Tolkien has been much on my mind in several of the last posts, on account I not only felt a hankering to rewatch the Peter Jackson films — which I did, on DVD, over a couple of weeks of late evenings — but interspersed this with a Downton Abbey marathon provoked by my Cute Engineer, who has a surprising fondness for good schlock. As soap-operas go, I thought it did rather well by the Great War, and that got me thinking about Tolkien’s term of service. (You read in his own commentaries, starkly: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”) What did the war he had been in bequeath to the war he invented? Interested in the particulars, I surfed up this book, described in various reviews as one of the best ever written about the man.
I am about half way through the gently used copy I received almost overnight. Were people ever this naive and earnest? Young Oxonians with fusion-powered minds, arguing passionately over philology and poetry while Europe sleepwalked toward a colossal slaughter: rugby football competing for attention with goblins and fairies, and quiet moments in the trenches occupied with deriving the rules of an invented language.
It was a solitary and shy pleasure, but in fact he discovered he was not the only member of Kitchener’s army engaged in the “secret vice.” One day, sitting through a military lecture “in a dirty wet marquee filled with trestle tables smelling of stale mutton fat, crowded with (mostly) depressed and wet creatures” (as he recalled in a talk on inventing languages), he was exploring the further reaches of boredom when a man nearby muttered, as if in reverie, “Yes, I think I shall express the accusative case by a prefix!” Tolkien tried to prise from the soldier more about this private grammar, but he proved “as close as an oyster.”
I wonder what became of him.