Thursday, 1 April 2010

The secret war gaming history of literary giants

Reference has already been made in previous posts here on Vintage Wargaming to the contribution of well known literary figures to early wargaming. These include Robert Louis Stevenson, A.J. Symons, H.G Wells and even Guy Debord.

Less well known is the involvement of a small group of academics and authors in Oxford in 1939, based on the Inklings group and their meetings at the Eagle and Child, and a young subaltern from the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment. Even less well known is the contribution their wargaming may have made to some of the most famous and well loved books of the second half of the 20th Century.

The academics and authors were J.R.R Tolkien, the Rawlinson Professor of Anglo Saxon, and C.S. (Jack) Lewis, Fellow and Tutor of Magdalen College. Both men had served on the Western front in the First World War, Tolkien with the Lancashire Fusiliers, and Lewis with the Somerset Light Infantry. Tolkien was invalided out in 1916, while Lewis went to France in 1917. Their experience of war left a lasting impression on both men, and Tolkien’s obsession with trenches is reflected in his later work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The subaltern was a young officer called Peter Young, who seems to have visited Oxford at irregular intervals to buy military footwear (including commando boots) from the well known Oxford outfitters Walters of the Turl. It may have been on one of these occasions that Peter Young attended a meeting of the Inklings – whether by invitation or accidental presence in the pub on a Tuesday morning is unknown – and met and befriended Lewis and Tolkien

For different reasons all three men sought an escape from their personal experiences of war. It seems that they evolved a complicated fantasy medieval world, where they fought at irregular intervals a mixture of a role playing and wargame campaign, punctuated and inspired by alcoholic intake at the Eagle and Child. Each man ruled an independent kingdom with castles, peasants and armies. Their name for this game was “Donjons and Flagons”, and it was fought using the patriotically incorrect (for the time) Elastolin composition Ritterfiguren (knights) bought by Lewis and Tolkien from Boswells in Broad Street. The embarrassing source of these figures from Germany may have been one of the reasons for the very sketchy detail that has existed to date about this game.

It is interesting to speculate whether this interest in mythical worlds contributed to Lewis’s development of the Narnia books between 1949 and 1954, Tolkien’s writing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy which was published in 1954 and 1955, and even to the Seven Years’ war campaigns described in Charge!

Intriguingly a recent discovery among J.R.R. Tolkien’s papers in Merton College Library (he became Merton Professor of English Language and Literature in 1945) suggests there may have been an additional element in this game – re-enactment. College Librarian M. R. Benn has discovered a previously unrecorded envelope containing two documentary fragments – a faded photograph, inscribed in Tolkien’s handwriting, “Peter Young playing the game, in the garden of 20 Northmoor Road, September 1939”, and the other a bill for hire of three medieval costumes from Walters of the Turl, also dated September 1939.

With permission of the College, the photograph is reproduced below

12 comments:

Conrad Kinch said...

I've often wondered if Peter Young ever met Samuel Beckett in the aftermath of the liberation of France. Beckett did partake of a simplified wargame using painted wooden blocks after he emigrated to France and he laments the loss of his set when he went on the run in 1942. Debord's game is a more stylised version of the Beckettian original. Beckett never cared for the Debordian game, the squared surface robbed the game of its interest and spontaneity; writing in an article for Poetry Ireland in 1977, he said "Tears, laughter and fixed movement rates, they are so much Gaelic to me."

Maverick Collecting said...

Although they continued to meet and drink together in the pub, there was apparently a falling out between Tolkien and Lewis, as the latter's books were clearley a religious allegory of good vs. evil, while Tolkien insisted to his dying day that his was not an allegory of anything just a fantasy. Not that many believed him!

I forget the finer details of the spat, or the final outcome, but I think for a while they sat and glared at each other rather than having the chats while they supped, that had previously been the norm?

Bluebear Jeff said...

Fascinating indeed. Don't we all wish that we could have been there . . . or at least could see it well in our minds' eyes?


-- Jeff

johnpreece said...

I admit it; you got me. A brilliant piece of research.

Steve-the-Wargamer said...

Oh very good... very very good... ..and look at the date..... :o)))

Henri Longuelade said...

I had always believed that the line about "snot-green, not-green bugger-cubes slither, sliding across the slimey surface of the crapular March map-plan" in James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake was a reference to Kriegspiel, but Joyce was also in Paris, of course, so perhaps he'd played Beckett's wargame and was recalling that?

adeptgamer said...

THIS WAS AWESOME! I realized the foolery pretty early in the article but it is well worth the read and almost makes it real.

Chris said...

Really excellent -- if it hadn't been for the reference to "Dungeons and Flagons" I'm sure you would have gotten me! An extremely fun read!

D Smith said...

Nice! I admit it, you had me going for the first half of the piece. Well played, well played.....

MSFoy said...

I realise that 1st April is long past, but this story rang some faint bells, and got me searching through my mother’s old scrapbooks. It adds little to the subject, but I did find what I was looking for, so thought I would comment here, if only to justify the search effort!

The Times of 28th May 1978 has an interview by John Firman with Dirk Bogarde, the English film actor and sometime author, on the occasion of the publication of ‘Snakes and Ladders’, the latest instalment of Bogarde’s (copious) autobiography. During the discussion, reference is made to the extraordinary commercial success of J.R.R Tolkien’s works, and Bogarde’s view that they had tapped into a huge latent public demand for complex fantasy, as an escape from the pressures of modern reality.

Bogarde is quoted as saying:

“For a while I was very friendly with Hugo Dyson, who of course was an academic of great stature but also an absolute sweetheart. Amazingly, Hugo had a cameo acting part in ‘Darling’ [1965] and we became great friends. He had been a friend of Tolkien’s at Oxford, and recalled him as not being a lot of fun, a man of terrifying intensity, yet noted for strange parties at his home, at which the guests were often required to dress up as fairies and knights in armour.”

Make of it what you will

Tony

Maverick Collecting said...

Hummm...well suckered good and proper, but the best fiction is always based in fact, so I can save a little face by standing-by my comments;

http://atheism.about.com/od/cslewisnarnia/a/jrrtolkein.htm

Not quite as I remembered it, but the 'gist' is there!

Well done!...muttermuttermutter..bloody photoshop...mutter...

tradgardmastare said...

I soooo wished it to be true. Superb post sir!
Alan