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WW2 Oxford External Exams for POWs: Tolkien and Lewis


Feb 13 2009, 2:56am

Post #1 of 14 (3311 views)
WW2 Oxford External Exams for POWs: Tolkien and Lewis Can't Post

I was reading a review of Print for Victory: Book publishing in England 1939-1945 in the Times Literary Supplement, and found this reference:

"...When Germany and Britain agreed in 1941 to allow prisoners of war to sit examinations, an international inter-library loan system was organized from the Bodleian Library, using Basil Blackwell’s book-dump in Geneva. Two Oxford dons, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, devised – and marked – an English Honours degree for “kriegies” behind the wire."

I didn't remember ever hearing about this before, but sure enough there's a bit of a reference in Scull and Hammond's "Chronology" (page 265), although it would have gone right over my head that the examinations were taken while in prison camp:

"28 January 1944...Tolkien also presents the report signed by all of the examiners, which he has written and typed, of the work of Allied prisoners of war who have been candidates in the Oxford examination for prisoners of war in English Language and Literature..."

I didn't find to much in a rather cursory Google search, but did find this interesting article about external examinations and their use by prisoners of war during WWII, with a reference to Lewis and Tolkien:

"...Another 135 examining institutions also supplied papers. Of the British universities, Oxford held its first exams outside the city by providing its Special Examination for POWs. The Oxford exams were also accessible to men not already enrolled with the University, but were on a small scale: only 17 men passed the English Language and Literature paper set by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis."

Also, this may have been referred to somewhere in Letters, but if I have read a reference to it there, I missed the context entirely (that the exams were actually taken by prisoners of war in camp). So just in case anyone else is as surprised by this as I am, I thought I'd just post this here.


"an seileachan"

The cure for boredom is curiousity. There is no cure for curiousity.

Dorothy Parker

Call Her Emily


Feb 13 2009, 6:11pm

Post #2 of 14 (3028 views)
Wow! [In reply to] Can't Post

Can you imagine the uproar today if we taught college classes for inmates of Gitmo? Those were more gentlemanly times.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!

Beren IV

Feb 14 2009, 3:58am

Post #3 of 14 (3000 views)
Those were more gentlemanly soldiers [In reply to] Can't Post

or, more accurately, those were actual soldiers, in uniform, and as a consequence the Geneva Convention applied to them.

That was also a real war, as distinguished from the action of a great power trying to stop guerilla fighting and agonizing about whether or not it actually wants to do what is necessary to stop it (and I am glad that said power is agonizing over it, because otherwise they really might be as bad as the enemies in the aforementioned real war!)

The paleobotanist is back!


Feb 14 2009, 7:31pm

Post #4 of 14 (3024 views)
War? What war? [In reply to] Can't Post

It blots our record that our involvement in Afghanistan is a "war" whenever this works to the advantage of those in power, and not a "war" whenever this would entail oversight and ethical responsibility. Don't get me wrong--we had every right to invade Afghanistan--that's where our assailants built their base of operations for 9/11, that's where Osama bin Laden was last seen, and that's where Al Qaedda still is. We should have concentrated our entire military force on cleaning up the mess there, instead of wasting the blood of good men and women on a wild goose chase elsewhere, and losing our hard-won gains on the most important battlefront.

But it's a war. Call it a war. Don't say that our soldiers have fought and died for no reason in particular. And war demands certain honorable decisions, such as observing the Geneva Convention. Afghanistan committed an act of war against us, and we responded. Fair enough.

But even if it wasn't a war, rule of law should still apply. To send the prisoners off to a corner of another country does not exempt us from following our own laws. United States soldiers, not Cubans, hold those prisoners. If the prisoners are not soldiers, then they need to be treated like criminal suspects--in other words charged, allowed lawyers with access to their clients, and tried by all the same laws as anyone else who lands under our jurisdiction.

I do not doubt that there are some really villainous people in Gitmo. But there are also people who never should have been arrested. That's what trials are for, to distinguish the guilty from the innocent. It took us six years to release a journalist who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and he never was even charged with anything. Same with a couple of sixteen year old kids. That's just a few examples--we don't know how many other innocent people are locked up with the murderers, because we haven't bothered to find out. And torture happened--there is no getting around that, something that this country was expressly founded to oppose.

Amnesty International has all of the information on this, if you want facts, carefully documented as is their wont. For more information, go to http://www.amnestyusa.org/...s/page.do?id=1051262

Agonizing over it is not enough. Adolph Eichmann agonized over the Holocaust, too, but he decided that being good meant following orders anyway. Our emotions don't decide whether we are good people or bad people--our actions do.

I'm not advocating for college classes for our prisoners of war. I'd be happy if we'd just treat them the same way that we'd want other countries to treat our own soldiers if taken prisoner. And they should do it in this country, where we can keep an eye on the process. I can't wait till they close down that monstrosity in Guantanimo Bay!

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!

(This post was edited by Dreamdeer on Feb 14 2009, 7:34pm)

Beren IV

Feb 14 2009, 10:12pm

Post #5 of 14 (2987 views)
A brief aside (before diving back into Tolkien) [In reply to] Can't Post

(For the non-Americans on this board, this discussion is an argument between two U.S. Citizens. I mean no disrespect to foreign nationals in discussing U.S. politics here, and I only assume Dreamdeer likewise means no disrespect, but I feel that I acknowledge this point before continuing so that nobody misconstrues this.)

In principle, I can only agree with you, and were I in charge I would treat them as enemy combatants and therefore would give them the same treatment I would give POWs under the Geneva Convention. Our former president's dilemma was that they are not enemy combatants because they are not in uniform and not members of a military hierarchy, and they are not criminals because they are not under the legal justification of the U.S., so he was trying to create a new procedure for them. As much as I disagree with his solution to the 'problem' and felt very uncomfortable about his apparent belief that the presidency has or should have powers beyond what the Constitution provides it, I have to admit that this is indeed a murky issue that neither U.S. law nor international convention has prepared us for.

A big problem is that, legally, we are not at war. The Constitution clearly states that the power to declare war belongs to the legislature, not the president. We have not been at war since 1945. I am extremely dissatisfied with our legislative branch shirking on its responsibility to announce when wartime practices are or are not sanctioned, and I am equally dissatisfied with the executive branch interpreting its command over the armed forces as signifying that it can pursue war or not as it desires. Of course the armed forces still need funding in order to do anything, and the legislature still has the power to approve or deny the budget, but that's just ducking the accountability for its actions.

As for our agonizing, I agree that it's what we do that counts. If the U.S. didn't agonize over the sort of thing in Guantanamo, I still think that what would be happening there would be a whole lot worse even than it is. To bring this back to Tolkien, we are typical of the race of Men, not Elves, but not Orcs either. Adolf Eichmann and others responsible for the Holocaust are Orc-like by comparison. Still, we should be able to do better than that.

This is why I regard the Edain and Dúnedain as being not really human and more like the Elves: they aren't morally gray. They're either very good (which is most of the time), or extremely evil (the Black Núemóreans for Men, or the House of Fëanor for Elves).

The paleobotanist is back!


Feb 14 2009, 10:42pm

Post #6 of 14 (2996 views)
I also mean no disrespect. [In reply to] Can't Post

I appreciate your level-headed response, calmer than my own. Sorry I got off topic.

Let's see...the topic is how JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis responded to POWs held on British soil. They treated them with dignity, regardless of the emnity between their nations. They offered them, in captivity, the comfort of education and distraction from the vicissitudes of loss of freedom. This did not detract from the strong abhorrence, which both professors felt, for the deeds done by the government which these captured soldiers had defended. Yet they treated the prisoners not like orcs, but like men.

There are no orcs in real life. There are deluded people, there are corrupted people, there are even ruined people beyond our comprehension as to how to fix what has gone wrong with them, but no one in this reality is born evil or fated to stay that way beyond all hope.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Feb 14 2009, 11:54pm

Post #7 of 14 (2994 views)
If I understand this correctly... [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien and Lewis were preparing lessons and examinations for British P.O.W.s held by Germany. Possibly German professors were doing the same for German P.O.W.s in British custody.

The essence of Prisoner of War status is that one is held captive due to the exigencies of war, but one has committed no crime simply by fighting for one's nation. There is no question of vengeance or punishment, only confinement. Therefore the nations involved both treat their P.O.W.s with respect and due military honor, and they expect the opposite side to do the same, the war between the two sides notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, as a war progresses, P.O.W. treatment often deteriorates to concentration camp, or prison camp, conditions.

Beren IV has given us a very astute summary of the dilemma the U.S. faces when fighting irregular soldiers such as the fighters for the Taliban and Al Qaeda taken in Afghanistan and Iraq. Historically, the U.S. has treated even guerilla P.O.W.s (such as - with brutal exceptions - the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War) according to the Geneva Convention, in the hope that our prisoners would thus be similarly treated.

That has always been the real enforcement mechanism in what is otherwise an unenforceable convention between two entities at war: you act in your own self interest, not on abstract moral grounds. Still, some would say that the U.S. must try to consider a higher moral position as part of its own self interest, no matter how the other side behaves, because our nation is founded on higher moral principles of democracy, human rights, and individual freedom.

As you may imagine, Great Britain in Tolkien's time was torn by the same arguments, although its democracy is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Tolkien's letters are fascinating on this issue: he seems to see almost a moral equivalence between Britain's and Germany's brutal conduct of the Second World War, which was not exactly the official line! Meanwhile, his work on behalf of British P.O.W.s shows that at some points of interest, at least, Churchill's Britain and Nazi Germany continued to observe the niceties of "civilized" warfare.

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Beren IV

Feb 15 2009, 12:50am

Post #8 of 14 (2981 views)
Germany was also a signator of the Geneva Convention [In reply to] Can't Post

The great irony and perhaps the greatest horror of the Nazis was that they were civilized, but at the same time evil. Ultimately, the Geneva Convention and all similar conventions must break down in a war because sooner or later one side wins and must then decide what to do with the defeated party, which may be anything from instituting a regime change and then magnanimously helping the defeated people back onto their feet all of the way to genocide. A German soldier could, for example, expect very different treatment in the long term if he was captured by Brits or Americans than by the Soviets, for example. German treatment of British or American prisoners did deteriorate eventually, but through no fault of their own: by the end of the war, many Germans were starving, but the POWs were eating better than most Germans as a consequence of the Red Cross care packages that were delivered to them!

Japan, the other main villain of WWII, was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, despite being a country with a long history of civilization itself. The Japanese treatment of American or Chinese POWs was not so nice. I would suggest that this was due to the universally-directed racism driving the Japanese supremacist movement. Most Nazis regarded Americans or Englishmen as belonging to the same privileged ethnicity as themselves, and so considered the war (with them) to be a war between governments than between peoples, much as the Americans and British themselves did. Things did not go so well if an American POW were determined to be Jewish!

The paleobotanist is back!

Beren IV

Feb 15 2009, 12:58am

Post #9 of 14 (2979 views)
That is an article of faith [In reply to] Can't Post

that there is nobody in the world who is born evil. (For the record, although I do not hold that as an article of faith, based on the evidence I do you are right)

I find it curious that Tolkien so curmudgeonly rejected the ideological causes of Britain and the United States as he did Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan. Given the deeds of his heroes in his fiction, it is difficult to argue that Tolkien was a pacifist; even though Frodo almost was in the Scouring, he still condoned and supported Merry's armed rebellion. Was he just old-fashioned, and felt that the democratic powers' use of the same military means to defeat the forces of evil lowered them to the same level? Or did he really see little difference, ideologically, between the Axis and the various Allies (the Soviet Union excepted)? Was it perhaps because the Allies had sided, if temporarily, with the Soviets? Was it because Tolkien in his heart held the same contempt for democracy as the fascists, preferring instead the enlightened rule of a priest/philosopher-king?

The paleobotanist is back!


Feb 15 2009, 1:59am

Post #10 of 14 (2969 views)
Or perhaps... [In reply to] Can't Post

...he feared that hatred knows no borders, having seen almost every country conquered boil up with native antisemitism as soon as their conquerors gave them license. The lone exception, he would have noted, was the one where the King sewed a star of David onto his own shirt, setting an example that the rest of the country followed. Not that this supports monarchy for me, but I think it did for him.

Most people are sheep. In his opinion sheep need a shepherd. I would prefer that we learn to be sentient primates instead. I do not believe that hereditary monarchs have the monopoly on sentience. But I can understand why he did.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Feb 15 2009, 2:02am

Post #11 of 14 (2971 views)
Really? [In reply to] Can't Post

They each let the other side send educational materials across the battlefields? Remarkable!

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Feb 15 2009, 2:15am

Post #12 of 14 (2990 views)
Prisoner Treatment [In reply to] Can't Post

I do know, from the accounts of survivors, that American Indians--and presumably other non-white American soldiers--were segregated from the main POW camps and treated brutally in Germany, which one can expect from a regime based on the idea of a "Master Race".

As for Japan, they had no tradition of taking prisoners. The European code of chivalry had centuries-old traditions in place for how you treat soldiers who have surrendered. The Japanese code of chivalry dictated that a defeated enemy fall on his own sword; peasants could surrender, but not warriors. Having no ethical system in place for people who, according to their culture, had done something weird and dishonorable, brought out the worst in them, made still worse by racism.

We treated our POWs decently. Our dark side, however, came out in treating U.S. citizens like POWS in the Japanese-American internment camps. Americans of German and Italian descent were, in contrast, given a curfew.

Those were primitive times! Nobody came out pure, except maybe the Swedes. Thank God every nation involved has since moved forward, and continues to move forward!

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


Feb 24 2009, 11:01pm

Post #13 of 14 (2956 views)
The more things change.... [In reply to] Can't Post

Our dark side, however, came out in treating U.S. citizens like POWS in the Japanese-American internment camps. Americans of German and Italian descent were, in contrast, given a curfew.

During WWII the US established concentration camps for Americans of German and Italian decent, and practiced extraordinary rendition.

German-American internment:


Italian-American internment:


Extraordinary rendition:


The audacious proposal stirred his heart. And the stirring became a song, and it mingled with the songs of Gil-galad and Celebrian, and with those of Feanor and Fingon. The song-weaving created a larger song, and then another, until suddenly it was as if a long forgotten memory woke and for one breathtaking moment the Music of the Ainur revealed itself in all glory. He opened his lips to sing and share this song. Then he realized that the others would not understand. Not even Mithrandir given his current state of mind. So he smiled and simply said "A diversion.”


Feb 24 2009, 11:55pm

Post #14 of 14 (3138 views)
Interesting! [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm glad that my Italian grandmother on Dad's side of the family escaped! She just had a curfew.

Life is beautiful and dangerous! Beware! Enjoy!


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