We took rather a long time to get started on our discussion of chapters 6 and 7 of Tolkien and the Great War, thanks to the arrival of a deliciously edible Bag End. With grateful thanks to Laura and to the cake-maker we munched our way through the front door and probably through several pantries!
When we eventually turned to the text Laura began the discussion with her observation that John Garth handles his text with novelistic style as the pace has begun to speed up and there is now a lot of detail.
Tim remarked on Tolkien’s fateful choice of the Signal Corps – a sensible choice which played to his strengths, in comparison with the given example of A.A. Milne who made the conscious choice to join the Signals to keep out of the front line.
Laura and Tim continued the theme of Tolkien as cryptographer, questioning whether he was recruited in WW2 to serve at GCHQ or at Bletchley. Without checking, it was thought that the attempt to recruit him was unsuccessful.
We moved on to a general discussion of modes of battlefield communication in WW1. The use of carrier pigeons caused some digressions into how they were trained. Anne was surprised that some were awarded medals, and Laura noted that the Germans used hawks to bring them down. Tim recalled that the Dastardly and Mutley cartoon was all about chasing a WW1 carrier pigeon. We did not get round to the episode of the TV series Blackadder Goes Forth which included the fate of ‘Speckled Jim’.
Moving back to the text, Anne noted that Tolkien lost all the kit he had bought before leaving for France. Tim wondered if it had been intentionally misdirected by someone who saw the German-looking name and took exception to it.
Laura then said she had looked up the word ‘subaltern’ in the dictionary, on the basis that we all kind of know what it connotes but this was the moment to check the exact definition. It in fact names the lowest rank of officer in the Army as midshipman is the lowest officer rank in the Navy. It was also noted that midshipmen are still known as ‘snotties’, and Laura added that the buttons on a midshipman’s sleeves were reputed to serve as a deterrent to the improper use of those sleeves. I wondered why midshipmen weren’t given handkerchiefs, which led Tim to remind us of Bilbo’s anxiety about leaving Bag End without his pocket handkerchief.
Mike took us in a less messy direction when he remarked on the pronounced use of loving language in letters sent back from the war zone to Tolkien (still in training) from Smith and Wiseman. Anne contrasted this to the general resistance among the members of the TCBS to talking about their wives/fiancées. Mike and Anne argued that the impression is that all the members’ emotional needs should be met within the TCBS. I wondered if such expressions of admiration and closeness were means of coping with the isolation, lack of intellectual stimulation and constant horror. Mike observed that Tolkien’s later letters paint a picture of his closeness to his son Christopher which echoes his earlier closeness to his TCBS comrades. Laura observed that the TCBS were all Edwardian men and very intense, leading to their different letters. Tim added that they were writing in the face of imminent death.
Angela remarked that Tolkien described his parting from his new wife Edith when he was posted to France as itself ‘like a death’.
Mike commented on the TCBSians’ need to set up strategies to cope with separation from home, family and loved ones, but it is not like that today because with multimedia there is not the same sense of separation.
Tim remarked that mobile phones etc were not permitted while on operations so some compartmentalising was still necessary, but that soldiers today are men of their own time as the TCBS were of theirs.
Anne observed that what defined the difference were the social values in which fighting men were brought up. She argued that today, with the emphasis on ‘new men’ who are supposed to be ‘in touch with their feelings’ rather than tough guys may make harsher demands on them.
Mike in effect countered this with his comments on the effect on the WW1 infantry of the daily slaughter such as that at Verdun.
Chris noted that in WW2 both soldiers and civilians shared the danger, unlike the separation that marked WW1. We mentioned the shelling of Scarborough and the dropping of bombs from Zepplins, but Angela remarked that none of the Zepplins that did the bombing returned safely across the North Sea.
Mike drew our attention back to the literary rather than the historical material in the text when he noted Rob Gilson’s critique of Tolkien’s ‘Kortirion’ poem as including ‘too many precious stones’. Mike thought this a brilliant analysis of the richness of Tolkien’s work which makes it demanding to read at times.
Anne thought the friends had given their group a grandiose name when they referred to themselves as TCBSians, and this reflected in their mission to work for the ‘greater good’. It was pointed out that the abbreviation did not ‘mean’ anything grand.
Tim remarked on the amount of Army slang to which the TCBS members were exposed, and their responses to it – from disdain to Tolkien’s development out of it of a Qenya vocabulary of war.
Angela drew our attention to Tolkien’s disparaging opinion of ‘bossing’ men, and his preference for working people. Kathleen pointed out that he was never wealthy in the way that some other members of the TCBS were, and they independently remarked on his poverty at times.
As we started to run out of time Angela noted that because Tolkien and Edith were married in Lent they were unable to have a full nuptial mass, and when they finally were able to make up for this absence the church congregation thought they must have been lining in sin!
To end, we decided on our next reading which will be the next 3 chapters, thus finishing Part 2 of the book.