Tolkien and the Viking Club

A pre-enlistment First in English Language and Literature had virtually assured Tolkien of an academic career. A readership took him to Leeds University, where the founding of the Viking Club for tutors and undergraduates to fraternise, drink beer, read sagas and sing comic songs helped make him a popular teacher. Back at Oxford in 1925 as Professor of Anglo-Saxon, his declamatory Beowulf lectures, re-enacting the bard in the mead hall, deeply impressed all who heard them; Auden later told Tolkien that his voice he had heard was the voice of Gandalf.

I've heard of Flower Festivals, but...

IF YOU look carefully, you can see Mr Tumnus, the faun, standing under the lamp post (Above, left). For one Sunday morning, the doors of the riverside Church of St Michael and All Angels, Linton, in Bradford diocese, opened into the magical land of Narnia.

A hundred people made their way through fir trees, meeting many of the characters from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mr and Mrs Beaver had built their dam in the side chapel; the four thrones for the two kings and two queens stood by the altar; and in the children’s corner were the stone statues of the creatures from Narnia who had fallen foul of the White Witch. A huge picture of Aslan the lion was projected on to the chancel arch.

Knowing that the Disney film of Prince Caspian would soon be released, the team who organise Linton’s “Liquid Worship” services thought they would remind people of the earlier C. S. Lewis book. They worked very hard to set it all up, but one of the team said: “It was very well worth it. The look of wonder on everyone’s face as they came into church was priceless.”

Church Times - 29th August 2008

The Coalbiters

The Coalbiters were formed for the discussion of a single particular common interest, that of the Old Icelandic myths and language. Tolkien named the association "Kolbitar," which referred to Coalbiters. This name hearkened to the telling of noble adventures and sagas around the roaring hearth. (Coalbiters are those who lounge so close to the fire in winter that they virtually bite the coal.) The image also emphasizes the intimacy shared by the group's members as they bundled themselves against the chill of world change and secularisation, and regaled one another with the retelling of grand tales of history and myth.

The group met approximately once a week, discussing the bits and pieces of Icelandic myth that led up to the cycle of myths that make up The Elder Edda.

The Coalbiters included many of the scholars that would later become members of The Inklings including Hugo Dyson, Neville Coghill, George Gordon, and several others.

One late addition to this “club” was C.S. Lewis, at the time a relatively new Fellow of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford. He had met Tolkien several times before this, and the two of them had found they had much in common.

Lewis was deeply interested in the Northern myths, as Tolkien was, and the two of them often carried on their conversations of Asgard and the gods of the north long after the formal end of the Coalbiters’ meetings.

Tolkien was so encouraged by these meetings with Lewis that he began to read him bits and pieces of his early Middle-earth mythology, including the rhyming couplets he had composed called The Lay of Lethian. Lewis lavished praise on the writings. Humphrey Carpenter, in his book The Inklings, reprinted a letter written by Lewis to Tolkien in December 1929:

“I should have enjoyed [the poem] just was well if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value” (p. 30).

This was the beginning of what would become a lifelong and influential friendship for both writers.

The Coalbiters soon finished reading the cycle of myths that had brought them together. It would not be long, however, before another, far more influential, group rose from the ashes of the Coalbiters… the Inklings.

Early Years and the TCBS

By 1904 Tolkien was attending King Edward's School in Birmingham and already demonstrating a remarkable aptitude for languages. He had made a number of close friends at the school including Robert Gilson, the son of the Headmaster (who was encouraging the young Tolkien to study the classical languages).
His first literary society, the Tea Club Barrovian Society (TCBS), started as an illicit supper club in King Edward's library, when summer exams diverted schoolmasterly attention elsewhere, and it soon spread to the hard wooden settles of a nearby tea-room from whence came its mock-grand title. The scholars who formed its nucleus, Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Ronald, as he was known, shared a knowledge of classical literature and openness to individual enthusiasms ranging from Renaissance painting to the natural sciences, music and English literature. Tolkien contributed recitations from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which he was to co-edit as an academic a decade later) and shared his already deep-rooted love of Norse mythology. The friendship survived the asymmetric translation of Tolkien and Smith to Oxford and Gilson and Wiseman to Cambridge. At Oxford, Tolkien helped form two dining and debating clubs, the Apolausticks, principally for freshmen, and the Chequers, but neither supplanted the TCBS, which still met in vacations to discuss literature and read work in progress. It was at its instigation that Tolkien first experimented with verse form alongside his development of invented languages. Even a few hours in the company of these school-friends gave inspiration, helping him voice 'all kinds of pent-up things'. He compared the group to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, although the others took this idea considerably less seriously.
The members of the group became very close friends with a wide variety of interests all of which rubbed off on the others. Tolkien was studying languages, Robert Gilson was interested in the physical sciences and Renaissance art. Christopher Wiseman's interests included natural science, mathematics and music, whilst a late recruit to the TCBS was Geoffrey Smith, who was instrumental in introducing them to modern English literature.
Smith and Tolkien became firm friends and it is probable that it was Smith's influence that prompted Tolkien to start writing poetry. However, Gilson and Smith, were killed in action. On July 15, 1916, Smith wrote to Tolkien of Gilson's death:

My dear John Ronald,
I saw in the paper this morning that Rob has been killed. I am safe but what does that matter? Do please stick to me, you and Christopher. I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst news. Now one realises in despair what the T.C.B.S. really was.
O my dear John Ronald what ever are we going to do?
Yours ever.
G. B. S.

5 months later, Tolkien was informed by Wiseman that Smith had also died in a mission. Smith wrote his last letter to Tolkien just before setting out:
My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight -- I am off on duty in a few minutes -- 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. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,
G. B. S.

The tragedy put an end to the circle of the four and left a deep wound in the hearts of the remaining two. Tolkien, awakened by Smith's echoing words, “may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them”, starts to write his mythology on a notebook that he titled "The Book of Lost Days”.

Tolkien, Flanders & Swann

Perhaps it was the shared experience of an Oxford education disrupted by war that unconsciously attracted Donald Swann (Christ Church 1941), the composer and performing partner of Michael Flanders (Christ Church 1940), to The Lord of the Rings, which he re-read every spring. Conversely, it should be no surprise that a writer who specialized in gentle philological puns would be an ardent admirer of Flanders' adroit wordplay.

Swann's affinity with Tolkien's writings was eventually expressed in a song cycle, The Road Goes Ever On. They struck up a friendship, Tolkien providing his imprimatur prior to publication with one minor revision. This was for 'Namárië', a farewell lament in Elvish, for which Tolkien suggested a replacement melody in the style of Gregorian chant, to which Swann assented. As this is sung unaccompanied, both words and music are effectively Tolkien's. Swann subsequently performed the completed work at the Tolkiens' golden wedding celebration at Merton College in 1966, accompanying the bass baritone William Elvin. 'A name of good omen', Tolkien wryly observed beforehand.
Swann viewed Tolkien's work not as escapist fantasy, but as a paradigm of human life with its sense of destiny and purpose. An unprepossessing hero, Frodo, is scarred permanently by his quest, as many veterans were by war experience; this loosens his attachment to the Shire. After Tolkien's death, his secretary handed Swann the unpublished 'Bilbo's Last Song'. Swann set and then appended it to the song-cycle. Its closing words - 'Lands there are to West of West, / Where night is quiet and sleep is rest' -- encapsulate the valedictory quality of Tolkien's magnum opus, its 'Northernness' and other-worldly longing. Later, Swann was moved to sing it at the Commemoration for Michael Flanders. 'Namárië' resurfaced at a Holywell Music Room concert in 2007, its performer, Roderick Williams commenting that Oxford was possibly the only place where it could be taken for granted that the audience would understand the lyrics.
Read more about the dynamic duo from Brian Sibley's weblog:

Pauline Baynes

[My copy of LOTR, purchased in the 1960s, with its cover by Pauline Baynes]

To leave my postings on 'longings' for a day... the English newspapers today are full of tributes to Pauline Baynes and her work (see two postings ago of mine).
Pauline Baynes, the artist and illustrator who died on August 1 aged 85, brought the worlds of CS Lewis's Narnia and JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth to life with her superb line drawings.... the rest of the Daily Telegraph obituary can be found at

I find it hard to think of the created worlds of Tolkien and Lewis without seeing Pauline Baynes' illustrations in my head.

"Deep lies the sea-longing" : inklings of home

“… Lewis gives expression to that longing which made up one part of his own divided inner life during his early years. Eventually he would understand it as a hunger for one's true home beyond this life: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world" (Mere Christianity 121).

This outlook is one that Lewis shared with his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, and for them also it took the symbolic form of a fascination with the sea ("the sea-longing," in Tolkien's phrase) and unknown lands beyond it. I am not here concerned with investigating any supposed "derivation" of ideas from one man to another, or even "influence" per se (though that may come in). My theme is simply the remarkable commonality both in the way these writers worked with myths, as mythologers and not mere mythographers, and in the meanings to which their myths point; and, finally, what lessons all this may have for us.”

Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2007 by Charles A. Huttar

Complete essay on

The Horse and His Boy

Bree (the horse) and Shasta (the boy) use the phrase "Narnia and the North" as their rallying cry as they make their escape from their life in Calormen. They are both motivated by a deep longing to find their way to the place that is ultimately their true homeland. In the setting of The Horse and His Boy, the reader finds a departure from the landscapes, culture, and people of the Narnian realms which have become familiar in the other books. The placement of the action in the more alien realm of Calormen helps to convey a sense of unbelonging on the part of the characters and the reader, which reinforces the motif of longing for a true home.

In other works, Lewis uses the German word Sehnsucht to encapsulate the idea of an "inconsolable longing" in the human heart for "we know not what." C. S. Lewis, as a Christian, identifies the objects of Sehnsucht-longing as God and Heaven.

After meeting up with King Lune of Archenland and his hunting party, and warning them of the impending Calormene invasion, Shasta becomes lost in the fog and separated from the King's procession. After continuing blindly for some way, he senses that he has been joined in the darkness by a mysterious presence. Engaging in conversation with the unknown being, Shasta confides what he sees as his many misfortunes, including being chased by lions on two separate occasions, and concluding with "If nothing else, it was bad luck to meet so many lions." His companion then proclaims himself as the single lion that Shasta has encountered in his travels:

"I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the tombs. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at night, to receive you."

Thus it is revealed to Shasta, that, in the incidents which he perceived as misfortunes, Aslan, in his Divine Providence, has been orchestrating events for his greater purposes.