Tinker, Tailor, Tolkien, Spy? Hardly. But that’s what headlines are inviting readers to believe.
“JRR Tolkien trained as British spy” declares Telegraph.co.uk.
“Tolkien’s Spy Past Inspires Hunt For Hobbit, Rings Spooks” says the Wired headline.
Britain’s intelligence-agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is displaying documents from J.R.R. Tolkien’s three days spent training at the Government Code and Cypher School in a new exhibit at its restricted, employees-only museum. The Telegraph reports:
According to previously unseen records, Tolkien trained with the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS).
He spent three days at their London HQ in March 1939 – six months before the outbreak of the Second World War and just 18 months after the publication of his first book, The Hobbit.
When the war started, GCCS deciphered Enigma traffic and broke other German ciphers and codes. That’s the work Tolkien auditioned for — not to carry out espionage in the field.
Nor was this a deep secret. In 2006, Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond’s The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide listed the information in the March 27, 1939 entry of the Chronology, which reads: “Tolkien begins a four-day training course in cryptography at the Foreign Office.”
Whether Humphrey Carpenter, author of Tolkien: A Biography, knew about this is less clear. All he says about the beginning of the war is that Tolkien volunteered as an air raid warden: “There were, however, no German air attacks on Oxford; nor was Tolkien required, was were a number of dons, to undertake work for the War Office or other government departments.”
If Tolkien wasn’t required, we know he was asked. The GCCS offered Tolkien £500-a-year offer to become a full-time recruit. He turned them down.
Journalists wonder why he went through the process, indicating to instructors he was “keen” for the work, then rejected the offer. Nobody knows. Not even GCHQ’s historian.
Intending no reflection on Tolkien’s patriotism (after all, he served in combat in WWI), I wonder: Was it the pay? Was £500 good money in 1939? Maybe one of you Tolkien scholars knows what he was making then. Was Tolkien asked to take a pay cut? Or did he turn down a raise?
Historic data on the compensation of Oxford dons isn’t easy to find even with the help of Google, though I did learn that the famous Professor Frederick Lindemann earned £900 in 1919 while holding the chair of experimental philosophy and running the Clarendon Laboratories. However, professors of science are generally paid better than those in the humanities, so knowing Lindemann’s compensation rate 20 years earlier may not be much help in estimating what a professor of Anglo Saxon languages made in 1939.
Or could it be possible Tolkien just went through the process to see if they had any cool ideas he could filch for his created languages?
[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the link.]