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:

https://www.birminghammuseums.org.uk/sarehole

https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/downloads/file/9230/birmingham_tolkien_trail

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