(3) A headless Emperor walked
One week later, Prof. Tolkien walked swiftly through the empty street, until he came to the corner of St. Giles and Beaumont Street, next to the silent, shuttered Ashmolean Museum. He was thinking of his son, Christopher, flying at this moment with the RAF. He was thinking of his other children and of the refugees he and Edith had taken into their house. He was thinking of Major Warnie Lewis, Jack’s brother, recalled to active duty at age forty-nine, who had fought in France, was supposed to be evacuated at Dunkirk, but had been taken prisoner and never heard from again. He was praying for the safety of them all. He was remembering the encouraging words of the Mass this morning: “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” And he was thinking of Beowulf—he was lecturing on the ending of that great poem today—and pondering the brave northern warriors who fought on when hope was gone. His quick steps echoed off of the stone floors and walls, beating back against him as he strode on, lecture notes in hand. He passed between the columns of the Taylor Institution, one of the many buildings in the Bodleian Library system, threw open the huge doors, and walked up to the lectern just as the great bells of Tom Tower were striking the hour.
The seats in the hall were empty.
He arranged his notes. Still no students appeared. Hilary term was drawing to a close, and ordinarily his lectures would have been packed at this time, as students crammed for final essays and exams. Tolkien adjusted his black gown, checked a translation note, and waited. No one came.
Slowly, sadly, he began lecturing to the desolate room, as if trying to speak across the miles and through the defeat, past the lines of Nazi troops who were nearing London, to reach his son, in the air over France, to reach Lewis’s brother, presumably in a German POW camp somewhere, to reach Williams’s colleagues at Oxford University Press’s publishing house in the city, to reach all the men and women who were falling now, wheat cut down by the indifferent sickle, lying in the mud of Hastings or the streets of Amen Corner. His voice mumbled on, around the stem of his pipe (which he still kept in his mouth at all times, in spite of the lack of tobacco), weaving together the tragedy of the battle of Maldon with the Norse concept of bitter courage, tying both to the tragedy of his times. His swift mind leaped from point to point, masterful in its control of language, timeless and modern as it faced the facts.
The huge doors opened. Lewis and Williams came in, walked down the central aisle, Lewis heavily, Williams deftly, and sat down in two of the empty chairs. Williams looked up at Tolkien, his eyes red-rimmed and brimming. Lewis buried his face in his hands. Tolkien’s voice wobbled to a stop, and he struggled down from the podium and sat beside his friends.
These cheerful veterans and makers of myth, their keen eyes honed by one war and their hearts steeled by another, their minds sharpened by contact with the conflicts and hopes of many cultures that had gone before, sat in numb silence in the vacant hall.
At last Lewis shook himself and spoke.
“It does not matter whether we are sent to France or kept at home. It does not matter whether we stay here to nurture good philosophy to combat the bad ideas.”
Williams picked up the thread of his thought: “The collective wisdom of Oxford cannot long be protected behind the golden walls of its ancient colleges.”
“What is the latest news?” Tolkien asked, trembling a little.
“London is finished,” Lewis told him. “Panzers are unloading at all of England’s southern ports.”
“The Wehrmacht’s infantry has swarmed up the white cliffs and is marching inland across untended fields,” Williams went on.
There had been little military resistance. An entire generation of British youth had been erased on the killing fields of France. Their fathers and uncles—and even some of their mothers and sisters—were stranded on the Continent, swiping ineffectually at the enemy’s backside, or languishing in POW camps, while the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish population went on unchecked. The refugee children, hiding behind Oxford’s walls, were being orphaned day by day.
The door opened again, and Owen Barfield stood there, a slender silhouette against the dreary light of a rainy English afternoon.
“The King has surrendered,” he whispered. “Hitler has landed.”
A silence fell on the group. Lewis gripped Tolkien’s shoulder. Williams took off his spectacles and wiped his eyes, then clutched at his stomach as he was racked by a spasm of pain. Barfield crossed the flagstone floor and folded himself up in a chair beside them. At last Williams looked up, cleared his throat, and spoke strange lines in his Cockney accent:
“There on the waves a headless Emperor walked
coped in a foul indecent crimson; octopods
round him stretched giant tentacles and crawled
heavily on the slimy surface of the tangled sea,
goggling with lidless eyes at the coast of the Empire.”
“But in your myth, Williams, the Empire rallies,” said Lewis. “The young pope prays, and the invaders are defeated on Christmas day. Surely in this Easter season—”
His strong voice trailed away.
“And in yours, John Ronald,” Barfield said to Tolkien, “the tyrant will go down into defeat, conquered by the little people at last, will he not?”
“He will. On the Feast of the Annunciation,” Tolkien mumbled. “Which is also the last day of Creation. But that is only one small victory in the whole history of the legendarium. Sauron is the servant of Melkor or Morgoth, and—”
Lewis interrupted him.
“Let’s not go into your whole convoluted history of Middle-earth just now, Tollers. We’ll never get back out to real history, which is looking bleak enough right now without adding the fading of the Elves to it.”
“But you see,” he said. “I am a Christian. I believe we are fighting the long defeat. I do not look for hope in this world.”
“All the peoples await the Parousia,” Williams muttered, “and even your elves look forward to a victory at the end of all times.”
(to be continued)