Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101.
As promised in the update you’ve heard for the past week or so, we finally find ourselves together again, learning something new about the history of Britain. I am so very glad that you have decided to join me, and I hope you enjoy the show. With this episode, I have spent a substantially greater amount of time researching than I usually do, and the result is what I see as a more thorough and educating show. With that comes a bit of additional length, but I do not think this will detract from the experience. If you’re a tea drinker, I’d recommend a cup of Earl Grey (as I am drinking while I record) or some other black tea to enjoy with the show. Take this time to pause, head to the kitchen for tea, and then settle in for our journey through the mists of Britain. I think it will be an enjoyable one.
A man named Arthur found himself employed at the Birmingham branch of Lloyds Bank in the late 19th century, right at the time that South Africa was becoming an attractive place for those interested in diamonds and gold. Feeling as though he wasn’t going to make any particularly glorious strides in his career in England, Arthur left for South Africa around 1890, being accepted into the position he had applied for at Lloyds Bank there.
Before he had left for the African continent, Arthur had fallen in love with one Mabel Suffield of Birmingham. Unfortunately, they were unable to marry while he was still in England, but the success his new job in Africa brought was sufficient to allow the two to wed each other. He requested that Mabel join him, and she consented. The two were married on 16 April 1891 at Cape Town Cathedral, soon moving to Bloemfontein where Arthur was based. One of the couple’s early joys in their shared life was their first child. On 3 January 1892, Mabel gave birth to a son, and it was thus that John Ronald Reuel Tolkien came into this world. The creator of one of the finest pieces of literature ever to be written had been born. John was a grandfather’s name, Ronald was a parental preference, and Reuel was Arthur’s middle name.
Ronald (as he was known to his parents) was born prematurely and a sickly child, in stark contrast to the health of his brother Hilary, born in 1894. The boys’ mother had long had a wish to return home to England, and the detrimental effect that the South African climate was having on Ronald’s health convinced the Tolkiens that Mabel should return to England, which she did in April 1895. Arthur was to join the family later. Unfortunately, he fell ill with rheumatic fever, prompting Mabel to make preparations to head for Bloemfontein with Ronald and Hilary. Ronald, excited to return to South Africa to see his father, asked his nurse to write Arthur a letter; unfortunately, Ronald’s father would never receive the letter. Arthur Tolkien died on 16 February 1896. His sons Ronald and Hilary were only 4 and 2.
After a bit of time spent with Mabel’s parents (which Ronald especially enjoyed – he loved his quick-witted Grandfather Suffield), the remaining Tolkiens made a financially difficult decision and moved to Sarehole, a mile south of Birmingham. It was here that Ronald became so deeply attached to the pastoral English countryside vividly represented in his later writings. His mother homeschooled him, instructing him in the reading and writing of English, the languages of Latin and French, art and calligraphy. Ronald became adept at drawing, finding particular interest in trees. It was at this point that Tolkien, fascinated with books, became interested in fairy tales and folklore. He even wrote his own stories, remembering into his later years a tale he composed about “a great green dragon.”
1900 saw two important events in the life of J.R.R. Tolkien: the beginning of Ronald’s institutional education when he passed the entrance examination for King Edward’s School in Birmingham, the best school in the city, and his mother Mabel’s conversion to Catholicism (much to the dismay of both her family and the late Arthur Tolkien’s). Having moved to Mosely, much closer to King Edward’s School, to save money on transportation, Mabel then moved the boys twice more and ended up in Edgbaston in 1902 to be close to the Birmingham Oratory, where her sons could receive education in matters both religious and academic. Ronald thus switched from King Edward’s School to St. Philip’s, where the parish priest Father Francis Xavier Morgan became a close and trusted friend of the family.
Finding himself academically beyond the opportunities offered by St. Philip’s, Ronald was able to win a Foundations Scholarship to King Edward’s and returned to the school in 1903, where he discovered a love for Greek; his mother would later brag that Ronald knew more Greek than she Latin. The joy that Ronald found at the study of the history of language there was cut short around New Year 1904; both he and Hilary contracted measles and whooping-cough. Mabel nursed her ailing sons back to health, but this effort in turn made Mabel fall ill, being diagnosed in spring 1904 with diabetes. After a restful and healing summer spent in the countryside near Birmingham (arranged with the help of Father Morgan), all seemed to be well until November, when the diabetes Mabel thought she had under control reared its head. Collapsing onto the kitchen floor, she fell into a coma in the early days of the month and held on until the 14th. Her sons Ronald and Hilary, aged 12 and 10, were orphans.
Father Morgan, who had been appointed guardian of the boys in Mabel’s will, placed them in the care of their aunt Beatrice. Unlike the rest of the Suffield and Tolkien clans, she held no particular religious views and was unopposed to the boys’ Catholicism. Her proximity to the Oratory allowed the boys to spend most of their time there with Father Morgan, waking each morning to don cassocks and surplices to serve Mass for their friend and guardian.
It became readily apparent that Ronald would excel in languages; at King Edward’s he studied Greek, Latin, French, German, then venturing into Old English, Welsh, and Old Norse on his own time. He even began making up his own languages, drawing inspirations from his cousins’ invention of the language Animalic. They were rough attempts, to be sure, but nonetheless they lay the foundation for some of Tolkien’s most fascinating work later in life.
Tolkien’s education at King Edward’s introduced him to Old English. A former instructor of Ronald’s named George Brewerton gave him an Anglo-Saxon primer, which lead Tolkien to the poem Beowulf. Tolkien enjoyed it immensely, continuing his adventure into the English language with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English.
On one of the several holidays that Father Morgan treated the boys to in Lyme-Regis, he learned that the boys were not as happy as they could be living with Aunt Beatrice, and thus Father Morgan arranged for them to live at a boarding house run by Mrs. Louis Faulkner in 1908, keeping them close to the Oratory. It was here that young Ronald met Edith Bratt, a fellow orphan and fast friend of Ronald and Hilary. Despite an age difference of three years between them (Edith was 19 and Ronald was 16), Ronald fell in love with Edith. It is highly probable that this love for Edith interfered in Ronald’s studying for a scholarship to Oxford in 1909, which he failed to achieve. Father Morgan learned of the love that Ronald and Edith had been keeping secret and duly forbade Ronald to see or communicate with Edith until he turned 21 – after all, if Ronald and Edith had been seen socializing in public, only God knew what was happening at the boarding house. Despite the ban on socializing, Ronald and Edith secretly met and exchanged gifts for their respective upcoming birthdays. Edith received a watch, and Ronald a pen. As you can probably guess, Father Morgan heard of this and renewed his prohibition on the relationship. Edith moved to Cheltenham to live with friends there, leaving Ronald to study for a second attempt at an Oxford scholarship.
Ronald Tolkien was involved in many different societies and clubs throughout his life, and it was at this time that he partook in the Tea Club, comprised of Ronald, Christopher Wiseman, R.Q. Gilson, the son of the headmaster at King Edward’s, and G.B. Smith. They spent free time together at the Tea Room of Barrow’s Stores, which later gave them the name T.C.B.S., or Tea Club-Barrovian Society. It was the T.C.B.C that Ronald called home socially, with its members being his best friends throughout his final year at King Edward’s, university, and the Army later in life. It is quite touching to know that Ronald, surrounded by young men trying to woo the ladies they took an interest in, avoided them as much as possible in order to stay true to Edith. He remained resolutely in love with the girl, despite her distance from him and the ban imposed by Father Morgan.
Ronald directed his attention towards studying for his next attempt at a scholarship, which he won in December 1910. The Open Classical Exhibition that he earned was a somewhat inferior award, but nonetheless it allowed him to attend Exeter College at Oxford University. Here, Tolkien made Comparative Philology his academic specialty, adding Celtic and Finnish to his linguistic repertoire, but he especially flourished in the numerous organizations he belonged to – rugby, the Debating Society, the Essay Club, the Dialectical Society, and his self-founded club the Apolaustiks.
In 1913 Ronald turned 21 and immediately wrote to Edith – the ban had been lifted. Edith, however, had in the interim become engaged to someone else, much to Tolkien’s dismay. However, he was not to be dissuaded. He traveled to Cheltenham and convinced his love that it was really Ronald that she should marry. Edith, realizing the love she really held for him, consented.
In that same year Tolkien specialized in linguistics, also studying Old Icelandic with W. A. Craigie. Ronald was indeed becoming an expert in languages. It was in the study of Old Icelandic that Ronald learned much of Norse mythology and folklore, and this would later affect the writings he would become so famous for.
Father Morgan had been opposed to the marriage between Ronald and Edith because Edith was not Catholic. However, she declared her intent to become Catholic in 1913 (which resulted in her eviction from her Cheltenham lodgings) and came into full union with Rome the following year. This removed the last obstacle preventing the marriage of the loving couple. Ronald was in the midst of studying for a second degree and they decided to wait until he had finished; unfortunately, the dark days of World War I were looming over Europe.
Ronald finished his second degree in 1915, drilling with the Officers’ Training Corps in his final year. He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant with the Lancashire Fusiliers (the regiment which his old Tea Club friend G. B. Smith was based) and specialized in signaling due to his linguistics expertise. He left for France in June 1916, but not before marrying his sweetheart Edith on 22 March. After 8 years of clandestine love, long-distance pining, and patience in Tolkien’s studies, the two were finally married.
Tolkien escaped combat injury during the war, but his friends R. Q. Gilson and G. B. Smith did not fare as well as he. His two friends from the T.C.B.S. were killed in action in 1916. Tolkien was able to escape the horrors of war through no fault of his own; he contracted a severe case of trench fever in October 1916 and was sent to hospital in France to recover. The illness would not abate, and Ronald was sent back to England where he was able to be with his wife. His health wavered throughout 1917-18, but still he was far better off than he would have been in France: most of the members of his regiment were either captured or killed in the mindless chaos of the World War. Despite the dreadful scar this conflict left on humanity, joy was still to be found for the Tolkiens; Edith gave birth to their first child, John Francis Reuel Tolkien, on 16 November 1917. The happiness Ronald must have felt at this was augmented in 1918 when he became an assistant lexicographer with the Oxford English Dictionary, courtesy of his former Old Icelandic teacher William Craigie. Tolkien had achieved what many people even now cannot – he worked with his true passion, the nature and behavior of words.
Obviously in 1917-18, the years Ronald spent in recuperation from his trench fever, there was no television, no computer technology, no Internet. To pass the time, Ronald set about creating something that England did not have – its own mythology, drawing heavily from his knowledge of Icelandic lore. This was how Ronald created the core stories of The Book of Lost Tales, now better known as The Silmarillion, including “The Fall of Gondolin,” “The Children of Hurin,” and “The Tale of Beren and Luthien,” the last being based on his and Edith’s warm and loving relationship.
Tolkien’s love of language enabled him to become a tutor at Oxford, helping mostly female students learn Anglo-Saxon. He began earning enough to quite his job on the dictionary after two years. His application to become Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds was accepted in 1920. Ronald moved north to assume his new job in the fall of 1920, and Edith joined him in 1921 after the birth of their second son, Michael Hilary Reuel.
The Tolkiens spent 4 years in Leeds, during which Ronald directed linguistic studies for the entire university. It was also during this time that Tolkien collaborated with a colleague of his, E. V. Gordon, on a new edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in 1925. The result of their combined effort remains a popular item in academic study today. This accomplishment was rewarded by the University, which appointed Tolkien Professor of English Language in 1924 (although it was not published until 1925, Tolkien’s work with Gordon had received enough attention and recognition by 1924 to merit the promotion). Ronald’s promotion enabled his family to purchase their own house in Leeds, which was added to that year by their third son, Christopher Reuel.
The following year, 1925, Tolkien was given the opportunity to leave his well-deserved post at the University of Leeds: Oxford offered him the Rawlinson and Bosworth Chair of Anglo-Saxon, succeeding his old tutor and friend William Craigie. Tolkien accepted.
While Tolkien had still been at Leeds, he nearly completed what was now known as The Silmarillion. However, rather than finish the work, Tolkien began to revise and rewrite the book, and this would become a characteristic of his writing style for the rest of his life.
The Tolkiens’ move back to Oxford would result in them buying a house on Northmoor Road, only to buy the larger house next door in 1930 when their daughter Priscilla was born. Part of the time he spent at Oxford after his return was in the group known as The Coalbiters; it is interesting to know that one of Tolkien’s friends, a man named C.S. Lewis, was also a Coalbiter. This group met to read, in their original language, Icelandic sagas, getting their name from a word derived from a group of friends gathered around a fire to keep warm.
By this time, The Silmarillion had more or less been in production since 1917, and hopes of it ever being published were looking dim – Tolkien used to the stories within it to entertain his children, which lead him to make up more, unrelated stories for them. One of those seemingly unrelated stories was born one day while Tolkien was grading exams. He turned the page in a student’s examination booklet and found the next one blank; on it, he wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
That is where I am going to stop for this week – I see that we are approaching the ___ minute mark for this episode, and the feedback that I have gotten consistently says that the relative brevity of this podcast is what makes it enjoyable; that is, I have been told that listeners prefer the show when it is digestible in one sitting, as it were! There is much more to the story of J.R.R. Tolkien, and exactly one week from today we shall finish it together; I guarantee that we will complete the story unlike our foray into Henry VIII!
A small reminder before we conclude for the evening:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
Although the second (and less well-known) verse of that rhyme is substantially anti-papist (with me being Catholic), Guy Fawkes’ Day is still an amusing and fascinating topic for me. Celebrate this coming Monday – it’s an easy excuse for some relaxation around the warmth of a bonfire!
As usual, send any questions, comments, rants, and raves to BritishHistory101@gmail.com You can find a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast at BritishHistory101.com. I’d really encourage everyone to visit the site, as I have been updating it with a few new links and would like to be active there while I’m researching and producing episode. Also, be sure to add yourself to the Platial map on the right side of the screen – it’s fascinating to see where everyone is! Special thanks tonight to John Hawksley, gracious provider of our opening theme, and John Lu, my generous helper in matters technical for publishing this podcast!
Our music tonight is “The Irish March” by Da Camera and available at Magnatune.com. Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit magnatune.com for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Until next week, my best to you all, and thanks again for learning with me.
Episode 23: We’re back!
2 November 2007 by Michael
Hello, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101.