John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is best known for his epic Lord of the Rings novels. A lesser known aspect of his personal history was his involvement in rugby union from a young age. Tolkien began playing rugby whilst a student at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and promptly joined the rugby team upon commencement of his studies in 1911 at Exeter College, Oxford University.
In a letter to his son, Michael, in 1937, Tolkien recalled his early rugby playing days, stating that he was rejected at first due to his lighter frame, but that he ‘decided to make up for (his) weight by (legitimate) ferocity.’ Tolkien became house captain at the end of his first season and was soon thereafter awarded his colours. The scholar must have been a decent player, as later in life when meeting old classmates, he was surprised to learn that he was primarily remembered for his ‘rugger-prowess’ at school.
Tolkien’s rugby days were not without drama. In the same letter to his son he recalls how he ‘got rather damaged – among things having (his) tongue nearly cut out.’ Some attribute this accident to Tolkien’s reputation later in life as an indistinct lecturer; however, others claim that he had always spoken in such a manner.
Additional references to rugby from Tolkien speak of long-lasting injuries. In another letter to Michael in 1963 he states, ‘I am getting nearly as unbendable as an Ent. My catarrh is always with me (and will be) – it goes back to a nose broken (and neglected) in schoolboy Rugby.’
Throughout his career there were tenuous links between his writing and rugby. Suggestions have been made that Tolkien’s repugnant orcs are named after an acronym of the Oxford Rugby Club; however, at that period of time there was no such Oxford Rugby Club in existence. The club that we know today as the Oxford Rugby Club was known then as the Oxfordshire Nomads RFC until a name change in 1948. From this point in time, we do know of the Oxford college teams and the Oxford University team, but alas not the Oxford Rugby Club. It is a humorous story, but unlikely to be a true one.
A genuine link to rugby in Tolkien’s literary work is demonstrated through the publication of his first poem, The Battle of the Eastern Field, which was printed in the King Edward’s School Chronicle in 1911. The poem describes a house rugby match in a parody of epic literature. It is a tongue-in-cheek account that is modelled on the then-renowned Lays of Ancient Rome by Lord Macaulay. Here, Tolkien’s rival school houses are depicted as Roman clans dressed in red and green. Their ‘battle’ is described by Tolkien as follows:
‘Now round in thickest throng there pressed
These warriors red and green,
And many a dashing charge was made,
And many a brave deed seen.
Full oft a speeding foeman
Was hurtled to the ground,
While forward and now backward,
Did the ball of fortune bound:
Till Sekhet marked the slaughter,
And tossed his flaxen crest
And towards the Green-clad Chieftain
Through the carnage pressed;
Who fiercely flung by Sekhet,
Lay low upon the ground,
Till a thick wall of liegemen
Encompassed him around.’
(Excerpt of poem reproduced with the kind permission of the King Edward’s Foundation Archive.)
Whilst we may not know the true extent of Tolkien’s rugby prowess, it is clear that rugby played an important role in his formative years. The scars and memories lasted him a lifetime and have left us with a fantastic piece of poetry in The Battle of the Eastern Field.
About the Author– Jayne Linaker joined the World Rugby Museum in 2016 after completing a six month HLF Skills for the Future traineeship in heritage learning, interpretation and participation.