Back to Essay series: Tolkien at Oxford
The Tea Club and Barrovian Society
Still bearing downward over murmurous falls
One year and then another to the sea;
And slowly thither have a many gone
Since first the fairies built Kortirion.
'Kortirion among the Trees'
written in November 1915
The Tea Club and Barrovian Society
This almost went into the "stand-alone essays" section, but ended up here because there are a couple of connections to the Tolkien at Oxford conference, in the persons of two of the presenters there: John Garth and Verlyn Flieger. I missed John Garth's lecture because of a 9-hour delay in flying out of Chicago, but have just finished reading his Tolkien and the Great War. I did hear Verlyn Flieger's lecture in full, although I missed the beginning of the one before hers for want of a pen. Hers was titled "Gilson, Smith and Baggins," which means much more to me after reading Garth's book. Having his lecture the first evening of the conference, with Flieger's the next morning, was a wonderful scheduling idea.
The TCBS (named after Barrow's Stores in Birmingham where they often met while still students at King Edward's School) was made up of the people Tolkien was thinking of when he wrote, in the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, 'By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.' Garth spends well over half of his book following the relationships among the members of the TCBS before and during the War. This wasn't what I expected when I started reading the book, but it gave much more insight into Tolkien as a person and as a writer than would have come from simply looking at him as an individual and/or studying the War as a historical event. It also shows very personally what England, and many other countries, lost in the Great War: a generation of young men, including "the best and the brightest," whose potential was never realized. Garth says that recruits from Oxford and Cambridge Universities were killed at nearly twice the overall rate for British soldiers; they entered the army as junior officers and were leading men into battle. Each member of the TCBS had become a student at one of those two universities after leaving King Edward's, and went directly from his university to the War.
Although the level of intelligence and creative talent found in the TCBS was a rarity, the TCBSian mix of quick-witted humor, group identification, and completely serious youthful idealism isn't unique. Tolkien's friends became alive to me in large part because they reminded me of male friends I had in high school and college who banded together in similar groupings. Like the TCBS (and the Inklings), there were "core members" as well as others who gravitated toward the group and had various levels of involvement. Unlike the TCBS (and the Inklings), the people in the electron cloud around the nucleus included a few females. There were occasional comments from outsiders about always seeing "Trudy and a bunch of guys," to which I'd usually reply, "Yeah, I can't get just one," which I now believe was true in a different way than I thought it was at the time. The only marriage that ever occurred within the group ended in divorce after only a few years; the guys looked for romantic involvements elsewhere. Garth mentions that even the other core members of the TCBS were surprised when Tolkien became engaged to Edith as soon as he was beyond Fr. Morgan's ban on seeing her: as close as the TCBS was, they just didn't talk about "things like that."
They did talk about ideas - ideas they were enthusiastic about and that spurred their creativity; the core group of the TCBS included two writers, an artist and a musician. And they talked about what was wrong with the world and how their creative efforts would change it. My friends talked about those same things. An important difference between the TCBS and my young adult male friends was that the former group was forcibly dissolved by death while the members were still in that stage of youthful idealism in which they believed that all of the grand designs they dreamed and talked about were actually in their future. This didn't happen with my friends, although they were pulled close enough to the edge of war that I recognized the admonitions among the TCBSians that, if one or more of them died, those left would have the responsibility to carry on with the dream. (My male classmates were required to register for the Vietnam era [God forbid that we call it a "war"] draft, but it ended before they were called. This did give an added importance to having some females around whose talents "the guys" respected.)
Gilson, Smith and Baggins
Rob Gilson and G.B. Smith were the two core members of the TCBS who died in the Battle of the Somme. If, as Tolkien specifically said, the character of Samwise was consciously based on the "batmen" who acted as officers' right-hand men, that's also a statement about Frodo's identity. Even if not purposely based on those junior officers who led others into battle, and who were pulled out of a quiet life to be thrown into deadly situations completely outside their training and experience, Frodo's relationship to Sam puts him in that position. In that sense, all three names in the title of Dr. Flieger's lecture are linked. But Gilson and Smith could each have influenced the character of Frodo in individual ways.
The lecture centered on Rob Gilson, the artist of the group, as a parallel to what Dr. Flieger called "the undifferentiated hobbit." I might use the word "balanced" instead of "undifferentiated," because I think Frodo has plenty of specifics about him. But the point being made in the talk was that Gilson's contribution to the TCBS wasn't so much a specific creative talent as it was (in Tolkien's words after Gilson's death) "friendship to the nth degree." His art was more on the periphery of the group; it's hard to circulate a painting or a charcoal drawing by mail as Smith and Tolkien did with their poems. But he was seen by the others as the glue that held the group together. The loyalty that Frodo inspired in his friends did something similar. He didn't have the hands-on gifts of Sam, the quickwittedness and talent for planning of Merry, or Pippin's ability to seize the moment, but each of them was willing to go with him into deadly peril rather than let him face it alone. The outcome was that they also had to be willing to do that for each other, and friendships formed and deepened as a result of common friendship with Frodo.
It also seems that Gilson was the TCBS's "doubting Thomas" when it came to those grand designs of changing the world. I have no idea if this was a conscious, or even unconscious, source of Frodo's "Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant" brand of dark humor, but it certainly reminded me of it. Garth reports that before heading into the battle that did, indeed, kill him, Gilson said to a fellow soldier, "It is no use harrowing people with farewell letters; it is not as if we were prodigal sons."
G.B. Smith was the other writer in the TCBS core. He was primarily a poet, which is also what Tolkien considered himself to be until he started putting his legendarium into prose after he returned from the War. So it's understandable that Smith was the member who most openly stated the need for their joint work to be carried on*:
My dear John Ronald... my chief consolation is that, if I am scuppered to-night - I am off on duty in a few minutes - there will still be left a member of the great TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon...... May God bless you, my dear John Ronald, and may you say the things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them, if such be my lot.
If that has a slight resonance with Frodo passing on the Red Book to Sam, with Smith in the position of Frodo, try reading this excerpt from one of Smith's letters to Tolkien:
I carry your last verses... about with me like a treasure... I don't care a damn if the Bosch drops half-a-dozen high explosives all round and on top of this dugout I am writing in, so long as people go on making verses about 'Kortirion among the Trees' and such other topics - that indeed is why I am here, to keep them and preserve them.
...along with this:
It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
With such eloquent pleas, I'd think it would have been difficult for Tolkien to not continue working toward the goals of the TCBS, which were in essence to restore the recognition of truth and real beauty to a world they felt had lost sight of them. Along with helping to get a posthumous volume of Smith's poetry published, Tolkien was able to accomplish some of that through his teaching (as did the one other surviving TCBSian, Christopher Wiseman, although he worked with schoolchildren rather than university students). Trying to bring the TCBS ideals to the world through his writing proved more frustrating. Some of his poems were published, but his "mythology for England" in, first, Lost Tales, and then The Silmarillion, wasn't accepted for publication, with editors believing - perhaps correctly at the time - that there wouldn't be an audience for it.
Thankfully, the TCBS wasn't Tolkien's last group of creative friends. When he shared a story he had written for his children, C.S. Lewis encouraged him to submit it for publication, and the world learned enough about hobbits (and Elrond and Gandalf and other hints of the wider mythology) to want to read more. When his hopes were dashed that his publisher might accept The Silmarillion as the requested sequel to The Hobbit, Tolkien started working on a "new hobbit story." In the 16 years it took to write, it deepened from an adventurous children's story into something he said this about in 1971 (Letter #328):
Looking back on the wholly unexpected things that have followed its publication - beginning at once with the appearance of Vol. I - I feel as if an ever darkening sky over our present world had been suddenly pierced, the clouds rolled back, and an almost forgotten sunlight had poured down again.
- Which sounds remarkably like what the TCBS had seen as its goal.
The 1971 letter continues:
...But How? and Why?
I think I can now guess what Gandalf would reply. A few years ago I was visited in Oxford by a man whose name I have forgotten... I became aware that he was looking fixedly at me. Suddenly he said: 'Of course, you don't suppose, do you, that you wrote all that book yourself?'
Pure Gandalf! I was too well acquainted with G. to expose myself rashly, or to ask what he meant. I think I said: 'No, I don't suppose so any longer.' I have never since been able to suppose so. An alarming conclusion for an old philologist to draw concerning his private amusement. But not one that should puff anyone up who considers the imperfections of 'chosen instruments', and indeed what sometimes seems their lamentable unfitness for the purpose.
I've always read that last paragraph as a wary admission of divine inspiration in the writing of The Lord of the Rings; I still think that's involved, especially given the reference to "chosen instruments". But after reading such things as a letter from one TBSian reminding Tolkien that his poetry was actually produced by the entire group rather than by himself alone, I think there might be another layer there. For Tolkien, by the time in his life that he wrote Letter #328, there was most likely no need to differentiate. The two layers would be indivisible, because then Tolkien could say, as Wiseman did in a letter after Gilson's death when Tolkien was driven into doubt, "I believe there is something in what the Church calls the Communion of Saints."
The background on this page is made from a photo of the roof and spires of the chapel of Exeter College taken from the room I stayed in during the conference.
The floral divider and the brick background are from GRSites.com.
*Both of the letter excerpts are quoted from John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War.
For more on Garth's Tolkien and the Great War, see the review on this site.
Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw