Through the Tea Club he formed with his young classmates, J.R.R. Tolkien felt his first comradery among friends dedicated to something higher than themselves…

tolkien and tcbs

Long before Tolkien began his own personal mythology, he had already lived a rather full life. Joy as well as tragedy had filled it. His father had passed away while Tolkien, Tolkien’s brother Hilary, and their mother returned from their home in South Africa to England in 1896. In 1904, Tolkien’s mother also passed away, and he and his brother came under the paternal care of Father Francis Morgan, a student of Cardinal Newman’s.

While at King Edward’s school, prior to his years at Oxford as a student, Tolkien had befriended and belonged to a number of intimates, who styled themselves the TCBS, The Tea Club and Barrovian Society. They had formed their society as upper-class students, attached to the library of the school. They had been designated “librarians” as an honor, and the several of them created the Tea Club when they began to put their used tea leaves in with the litter to be cleaned by the cleaning staff. Library rules prevented them from drinking tea, but they drank it covertly, revealing themselves only through the leaving of the tea leaves. When term was over and the library no longer a practical meeting place, the members moved to the Barrow’s Stores. Consequently, the Tea Club became the Tea Club, Barrovian Society, or T.C., B.S. [1] “Oh, we discussed everything under the sun except girls, I should say,” one of the members, Christopher Wiseman, explained in a 1987 interview. [2] “That was what bound us together. Somehow you felt ‘this chap and I can talk about anything.’” [3] Though each member was exceptionally gifted, Tolkien was the most so. He often excited his friends with dramatic recitations of Old English poetry and with retellings of the Norse myths. [4] Already, Wiseman remembered, Tolkien astounded the others not just with Greek and Latin but with Norse and other western European languages. [5] In full intellectual manner, the boys could be quite mischievous as well. One member remembered the antics of a play performed at Barrow’s:

We were putting on a performance of Sheridan’s ‘Rivals’ and after a dress rehearsal, somebody (it may well have been JRRT) suggested that the cast should march in full costume up Corporation Street and take tea at Barrow’s Café in full daylight. The procession included the headmaster’s son (R.Q. Gilson) as ‘Capt. Absolute,’ my brother as ‘Bob Acres,’ myself as ‘Lucy’, and believe it or not, JRR Tolkien as ‘Mrs. Malaprop’ in ‘drag’!!! Although the head was a little annoyed, the performance went off very well, and my recollections are that Tolkien ‘stole the show.’” [6]

Through the TCBS, Tolkien felt his first comradery in a group of all males, among friends dedicated to something higher than themselves. They were armed with intellect, talent, and the desire to better the world. It was a powerful action, Tolkien knew, and he certainly never outgrew this youthful enthusiasm for the all-male company or, as Edmund Burke would have described it, his little platoon. For him, however big the TCBS was, there were four members who formed the core: himself, Wiseman, Rob Gilson, and Geoffrey Smith.

In a way, perhaps only for Tolkien himself, their society was considered nothing short of a religious order. He did not believe they were artistic revolutionaries in the ways that Hulme, Eliot, and Pound did, but rather preservers of the best of the past, meant to remind society of all that was good but had been forgotten. God had blessed them with the fire of the intellect, and with that fire, they were charged to “rekindle an old truth in the world,” and to speak on behalf of the Divine will and grace, “to testify for God and Truth,” as Tolkien wrote. [7] Even after departing for Oxford, Tolkien tried to get together with the core of the TCBS as often as possible. During these get-togethers, which would often last entire weekends, the four shared as much poetry and art with one another as possible. They also talked ceaselessly. They became, Wiseman remembered, one person during these meetings. [8] Tellingly, when Smith asked Tolkien the source and inspiration for his Eärendil poetry, he replied, “I don’t know. I’ll try to find out.” [9]

World War I, or “The Great War,” ended the dreams of the Victorians, the Edwardians, the Romantics, and anyone who believed in personal security and autonomy in the western world. It changed everything, allowing weaponized politics under the moniker of ideology to raze empires and kingdoms and to shatter the old world of Western Europe. Where it did not destroy men as physical beings on the battle fields, the killing fields, holocaust camps, and gulags, it introduced systems of conformity, bringing all things under the control of behemoth institutions, whether governmental, educational, or corporately capitalist. Mars, Demos, and Leviathan became the new gods. It had its modern origins, of course, in the insane nationalism and “rationality” of the French Revolution and its many adherents. Under the intellectual and philosophical guidance of men such as Edmund Burke, however, Europe had contained the evils of the French Revolution, at least for a time. By the end of the nineteenth century, the fragile peace established in 1815 was slowly crumbling. Great figures of the mind, such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche arose, casting off much of the Socratic ethos and Ciceronian vision of the western heritage. In their own brilliant pride, each thought of systems perfect and perfectible, thus diminishing the dignity of the individual in the name of science and the supposed good of the whole. Each saw the inheritance of culture as a dead weight to be removed, peacefully or violently, thus each desired the world to begin anew, usually based on some understanding of modern reason and rationality.

Even as a young man, Tolkien fought these new men and their new ideas with everything he had in him. The dignity of the human being would be found in the past of reality, not in some imagined future.

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[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien, 53-54.

[2] Interview with C.L. Wiseman, July 8, 1987, Milford-on-Sea, England. Interviewed by Lyle W. Dorsett, WCWC.

[3] Wiseman interview, July 8, 1987, WCWC.

[4] Carpenter, Tolkien, 54.

[5] Wiseman interview, July 8, 1987, WCWC.

[6] Barnsley, Guildford, Surrey, letter to Amon Hen 13 (October 1974), 12.

[7] Tolkien Letters, 10.

[8] Carpenter, Tolkien, 81.

[9] Carpenter, Tolkien, 83.


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