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Sermons, Classes, and Lectures

The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien and The Inklings

October 3, 2018 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy Series: The Fellowship: Lewis, Tolkien And The Inklings

Topic: Christian Education



29 November 1898          Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Albert J. Lewis (1863-1929) and Florence Augusta Hamilton Lewis (1862-1908).

1905                                       The Lewis family moved to their new home, “Little Lea,” on the outskirts of Belfast.

23 August 1908                  Flora Hamilton Lewis died of cancer on August 23, Albert Lewis’ (her husband’s) birthday. The following month nine year old Lewis is sent to boarding school in the UK at Wynyard School, Watford, Hertfordshire referred to by C.S. Lewis as “Oldie’s School” or “Belsen

June 1910                            Lewis left “Belsen” in June when the headmaster was certified as insane and the school closed.

September 1911               Lewis was enrolled as a student at Cherbourg House in the UK, a prep school close by Malvern College, where his older brother Warnie was a student. It was during this time that Lewis abandoned his childhood Christian faith. He entered Malvern College itself in September 1913.

19 September 1914         Lewis commenced nearly three years of private study with W.T. Kirkpatrick, “The Great Knock,” in Great Bookham, Surrey.  Kirkpatrick (1848-1921) was former Headmaster of Lurgan College, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, from 1874-99.

26 April 1917                      Lewis became a student at University College, Oxford.

July 1917                              Lewis enlisted in the British army and was billeted in Keble College, Oxford, for officer’s training. His roommate was Edward Courtnay Francis “Paddy” Moore (1898-1918).

25 September 1917         Lewis was commissioned an officer in the 3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry.

29 November 1917          Lewis reached the front line in the Somme Valley in France on his 19th birthday.

15 April 1918                      Lewis was wounded on Mount Berenchon during the Battle of Arras, returning to duty in October. He was discharged in December 1918. His former roommate and friend, Paddy Moore, was killed in battle and buried in the field just south of Peronne, France.

1919                                       Lewis meets Owen Barfield, who would become a lifelong friend and key member of the Inklings, and commenced the “Great War” between Lewis’s atheism and Barfield’s supernaturalism. Reveille published Lewis’s “Death in Battle,” his first publication in other than school magazines. The issue had poems by Robert Bridges, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Hilaire Belloc.

1920                                       After resuming his studies at University College, Oxford, Lewis received a First in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin Literature), a First in Greats (Philosophy and Ancient History) in 1922, and a First in English in 1923, finishing his studies in June 1924.

October 1924                     Lewis appointed as Tutor in Philosophy at University College for one year to teach in his professor’s stead while the professor was on study leave in the US for a year.

20 May 1925                       Lewis was elected a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he served as Tutor in English Language and Literature for 29 years until leaving for Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 1954.

11 May 1926                       Lewis and Tolkien meet for the first time at an English faculty meeting at Merton College.

1929                                       Lewis became a theist: “In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed….”

1931                                       Lewis became a Christian: One evening in September, Lewis had a long talk on Christianity with J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson. That evening’s discussion on Addison’s Walk, described in Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia” was important in bringing about the following day’s event that Lewis recorded in Surprised by Joy: “When we [Warnie and Jack] set out [by motorcycle to the Whipsnade Zoo] I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”


3 January 1892

Birth of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (South Africa), moves to UK with mother at age 3; his father dies the next year.

Autumn 1900

Tolkien becomes a scholarship student at prestigious King Edward’s School, Birmingham.

Spring 1904

Tolkien’s mother Mabel is diagnosed with diabetes, and dies in November. Ronald and his brother Hilary become wards of Father Morgan, a priest at the Birmingham Oratory.

Summer Term 1911

Tolkien becomes school librarian, and the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) is formed.


October 1911-1915

Tolkien begins studying at Exeter College, Oxford, graduating in July 1915 with a First in English Language and Literature. Tolkien commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers.

25-6 Sep 1915

Final meeting of all four main members of the T.C.B.S. in Lichfield before all depart for World War I, where most will die.

22 March 1916

Ronald and Edith Bratt are married in Warwick. He ships off to France in June and participates in the Battle of the Somme in July.

November 1918

After Tolkien contracts trench fever and is discharged from the army, the Tolkiens return to Oxford. Tolkien obtains employment with the Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien begins work on the first version of ‘The Music of the Ainur’ and on his translation of Beowulf.



Autumn 1925

Tolkien takes up an appointment as Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

February 1926

Tolkien forms the Kolbítar club (Coalbiters) to study Icelandic literature.

11 May 1926

First known meeting between C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, and they soon become friends.

December 1929

C.S. Lewis reads and critiques the Lay of Leithian.


Summer 1930

About this time, Tolkien may have written the first sentence of The Hobbit: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit“.

19-20 Sep 1931

Tolkien and Hugo Dyson talk with C.S. Lewis, who begins to shift from believing in God to accepting Christ. This event also inspires Tolkien to later write the poem ‘Mythopoeia’.



 A friend of Tolkien’s TCBS tells a neglected truth of war

A turbulent darkness: Tolkien’s first story →

Tolkien’s ‘immortal four’ meet for the last time

 25 September 2015by John Garth

  • Best Article, Tolkien Society Awards 2016


One hundred years ago today, four young men convened in an English town, not having seen each other for some time. What makes this trivial event significant is that one of them was J R R Tolkien, and the four comprised his first ‘fellowship’, the TCBS – a group with a profound impact on his youth and on his legendarium. This reunion, on 25 and 26 September 1915, was the last time the four met before they were separated, permanently, by war.

The reason for today’s article is the discovery of a small archival treasure marking the event. The signatures of two TCBS members, Geoffrey Bache Smith and Robert Quilter Gilson, have been discovered in the guest book at the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, the author and lexicographer. (Tolkien, of course, looked rather further back for his inspirations, to the Middle Ages and beyond; though his Times obituarist did note that he had a ‘Johnsonian horror of going to bed’.)

Signatures of R Q Gilson and G B Smith in the guestbook at Samuel Johnson’s birthplace, Lichfield

Both Smith and Gilson were fascinated by the era – Smith by its literature, Gilson by its architecture. On a recent visit to Bath, as Gilson wrote,

we have immersed ourselves in an eighteenth century atmosphere — Bath does it of its own accord — and conducted most of our conversation in Johnsonian and Gibbonian periods. GB Smith composes excellent Gibbon. He is at present reading Amelia and revelling in it. I very quickly catch his enthusiasm for that extraordinary century. It really did know how to build private houses.

As well as their addresses – Marston Green near Birmingham for Gilson and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, for Smith – they append ‘T.C.B.S.’ to their names. It is a poignant sign of the value they placed in their fellowship.

The friendships had been formed at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, coalescing in 1911 into a kind of secret society that brewed clandestine teas in the library office, where Tolkien was in charge. They would also meet in the tea rooms of Barrow’s Stores. So they had called themselves the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, eventually just the ‘TCBS’. Though its members had dominated school cultural life – the debating and literary societies, and so forth – the youthful TCBS had been at least as much about drollery and japes. When Tolkien left for Oxford University, he formed another club there, the Apolausticks, in a similar vein; but the TCBS continued to meet.

R Q Gilson, at right and facing the camera, marches with soldiers from his 11th Suffolks battalion during training (Image courtesy of Julia Margretts)

Under the shadow of war, from 1914 the TCBS had acquired a powerful sense of itself as a serious force, as I tell in Tolkien and the Great War. It had halved its numbers to just four – Tolkien, Gilson, Smith and Christopher Luke Wiseman, who had sealed their bond with a December 1914 meeting dubbed ‘the Council of London’. They were all four exceptional young men, and they were rapidly forming the idea that somehow they could change the world for the better through art and writing. For Tolkien, who had just been making his first steps at serious creative writing (see my articles here and here), the Council of London changed everything.

Steps became strides, and 1915 had seen him laying the foundations of Middle-earth in poems and an invented ‘Elvish’ language. He wrote to Smith later, ‘That Council was as you know followed in my own case with my finding a voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of everything for me:— I have always laid that to the credit of the inspiration that even a few hours with the four always brought to all of us.’ He shared his early poems with the TCBS, and it is quite clear they had a deep though indefinable influence on aspects of his Middle-earth writings.

G B Smith, second from left at the back, with fellow officers from the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers

By September 1915 all four were undergoing military training for the war that had been raging for more than a year. Wiseman was in the Navy. Smith and Gilson had enlisted in the Army much earlier than Tolkien, and knew that it could not be long before they were sent to the front to fight. Tolkien’s training battalion, the 13th Lancashire Fusiliers, was based at Whittington Heath near Lichfield, Staffordshire. Gilson had written to him from hospital, where he was recovering after a serious bout of influenza. Here I’ll let my book Tolkien and the Great War take up the tale:

Tolkien now sent him a second sheaf of his poems and Gilson, feeling revivified by the TCBSian spirit, promised to criticise them. Abruptly he had learned he was about to be released from hospital, and was going on leave…. He determined to visit Tolkien at Lichfield, and sent telegrams summoning Smith and Wiseman as well. ‘At times like this when I am alive to it, it is so obvious that the TCBS is one of the deepest things in my life,’ he told Tolkien, ‘and I can hardly understand how I can be content to let slip so many opportunities.’ Wiseman came up from Greenwich, where he had begun his navigation course, and Smith travelled from Salisbury Plain, where the Salford Pals [his battalion, the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers] were now encamped. Arriving first, Smith and Gilson — now no longer the comfortably rounded figure of school and college days — visited the cathedral and the birthplace of Dr Johnson. Tolkien joined them, and finally Wiseman, and the four stayed at the George Hotel for an evening of ‘that delightful and valued conversation which ever illumines a council of the TCBS’, as Smith put it. The four were assembled for the last time. It was Saturday 25 September. In northern France, in a foretaste of the battle which lay in store for three of the TCBS, the British army at Loos (including the first Kitchener volunteers) launched an assault so disastrous that, as the attackers turned to retreat, the German machine gunners who had mowed down eight thousand men ceased firing, finally overcome with pity.

Two of Tolkien’s friends from Exeter College’s Apolausticks – Max Windle (Michael William Maxwell Windle) and Osric Staples – died on 25 September 1915 at Loos. It was a harbinger of the losses that lay ahead for the TCBS itself. Rob Gilson was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. G B Smith, a poet who perhaps shared Tolkien’s youthful vision most closely, died on 3 December 1916 of wounds sustained from a shell burst three days before. He was several miles behind the Somme front line, organising a football match for his men.

Many months earlier, ahead of a perilous night patrol in which he thought he might be ‘scuppered’, Smith had written what he thought might be his final letter to his friend, declaring himself ‘a wild and whole-hearted admirer’ of Tolkien’s work; we might now call him the first ‘Middle-earth fan’. Fearing the worst for the night patrol, Smith was defiant:

… the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the TCBS.… Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!

Smith’s and Gilson’s signatures were found by Joanne Wilson of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum after an enquiry by Marty Smith of the Ridware History Society, who had heard about the ‘Council of Lichfield’ in a talk by David Robbie, an expert on Tolkien’s time in Staffordshire. It is intended that the visitor book will go on display in an exhibition about Tolkien in Staffordshire being planned by the Haywood Society, the Staffordshire Library Service and the Museum of Cannock Chase for next year.

I can’t account for the date ‘24th’ next to signatures: it’s perfectly clear from their correspondence that Smith and Gilson arrived on 25 September and visited the Johnson birthplace that day. The entry stands as a quiet testimony to a bond of fellowship that underpinned the beginnings of Tolkien’s Middle-earth – and to two young men who did not survive to see his work reach fruition.