During summers away from school, J.R.R. Tolkien led a debating society called the TCBS, or “Tea Club, Barrovian Society.” When the horrors of the First World War began, Tolkien considered the mission of the group a holy, prophetic, and, perhaps, even messianic one. He was sure that their fellowship—”The Immortal Four”—would survive even the harshest of circumstances.

From the first moment scholars, biographers, and fans know of Tolkien, they know two things about him. First, he loved languages and myths; and, second, he loved a tight network of friends. His first such network—perhaps the one that shaped him most profoundly—emerged in his upper-school years at King Edward’s classical school in Birmingham. Though he had failed the entrance exam in 1899 at age seven, he passed it a year later, becoming a full-time student in the fall of 1900.[1] After a brief departure from King Edward’s—his mother wanted him to receive a Roman Catholic education, which was at once cheaper and more to her theological understanding and preference—Tolkien returned in 1903 and would remain there until departing for Oxford. It was there that Tolkien became not only an excellent student of languages and literature, but also a fierce and competitive rugby player as well as a debater.

Whether or not he was a good debater, Tolkien persevered, finding much to love in the academic sport. His School Chronicle offers fascinating tidbits as to his interests and abilities. The first is from December 1910.

J.R.R. Tolkien rose, and in a speech attempting to return to something of Saxon purity of diction, (‘right English goodliness of speechcraft’?) deplored before the ‘worshipful fellows of the speechguild,’ the influx of polysyllabic barbarities which ousted the more honest if humbler native words. He finally appealed to the House’s sentiment, recalling the deaths of Harold and Hereward, but lapsed regrettably in his enthusiasm into such outlandish horrors as ‘famous’ and ‘barbarous.’[2]

Two months later, the school paper reported: “J.R.R. Tolkien took the reference to ‘Koh-i-noors in jelly’ as a personal insult, since he was in the habit of wearing a yellow pencil in his mouth.”[3] And, again, at the end of that school year:

J.R.R. Tolkien who spoke next on the Affirmative, poured a sudden flood of unqualified abuse upon Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character.  He declared that to believe that so great a genius arose in such circumstances commits us to the belief that a fair-haired European infant could have a woolly-haired prognathous Papuan parent.[4]

In the fall of 1905, Tolkien developed a close relationship with a boy, Christopher Wiseman, a Methodist who rivaled Tolkien in scholarship as well as in rugby. Each also loved languages, even invented ones.[5] In this, though, Tolkien won, easily. “Other people couldn’t do it,” Wiseman claimed, meaning that one could not keep up with Tolkien intellectually, especially in languages. “They weren’t up in languages like that. They could write excellent Latin verse or Greek prose for the sixth form, but if you were to put a page of Norse in front of them, they wouldn’t be able to understanding a letter, let alone a word, whereas old John Ronald was quite good at the Norse poetry,” Wiseman continued. “Oh yes, oh yes, Tolkien most certainly had been working deeply in Old Norse before leaving King Edward’s school,” and not just Old Norse, but it “and a whole lot of other things like it. This was wandering round half the world—all the languages of Western Europe. Discovering languages of Western Europe is [fascinating], I’d never heard of it before, never expected to hear of again. To be sure,” Wiseman concluded, “Oh yes, he learned it all on his own.”[6]

In 1911, Robert Q. Gilson joined their friendship, and the three of them thought of themselves as a “Tea Club,” meeting covertly in the school library. During the summers, the threesome met at Barrow’s Stores, renaming themselves the Barrovian Society in honor of their physical sanctuary. Later, when producing the School Chronicle, Wiseman listed the friends as TCBS, or “Tea Club, Barrovian Society.”[7] The fourth of the four members, Geoffrey B. Smith, was three years younger than Tolkien, but, as Humphrey Carpenter explained in his excellent biography, served as a critical muse regarding the importance of poetry.[8]

Its own kind of debating society, the TCBS considered almost any question as long as it avoided relationships with girls. “Oh, we [TCBS] discussed everything under the sun except girls I should say. Oh, yes. That was what bound us together. Somehow you felt ‘this chap and I can talk about anything.’” Wiseman later remembered, “And we also shared the philosophy that, number one is at the top. And I don’t know why those things impressed me so that now you’re sitting there and they sort of come out again. But there it is, and I feel sure that I’ve got it right. . . . But as I say, we formed the TCBS because it—when we had a gap in these exam programs we pushed off to Barrow’s stores in order to have some tea.”[9] And, yet, it wasn’t just girls. Though current events were not prohibited, Tolkien avoided them. “I mean to say that Tolkien was a very constructive person, in a narrow line,” Wiseman explained. “You ask him about Norse poetry, he’s bound to get it right. You asked him about Calvin Coolidge, he might quite easily get it wrong.”[10] Still, if Wiseman remembered correctly, Tolkien dominated the discussions, not just because of his personality, but because of his penetrating intelligence and knowledge. “Well, you couldn’t [feel comradeship] with John Ronald. He wasn’t the comrade of anybody except himself. . . . Oh yes, and he deserved it, too.”[11] Several other students at King Edward’s joined the TCBS as well, but Tolkien, Wiseman, Gilson, and Smith remained the core four of the group.[12]

When Tolkien left for Exeter College, Oxford, he maintained his allegiance—perhaps his primary allegiance—to the TCBS. Even when Tolkien formed a new group in college, the Apolausticks, he prioritized the TCBS. Smith, though younger than Tolkien, began to attend Oxford in the fall of 1913, and he and Tolkien became even closer to one another than they already had been.[13] As the members of the TCBS matured and as the world moved into the Great War, the group corresponded with each other, wrote ideas for one another, and held “councils”—that is, summits or retreats of friendship and ideas—when possible. Still, the fear remained that the four might splinter, as Wiseman expressed in a letter to Tolkien in November 1914. In response, Tolkien assured him that he considered their mutual friendship the true pillar of the foursome. Together, they formed “the great twin brotherhood,” Tolkien wrote, “the vitality and fount of energy from which the TCBS derived its origin.” In particular, religion served as their mutual touchstone, despite being of two different denominations.[14]

Whatever divisions might exist—even if just in the minds of a few of its members—the TCBS had purpose, solid and true. Each meeting or council only strengthened the singular purpose of the group.[15] In February 1916, Smith wrote to Tolkien, encouraging him, as the most important of the group, to publish his work as soon as possible. “You I am sure are chosen,” Smith claimed. “Make haste before you come to this orgy of death and cruelty.” After all, he continued, if a bullet should claim his life during the war, the group would remain. “There will still be left a member of the great TCBS 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 TCBS,” he confided in Tolkien. “Death is so close to us now that I feel—and I am sure you feel and all the three other heroes feel, how impuissant life is. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!”[16]

Expressed sharply during the horrors of the first World War, Tolkien considered the mission of the group, a holy, prophetic, and, perhaps, even messianic one. “The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands – a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things,” he explained.[17] God had, Tolkien firmly believed, endowed the TCBS with a special mission and spark. God had bestowed a “spark of fire – certainly as a body if not singly – that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war (which is for all the evil of our own side with large view good against evil).”[18] Possibly, Tolkien continued, the death of one or more of the members of the TCBS due to war only would strengthen the resolve of the survivors to carry out the divine purpose.[19]

Wiseman and Tolkien survived the war, but Gilson died on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. When Smith read of Gilson’s death in the newspaper, he immediately wrote to Tolkien. “I am very tired and most frightfully depressed at this worst of news,” he admitted. “Now one realises in despair what the TCBS really was.”[20] When Tolkien despaired of the fate of the TCBS, Smith reprimanded him. “The TCBS is not finished and never will be.”[21] On December 3, 1916, Smith died of gangrenous complications from wounds incurred from an artillery shell.[22] Wiseman feared that he, Chris, might now be found unworthy of God’s will, and some of Smith’s last words to Tolkien were: “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.”[23]

By Christmas 1916, Tolkien had lost his father, his mother, and two of his three closest friends. As the much noted historian of the twentieth-century, biographer of Winston Churchill, and former colleague of Tolkien’s at Merton College, Sir Martin Gilbert, has argued, Tolkien never recovered from survivor’s guilt, and, like so many of his generation, lived in the haze of shame for not having died during the Great War.[24] However deeply it drove Tolkien to write and create what he wrote and created, we do know that his surviving the Great War never left his memory, his mind, or his soul, to the very end of his days.

Strangely enough, Tolkien’s first published book was not his own, but Geoffrey Bache Smith’s. Entitled A Spring Harvest and dedicated to his mother, Smith’s book appeared in June 1918 from London’s Erskine Macdonald, Ltd. The author’s page simply states:

Geoffrey Bache Smith


October 18th, 1894

Entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford, as Exhibitioner

October 1913

Received Commission

January 1915

Died of Wounds at Warlencourt, France

December 3rd, 1916

Tolkien had not only edited the book, but he had also found a publisher, and he had written the shortest of introductions:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.”—J.R.R.T. 1918

What more could be said?

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Author’s Note: This essay benefits immensely from the definitive work on Tolkien and the TCBS, Tolkien and the Great War, by John Garth.

[1] Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (1977), 24.

[2] “Debating Society,” from KING EDWARD’s School Chronicle, New Series XXV, December 1910, pg. 95, as located in MU JRRT Collection, Series 7, Box 1, Folder 2.

[3] “Debating Society,” from KING EDWARD’s School Chronicle, New Series XXV, February 1911, pg. 9, as located in MU JRRT Collection, Series 7, Box 1, Folder 2.

[4] “Debating Society,” from KING EDWARD’s School Chronicle, New Series XXVI, June 1911, pg. 43, as located in MU JRRT Collection, Series 7, Box 1, Folder 2.

[5] Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (1977), 33, 37.

[6] Interview with C.L. Wiseman, WCWC. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett. Date: January 8, 1987. Location: Milford-on-Sea, England.

[7] Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (1977), 46.

[8] Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (1977), 47.

[9] Interview with C.L. Wiseman, WCWC. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett. Date: January 8, 1987. Location: Milford-on-Sea, England.

[10] Interview with C.L. Wiseman, WCWC. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett. Date: January 8, 1987. Location: Milford-on-Sea, England.

[11] Interview with C.L. Wiseman, WCWC. Interviewer: Lyle W. Dorsett. Date: January 8, 1987. Location: Milford-on-Sea, England.

[12] Scull and Hammond, The JRRT Companion and Guide, 30.

[13] Scull and Hammond, The JRRT Companion and Guide, 52.

[14] Scull and Hammond, The JRRT Companion and Guide, 63.

[15] Scull and Hammond, The JRRT Companion and Guide, 65.

[16] G.B. Smith to JRRT, February 3, 1916, quoted in Scull and Hammond, The JRRT Companion and Guide, 85.

[17] J.R.R.T to G.B. Smith, August 12, 1916, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 5.

[18] J.R.R.T to G.B. Smith, August 12, 1916, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 5.

[19] J.R.R.T to G.B. Smith, August 12, 1916, in Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 5.

[20] G.B. Smith to JRRT, July 15, 1916, quoted in Carpenter, Tolkien, 84.

[21] Quoted in Carpenter, Tolkien, 84.

[22] Scull and Hammond, The JRRT Companion and Guide, 103.

[23] G.B. Smith to JRRT, n.d., 1916, quoted in Carpenter, Tolkien, 86.

[24] Author interview with Sir Martin Gilbert, September 13, 2006, Jonesville, Michigan.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from The Battle of the Somme (1916), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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