s religion caused the couple some concern. If their marriage was to be blessed by the Catholic Church, she would have to become a Catholic. She was prepared to convert, but it was not so simple, for Edith was a very active member of the Church of England in her parish in Cheltenham, and Ronald now wanted her to renounce all her social contacts to join a church where she was not known. She was also afraid that her ‘Uncle’ Jessop, in whose house she lived, might be angry, for, like many of his age and class, he was strongly anti-Catholic and might not allow her to go on living under his roof until her marriage if she was ‘poped’. She suggested to Ronald that the matter might be delayed until they were officially engaged or the time of their marriage was near. But he would not hear of this since he despised the Church of England, calling it a pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs. ‘I do so dearly believe,’ he wrote to Edith, ‘that no half-heartedness and worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly.’ In writing so piously, he had chosen to forget his own lapses from attending mass of the previous year. For him, the question of Edith becoming a Catholic was more emotional and personal than religious or spiritual. He felt he was honouring his mother in following her religious beliefs. It was perhaps also, in part (though he would not admit it), a test of Edith’s commitment to him after her ‘unfaithfulness’ in becoming engaged to George Field.

Warwick & ‘Westerland’:

In any case, it was a test she passed, and she did what he asked, telling the Jessops she intended to become a Catholic. ‘Uncle’ reacted just as she had feared, for he ordered her to leave his house as soon as she could find some other accommodation. Faced with yet another accommodation crisis, Edith decided to set up a home with her disabled, middle-aged cousin Jennie Grove. Together they began to look for rooms, but Edith did not want to move to Oxford, perhaps resentful of Ronald’s pressure on her to convert and certainly because she wanted to remain independent until they were married. She and Jennie chose Warwick, which was not far from their native Birmingham but was far more attractive than the city. They managed to find temporary rooms, and Ronald joined them there in June. He and Edith found Warwick, with its hill, river and castle, a place of remarkable beauty. They went punting on the Avon. Together they attended Benediction in the Catholic Church, from which (as he wrote):

We came away serenely happy, for it was the first time that we had ever been able to go calmly side by side to church’.

But they also had to spend some time searching for a house for Jennie and Edith, and when a suitable one was found, there were innumerable arrangements to be made, which Ronald found rather irritating. He and Edith found that they no longer knew each other very well, for they had spent the three years of their separation in two totally different societies: the one, all-male, boisterous, and academic; the other mixed, genteel and domestic. They had grown up, but they had also grown apart; they would each have to make concessions to the other if they were to come to a fundamental understanding. Ronald would have to tolerate Edith’s absorption in the daily details of domestic life, trivial as they might seem to him. She, in turn, would have to make an effort to tolerate his preoccupation with books and languages, selfish as it might seem to her. They did not always succeed in this. Their letters were full of affection but also sometimes of mutual irritation. Ronald frequently addressed Edith as ‘little one’ and talked patronisingly of her ‘little house’ in Warwick, but she was far from ‘little’ in personality. Ronald tended to assume the role of sentimental lover, unlike his relationships with his male friends. Indeed, there was genuine love between him and Edith, but he often wrapped it up in a sentimental cliché. In contrast, if he had taken her into the company of his male friends, she might not have minded so much when the ‘bookish’ elements loomed large in their marriage. But he kept the two sides of his life as strictly separate as they had ever been.

In the autumn of 1913, his friend G. B. Smith came up to Oxford from King Edward’s School to be an Exhibitioner of Corpus Christi College, where he was to read English. The TCBS was now equally represented at Oxford and Cambridge, for R. Q. Gilson and Christopher Wiseman were at the latter. The four friends met occasionally, but Tolkien had never mentioned the existence of Edith Bratt to them. Now that the time was approaching for her reception into the Catholic Church and they had decided to become formally betrothed, he would need to tell his friends. He wrote to Gilson and Wiseman at Cambridge, uncertain what to say to them and not even telling them his fiancée’s name; clearly, he felt that all of that had little to do with male comradeship. They all congratulated him, though Gilson added, I have no fear… that such a staunch TCBS-ite as yourself will ever be anything else. Edith was instructed in the Catholic faith by Father Murphy, the parish priest at Warwick, who did the job no more than adequately. Ronald was later to blame much on the poor teaching given her at this time, but he did not help her much either. He found it difficult to communicate to her the passionate yet personal nature of his faith, inextricably entwined as it was with the memory of his mother.

On 8 January 1914, Edith was received into the Roman Catholic Church. The date had been deliberately chosen by both Edith and Ronald as the anniversary of their reunion. Soon after her reception, she and Ronald were officially betrothed by Father Murphy in his church. Edith made her first confession and communion, which she found to be a ‘great and wonderful happiness’; at first, she continued in this state of mind, attending mass regularly and often making her communion. But the Catholic church at Warwick was a poor affair compared with the splendours of her old parish church in Cheltenham. Although she helped with a church club for working girls, she made few friends in the congregation. She also began to dislike making her confession, and it was, therefore, all too easy when she was often worried about her health to postpone going to mass. She reported to Ronald that getting up to go to church early in the morning and fasting until she had taken communion disagreed with her. ‘I want to go,’ she told him, ‘and wish I could go often, but it is quite impossible: my health won’t stand it.’ She was leading a very dreary life even though she had her own house and the company of her cousin, Jennie, but unless Ronald paid a visit, there was no one else to talk to and nothing to do except keep house. She had her own piano and could practise for hours, but she was not needed as an organist at the Catholic Church and missed the social life of Cheltenham. She could only pay occasional visits to concerts or the theatre and was irritated to receive letters from Ronald describing his life at Oxford as full of dinner parties, ‘rags’ and visits to the cinematograph.

Now and then, he did some work, enough to win the Skeat Prize for English awarded by his college in the spring of 1914. He used the five pounds prize money to buy books of medieval Welsh poetry and several of the works of William Morris, an alumnus of Exeter College, including Morris’s translation of the Völgsungasaga, and his prose-and-verse romance, The House of the Wolfings. Tolkien found the latter very absorbing. Morris’s view of literature coincided with his own. Morris had tried to recreate the excitement he had seen in the pages of early English and Icelandic narratives. In his book, Morris’s land is threatened by a Roman invasion and centres on a tribe that dwells by a great river in a clearing in the forest named Mirkwood, a name taken from ancient Germanic geography and legend and later used by Tolkien in his fictive geography of Middle-earth. Many elements in the story seem to have impressed Tolkien, and he also appreciated another facet of the writing: Morris’s aptitude, despite the vagueness of time and place in which the story is set, for describing the details of his imagined landscape with great precision. In this, Tolkien was to follow Morris’s example.

His own eye for landscape received a powerful stimulus during the summer of 1914 when, after visiting Edith, he spent a holiday in Cornwall, staying on the Lizard peninsula, with Father Vincent Reade of the Birmingham Oratory. He never forgot the sights of the sea and the Cornish coastline, which became an ideal landscape in his mind. He wrote to Edith of these expeditions:

We walked over the moor-land on top of the cliffs to Kynance Cove. Nothing I could say in a dull old letter would describe it to you. The sun beats down on you and a huge Atlantic swell smashes and spouts over the snags and reefs. The sea has carved weird wind-holes and spouts into the cliffs which blow with trumpety noises or spoat foam like a whale, and everywhere you see black and red rock and white foam against violet and transparent seagreen.

One day he and Father Vincent explored the villages a short way inland from the Lizard promontory:

Our walk home after tea started with through rustic “Warwickshire” scenery, dropped down to the banks of the Helford river (almost like a fjord), and then climbed through “Devonshire” lanes up to the opposite bank, and then got into more open country, where it twisted and wiggled and wobbled and upped and downed until dusk was already coming on and the red sun just dropping… The light got very “eerie”. Sometimes we plunged into a belt of trees, and owls and bats made you creep: sometimes a horse with asthma behind a hedge or an old pig with insomnia made your heart jump…

The juxtaposition of “rustic Warwickshire” and the “Devonshire lanes” is an early example of how Tolkien blended the different regional sceneries of England into his imaginative and figurative writing. At the end of “the long vacation of” 1914, he travelled to Nottinghamshire to stay with his Aunt Jane on the farm she was running with the Brookes-Smiths and his brother Hilary. While there, he wrote the poem The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star, which, borrowing from Cynewulf’s Crist, began as follows:

Earendel sprang up from the Ocean’s cup,

In the gloom of the mid-world’s rim,

From the door of Night as a ray of light

Leapt over the twilight brim,

And launching his bark like a silver spark

From the golden-fading sand

Down the sunlit breath of Day’s fiery death

He sped from Westerland.

The succeeding verses describe the starship’s voyage across the firmament, a ‘progress’ that continues until the morning light blocks out all sight of it. This notion of Cynewulf’s mariner, whose ship leaps into the sky, had grown from the starship’s Earendel in Cynewulf. Still, the poem it produced was entirely original, marking the beginning of Tolkien’s own mythology. But it looked as if that would now have to wait. By the time he wrote this, in the late summer of 1914, the British Empire had declared war on Germany. Already young men were enlisting in their thousands, answering Kitchener’s appeal for volunteer soldiers.

The War, the Working Class & the Wedding:

Field Marshal Kitchener whose face & finger were featured on recruiting posters when he became War Secretary in 1914.

If there was any doubt as to whether the trade unions and the working classes would support the war, that doubt was soon swept away within a week of the declaration of war in a wave of patriotic fervour and a spirit of youthful adventure. The resolutions of class solidarity, the vows of internationalism, and the pledges of strikes to stop the war were all whispers in the wilderness when it came. Britain entered the war as the only belligerent relying on a volunteer army. Such was the response to the call to join the colours that the first Military Service Act, introducing conscription, was not passed until January 1916. Following Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits to his New Army, men were promised if they joined up with colleagues or friends, they would be able to serve in the same unit. The first battalions of pals to join up were in Liverpool and Lancashire, and the rest of the country soon followed. The battalions included the Birmingham Pals and the Cambridge Pals. So Tolkien’s relatives were shocked when he elected not to volunteer immediately for the British Army. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, Tolkien recalled:

“In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” 

The photograph, Sergeant and recruits, shows how thousands of workers enlisted. The posters behind evoke the ‘jingoism’ of the times.

Tolkien was concerned about staying at Oxford until he could finish his degree, which he hoped would be First Class Honours. So, though his aunts and uncles expected him to sign up, especially as his brother had already enlisted as a bugler, he returned to Oxford for the Michaelmas term. But when there, he met only one of his friends who had returned. However, he became more cheerful when he learnt of a scheme that would enable him to train for the army while at the university but defer his call-up until after he had taken his degree. He signed on for it and was soon delighted to discover that his TCBS friend, G. B. Smith, was still up at Oxford waiting for a commission. Smith was to join the Lancashire Fusiliers, and Tolkien resolved to try for a commission in the same regiment, if possible, in the same battalion.

A platoon of the Worcester Regiment marching to the Western Front in August 1914

Some readers and critics have maintained that Tolkien’s ideas for his ‘trilogy’, The Lord of the Rings, became ‘forged’ in the heat of the Great War. The Fellowship of the Ring seems to be based on the same sense of adventure, comradeship and the reality of the loss and suffering of ‘pals’ in the war. At first, however, Tolkien did not directly experience this volunteer army.

For most of the academic year which followed, Tolkien’s mind was occupied with the seeds of his mythology when he was not preparing for ‘Schools’, his final examination in English Language and Literature. The examination began in the second week of July, and Tolkien was triumphant, achieving his First Class Honours. He could, in consequence, be reasonably confident of getting an academic position when the war was over, but, in the meantime, he had to take up a commission. He later recalled that by the time he passed his finals in July 1915, the hints about joining up were “becoming outspoken from relatives”. Accordingly, he was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on 15 July 1915 and trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, based at a camp near Rugeley, near Staffordshire, for 11 months. In a letter to Edith, Tolkien declared his distaste for the hierarchical nature of army life:

“The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

His training began in July at Bedford, where he was billeted in the town with half a dozen other officers. He bought a motor bicycle he shared with a fellow officer, and when he got weekend leave, he rode over to Warwick to visit Edith. After that, they were moved to Staffordshire and around the country, from one camp to another. ‘Gentlemen are non-existent among the superiors,’ he wrote to Edith, ‘and even human beings rare indeed.’ By the beginning of 1916, he had decided to specialise in signalling and was eventually appointed battalion signalling officer.

Embarkation for France was now near, and he and Edith decided to get married before he left, the appalling death-roll among the British troops making it clear that he might never return. They had, in any case, waited long enough, for he was twenty-four, and she was twenty-seven. Ronald went back to Birmingham to see Father Morgan about transferring his modest share capital into his own name and confirming that he was marrying Edith. He managed to arrange the money matters, but when it came to it, he could not tell his old guardian about the marriage. It was not until a fortnight before it took place that he finally wrote and explained. Father Francis wrote back to wish them every blessing and happiness and declared that he would conduct the ceremony himself at the Oratory. However, arrangements had already been made for the wedding at the Catholic Church at Warwick. They were married after early mass on 22 March 1916. The only remaining ‘hitch’ with the ceremony was the civil signing of the register, as Edith did not know, or had forgotten, her father’s Christian name and ended up writing that of one of his brothers. She then had to explain her illegitimacy to Ronald for the first time. However, the couple resolved not to speak of it again. After the wedding, they left by train to Clevedon in Somerset, where they stayed for a week.

Ronald returned to Oxford from the honeymoon and Edith to Warwick, though only to wind up her affairs. The couple had decided that Edith would not have a permanent home for the duration of the war but would live in furnished rooms as near as possible to Ronald’s camp. She and Jennie, therefore, moved to Great Haywood, a Staffordshire village. There was a Catholic Church in the village with a kindly priest, and Ronald found suitable lodgings. But scarcely had Ronald settled into these when he received his embarkation orders. On 2 June, Tolkien received a telegram summoning him to Folkestone for posting to France. The night before, the couple stayed at the Plough and Harrow Hotel in Birmingham, their last sojourn in the city and the first spent together, just across the Hagley Road from Ronald’s final lodging house in the town on Highfield Road. So late on Sunday, 4 June, he set off for Folkestone and France. He later wrote:

“Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then… it was like a death.”

Scarcely a month later, at 7.30 a.m. on 1 July, the troops in the British front line on the Somme went ‘over the top.’ Rob Gilson of the TCBS was among them, serving in the Suffolk Regiment. They scrambled up ladders from the trenches and into the open, forming up in straight lines, as they had been instructed, beginning their slow tramp forward, slow because each man was carrying at least sixty-five pounds of equipment. They were told that the German defences had already been virtually destroyed by the early-morning barrage, but they could see as they approached that the wire was not cut, and the German machine guns opened fire on them. Tolkien’s battalion remained in reserve, moving to a village called Bouzincourt, where they bivouacked in a field or (like Tolkien) slept in huts. There were clear signs that things had not gone well when hundreds, many hideously mutilated, returned from the front line. The truth was that on the first day of the battle, twenty thousand allied troops had been killed.

Men of the 1st Battalion in Tolkien’s Regiment, The Lancashire Fusiliers, in a communication trench near Beaumont Hamel, during the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Rob Gilson of the TBCS was killed on the first day of the battle.

On 6 July, Tolkien’s Lancashire Fusiliers went into action, but only ‘A’ company was sent down to the trenches, and Tolkien stayed at Bouzincourt with the remainder. He re-read Edith’s letters with news from home and looked again at his collection of notes from other members of the TCBS. He was worried about both Gilson and Smith, who had both been in the thick of the battle. He was, therefore, overwhelmingly delighted and relieved when later in the day, G. B. Smith actually turned up at Bouzincourt alive and uninjured. Smith stayed for a few days’ rest before returning to the lines, and he and Tolkien met and talked as often as they could, discussing poetry, the war, and the future. They waited anxiously for news of Rob Gilson. Finally, on Sunday night, his company returned from the trenches; a dozen of their number had been killed and more than a hundred wounded. Those who were able told tales of horror. Then, on Friday, 14 July, it was the turn of Tolkien and his company to go into action. What Tolkien now experienced had already been endured by thousands of other soldiers.

For signallers such as Tolkien, however, there was a certain bitter disillusionment, as instead of the neat, orderly conditions in which they had been trained, they found a tangled confusion of wires, field telephones out of order and covered with mud, and worst of all, a prohibition on the use of wires for all but the least important messages, since the Germans had tapped the lines and intercepted crucial orders preceding the attack. Even Morse code buzzers were prohibited, and instead, the signallers had to rely on flags, lights and, at the last resort, runners or even carrier pigeons. Tolkien never forgot the ‘animal horror’ of trench warfare. His first day in action had been chosen by the Allied commanders for a major offensive, and his company was attached to the 7th Infantry Brigade for an attack on the ruined hamlet of Ovillers, which was still in German hands. The attack was unsuccessful, for once again, the enemy wire had not been properly cut, and many of Tolkien’s battalion were killed by machine-gun fire. But he survived unhurt, and after forty-eight hours without rest, he was allowed some sleep in a dug-out. After another twenty-four hours, his company was relieved from duty. On his return to the huts at Bouzincourt, Tolkien found a letter from G. B. Smith:

15 July 1916

My dear John Ronald,

I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed.

I am safe but what does that matter?

Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst of news.

Now one realises in despair what the TCBS really was.

O my dear John Ronald what ever are we going to do?

Yours ever,

G. B. S.

Rob Gilson had died at La Boiselle, leading his men into action on the first day of the battle, 1 July. Tolkien wrote back to Smith: I do not feel a member of a complete body now. I honestly feel that TCBS has ended. But Smith replied: The TCBS is not finished and never will be. A few days later, Tolkien was among those who supported the storming of the Schwaben Redoubt, a massive fortification of German trenches. Prisoners were taken, among them men from a Saxon regiment that had fought alongside the Lancashire Fusiliers against the French at Minden in 1759. Tolkien spoke to a captured officer who had been wounded, offering him a drink of water; in return, the officer corrected his German pronunciation. On 19 August, Tolkien and G. B. Smith met again at Acheux. They talked and met again the following days, on the last of which they had a meal together at Bouzincourt, coming under fire but surviving without injury. On 19 August, he returned to the trenches, although there was no longer the same intensity of fighting as during the first days of the Battle of the Somme. However, British losses were severe, and many of Tolkien’s battalion were killed. He remained entirely uninjured, but the longer he stayed in the trenches, the greater his chance of being among the casualties. As to leave, it was always imminent but never delivered.

During the First World War, the University of Birmingham was requisitioned by the army as the 1st Southern Military Hospital. Various parts of the campus were used as temporary wards, including the Great Hall (above). In November 1916, Tolkien was brought to the hospital after being diagnosed with trench fever. He stayed in the hospital for six weeks, and although he gradually recovered his health over the next twelve months, he never returned to France.

His rescuer was ‘pyrexia of unknown origin’, as the medical officers called it. To the ordinary soldiers, it was simply known as ‘trench fever.’ Carried by lice, it caused a high temperature and other fever symptoms, and thousands of men had already reported being sick with it. Then, on 27 October, it struck Tolkien, who was billeted at Beauval at the time, twelve miles behind the lines. When he was taken ill, he was transported to a nearby hospital, and a day later, he was on a sick train to Le Touqué, where he remained for a week. But his fever did not die down, and on 8 November, he was put on a ship to England. Upon arrival, he was taken by train to a hospital in Birmingham, where he had white sheets and a view of the city he knew so well. He was reunited with Edith, and by 8 December, he was well enough to leave the hospital and go to Great Haywood to spend Christmas with her. In 1944, Tolkien wrote to his soldier son Michael that she was courageous to marry a man with no money and no prospects except that of being killed in the Great War. Besides being his lifelong companion, Edith later became Ronald’s muse for one of his fictional characters.

Conclusion – The Breaking of the Fellowship:

In Great Haywood, Ronald received a letter from Christopher Wiseman, who was serving in the Navy. He had received news about G. B. Smith, who had been hit by the burst from a shell while walking down a road behind the lines. He was wounded in the right arm and thigh. An operation was attempted, but gas-gangrene set in, and he succumbed to his injuries by mid-December. He was buried in Warlencourt British Cemetery. Not long before being injured, he had written to Tolkien:

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight … there will still be left a member of the great TBCS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one member 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!

Many of Tolkien’s dearest school friends were killed in the war. Among their number was Rob Gilson of the Tea Club and Burrovian Society, their school club, who was killed on the first day of the Somme while leading his men in an assault on Beaumont Hamel. Fellow TCBS member Geoffrey Smith was also killed during the battle when a German artillery shell landed on a first-aid post. Subsequently, after his invaliding out to England, Tolkien’s battalion was almost completely wiped out. Quite naturally, all this was to have a profound effect on his future writings.

Tolkien’s formative years began as he found friendship, courage and motivation among a group of fellow outcasts at King Edward’s School. Their bond strengthened as they matured, first at school and then at university. World War One threatened to tear their fellowship apart. These war-time experiences also inspired him to write his Middle-earth novels. Tolkien began to imagine his fantasy Middle-earth at that time. The Fall of Gondolin was the first prose work he created, and it contains detailed descriptions of battle and street fighting. He continued the dark tone in much of his legendarium, as seen in The Silmarillion. The Lord of the Rings, too, was later described by some literary critics as a war book. However, Tolkien was reluctant to explain the influences on his writing while explicitly denying that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, but admitting to certain connections with the Great War. His friend and fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis, also described the work as having the quality of Great War literature in many of its descriptions. In France, Tolkien had found himself commanding enlisted men drawn mainly from the mining, milling, and weaving towns of Lancashire. Their influence on him is evident, particularly in the Fellowship of the Ring and the character of Sam Gamgee. According to fellow-author John Garth, Kitchener’s army at once marked existing social boundaries and counteracted the class system by throwing everyone into a desperate situation together. Tolkien was grateful, writing that it had taught him…

“… a deep sympathy and feeling for the Tommy; especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties”.

John Garth later added that Tolkein “felt an affinity for these working-class men”, but military protocol prohibited friendships with “other ranks”. So instead, Tolkien was required to …

“take charge of them, discipline them, train them, and probably censor their letters … If possible, he was supposed to inspire their love and loyalty.”

Tolkien himself later lamented what he saw as their misplacement of this love and loyalty, certainly in the more senior officers, as demonstrated at the Battle of the Somme.

General Source:

Humphrey Carpenter (1977, 1982), J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: Harper Collins Publishers.

Related Sources:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English: A Course Book in Language Variation across Time. Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.

Sam Newton (2003), The Reckoning of King Raedwald: The Story of the King linked to the Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial.

Local Sources:




J. R. R. Tolkien & Birmingham, 1896-1916: The Formative Years, Part One (to 1908) – Middle English

The South African Prelude – Beginnings in Bloemfontein:

Arthur Reuel Tolkien and Mabel Suffield (pictured above in the family group), both from Birmingham, were married in Cape Town Cathedral on 16th April 1891, after which came an exhausting railway journey of nearly seven hundred miles to the capital of the Orange Free State. Less than a year after proposing to Mabel, Arthur had obtained a post with the Bank of Africa and had sailed to the Cape. Mabel had celebrated her twenty-first birthday at the end of January 1891, and only a few weeks later, she was on board Roslin Castle and sailing towards South Africa. Bloemfontein was of no great size, and it certainly did not present an impressive spectacle to the newlyweds as they got off the train at the newly-built station. In the centre of the town was the market square where the Dutch-speaking farmers from the veldt trundled in aboard great ox-wagons to unload and sell the bales of wool that were the backbone of the State’s economy. Around the square were clustered solid indications of civilisation: the collonaded Parliament House, the two-towered Dutch Reformed Church, the Anglican cathedral, the hospital, the public library, and the Presidency. There was a club for European residents (Dutch, English and German), a tennis club, a law court, and a sufficiency of shops. But the trees planted by the first settlers forty years before were still sparse, and the town’s park had only ten willows and a patch of water. Only a few hundred yards beyond the houses was the open veldt, where wolves, wild dogs and jackals roamed and menaced the flocks and where after dark, a postrider might be attacked by a marauding lion. Writing to her family, Mabel summed up the town as an ‘Owlin’ Wilderness! Horrid Waste!’

However, the life she found herself leading was by no means uncomfortable. The premises of the Bank of Africa, in Maitland Street just off the market square, included a solidly built residence with a large garden. There were servants in the house, some black or coloured, some white immigrants, and there was a broader company to be found among the English-speaking residents of the town. They organised regular rounds of dances and dinner parties. But Arthur could not afford to take life easy, for although there was only one other bank in Bloemfontein, this was the National Bank, native to the Orange Free State. Arthur was the local manager of the Bank of Africa and, as such, an uitlander, and his bank was only tolerated by a special parliamentary decree.

On 3rd January 1892, Mabel gave birth to a son, John Ronald Reuel, who was christened in Bloemfontein Cathedral on 31st January. In November, he had his photograph taken (above) in the garden of Bank House in his nurse’s arms while his father posed jauntily in his white tropical suit and boater. Behind stood two black servants, a maid and a house-boy named Isaak, both looking pleased and perhaps a little surprised to be included in the photograph. Mabel found the Boer’s attitudes to the natives objectionable. However, in Bank House, there was tolerance, most notably over the unusual behaviour of Isaak. One day. he ‘stole’ the little baby and took him to his kraal, where he showed off the novelty of a white baby. The incident upset everybody, but Isaak was not dismissed, and he later named his own son ‘Tolkien’. Many months later, when Ronald began to walk, he stumbled on a tarantula. It bit him, and he ran in terror across the garden until the nurse snatched him up and sucked out the poison. When he grew up, he could remember running in fear through the long, dead grass, but the memory of the tarantula itself faded, and he said that it left him with no particular dislike of spiders. Nevertheless, in his stories, he wrote more than once of monstrous, venomous spiders, including Shelob in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Soon after the baby’s first birthday, her sister and brother-in-law May and Walter Incledon arrived from England. Walter was a Birmingham merchant in his early thirties with business interests in the South African gold and diamond mines. He left May and their small daughter Marjorie at Bank House while travelling in the mining areas. It was winter in southern Africa and intensely cold, and the two sisters huddled around the dining-room stove while Mabel knitted baby garments and talked about Birmingham days. Although home leave could be taken within a year or so, Arthur was always finding reasons for postponing their visit as a family. In the end, the trip had to be delayed, as Mabel found herself pregnant again, and on 17th February 1894, she gave birth to another son, Hilary Arthur Reuel. Hilary was a healthy child, who flourished in the local climate, but his elder brother struggled with teething, which wore his mother out. Moreover, the weather was at its worst: an intense drought was followed by a plague of locusts which swarmed across the veldt and destroyed its fine harvest. Despite all this, Arthur wrote to his father the words that Mabel had dreaded to hear:

“I think I shall do well in this country and do not think I should settle down well in England again for a permanency.”

Yet whether they were to stay or not, it was clear that the heat harmed Ronald’s health and that something must be done to get him to cooler air. So in November 1894, Mabel took the boys to the coast near Cape Town. Ronald was nearly three and retained a faint memory of this trip. After the holiday, Mabel and the children returned to Bloemfontein and began preparing for the whole family’s trip to Birmingham. Arthur badly wanted to accompany them, but he could not afford to be away from his desk, for there were railway schemes underway in which the bank had a stake.

They stayed with Mabel’s parents, and the spring and summer passed with a marked improvement in Ronald’s health, but although Arthur wrote to say that he missed his wife and children very badly and longed to come and join them, there was always something to detain him. Then, in November, came the news that he had contracted rheumatic fever. He had partially recovered but could not face an English winter and would have to regain his health before making the journey. Mabel spent an anxious Christmas, though Ronald enjoyed himself and was fascinated by the sight of his first Christmas tree, which was very different from the wilting eucalyptus adorning Bank House the previous December. Finally, in January, Arthur was reported to be still in poor health, and Mabel decided that she must go back to Bloemfontein to care for him. Arrangements were made, and an excited Ronald dictated a letter for his father to the nurse in which he said:

“I hope the ship will bring us all back to you… I am got such a big man now because I have got a man’s coat and a man’s bodice… Mamie says you will not know Baby or me… we have got such big men… we have got such a lot of Christmas presents to show you… Auntie Gracie has been to see us… I walk every day and only ride my mailcart a little bit…

The letter was never sent, for a telegram arrived to say that Arthur had suffered a severe haemorrhage and Mabel must expect the worst. The next day, 15th February 1896, Arthur died. By the time a complete account of his last hours had reached his widow, his body had been buried in the Anglican graveyard at Bloemfontein, five thousand miles away from his family in Birmingham.

Birmingham at the end of the Victorian Age:

Birmingham’s diverse industrial base made it a serious rival to Manchester as England’s second city in the later nineteenth century. The Corporation gained a reputation for its municipal enterprise and public works, including one of the country’s most extensive urban tramway systems. On the map below of Birmingham in 1885, we can see how the tramways were initially drawn by horses, then gradually replaced by motorised trams by the end of the century. The grimy, haphazard industrial inner city was soon surrounded by a ring of public parks in the rapidly expanding suburbs. Despite its reputation as a factory city, Birmingham has always had more trees than people.

Re-settlement in Birmingham:

When the first wave of shock was over, the suddenly widowed Mabel Tolkien knew that she must make decisions. She and the two boys could not stay forever in her parents’ crowded home, a little suburban villa, yet she scarcely had the resources to establish an independent household. Arthur had only amassed a modest sum of capital chiefly invested in South African mines for all his hard work and conscientious saving. Though the dividend was high, it would not bring her an income of more than thirty shillings a week, scarcely enough to maintain herself and two children even at the lowest standard of living. There was also the question of the boys’ education. She could manage the early years herself, for she knew Latin, French and German and could also paint, draw and play the piano. When the boys were old enough, they would take the entrance examination for King Edward’s School, widely considered the best grammar school in the City of Birmingham, which their father had attended.

Meanwhile, she must find cheap accommodation to rent. There were plenty of lodgings in the city around its urban and suburban areas, but the boys needed fresh air and countryside. So she began to search through the classified advertisements in the local newspapers. Ronald was now in his fifth year and slowly adapting to life under his grandparents’ roof. He sometimes expected to see the verandah of Bank House jutting out from his grandparents’ home in Ashfield Road, King’s Heath. In the evening, his grandfather would return from a day tramping around the streets of Birmingham, cajoling orders for Jeyes Fluid from shopkeepers and factory managers. John Suffield was sixty-three, but his long beard made him look much older, and he vowed to live to be a hundred. He did not seem to object to earning his living as a commercial traveller, even though he had once managed his own drapery shop in the city centre.

Ronald came to feel far closer to the Suffield family than his father, though his Tolkien grandfather lived only a little way up the road from the Suffields, and he was sometimes taken to see him. But John Benjamin Tolkien was eighty-nine and had been badly shaken by Arthur’s death and was in his own grave six months later. There was still, however, Ronald’s aunt, his father’s younger sister, Aunt Grace, who told him stories of the Tolkien ancestors who had, she claimed, fought with the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at the Siege Of Vienna in 1529. He had shown great daring in leading an unofficial raid against the Turks and capturing the Sultan’s standard. Aunt Grace claimed that this was why he was nicknamed Tolkühn, meaning ‘foolhardy’. There was also a story that a later ancestor had fled the Reign of Terror in 1794 under the old Saxon family name and set up in London as a harpsichordist and clock-repairer. Indeed, the Tolkiens were present at the beginning of the nineteenth century, recorded as clock and watch manufacturers and piano-makers. As a piano-maker and music-seller, John Benjamin Tolkien had come to Birmingham some years later.

Above: A painting of the scenic countryside that inspired Tolkien’s ‘Shire.’

Like many urbanised middle-class Midland families, The Tolkiens liked to tell stories that gave a romantic colouring to their origins. Still, whatever the truth of those stories, the family at the time of Ronald’s childhood was entirely English in character and culture, indistinguishable from thousands of other middle-class tradespeople and professionals who populated the Birmingham suburbs. In any case, Ronald was rather more interested in his mother’s family. He discovered that though the family was now found in Birmingham, its origins were in the quiet Worcestershire town of Evesham, where the Suffields had lived for many generations. Being a homeless child, he held on to the concept of Evesham in particular and the whole West Midland area as his true home. He once wrote about Evesham and Worcestershire in the following terms:

‘Though a Tolkien by name, I am a Suffield by tastes, talents and upbringing… Any corner of that county (however fair or squalid) is an indefinable way “home” to me, as no other part of the world is.’

264 Wake Green Road (5 Gracewell Cottages), located behind the tree on the left. (Please note that 264 Wake Green Road is a private residence.)

By the summer of 1896, Mabel had found them a home to rent cheaply enough for herself and the children to live independently. So they moved a short distance, a mile or so beyond the southern boundary of Birmingham to the hamlet of Sarehole. The impact of this move on Ronald was both immediate and permanent. Just at the age when his imagination was opening up, he found himself in a corner of the Worcestershire countryside. The house they came to was 5 Gracewell Cottages, a semi-detached brick cottage at the end of a row. Outside the gate, the road ran up a hill into Moseley village and thence towards Edgbaston and the city centre. In the other direction, it led towards Stratford-upon-Avon.

But traffic was so limited (to the occasional farm cart or tradesman’s waggon) that it was easy to forget how near the city was.

KEY TO MAIN MAP: (1) Tolkien’s first home, 264 Wake Green Road, (2) Sarehole Mill, (3) Moseley Bog, (4) Cole Valley, (5) The Oratory, (6) Perrot’s Folley/ Edgbaston waterworks tower, (7) Highfield Road/ Plough & Harrow Hotel, (8) King Edward’s School, (9) the University of Birmingham,
(10) Library of Birmingham/ repertory Theatre (Gamgee plaque).

Sarehole – The Mill on the River Cole:

Over the road, a meadow led to the River Cole, little more than a broad stream, and upon this stands Sarehole Mill, an old brick building with a tall chimney. There has been a mill on this site since 1542, but the current building dates from the mid-eighteenth century. Corn had been ground there for three centuries. Still, Matthew Boulton, the local industrialist, leased the mill between 1756 and 1761 and used it as a ‘flatting mill’, producing sheet metal used for button manufacturing, before opening his Soho works in the city.

The sign outside the entrance to the museum shows its geographical relationship to the Cole Valley.

In the 1850s, a steam engine was installed, and a chimney was built to provide power when the river was low. When the Tolkiens lived in Sarehole, the mill’s chief purpose was to grind bones to make manure.

The photograph on the left shows Gracewell Cottages (on the left) in 1905, three years after the Tolkiens left no. 5. The meadow over the road (on the right) gives a clear idea of the unbroken view the young Ronald would have had to Sarehole Mill.

Yet the water still tumbled over the sluice and rushed beneath the great wheel, while inside the building, everything was covered with fine white dust. Hilary Tolkien was only two and a half, but soon he was accompanying his elder brother on expeditions across the meadow to the mill, where they would stare through the fence at the water-wheel turning in its dark cavern or run round to the yard where the sacks were were swung down onto a waiting cart.

Ronald and Hilary spent many hours exploring the grounds of Sarehole Mill and being chased off by the miller’s son. Sometimes they would venture through the gate and gaze into an open doorway, where they could see the great leather belts, pulleys, and shafts with the men at work. There were two millers, father and son. The old man had a black beard, but it was the son who frightened the boys with his dusty white clothes and sharp-eyed face. Ronald named him ‘the White Ogre.’ When he yelled at them to clear off, they would scamper away from the yard and run round to a place behind the mill where there was a silent pool with swans swimming. At the foot of the pool, the dark waters would suddenly plunge over the sluice to the great wheel below: a dangerous and exciting place. Not far from Sarehole Mill, a little way up the hill towards Moseley was a deep tree-lined sandpit that became another favourite haunt for the boys. Indeed, explorations could be made in many directions, though there were hazards. An old farmer who once chased Ronald for picking mushrooms was given the nickname ‘the Black Ogre’ by the boys. Such ‘terrors’ were the essence of those days at Sarehole, here recalled by Hilary nearly eighty years later:

“We spent lovely summers just picking flowers and trespassing. The Black Ogre used to take people’s shoes and stocking from the bank where they’d left them to paddle, and run away with them, make them go and ask for them. And then he’d thrash them! The White Ogre wasn’t quite so bad. But in order to get to the place where we used to blackberry (called the Dell) we had to go through the white one’s land, and he didn’t like us very much because the path was narrow through his field, and we traipsed off after corn-cockles and other pretty things. My mother got us lunch to have in this lovely place, but when she arrived she made a deep voice, and we both ran!”

In the 1960s, Tolkien contributed to the public appeal to restore the mill as a museum. Today it is part of the Birmingham Museums Trust. As well as being a working water mill, the museum features The Signposts to Middle-earth exhibition, which tells the story of Tolkien’s connections with Sarehole and the surrounding area. Nearby Moseley Bog became his Old Forest of Middle-earth. The contemporary painting of Sarehole Mill (above) shows how it would have looked from their home across Wake Green Road.

Moseley, Hall Green & King’s Heath:

The Ivy Bush provided the basis for the Tavern in Chapter One of The Lord of the Rings, where Gaffer Gamgee ‘held forth.’

A little further towards the city centre in Edgbaston is Perrott’s Folly tower (below right), considered the model for at least one of The Two Towers.

Tolkien later lamented the encroachment of the suburbs upon his former home, but there is one place that ‘civilisation’ missed: Moseley Bog. The Bog was an ideal place for Tolkien’s childhood adventures. It was once a storage pool for Sarehole Mill and is also the site of two Bronze Age ‘burnt mounds’. The Bog is recalled in Tolkien’s description of the ‘Old Forest,’ the last of the primaeval wild woods where ‘Tom Bombadil’ lived. It is now a Local Nature Reserve managed by the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust.

There were few houses at Sarehole beside the row of cottages where the Tolkiens lived, but Hall Green village (pictured below, 4) was only a short distance away down a lane and across a ford. Gradually they made friends with the local children, which was not always easy, for their own middle-class accents, long hair and pinafores were mocked, and they, in turn, were not used to the Worcestershire dialect or the rough ways of the country boys. But they began to pick up something of the local vocabulary: ‘chawl’ for a cheek of pork, ‘miskin’ for dustbin, ‘pikelet’ for crumpet and ‘gamgee’ for cotton wool. The last owed its origins to Dr Sampson Gamgee, a Birmingham man who had invented ‘gamgee-tissue’, a surgical dressing made from cotton wool.

His name quickly became a household name in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

The Shire Country Park follows the attractive and varied valley of the River Cole as a green ribbon for some four miles from Small Heath to Yardley Wood. It was named in 2005 to reflect Tolkien’s links with the local area. The park contains wetland, grassland, woodland and heath. Herons, mallards and moorhens are common, and kingfishers can sometimes be seen hunting along the meandering river. The ford at Green Road (formerly Green Lane, pictured above) is one of the few remaining fords along the Cole Valley and was very familiar to young Ronald Tolkien.

Home Education:

Mabel Tolkien taught her two children at home. Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany and awakened in him the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. Young Tolkien liked to draw landscapes and trees, but his favourite lessons were those concerning languages. Her two sons could have had no better teacher, nor she an apter pupil than Ronald, who could read by the time he was four and had soon learnt to write proficiently. His mother’s own handwriting was delightfully unconventional (see her script on the Christmas postcard from Bloemfontein, top). Having acquired the skill of penmanship from her father, she chose an upright and elaborate style, ornamenting her capitals with delicate curls. Ronald soon began to practise a hand that was, though different from his mother’s, to become equally elegant and idiosyncratic. But his favourite lessons were those in languages. Early in his Sarehole days, his mother introduced him to the rudiments of Latin, which delighted him. He was just as interested in the shapes and sounds of words as in their meanings, and she realised that he had a particular aptitude for languages. She began to teach him French, but he liked this much less because the sounds did not please him as much as those of Latin or English.

She also tried to interest him in learning to play the piano, but without success. It seemed instead as if words took the place of music for him and that he enjoyed listening to them, reading and reciting them, almost regardless of their meaning. He was good at drawing, too, mainly when the subject was a landscape or a tree. His mother taught him a great deal of botany, which he soon became very knowledgeable about. But, again, he was more interested in the shape and feel of a plant than in its botanical details. This was especially true of trees, which, although he liked drawing them, he enjoyed being with them most of all. He would climb them, lean against them, and even talk to them. It saddened him to discover that not everyone shared his feelings toward them. One incident, in particular, remained in his memory:

“There was a willow hanging over the mill-pond and I learned to climb it. It belonged to a butcher on the Stratford Road, I think. One day they cut it down. They didn’t do anything with it: the log just lay there. I never forgot that.”

Outside the school-room hours, his mother gave him plenty of storybooks. He was amused by Alice in Wonderland, though he had no desire to have adventures like Alice. He did not enjoy Treasure Island, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, nor The Pied Piper. But he liked ‘Red Indian’ stories and longed to shoot with a bow and arrow. He was even more pleased by the ‘Curdie’ books of George MacDonald, which were set in a remote kingdom where misshapen and malevolent goblins lurked beneath the mountains. The Arthurian legends also excited him. But most of all, he found delight in the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang, especially the Red Fairy Book, for tucked away in its closing pages was the best story he had ever read. This was the tale of Sigurd, who slew the dragon Fafnir: a strange and powerful tale set in the nameless North. Whenever Ronald read it, he found it absorbing:

“I desired dragons with profound desire, … Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood. But the world that contained even the imagination of the Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril.”

The Viking Völsunga saga was the basis for this story, telling the story of Fafnir. Initially, the son of a dwarf king, Fafnir and his brother Regin killed their father to steal his gold. But greedy Fafnir took the gold from his brother and turned into a dragon to guard his hoard. The mortal hero Sigurd (Siegfried) avenged the deed by plunging his sword into the dragon’s heart. Fafnir and Siegfried are featured in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a four-part opera cycle based on Germanic and Norse mythology. But Ronald was not content merely to read about dragons. When he was about seven, he wrote his first story about a dragon. Yet all he could recall of it later in life was his mother’s typically ‘Victorian’ grammarian insistence on his correct use of the order of adjectives:

“I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. … My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.”

Even so, Tolkien’s later writing style was full of complex uses of adjectives, for which it was criticised. Anyone who has tried to read his books out loud to children will recognise this as an ‘issue’ if not an obstacle! Somehow Mabel managed to feed and clothe the boys on her meagre income, eked out with occasional help from the Suffields and Tolkien relatives. Yet through the daily worries of the family’s poverty-stricken existence, there shone the family’s love for each other and for the Sarehole countryside, a place for adventure and solace. Ronald revelled in his surroundings with a desperate enjoyment, perhaps sensing that this paradise would be lost one day. Occasionally a strange dream would come to trouble him, that of a great wave towering over the trees and the green fields and advancing to engulf him and all around him. It was a dream that recurred for many years.

A Divided Family – Anglicans, Nonconformists and Catholics:

Christianity had played an increasingly important part in Mabel Tolkien’s life since her husband’s death, and each Sunday, she had taken the boys on a long walk to a ‘high’ Anglican church. Then one Sunday, Ronald and Hilary found that they were going to a different place of worship: St Anne’s, Alcester Street, in the ‘slums’ near the city centre, a Roman Catholic Church. She had been thinking for some time about becoming a Catholic. Nor did she take this step alone. Her sister May had returned from South Africa, now with two children, leaving her husband Walter to follow when he had completed his business there. Unknown to him, she, too, had decided to become a Catholic. During the spring of 1900, May and Mabel received instruction at St Anne’s, and in June of the same year, they were welcomed into the Roman Church. Immediately the wrath of their family fell upon them. This was at a time when Birmingham was riven by sectarianism. Joseph Chamberlain, the former Mayor of Birmingham, was a Liberal Unionist MP for the city. Despite being a government minister, as a strong nonconformist, he was committed to the campaign against state funding for church schools, which was characterised as Rome on the rates. Nonconformity had reached its zenith in Birmingham. John Suffield, the father of Mabel and May, had gone to a Methodist School and was now, like Chamberlain, a Unitarian. To him, his daughters should turn ‘Papist’ was an outrage beyond belief. May’s husband, Walter Incledon, considered himself a pillar of his local Anglican church, and for his wife to associate herself with the Roman Catholics was simply out of the question. Returning to Birmingham, he forbade her to enter a Catholic church again, and she had to obey him, but she subsequently turned to spiritualism instead.

Walter Incledon had provided a small amount of financial support for Mabel since Arthur’s death, but now there would be no more money from that source. Instead, she faced hostility not just from Walter and other members of the Suffield family but also from the Tolkiens, many of whom were Baptists and therefore strongly opposed to Catholicism. The strain of this, coupled with the additional financial hardship, did no good for her health. Still, nothing would shake her loyalty to her new faith, and against the opposition of both families, she began to instruct Ronald and Hilary in that faith. Meanwhile, it was time for Ronald to be sent to school. In the autumn of 1899, aged seven, he took the entrance examination for King Edward’s but failed to obtain a place. A year later, he retook the examination and passed, entering ‘KEGS’ in September 1900. A Tolkien uncle better-disposed towards Mabel paid the fees, then twelve pounds per annum. The school was in the centre of the city, four miles from Sarehole but close to New Street Station, but for the first few weeks, Ronald had to walk much of the way, for his mother could not afford the train fare, and the trams did not run as far as his home, or even close to it.

Starting School – King Edward’s, Moseley & King’s Heath:

His four-mile morning walks could not continue, and Mabel regretfully decided that their days in the ‘shire’ would have to end. Instead, she found a house to rent on Alcester Road in Moseley, nearer the centre and already on the tram route to New Street Station and King Edward’s. So, late in 1900, she and the boys packed their belongings and left the cottage where they had been so happy for the past four years. ‘Four years,’ Ronald Tolkien wrote, looking back from old age, ‘but the longest-seeming and most formative part of my life.’ His home life was very different from what he had known at Sarehole. His mother had rented a small house on the main road in Moseley, which, though originally a village like Hall Green, had become a city suburb by then. The view from the windows was a sad contrast to the shire countryside of Sarehole, which Ronald was desperately forlorn at being severed from. The trams struggled up the hill, and in the distance were the smoking chimneys factory chimneys of Sparkbrook and Small Heath. But no sooner had they settled than they had to move again since the house was to be demolished to make way for a fire station. Mable found a villa less than a mile away in a terrace row behind King’s Heath Station. The family soon moved again to Westfield Road in Kings Heath, where they were now not far from her parental home, but what had really dictated her choice was the presence in the road of the new Roman Catholic church at St Dunstan, corrugated outside and pitch-pine within.

Ronald found some comfort in this new home. The King’s Heath house backed onto a railway line, and life was punctuated by the roar of trains and the shunting of trucks in the nearby coal yard. Yet the railway cutting had grass slopes, and he discovered flowers and plants here. And something else attracted his attention: the curious Welsh placenames on the coal trucks in the sidings below, which he could not pronounce. So it came about that he began to learn the Welsh language by pondering over the signs for Nantyglo, Senghenydd, Blaenrhondda, Penrhiwceiber, and Tredegar. Then, later in his childhood, he went on a railway journey to Wales, and as the station names flashed by him, he knew that there were words more appealing to him than any he had yet encountered, an ancient language but one which was still alive. He asked for information about it, but the only Welsh books that could be found for him were incomprehensible. Yet he had found another linguistic world to fire his creative talents, one to which he later returned.

King Edward’s School could scarcely be missed by the traveller arriving in Birmingham on the London and North Western Railway, for it rose majestically above New Street Station’s subterranean smoke and steam. It resembled an Oxford college, a heavy and soot-blackened Victorian gothic construction that was designed by Sir Charles Barry and AWN Pugin, the architects of the rebuilt Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). Sadly, Barry’s building was demolished after the school had moved to new premises in Edgbaston, just outside the city centre, in 1935. However, a whole corridor was saved and rebuilt in Edgbaston as the new school chapel. Founded by Edward VI, the school was generously endowed, and the governors had been able to open branch schools in many of the poorer parts of the city, which formed the King Edward’s Foundation Schools. But the standards at the original ‘High School’ were still unrivalled in Birmingham, and many of the hundreds of boys went on to win awards at major universities. By the time Tolkien joined them, ‘KEGS’ had almost outgrown its buildings and was cramped, crowded and noisy. It presented a daunting prospect for a boy who had been brought up in a quiet country village, and, unsurprisingly, Ronald spent much of his first term absent from school due to ill health. But he soon grew accustomed to the school’s rough-and-tumble routine.

The Oratory & Ladywood:

Although he did not initially show any outstanding aptitude in classwork, Tolkien proved to be a good all-rounder. Besides diligently pursuing his academic studies, he was an enthusiastic sportsman, actor, librarian and secretary of the school debating and literary societies. Meanwhile, his mother was becoming restless. She did not like the King’s Heath house and discovered that she did not like St Dunstan’s Church. So she began to search around, once again taking the boys on long Sunday walks in search of a place of worship that appealed to her. She soon discovered the Birmingham Oratory, a large church in the Ladywood suburb of Birmingham that was looked after by a community of priests. The Birmingham Oratory had been established in 1849 by John Henry Newman, then a recent convert to the Catholic faith. He had spent the last four decades of his life within its walls, dying there in 1890. Surely, she thought, she would find a friend, sympathetic counsellor, and confessor among them. Newman’s spirit still presided over the high-ceilinged rooms of the Oratory House on The Hagley Road, and in 1902, the community still included many priests who had been his friends and had served under him.

When Tolkien’s mother converted to Catholicism in 1900, the family worshipped at St Anne’s Church in Alcester Street, Digbeth. After moving to Edgbaston in 1902, Mabel and the boys attended Cardinal Newman’s Oratory on the Hagley Road. The family lived in nearby Oliver Road, and, for a time, Ronald was enrolled at St Philip’s School on the same street.

One of these was Father Francis Xavier Morgan, then aged forty-three, who shortly after the Tolkiens moved into the Ladywood district took over the duties of a parish priest and came to call. In him, Mabel soon found not only a sympathetic priest but a valuable friend. Half-Welsh and half-Spanish, Morgan was not a man of great intellect, but he had an immense fund of kindness, humour and flamboyance often attributed to his Spanish connections. He soon became an indispensable part of the Tolkien household. Without his friendship, life for Mabel and her sons would have shown scant improvement over the previous two years. They moved to Ladywood near the Catholic Oratory church, to a house only one degree better than a slum, while all around them were mean side streets. However, next to the house was the Oratory, attached to which and under the direction of its clergy was the St Philip’s Grammar School, where the fees were lower than King Edward’s and her sons could receive a Catholic education.

Early in 1902, Ronald and Hilary were enrolled at St Philip’s School. But although it was only a step from their front door, its bare-brick classrooms were no substitute for the splendours of King Edward’s, and the school’s academic standards were correspondingly lower. Ronald quickly surpassed his classmates, and Mabel, almost as soon, realised that St Philip’s could not provide the education Ronald needed. So she removed both boys and began again to give them home tuition, with much success in Ronald’s case, as he won a Foundation Scholarship to King Edward’s and returned there a few months later. Hilary, however, failed his entry test and continued to be educated at home.

In charge of the Sixth Class at the school was George Brewerton, one of the few assistant masters who specialised in teaching English literature. At that time, this subject was scarcely featured in the curriculum. Brewerton was a medievalist and, always a fierce teacher, he demanded that his pupils should use the plain old words of the English language, for instance, not manure but muck. He encouraged them to read Chaucer and recited The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English:

From Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

To Ronald Tolkien’s ears, this was a revelation, and he resolved to learn more about the history of the language. At Christmas 1903, Mabel Tolkien wrote to her mother-in-law about his progress:

He is going along at a great rate at school – he knows far more Greek than I do Latin – he says he is going to do German with me these holidays – though at present I feel more like Bed.

One of the clergy, a young, merry one, is teaching Ronald to play chess – he says he has read too much, everything fit for a boy under fifteen, and he doesn’t know any single classical thing to recommend him. Ronald is making his First Communion this Christmas – so it is a very great feast to us this year. I don’t say this to vex you – only you say you like to know everything about them.

A Worcestershire Convalescence; Grief & Faith:

The New Year did not begin well. Ronald and Hilary were confined to bed with measles followed by whooping cough and, in Hilary’s case, pneumonia. The additional strain of nursing them proved too much for their mother, and by April 1904, she was in the hospital, diagnosed with diabetes. Hilary was sent to his Suffield grandparents and Ronald to Hove to his Aunt Jane. Insulin treatment was not yet available for diabetes patients, and there was much anxiety about Mabel’s condition. Still, she had recovered sufficiently by the summer to be discharged from the hospital. Clearly, she must undergo a long and careful convalescence. A plan was proposed by Father Morgan. At Rednal, a Worcestershire village a few miles beyond the city boundary, Cardinal Newman had built a modest country house which served as a retreat for the Oratory clergy. On the edge of its grounds stood a cottage occupied by the local postman, whose wife could let the family have a bedroom and sitting-room, so in June 1904, the three joined together once more for a summer in the countryside. It was as if they had returned to Sarehole. The boys had the freedom of the estate and could also roam further away in the Lickey Hills. Father Morgan paid them many visits there, sitting upon the verandah of the House smoking a large cherrywood pipe, to which Tolkien traced his later addiction to the Pipe. It was an idyllic existence.

In September, Ronald – now fit and well – returned to King Edward’s. But his mother could not yet bring herself to return to the smoke and dirt of Birmingham. So, for the time being, Ronald had to get himself to school and back via train, and Hilary met him on his return with a lamp. However, Mabel’s condition began to deteriorate, and at the beginning of November, she collapsed suddenly and (for the boys) terrifyingly and sank into a diabetic coma. Six days later, on 14th November, with Father Francis and her sister May at her bedside in the cottage, she died. Nine years after her death, Ronald wrote:

My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it is not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to his great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.

It gives some indication of the way he associated her with his membership in the Catholic Church. Indeed, it might be said that after she died, his religion took its place in the affections that she had previously occupied. The consolidation that it provided was both emotional and spiritual. Perhaps her death also had a cementing effect on his study of languages. It was she, after all, who had been his first teacher and had encouraged him to take an interest in words. Now that she was gone, he would pursue that path relentlessly. Indeed, the loss of his mother profoundly affected his personality. It made him into a pessimist, or rather it split his personality. By nature, he was a cheerful, almost irrepressible person with a great zest for life. He loved good conversation and physical activity. He had a deep sense of humour and an excellent capacity for making friends. But from this point on, there was to be another side to his personality, more private but predominant in his diaries and letters. This side of his mind was capable of bouts of profound despair. More precisely, when he was in this mood, he had a deep sense of impending loss, rather like his Sarehole dreams of a great wave. Nothing felt safe, nothing would last, and no battle would be won forever.

Mabel Tolkien was buried in the Catholic churchyard at Bromsgrove. Over her grave, Father Morgan placed a stone cross of the same design used for each of the Oratory clergy in their Rednal cemetery. Mabel had appointed him to be the guardian of the two boys in her will, which proved a wise choice, for he displayed unfailing generosity and fatherly affection to them. His generosity took a practical form, for he had a private income from his Anglo-Spanish family’s sherry business. Since, as an Oratorian, he was not obliged to surrender his property to the community, he could use this money for his own purposes. Mabel had left only eight hundred pounds of invested capital to support the boys. Still, Father Francis quietly augmented this from his pocket and ensured that Ronald and Hilary did not go short of anything essential to their well-being.

An Edgbaston Interlude, 1904-08:

Immediately after their mother’s death, the priest had to find somewhere new for them to live together: a tricky problem, for while ideally they should be placed with their own closest relatives, there was a danger that the Suffield or Tolkien aunts and uncles would try to move them away from the control of the Catholic Church. There had already been some talk about contesting Mabel’s will and sending the boys to a Protestant boarding school. However, one relative, an aunt by marriage, had no particularly strong religious views and had rooms to let. She lived in Edgbaston near the Oratory, and Father Francis decided that her house would be as good a home as any for the moment, at least. So a few weeks after their mother’s death, Ronald and Hilary (now thirteen and eleven) moved into their aunt’s top-floor bedroom. Her name was Beatrice Suffield, and she lived in a dark house in Stirling Road, a long side street in the district of Edgbaston.

The boys had a large room to themselves, and Hilary was happy leaning out the window. But Ronald was still numb from grief at his mother’s death and hated the view of the unbroken rooftops and factory chimneys beyond. The countryside was just visible in the distance, but it now belonged, in Ronald’s imagination, to a remote past that could no longer be regained. He felt trapped in the city, severed from the open air, the Lickey Hills, and the Rednal cottage where they had been so happy with their mother. Because her death had taken him away from all these beloved things, he came to associate them with her. His feelings towards the rural landscape, already sharpened by the earlier severance from Sarehole, now became charged with personal bereavement. These recollections of the countryside of his childhood and youth later became a central part of his writing, intimately bound up with his love for the memory of his mother.

Whilst living in Edgbaston, Ronald Tolkien would have been familiar with two distinctive landmarks. The extraordinary 96ft. Perrott’s Folly is named after John Perrott, who had it built in 1758. The crenellated Gothic tower was originally part of a hunting lodge. In the 19th century, it became one of the first weather recording stations in the country. Along the road at Edgbaston Waterworks stands a later Victorian chimney tower. The tower was part of a complex of buildings designed by J H Chamberlain and William Martin around 1870. The pair of towers, visible from Aunt Beatrice’s home in Stirling Road, is said to have suggested ‘Minas Morgul’ and ‘Minas Tirith’, the Two Towers of Gondor, after which the second part of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is named.

The brothers lived in Stirling Road between 1904 and 1908. Aunt Beatrice gave Ronald and Hilary board and lodging but not much more. She had been recently widowed and was childless and poorly off. Sadly, she was also deficient in affection and showed little understanding of the boys’ mental and emotional states. One day, Ronald came into the kitchen, saw a pile of ashes in the grate, and discovered that she had burnt all his mother’s personal papers and letters. She had never considered that he might wish to keep them. Fortunately, the Oratory was near, and it soon became the boys’ real home. Early in the morning, they would serve mass for Father Morgan at his favourite side-altar. They would then eat breakfast in the refectory before setting off for school. Hilary had passed his entrance examination and was now at King Edward’s, and the two boys would walk together down New Street if there was time or take a horse-drawn tram if the clock at Five Ways showed that they were running late.

Studies in Old English & Middle English:

Ronald made many friends at school, and one boy in particular soon became an inseparable companion. A year younger than John Ronald, as he was known to these friends, Christopher Wiseman was the son of a Wesleyan minister living in Edgbaston. The two boys met in the Fifth Class in the autumn of 1905, Tolkien achieving first place in the class and Wiseman coming second. Their rivalry soon became a friendship based on a shared interest in Latin and Greek, a great delight in Rugby Football and an enthusiasm for discussing anything and everything. Wiseman was a staunch Methodist, but the two boys found that they could also discuss religion without bitterness. Together they moved up the school. The study of Latin and Greek was the backbone of the curriculum, and Tolkien demonstrated a natural aptitude for these. They were taught particularly well in the First (or Senior) Class, which Ronald reached shortly before his sixteenth birthday. By then, he was also developing an interest in the general principles of language. It was one thing to understand Latin, Greek, French and German, but quite another to know why they were what they were. Tolkien had begun to look for the elements that were common to them all: he had begun, in fact, to study philology, the science of words. He was encouraged to do even more when he became acquainted with Old English and Middle English.

Under George Brewerton’s tuition, Ronald Tolkien had shown an interest in Chaucerian literature. Brewerton was pleased by this and offered to lend Ronald an Anglo-Saxon primer, an offer which was eagerly accepted. Opening its covers, Tolkien found himself face to face with the language spoken by the English before the first Normans set foot in their land. Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English, was familiar and recognisable to him as an antecedent of his own language and, at the same time, was remote and obscure. In fact, Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxon period, up to about 1150, after the Norman Conquest. Our knowledge of it is based on a few manuscripts that survive from the time, from which the grammar and vocabulary have been reconstructed by scholars, from the sixteenth century onwards, but mainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The English were not a politically unified nation until late OE times, and they came from different parts of western Europe and spoke various dialects of West Germanic.

They settled in different parts of what became England and Scotland. Still, they were able to communicate with each other since dialects are varieties of language which differ in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar but are not different enough to prevent understanding. The country settled by the English from the sixth to the eighth centuries is sometimes referred to as the heptarchy since it had seven kingdoms, the most powerful of which were, in turn, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. However, the fact that there were seven kingdoms did not mean that there were seven dialects. The evidence of the manuscripts suggests that there were three or four: Northumbrian and Mercian (developing from West Germanic ‘Anglian’), Kentish and West Saxon (originating from ‘Jutish’ and ‘Saxon’). It is usual to use the late West Saxon dialect to describe ‘Old English’ because, by the tenth century, it was a standard written form, and most surviving manuscripts were written in West Saxon.

The primer Brewerton lent to Tolkien explained the language in words that he could easily understand, and he was soon making light work of translating the prose examples at the back of the book. He found that Old English appealed to him, though it did not have the same aesthetic charm as Old Welsh. This was somewhat a historical appeal, the attraction of studying the ancestors of his own language. He began to find real excitement when he progressed beyond the simple passages in the primer and turned to the great Old English poem of Beowulf. Reading this first in a translation and then in the original language, he found it to be one of the most extraordinary poems he had ever read: the tale of the warrior Beowulf, his fight with two monsters, and his death after a battle with a dragon. The facsimile below is of the beginning of the manuscript poem:

The extract below is from a translation by Sam Newton (2003) in which a ship-burial, thought to be like the one uncovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, is described in the poem:

After discovering Beowulf, Tolkien returned to Middle English and found Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This was another poem to fire his imagination: the medieval tale of an Arthurian knight and his search for the mysterious giant who is to deal him a terrible axe blow. Tolkien was delighted by the poem, especially its language, for he realised that its dialect was approximately that which had been spoken by his mother’s West Midland ancestors. In the Anglo-Saxon incursions and settlements of Britain, the Angles occupied the Midlands, the North and what is now southern Scotland. The general term Anglian is used to describe their dialect of Old English (OE). Still, its northern and southern varieties were different enough for two dialects to be recognised: Northumbrian (north of the Humber) and Mercian (south of the Humber). During the Middle English (ME) period, the Mercian (Midlands) dialects developed differently. The East Midlands was part of the Danelaw, the area settled by Scandinavians or Norsemen and under Danish law throughout much of the ninth century, but the West Midlands was not. So the dialect of the East Midlands came under the influence of the Danish Old Norse (ON) speakers, while Old English Mercian became two ME dialects: East Midlands and West Midlands. The following two texts from the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman illustrate the West Midlands dialect. However, scholars have placed the dialect as being from the area covered today by Cheshire or south Lancashire rather than Warwickshire or Worcestershire.

Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells the story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The one surviving manuscript was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century. The author’s name is not known. The poem is written in 101 stanzas with varying unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like in all OE and ME poetry, it was written to be read aloud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult for the modern reader than a comparable stanza of Chaucer’s writing, partly because some vocabulary is from a stock of words which came down into modern English spoken dialects but not into written Standard English. The story of the poem is that during the New Year celebrations at King Arthur’s court, a Green Knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can strike a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge:

The following stanza of the poem tells what happened when Gawain took up the Green Knight’s challenge to strike a blow with the axe.

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in Middle English. It must have been a very popular work because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life and the corruption of the contemporary church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’. The following text is from the ‘Prologue,’ in which the writer dreams of a fair field full of folk, the world of contemporary society.

Piers Plowman is a humble poor West Midland labourer who stands for the ideal life of honest work and obedience to the church. The author was William Langland, but nothing is known about him apart from what can be inferred from the text of the poem. However, the reader must remember that the ‘dreamer’ of the visions is a character in the story and may not always be identified with the author. There are three versions of the poem, the A, B and C texts, which show that Langland constantly revised and extended the verse from the 1360s until the 1380s when the C-text was completed. Of course, the printed text is edited based on one of the C-text manuscripts but uses other manuscript readings or makes changes where the manuscript does not make good sense. Some modern punctuation has also been added, so we are not reading the exact form of the original manuscript. Nevertheless, it is a fine fourteenth-century example of the tradition of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is (south) West Midland ‘but rather mixed’, the dialect that Tolkien took to be that of his ancestors. But the fifty manuscripts and successive text versions also have many variant spellings. As a result, the editors of modern versions have to choose from the available alternatives. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original.

Text 45 (below) is a facsimile of an extract from one of the C-text manuscripts. In the first line, which can be described as What is parfit patience: quod Actiua uita, a question is put to Patience by Activa Vita (Active Life). They are allegorical characters in the poem. Piers Plowman is seeking how to live a good life, and the next Passus (section) describes the life of ‘Dowel’ – that is, how to do well.

Typical grammatical markers of ME West Midlands dialects, variants from OE, include:

Tolkien began to explore further in Middle English and read the Pearl, an allegorical poem about a dead child, believed to have been written by the author of Sir Gawain. Then he turned to Old Norse, reading line by line in the original words the story of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir that had fascinated him in Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book when he was a small child. By this time, he had acquired a range of linguistic knowledge and awareness that was remarkable for a schoolboy. He continued his search for the ‘bones’ of all these languages, rummaging in the ‘Philology’ sections of the school library and the nearby bookshop. It was not an arid interest in the scientific principles of language; it was a deep love for the look and sound of words, springing from the days of his mother’s first Latin lessons.

From Middle England to Middle-earth:
A blue plaque on the Birmingham Repertory Theatre commemorates Dr J Sampson Gamgee, founder of the Birmingham Hospital Saturday fund. ‘Gamgee tissue’ was the local name for cotton wool, and the surgeon’s widow lived opposite Aunt Beatrice’s house in Stirling Road, so Ronald Tolkien would have been very familiar with the name, though unconscious of its origins when he used it for Frodo’s faithful companion in his book.

To be continued (for sources, see part two)…


Orbán versus Soros: Whose Values? -The Continuing Confrontation.

Extract from a Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the 31st Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp, 23 July 2022, Tusnádfürdő [Băile Tuşnad]:

We have managed to separate our big debate on the whole gender issue from the debate on EU money, and the two are now moving forward on separate tracks. Here too, our position is simple. We are asking for another offer of tolerance: we do not want to tell them how they should live; we are just asking them to accept that in our country a father is a man and a mother is a woman, and that they leave our children alone.

And we ask them to see to it that George Soros’s army also accepts this. It is important for people in the West to understand that in Hungary and in this part of the world this is not an ideological question, but quite simply the most important question in life. In this corner of the world there will never be a majority in favour of the Western lunacy – my apologies to everyone – that is being played out over there.

Since November 2017, Diana Senechal has taught English, American and British Civilization at Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and guide the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In her recent ‘blog-post,’ she clarified and summarised Orbán’s rather tangled statements while at the same time challenging the more extreme views put forward in his speech:

Moreover, the West itself, through ethnic mixing and other changes applauded and abetted by the international Left (including the “troops of Soros”), has turned into something that could be called the Post-West. In fact, the “true West” now exists in Central Europe alone; the rest has become the Post-West. 

As for the family, it is already changing in Hungary, with no help from “Soros troops.” Many young people in Hungary—by which I mean people in their late teens through early thirties—yearn for a more open and flexible way of living. Not all women want to be housewives. Not all men want to be served by their wives. They (women and men) want partnerships, cameraderie, friendship, shared interests, joint projects. Some might not want to marry. And many (though not all) young people, whether heterosexual or otherwise, believe that gay people should be accepted and treated with dignity. Young people have a wide range of beliefs, attitudes, feelings on these issues, but they see that this range exists. Orbán denies this range by asserting the existence of a single Hungarian view. A generation or two ago, that might have been more true. But not now. Hungary is far more diverse (ideologically, personally, even ethnically) than Orbán recognizes.

But he resolves this by writing off the Hungarians who don’t fit his model. Apparently, in his view such people are international leftists, “Soros troops”, etc., not true Hungarians. They are not even true Westerners! The true spiritual West, according to Orbán, lives only in those who will defend the Hungarian peoples from the encroachments of the surrounding world. As proof that he represents the true Hungarian view, he would likely cite the fact that the Hungarian people keep voting for Fidesz. But this conceals a more complex situation: Fidesz itself is not monolithic, and not everyone who votes for Fidesz does so enthusiastically, in full agreement with its official ideology. (Never mind gerrymandering, media bias, etc.)

A Postcard from Multi-Cultural Birmingham:

I had just started a fortnight’s holiday when I read about this speech, even more twisted than his previous pontifications from Transylvania. As usual, he shows his ignorance of ‘Western’ history and culture. Back in the UK for the first time in three years, watching the Commonwealth Games, it’s great to see how my home city of Birmingham is welcoming the world. I’ve never been prouder of its multi-cultural heritage and traditions and refuse to be branded as one of ‘Soros’s troops.’ I had my own motivations in coming to live and work in Hungary in 1990. At that time, I was only vaguely aware of who George Soros was, mainly in connection with his speculation against the pound in the early 1990s.

Opening up Central-Eastern Europe in the Eighties:

By the 1980s, both the liberal and nationalist oppositions to communist rule in Hungary had established links with the leaders of Hungarian minorities abroad and drew encouragement and support from Hungarian emigrés in the West. The New York-based Open Society Foundation was launched by the American businessman George Soros in 1982 and opened a legal office in Budapest in 1987. Since 2010, he has become “public enemy number one” in Hungary, so I became interested in a collection of essays about him published by the Harvard Business Review a few months ago. In his introduction to these, Peter Osnos explains how, over the years, Soros became a primary nemesis to the global extreme Right, which deployed a mix of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes to discredit his activities on behalf of progressive causes and civil society. Osnos points out that:

The bizarre notion that he is mastermind of everything the right-wingers around the world reject is nonsense.

Bizarre or not, these theories led to a bomb being placed in the mailbox outside his home in Bedford, New York. Yet Soros has displayed extraordinary equanimity in almost every way. What did bother him was that in his homeland, the autocratic leader Viktor Orbán, who, in 1989, had studied at Oxford as a Soros-funded fellowship scholar, made him the nemesis of his nativist political strategy. Orbán’s values have always been those of the village pump! Soros’ values came from his unique heritage: the influence of his father, Tivadar, in the war years was a basis for his own daring and risk-taking in finance and in life generally.

Orbán, the ‘player.’
The ‘Young liberal-communist.’

By early 1989, however, the tectonic plates in Europe had begun to shift. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had unleashed perestroika and glasnost but was soon losing control of the Soviet state apparatus and of public opinion in his empire. In Hungary, the régime was losing its capacity to create fear and buy off discontent. A steady stream of samizdat publications, concerts, dance performances, and seminars started a ferment the Communist Party central committee proved incapable of controlling. In the summer of 1989, the young dissident Viktor Orbán made a dramatic public speech at the public reinterment of Imre Nagy, calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Shortly afterwards, Soros funded a scholarship for Orbán to spend a semester at Oxford. Meanwhile, the talk was beginning to circulate, both in the Hungarian Foundation and in the Inter-University seminar which had met at Dubrovnik in March, about the setting up of a new university.

Still, Soros remained sceptical and cautious, believing, to use a phrase of Popper’s, that “piecemeal social engineering was the most effective way to make the change.” Young dissidents like the historian István Rév warned him that the Academy of Sciences only to maintain its privileged position, but Soros stuck with the collaboration, believing that he should work with existing institutions. Historian László Kontler, then a young instructor who attended the 1989 Dubrovnik meetings, remembers that while the creation of a university was on the agenda, no one realised how quickly events were moving in the region. The talk was not, he recalled, about the transition from communism but how to support a university curriculum that would “undermine the credibility of Soviet ideology.”

A Kick up the Nineties – Another Prague Spring:

A few months later, the fall of the Berlin Wall accelerated the plans and discussions. The question ceased to be whether there should be a new international university but when it should start and where. On the latter question, there was only one answer as far as the Hungarian intellectuals were concerned: Budapest. But there were also meetings in the university, where Soros secured a promise from the new Czechoslovak PM, a former dissident, that the university could have a lease on a trade union building in Prague. That seemed to settle the question of location, but Soros still hesitated, and he continued to do so throughout 1990. He vacillated, sometimes thinking he should invest in existing universities, sometimes believing he needed partners to help him finance a new university. But, slowly, he realised that if he wanted to start a new university, he would have to do so with his money alone. In December 1990, at a meeting in Oxford, he finally told the assembled Czech, Polish, British and Hungarian academics that he would fund the foundation of a new university that would open in Prague in the Spring of 1991. Michael Ignatieff, a recent rector, has written of how Soros’ mind suddenly shifted into a higher gear:

Once he made up his mind, his instincts were radical. Once established in Prague, the university should also have campuses in Warsaw and Budapest. For him, it was evident that Central Europe had a common culture and history and should have a university to reflect that identity. … as time went on, the fragmentation of Central Europe became ever more evident, but in this bright and hopeful moment of transition, it still seemed possible to have a university in three capitals in the region.

Ignatieff in Osnos (ed.), p. 167.

In thinking about what kind of university the region needed, Soros reasoned that in a time of change, it needed experts in transition: lawyers to write constitutions, more lawyers to privatize state companies, economists to figure out how to unleash the disciplines of a price system on a socialist command economy, political scientists to assist in the creation of free political parties. As Ignatieff has further commented,

Founding a university to change the course of history meant training a new élite to take the place of the discredited and bankrupt communist cadres in government offices, factories research institutes and social institutions. The focus of the education offered should be practical, vocational, and policy-orientated. Soros was enamoured of intellectuals, but he was even more enamoured of ‘doers’. … What the region needed, in other words, was a ‘trade school for transition,’ a place that would train a new élite to manage the shift away from communism…

But that’s not how things turned out … Instead of a training school, the institution George Soros got for his money was… a highly academic graduate school in the social sciences and humanities. … Little by little history and the humanities made their way into the curriculum of Central European University. For someone who thought he was making history happen, for someone whose success with money taught him his instincts were nearly always right, the largest surprise about the university’s founding is that Soros listened and learned.

Ignatieff in Osnos, pp. 168-69.

János Kis credits Soros with listening but also ascribes this willingness to listen to his deep motivations:

“It is true that George imagined CEU as a trade school for the transition to democracy. But this is not a complete account of what he had in mind. He also wanted CEU to be the lighthouse of the liberal thought in the region. … So George’s commitment to liberal values, including the value of open society, was a driving force moving CEU away from his other ideal, a trade school for practitians, and in the direction of a graduate school in social sciences and the humanities.”

Quoted by Ignattieff in Osnos (ed.), p. 169.

Once Soros gave the go-ahead in December 1990, founding the university in the space of just nine months was an almost inconceivable undertaking. At any other time, it would have been absurd to try, but in the euphoria and state of high energy released by the collapse of the Soviet empire, anything seemed possible. By September 1991, Central European University opened for classes in the trade union building in Prague. The Budapest programmes started with legal studies, history, and environmental sciences and developed with political science and international relations. Soros committed $5 million a year to the CEU. The new governments in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland were reluctant to subsidise what they characterised as an American billionaire’s vanity project. An appeal to wealthy private sponsors in the UK and Europe met with a similar reaction. It began to dawn on Soros that if the university was to survive, it would be with his money alone.

The Re-emergence of Anti-Semitism:

The University grew rapidly throughout the 1990s. Students were flooding in from all parts of Central and Eastern Europe and from Central Asia. At the same time, the dissident political movement of 1989 was replaced by the darker, resurgent forces of nationalism and authoritarianism. This was accompanied, here and there, by a deep current of right-wing anti-Semitism. A disgruntled right-wing Hungarian dissident, István Csurka, wrote an anti-Semitic attack on Soros and the CEU in 1993, describing him and other Western liberals as ‘termites’ undermining the foundations of the Hungarian nation. At the time, it was easy to dismiss Csurka as a radical outlier, but since then, such vitriolic views have been shared by more ‘mainstream’ Magyar politicians. By the end of the century, the politics of the Central European countries had become resolutely nationalist, and the overall regional identity was relatively weak. The university still called itself Central European, but by the late 1990s, it had become a Hungarian institution with US accreditation. Soros secured a magnificent former palace in the heart of downtown Pest that became the university’s home.

But while he was increasingly excited by the institution taking shape, Soros was also immune to the euphoric illusion that the liberal democratic transition was irreversible. On the contrary, he was fiercely critical of the failure of the Americans and Western Europeans to grasp how epoch-making the collapse of the USSR had been and how fragile the prospects for democracy really were, even in America.

Soros became disillusioned by how few governments and foundations followed his lead. As he watched the West missing its chance to link the former Soviet empire to itself and its democratic ideals, as Former Yugoslavia descended into a downward spiral of violence, his public commentary on the region became even darker. In testimony before the US House of Representatives in 1994, he said:

“When I embarked on my project, I was planning on a short-term campaign to seize the revolutionary moment and to provide an example that would be followed by the more slowly moving, more cumbersome institutions of our open societies. But I was sadly mistaken. Now I must think in biblical terms – forty years in the wilderness.”

George Soros, quoted by Ignatieff in Osnos (ed.), pp. 175-76.

From an enrollment of seventy-six in 1991, CEU was taking in 674 students by 1998. At first, CEU was an attractive option for students in the region, especially since Soros was paying full scholarships. Many of these students then completed doctorates at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Stanford. Instead of training an élite who would stay in the region and lead it forward, CEU became a means of exiting it altogether. At the same time, demographic growth in the Central European region was faltering, and the number of young people eligible for graduate education began to decline. A university founded to create a transition élite in the region was slowly losing its core student population from the region. In its place, CEU began recruiting worldwide. Whereas in 1991, it recruited students exclusively from the twenty-seven countries of the former Soviet bloc, by 2000, it was recruiting from the USA, the UK, and Western Europe, and after 2010 from Africa, Asia and Latin America. By 2020, it was recruiting students from 120 countries. The CEU story, therefore, is about unintended consequences, which did not surprise its founder. It is no coincidence that the following quotation is displayed in the CEU building in Budapest:

“Reality has the power to surprise thinking and thinking has the power to create reality. But we must remember the unintended consequences – the outcome always differs from expectations.”

Quoted by Ignatieff in Osnos (ed.), p. 177.
Joining the European Union – The Era of Euro-Atlantic Integration:

By the time Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Croatia and the Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, Soros could have been forgiven for believing that his investment in transition had paid off. All these countries had been stabilised by the powerful incentives of the Euro-Atlantic integration process. The expectation was that, once inside the Union, the European Council, the European Parliament, and the European Commission, together with the European Court of Justice, would exert a transnational regulatory role, ensuring that these countries remained on the democratic path. Guided by this expectation, the Open Society Foundations began scaling back its investments in the Balkans and Central Europe. Its attention shifted to other regions of the world, particularly to the foundation’s work in the United States and South Africa.

In the USA, over time, Soros was able to change the terms of the debate over social reform and helped enact policy and elect new leadership that made a real difference for millions caught up in the overcriminalization of America. While Soros has fostered these deeper trends, making investments in structures and collaborations that have outlasted campaign cycles in a political world famously addicted to short-termism, he has also played an outsized role in the political careers of young leaders of colour like Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams. They have changed the face of American politics. Soros has played a leading role in the transformation of progressive politics and in the transitions to democracy of numerous countries on virtually every continent.

While the CEU continued to grow, the political climate in Hungary continued to darken. After Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, thousands of Hungarians had taken out mortgages with Western banks denominated in euros. When the financial crisis hit in 2007-08, they suddenly found themselves underwater, and the government struggled to offer any help. Public finances collapsed. In 2010 the socialist government was swept from power, and the Fidesz Party, led by Viktor Orbán, came into office. Orbán had already served one term as PM between 1998 and 2002, preparing the country for EU entry. But after he was turned out of office, he was stung by his defeat and vowed, in a famous speech, that never again would ‘the Hungarian nation’ be in opposition. The faculty at the CEU had never heard the rhetoric of this kind before, especially the idea that Orbán and his party were the incarnation of the nation. During his time out of office, Orbán built a broad ‘civil society’ movement of the right, largely based in the Hungarian churches, and developed an ideology with deep roots in the small towns and rural areas: hostile to ‘Western’ condescension, assertive of Hungarian pride and language. Once in power, the new Fidesz government rewrote the constitution, slapped down the liberal media, and set about exerting party control over the Supreme Court and other vital institutions. From the beginning, the CEU’s professors joined with the liberal media in analyzing and denouncing these trends. The hope at the time was that the university could ride out the radical shift in the political climate.

Into the New Millennium – A ‘Conservative’ Counter-Revolution:

Slowly it became apparent that the Fidesz victory represented a sea change in the direction of the transition itself. Creating a new liberal transition élite had been Soros’s explicit strategy. Still, the problem was that this new élite, drawn from the former dissidents, had been too small to lead a successful transition, let alone the kind of social transformation that Orbán and Fidesz had been planning in opposition. To succeed, the liberal dissidents would have to have made common cause with members of the former ‘reform’ communist élite, who had rebranded themselves as ‘socialists’. For the transition to succeed, this alliance between the socialists and liberal democratic parties entailed many compromises which were especially distasteful to the latter, involving agreements not to prosecute former police informers and security-apparatus members. These compromises doomed both the socialists and liberals alike. The new élite of the transition was also tarnished by the radical economic disruption of the transition itself, which created a political opening to the right throughout Central-Eastern Europe.

By the early 2000s, politicians like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia and Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic were lining up together to accuse the liberal transition élite of weakening national culture and protecting the former communist élite. Dissidents who had been in prison or under surveillance before 1989 were now attacked for being insufficiently anti-communist. Still, the attacks worked, partly because the ‘conservatives’ were more successful than the liberals in building up their support in ‘civil society’: in the churches, small-town professionals and village dwellers who had known stability under the communist régime. These ‘conservative’ social groups now looked at the depopulation of villages with alarm. They vehemently opposed the sale of public lands and properties to a wave of private and foreign speculators. The liberal élite had laid the foundations for a new Central-Eastern Europe: they had written the constitutions, privatised the state companies, created the new commercial law for the capitalist economy and prepared the post-communist states for entry into the EU. But in the process, these changes had cost them the support of voters, who gravitated towards right-wing parties better positioned to exploit their anxieties about identity, community, and religious faith.

Viktor Orbán had himself been a beneficiary of George Soros’s support. Still, the sudden attack that Orbán mounted against Soros, beginning in late 2016, was not part of a personal vendetta, according to Ignatieff. Ignatieff believes that it was purely political in motivation; targeting Soros as the embodiment of everything Fidesz stood against – Europe, multiculturalism, immigration, secular tolerance, the open society – was a brilliant way to reach out to a small-town base disoriented by change. Making an alien US-based speculator public enemy number one also appealed to “the national bourgeoisie,” the urban middle class whose own fortunes depended very much on allegiance to a single party with control of state assets and state budgets. Orbán also understood CEU’s vulnerability as a foreign-accredited university paying high salaries and preaching values of multicultural tolerance and openness. It enjoyed solid support in Budapest itself but not among the small towns and villages of rural Hungary, the political power bases of most Hungarian parties.

The Migration Crisis of 2015 & its Political Aftermath:

Above: Refugees are helped by volunteers as they arrive in the EU on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor at the time of the Crisis.

Then, late in August and early September 2015, the migration crisis broke upon Europe and shattered the uneasy truce between Orbán and the European Union. A million Syrian refugees left their camps in Turkey and flooded across the Aegean into Greece, then turned northwards through the Balkans and into Hungary from Serbia, eager to take advantage of Angela Merkel’s call to give them a home in Germany. Orbán tried at first to hold the line and then opened the border. Migrants engulfed trains at Budapest’s main railway stations, heading towards Austria and Germany.

Orbán’s poll numbers had been languishing that summer, but he quickly seized the political opportunity that had been handed to him, and he became Merkel’s most vituperative opponent and an even more strident critic of Muslim immigration and the supposed threat it posed to ‘European civilization.’ Soros was among Orbán’s most determined critics. As a Holocaust survivor, an immigrant, and an American citizen, he believed that Europe should respond with generosity to the plight of the Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in their home country. In editorials, he urged Europe to give the refugees a home. From the CEU, students and faculty went to help the refugees camped at the railway stations. Students brought plugs to charge refugee phones, food, water, and maps to guide them to safety in Germany.

A solid two-thirds of Hungarians polled during this period felt that the government was doing the right thing in criticising the idea of quotas of refugees issued from Brussels or Berlin. Soros disagreed, however, and was said to have spent considerable sums during 2015 on pressure groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) making a case for open borders and free movement of migrants into and around Europe. As well as a website called ‘Welcome2EU’, the Open Society Foundation published leaflets informing migrants of what to do. These told them of their human rights in Europe and what the authorities could and could not do, especially at the borders, as the Orbán régime’s controls tightened. In October 2015, Orbán criticised Soros’ university’s circle of activists who support anything that threatened nation-states. In an email to Bloomberg, Soros said that his university was seeking to uphold European values while Orbán’s government sought to undermine those values. He went on to say of Orbán’s policy:

His plan treats the the protection of national borders as the objective and the refugees as an obstacle. Our plan treats the protection of refugees as the objective and national borders as the obstacle.

‘Orbán accuses Soros of stoking refugee wave to weaken Europe,’ Bloomberg, 30 October 2015.

The dialogue between the two men ceased almost before it had properly begun. After the traumatic days of the migration crisis, however, CEU sought to establish businesslike relations with the Fidesz régime, and the university’s leaders believed it had succeeded. But that did not mean the CEU’s professors stopped criticising the government. The university’s constitutional experts analysed the gerrymandering of the electoral system, the neutering of the Supreme Court, and the new media laws. At the same time, other scholars denounced the corruption of what one university affiliate, Bálint Magyar, called Orbán’s ‘mafia state.’ When Michael Ignatieff became rector later that fall, however, George Soros flew in for his inauguration and the opening of the new building. The ceremony, attended by key figures close to the government, emphasised the university’s Hungarian associations and pointed to a renewal of good working relationships between the institution and the government. Nevertheless, this was the last time to date that George Soros would set foot in his native land. Then, in November 2016, Donald Trump won the US presidential election, and almost immediately, relations between the Orbán government and the CEU began to deteriorate. The Obama administration had put the US-Hungarian relationship into a ‘deep freeze’ to express its disapproval of the régime’s corruption and its violations of the rule of law. Now the Trump administration began to signal a change of policy, and Orbán felt confident enough to make a direct attack on Soros.

The 2018 Election Campaign & the Demise of the CEU in Budapest:

‘Only Fidesz!’ Viktor Orbán makes a speech at an election rally in 2018.

The first sign of this attack came just before Christmas when Orbán delivered a speech rallying Fidesz members of parliament and supporters to prepare for the 2018 national elections. Orbán declared that his objective in the election campaign would be to drive George Soros and all his works from Hungary. This strategy had been proposed by a US Republican campaign adviser, who urged Orbán to ‘scapegoat’ Soros as the man threatening Hungary with mass migration. This, as Ignatieff comments, is how a populist “politics of enemies” works. Orbán needed an enemy of stature, and the Hungarian opposition was too weak and divided to give him a worthwhile target. It was far more effective to make a man not even a resident in the country responsible for all its woes and to make his ‘open society’ the symbol of everything Orbán was running against. Campaign posters soon filled every available space on the subway, the trams and the outdoor billboards: a picture of a smiling George Soros as a puppet-master pulling the opposition leaders’ strings with the slogan, “Don’t let Georges Soros have the last laugh!” When critics pointed out that the figure of “the laughing Jew” had been a trope of the Nazi newspaper in the 1930s, the régime reacted with indignation:

How dare you accuse us of anti-Semitism!

This ‘new’ kind of anti-Semitism, directed at Soros personally, made its first appearance in post-war Europe. It made shameless use of Nazi-era tropes while indignantly denying that it was doing so. But the campaign of personal defamation was followed by a direct attack on his institution. In March 2017, CEU heard from friends inside the civil service that the régime was planning to revise the higher education law. It was instantly clear that while the law was nominally directed at all thirty foreign higher education institutions working in Hungary, it targeted only one. It required every foreign institution to negotiate a bilateral agreement between its country of origin and the Hungarian government and to maintain a campus on its native soil. CEU is one of many US institutions abroad which does not maintain a domestic campus in the USA. With support from Soros and the board of trustees, the CEU administration publicly opposed the legislation as a discriminatory attack on academic freedom and set about mobilising support in Hungary, Europe, and the USA. In late May 2017, a crowd of eighty thousand Budapest citizens gathered on the Buda bank of the Danube, crossed the Chain Bridge and marched past the CEU building to Parliament Square, chanting for “Free Universities” in a “Free Society.” It was the largest demonstration seen since the heady days of 1989.

Above: The Hungarian Opposition demonstrates on one of the main Danube bridges.

Orbán agreed in early June to enter into negotiations with the State of New York to see whether an agreement could secure a way for CEU to stay in Budapest. Over the summer of 2017, the chief legal counsel of the governor of New York met with Orbán’s designated representative, and in late August, an apparent breakthrough occurred. CEU would establish a campus at Bard College and conduct educational programmes there, satisfying the Hungarian requirement for a US campus. The Hungarian government would allow CEU to remain in Budapest. The university signed the agreement and waited for the government to do the same. The signature never came. Soros had never believed that a deal with Orbán was possible. Unfortunately, he turned out to be correct in his assessment. The university’s leadership had been ‘played’ by Orbán. For the remainder of the year, right through to the election of April 2018, the anti-Soros barrage was unrelenting. Not only were subways, buses, and streets plastered with anti-Soros posters, but there were also incessant television attacks claiming that an open society meant submerging Hungary in a deluge of refugees. This strategy had the desired result, and in the election, Fidesz once again secured the two-thirds majority of seats within Parliament necessary to make constitutional changes. Within weeks, Soros ordered the closing of the Open Society Foundation’s offices in Budapest, and by the autumn of 2018, the CEU had succeeded in securing a new home in Vienna. However, the CEU retained its research establishments and administrative functions in Budapest.

Other wealthy philanthropists have chosen to bail out of Central Europe in the face of the unremitting hostility of the national governments and the general darkening of the prospects for an open society in Central-Eastern Europe, and the growing democratic deficit worldwide. The speculator George Soros once was might have done so, but the CEU experience had changed him. He had initially thought of his venture into higher education in Central-Eastern Europe as temporary, risky speculation that might pay off. Over time, he had discovered just how difficult it was to change the political culture of a whole region. His foundations had been expelled from Russia, and his philanthropy had been unable to stop the consolidation of single-party authoritarian rule in Belarus and Hungary. He had sought to mobilise Western European governments to bring down the divides with Eastern Europe and genuinely integrate the two halves of the continent. He had been rebuffed, and instead of his philanthropy drawing support and encouragement from private donors, he had to go it alone. Nothing had turned out quite as he had hoped, but he was not surprised by this. Unintended consequences are the stuff of history, and history is never over. The future of Hungary will have many chapters after the one(s) written by Viktor Orbán.

Meeting the Moment -1989 and All That:

It could be argued that, by the early 1990s, Soros’ ambitions had met the historical moment. And yet, in his tenth decade, the world remains by most measures a divided and disturbing place. While preserving the forms of democracy, too many countries – the USA included – have been drawn to authoritarian rulers and right-wing populist movements that persecute minority racial, ethnic and religious groups and seek to dismantle the collaborative institutions to which Soros has devoted much of his life. In his native Hungary, despite his considerable role in helping the country move past Soviet-era repression, Viktor Orbán’s relentless, anti-Semitic attacks on Soros drove his Central European University out of the country, and it is unsafe for Soros to visit his beloved birthplace of Budapest. Most fundamentally, the core tenets of the open society are challenged as never before. Political and ideological differences are bitterly fought out, as parties and philosophies have their time in and out of power. Soros wants a system that functions but is sceptical when one side has too much power. The cycles of ‘normal politics’ depend upon a shared belief in underlying democratic systems and norms and on a shared understanding of the facts – a transpartisan view that the truth matters. Soros claims that without agreement on that principle, the political contest deteriorates into a shameless manipulation of the truth. As Laura Quinn of Catalyst noted,

“Soros is an emblem of a society which values institutions and norms – the exact embodiment of the enlightenment values they are trying to kill.”

In a further article, Ivan Krastov points out how, after the 1989 Revolutions in Central-Eastern Europe, it was those most impatient to see their countries change who were the first to leave. For many liberal-minded Eastern Europeans, a mistrust of nationalist loyalties and the prospect of joining the modern world made emigration a logical and legitimate choice. As a result, he writes, the revolutions of 1989 had the perverse effect of accelerating population decline in the newly liberated countries of Central-Eastern Europe. From 1989 to 2017, Latvia lost twenty-seven per cent of its population, Lithuania twenty-three per cent, and Bulgaria almost twenty-one per cent. Hungary lost nearly three per cent of its population in the 2010s after the EU’s freedom of movement arrangements encouraged migration, especially to the United Kingdom. In 2016, around one million Poles were living in the UK. This emigration of the young and talented was occurring in countries already with ageing populations and low birth rates. Together, these trends set the stage for demographic panic. Thus, the combination of emigration and the fear of immigration best explains the rise of populism in Central-Eastern Europe, which feeds off a sense that a country’s identity is under threat. Moving to the West was equivalent to rising social status, and as a result, those who stayed behind in their own countries started feeling like poor relations. Success back home was devalued in countries where most young people dreamed of leaving.

Hello, Viktor!
Conclusion – The “Soros Affair” & its Lasting Legacy:

In 1989, as in the revolutions of 1848, liberals and nationalists were political allies, a coalition that broke the back of communism in the former Soviet-controlled countries. Viktor Orbán, a nationalist in liberal clothing at first, in the 1990s, was the best illustration of this conjoining of forces. But by the beginning of the current century, as in the last days of the Habsburg Empire at the beginning of the previous century, liberals and nationalists have become the worst of enemies and have remained so into the 2020s. George Soros, who advocates for international governance, universal human rights and a progressive migration policy, is now deemed a significant, sinister threat to the nation-state. What Krastev labels the “Soros Affair” – the obsession of the nationalists with labelling any supporter of the ideas of the open society as a traitor – plays a lamentably similar role to the “Dreyfus Affair” in late-nineteenth-century France. Soros has so far proved correct in his belief that the twenty-first century will be defined by the clash between the ideals of an open society and those of a closed society as an incarnation of old notions of tribalism. Many Central-Eastern European nationalists have embraced the current right-wing Israeli government in order to challenge their most senior and most bitter enemy, Jewish cosmopolitanism, as embodied by George Soros.

Goodbye, Mutti!

A Hungarian Jew who became an American financial speculator is now the fiercest defender of the European Union, and he is defending the Union on two fronts: against political élites in Central-Eastern Europe who benefit significantly from the generosity of the Union’s subsidies and against Brussels bureaucrats who resist the need to reinvent the EU. What makes Soros so infuriating to Eastern Europe’s illiberal leaders is that he exposes their biggest lie: that open society liberalism is an alien import into the region. And to make their fellow citizens believe the lie, the illiberal nationalists have had to turn Soros into a foreigner, a person not from the region. As Krastov concludes, it is clear that if George Soros did not exist, the Eastern European nationalists would have had to invent him. As Soros turned ninety-one, his commitments to the CEU indicated that he had come to an important insight that might not have occurred to him in the 1980s, when he began his efforts to change the history of his native region. He had grasped that régimes come and go, single-party rulers come and go, single-party rulers come and go, but institutions, universities especially, endure. Some of what Soros had tried to create had been swept away, but his institutions may yet endure as his lasting legacy long after Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric has lost any power it once possessed.

A Recent photo of Orbán with fellow Nationalist autocrat and ally, Vladimir Putin.



Peter L. W. Osnos (ed.) (2022), George Soros: A Life in Full. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Publishing.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Douglas Murray (2018), The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.


Britain, Europe and The World in 1937: A Moment in History Repeating itself? Part One

Updated, with added material on Britain.

Andrew James

Democracy and Dictatorship – 2022 & 1922-1937:

The fall of the three great European empires at the end of the First World War – Austria, Germany and Russia – the chief centres of autocratic rule, seemed a happy augury for the future of democratic government. After the war, this was established in the new states, whose rulers recognised the wisdom of adopting constitutions modelled by Western Powers. In every European country, except Russia, where a new form of government, a Communist dictatorship, was maintained, the principle of representative government was accepted. Source: Richards et al., 1937.

Beginning his keynote address on Russia’s War on Ukraine on 28th June 2022, the newly-commissioned Head of the British Army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, spoke of the similarity of the events of 1937 in Europe to the continuing and impending events of 2022 in the central-eastern part of the continent:

“This is our 1937…

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A Gentle Gulliver – Warwickshire Adventures & Sojourns

Andrew James

Seymour and Vera Gulliver,
in Leamington Spa in the 1970s. Photo by Arthur J Chandler

Mooching with Seymour Henry:

Forty years ago this summer (2022), my grandfather, Seymour Henry Gulliver, died aged eighty-two. He was born at the beginning of the twentieth century at Ufton-on-the-Hill, Warwickshire, the seventh child and one of the younger sons of a large family of thirteen children, eleven of whom survived into adulthood. Seymour was extremely proud of his father, George, an agricultural labourer, and his beautiful, brilliant mother, Bertha (neé Tidmarsh), who lived to the age of ninety-seven. As an infant, Seymour became famous in Ufton because, before he could walk, he shuffled off down the steep hill and along the main road on his first adventurous expedition and had to be returned on the carrier’s cart. This propensity remained with him throughout his life since he loved what he called “mooching” and…

View original post 5,340 more words


A Gentle Gulliver – Warwickshire Adventures & Sojourns

Seymour and Vera Gulliver,
in Leamington Spa in the 1970s. Photo by Arthur J Chandler
Mooching with Seymour Henry:

Forty years ago this summer (2022), my grandfather, Seymour Henry Gulliver, died aged eighty-two. He was born at the beginning of the twentieth century at Ufton-on-the-Hill, Warwickshire, the seventh child and one of the younger sons of a large family of thirteen children, eleven of whom survived into adulthood. Seymour was extremely proud of his father, George, an agricultural labourer, and his beautiful, brilliant mother, Bertha (neé Tidmarsh), who lived to the age of ninety-seven. As an infant, Seymour became famous in Ufton because, before he could walk, he shuffled off down the steep hill and along the main road on his first adventurous expedition and had to be returned on the carrier’s cart. This propensity remained with him throughout his life since he loved what he called “mooching” and continued to do this right up to the end of his life. He enjoyed three holidays in his last year, including his particular choice of one in Dorset, where he could undertake a pilgrimage in the steps of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. His Gulliver forebears were originally a prosperous Banbury family of innkeepers. There are still tombs in the levelled churchyard of the Parish Church near where the original Banbury Cross once stood. There is also a ‘memorial’ stone to the Gullivers, whose name was used by Jonathan Swift for his three-volume work of satire, which later became the children’s book Gulliver’s Travels in later centuries. According to some local historians, Swift most likely spent a lot of time at the White Lion (Inn) at Ufton in the company of the real Lemuel Gulliver and persuaded the innkeeper to allow him to use his name as a nomme de plume to avoid the Crown’s censorship or other punishments. The sketch in the frontispiece of the original work (shown below) could be a portrait of the genuine Gulliver.

The Memorial Stone to the Gullivers of Banbury in the graveyard of the Parish Church.
The 1912 First Edition of the ‘Children’s Edition’ of ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’

The frontispiece of the 1726 Edition, Vol I.

Banburyshire Beginnings:

By the 1830s, the Gullivers and the Tidmarshes, Seymour’s maternal ancestors, were healthy farming folk from ‘Banburyshire’ (now Oxfords/ Northants/ Warwicks). Throughout his life, Seymour delighted in telling many tales about his maternal grandfather, Henry Tidmarsh (b. Great Rollright, c. 1840), who had lost his arm in a threshing machine. He was also legendary as the man who would go out in all weather with a shire horse and chain to assist the coaches on a challenging hill on the Leamington to Banbury road. In one case, he saved the life of an heir to a titled family whose mother perished in a snow storm. On a visit to the area late in life, Seymour was able to point out his grandmother’s cottage in the village of Rollright and the graves of other well-known Tidmarshes.

Henry Tidmarsh and family
Joseph Arch of Tysoe

The Gullivers had been involved in the struggle of the Warwickshire agricultural labourers from the 1860s, led by the Methodist lay-preacher and later founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, Joseph Arch of nearby Tysoe (pictured above). A public house in Barford, near Stratford, is named after him. Vinson Gulliver, born in Oxfordshire in 1833, had married Hannah Green, George’s mother, from Wormleigton in Warwickshire in 1855. According to recorded family folklore, he was an itinerant preacher who marched with Joseph Arch of Tysoe through the Warwickshire villages of Wellesbourne and Barford, later becoming the first secretary of the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union in the 1860s.

Bertha Gulliver (née Tidmarsh), aged 33, had six children in 1899 in Ufton. Seymour was the seventh, born the following year, 1900. She had thirteen children in all (one died as a baby).

Bertha Tidmarsh met her husband when working as a maid at the Chamberlains’ House at Ufton-on-the-Hill near Leamington. The Chamberlains owned the Harbury cement works. George Gulliver, born in Ufton in 1862 (pictured below), was a coachman with the Chamberlains. He used to drive them around in a coach with two horses.

George Gulliver
The Family at Ufton-on-the-hill:

Seymour, the seventh child, was just an ordinary boy, nearly two years older than Jessie, who therefore knew him well as they grew up together, playing outside. She was born the year Queen Victoria died, 1901. Her earliest memory was from when she was about two and a half, and the Gulliver family was living at Ufton. She sat on the school wall, and the teachers came out and told her to get off because the children couldn’t concentrate with her sitting on the wall. She went home to her mother and asked what concentrate meant, but she couldn’t speak it very well. So her mother told her she could sit on the wall at play-time and dinner-time or during holidays, but she mustn’t sit on the wall when the children were in school because they couldn’t concentrate when she was playing on the wall. She thought that was a bit hard for one two and a half years old. So she used to go around Ufton with her elder brothers, Seymour and Arnold, and they’d play around Harbury Cement Works. Her brothers once got an old door, put two pieces of wood under it, and used two other pieces for paddles, taking Jessie out on a small brook near the works. Their mother and father were very angry with the boys because they could easily have fallen into the brook and drowned. But, said Jessie, looking back, you know what they say, God looks after children and drunkards! Nevertheless, their mother often told

St. Michael’s Church, Ufton, Warwickshire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jessie also remembered leaving Ufton and going to Wroxall as a child of three. Her father left his job as a coachman at the Chamberlain’s house to work for them instead at Harbury Cement Works. So first, they lived in a rented cottage in Bishops’ Itchington, not far from Ufton. They paid half a crown a week for it in rent. However, the cement works didn’t suit her father because the cement dust got on his chest, and he had to go back onto the London work, riding the coaches between Leamington and London. Jessie could remember how hard up they were at this time. One Sunday, when she was about three or four, she came home from Sunday School, where they’d been reading about Joseph with the coat of many colours. Her mother had bought her brother Arnold a little navy blue coat, and he’d left it on Harbury Cement Works, and she was ever so upset and crying when Jessie went home, and, of course, all Jessie could say to the rest of the family was… 

he’s lost the coat of many colours! Butit was a job for my mother to get clothes for us in those days, and she liked us to be dressed nicely. I don’t know how she managed to do it, but she did.”

So it was that, with a large and expanding family to feed, in 1904, George accepted an invitation to work on Lord Dugdale’s estate near Wroxall, along the old coaching road running west from Warwick and Leamington. He was under-manager on one of the four estate farms. Seymour’s older brothers were old enough to begin working alongside their father at Wroxall Farm. Vinson, the eldest son, had already left school at twelve to work on a farm near Ufton, looking after cattle, horses and pigs. The Dugdales were very generous to all their labourers, who were given comfortable houses with gardens, and at Christmas, each family would receive a ton of coal and a piece of beef, plus some money for the children’s shoes. In addition, the Dugdales sent a hamper of things for each birth, including coverings with golden embroidery. So now the family felt a lot better off. The only problem was that the children had to walk a mile and a half to school, run by the nearby abbey, for which they received a shoe allowance. Otherwise, they were comfortable enough, even with two more additions to their family. Soon after they moved to Wroxall, Jessie discovered her love of poetry by attending The Band of Hope. This was a temperance society for children, which she began attending when she was between four and five. Even so young, the children had to promise never to drink. To help her understand what this was all about, she had to learn to recite by heart a piece called, The Convict’s Little Jim, which she could still recite, word perfect, nearly ninety years later. However, looking back from 1992, she commented that she had always thought it was a terrible thing to teach a child, with scenes of domestic violence, murder and execution!

Vinson Gulliver, the firstborn, outlived all but one of his thirteen siblings to become Britain’s oldest man at 108 in 1995.
Wroxall and World War:

They were still quite poor but relatively happy until George had trouble with the manager over ‘harvest money’ Vinson and Alfred had to work longer hours alongside their father, but only George received the overtime pay when they were paid out. George went to see Lord Dugdale about this, who confirmed the sums and ordered his manager to pay them in full. The manager did this but subsequently did his best to make George’s position as under-manager untenable. Vinson craved the city’s bright lights and found work in the engine sheds at Trafford Park, Manchester, in 1907. His starting wage was just eleven shillings per week, of which eight went on his rent, so he could not send much money home. That left Alfred, aged fourteen, as the only sibling able to bring in a wage, so, when Seymour was about nine, in 1909, the family moved from Wroxall to Walsgrave-on-Sowe, then still in Warwickshire, on the eastern side of Coventry. Although still young, Seymour was old enough to learn lessons about injustice and victimisation, which he applied throughout his working life. Alfred worked on the farm at Wroxall until he was fifteen in 1908, when he went into the Navy, inspired by his uncle, Alfred Tidmarsh, who was also a CPO, having joined in the age of sailing ships. In uniform, Uncle Alfred had visited his sister at Wroxall on leave.


CPO Alfred Tidmarsh
Alfred Gulliver served on HMS Thunderer, the third Alfred in the family to serve in the Navy. He became a Chief Petty Officer and went all through the First World War. Then, due to his perfect eyesight, he became a range-finder instructor, serving in the Second World War, aged fifty-five, but stayed in dock training the gunners.

A few months before his death, Seymour revisited all the villages where he had lived and worked as a boy. In addition, he went back to the City of York, and Catterick, where he was stationed during the war. He tried to join the Army in 1917, although he would not be eighteen until the following spring. He was at Catterick Barracks when the influenza epidemic struck, wiping out almost all of the company he had joined. When he wrote to his mother about this, she arrived at the camp gates in Yorkshire, produced his birth certificate and demanded her son back. She took him back to Coventry on the train, so he survived both the war and the epidemic.

Caludon Lodge & Walsgrave-on-Sowe – Between the Wars:

By then, the family had moved to live and work at Caludon Farm near Walsgrave (in 1909), now the site of one of Coventry’s comprehensive schools. They had gone to live at Caludon Lodge, a larger house built in brick, with railings all around it, little holly bushes all around the garden, and a porch in the middle. The kitchen and the front room were at right angles to each other, and there were two passages, one from the front room and one from the kitchen. There was a big yard at the back with a long bench where their mother could put about four bowls for washing. There was a big ‘copper’ (kettle) and a little one. Bertha always had the little one on, and the children used to go and get sticks (for the wood-fired range), so there was always warm water in the big kitchen to wash with. There was a most beautiful garden, with pear trees, plum trees and apple trees with mistletoe growing up one of them:

It was ever so long; it went right down past two houses, and Mr Green eventually took a piece off it and built two houses on it for more farm labourers.

Seymour joined his father and brothers on the farm in Walsgrave with his father and brothers when he left Binley Park elementary school just before the First World War. He later told his daughter, my mother, how he rode on top of the hay-loaded waggons into Coventry, coming into the narrow medieval Spon Street on top of the hay, touching the overhanging eaves of the half-timbered houses on either side. So they had quite a happy time at Walsgrave. They could go to Binley, Wyken or Stoke schools. But Caludon was outside the Parish of Walsgrave (which was still in Warwickshire, outside the Corporation area), so they couldn’t go to the Church of England village school. So, they were sent to Binley Elementary School, which was run by Whitley Abbey, and they found themselves having another two-mile walk to school across the fields, starting early with two sandwiches each to eat on the way. Then they had a school dinner and a meal when they got home at about half past four. Soon after they arrived, Binley Pit was sunk, and a new school had to be built, so Seymour’s last year at school was spent there. On leaving school aged thirteen just before the war, Seymour had gone to work in the offices of nearby Binley Colliery when he was still so young that he needed a stool to reach the telephone.

Returning to Binley Colliery after his ‘adventure’, he went underground as a collier, not just because, as a reserved occupation, it kept him from being conscripted, but also because there was more money to be earned working at the coalface, which he needed to begin married life with Vera Brown, a ribbon-weaver from a long-established village family. They were both very young when they met in 1917. Their wedding took place in Walsgrave Baptist Church in 1918, conducted by Rev. Penry Edwards of Treorchy in the Rhondda, who had recently become the first full-time minister at the chapel and had baptised Vera shortly before. After their marriage, Seymour and Vera set up a home in one of the gardeners’ cottages belonging to the Wakefield Estate. However, Seymour’s decision to work underground was costly, eventually ruining his health.

At the pit, he became involved in the trade union, The Miners’ Federation. In May 1926, Seymour went out on strike and was locked out of the colliery for six months in support of the miners, especially those in South Wales, who worked in difficult places and had their wages cut. He urged his fellow miners to continue their strike in support of the starving Welsh miners, even though this meant privation and an eventual return to work for less pay. There were many miners in Walsgrave at that time, so the Lock-out hit the village hard. Vera had to return to work as a skilled weaver at Cash’s factory, and Seymour took over the housekeeping and looked after their two children. He and the other colliers could only earn money from tree-cutting up at the Coombe, a wooded area on Lord Craven’s estate around the historic Coombe Abbey, the Cravens’ House since the late seventeenth century. The miners earned a little money from the timber they cut, caught rabbits, pinched the odd pheasant and were given scraps from the Abbey kitchens, bowls of dripping and left-overs from banquets held there, which Seymour would bring home. He later helped to settle unemployed miners from South Wales in the village and at the colliery.

School House Lane, Coal & the Blitz on Coventry:

Nevertheless, by 1928, the couple had saved enough to afford a mortgage. That year, the young family moved into their newly-built house in Walsgrave, which that same year had been adopted by the City Corporation, where my mother was born in 1931, by then the youngest of four children, three girls and a boy, who had seven children in all, three girls and three boys. The Gullivers had also become well-known characters in the village, especially in the Baptist Chapel, where Vera was a deacon, as well as in the Co-operative Society and the nascent local Labour Party. Almost as soon as they moved in, their front room became the Headquarters for the Labour Party during the elections, and the bay window was full of posters at these times. Of course, it was in a strategic position, next to the polling station, the Village School, so no one could doubt Vera and Seymour’s allegiances. They helped get the first majority Labour government elected under Ramsay MacDonald in 1928. In 1937 the party swept to power in the City for the first time, beginning its programme of municipal socialism.

As prosperity returned with a boom in Coventry, coal-miners’ wages also improved. However, many chose to desert the pits for cleaner, high-wage jobs in engineering in the city, especially in the car factories and later, during rearmament, the Shadow factories. However, Seymour stuck to his job at the colliery because he liked the economic security that came with it and the sense of camaraderie. Although not a hard drinker, like many colliers, he naturally liked to call into the pub for a much-needed pint on his way home after a hard shift at the coalface. The Baptists frowned upon and shunned the pubs in the village because there were many well-known heavy drinkers, but they understood that it was natural for the miners to enjoy a drink together on the way home. The only problems in some families came on weekly paydays when they received their wages in cash. On these days, all the wives would send their children, and Daphne was one of these, to wait for their fathers and get their pay packets from them in case any of them might be tempted to donate too much into the pub’s coffers! Every mother would direct their kids to stand outside The Craven Arms and The Red Lion to collect the wages. This, of course, was more of a show of traditional solidarity by the wives than an act of necessity, especially as the local publicans were strict about not serving those who had, in their opinion, had one too many.

As Daphne grew up in Walsgrave in the thirties, she remembered The Walsgrave Show, a vast agricultural and horticultural event. She could remember her father winning prizes for vegetables and children making bouquets out of wildflowers. It was a show run by local farmers like Harold Green, whom the Gullivers had worked for before the first war, but it attracted farmers, showjumpers and other participants from far and wide. It eventually combined with the Kenilworth Show and became the forerunner of The National Agricultural Show at Stoneleigh.

Walsgrave and the Second World War:

When the second war broke out in 1939, the excellent community spirit in Walsgrave continued. The most noticeable difference, at first, was in the availability of food and rationing. There were queues for tomatoes, but the Co-op Shop was fair to everyone, and the vegetable cart continued to do its village rounds. One day, Daphne went out with her mother to buy oranges, rationed to one per person per week. So, they could have five. A group of internees were making their way up the Lane to the farm at the top as the cart passed. Vera asked the vendor Albert for a knife and cut all five into slices. Then, she went over to the boys and gave each one a slice of orange. Daphne, quite naturally for an eight-year-old, protested, but Vera told her, “oh well, these lads are very young, and they’ve been living off potatoes up at the farm, so they need that orange much more than you do”.

People were encouraged to produce their own food on their allotments. So, as well as growing vegetables, Seymour kept pigs and poultry on his allotment along Woodway Lane. You could keep pigs during the war, but you had to have a permit to kill them. You could sell them to the authorities, but they didn’t pay much. So Seymour decided to take his sow into hiding in their house when her time came. Daphne remembered these war-time pigs and piglets well:

…we had a litter of pigs; we decided we were going to have a litter, and then we had some sleeping quarters for these piglets, and when the time came, the wretched sow had all those little piglets on the hearth, and we were giving them drops of brandy, trying to revive them and keep them going. I think we saved about five.

But they got to be little suckling pigs and one of them wasn’t quite right. So they decided they were going to ‘knock this one off’. So Bill Gately worked up the abattoir and we persuaded Bill to come and knock this little pig off. They’d just gone up the garden, ’cause he was working all day so it was dark now, and the air-raid siren went. So, no one dared shine a flashlight or anything and well, you can imagine these little pigs running and squealing all over the sty, and them trying to get hold of this particular one, and Bill was muttering and stuttering, you know. Well, eventually, we caught this pig and killed it quietly at the kitchen sink.

We had no permit, and then someone came around afterwards, knowing that we’d done this, and he asked, “what did you do with the Tom Hodge?” So Seymour says, “what’s that?” and they said, “well, you know, its innards!”Dad says, “oh! We buried them up the garden”. “Oh, oh dear!”he says, “the best part of the pig!’”Anyway, he comes back after a few minutes and says, “well, if I know Seymour, it won’t be buried deep!” So he goes up the garden with his fork and forks all this up. Eventually, he took all these chitterlings and well, of course, to anyone who likes chitterlings… but it put me off pork for the rest of my life!  

Daphne also remembered the first significant air raids and the first use of the communal shelter at the school. The Anderson shelters that people had put up in their gardens by the summer of 1940 had become flooded, so they had to go to the shelter at the school, which had been put there for the school children. However, as there were no day-time raids, it had not been used and was still locked. Nevertheless, the schoolmaster, ‘Gaffer’ Mann, refused to open it when the first night-time raids on Coventry began in early autumn. So Seymour fetched his collier’s pick axe to break the lock, and all the residents of School House Lane went in.

Though Walsgrave was of no military importance, Capability Brown’s huge landscaped pool at Coombe Abbey, a mile or so away from the village, was on the German ‘Baedeker’ map books and was used as a landmark by the German bomber crews. The Rolls Royce Engine Factory at Ansty was manufacturing aircraft engines less than a mile from this. There was also an aerodrome there, built before the war. The then Rootes assembly plant at Ryton-on-Dunsmore was only a few miles away on the same side of the city, with its shadow factory producing aircraft and military vehicles. Planned under Chamberlain’s Government in 1936, these factories did not appear on the Luftwaffe’s maps nor on Baedeker’s; hence the importance of incendiary bombs dropped around the city’s outlying areas and the largely wooden medieval city centre in the 1940 Blitz. On the evening of the 13th November through the ‘full moon’ night to breakfast time on 14th November, Coventry was subjected to an eleven-hour sustained Blitz, giving both the English and German dictionaries the word Coventration as a synonym for blanket-bombing rather than lightning raids, which had been the previous strategy in attacking London and other regional ports and cities, including Coventry. ‘Operation Moonlight Sonata’ as the Germans named was, like Beethoven’s famous piece, designed in three ‘movements’ in order to set fire to the city and light up the sky so the bombers could locate the factories at a three-mile radius or more. The Rootes Shadow Factory had only just begun production in 1940. The German blanket-bombers searched for the shadow factories on the ground, using the Coombe Pool as a focal point on which to reflect their beams. Huge craters were left on the landscape around the village for many decades afterwards. I remember Seymour showing me these when I joined him on one of his mooches. He described his arrest as an ARP Warden of a German pilot who had bailed out over Coombe Park, landing in the farm lane and breaking his legs. Seymour had to use his bicycle to get the airman the mile or so to the village police station. Daphne recalled the night of 13th-14th November and the effect of the bombing of the city centre, three miles away, as they ran for the shelter:

We put up the cushions from the furniture, put them on our heads, and ran up the shelter. It was a bright moonlit night; tracer bullets were flying around like tracer bullets everywhere, and the whole city was on fire. Everything was lit up like it was daylight; it was a most awesome sight and of course, for days afterwards, the burnt paper was coming down.

The School Log for 15th November echoes this description of destruction:

School reassembled – about only 130 were present – this is due to the results of a terrific 11-hour raid on Coventry and the immediate neighbourhood. The Church Hut used for 70 to 80 infants had to be used as a home for the people who were bombed out of the city.

Seymour was on air-raid duty that night and recalled one bomb that fell in what was known as The Hollow, just past The Mount Pleasant. He said that the old, cruck-beamed cottage was severely damaged as the patrol went towards it, and he was sure there would be at least one person dead inside. But when they went inside, they found that the main beam had fallen across the fireplace, and all the family were protected by it, around the fireplace. He said that it was a miracle no one was hurt. During the raids, an evacuated family slept in every room of the Gullivers’ house, even under the table.

School records for 1940 show that a total of six hours and ten minutes was spent in the school shelter, with one visit lasting over two hours. But, of course, nearly all the raids took place during nighttime. Even the attack of the 14th/15th of November was not detected until after 3 p.m., the end of the school day, and the bombing had ended in time for the school to open ‘as normal’ the following morning. Though the sirens went off earlier that evening, most people recall being at home having had tea or supper when the bombing started. The schools nearer the centre were far more badly affected, and many of those rescued in these areas were still under the rubble until about 7 a.m., having been trapped for more than twelve hours in some cases. Walsgrave escaped lightly compared with the mass destruction of the city centre and the older factory areas in the suburbs, though it might have been a different story had the Luftwaffe been able to locate the Ansty and Ryton factories. Many in the village realised this vulnerability and though not forced to, sent their children away to safer rural areas if they could. Daphne was evacuated to relatives near Bridgwater in Somerset for a while. In addition to his ARP duties, being in a reserved occupation as a collier at the pit, Seymour took on responsibility for the Bevin Boys, the well-educated young graduates and undergraduates sent to work in the pits.

A Sense of Justice:

Seymour had a strong sense of social justice and was a keen member of the Binley lodge of the Miners’ Federation. On one occasion, he stuck up for a fellow collier who was bullied by a foreman, whom he struck, and was dismissed from Binley Colliery on the spot. He had to go to Newdigate Colliery to get work there. The conditions there were far worse than at Binley, and when he undressed to bath in front of the living room fire, his clothes would stand up by themselves from the combination of mud, coal dust and sweat which had caked them in the pit and then dried on them during his long walk home at the end of each shift. His body was covered with boils, and he had to have special treatment at the Coventry and Warwick Hospital, where they made an experimental serum to cure his condition. Eventually, his wife Vera told him,

“… you’ll just have to put your pride in your pocket; you can’t go back down Newdigate; you’d better go back to Binley and ask for your job back.

So he returned to Binley Colliery, apologised, and got his job back, later becoming a pit overseer and a safety officer for the National Coal Board. In 1978, I began researching the Welsh colliers who had come to the Midlands between the two world wars, many to work in the car industry. Many also found their way into Warwickshire’s pits, especially Binley Colliery, and worked alongside my grandfather at the coalface. He remembered one family in particular, arriving in the village with the children and all their worldly possessions on a cart. Before his death from pneumoconiosis, the Dust, in 1982, I got to know Seymour more fully as an ‘autodidact’ who read avidly and rapidly. He gave detailed reviews of the books I brought home from university in Cardiff on the Welsh miners, referencing his experiences working in the Warwickshire coalfield. I had frequent, lengthy conversations with him about these experiences.

Walsgrave-on-Sowe village centre
Conclusion – Joy, Opportunity & Dignity:

By nature, Seymour was the quiet member of his sixty-year partnership with Vera, who died in 1978, a gentle, calm man who liked to spend every available moment out of doors, especially in his garden. He was the backbone of his family and a provider who seldom lost a working day and was always ready with wise advice. His charity extended beyond his own home, and there was always a bed and a meal for all comers. When his hard-earned allowance of coal was tipped up at the gate, there was always a barrow-load for some needy neighbour, and his silent acts of kindness were many. He was never aggressive on his own behalf but always hated any form of injustice and, on occasion, suffered much hardship as a result, and even lost his job by sticking up for others.

His four children and seven grandchildren were the joy of his life, and the growth of the welfare state, enabling his grandchildren to attend good schools and colleges, and to qualify for varied professions, always seemed a miracle to him as something happening during his own lifetime, more than making up for his own lack of opportunity. For the summer when he died, he had planned several expeditions, just as it had been his choice to visit Torquay in the Spring of 1982. However, his many health problems suddenly overcame him. He succumbed and died of a chest infection, which led to pneumonia within the short time since his last daily walk from one end of the village to the other three weeks earlier. He had always known that the effect of the coal dust would end his life. He died peacefully, with courage and great dignity.

Based on an obituary by his daughter, Daphne Irene Chandler (neé Gulliver), 1982, letters & family histories recorded by Vinson Gulliver and Jessie Gardner (née Gulliver); transcriptions & articles by Andrew J Chandler, 1992-2012, Daphne’s son. Daphne married the minister of Walsgrave Baptist Church, Rev. Arthur J Chandler, in 1953 and died in 1993. Jessie lived to 101, dying in 2002.





Britain, Europe and The World in 1937: A Moment in History Repeating itself? Part Two

‘Special Operations’, 2022 & April 1937- March 1938:

Just as the so-called Russian ‘Special Operation’ which began on 24th February 2022, did not represent the beginning of War in Ukraine, the invasion of its sovereign territory having commenced in 2014, so too, no single event in 1937 or 1938 represented the beginning of war in Europe or, indeed, the world. However, the year from the spring of 1937 to March 1938 can be taken as a bridging period into the series of ‘Bloodless Conquests’ made by Germany in 1938-39. In 1937, having ‘liberated’ the Saarland and the Rhineland, Hitler turned to the question of creating a Pan-German state by absorbing the German populations of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Like all Pan-Germans, Hitler longed to unite the German peoples of Western and Central Europe into a single state, or Reich. Pro-Nazi organisations existed in Austria and Czechoslovakia among German populations anxious to share in the Nazi revolution. Hitler felt that, by 1937, the international circumstances and Germany’s growing military strength were favourable enough to enable him to force the pace in his foreign policy. In November, he warned his military leadership that a settlement of the Austrian and Czechoslovak questions was next on his agenda when the right moment came:

The aim of German policy was to make secure and to preserve the racial community and to enlarge it.

Adolf Hitler, 5 November 1937.

Meanwhile, while pretending to uphold a policy of non-intervention, Hitler sent his ‘volunteers’ to Spain to help Franco. The Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 and was at once recognised as the showdown between Left and Right in Europe. November saw