Our Own Dear John Ronald: Yours Ever, G.B.S.

“By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien lost just about all his friends in WWI.  One of his closest, Geoffrey B. Smith, passed away on 3 December 1916, succumbing to injuries received from shell bursting.

Not long before, he had written to Tolkien:

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 to-night.  And do you also write it to Christopher.  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.

Yours ever,

~ quoted after Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien. A Biography.

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Tolkien arrived at the Somme in early July 1916. In between terms behind the lines at Bouzincourt, he participated in the assaults on the Schwaben Redoubt and the Leipzig salient. (…)  On 27 October 1916, as his battalion attacked Regina Trench, Tolkien came down with trench fever, a disease carried by the lice. He was invalided to England on 8 November 1916.  Many of his dearest school friends were killed in the war.  Among their number were Rob Gilson of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, who was killed on the first day of the Somme while leading his men in the assault on Beaumont Hamel.  Fellow T.C.B.S. member Geoffrey Smith was killed during the same battle when a German artillery shell landed on a first aid post.  Tolkien’s battalion was almost completely wiped out following his return to England.

~ according to the Wiki

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Tolkien’s Heresy

“There is an ancient myth in this feature, that of the ‘true language’, the tongue in which there is a thing for each word and a word for each thing, and in which signifier then naturally has power over signified.”

‘Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right,’ said Aragorn.  ‘Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.’

‘Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then,’ said Legolas, ‘and but a little while does that seem to us.’

‘But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,’ said Aragorn, ‘that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time.  Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.’  Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and the Dwarf; yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it.

‘That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,’ said Legolas; ‘for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains.  But I cannot guess what it means, safe that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.’

‘It runs thus in the Common Speech,’ said Aragorn, ‘as near as I can make it.

Thus spoke a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young, who rode down out of the North; and there were wings upon the feet of his steed, Felaróf, father of horses.  So men still sing in the evening.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: The King of the Golden Hall


This was Tolkien’s major linguistic heresy.  He thought that people could feel history in words, could recognize language ‘styles’, could extract sense (of sorts) from sound alone, could moreover make aesthetic judgments based on phonology.  He said the sound of ‘cellar door’ was more beautiful than the sound of ‘beautiful’.  He clearly believed that UNTRANSLATED elvish would do a job that English could not.

Could he have been right?  (…) Tolkien wrote the fiction to present the languages, and he did that because he loved them and thought them intrinsically beautiful.

~ Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth: A Cartographic Plot.

Our Dear Own John Ronald: Riddles

Alive without breath, / As cold as death, /Never thirsty, ever drinking, /All in mail, never clinking.

“Sssss” said Gollum, and became quite polite.  “Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciousss.  It likes riddles, praps it does, does it?”  He was anxious to appear friendly, at any rate for the moment, and until he found out more about the sword and the hobbit, whether he was quite alone really, whether he was good to eat, and whether Gollum was really hungry.  Riddles were all he could think of.  Asking them, and sometimes guessing them, had been the only game he had ever played with other funny creatures sitting in their holes in the long, long ago, before he lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down into the dark under the mountains.

“Very well,” said Bilbo, who was anxious to agree, until he found out more about the creature, whether he was quite alone, whether he was fierce or hungry, and whether he was a friend of the goblins.

“You ask first,” he said, because he had not had time to think of a riddle.

~ J.R.R.T:  The Hobbit: Riddles in the Dark

bilbo and gollum.jpeg

Hobbits (…) ‘have a fund of wisdom and wise sayings that men have mostly never heard or have forgotten long ago’.

Bilbo’s riddle exchange with Gollum actually falls into the latter category, of things forgotten, for the whole idea of testing by riddles, and some of the actual riddles, come from the ancient and aristocratic literature of the Northern world rediscovered in the nineteenth century by Tolkien’s professional predecessors.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, unlike Bilbo’s tend to be ancient ones.  Thus his last riddle, delivered when he thinks ‘the time has come to ask something hard and horrible’, derives from a poem in Old English, the riddle game, or more precisely the wisdom testing exchange, between Solomon and Saturn.  In this, Saturn, who represents heathen knowledge, asks Solomon, ‘What is it that … goes on inexorably, beats at foundations, causes tears of sorrow … into its hands goes hard and soft, small and great?’  The answer given in SOLOMON AND SATURN is, not ‘Time’ as in Bilbo’s desperate and fluky reply, but ‘Old age’: ‘She fights better than a wolf, she waits longer than a stone, she proves stronger than steel, she bites iron with rust: she does the same to us’. (…)

Gollum’s fish riddle (…) is echoed by a riddle set in the Old Norse wisdom contest in THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE (to be edited many years later by Tolkien’s son Christopher), and has a further slight analogue in a medieval poem from Worcestershire which Tolkien admired, LAYAMON’S ‘BRUT’: in this dead warriors lying in a river in their mail are seen as strange fish.  (…)  Gollum’s riddles, cruel and gloomy, associate him firmly with the ancient world of epic and saga, heroes and sages.

But Bilbo can play the game too; though his riddles are significantly different in their sources and their nature.  Three of them (…) come from traditional nursery rhyme.  But where, one might ask, does traditional nursery rhyme come from?  Tolkien certainly had asked himself this question (…).  In 1923 he had published a long version of the familiar ‘man in the moon’ nursery-rhyme, ‘Why the Man in the Moon Came Down too Soon’ (…).  In the same year he published ‘The Cat and the Fiddle: A Nursery Rhyme Undone and its Scandalous Secret Unlocked’ (…).

It may seem surprising that anyone should find nursery-rhymes worth quite so much time and trouble, if it does not quite extend to taking them seriously.  But behind all these rewritings and reminiscences lies the philologist’s conviction that, just as the children’s fairy-tales of elves and dwarves had some long-lost connection with the time when such creatures were material for adults and poets, so modern playground riddles and rhymes were the last descendants of an old tradition.  (…)

The difference [between Bilbo and ordinary people] is that he has not quite lost his grip on old tradition.  Nor, of course, have all ‘ordinary people’.  But they have downgraded old tradition to children’s tales and children’s songs, become ashamed of it, made it into ‘folklore’.  Bilbo and hobbits are in this respect wiser.  [His] unforgotten wisdom puts Bilbo (…) on a level with a creature from the world [of heroic saga and fairy tale] into which he has ventured.

~ Tom Shippey: Author of the Century: The Hobbit: Reinventing Middle-Earth

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Doom

And Doom fell on Tinúviel…

Again she fled, but swift he came.
Tinúviel! Tinúviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.

One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinúviel
That in his arms lay glistening.


Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.

The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings, Book 1, Chapter XI

Tinuviel by Matthew Steward
Tinúviel by Matthew Steward

Neither of these words [‘fate’ and ‘doom’] is used in modern English any more, though phrases like ‘fatal accident’ and ‘doomed to disaster’ survive.  The reason for their unpopularity lies in their etymology.  ‘Fate’ is derived, as the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] says, from Latin fari, ‘to speak’, and means originally ‘that which has been spoken, i.e. spoken by the gods.  It has never been anything but a literary word in English.  ‘Doom’ by contrast is native, the modern pronunciation of dóm, a noun related to the verb déman, ‘to judge’.  It too meant in early times what was spoken, what people said about you (especially once you were dead), but it had also the meaning of a judicial sentence, a law or a decision.  If the king sentenced you to death, that was his ‘doom’, his decision, but of course it was your doom too, your now-determined fate.  Judgment Day, the day at the end of the world when all souls will be tried and sentenced, was accordingly in Old English dómesdæg, ‘Doomsday’, which only strengthend the sense of ‘future disaster’ attached to the word.  However, common to both words,’fate’ and ‘doom’, is the idea of a Power sitting above mortals and ruling their lives by its sentence or by its speech alone.  This sense is completely absent from ‘luck’ or ‘chance’; and with the waning of belief in superior Powers the more neutral words have become the common ones.

In The Silmarillion, though (unlike The Lord of the Rings), the influence of the Valar for good or ill is prominent, so that ‘fate’ and ‘doom’ become once again etymologically appropriate words, to be used frequently and with a complexity which determines the tone of several of its component stories.

Tom Shippey: The Road to Middle Earth, p. 253/254.

Featured: Alan Lee’s watercolor of Tinúviel

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