Last meeting in July

We were discussing Chapters 3 to 5 of John Garth’s book this week, and we began with the unexpected delights of all the early poetry. Angela remarked that some of the poems evoked for her recollections of aspects of The Silmarillion. She particularly picked out ‘Lo!.young we are and yet have stood / like planted hearts in the great sun …’ pointing out the pre-echoes of the episode in TS when Melian and Thingol first meet in Doriath and stand gazing at each other while years pass.
Laura commented on the striking image of the ‘grey hand of tomorrow’ in the more sombre poem ‘You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play.’
Pat wondered if there were any collections of these early poems. None of the rest of us were aware of any collection other than The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
Laura then wondered how on earth Tolkien ever found time to write so much, not just the poetry but his Qenya lexicon, as well as doing his university studies and turning up for military manoeuvres.
Ian observed that with the inclusion of the early poetry John Garth fills in the pivotal five years of Tolkien’s life because it was the impending cataclysm of war that pushed Tolkien to write poetry. In a reversal of the usual idea of the effect of WW1 on Tolkien, Ian remarked that Tolkien wrote going Into the war, he was not writing Out of it.
Tim qualified this by commenting that Tolkien was writing in spite of the situation and dealing with topic distinctly other than war.
We went on to consider the very early version of ‘The Sleeper in the Tower of Pearl’, itself not one of the famous poems, but in its original form called ‘The Happy Mariners’. Mike wondered if the poem represented Tolkien’s underlying sense of being trapped by his decision to stay on and finish his studies at Oxford, only to find that the great enterprise to which he would then commit himself was slowly being revealed as less glorious than it originally seemed.
Tim and Mike then led a discussion on the difference between early and later work by other poets who experienced the war. They noted that Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon both initially wrote poems in support of war.
Pat took us on to more practical matters as she called attention to the long list of kit Tolkien was recommended to buy, all of which, including ‘a bath and wash-stand’ had to fit into a ‘large canvas kitbag.’ Tim likened this to Sam’s haversack into which he packed many useful things, except, the first time, a bit of rope.
We all turned our attention then to the reference to the ‘land of Nod’. We wondered at the cultural perspective of the ‘philanthropist’ who thought it of sending copies of the illustration of R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Land of Nod’ poem, about fairyland, to the men in the trenches. I thought maybe it was a reminder of their days in the nursery. We considered the background of the 19th century fascination with fairies that lasted into the Edwardian period, and it was noted that such a fascination seemed to run in parallel with and counter to appalling social conditions. Pat, however, observed that originally the Land of Nod was the place to which Cain was exiled after he had murdered Abel. Pat ad Angela also noted that by the time of the Great War the terms ‘fairy’ had already gained a negative sexual connotation.
Laura took us on to the topic of Wandsworth – the location of The Council of London – where the TCBS defined itself and its agenda. Laura wondered how close the exact location, Routh Road, was to the prison, and whether it provided any inspiration for the Black Gate.
Julie picked up the ‘Wands’ element belonging to the River Wandle and wondered about its connection – if any – with the Withywindle.
Laura remarked on the intensity of the TCBS which included an degree of elitism and factionalism as well as some patriotic fervour. Mike noted that groups of that age often look for a cause they would be prepared to die for.
Laura also remarked that at the same time that the TCBS were plotting their cultural revolution the Russian Revolution was also taking place. Ian observed that the TCBS were part of a cultural change overtaking Europe. However, the TCBS were intent on looking backwards for their moral and cultural foundations while throughout Europe violent destruction of the past in all its forms had political and aesthetic support.
Pat turned our attention to other matters when she commented on the Bronte children’s games which included making up languages and creating stories about little beings. Julie observed that Jane Eyre contains many references to fairies and elves, but these are of the nasty, malignant kind.
We went on to a long discussion on Tolkien’s attitude to language, including his delight in sound. Mike commented that some languages are best for opera, which Ian qualified as ‘some languages are better suited to the expression of high art’, when we discovered that we were naming different preferences. Laura and Tim suggested that it was all a matter of context.
Ian ended our afternoon by taking us back to 2 of Tolkien theatrical preferences – Peter Pan, and Pinero. Ian noted that Pinero said Peter Pan was really for grown-ups, and opinion that echoed and reversed Tim’s experience in finding LotR consigned to the shelves of children’s books in a book shop.
Before we ended we agreed to read chapters 6 ‘Too long in slumber’ and 7 ‘Larkspur and Canterbury Bells’
A few weeks ago Anne asked something along the lines of ‘how would we categorise Tolkien’s works in terms of literature?’ We rather strenuously denied the benefit of ‘categorising’ at all, but that was perhaps ducking the question. Having thought and read a little more since then, I would like to attempt another response. While remaining cautious of defending the idea of ‘great literature’, it may be relevant to consider texts that can be defended as ‘important’ because they are ‘open’ i.e. they allow a range of approaches and ‘meanings’ to emerge. Tolkien’s texts, and especially perhaps, LotR does this.
The evocation of diversity of meaning gives a text ‘staying power’, especially in so far as its meaning include adaptability to social and cultural change – not always exactly the same meaning but those in which some social and cultural values remain important – e.g. good defeating evil, the needs of the many promoted over what is personal or limited; a sense of fate or destiny; human frailty.
There are many other ways of arguing the importance of Tolkien’s work, but its openness is demonstrable by reviewing the diverse critical approaches to his texts. No doubt as time goes on new critics will apply additional new approaches which will extend our appreciation of the worth of the texts that are so often dismissed by critics who don’t understand how to read them.

Please comment, qualify, or extend these first thoughts.

First meeting in July


On a very warm afternoon, with the holiday season getting underway, seven of us preferred to begin John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War than to succumb to the lure of the sunshine. In fact, being out of the sun did not mean being out of the heat, and we needed windows open and fans on in the Library seminar room as we discussed the first 2 chapter.

Laura initiated our discussion when she remarked on the great research that went into the book, with special access to a number of sources. Tim added that the book was well –written, and to support his opinion he showed us how far he had already read. Kathleen, however, commented that the way it was written did not create excitement. Laura observed that it had a finely woven binary structure as biographical details and the background history of the War were convincingly interlaced.

As we considered the opening rugby match, Tim remarked on the apparent attitude of the time that war would be like a rugger match. Laura then commented on the ‘team-spirit’ and the fact that the young soldiers were said to fight in battle, not for a cause, but for the next chap. We briefly digressed into what was known of the ‘pals’ regiments and the terrible losses they sustained.

Tim then observed that Tolkien did not change his name, unlike others in England who changed or adapted their surnames of German origin, including the Battenburg name which became ‘Mountbatten’.

Laura noted the degree of cultural confusion Tolkien must have felt in consequence of the destruction throughout Europe. I drew attention to the horrors of the so-called Louvain massacre and the destruction of Louvain’s medieval buildings, including the great library.

It was inevitable that our own family histories should be called up by our discussions and most of us had relatives of varying degrees who were involved in the war, some of whom were caught up in the horrors of Gallipoli.

After a sombre beginning, we moved on to consider Tolkien’s school days. Angela remarked that he was very young when he began making up languages. Laura observed the TCBS were like the Inklings, and Chris confirmed the opinion that this group of teenage boys were an intellectual group. Laura noted the fact that they were also a diverse group. Angela remarked that being good at games meant they were not bullied. Kathleen saw sporting interests as less of a strategy when she commented that Tolkien probably liked games. Kathleen drew our attention to the school hymn which recommended that it was better to ‘die of service, not of rust.’

Tim drew out a further context when he noted the late 19th century phenomenon of ‘muscular Christianity’, which seems to fit Tolkien’s religious conviction alongside his sporting interests.

Chris then directed our attention to what the book has to say in it early chapters about the social attitudes to ‘joining up’, and the pressures on them. Kathleen noted that Oxford students with a ‘colonial’ background like Tolkien were channelled into one brigade.

Tim noted that WW1 had been men against machines while WW2 was machines against machines, and the shadows of these stages of mechanisation can be discerned in Tolkien’s work. Angela picked this up in the example of Gondolin and compared the attack of the ‘mechanical’ dragons with use of the first tanks in WW1. Angela, Tim and Laura also considered the role of the Royal Flying Corps in the war. Angela commented on the development of Tolkien’s love of horses as he undertook the duties of a horse-breaker.

Chris noted that while at school and as an undergraduate, Tolkien was an active debater, but later earned a reputation as a poor lecturer because of his indistinct speech. Laura suggested that speaking too fast may have been the result of ideas coming faster than speech.

Chris then observed that credit was due to Tolkien’s tutor who did not give up on him when his first exam results were poor, but spotted the potential for a change of subject.

Laura commented on the expectation that even when he was only recently graduated Tolkien was still expected to keep Edith as soon as they were married. Kathleen noted that Tolkien was usually referred to in these early chapters in terms of being desperately poor.

I remarked that Tolkien’s love of northernness never changed. Laura noted that in the aftermath of the war his conception of fairies certainly changed from the twee little creatures of the earliest poems to the ‘perilous’ beings of the post-war developments.

We went on to discuss the effect of Tolkien’s preference for northernness in the context of his early studies in the Classics. Tim characterised the Greeks, heroes and gods as ‘fickle’, while the quintessential northern ‘hero’, Beowulf is, in spite of his special circumstances, more human and realistic. Laura added that the Greek heroes are constantly subjected to the interventions of the gods and constrained by taboos.

Taking us back to the historical situation, Chris noted the alignment of the suffragettes with other instances of radical subversion such as Irish home rule in the years preceding WW1.

With a different perspective on history, Chris and Angela observed that during WW1 Oxford became a military camp, as it had been for Charles I during the Civil War.

At the end of a hot afternoon, we agreed to read on to p. 113, the end of chapter 5.