Finding the Fellowship of the Ring

It is superfluous to point out the profound impact the world has experienced in the 50 years since Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings (October 21, 2004, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first U.S. publication of The Fellowship of the Ring). The timeless classic has been lauded in virtually every tongue both for the books written by J.R.R. Tolkien and more recently the movies produced by Peter Jackson.
In the premier issue of In Fellowship –The Gathering of the Fellowship Journal the question was asked: What does fellowship mean to you? This begs the follow-up question… what did fellowship mean to J.R.R. Tolkien?
Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in January 3, 1892, Tolkien was molded by the events of his day, including the faith of his mother, a devout Roman Catholic. Fellowship is, of course, one of the most basic tenets of Biblical and Catholic doctrine, and the Bible is full of verses showing the importance of fellowship. Indeed, the importance of the regular assembly of a church is stated to not only be for the worship of God, but for the encouraging and unifying of the members through fellowship. The church gathering is the voluntary coming together of individuals for a higher good. The Fellowship and their allies banded together of their own free will to achieve a more noble purpose.

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We see can also see clear overtones of the deep Biblical friendship/fellowship of David and Jonathan in the story-line of Frodo and Sam (and to a lesser degree, Merry and Pippin, Legolas and Gimli), Sam willing to lay down his life for his friend, and Frodo willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the world. Some have tried to make more of this friendship than the Tolkien intended, but Proverbs 18:24 clearly states “…there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” In Tolkien’s time it was not unusual for a man to have a loyal companion, whether it be servant, sepoy… or gardener. Such friendships were deepened by a shared faith or the bonds of war, both of which Tolkien experienced and understood.
In Tolkien’s day the camaraderie of the men’s club was not threatened by ambitious women demanding entrance, nor was it implied to be anything other than shared interests. Tolkien was particularly fond of forming clubs devoted to literature and language. The first club Tolkien formed was the “Tea Club” at King Edward’s School. Tolkien discovered his penchant for poetry through interacting with his “Tea Club” friends. Two of his friends from the “Tea Club” were killed in 1916 during the war, bringing the “Tea Club” to a sad end. In 1926, Tolkien founded a club called the “Kolbitars” at Oxford to read Icelandic myths and sagas. One of the members was C.S. Lewis. Both Lewis and Tolkien went on to join the more famous “Inklings” group which met at a local pub, The Eagle and Child. As Tolkien completed chapters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he would read them aloud to the “Inklings.” Song, story, drink and tobacco were a part of such masculine fellowships… fellowship themes that turn up in the Shire, in Bree and throughout Middle Earth.
World War I broke out while Tolkien was a still student at Oxford University. It was the in trenches of World War I, that Tolkien began recording the horrors of war which would later be manifest in The Lord of the Rings. After finishing his degree, Tolkien joined the Lancashire Fusiliers as a second lieutenant. In 1916, the same year in which he lost his two comrades from the “Tea Club,” Tolkien was sent to France. There he fought in the horrific Battle of the Somme where over a million people were either killed or wounded. In the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote, “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”
Many have debated the impact of war on Tolkien’s works, but no one can seriously refute the fact the war DID have an impact on Tolkien and his writing. There is a fellowship born of war as deep and as sacrosanct as the fellowship found in a church and far more crucial than debates over Icelandic myths. Military men are taught to train, think, and fight as a unit, and their survival often depends on how well they all pull together. These lessons on the importance of “fellows in arms” would have been drilled deeply into Tolkien’s psyche. Indeed, many poems and literary works during Tolkien’s time paid homage to the importance of platonic male fellowship during times of war.
One cannot talk about Tolkien and fellowship without noting the beautiful love Tolkien held for his wife, Edith. Tolkien did not just comprehend the value of male fellowship, but was deeply inspired by the relationship he had with his beloved wife. Much like Tolkien and Edith, Aragorn and Arwen had to wait many years to consummate their deep love. Perhaps an even better example is one of the most romantic tales in The Silmarillion, the story of Beren and Lúthien. Tolkien’s wife Edith was his “Lúthien,” as well as his inspiration as he developed the tale. Much like Aragorn and Beren, Tolkien was younger than Edith (by three years), and he was asked by his guardian, Father Francis Morgan, to not see Edith while he pursued his studies, a request JRR honored for three years. In numerous letters he wrote of his deep love for his wife from the moment they met until her death. On the tombstones of JRR and Edith, one will simply find the words “Beren” and “Lúthien.”
Tolkien would have esteemed fellowship above most things, being taught the value of Christian fellowship, seeking occasions to interact with like-minded men, trained in the disciplines of his military unit, and treasuring until death the fellowship he enjoyed with his wife. He would have understood the value of a worthy band of brothers as well as a crucial military alliance. Tolkien’s writing honors this kind of loyalty and unity and points out the weakened condition of Middle Earth as well as the Fellowship when alliances are broken.
Ultimately, Tolkien’s meditations and private thoughts on fellowship have been played out and made public through the pages of The Lord of the Rings. Naming the first volume Fellowship was no accident, and the luminous themes of faith, camaraderie, alliance, love, and even sacrifice for the greater good are woven into each page of his great story.
In a lecture originally given at St. Andrew’s in Scotland in 1937, Tolkien expressed beautifully the ultimate end of fellowship:
“…in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated the legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.”

This article is dedicated to my father, Col. William A. Darden (deceased). A decorated WWII soldier who often quoted the poems of Kipling, Tennyson, McCrae and others, he taught me much about honor, strength, loyalty and fellowship.

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