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That time J.R.R. Tolkien stole a bus.

N.E. Brigand
Half-elven


May 31, 7:39am

Post #1 of 8 (642 views)
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That time J.R.R. Tolkien stole a bus. Can't Post

Lately I read Graham Greene's This Gun for Hire, much of which is set in an industrial British town in the late 1930s with the threat of war looming. A gas attack drill is conducted with the assistance of the students in the local university, which includes a medical school. This is how the scene is set:


Quote
They were all having the hell of a time at the hospital. It was the biggest rag they'd had since the day of the street collection when they kidnapped old Piker and ran him to the edge of the Weevil and threatened to duck him if he didn't pay a ransom. Good old Fergusson, good old Buddy, was organizing it all. They had three ambulances out in the courtyard, and one had a death's head banner on it for the dead ones. Somebody shrieked that Mike was taking out the petrol with a nasal syringe, so they began to pelt him with flour and soot--they had it ready in great buckets. it was the unofficial part of the programme; all the casualties were going to rubbed with it, excep the dead ones the death's-head ambulance picked up. They were going to be put in the cellar where the refrigerating plant kept the corpses for dissection fresh.

One of the senior surgeons passed rapidly and nervously across a corner of the courtyard. He was on the way to a Casesarian operation, but he had no confidence whatever that the students wouldn't pelt him or duck him. Only five years ago there had been a scandal and an inquiry because a woman had died on the day of a rag. The surgeon attending her had been kidnapped and carried all over town dressed as Guy Fawkes. Luckily she wasn't a paying patient, and, though her husband had been hysterical at the inquest, the coroner had decided that one must make allowances for youth. The coroner had been a student himself once and remembered wih pleasure the day when they had pelted the vice-chancellor of the university with soot.

The senior surgeon had been present that day too. Once safely inside the glass corridor he could smile at the memory. The vice-chancellor had been unpopular; he had been a classic, which wasn't very suitable for a provincial university. He had translated Lucan's Pharsalia into some complicated metre of his own invention. The senior surgeon remembered something vaguely about stresses. He could still see the little wizened, frightened Liberal face trying to smile when his pince-nez broke, trying to be a good sportsman. But anyone could tell that he wasn't really a good sportsman. That's why they pelted him so hard.

The senior surgeon, quite safe now, smiled tenderly down at the rabble in the courtyard. Their white coats were already black with soot. Somebody had got hold of a stomach pump. Very soon they'd be raiding the shop in the High Street and seizing their mascot, the stuffed and rather moth-eaten tiger. Youth, youth, he thought, laughing gently when he saw Mander, the treasurer, scuttle from door to door with a scared expression. Perhaps they'll catch him--no, they've let him by. What a joke it all was, 'trailing clouds of glory,' 'turn as swimmers into cleanness leaping'.

Buddy was having the hell of a time. Everyone was scampering to obey his orders. He was the leader. They'd duck or pelt anyone he told them to. He had an enormous sense of power; it more than atoned for unsatisfactory examination results, for surgeons' sarcasms. Even a surgeon wasn't safe today if he gave an order. The soot and water and flour were his idea. The whole gas practice would have been a dull, sober, official piece of routine if he hadn't thought of making it a 'rag'. The very word 'rag' was powerful; it conferred complete freedom from control. he'd called a meeting of the brighter students and explained, 'If anyone's on the street with a gas mask he's a conchie. There are people who want to crab the practice. So when we get 'em back to tthe hospital we'll give 'em hell.


It goes on like that for several more pages. (By the way, "conchie" means "conscientous objector.") At one point, Buddy, who eventually gets his comeuppance, addresses his followers with a mock-Shakespearean speech. And that's when I was struck by the memory that Tolkien himself participated in such "rags," these rather extreme practical jokes that we might today feel verged on rioting or looting or larceny (but no kidnapping, as far as I know) when he was a student at Oxford.

Here is a passage from Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien biography:


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At Oxford the company had to be male. Admittedly there were a number of women students attending lectures, but they lived in ladies' colleges, grim enclaves on the outskirts of the city; and they had to be severely chaperoned whenever they approached a young man. In any case th emen really preferred each other's company. The majority of them were fresh from the male preserves of the public school and they gladly accepted the masculine tone of Oxford.

They also used among themselves a curious slang, which converted breakfast to brekker, lecture to lekker, the Union to the Ugger, and a sing-song and a practical joke to a sigger-sogger and a pragger-jogger. Tolkien adopted this manner of speech, and he also joined enthusiastically in the Town versus Gown 'rags' that were popular at the time. Here is his account of a not untypical evening's entertainment:

'At ten to nine we heard a distant roar of voices and knew that there was something on foot so we dashed out of College and were in the thick of the fun for two hours. We "ragged" the town and the police and the proctors all together for about an hour. Geoffrey and I "captured" a bus and drove it up to Cornmarket making various unearthly noises followed by a mad crowd of mingled varsity and "townese". It was chockfull of undergrads before it reached the Carfax. There I addressed a few stirring words to a huge mob before descending and removing to the "maggers memugger" or the Martyr's Memorial where I addressed the crowd again. There were no disciplinary consequences of all this!'

This kind of behaviour, noisy, brash, and boorish, was more common among the upper-class undergraduates than among the 'poor scholars' like Tolkien, the majority of whom avoided such pranks and devoted themselves to their studies; but Tolkien was too sociable to be left out of anything lively that was happening. Partly as a result, he was not doing much work.


Buses would still have been horse-drawn at this time, right? And when exactly is this time? That last sentence might suggest that this event happened when Tolkien was still studying Classics, before he failed to get a First Class in his Honour Moderations in March 1913 and switched to English, but Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond in their Chronology (in the first edition I have to hand) believe it was "Probably at some time during" the 1913-14 school year. They had earlier described another incident:


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12 May 1913 At a meeting of the Stapledon Society Tolkien describes a confrontation between Town and Gown with which he had been involved the previous night. The Society minutes note that 'the Deputy Public Orator' [Tolkien] then went on to describe his arrest and subsequent release and told how on returning to college he had delighted the spectators by a magnificent, if unavailing, attempt to scale the Swiss Cottage and had spent the rest of the evening in climbing in and out of Mr Barnett's window' (Exeter College Archives).


I didn't see last year's Tolkien biopic. Was any of this youthful wild behavior shown in that movie? This would have happened after he and Edith were engaged in January 1913. (Did the movie convey that it wasn't until December that he told his friends in the TCBS that he was engaged?)


Treachery, treachery I fear; treachery of that miserable creature.

But so it must be. Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend.


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squire
Half-elven


May 31, 1:50pm

Post #2 of 8 (584 views)
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I don't think I've heard this story before [In reply to] Can't Post

Or rather, whenever it was that I read Carpenter's biography, these episodes didn't get added to my mental image of young Tolkien!

No, the film had nothing like this. It was all about the TCBS, Edith, and a professor or two, on the themes of friendship and love. Nothing about his academic work, and almost nothing about his love of language as a field of study.

Looking it up, I see that Oxford's tram company replaced its horse-drawn vehicles with motorized buses in December/January 1913-1914. That is consistent with your Scull & Hammond citation. I agree with your take, that Carpenter is working a little loosely with his chronology, using examples from several periods at Oxford to make points about Tolkien's career that may not relate directly.

Reading the passage from Greene, I was immediately struck by echoes of Orwell ('Nineteen Eighty-four', etc.) and Golding ('Lord of the Flies'), other writers about English customs and attitudes at the intersection of academia, social class, and personal feelings. The overall impression, as you say, is that bullying, rioting, and casual cruelty towards those different from you was the order of the day whenever license was given to abandon the traditional British habit of endless politeness and deference to all.

In Tolkien's writings, one thinks of the Shire under the rule of the ruffians: " 'There’s hundreds of Shirriffs all told and they want more, with all these new rules. Most of them are in it against their will, but not all. Even in the Shire there are some as like minding other folk’s business and talking big.' " (Robin explaining the situation to Sam, 'The Scouring of the Shire', LR VI.8)

On a larger scale, I do remember reading that 'Town v Gown' relations in Oxford and other university towns in old Europe, from medieval times to the recent past, were fraught with class tensions and youthful arrogance, and featured riots and disorders from time to time.



squire online:
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Solicitr
Gondor


May 31, 7:45pm

Post #3 of 8 (559 views)
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Subject [In reply to] Can't Post

The movie does include it, but then bigs it up into "Tolkien was almost expelled for it."


squire
Half-elven


Jun 1, 12:31am

Post #4 of 8 (532 views)
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Ah, I missed that... [In reply to] Can't Post

Just goes to show, don't say things from memory, or at least not without a bit of qualification. I don't remember that scene at all!

Did the movie's version of Tolkien and Gilson's hijacking a bus conclude with him rabble-rousing a throng of undergraduates during an Oxford student 'rag' episode, as in Tolkien's memoir in the Carpenter biography?



squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Archive: All the TORn Reading Room Book Discussions (including the 1st BotR Discussion!) and Footerama: "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
Dr. Squire introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


= Forum has no new posts. Forum needs no new posts.


Hamfast Gamgee
Grey Havens

Jun 4, 8:50am

Post #5 of 8 (421 views)
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Well, seen as [In reply to] Can't Post

Someone criticized the movie for not showing the incidents at all and someone else for showing it too much, sounds to me like the movies probably got the right balance.


N.E. Brigand
Half-elven


Jun 4, 5:28pm

Post #6 of 8 (401 views)
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Should Tolkien have been expelled? [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for noting what the movie shows.

I think if I had stolen a bus in Dayton some 25 years ago, I would have faced serious consequences possibly up to expulsion from the university I attended. Even Tolkien seems surprised to have faced no consequences for his actions. And as Scull and Hammond reported, on another occasion he was arrested, but they indicate nothing about the school being informed and Tolkien being warned. Instead we hear that he used the incident as entertainment for his fellows at a club meeting.


Treachery, treachery I fear; treachery of that miserable creature.

But so it must be. Let us remember that a traitor may betray himself and do good that he does not intend.


-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-*-
<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>
Discuss Tolkien's life and works in the Reading Room!
+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=
How to find old Reading Room discussions.


Solicitr
Gondor


Jun 4, 6:13pm

Post #7 of 8 (393 views)
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The problem [In reply to] Can't Post

is that the movie took certain incidents from Tolkien's life, invented a few more out of whole cloth, and then forced them into Stock Biopic Plot Mold with a hydraulic ram, leaving us with a portrait of a man who was almost, but not quite, completely unlike JRR Tolkien. The character written resembled him no more than Nicholas Houton does physically.

Did you know-

that after Tolkien left for France, he wrote nothing more until he began The Hobbit?


dormouse
Half-elven


Jun 15, 6:07pm

Post #8 of 8 (216 views)
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No [In reply to] Can't Post

In the film Tolkien, Gilson, Smith and Wiseman are together in Oxford - the Cambridge pair seem to be there with a rugby team - and during an evening out with four rather anonymous girls they 'hijack' an empty bus, but only for somewhere to sit. There's no rabble-rousing, other undergraduates, or actually the driving the bus.John Garth's 'Tolkien at Exeter College' dates the bus episode to late in the Michaelmas term of 1913, because that was Geoffrey's first term at Corpus Christi and the first motorised buses arrived in Oxford in November 1913.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood and every spring
there is a different green. . .

 
 

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