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Tolkien’s first words

JRR Tolkien’s fictions grew out of a gift for language and a passion for male friendship, tempered by the horrors of the Western Front.

It is difficult not to feel that JRR Tolkien’s name destined him for philological studies and perhaps in the end for the creation of imaginary worlds. There is a good deal about his name in a new film that takes as its title his unusual surname. At King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the teenage Tolkien fearlessly corrects a terrifying schoolmaster who has addressed “the new man” in class as “Tolkine” (to rhyme with “nine”). “It’s pronounced Tol-keen, Sir, not Tol-kine.” Anyone who knows Germanic vowels would get it right. The young Tolkien then revenges himself on this twitchy disciplinarian, who purports to revere Chaucer, by reciting screeds of his favourite author from memory in perfectly enunciated Middle English. Later, as an Oxford undergraduate, the film shows him  meeting Joseph Wright, professor of comparative philology (played with benignant gruffness by Derek Jacobi), who is disarmed not just by the young man’s expertise in old languages but also by his magical name. The philological prof is set off into excited parsing of its likely roots.

Language, especially old language, was the thing for Tolkien. In the late 1920s, as an Oxford professor, he was an unhesitating combatant in the conflict in the English faculty between those who were in favour of the increasing study of “modern” (ie, post- Chaucer) English literature and those who believed there should be even less of this in order to make room for the proper study of Old and Middle English, and potentially Old Icelandic.

Tolkien, a sceptic about the value of Shakespeare, was in the latter camp. Strangely, it was partly out of this philological obsession that he made one of the bestselling works of fiction ever written. Fans of The Lord of the Rings will know that much of its magic is linguistic. Tolkien filled it with resonant fragments of invented older tongues: rhymes and curses and riddles and strangely evocative names. Its characters speak to us in an English larded with older-sounding words from other, invented languages. Generations of fantasy novelists have tried to follow his language trickery, though most devotees of the genre will know or guess that Tolkien’s verbal inventions have a rigour that George RR Martin can never match.

It is surprising that a man who professed to dislike novels should have written best-selling fiction. Tolkien sets out to find the roots of his inspiration. It adds its number to what now seems a sub-genre of films trying to show what made someone an imaginative writer. In recent years we have had Finding Neverland (JM Barrie) and Goodbye Christopher Robin (AA Milne) and The Man Who Invented Christmas (Charles Dickens). All these dramatise the supposedly formative experiences of writers who dealt in fantastic fictions. Tolkien, seemingly owing a good deal to Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 biography, ends with its protagonist writing the first sentence of The Hobbit, begun when its author was in his late thirties. All that went before has led up to this.

We start in the trenches of the First World War and, throughout the film, move back and forth between the Western Front, conceived with due hellishness, and earlier episodes from Tolkien’s youth. Soon after achieving a First in his Oxford finals, he joined the Lancashire Fusiliers and, after his training, arrived in France in June 1916, just in time for the Battle of the Somme. In July, his battalion went into action. Many of them were killed, but he was rescued by so-called trench fever, which eventually led him to be shipped back to England. In the film, we see that Mordor, with its fires of lava and naphtha, must have come out of visions of the Western Front. As we gaze across the apocalyptic battlefield, knights on horseback clash.

Yet the film is at its best not on the trauma of war, but on the muffled deprivation that came of being orphaned. Tolkien’s bank-manager father died in South Africa when he was just four years old. His mother, Mabel, took him and his younger brother, Hilary, to live first in a village just outside Birmingham and then in the city itself. (The film makes much of this move from sunlit pastoral to the murky, hissing purgatory of an industrial metropolis.) When Tolkien was 12, his mother died of diabetes. Crucially for Tolkien’s later development, Mabel had converted to Catholicism, and thereby alienated most of her and her husband’s relations (many of the Tolkiens were Baptists).

She had appointed Father Francis Morgan, a priest at the Birmingham church where she worshipped, as the boys’ guardian. He first arranged for them to live with an aunt and then, three years later, with Mrs Faulkner, a respectable lady who gave musical evenings for the Catholic priests. As played by Pam Ferris in the film, she is stripped of the husband and daughter she had in life and converted into a redoubtable single lady with vulgar musical tastes. Deprived of parental love, the orphaned Ronald (as he was usually called; his full name was John Ronald Reuel), took refuge in fantastic drawings and invented languages.

Mrs Faulkner had another lodger, also an orphan, Edith Bratt, three years older than Tolkien. Edith was a talented pianist: in the film she is thoroughly soulful and aches to play Schubert, while Mrs Faulkner demands jaunty music hall numbers. As played by Lily Collins, fresh from her sufferings as Fantine in the BBC’s Les Misérables, Edith is a free spirit who adores Wagner (ironically, a pet hate of Tolkien’s) and yearns to discuss art and literature with his friends. This might be thought a necessary fictionalisation of a character who, in reality, seems to have relished church activities and membership of her local branch of the Conservative Party.

As his interest in the enchanting Edith grew, Tolkien prospered at his school. He showed his special gift for dead languages: not just the standard Latin and Greek, but the Middle English and Anglo-Saxon and Gothic that he studied privately. He also found kindred spirits at his highly academic school. Central to the film is the club that he formed with three other pupils at King Edward’s, the TCBS (TC for Tea Club, because they started by drinking tea in the library, and BS for Barrovian Society, after Barrow’s Stores in central Birmingham, in whose tea room they started meeting). The script writers have decided to make this club the very heart of the film. Mildly bohemian “fellowship” (a word often intoned) was their thing. The script writers are on to something. Throughout his life, Tolkien was a dedicated club-former, as was his great friend and fellow Oxford academic CS Lewis. Informal, affably intellectual, carefully regulated (no non-members) male company was very heaven to such men. The TCBS set a life’s pattern. Tea would in time give way to beer and pipes.

The fellowship story vies with the love story in the film. When he got wind of young Ronald’s relationship with Edith, Father Francis demanded that it end. Tolkien had botched his first attempt to win an Oxford scholarship. He must concentrate on his academic labours and promise not to meet Edith again until he was 21 and no longer the responsibility of his guardian. Tolkien obeyed and he and Edith did not see each other or even write to each other for the next three years. The oddest thing for the contemporary cinema-goer will be seeing the hero’s acceptance of this ban. Nicholas Hoult does some agonised staring, but it is difficult for the film, which steers clear of Tolkien’s devout Catholicism, to explain why he is so compliant.

Edith briefly became engaged to another man. In the film the young Tolkien finds out only as he prepares to embark for France, making it more of a crisis than it was in reality. As the CGI troop ship looms behind him and Edith, he says what seems to be a final farewell – before thinking again and turning back for a mutual declaration of love and a fierce embrace. He has won her! In fact, Tolkien and Edith married before he went to the front. The film employs considerable dramatic licence both here and in depicting Tolkien’s experience of the Somme.  

He embarks with a steadfast working-class private called Sam (sound familiar?) to find his fellow TCBS member Geoffrey Bache Smith, who was serving in a different battalion of Tolkien’s regiment. In the film, Tolkien embarks on a self-imposed quest; in reality, he met Smith several times behind the lines as the battle raged. On screen, feverish and half-hallucinating, Tolkien staggers around the battlefield with a blanket serving as a cape, tormented by visions of his dying friend. Out of the flares of incendiary bombs springs a fire-breathing dragon. Between battles he learned that Rob Gilson, another of the four friends at the core of the TCBS, had been killed on the first day of the battle. While recuperating, he was told that Smith had died of gangrene after being wounded by a shell. The film’s afterword informs us that following the war Tolkien ensured the publication of Smith’s poems, to which he wrote a loyal introduction.

It is striking that both Tolkien and Lewis experienced the Western Front and that they were both survivors of a slaughter that killed so many of their peers. Yet it is not clear how this formed either Middle Earth or Narnia. The idealisation of English rural life and the anti-modernity that are detectable in the writings of both men might well have other roots. The clear suggestion of the film is that Tolkien wrote his fiction to rediscover the fellowship that the war destroyed. The root value celebrated in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the comradely bond between those with a quest to undertake. In another sense, you might say that the Manichaeism of Tolkien’s fiction was an escape from, not a transmutation of, the conflicts of his own world. Middle Earth may be a place of trials and challenges, of complicated prophecies and riddling warnings, but it is also a zone of moral simplicity. Good men may turn to bad (that is what the “ring of power” does to humans), but there is never any uncertainty about what good and bad might be.

When the war ended, Tolkien returned to Oxford and pursued his philological bent by working for the New English Dictionary (later to be the OED). He went to Leeds University for five years, but then came back to Oxford in 1925 as a very young professor of Anglo-Saxon. Oxford became his world (and there is a good deal of it in the film). It was here that he formed another of those clubs to which he was addicted, the Inklings, out of whose meetings the fictions of both Tolkien and Lewis grew.

In retirement he moved to Bournemouth, but after Edith’s death he returned, aged almost 80, to rooms in Merton College. As a 14-year-old, I met him there in the summer of 1973, just a few months before he died. His grandson was a friend of mine and had suggested, during a day out in Oxford, that we might drop in on his grandfather. I was clutching my battered one-volume paperback of The Lord of the Rings, so must have been somehow hoping for such a meeting. I remember the bookshelves from floor to ceiling, the racks of pipes and pens on the desk, and the tweedy and twinkling old don in his armchair.

Mostly he exchanged family news with his grandson, but he did ask me whether I enjoyed writing. I took this to be an excuse to discuss my contributions to the school poetry magazine, but no: he was interested in the material business of pens and nibs and ink. I found myself assuring him, perhaps dishonestly, that I too, of course, scorned ballpoint pens. And when he came to sign my copy of his book, I saw the point of his old-fashioned ways. There was the most extraordinary signature, each runic stroke thinning and thickening. The lettering seemed as strangely archaic as the name itself. There it is still, in front of me. 

John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Chair of Modern English Literature at UCL.

“Tolkien” is released on 3 May

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special