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Michael Tolkien, 6-8 Mar 1941

‘war broke out the next year, while I still had a year to go at college. In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in, especially for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.’

6-8 March 1941 — Letter 43

From a letter from the author to his second son Michael, who was at the time fighting in the Second World War.

(…)
My own history is so exceptional, so wrong and imprudent in nearly every point that it makes it difficult to counsel prudence. Yet hard cases make bad law; and exceptional cases are not always good guides for others. For what it is worth here is some autobiography – mainly on this occasion directed towards the points of age, and finance.

I fell in love with your mother at the approximate age of 18. Quite genuinely, as has been shown – though of course defects of character and temperament have caused me often to fall below the ideal with which I started. Your mother was older than I, and not a Catholic. Altogether unfortunate, as viewed by a guardian. And it was in a sense very unfortunate; and in a way very bad for me. These things are absorbing and nervously exhausting. I was a clever boy in the throes of work for (a very necessary) Oxford scholarship. The combined tensions nearly produced a bad breakdown. I muffed my exams and though (as years afterwards my H[ead] M[aster] told me) I ought to have got a good scholarship, I only landed by the skin of my teeth an exhibition of £60 at Exeter: just enough with a school leaving schol[arship] of the same amount to come up on (assisted by my dear old guardian). Of course there was a credit side, not so easily seen by the guardian. I was clever, but not industrious or single-minded; a large part of my failure was due simply to not working (at least not at classics) not because I was in love, but because I was studying something else: Gothic and what not. Having the romantic upbringing I made a boy-and-girl affair serious, and made it the source of effort. Naturally rather a physical coward, I passed from a despised rabbit on a house second-team to school colours in two seasons. All that sort of thing. However, trouble arose: and I had to choose between disobeying and grieving (or deceiving) a guardian who had been a father to me, more than most real fathers, but without any obligation, and ‘dropping’ the love-affair until I was 21. I don’t regret my decision, though it was very hard on my lover. But that was not my fault. She was perfectly free and under no vow to me, and I should have had no just complaint (except according to the unreal romantic code) if she had got married to someone else. For very nearly three years I did not see or write to my lover. It was extremely hard, painful and bitter, especially at first. The effects were not wholly good: I fell back into folly and slackness and misspent a good deal of my first year at College. But I don’t think anything else would have justified marriage on the basis of a boy’s affair; and probably nothing else would have hardened the will enough to give such an affair (however genuine a case of true love) permanence. On the night of my 21st birthday I wrote again to your mother – Jan. 3, 1913. On Jan. 8th I went back to her, and became engaged, and informed an astonished family. I picked up my socks and did a spot of work (too late to save Hon. Mods. from disaster) – and then war broke out the next year, while I still had a year to go at college. In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in, especially for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage. No degree: no money: fiancée. I endured the obloquy, and hints becoming outspoken from relatives, stayed up, and produced a First in Finals in 1915. Bolted into the army: July 1915. I found the situation intolerable and married on March 22, 1916. May found me crossing the Channel (I still have the verse I wrote on the occasion!) for the carnage of the Somme.

Think of your mother! Yet I do not now for a moment feel that she was doing more than she should have been asked to do – not that that detracts from the credit of it. I was a young fellow, with a moderate degree, and apt to write verse, a few dwindling pounds p. a. (£20 – 40), and no prospects, a Second Lieut. on 7/6 a day in the infantry where the chances of survival were against you heavily (as a subaltern). She married me in 1916 and John was born in 1917 (conceived and carried during the starvation-year of 1917 and the great U-Boat campaign) round about the battle of Cambrai, when the end of the war seemed as far-off as it does now. I sold out, and spent to pay the nursing-home, the last of my few South African shares, ‘my patrimony’.