It is a Tuesday in February and a slight evening breeze springs up on St Giles Street in Oxford. John has just emerged from The Eagle and Child pub, or “The Bird and Baby” as he and his friends affectionately call it, which has been a popular haunt for many years, before World War II and its horrors. With laughter and lengthy discussions still ringing in his ears, he pulls his fur collar coat tighter around him while walking home. He feels like writing a letter to his eldest son, who shares the same name, to tell him what the Inklings are doing. The gatherings at the pub do not only consist of informal literary discussions, they also drink beer, eat and enjoy one another’s company. While writing “we had a delightful evening dining off ham”, he dwells on the name Inklings. “Hwaet! We Inklinga on aerdagum searopancolra snyttru gehierdon”.
(Lo! We have heard in old days of the wisdom of the cunning-minded Inklings).
This is a parody of the opening verses of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, revealing a life-long love of ancient languages and mythology. The phrase also plays on the idea of filling reams of paper with ink (“Lo! We ink”), which the Oxford University members of that informal gathering, called the Inklings, have been doing for years. Take John’s work, The Lord of the Rings, completed in 1949 three years before and still unpublished. Or else The Chronicles of Narnia, written by his friend Clive, another member of the literary group, who is also fond of fantasy worlds and mythology.
John is in the mood for recalling the past, and although it is late, he relaxes by his fireplace to enjoy the last glowing embers. He lights his pipe and lets his mind drift back nostalgically in time. He can see his mother, passionately devoted to ancient languages and legends, who tried to fill the void left by the death of his father by telling him and his brother stories of fantastic worlds. He can also see Father Francis Xavier Morgan, Roman Catholic priest at Birmingham Oratory who took over custody of him and his brother when their mother unfortunately died. Indeed, it was he who introduced John to the art of pipe-smoking and encouraged him to study languages, seeing that he seemed to have a gift for them, especially ancient ones such as Latin, Greek, and even Finnish. This in turn inspired him to invent new languages of his own. As he puffs on his pipe he can see the words engraved on a tombstone that in a certain sense changed his life: “Adeiladwyd 1887” (“Built in 1887”), perfection in the guise of Welsh words with which he fell in love. So Welsh was added to the endless supply of beautiful sounds and perfect grammatical structures, a melodic language which he could draw on for his future linguistic inventions along with Finnish, Latin and Greek. The Lord of the Rings, still lying unpublished in his desk drawer, is in fact an attempt to create a world inhabited by a realistic and aesthetically acceptable language.
Indeed, he created Middle-earth around his languages, and not the other way around as many people would believe. As he starts to feel tired and his eyes droop, he recalls his first book, The Hobbit, published by Allen&Unwin following the review written by Stanley Unwin’s ten-year-old son, Rayner. Indeed, there is no better critic for a children’s book. The idea for the Hobbit came to him one hot summer day while he was correcting homework on English literature. One of the students had left a page blank and John wrote on the spot the beginning of Bilbo’s adventure: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. He is convinced that its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, with its parallel world and themes of peace and freedom, will appeal to readers of all ages, ideas and culture, coming from a man in love with Nordic myths, philology and religion. While he takes a last puff on his pipe, tired out by the evening’s events and memories, he recalls the origin of the art of smoking pipe-weed, invented by Hobbits. He remembers Tobold “Old Toby” Hornblower, who first grew it in his garden in Longbottom and developed other varieties of the finest quality of pipe-weed, including Southern Star, Old Toby and Longbottom Leaf. Even Tobold does not know the origin of the plant that was introduced to Middle-earth by the Numenoreans, the “Westmen”, and in Gondor it grows as a wild plant, although its inhabitants do not smoke it, but appreciate its sweet smell. However that may be, the inhabitants of Bree claim that they were the first to use the plant for pipe smoking, and then the practice soon became widely known, spreading to the Rangers of the North, Dwarves and Wizards.
Then John hears a dull thud, and realizes that it is his pipe that has dropped onto the rug and that he had been dozing for a few minutes. The fire has gone out and it is time to go to bed. In his bedroom, before getting into bed he looks lovingly at his wife Edith, his partner of a lifetime. Then, like Sam after having said goodbye to his friends Merry and Pippin in the last lines of The Lord of the Rings, he “drew a deep breath and said ‘Well, I’m back’”.