The Trial of JRR Tolkien

by Varda

Professor JRR Tolkien walked slowly up Grafton Street, the principal shopping street in Dublin. Scalding splashes of June sunshine fell through the tall red-bricked shop fronts and he wondered why he was here. It was years since he had been in Dublin and he did not know his way around. In his hand he held a scrap of paper with an address, and he thought again what a strange invitation this was, from someone who would only identify themselves as ‘a colleague from your past and admirer of your work…’

He had once indeed known some of the English school in Trinity College, Dublin. But that was long ago…

He turned the corner into South Anne Street, the name on the piece of paper, and looked up and down. At once his eye was caught by a tall, thin man standing on the edge of the pavement wearing an ankle-length raincoat despite the summer heat. He had a long, cadaverous, deeply lined face and short bristly grey hair. He wore a roll-neck sweater unravelling slightly and he puffed on a cigarette with a weary expression on his face. Then he turned and seeing Tolkien he threw down his cigarette and ground it out under his shoe and walking up to the Professor he held out his hand and his solemn face lit up with genuine pleasure and he said;
‘Professor JRR Tolkien? I am delighted to meet you, I’m very glad you could come….’
Tolkien took the proferred hand and shook it and said;
‘Thank you, but I am at a loss….who are you?’
The thin man was not the slightest bit put out that he had not introduced himself. He said airily;
‘Me? Oh, I’m Beckett. Sam Beckett.’

Tolkien could not help but stare. He said;
‘The Nobel Peace Prize-winning playwright?’
Beckett looked pained.
‘I’d rather you did not mention that, Professor. I am trying to forget the whole ghastly charade.’

Tolkien fell silent, slightly abashed, an unaccustomed feeling for him…Beckett turned and led him towards a door. Tolkien stopped.
‘Wait!’ he said. ‘this is a public house!’
‘Yes’ said Beckett with a shrug. ‘It is Davy Byrne’s Pub. Literary affairs, my dear Professor, are always conducted in pubs. What about the Bird and Baby?’

It was true, the Inklings, the writers group that Tolkien belonged to, met in the Eagle and Child public house. But….what literary meeting was Beckett talking about? Before he could ask, Beckett had beckoned him into the dark interior of the public house….

Inside it was dark and cool after the hot bright street. It took Tolkien a few moments to accustom his eyes to the dim interior. Beckett took off his coat and hung it behind a chair and called to the barman. Then he turned and led Tolkien to the snug. The rickety wooden door, worn and scratched by generations of Dubliners squeezing into the cosy nook for a private pint, banged shut behind him and Tolkien found himself in front of a table at which sat four startlingly different characters…

Towering over the others was a tall, raw-boned man with black-rimmed spectacles and receding black hair. He had a large curved nose and a habit of peering slightly through the thick lenses of his glasses. He stared at Tolkien for a moment then snorted rudely and said;
‘I’m Paddy Kavanagh, the poet, when they’ll print me….’.

Beside him sat a plump man of about forty with a round florid face and a white shirt open to his chest. He held a pint of stout in his hand which he continued to drink from without looking at the newcomer. When he at last put the glass down he said in a loud voice;
‘I smell the blood of an Englishman!’ Then laughed and added;
‘You are privileged to be in the company of The Hostage himself, Brendan Behan…’

On the far side of the table sat an elderly man well dressed in a white linen suit and a yellow rose buttonhole. He too had heavy-rimmed glasses and long white hair. Although elderly he was still handsome and he looked at Tolkien with piercing black eyes, then rose to his feet and held out his hand and said in a loud commanding voice;
‘Professor JRR Tolkien! I am honoured to meet such a great writer. I am William Butler Yeats.’

There was an annoyed murmur from the figure seated at the back of the table, and Tolkien looking over saw a small, very thin man dressed in a black frock coat and wearing a hat and a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles, one lens of which was darkened. He had a short moustache and held a cigarette in a gold holder and he looked at Yeats and hissed;
‘Always hogging the limelight, Willie! Always seeking to be the literary voice of those who can’t read, the Irish!’

‘This’ said Yeats without batting an eyelid ‘Is James Joyce.’

Tolkien stood for a moment, no longer wondering what he was doing there but wondering what they were all doing there. Beckett pulled up a chair and indicated to him to sit down and waved at the barman. Tolkien sat down, feeling the eyes of all the writers on him. At last he said;
‘Why am I here?’

‘The reason you are here, Perfessor….’ Said Behan. ‘Is to stand trial.’

Beckett took a tray of black and creamy Guinness from the barman, placed it on the table in front of Tolkien, handed him one of the pints, closed the snug door and said;

‘I hate to say it, but Brendan is right; this is a midnight court, and you are the accused.’
‘But..’; protested Tolkien ‘what have I done?’

‘Exhibit A, your honour!’ drawled Behan, producing a rumpled piece of paper. It was a headline;
‘FANTASY WRITER TOPS TWO READERS’ POLLS FOR BEST WRITER OF THE MILLENIUM’

‘I might have won the Nobel Peace Prize’ said Beckett. ‘but you won their hearts and captured their imagination, Your crime, Professor, is to have succeeded…..’

‘Don’t you know, man..’ burst out Kavanagh ‘that all that is not allowed, not in our grey, grimy world! They don’t work well when they are at the dreaming. They don’t plough or shovel or sweat if they are at the reading of Elves and ladies and stars like diamonds in the sky. It does them no good….’

‘What this mumbling Monaghan monolith of a man is saying…’ interrupted Joyce, taking his gold cigarette holder out of his mouth for a moment ‘ is that you are not supposed to deal in beauty and heroism, only in the crude realities of our daily life. Like I do. It is the modern world, Tolkien, not Tara of the high Kings or Gondor of King Elessar, or whatever….’

‘So what you are saying is, James….’ said Yeats in his booming voice..’..that there is no room for beauty in today’s world. No part for the imagination, or for the soul…’
His black eyes twinkled and he said ‘think again!’

‘You are a romantic, Willie’ said Beckett ‘but I take your point. The thing is…’ he went on, turning to Tolkien, ‘you boasted that you wanted to give England a new mythology….’

‘You blaggard!’ roared Brendan Behan at Tolkien ‘What is wrong with the old one? I love King Arthur! Gives me something to laugh at….’
‘No, no….’ said Tolkien, flustered ‘I did not want to supplant it, just provide one for a new age…’
‘Aha!’ said Joyce. ‘So we are not so different after all, Professor…’

And at that Joyce got to his feet and leaning on a silver-headed black cane, he paced up and down the narrow snug, coming to a halt before the bemused professor of Anglo-Saxon. Pointing his gold cigarette-holder at Tolkien he said;
‘I wanted to give my country a conscience; to forge what they did not have, out of the rank elements of a new nation. You wanted to do the same….’

Joyce lifted his spectacles towards the shrouded window and said;
‘In myth, that was the only place we could find what we needed; for me, the myth of Ireland. For you, the myth of England, the Shires, the kings, the ……’
and he turned towards Tolkien and whispered;
‘the myth of the English language, more than Latin and Greek, more than the Iliad and the Odyssey, more than Táin and the Mabinogion; the light-falling, daisy-crowned king of fallen statues reigning in the dusk of the harvest-yellow shire, wind-wrestled, thrush-speckled….’

‘All, right, I think we have the idea’ interrupted Beckett, and Joyce sat down in disgust.

‘What about these peasants, though!’ grumbled Kavanagh. ‘In your stories, happy and lively and young! You are wrong, Tolkien, you are wrong! The soil claims you, bends you before you are old, blinds you before you can’t see, ties you down with great stones clawed from the ground. Harrows and ploughs you and beats you into the mud. What of Rosie and Sam? Wearied by a thousand ploughings and reapings, battered by spring and autumn. What about that, Mr Tolkien? Why are are your peasants happy?’

All the writers were looking at Tolkien expectantly. He said slowly;
‘To Sam the soil is sacred. Just as it was to you, Mr Kavanagh, if you will admit it…’ Kavanagh stared and Brendan chuckled.
‘..but he was not left to toil on it alone and without honour, so he was not a peasant, but a hero in a world where the land is precious and sacred….as I think it was once seen by the Irish….’

There was a silence then Behan said
‘He’s got you by the short ones there, Paddy….’

‘Sacred enough to fight for, as Sam fought for the Shire’ said Yeats. ‘and Sam, and the hobbits, are transformed by what they do, by their fighting and by Frodo’s sacrifice. A terrible beauty was born in the Shire too, Patrick. ‘

Kavanagh sat down and folded his arms, deep in thought. Yeats turned to Tolkien and said;
‘Did you not care, Professor, that the world had moved on to modern things, mindless industry felling the trees that you loved in your youth, as they felled the beautiful trees at Coole where I spent my happiest days in the house of Lady Gregory? Did you not care that the villages you celebrated in your books had been swept away by the motorways?’
‘No’ replied Tolkien ‘for in my heart they never will be swept away; they are our myth, stronger than any ugly modern world….’

‘I do believe…’ said Yeats ‘that you are a bard. You write of the Tuatha and their mighty deeds, even though they left the world many ages ago….’

Yeats turned to the other writers and said;
‘I here find Tolkien a dreamer and a poet, but true to the greatest truths, not just to the truth of today or tomorrow. Not guilty!’

‘Not guilty, I suppose’ said Joyce, taking his cigarette holder out of his mouth.
‘You, sir….’ Said Behan eyeing Tolkien with an unsteady stare ‘ write a good tale, like a seanachie. You are not guilty of anything except of Englishness….’


A silence fell. Beckett stretched his long legs and got to his feet. He said slowly and thoughtfully;
‘Myth never interested me, nor history, nor any good rattling tale. I don’t want to give my nation anything, except a few plays. What interests me, what commands me….’
And he looked hard at Tolkien ‘…is what goes on between human beings. Forget your myths, forget the nations rising and falling. What about the void between man and man?’

‘Frodo and Sam’ said Tolkien. ‘More than master and man, more even than friends. In their struggle I give you all the isolated, alienated heroes clinging to each other for life that you will find. Frodo and Sam are the alpha and omega of all my writing.’

There was a long silence. Beckett, the great poet of the interaction between people lit a cigarette and sat down, looking at Tolkien. The he said in his soft Dublin accent;

‘Not guilty….’

Tolkien woke with a start and looked wildly round; outside the bells were ringing. It was Sunday. He was in Oxford, not Dublin. He passed a hand over his face which was cold with sweat. It was a dream, only a dream…..