Author note: When last we left our heroes, orphan Ronald and orphan Edith were madly in love with each other. The villain of the piece (according to young lovers everywhere) was Ronald’s guardian, Father Francis Morgan, who severed the relationship. Edith moved away from Ronald, perhaps never to be seen again…
Ronald missed Edith greatly, but in her absence he was better able to prepare himself to win an Oxford scholarship. Yet even without Edith, Tolkien found himself distracted from studying by the sport of rugby and by his passion for inventing languages. In the end Ronald eked out a partial scholarship and started classes at Oxford in 1911.
Oxford’s golden gates had not always been that easy to enter – especially for Catholics. Prior to Ronald’s birth Catholics were forbidden from attending Oxford. Period.
The Catholic Revival in England allowed Catholics like Ronald Tolkien to attend Oxford. Although Tolkien would remark as late as 1968 that English Catholics “still suffer from disabilities not even applicable to Jews,”20 he had a much easier time of things than older Roman Catholics in England, who labored under many other social, cultural and political impediments:
“According to the strict letter of the law, Catholics were forbidden their own mode of worship. They were still subject to heavy punishments for keeping schools, and still liable to penalties for sending their children abroad to (Catholic) schools. They could not practice law or medicine. They were subject to a double land tax by annual Act of the legislature. They could neither vote nor sit in Parliament.”21
The penal code was finally abolished in 1829. When Father Nicholas Wiseman came to England in 1835 to investigate the Oxford Movement (a movement not of cradle Catholics but of converts from Anglicanism) he described English Catholics as having “just emerged from the catacombs.“ As Wiseman saw it, their “shackles had been removed, but not the numbness and cramp which they had produced.”22 These long-suffering “old Catholics” were being joined by a new breed of English Catholics who had never experienced the Catholic penal laws – men like Newman, Faber, Ward, Manning, and many others
Less than two decades after Wiseman visited England, Pope Pius IX restored the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in England. Father Wiseman was appointed the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. The suspicion and alarm of Protestant England towards the restored Catholic hierarchy was almost matched by the suspicion and alarm of the old Catholics for the outspoken new English converts.
At times the converts alarmed each other as well. Initially however, something both John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning agreed upon was that Catholics should not attend Oxford. Both thought it too difficult a setting to defend and keep one’s faith. Newman later changed his mind, in part because he purchased some property near the University. He conceived the idea of an Oxford Oratory as a haven for the (very few) Catholics attending there. Manning (and the rest of the English hierarchy, sans Wiseman, who had died) thought it better to build a separate, exclusively Catholic university. This was also in line with Rome’s view of things; Pope Pius IX was not a fan of mixed education.
The difference of opinion defied resolution, and tempers rose. Appeal was made to Rome, who sided with Manning and the English hierarchy. An embittered Newman sold his property and accused Manning of “dull tyranny,“23 a criticism that perhaps was intended for the Holy See. As applied to Manning, what the charge lacked in fairness it made up for in irony, given that Newman had originally agreed with Manning about the excellence of an exclusively Catholic university. When Manning was unable to found such a university, however, Newman’s opinion on mixed education carried the day by default. Consequently, Catholics like J.R.R. Tolkien (born the same month Manning died)24 began trooping to Oxford in numbers.
Whatever one thinks of Newman and Manning (the “Mary and Martha” of the English Catholic revival) or mixed education, it is a fact that upon arriving at Oxford’s Exeter College, Ronald Tolkien promptly stopped practicing his faith. The lapse was due less to a rigorous study schedule than overindulgence in three of his favorite pastimes: the study and creation of languages, male companionship, and smoking a pipe. All three activities tended to keep him up too late in the evening for him to attend morning Mass. By his own estimation his first year at Oxford included “practically none or very little of the practice of religion.”25
Tolkien certainly wasn’t the first young man to go off to college and forget to pack his religion. Later he would blame this period on not being able to see or write to Edith for three years. This deprivation “was extremely hard, painful and bitter, especially at first,“ he recalled. “The effects were not wholly good: I fell back into folly and slackness and misspent a good deal of my first year at college.“26
Love And War
It was just after midnight on January 3, 1913, Ronald Tolkien’s twenty-first birthday. He penned a letter to Edith in which he assured her of his love and asked: “How long will it be before we can be joined together before God and the world?“27 Edith wrote back and informed him she was engaged to another man.
Not to be denied, Tolkien traveled to Cheltenham to plead his case. Edith met him at the train station. They spent the day together, and by evening he had won Edith back. They did not immediately announce their engagement for two reasons. First, Ronald lacked the income to support Edith. Second, he wanted Edith to convert to Catholicism. Fearing repercussions from the couple she was living with, Edith hesitated. Moreover, in Ronald’s absence Edith had become very involved in the Anglican community in Cheltenham, and did not feel she could easily extricate herself.
Tolkien was insistent, and brooked no delays. He passionately loved Catholicism, whether or not he was actually practicing it (by the time he traveled to Cheltenham Tolkien had returned to the Faith with vigor). He was equally passionate about the Church of England, which he described as “a pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs.” Ouch.
Ronald pressed Edith: “No half-heartedness and no worldly fear must turn us aside from following the light unflinchingly.”28 Edith agreed to become Catholic. She told the couple she was living with that she had (as English Protestants put it) “poped.” They kicked Edith out of their house.
She moved to Warwick and began receiving instruction in the faith. On January 8, 1914, Edith was accepted into the Catholic Church, and she and Ronald became officially engaged. Ronald was at Oxford later that summer when England declared war against Germany. Most young men enlisted, but Tolkien wanted to finish his degree. He was able to split the difference: training for the Army while taking classes, and having his call-up deferred until he graduated.
He graduated with First Class Honors from Oxford in 1915. He was promptly made a second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. His views on the military formed quickly. “Gentlemen are non-existent among the superiors, and even human beings are rare indeed,” he wrote Edith, adding: “These grey days, wasted in wearily going over, over, and over again, the dreary topics, the dull backwaters of the art of killing, are not enjoyable.”29
The Battle of the Somme
Tolkien specialized in communications, and was appointed the signal officer for his battalion, which was scheduled to leave for France. Because of the high mortality rate, Ronald and Edith decided to get married before Ronald left. On March 22, 1916, they were wed in Warwick.30 In June Ronald’s battalion left England for France. In July he was at the front line for the infamous Battle of the Somme.
The Germans commanded the high ground with miles of heavily fortified bunkers and a labyrinth of trenches. Commanders of the French and English armies were confident that a ceaseless artillery attack would destroy the formidable defense. Then divisions of infantry and cavalry would overrun the Germans like waves over sand.
The idea of a cavalry charge piercing the German line proved a complete delusion. In reality, the German position was at many points miles deep. Another error was the more plausible notion that artillery would disable the German defense. When, after a week of constant shelling, the artillery fire paused – a signal that the English and French were beginning an infantry assault – the Germans emerged from their concrete bunkers and rained murderous fire on the slowly marching thousands. One German machine-gunner recalled:
“The officers were in the front. I noticed one of them walking calmly carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.“31
Day after day thousands of brave young men were slaughtered. By the time Ronald Tolkien’s battalion reached the trenches at the front line, the stench of death was overwhelming. Corpses – mutilated, bloated, barely recognizable as human – lay sprawled where they fell. On Friday, July 14, Tolkien’s battalion went over the top. Many in his battalion were mown down, but he survived to return to his trench.
Not that trenches were safe, for the Germans had artillery too. Yet Tolkien remained at the front for the next two months until he was carried off. What finally laid him low was not explosives, shrapnel, rifle or machine gun fire. It was what doctors called “pyrexia of unknown origin.” The Tommies called it trench fever. Transmitted by lice, it affected thousands of soldiers. It was Tolkien’s ticket home.
He brought home more than a fever. The memory of the “animal horror” of trench warfare never left him. Neither did his respect and admiration for the Tommies – the rank and file English soldiers. Later, Tolkien told a letter writer the hobbit Sam Gamgee “is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.“
Another thing he brought home was a letter from G.B. Smith, a literary friend of Tolkien’s. While attending King Edward’s the two were members of a “semi-secret society,“ for which the requirements for entry were fluency in Greek and Latin, and a love of literature, the arts, language, and the spoken word. It was in this group, the “T.C.B.S.”,32 that Tolkien received the encouragement to dare to create the worlds so many millions have come to know and love. Years later he expressed it like this:
“Once upon a time I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend…which I could dedicate simply: to England; to my county. It should possess the tone and quality that I desired, somewhat cool and clear, be redolent of our ‘air’ (the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe…) and while possessing (if I could achieve it) the fair elusive beauty that some call Celtic…
“It should be high, purged of the gross, and fit more for the more adult mind of a land long steeped in poetry. I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic wheel, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.“33
It was a fantastic ambition for a teenager. Tolkien himself called it “absurd“; a reference, in all likelihood, not to the creation of the legend but to the thought that he himself could achieve such a monumental task.
His friends in the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) did not think it absurd. One of them died in the battle of the Somme. Another, G.B. Smith, died later from wounds incurred at the battle. His last letter to Tolkien ended thus: “If I am scuppered tonight…there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon…May you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them.”34
The recipient of the letter pondered that sentence as he recuperated in Birmingham. And then, absurd or not, from his hospital bed Ronald Tolkien took up his pen and began to write.
Sources for Parts 1 and 2
1. Ivor and Deborah Rogers, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Critical Biography, New York, Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1980, p. 126.
2. According to Ivor and Deborah Rogers, “Comparing Tolkien with Shakespeare is not presumptuous. Both men as they wrote were considered less significant than some of their contemporaries. Both wrote from a strong literary tradition, not apparently straining to innovate, yet opening new territory. And both have been imitated since, with partial to poor success. Tolkien, though not the first writer of modern fantasy, is its first widely recognized master.” (Ibid., p. 127).
3. Thomas A. Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, p. 309. Dr. Shippey is Tolkien’s successor at Oxford.
4. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000, p. 26. Tolkien referred to this family legend when he told an interviewer: “I am neither foolhardy or German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been. They migrated to England more than 200 years ago, and became quickly intensely English (not British), though remaining musical – a talent that unfortunately did not descend to me.”
5His other memory of South Africa was the heat: “My first Christmas memory is of blazing sun, drawn curtains, and a drooping eucalyptus.”
6. His explanation of what mother said, etc.. in letters or bio.
7. Ibid., p. 30.
8. Humphrey Carpenter Editor, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, p. 354.(Hereinafter cited as “Letters”).
9. Carpenter, op,. cit., p. 39.
10. Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, A Biography, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988, p. 328.
11. Ibid., p. 745.
12. Letters, op. cit, p. 54.
13. Letters, p. 377. This was a letter he wrote correcting a draft of an interview done with him that later was published in the Daily Telegraph, March 22, 1968). The interviewer mistakenly – but logically – attributed Tolkien’s love for Germanic languages to his German heritage.
14. Letters, op. cit., p. 54.
15Letters, p. 417..
16Letters, p. 395. Mass was celebrated in the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which was connected to the Oratory.
a church connected to the Oratory, ,
17 Letters, p. 354, quotation marks in the original. Tolkien’s preface to his conclusion was: “I have met stuffy, stupid, undutiful, conceited, ignorant, hypocritical, lazy, tipsy, hardhearted, cynical, mean, grasping, vulgar, snobbish and even (at a guess) immoral priests ‘in the course of my peregrinations’; but for me one Fr. Francis outweighs them all, and he was an upper-class Welsh-Spaniard Tory, and seemed to some just a pottering old snob and gossip. He was – and he was not.” This was part of a letter to his son Michael.
18Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, op. cit., p. 46.
19Letters, p. 8.
20Letters, pp. 394-5. This quote is from a letter to his son Michael, in which Tolkien goes on to say: “As a man whose childhood was darkened by persecution, I find this hard. But charity must cover a multitude of sins.”
21John O’Connor, The Catholic Revival In England, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1942, p. 7
22Ibid., p. 33.
23David Newsome, The Convert Cardinals, Newman And Manning, London, John Murray, 1993, p. 237. Newman suspected, wrongly, that Manning exerted undue influence with Rome., particularly with Pius IX. While Pio Nono was enormously fond of Manning, he thought the whole university issue “a bore.” The view in Rome was far from conspiratorial; the disputants (excepting Manning, probably) were thought to be “a lot of queer, quarrelsome Inglesi.“ (p. 263)
24Tolkien was born January 3 1892. Manning died eleven days later, January 14, 1892. Newman died in August, 1890.
25Carpenter, op. cit., p. 66.
26Letters, p. 53.
27Carpenter, op,.cit., p. 68.
28Carpenter, p. 73.
29Ibid., p. 85.
30Tolkien would have preferred Father Francis to marry them, but remembering Father’s grave reservations concerning his relationship with Edith, hesitated to inform him. When he finally did, Father Francis offered to marry Ronald and Edith, but by this time they had already made plans to be married at a Catholic church in Warwick.
31. The British army suffered 420,000 casualties. 58,000 of these casualties occurred on one day, during the attack of July 1. The French lost 200,000. It was winter weather that ended the Somme offensive. The Germans retained their original position. See Spartacus Education, http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWsomme.htm
32T.C.B.S. stands for the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, an inside joke.. It’s influence on Tolkien’s early literary formation should not be underestimated. One of his chief needs was for support and friendly criticism, and at critical times during his literary endeavors he received both: first from T.C.B.S., and then from the Inklings, chiefly C.S. Lewis.
33Letters, pp. 144-5.
34Rogers, op. cit., p. 61.