Historian and Tolkien scholar John Garth breaks down the historical accuracy of the 2019 biopic about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien simply called Tolkien.
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Dan LeFebvre: At the beginning of the movie, Mabel Tolkien moves her two boys, Hillary and Ronald, or JRR as we know him now, to Birmingham, but we never see a father in the movie. There’s some dialogue that mentions that he’s just gone and the way that the movie phrases it, I’m assuming that he died. Did the movie kind of get the family dynamic correct that basically there’s two Tolkien boys? According to, again, to some dialogue, they were raised in Africa, but then moved to England and essentially raised by a single mother?
John Garth: [00:03:49] Absolutely. Yeah. So, Tolkien was born 1892. In 1894, they came back to England because he could not deal with the climate there.
His mother thought it was bad for his health, so she brought both the boys home, him and his younger brother, and they left their father out the earning, the family living, managing a bank, but before they could return, he died of either rheumatic fever or typhoid fever. It’s not quite certain which.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:04:18] Okay. So he was gone. He had passed away.
John Garth: [00:04:21] He was gone. So the remaining family dynamic was very much Mabel, the mother, was the dominant leading figure in these very formative early years.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:04:33] Was the movie correct in that Mabel called him Ronald instead of John, his first name?
John Garth: [00:04:40] People tended to call him either Ronald or John Ronald. He just didn’t use John.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:04:45] After they move to Birmingham, we see the two Tolkien boys are raised by a single mother until she passes away. And I want to talk about that because in the movie, the way it happens, it’s almost, it’s out of the blue. And when I first saw this, I didn’t expect it to happen.
Right then, like there, the two boys are wandering around town doing whatever it is that that two boys are doing around town. And then they come home and you know, hello mother. And then Hillary goes further into the house and, and Ronald notices that. His mom isn’t moving and then he just holds her and cries.
It almost seems like, you know, they weren’t, they weren’t expecting it. It was out of the blue is very unexpected.
John Garth: [00:05:26] This is like a Twitter summary of a family tragedy. What really happened was that she fell ill in 1903. So when Tolkien was 11. And it went on for some time, two boys were sent to stay with relatives elsewhere because she was in hospital.
When she came out of hospital, she was given some way to live in a retreat that I imagine we’ll come to the question of the Birmingham Oratory and the priest who became the boy’s guardian. But he helped with a place to live where she could convalesce from her illness. But she died late in that year.
So, it was not without warning, it was not in urban Birmingham. In fact, the priest, father Francis Morgan, was present. And I believe a sister was present at the time of the death. I’m not aware the boys were.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:06:27] You mentioned father Francis. Based on your answer right there, I’m assuming he was really in their lives. But I was curious what role he played because in the very beginning of the movie they moved from a countryside that–I don’t remember the movie ever specifying where and that kind of countryside they lived before Birmingham–but then he helped give them a place to stay there. And then after Mabel passes away, he helps the boys move into a foster home with somebody named Mrs. Faulkner in the movie. So what kind of role did Father Francis play in the Tolkien family?
John Garth: [00:07:05] Originally, he arrived on their doorstep as part of his priestly duties; just keeping up with the community, communicating with local people. But this, if I remember rightly, was once they moved into Birmingham, so she, Mabel would have been feeling somewhat, I see it as single mother, two sons in a new, more urban area.
Not quite as urban and industrialized as the area is depicted in the movie where it looks like something out of Peaky blinders or Charles Dickens. So he, father Francis, provided her with some kind of connection, I think, with a sense or community, the Birmingham Catholic community.
And. Probably ways of making sense of the tragedy, which it had already struck, which was the loss of her husband and the boy’s father. So they settled in and he remained a friend and became a closer friend. And by the time she had died, she had asked him to become the boys guardian. Now there is on record, and again, we’ll probably talk about this, a famous moment where Father Francis forced young Ronald Tolkien to relinquish something he cared deeply about.
And yet, it would be false to think that Father Francis was a remote or steer stiff figure, which I, I think the film tends to give that impression somewhat. Tolkien called him my second father and was deeply grieved,h when he died in the mid 1930s. He was a, he was a very genial, funny man who liked to perform an amateur dramatics as a, as a kid.
I think actually that’s one thing that he had in common with talking telco and love, that kind of thing too. When he was at school, he was very good at that. He stole the show in school school productions.
I almost got that. He was, you know, of a fatherly figure where he was trying to. Be that person that he didn’t have in his life anymore.
So it’s interesting that even though the movie obviously didn’t get it 100% correct, but that he was there and that he was kind of filling some of that
role. It’s certainly in the, in the ballpark that, there were more complications and I, and I don’t blame the, the film makers for, for cutting to the chase.
So, you know, before they moved into Mrs. Fulton, as they were other places where, first of all, they were launched with an aunt. And actual relative. They were very, very unhappy. and it was only when father Francis took the boys on holiday and they were able to spend some time together that it became clear to him that they were very unhappy in those lodgings.
And so he moved them out. So he was a very caring caring man.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:10:17] That leads us then into Mrs. Faulkner. Cause you mentioned her. So then she was also a real part of their lives as well.
John Garth: [00:10:26] Yeah. Mrs. Fulton was the landlady in Duchess road in Birmingham. and I suppose the most crucial encounter in Tolkien’s life, which was with the woman who would later marry, Edith Bratt.
She was three years older than him and a talented and quite beautiful young woman. That PNS and there’s something in the film, an indication of the kind of problems she had. Where her talents were both appreciated and underappreciated by mrs Folcnor. He wanted her to play the piano at her soirees, but wouldn’t approve of her practicing.
So Edith had been to a school that specialized in music, and had some reason to think that this, this might take us out of it.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:11:16] Did. Yeah, I think I remember they were talking about that at one point that she went to one at one of their club meetings, I think it was, and she was talking about how she never gets to, she never gets to talk about music.
She never gets to talk about that. She just practices and she’s just, she’s just there with, with Mrs. Faulkner, she’s just there, but she doesn’t
John Garth: [00:11:38] really need to practice it right. Yes. I think that that’s an accurate sense portrayal of a sense of discontent about stage. There’s no evidence she actually met and spoke to the other members of the TCVs at that stage, talking, talking school clique.
But I suppose, you know, if you’ve got to dramatize these things, that’s, a logical way of doing it without expanding the cost too much.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:12:03] You gotta fit it in somewhere, I
John Garth: [00:12:04] guess. Yeah.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:12:06] And according to the movie, once talking to sent to King Edward’s school, we see that he is gifted with language and we kind of get this first indication of it in the movie.
When the teacher pronounces his name, “toll-cane” or something like that and Ronald corrects him. It’s Tolkien. But then the rest of the class struggles with Chaucer and talking doesn’t even need to read it. He just recites it. He does it very, very well. So what was he good at? Languages even before school at a young age.
John Garth: [00:12:43] He was already in the venting languages. He recalled when he was seven or eight. Now, quite what level those languages were. It is an unknown. All the evidence suggests that they would have been nothing like the languages he invented later for which the, which helped him to become famous languages of the Lord of the rings.
Because early on he didn’t have the same. Interests and expertise in languages that he developed when he arrived at school. One of the first things he did, it seems that he had stopped learning Greek when he was 10, and it inspired him to try to invent a language that captured the quintessence of Greek, the Greekness of Greek, the sounds, the characteristic sounds, the music of that language.
And that’s the kind of thing that Tolkien became very adept at, and very passionate about. And in fact, he was introduced to Chaucer, middle English and two old English by one of the school teachers that came out with school. So the, by implying that he already knew these things when he arrived at that school that isn’t indeed misleading,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:13:57] obviously now we know he’s was a a master at creating languages.
Do we know just kind of overall how many he created?
John Garth: [00:14:07] This is. One of those impossible questions in the sense that, how do you define a whole language? Any attempt to map the extent of English obviously is perpetually chasing a moving target, right? A narrow form stationary is trying to do that job now talking invented to Elvish languages in great depth and he invented a history of their development.
They all related. He worked out exactly how they’re related, how sound changes would develop one language or the other in certain directions. And they also carry the imprint of the culture that speaks to them. And so those are very richly developed languages. And I don’t think there’s anything else like them.
In creative history, I, I, you know, nevermind. Dothraki you know these are just done in a, in a league of their own. He sketched other languages that we have encountered in Lord of the rings, the black speech, the orcs of model, for example, or the dual of the dwarves. He sketched those, I think, very, very lightly.
Really, they were just there to give some flavor to a culture
Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:25] just for the story’s sake, but not necessarily to dive deep into the languages themselves.
John Garth: [00:15:30] Right. Those are probably more on the level of, of, you know, invented language, like, like Dothraki, or the LA pine rabbit’s speech of Watership down in 1970s novel about rabbits in the vein as a Lord of the rings, which are highly recommend.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:15:45] I have to check that one out. I can’t say I’ve heard of that one. But earlier you mentioned the kind of secret society, the cluck that he was a part of. And so I’m assuming since you, you mentioned it earlier, that it was actually a thing, and according to the movie, it’s called the tea club and Barrovian society or TCBs, and it included a token rubber Gilson, Christopher Wiseman and Jeffrey Smith.
was that. Kind of dynamic with those four friends? Pretty, I mean, from what you recall, pretty accurate as far as the movie is concerned and that there’s kind of secret society wanting to whisk away and, and talk about various literature and music
John Garth: [00:16:29] and things. It’s a simplification and an approximation.
So, in the first instance, yes, this club was formed for trivial and social reasons, and it was fun. And they brewed tea in the school library, which was strictly forbidden because of course, they didn’t have electric kettles in those days. So this presumably meant using a Bunsen burner or something.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:16:53] Starting a fire in the library.
John Garth: [00:16:56] Yes, yes. And
Dan LeFebvre: [00:16:58] then
John Garth: [00:16:58] outside school to the local department store, which was called Barrows stores. And so they gave themselves this jokey, mock, pompous title, the Barrovian society. Right? that’s, that’s the kind of atmosphere they had. There were something like, there was a vague membership, perhaps nine, perhaps 12, something around those numbers.
And then this was in the very last year, that talking was at school, and then he went to Oxford and others went to Cambridge in the next few years. Oxford and Cambridge is a big places that you would go to from that kind of school to study at university level. The club, the TCDs persisted. During the next three years as a social group where old friends would get together and meet and essentially crack jokes.
Now, when the war broke out in 1914 the dynamic did change massively because I think talking and Wiseman in particular felt the need to come together. We’re closest friends and taught meaningfully, so they kicked out. Older people that they saw as hangers-on, and that left just the four that you’ve named Smith being a relative latecomer.
Incidentally, he wasn’t there in the original group and at all, and under the shadow of war, they became, they delist. They thought that the world had run into obvious and terrible problems and they thought that the problems of the world were reflected in its art. Thank you, chair. It’s drama and so on that these things were in decline and they thought that they collectively might be able to make a difference for the better with their own creative work.
And told him was the spearhead of all that. And I think probably the inspiration of it all. So at the outbreak of that war, he started writing. The very first material that we can relate to what became middle earth. And those three friends of his essentially became the first middle earth fans. Now, one of the sad things about the movie, and I don’t know whether this was because of copyright reasons, but I suspect it was, is that there is no genuine flavor of the things that talking was creating at the time.
So that, you know, you could have had scenes where he was reading aloud from some of the stuff about middle earth that mentions recognizable names that they, they didn’t do that.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:19:33] Well. There was, there was one point, and this was something I wanted to touch on briefly, a point where we saw Tolkien studying old books in the library.
This is after he started studying under professor. Right? so I, it would be at Oxford. What we see as he’s, he’s writing in his notebook. We constantly see that he’s writing in his notebook and, we can see two words that he writes feely and Keely, which of course are recognizable names,
John Garth: [00:19:58] right? So, so what you’ve actually got there, you’ve got some slight of hand in that Sealy and Keeley are not names invented by talking.
Then names from, from old Norse literature. So, and he, he almost certainly did encounter those names at that time as an undergraduate, possibly slightly earlier at school, along with names like Thorin and dwelling and so on. These are all names from, from Norse mythology. They found their place in his creativity, not then, but when he was writing the Hobbit, which she began in the late 1920s so many years later, so he would’ve had cools to be writing that down as an undergraduate, but not for those reasons.
So there, there is, there is a real problem for the filmmaker who wants to make everything connect up. That’s a show, you know, the signups is leaping to show connections between their experience and the famous stuff. That talking road and that severe problem is that there was a significant gap years and years between these experiences, which are really vital and formative and the famous things that that tell game published in his lifetime, the Hobbit and the Lord of the rings.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:21:11] Well before we go into that and kind of into the, the war itself too, we’ve touched on it briefly. We talked about father Francis and we talked briefly about, about Edith, but like you mentioned earlier, father Francis did suggest that he has nothing more to do with Edith essentially at that point, because Ronald’s going to go off to Oxford and Edith ends up getting engaged to somebody else.
But then, and this is, this is what I’m, I’m curious about. And then as as token goes off to war, he runs into Edith and EDA talks about her fiance, but then. case, they express their love for each other, and it almost seems like Edith just forgot the person that she was engaged with and come back to me live.
And you know, it’s one of those, obviously a Hollywood moment. but I was just curious kind of how that dynamic played between, Ronald and Edith,
John Garth: [00:22:09] I think if that had actually happened in their real lives than a movie would have been made of it a lot earlier because it plays into Hollywood so nicely.
I’m in the scene, the scene of their reconciliation. They’re out in the street and they end up embracing kissing. And I’ve seen that scene in breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve seen that scene at the end of, four weddings and a funeral. We know what playbook that is out. All right. so what actually happened was radically different.
And I suppose as a biographer, this is one of my primary gripes with the movie, but also, frankly, with the habits of filmmakers whenever they announced that, you know, this film is inspired by a true story, right? Here’s what happened. father Francis, he didn’t suggest, he strictly told, talking that he must not communicate with Edith Bratt at all.
And that meant three years before he became an adult, which in those days meant turning 21. They meant he was no longer his Guardian’s responsibility and he was free to do as he wished at that point. He wrote to Edith and renewed his declaration of love to her, and she. Floyd in either that is saying, I’m engaged to be married now in the movie, talking goes off and gets drunk, starts spouting uninvented invented language.
This attracts the attention of professor Joe, right? And talking switches to the English undergraduate course and so on and so on, and then it rolls on in the war breaks out. In reality. What happened was, yes, he switched to English course at about that same time, but there’s no connection with the Edith situation.
He didn’t get drunk and go ranting at night in Elvish or whatever it was. He wrote her a letter, said, I’m coming to meet you. You went and met her and they walked and taught for an afternoon, and by the end of the day, she had committed to him. This was 1913. The war broke out in 1914. When he left on the troop ship, it was 1916 and, the end, at the end of may, start of June.
they were already married by that time. They married in March, 1916. So you can see that there’s been some creative redistribution of information,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:24:30] just slightly, but I guess it’s not as fun to see on screen. Somebody writing a letter.
John Garth: [00:24:35] No. But you know, personally, now I, I’m not a filmmaker, obviously.
if I were a filmmaker, I wouldn’t be sitting writing books, which don’t make as much money. Some of the things that talking pulled off are quite extraordinary, and I think simply. The idea of turning up and talking someone out of a marriage. It’d be a challenge for a screenwriter, but a really fascinating one to my mind.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:24:59] Yeah. I imagine that would be quite a bit of dialogue that it’d be really hard to do, but if a filmmaker could pull that off, it would be that much more impressive.
John Garth: [00:25:07] One of the things that the movie does, which I find strange, but you know, maybe it’s one of those formula things, is that it steals from talking.
A lot of his spirit and Verve and drive and self, an extraordinary conviction in himself. The kind of thing that prompted him to get in straight back in touch with her and then go and talk her around. so you know, to too, that with going out and getting drunk and ranting in the middle of the college at night, you see exactly what I mean.
And there are other examples of this. It’s good. I think that the movie has tried to engage with tokens, passion for languages, and for inventing languages. And yet, you know, the key seem when he talks about it and how it relates to story telling, it’s Edith who is leading the conversation and coaxing it out of a very reticent or reluctant Tolkien.
Of, we weren’t there. We’re not flies on the wall. We can’t know whether anything remotely like that happened, but it just seems to me to detract from the personality of talking. As I understand it.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:26:25] You mentioned earlier, professor Joseph, right? When I was watching the film, it seemed like he was very much kind of pushing him to, you know, it’s more than just words.
It’s more, you know, it’s, the sound is, it’s a, it’s a culture. It’s more than just. Words that you speak, who was professor writes and did he kind of have that much of an effect on, on talking’s love of languages?
John Garth: [00:26:50] Oh, he did. Absolutely. So he was, he was a phenomenal figure. He was born from very working class circumstances and taught himself to read, I think, by, by reading the Bible upside down, as it was sitting on someone else’s lap.
Wow. You know, so he’d be facing the person who had the Bible open on their lap, and he was learning to read upside down that way. And he learned a phenomenal number of languages. And if he were. A language student in those days, a student of medieval languages, which was a vital part of language study. In those days, the odds were you would be using books that were written by Joseph.
Right. And Tolkin had, so while he was still at school, he had got himself writes Gothic primer, you know, a beginners teach herself. Gothic. Gothic was at language that became extinct in the early middle ages. The talking love, the sound of it. And he tried to invent a language that captured the Gothic NUS of Gothic.
Now he encountered right early in his Oxford student Korea. So again, this idea that Wright discovered him midway through his ultimate time is not true in the came a friend of the family, and we’d go around for Sunday dinner with, with Joseph, right on Joseph Wright and his wife Elizabeth. Mary. Right.
They both knew a lot about folklore as well, so she had written a book that came out about language and folklore came out while talking was a, an Oxford undergraduate and was going around for Sunday dinner, and they, I’m sure, would have spoken with talking about that. And that idea, that language and legend all entwined together would have been an undercurrent.
And talking said that, Hey, personally talking made that discovery, that language and legend were interdependent when the first world war broke out. so I think probably given due credit is certainly felt like his discovery to him, and that’s what propelled him to take one of his invented languages and create a people to speak it, and a world in which it was to be spoken.
The elves and middle earth.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:29:04] So much creativity. It’s so fascinating to me. I’m very, very impressed. Adds, speaks to why it’s, it’s still, we’re still talking about it today.
John Garth: [00:29:12] Yes, it does. Indeed. although I would say that talking’s real life and the dimensions of sadness and tragedy and loss weighed up against, you know, the joys of friendship and growing up in a small country village in England and so on.
All of that. His work, the human touch, if you like, you know, the, the, the thing that gets you in the heart.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:29:37] Well, the movie kind of plays on some of that too. It doesn’t really come out and show, like you mentioned earlier, it doesn’t really come out and show specific characters from middle earth. But there’s like one scene where talking is, is on the battlefield and he sees fire and it’s, it’s a dragon breathing fire.
And then, you know, it turns out it’s German flame throwers. And we also, you know, see maybe like a massive shadowy figure in the sky that the movie doesn’t say it, but it’s the necromancer or sour on, right. So. Kind of implies those things, and I know this is kind of going to be kind of a loaded question, but can you kind of give an overview of some of talking’s experiences during world war one that might have influenced some of the characters or places in his stories later on?
John Garth: [00:30:25] That’s a huge question. So, you know, I give, I give, I give a hour long talks on that subject, sometimes longer. The first and most obvious and immediate effect is that straight after the battle of the Somme, a Tolkien sat down and wrote a story called the fall of , in which golden Dillon is, is a fabulous, beautiful.
City of the owls, which then craft and skill. and, but, and it’s destroyed by a ravenously materialistic tyrant who is in terms of Lord of the rings. He’s actually sour on his boss, who by the, by the time the Lord of the rings happens, this figure more golf has, has gone off stage. So he’s essentially talking Satan figure, and he sends an invading army to destroy this health and city.
And leading the assault are things that talking describes as monsters or beasts or dragons. And yet he describes them very unlike the way he describes, say, smell the dragon in the Hobbit. These dragons, they are metallic. They roll over things over obstacles, but some of them open up and troops climb out.
And it seems to me that it can be no coincidence that given that this is written in, I think early 1917 no coincidence that in September, 1916 so just a fairy few months earlier. Britain’s secret weapon, the town unleashed in the battle of the Somme, a device for rolling over things, for crushing, for carrying troops inside it.
And the reaction to that, that secret weapon was to, to compare it to monsters. They compared it, the newspapers gossipers, and soldiers, compared it to. Story, monsters, mythical monsters. So talking was, was adapting that point, I think very clearly now in other terms, I think when talking, talking about subterranean scene, like in Moria and the Lord of the rings, where the whole thing is accompanied by the sound of some kind of signals, drums beating, well, first of all, talking was a signals officer, right?
So that was his job. And whenever you see, you see signals in the Lord of the rings, you can see that he’s, it’s part of the fabric of Wars. He knew it. Now these drumbeats in Moria, it’s, he says it’s as if the whole of the labyrinth thing, tunnels had been turned into one vast drum. So these things are visceral, and I think that talking’s there is tapping into his memory.
Of the fear of sitting inside, dug the hole in the ground while artillery is bursting overhead. Right. And equally in the idea of of tunnels where the enemy might come around the corner and thrust his spear at you. Well, he lived that. You know, at any point, in his four mounts on the Psalm and in those trenches, German soldiers could have appeared with their bayonets and been trusting them at you.
And then of course, you know, in more abstract terms, we’ve got the idea of heroes developing from, you know, not very brave, not very imaginative people into people who can take the weight of responsibility and do the necessary deed no matter how terrifying. Tolkien played his cards close to his chest in terms of his influences, but he did say once, something very telling about Sam Gamgee and it depended who was talking to how Frank and open he was about this kind of thing.
He said to a fellow veteran of the first world war, my Sam Gamgee, as you recognize. Is a reflection of the privates and my bat up that I knew in the first war and recognize as so far superior to myself. Now a Batman is, is a to for a, obviously not, I’m a superhero in this instance, but, an office servant.
So. The soldier, and he was a fully active soldier as well. who would assist the officer with, you know, running errands, making sure he got the food he needed, shining his shoes, doing, taking that kind of stuff. So really quite like the, the photo and Sam, relationship. that’s where you have the most explicit acknowledgment of influence from the first world war.
Now, in terms of the movie we see talking with another soldier, we are to assume as he’s Batman, his servant, and I call him Sam. we don’t know if talking is Batman. It sounds like he had several. there is points in the wall. We don’t know if any of them were called Sam. I doubt that Sam Gamgee as a portrait of a single,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:35:40] more of an amalgamation of just kind of the role itself, kind of telling of the role, not a single person.
John Garth: [00:35:46] That’s absolutely right. Yeah. And then there’s the landscape, the landscape of the dead marshes in the Lord of the rings where, you know, the travelers go through and they see dead faces under the water. And this was something that you could see in the battle of the Somme once it rained in the autumn and waterlogged and the corpses that had been.
Unrecoverable because they were out in no man’s land. w w ended up lying there on under water
Dan LeFebvre: [00:36:12] and thanks. Thanks for sharing all those. Those are, fascinating this kind of see how the experiences during world war one would have, would have impacted the, the stories themselves. one thing I did want to touch on, kind of circling back to, to the movie.
We see that talking gets sick in the trenches, and it’s kind of a, it’s kind of bouncing back and forth. So the movie almost starts off with this and the trenches and then bounces back and forth between kind of flashbacks almost. But in world war one, while he’s in the trenches, this, there’s a soldier with him, Sam Hodges, who they kind of go off to try to find Jeffrey Smith.
But then at one point Hodges goes off and tries to find Smith by himself and talking. He’s left there ill in the trenches and it almost looks like he’s just left there to die. Like he’s, he’s, he’s almost going to die. Did he actually get sick in the trenches?
John Garth: [00:37:11] No,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:37:13] completely fictional. Nice.
John Garth: [00:37:15] He got sick off to the trenches.
He fell sick. He was involved in. Talking’s final military operation was in October 21st of October, 1960s, Italian attacked and seized an enemy trench. It was very cold. no doubt he was already susceptible to illness at that time because he’d been out there for four months. the living conditions were pretty poor.
The food wasn’t great. most of all, there were lice everywhere. So the lice would infest your uniform. and you’d spend time sitting around the fire trying to pop the light in that, that lived in the seams of a uniform. They were called chats. That was chat was the dialect name for lice. And because soldiers were.
Cool this chatting. They’d sit around the fire chatting. This is where we get our word for conversation, chatting by language creation and action.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:38:12] I like our version of chatting now rather than, that must have been like,
John Garth: [00:38:15] yeah, so what happened was he, he, along with the rest of the battalion, were them withdrawn from the trend is when, into a few days of rest and parades where they were awarded various, they were congratulated by generals and whatever, and talking
Then, so he just made it through and then he fell. So the idea that he was suffering some kind of fever dream or whatever’s going on in the movie, there’s no evidence for that whatsoever. The idea that he wanted to find his friends Smith at various points was certainly true. The idea that he would have deserted his post as a battalion signals officer to do so.
I certainly not true. And he would have been, goodness knows, house of very disciplined for doing that. You know, they executed people for, for desertion of posts, you know,
Dan LeFebvre: [00:39:07] not something he would’ve done.
John Garth: [00:39:08] No. So, so, you know, the idea of talking, seeing these visions, I don’t, I don’t personally think that’s the way his creativity worked.
Maybe. Maybe. I mean, he did the. Well, he succumbed to was trench fever. So there were theories, especially during the, the next few weeks and on and off. It was a chronic that is a recurrent condition on and off through the remainder of the war, he ran into periods of fever and for someone very imaginative, of course, that that would have meant that he was having extremely vivid dreams, and who knows what he dreamt about, but his creativity was, was also a matter of conscious imagination and crafting.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:39:47] Well, one thing that it kind of, towards the end of the movie, Tolkien is in the, in the hospital, and Edith is there. This is after his, his illness, but she delivers the bad news that Jeffrey passed away. he was killed as well as a Robert Gilson. He was hit and he was also killed. But then later we find out that, Christopher Wiseman survived.
But then talking later says something that, you know, some of us who survived have other sorts of scars. what, what actually happened to those four? I mean, we know, obviously talking survived, but did a Gilson and Smith die in world war one and Wiseman survive?
John Garth: [00:40:25] Yes. That’s a lot here. It’s like everything else really.
You know, you’ve got the ingredients and they’ve been tipped into something and then given a really, really, really thorough sta. So RO, Rob Gilson died on the first day of the Psalm leading his men over the top into no man’s land. Talking, learned of that from Smith. And that was a terrible shock, which talking to quite some time to process.
And he wrote a letter to Smith where he said, you know, honestly, I think the TCBs is ended because that idea that they could have a common purpose seem to him to be shattered by the fact that we’re one of them that had already been killed. So how could, how could that be? Smith survived the whole of the battle of the Somme.
And then after it was over, He was hit. He was way behind the lines, not four miles away from the, from the enemy organizing of the football match for his man. A stray shell burst near him. An artillery shell, a fragment got into his thigh and he came down with gangrene and died three days later.
Wiseman is the one who told, talking about this, a Wiseman wrote him a letter about, he’d seen it in the papers. Wiseman had a happy war. He was in the Navy. He was way away, wrong the trenches. He spent most of his time in the Orkney islands, North of Scotland, which was a big Naval base at that point, training young men for the Navy, and he enjoyed himself.
He certainly didn’t come out of it, silenced and traumatized, which the film seems to imply. I know, honestly, this, this comes to my, my second big gripe with the movie, and I’m probably this, this would apply to Hollywood adaptations and Hollywood is too narrow term screen adaptations per se. So great liberties are taken and when the facts are least generally known, the liberties are greater because the stakes seem lower to the filmmakers.
So obviously if the filmmakers had said something woefully inaccurate about talking, like he’d lost a leg or something, then of course the F anyone knows anything about talking nausea, two legs. They couldn’t do that. Right. But they certainly. Have rewritten the personalities of Roque, Gilson and GV. Smith Smith in reality was quiet and a cervic, funny, forthright character who took no nonsense from anyone.
Very, very clever indeed. Rob Gillson was sociable, but extremely gentle. I mean, his idea of a great night was to sit down and do some tapestry work, and I think they’ve given, given his personality to Smith. And that’s a shame, I think. And I think it’s a shame because these were real people. These were real people who are, aren’t able to speak up for themselves now, and there’s a biographer, I sat and I spent a lot of time reading their letters, the letters they wrote, talking in Gilson’s case, I met all the letters that he wrote home from the trenches, so his family and to his sweetheart.
And it was incredibly moving and doing that. You feel as if you’re getting to know these people as a friend. You know, you can say you feel kind of intimately connected with them. While. Being very conscious that you never actually be able to stand up with them in conversation because they were so much better educated than you are than I am.
Right. yeah. I think it’s a great shame to take the second league characters in history and just use them Willy nilly in whatever way you like. And this goes also for Smith’s mother. So, in the film we see Smith’s mother is, in British terms, an upper middle class lady and very well educated, very well spoken, who has little sympathy with her son’s desire to be a poet.
This was spot Smith wanted to do and talking has to beg to let him edit Smith’s poetry and publish it. In fact, Ruth Smith, poor woman, she lost. Jeffery in December, 1916 and his older brother, Roger, in January, 1917 Tucson, she later went blind. she was desperate for a son to be allowed, allow to speak.
She asked talking if he would edit her son’s poems immediately. It was her first thought. What can we do to make sure that Jeffrey’s legacy lives. So I think those things are a pity. But I mean, understandably, filmmakers are thinking about box office receipts rather than pleasing. You know, the bloke who wrote the book talking in the great war?
Dan LeFebvre: [00:45:16] Well, yeah, I can see how maybe from a filmmaker’s perspective, they’re trying to, I mean, the movie is called Tolkien, so they’re trying to push him to be kind of the driver behind a lot of the storyline. Even if. In reality, he wasn’t.
John Garth: [00:45:30] Well, yeah, but it’s certainly true that he, he basically edited what Wiseman and talking edited Smith’s poetry.
I don’t understand, honestly why it’s better to, to show conflict between him and Smith’s mother over that. Yes. I suppose the filmmakers are already probably say it’s better to show conflict anyway you can because conflict is story. I guess I would say if they. That element, then they have more screen time for developing other ideas.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:46:01] Well, they don’t, to my knowledge, they didn’t even mention that her other son passed away, and that’s certainly could have been something added to it. That would have been a different sort of conflict. Right. Where she’s battling those emotions of losing two, two children within a span of just a few months.
John Garth: [00:46:19] Yeah.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:46:20] Is there, is there anything in the movie that. You just wish that they didn’t, they just completely omitted from tokens life that you wish that they had included.
John Garth: [00:46:30] The key thing that I think they miss out is the fact that talking started writing straight spurred on by his war experiences. There was a very common phenomenon where soldier writers had a fairly productive time during the war.
And that was a struggle to find a ways of talking about this very new kind of war. But then there was a silence that followed the war, and it lasted approximately a decade, and it was broken by books like all choirs on the Western front, which gave a very bleak and unheroic depiction of the war. So there was a kind of silence, and you might say that all those writers were, were silenced by their experience.
Talking, started writing immediately and pretty much kept it up as far as he could in between being a father of a growing family and an extremely ambitious and successful young academic. The problem is that for the, for the film rights filmmakers to show that. They would have been talking about stuff that was not, the Hobbit was not Lord of the rings.
and as I said before, they may be had to think about copyright stuff too. I think the overriding impression that we get is that Tolkien, like the kind of the cliche of the first world war, a soldier was silenced by trauma, when in fact, I think that. In all probability, create a drive, helped him come to terms with the experiences and deal with whatever trauma he felt not to have to add.
There’s no diagnosis that talking suffered from war trauma.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:48:29] It’s understandable that he, it sounds like, you know, before the war he was. Expressing, you know, with languages and, and coming up with, with languages and, and kind of building that, that backstory there. But then it’s hard to imagine, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be in something like, you know, the great war.
And so it, it’s almost impossible to imagine how you could come out of that and not be, not be so heavily influenced by it and not have that be a, you know, if you’re a writer and if you’re, if you’re. Languages, necklace, what talking’s passion is, that’s going to be how he gets that out. Like how he tries to deal with that.
And I could definitely understand how that would be the case.
John Garth: [00:49:13] Absolutely. I mean, I, I think when people are being helped to deal with post traumatic stress disorder, which is, you know, our current name for what they used to call shell shock, creativity can play a really helpful part. You know, music craft and so on.
And I think, yeah, that’s what talking was partly driven by and driven by the demons, if you like. he’s, he sometimes referred to his creativity as a way of exercising nightmares.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:49:41] One last question I had as far as the movie is concerned, cause at the very end it, it implies very heavily that the, the TCBs was more than a brotherhood.
I was more than friends. They were a fellowship. Which to me is like, okay, well then, then the TCBs was kind of like the fellowship of the ring that what were the good guys making it through all this, the, the evils of world war one was the TCBs the inspiration for the fellowship of the ring.
John Garth: [00:50:14] So there were four hobbits and a little of the rings that are full members of the TCBs, and it’s a very logical question to ask whether those specific people inspired the specific hobbits.
And I think the answer to that is probably no. I them identify and and I’ve read everything that you know, is, is on record that these people, these people have a wrote down. I can’t really identify, you know, particular markers that would connect one with, with any, any one of the hobbits on an mg. There is, you know, a rustic, working clause at Gardner, but just doesn’t fit into the TCPS social costs whatsoever.
I think the way it worked is that talking knew what it felt like to have dear, dear friends who were somewhere else in the theater of war, and to wonder what was going on with them and to the clinging onto the hope that they were still alive and well, of course, if he’d been a more ruthless and realist writer in the kind of modernist way, he would have killed some of those hobbits.
To match that experience more fully. The fact that he didn’t, however, I think is probably a reflection of the impact of those deaths on it. So it’s great to see a movie that reaches out to people who aren’t big readers of nonfiction, so that they can have the door flung open to the experiences that helped inspire talking’s creativity.
So his first world war experiences, his early friendships. His relationship with the woman who became his wife, and the film is obviously made with passion, is made with considerable craft, especially for a film with a relatively low budget. It’s quite amazing what they put on screen. It’s very beautiful to look out.
It sensitively act, acted. I hope. Above all, obviously that it does make the people who see it want to find out more, so that they can then learn the true story of how those experiences worked and affected his writings
Dan LeFebvre: [00:52:26] very well. So that’s something that. Really one of the reasons why I started this particular podcast, kind of going into some of that because of, you know, authors and biographers, such as yourself, that have done so much fantastic work, and people just assume that, Oh, the movie is correct and this is, this is what happened.
And so I think it’s great to be able to pull open your book and dive into it in much more depth than, and learn the truth.
John Garth: [00:52:54] There’s a little bit more, which is this. I love some films that I know are very inaccurate. So Amadeus, about the life of Mozart and Lawrence of Arabia, these are, these are hugely powerful films.
They works of art. I think they stand up extremely well. If I were a die hard Mozart fan or, or a Lawrence of Arabia biographer, I might have big issues with them. I don’t know. I don’t know their lives so well. And there, there are many film theory of everything, Stephen Hawking and the Alan Turing film
Dan LeFebvre: [00:53:31] imitation game,
John Garth: [00:53:32] the imitation game, where.
I watched the movie, I enjoy it, of Bohemian Ramstein as another one. And then I, I go to Wikipedia and I, and I see, Oh, so that didn’t happen. Oh, so that didn’t happen. Oh, why did they do that? You know. Because to me, life is compelling. Otherwise I wouldn’t be a biographer.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:53:54] Yeah, no, that’s exactly, it does a, I’ve covered Bohemian Rhapsody and imitation game and some of those.
Yeah. So that’s essentially why I started this podcast was just try to dig into that more, but also to, to open the door more, to, to connect between, you know, beyond Wikipedia, you know, beyond, you know, into, people such as yourself who have done such amazing work. And just. Dive into into depth and allow people to, to see that and know who that is and, and pick up your books and read a lot more about that and, and, dive into what really happened.
John Garth: [00:54:30] Great. Thank you.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:54:31] Thank you so much for coming on the show. I’m a huge Tolkien fan, so it’s been an absolute honor to chat with you about his life. And I’m sure we’re, we’re only scratching the surface, and I know you have multiple fantastic books, so to anyone who wants to dig deeper, can you give a brief overview of your books and where they can learn more about your work?
John Garth: [00:54:51] On my website, johngarth.co.uk. You will find information about my first book talking and the great war, the threshold of middle earth, which really is a slice of biography. It traces what talking did during those key years when he was inventing his mythology, which was when the first world war was raging.
And it drew and I think very thought provoking and nuanced, connections, between. Those experiences and what he wrote, the kinds of things that they actually have a film really struggles to convey that. But won the, the award for scholarship in 2004. So this is, this is an award given out by the society that, looks at fantasy fiction in general.
but Tolkien and CS Lewis and their friends in particular. Later on, I wrote a kind of codicil, an appendage to that book, which is a small book called talking to exited college where I look at Tolkien, his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, which had been something that I had to kind of skim over fairly lightly in talking in the great war because of that books.
The first books focused on the TCBs who were not with talking at his undergraduate college. And then next year, the 2020 will be published Tolkien’s worlds, which is about the real places that inspire Tolkien and also the influences on the, his inventive places. And that’s coming out in Britain from a publisher called White Lion and in the US from Princeton University Press.
Dan LeFebvre: [00:56:28] That one sounds very interesting based on especially a lot of the discussion that we’ve had so far, kind of some of the real places that inspired that. I’ll make sure to include links to those all in the show notes. Thanks again so much for your time.
John Garth: [00:56:41] Thank you. Good to speak to you.