Jan 032015


Today is the birthday (1892) of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE, English writer, poet, and philologist, best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at my Oxford college, Pembroke, from 1925 to 1945, and in his last years when I was in residence he was often seen at dinner. I had the good fortune to meet him in 1971. His celebrity status as a fantasy writer was in its early phases back then because his books did not gain popularity until the 1960’s. Nonetheless, we were amazed to be able to talk to him. By then he looked like a gnarly old tree from Middle Earth.

There is no real need to talk about his well-known books. Instead I will give you (in synopsis) two aspects of his life that are less well known: his service in the army in the First World War, and his linguistic scholarship.jrr1

In 1914 when the United Kingdom entered the First World War, Tolkien’s relatives were shocked that he did not 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 family and public scorn and entered a university program that allowed him to 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.” So he volunteered as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, for eleven months. In a letter to his fiancée, Edith, Tolkien complained, “Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed.” They were married soon after and lived near the training camp.

On 2 June 1916, Tolkien received a telegram summoning him to Folkestone for transportation to France. He later wrote, “Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then … it was like a death.”

On 7 June, Tolkien was informed that he had been assigned as a signals officer to the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, which had been decimated by heavy fighting at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He left for the trenches on 27 June 1916 and joined his new unit at Rubempré, near Amiens and was put in command of enlisted men who were drawn mainly from the mining, milling, and weaving towns of Lancashire. According to John Garth, Tolkien “felt an affinity for these working class men,” but military protocol forbade him from developing 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.” He later wrote, “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’s brigade was sent to 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. According to the memoirs of the Reverend Mervyn S. Evers, Anglican chaplain to the Lancashire Fusiliers:

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