Tolkien had his 21st birthday on the 3rd January 1913. As the clock struck midnight, Fr Francis’ ban on communicating with Edith ended, and Tolkien sat up in bed and wrote to her, declaring his love and asking when they could be married. Edith’s reply told Tolkien that she was engaged to be married to George Field, the brother of a friend.
Tolkien was shattered, but he felt that he had entered into promises which could not be lightly broken and so he decided to go to Cheltenham, ask her to give up George Field and marry him. Edith had been his ideal for the last few years – his inspiration and his hope for the future. He had nurtured his love for her with only memories and a few photos of her as a child, and he was not going to give her up.
On the 8th January 1913, he met Edith at Cheltenham railway station. From there, they walked into the countryside, sat under a viaduct and talked. By the end of the day, Edith had agreed once more to marry Tolkien, and he returned to Oxford in a state of blissful happiness. He wrote to Fr Francis, who seemed calm and resigned, if not enthusiastic – but as he provided Tolkien with much-needed financial support, it was essential that he at least tolerated the engagement.
Before getting formally engaged, Tolkien wanted Edith to convert to Catholicism. She agreed to this, and took instruction in the religion, and when the Jessops heard about Edith’s conversion, they ask her to leave their house. She then moved to Warwick with her cousin Jennie Grove. When Tolkien joined her and Jennie in Warwick in June 1913, they were able to attend Benediction in the Catholic church together – the first time they could go to church side-by-side.
Warwick soon became dear to Tolkien, both because of its natural beauty and because he came to associate the city with a renewed freedom to see Edith. He even dedicated his poem “Kortirion among the Trees” to the city.
But Tolkien and Edith weren’t always happy when together. After three years apart, both living in very different societies, they no longer knew each other well and both realised that they would need to make concessions if they were to come to a real understanding of each other. Tolkien would have to tolerate Edith’s absorption in the daily details of life, while Edith would have to make an effort to understand Tolkien’s preoccupation with his books and languages. Neither entirely succeeded, but their letters and meetings were full of a lot of affection as well as some mutual irritation. A big part of the problem was Tolkien’s decision to play a role of a sentimental lover when with Edith, calling her ‘little one’, and keeping her away from his male, bookish side.
When Edith was approaching her reception into the Catholic Church, they decided to become formally engaged – and Tolkien had to tell his friends about his fiancée. GB Smith was then an Exhibitioner at Corpus Christi College studying English, while Rob Gilson and Christopher Wiseman were at Cambridge. All met occasionally, but Tolkien had never mentioned Edith to any of them. When he did tell them about his engagement, he didn’t even mention Edith’s name – Tolkien clearly felt that it had little to do with the male friendship of the TCBS.
A call to War and the lure of poetry
When war was declared, Tolkien’s family expected him to enlist straight away, but instead he wanted to go back to Oxford to finish his degree before signing up. When he returned to the town, he found Oxford empty, with only Colin Cullis and GB Smith remaining of his good friends. GB Smith was awaiting a commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers while Cullis could not join the Army due to ill health. So Cullis and Tolkien found digs together in St John’s Street.
Tolkien signed-up for a scheme whereby he could train for the Army while studying, but defer his call-up until after he finished his degree. He started to drill with the Officers Training Corps in University Parks, and soon found that he enjoyed his double life as the drilling kept him alert and energetic.
It was at this time that Tolkien first decided to try writing prose, and he decided to adapt the story of Kullervo from the Kalevala into a Morris-style prose and verse romance. The result was little more than a pastiche of Morris, but it was his first attempt at writing a verse and prose legend. The tale was left unfinished.
For the Christmas holidays of 1914, Tolkien travelled to London to attend a meeting of the TCBS which was being held in Christopher’s parents’ house in Wandsworth. This gathering was important for them all. They had begun to hope that between them they might achieve something of value. Tolkien compared them to the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and Wiseman said that they felt “four times the intellectual size” when together. Later, Tolkien explained that the meeting helped him find a voice for all sorts of things that were pent-up inside him, and it also helped him make the decision to be a poet.
Immediately following that meeting, he started to write poems. They were generally not very remarkable, and sometimes far too wordy. However, a poem describing his and Edith’s love was more restrained, and started to use a favourite image that was to crop up again and again – that of two trees growing together. During this time, he also wrote “The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon” (eventually published in “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”) as well as “Goblin Feet”, which was written to please Edith. While it was his first published work, it soon came to represent all the prettiness and tweeness that Tolkien soon came to hate.
He soon came to feel that the composition of occasional poems without a connecting theme was not what he wanted to create. In early 1915, he went back to Earendel, and began to work his verses into a larger story. When he had originally shown his Earendel verse to GB Smith, Smith had asked what the verses were actually about. Tolkien replied that he didn’t know, but that he’d certainly try to find out. A central tenet of his work came to be that he was not creating the mythos, but simply uncovering and discovering the legends. He believed that in some way he was really extracting unknown truths, not simply forming the tales from his imagination.
At the same time as Tolkien was developing his mythology, he was also preparing for Schools, his final exam in English Language and Literature. He began this in the second week of June 1915, and he achieved first class honours. This meant that he could be reasonably sure of an academic post in a university when the war was over.
Tolkien had also continued to work on his Finnish-style language, and by 1915, he had developed it to an amazing degree of complexity. Sometimes he wrote poems in it, and he more he worked with it, the more he felt the need to create a history to validate and support its form. In March 1916, he wrote a poem which included recognisable Quenya elements:
“Ai lintulinda Lasselanta
Pilingeve suyer nalla ganta
Kuluvi ya karnevalinar
V’ematte singi Eldamar.”
He realised that the language was that spoken by the elves who Earendel saw during his journey. Tolkien then began work on the “Lay of Earendel”, an epic poem describing the mariner’s journeys across the world before his ship became a star. Within the first poem of the cycle were the following, familiar, verses:
“There stands a lonely Hill
Its feet are in the pale green Sea;
Its towers are white and still:
For there the Two Trees naked grow
That bear Night’s silver bloom;
That bear the globéd fruit of Noon