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.