The Fellowship of J.R.R. Tolkien

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 2009, Tolkien was named #5 on the list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities published by Forbes, earning the bard $50,000,000 that year, a clear sign of his work’s continuing success.
Born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in January 3, 1892, the first son of English citizens Arthur Reuel and Mabel Tolkien (Colin Duriez, InterVarsity Press. J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) Tolkien from Dictionary of Literary Biography. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation.) Tolkien was molded by the events of his day, including the faith of his mother, a devout Roman Catholic. (J. R. R. Tolkien from Wikipedia). Fellowship is, of course, one of the most basic tenets of Biblical 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.
We see can also see clear overtones of the deep Biblical friendship/fellowship of David (future King of Israel) and his dear friend Jonathan in the story-line of Frodo and Sam (and to a lesser degree, Merry and Pippin, Legolas and Gimli). Sam was willing to lay down his life for his friend, and Frodo was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the world. Some have tried to make more of this friendship than the Tolkien intended, but as Proverbs 18:24 points out, “…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.
Another bastion of male fellowship during Tolkien’s day was the men’s club. In those days, the camaraderie of the men’s club was not threatened by ambitious women demanding entrance, nor was it implied to be anything other than a group with 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 club to a sad end. 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.
In 1931, both Lewis and Tolkien went on to form a loose gathering of men which became an informal literary society when Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and Lewis was at Magdalen College. This group called the “Inklings” met at a local pub, The Eagle and Child.
In the chapter titled “Friends and Good Fellowship,” (Jack’s Life – The Life Story of C.S. Lewis, pp 105-106) Douglas Gresham, the step-son of C. S. Lewis wrote, “If you were able to… listen to one of these meetings, the thing you would first become aware of would be how much fun these men were having. They roared with laughter, often at each other’s expense… These men disagreed with one another about almost everything but never grew annoyed or felt slighted by one another.” (Ibid p.108). In a dinner speech Gresham gave in 2005 at the Past Watchful Dragons conference at Belmont University, he reminisced about his youthful hours spent in the English pub that was home to the Inklings. Gresham said he would watch Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends laughing as they smoked and sampled the pub’s brew while they “tore each other’s books to shreds.”
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. (Garth, John Tolkien and the Great War, Boston, Houghton Mifflin 2003, pp.89, 138, 147.) 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. (“Beyond the Lord of the Rings” National Geographic) 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.” (The Lord of the Rings, Preface to the Second Edition.)
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.” (J.R.R. TOLKIEN The Irish Family Provided Courtesy of: Eternal Word Television)
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.” Tolkien: A Celebration : Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy, By John Pearce p 71
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.
January 3 marks the anniversary of the Professor’s birth. Join us in raising a toast to the Professor!
Published in Issue 2 of Silver Leaves: The Journal of the White Tree Fund
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