Today is the birthday of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, (my college) from 1925 to 1945. When I was an undergraduate, I would see him coming to dinner in hall from time to time. This was a very formal affair in those days. We all had to wear a suit and tie plus our academic gowns. The dons (professors in U.S. dialect) processed in to sit at a table on a raised dais (called high table), followed by grace in Latin. By that time Tolkien was old and bent over, using two canes to walk. He looked like something from Middle Earth. This post is my second on Tolkien largely caused by oversight, but, the old gaffer deserves an extra cheer given that we were college mates (of sorts). I read Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit in the wave of enthusiasm for Tolkien’s work in the 1960s and continue to remain disgusted by all attempts at turning the books into films (much as my son is disgusted by Harry Potter movies).
Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province in South Africa) to Arthur Reuel Tolkien (1857–1896), an English bank manager, and his wife Mabel, née Suffield (1870–1904). The couple had left England when Arthur was promoted to head of the Bloemfontein office of the British bank for which he worked.
When he was three, Tolkien went to England with his mother and brother on what was intended to be a lengthy family visit. His father, however, died in South Africa of rheumatic fever before he could join them. This left the family without an income, so Tolkien’s mother took him to live with her parents in Kings Heath, Birmingham. Soon after, in 1896, they moved to Sarehole (now in Hall Green), then a Worcestershire village, later annexed to Birmingham. He enjoyed exploring Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog and the Clent, Lickey and Malvern Hills, which would later inspire scenes in his books, along with nearby towns and villages such as Bromsgrove, Alcester, and Alvechurch and places such as his aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End, the name of which he used in his fiction.
Mabel Tolkien taught her two children at home. Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany and awakened in him the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. Young Tolkien liked to draw landscapes and trees, but his favorite lessons were those concerning languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin very early.
In 1904, when Tolkien was 12, his mother died of acute diabetes at Fern Cottage in Rednal, which she was renting. She was then about 34 years of age, about as old as a person with diabetes mellitus type 1 could live without treatment—insulin was not discovered until two decades later. Prior to her death, Mabel Tolkien had assigned the guardianship of her sons to her close friend, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory, who was assigned to bring them up as good Catholics.
After his mother’s death, Tolkien grew up in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham and attended King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and later St. Philip’s School. In 1903, he won a Foundation Scholarship and returned to King Edward’s. While a pupil there, Tolkien was one of the cadets from the school’s Officers Training Corps who helped “line the route” for the 1910 coronation parade of King George V. Like the other cadets from King Edward’s, Tolkien was posted just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.
While in his early teens, Tolkien had his first encounter with a constructed language, Animalic, an invention of his cousins, Mary and Marjorie Incledon. At that time, he was studying Latin and Anglo-Saxon. Their interest in Animalic soon died away, but Mary and others, including Tolkien himself, invented a new and more complex language called Nevbosh. The next constructed language he came to work with, Naffarin, would be his own creation. Tolkien learned Esperanto some time before 1909. Around 10th June 1909 he composed “The Book of the Foxrook”, a sixteen-page notebook, where the “earliest example of one of his invented alphabets” appears. Short texts in this notebook are written in Esperanto.
In 1911, while they were at King Edward’s School, Tolkien and three friends, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Christopher Wiseman, formed a semi-secret society they called the T.C.B.S. The initials stood for Tea Club and Barrovian Society, alluding to their fondness for drinking tea in Barrow’s Stores near the school and, secretly, in the school library. After leaving school, the members stayed in touch and, in December 1914, they held a “council” in London at Wiseman’s home. For Tolkien, the result of this meeting was a strong dedication to writing poetry.
In 1911, Tolkien went on a summer holiday in Switzerland, a trip that he recollects vividly in a 1968 letter, noting that Bilbo’s journey across the Misty Mountains (“including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods”) is directly based on his adventures as their party of 12 hiked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen and on to camp in the moraines beyond Mürren. Fifty-seven years later, Tolkien remembered his regret at leaving the view of the eternal snows of Jungfrau and Silberhorn, “the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams”. They went across the Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald and on across the Grosse Scheidegg to Meiringen. They continued across the Grimsel Pass, through the upper Valais to Brig and on to the Aletsch glacier and Zermatt. In October of the same year, Tolkien began studying at Exeter College, Oxford. He initially studied classics but changed to English language and literature, graduating in 1915 with first-class honours.
In August 1914 Britain entered the First World War. Tolkien’s relatives were shocked when he elected not to immediately volunteer 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.” Instead, Tolkien, “endured the obloquy”, and entered a programme by which he delayed enlistment until completing his degree. By the time he passed his finals in July 1915, Tolkien recalled that the hints were “becoming outspoken from relatives”. He was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on 15th July 1915. He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, for 11 months. In a letter to his future wife, Edith, Tolkien complained: “Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed.” Following their wedding, the couple took up lodgings near the training camp.
On 2nd June 1916, Tolkien received a telegram summoning him to Folkestone for posting to France. The Tolkiens spent the night before his departure in a room at the Plough & Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston, Birmingham. He later wrote: “Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.” On 5th June 1916, Tolkien boarded a troop transport for an overnight voyage to Calais. Like other soldiers arriving for the first time, he was sent to the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) base depot at Étaples. On 7th June, he was informed that he had been assigned as a signals officer to the 11th (Service) Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers.
While waiting to be summoned to his unit, Tolkien sank into boredom. To pass the time, he composed a poem entitled The Lonely Isle, which was inspired by his feelings during the sea crossing to Calais. To evade the British Army’s postal censorship, he also developed a code of dots by which Edith could track his movements. He left Étaples on 27th June 1916 and joined his battalion at Rubempré, near Amiens. He wound up commanding enlisted men who were drawn mainly from the mining, milling, and weaving towns of Lancashire. According to John Garth, he “felt an affinity for these working class men”, but military protocol prohibited friendships with “other ranks”. Instead, he 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 later lamented, “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.”
Tolkien arrived at the Somme in early July 1916. In between terms behind the lines at Bouzincourt, he participated in the assaults on the Schwaben Redoubt and the Leipzig salient. Tolkien’s time in combat was a terrible stress for Edith, who feared that every knock on the door might carry news of her husband’s death.
On 27th October 1916, as his battalion attacked Regina Trench, Tolkien came down with trench fever, a disease carried by the lice. He was invalided to England on 8 November 1916. Many of his dearest school friends were killed in the war. Among their number were Rob Gilson of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, who was killed on the first day of the Somme while leading his men in the assault on Beaumont Hamel. Fellow T.C.B.S. member Geoffrey Smith was killed during the same battle when a German artillery shell landed on a first aid post. Tolkien’s battalion was almost completely wiped out following his return to England. A weak and emaciated Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, being deemed medically unfit for general service.
During his recovery in a cottage in Little Haywood, Staffordshire, he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales, beginning with The Fall of Gondolin. Lost Tales represented Tolkien’s attempt to create a mythology for England, a project he would abandon without ever completing. Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, but he had recovered enough to do home service at various camps.
On 3rd November 1920, Tolkien was demobilized and left the army, retaining his rank of lieutenant. His first civilian job after the war was at the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked mainly on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter W. In 1920, he took up a post as reader in English language at the University of Leeds. While at Leeds, he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and a definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with E. V. Gordon; both became academic standard works for several decades. He translated Sir Gawain, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. In 1925, he returned to Oxford as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, with a fellowship at Pembroke College.
During his time at Pembroke College Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings. During this time Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, an informal group of writers who met weekly at a pub in Oxford. The Eagle and Child, known affectionately as the Bird and Baby, has claimed pride of place in tourist circles as the permanent home of the Inklings with a plaque located in the corner that used to be the pub’s snug. It is a lesser known fact that the Inklings more often than not met in the Lamb and Flag (across the street from the Eagle and Child), and, mercifully, does not currently advertise the fact and is, in consequence, a quieter and more peaceful location for a lunchtime pie and pint.
Tolkien once wrote:
I like gardens, trees, and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; … I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humor (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome).
Frodo was fond of mushrooms and frequently stole them from his neighbor’s garden, so mushrooms it is. When I was a boy in South Australia, I used to walk across a sheep paddock to a shop where I bought my penny sweeties on Saturday mornings, and, after a rainfall there were often field mushrooms to pick to take home to mum who cooked them for breakfast. Those field mushrooms were so much richer in taste than the white commercial mushrooms I became accustomed to in England later on. Then when I bought a riverside house in the New York Catskills my woodlot and the surrounding woodlands were common hunting grounds for boletus, sulfur shelf, morels, and puff balls. I also grew accustomed to buying shiitake, enokitake, oyster mushrooms, and straw mushrooms in a Japanese market near my university. When I moved to Kunming in southern China a number of years ago, I was overwhelmed with the array of wild mushrooms sold on the streets by people from the surrounding hills who picked them in the woods and brought them to town for sale. Now in Phnom Penh, the variety is limited to dried and cultivated mushrooms, but I always keep a plentiful variety handy.
I’ll eat an omelet stuffed with lightly sautéed mushrooms (of whatever variety is on hand) at the drop of a hat, and mixed mushroom soup is a common pleasure. My favorite way to cook enokitake is to wrap them in foil with a knob of butter and a thin slice of lemon, and bake the package for about 15 minutes at 450°F.
My suggestion for the day is to break out of your rut if you are in one. Maitake, also known as Hen-of-the-Woods, is a great choice or white or brown beech mushrooms – if you can find them. They are common in markets in Asia, but you can find them in Europe or the US if you look hard enough. In fact, buy whatever does not look like a white button mushroom and use it in any recipe that calls for mushrooms. Go for crimini or portobello mushrooms if that’s the most exotic you can find.