Tolkien and his circle

An article by Dr. Chris Upton exploring Tolkien's time and friends at King Edward's School.

We have heard of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's days in Birmingham. The Oxford don we know and the child in Sarehole, but there is an intervening story, a sadder and more poignant one; one which perhaps explains the overwhelming sense of loss and change that ends The Lord of the Rings. It is a story which begins at King Edward's School, then in New Street, in the centre of Birmingham.

As Tolkien himself said in 1955:

"My work is all of a piece, and fundamentally linguistic in inspiration. The stories were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse."

Ronald Tolkien's love of language began early, and came principally from his mother, who began to teach her young son German while they were living at Sarehole. That love of language - what we call philology - Tolkien took with him for the rest of his life. If you doubt the influence, then compare Mabel Tolkien's handwriting with that of the Elvish script in Lord of the Rings. They are remarkably similar.

Mabel Tolkien wanted her son to attend a Catholic school, but in reality there was only one place in Birmingham to send a lad of such a linguistic bent - to King Edward's. As the author admitted in later life, it was through his mother's tuition (and his aunt who taught him geometry) that he gained a scholarship to the city's premier school.

"I was as happy or the reverse at school as anywhere else, the faults being my own. I ended up anyway as a perfectly respectable and tolerably successful senior. I did not dislike games."

From 1900, Tolkien plunged into an educational routine that had been in operation for 350 years. He was no great fan of the Classics, which had been the staple fare of the school for just as long, but his philological gifts carried him through

"I was even allowed to attend the Headmaster's classes on the New Testament in Greek. I became a close friend of the Headmaster and his son."

That son was Robert Quilter Gilson and he, together with Ronald Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman and Geoffrey Bache Smith, not only were the mainstay of the school's literary and debating societies, but also formed an unofficial club called the Tea Club and Barrovian Society - TCBS, which met for informal discussion over (illegal) tea in the school library in term-time, and at the cafe of Barrow's Store during vacation. There's little doubt that this group of dreamers and aspiring writers was the KES equivalent of the Inklings, a similar group that Tolkien later formed at Oxford with C. S. Lewis. Like the Inklings, the TCBS had an interest in languages, in myth and legend and especially in the Medieval and Saxon tales of England, a native tradition of story-telling which had been de-railed by the Norman Conquest. They wrote, they recited, they exchanged ideas, they fell in love with words.

Quite what this group might have accomplished for themselves and for Birmingham can be gleaned from Tolkien's own achievements. But the young men of the Edwardian years were not destined for longevity, but for the trenches and battlefields of Flanders, and it was no different for the Old Edwardians. In all the school provided the Forces with 1,412 recruits, 254 of whom never returned. All four of the TCBS joined up soon after the outbreak of war, Wiseman for the Navy, Smith and Tolkien for the Lancashire Fusiliers and Gilson for the Suffolks.

Rob Gilson was the first to be cut down, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On hearing the news Ronald Tolkien wrote to Geoffrey Bache Smith in August 1916

"I honestly feel that the TCBS has ended...I feel a mere individual at present - with intense feelings more than ideas, but very powerless. I pray God that the people chosen to carry on the TCBS may be no fewer than we three..."

But four months after Tolkien wrote this letter, the recipient too was dead, another victim of the Somme. Tolkien received and sent many sad letters at this time, but few more poignant than that from Ruth Smith, Geoffrey's mother, asking if Ronald could help to get her son's poetry published. A year later he heard again from Mrs Smith, this time to tell of the death of Roger Smith, her younger son. "To lose two such fine sons is indeed crushing", she wrote.

In 1918 Ronald Tolkien was as good as his word. The poet, Philip Larkin, later described the literature of this time. "All those thin 1914 to 1918 volumes", he wrote, "with a photogravure frontispiece of a young officer and introduction by a don or housemaster..." Tolkien's edition of Geoffrey Smith's poems did not include a photograph, only a chronology of a brief life, cut short at the age of 22, but the 70 odd pages of verse he edited reads like a mirror image of the poetry of Lord of the Rings. It sings of trees and distant hills, of sleeping maidens and forgotten legends; there are echoes of Tennyson, Shakespeare and the Pre-Raphaelites, of Ancient Britain and Ancient Greece. None of Smith's poems (to my knowledge) has been reprinted since that first and only edition of 1918, and therefore I will quote a poem clearly written in the last few weeks of his life, and certainly after the death of RQG, when the light of the TCBS and the dark of the trenches intermingled:

"Let us tell quiet stories of kind eyes
And placid brows where peace and learning sate;
Of misty gardens under evening skies
Where four would walk of old, with steps sedate.
Let's have no word of all the sweat and blood.
Of all the noise and strife and dust and smoke
(We who have seen Death surging like a flood,
Wave upon wave, that leaped and raced and broke).
Or let's sit silently, we three together,
Around a wide hearth-fire that's glowing red,
Giving no thought to all the stormy weather
That flies above the roof-tree overhead,
And he, the fourth, that lies all silently
In some far-distant and untended grave,
Under the shadow of a shattered tree,
Shall leave the company of the hapless brave,
And draw nigh unto us for memory's sake,
Because a look, a word, a deed, a friend,
Are bound with cords that never a man may break,
Unto his heart for ever, until the end."

The death of Geoffrey Smith and Rob Gilson had spelt the end for the TCBS, but in another way it may have stimulated the third member of the group to carry its manifesto forward. If the publication of Smith's poetry was not alone sufficient to give Tolkien such a purpose, then the letter sent him by Smith on 3 February 1916, six months before his death, could hardly fail to have done so. Clearly JRRT had written to his friend about publishing his own work. Here, as much as anywhere, lay the seed from which The Lord of the Rings ;would grow.

"I am a wild and whole-hearted admirer, and my chief consolation is, that if I am scuppered tonight there will still be left a great member of the TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS. Death is so close to us now that I feel - and I am sure that you feel, and all the three other heroes feel, how impuissant it is. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! ... Yes, publish... You I am sure are chosen, like Saul among the Children of Israel. Make haste, before you come out to this orgy of death cruelty... May God bless you, John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not here to say them, if such is my lot."

It may be Geoffrey Smith's greatest testimony that he was the first to recognize what 60 million others would see over the course of the 20th Century.

rating button