Banquets remembered

Loïs Moss, President 1994-95, Wrexham Representative 1993-94, Society Demi-god, and Banquet chef many times, shares her memories of Banquets past.

When I joined Taruithorn in 1992, the banquets were very different to the ones held now. The society had only been going a few years, so probably the most distinctive difference is that back then the age range of attendees was far smaller and there were no children. The banquets also started in the evening, making them shorter, these factors combined to create quite a different atmosphere. They were certainly more drunken, riotous and I was going to say adult, but thinking about it, today’s banquets seem more adult, so perhaps a better way to describe it is they seemed more teenage. Banquets were an excuse to dress up, eat and drink far too much, and then stagger back to your room or someone else’s and pass out. This was helped by the fact that the clearing up was done the next day, so none of us had to be in a fit state to make sure the place was left tidy at the end of the evening.

That’s not to say that no tidying up was done. One tradition which had already become established by the time I joined was that at banquets and other parties, a mathom would be constructed by Mark Poles at the end of the evening. This was made from a combination of leftovers of whatever had been drunk, so wine, beer, cider, fizzy drinks, fruit juice, port… all went into the bottle together. At the next gathering, the mathom would make an appearance, usually as a forfeit option. At one end of Trinity term party, when playing pass the parcel, my forfeit was to sing a Tolkien song or rhyme. Anyone who knows me knows I’d rather do almost anything than sing (or dance) in public so I chose instead to down in one, a pint of the now rather dubious looking mathom from the previous term’s banquet (and possibly the Christmas party since there was often a kind of solera-style system going on with mathoms). Things went a bit hazy after that, but whatever else was in it, there was definitely cherryade. In spite of that, to this day I’d still rather down a pint of dodgy-tasting mathom than sing or dance in public. Mark still makes killer cocktails, and if I have learnt anything, it’s to never trust a cocktail made by a teetotaler, it will make you fall over!

In light of the general alcohol consumption, it was probably a very good thing there was no dancing at the early banquets, that very much being the preserve of the Arthurians. A fact I was very glad of, had there been dancing, I’d have probably never joined Taruithorn. Costumes were most definitely a big thing though, though there wasn’t a costume competition they just added to the general atmosphere. Food-wise things were simpler back then too. We usually had just 3 courses and a meat and a veggie option for each course. Compared to the lavish many-coursed ones I’ve been to in more recent years, that seems very Spartan now. Though that’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of the food provided and there was always definitely plenty to drink.

The high value placed on eating and drinking with the common theme of Tolkien as the excuse to bring us together, appealed to me greatly as I’ve always had a Hobbit-like love of food, right from being a small child. Although there aren’t that many descriptions of food in Tolkien’s works, the passages of the Dwarves descending on Bilbo and eating him out of house and home, Beorn’s breakfast and the cake-making in Smith of Wooton Major always appealed to me. Some of my earliest memories are food related, standing on a chair aged 2 ¾ grating apple (and my fingers) into mincemeat at Christmas stands out as a favourite. As I got older, I grew to love cooking almost as much as I loved eating. In my teens I really wanted to go to a local college to do a catering course, but for a variety of reasons I ended up at Christ Church doing Biological Sciences, lamenting the fact that we didn’t even have a microwave available to us to do the most basic of cooking. So it wasn’t really a surprise when I found myself eagerly agreeing to cook for the Taruithorn banquet in my second year, such did I miss being able to cook during term time.

The first banquet I’d attended had been Hobbit themed and the ones prior to that had been Barad-Dur banquets, so for the first one I catered we decided it was time for the Elves to have a turn. There was some ‘debate’ amongst the banquet committee as to what Elves would eat, but eventually it was decided Elves would definitely eat pâté, so that took care of the starter. The main was venison in red wine with juniper, cooked to a recipe provided by Andrew McMurry. Sadly cruel eld prevents me from remembering what potatoes, vegetables or vegetarian options were provided, but the venison stew sticks in my mind. Not least because I spent the night before the banquet chopping up huge lumps of venison into bite-sized chunks and dropping them into the freshly cleaned salad drawer of my fridge to marinade in red wine overnight. There was a minor panic upon reaching the kitchen in Magdalen the next day, with the revelation there were no pans large enough to cook the stew in, or even a suitable combination of smaller ones. Cue the ever helpful Andrew making a very quick trip to Boswells with the instruction to buy the largest pan they had. He was successful and for the grand sum of £18 a 20 pint aluminium pan was procured which I own to this very day. Dessert was homemade brandysnap baskets with ice cream which I was able to provide thanks to taking over the kitchen at 9 York Place, home to Victoria Clare, Mark Poles and Stephen Lander for an afternoon. The whole experience taught me that catering for 30 on a single domestic electric oven isn’t the easiest thing to do, enough oven and hob space was definitely a challenge and so I was very glad I’d decided on cold starters and desserts.

With the budget we’d allowed for the banquet I was able to ensure there was plenty of money to procure enough alcohol to float an Oliphant. As well as buying in all the usual beer, cider, wine and port, I decided that we’d welcome people to the banquet with a punchbowl full of my very own special version of Miruvor. I seem to remember that in addition to providing free-flowing libations for the banquet there was more than enough alcohol left for the end of term party and we also made about £120 profit. The idea had been that if would be nice if we could make a bit of money from the banquet which could be used to help subsidise future events such as Gandalf’s fireworks and to provide a cushion in the bank account. As it was, having been so successful with the Rivendell banquet, I was able to go on a massive shopping trip after Halloween to purchase props for the planned return to a Barad-dûr banquet in 1995. My favourite purchase being a candle shaped like a hand, with a wick in each finger end which ended up in pride of place in front of Sauron on the top table.

Cooking and catering remain things I very much enjoy doing. For a number of years now I’ve helped run the catering at Fools and Heroes Summerfest, which since it’s a LARP event allows me to combine my loves of catering and costuming. I’ve also catered or made celebration cakes for a number of events for family, friends and work. Without doing the Taruithorn banquets I’m not sure I’d have had the confidence to do all those things and that would have been a shame. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had in knowing you’ve just turned 15kg of meat into dinner for dozens of hungry people, so I’m always looking for new opportunities to indulge my passion.

Over the past 10 years or so I attended several of the banquets again and seeing the changes that have gone on gave me pause for reflection. Whilst it was thoroughly enjoyable for all us oldies to turn up to the banquets for a mini reunion, our very presence did turn the banquet into a very different beast. I wondered what I’d have thought as a student, to a load of middle-aged people I didn’t know turning up to our main event of the year. We also seemed, to my mind at least, to be somewhat more rowdy and apt to get drunk on the whole than the current members, polishing off all the alcohol by about 9.30pm one year…. Ooops! Realising the pool of potential attendees was getting increasingly large, I decided not to go to the banquets anymore. It would be a shame if a current member missed out on the experience at my expense. The idea of doing an oldies banquet was mooted after that, and there seemed to be general interest. A suitable venue is proving more difficult to find, but watch this space….

I still look back at my time in Taruithorn and the banquets in particular with great fondness, not least because I gained a wonderful group of friends for life. The banquet may have changed almost beyond recognition from what it was back in my day, but it’s still a brilliant experience not to be missed during your student days.

If you’d like to relive a taste from a Banquet past, then here is the menu and recipes from Rivendell 1994.

Rivendell 1994
Welcome drink – Miruvor
Starter – Chicken liver pâté or homemade cream cheese pâté served with bread rolls,
Main – Venison with red wine and juniper
Dessert – Homemade brandysnap baskets and ice cream

Venison with red wine and juniper
This recipe has evolved over the years and I seldom stick to the exact recipe. You can add any number of additional things to it too, harder root vegetables such as carrots and potato can go in at the beginning with the meat. Sweet potatoes cook a little quicker so I’d add them after an hour’s cooking. Barley should be added along with the mushrooms. Ensure if adding barley that you stir during the remaining cooking time and watch the liquid level as it will absorb quite a lot of liquid as it cooks. A handful of cranberries or redcurrants, fresh or frozen can be nice too added with the mushrooms if you’d like more of a fruity flavour.

Ingredients
2lb/1kg venison, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
8oz/250g mushrooms, cut into chunks
1 bottle red wine – preferably something soft and fruity, like a Merlot or Grenache.
1 tblsp of crushed juniper berries
A few sprigs of thyme and parsley, chopped
A bay leaf
2 tblsp of redcurrant jelly or sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil
A few tblsps of cornflour or plain flour to thicken the sauce if required.

Method – Night before serving
1. The night before you want to serve the stew, cut the venison into bite sized chunks and put into a non-metallic container. Cover it with the red wine and add the crushed juniper berries.
2. Cover and refrigerate until required.

Method – Day of serving
1. Get the venison out of the fridge and drain off the red wine and juniper berries into whatever you’re going to cook the casserole in. If it’s a slow cooker, set it on high to heat up. If it’s going to be done in the oven or a pan, start it heating in the oven or in the pan. Cover the dish if you are able if cooking in the oven or a pan or alternatively check and top up the wine as necessary as it cooks.
2. Sauté the onion in some oil, adding the garlic when the onion is looking translucent. Cook until the onion starts to take on some colour. Add to the slow cooker, casserole dish or pan.
2. Brown the drained venison in some oil. Add to the onion and wine along with a bay leaf & herbs.
3. Cook for about 5 hours in a slow cooker on high, 2 hours in the oven or in a pan. If cooking in a pan, ensure you stir every so often to prevent it sticking.
4. Add the chopped mushrooms and cook for another hour or so until the meat is tender. Uncover the casserole dish or pan if cooking by that method to reduce the liquid.
5. When cooked through and the meat is soft, you can thicken the gravy if necessary by mixing a little cornflour or plain flour with some additional cold water or wine and stirring through. Allowing it to boil for a few minutes to cook the starch and allow it to thicken before adding any more.
6. Taste and season with the red currant jelly, salt, freshly ground black pepper and additional herbs and juniper if desired.

Miruvor
Ingredients
1 70cl bottle of Midori
1 litre bottle of Vodka
2 litres of lemonade
Lots of ice
Mint leaves, edible flowers and/or Marachino cherries to garnish

Method
1. Place the ice in a large bowl. Err on the side of more ice rather than less and larger chunks or cubes of it if you can so that it chills rather than dilutes the mix.
2. Pour the vodka and Midori over the ice and stir.
3. Gently pour the lemonade over, stopping to let the foam subside and then stir gently.
4. Garnish with mint leaves and edible flowers if you’re feeling posh, Marachino cherries if you’re not!

Some personal reminiscences of a superannuated Editor

Memories from ages past from Anna Vaninskaya, Miruvor Editor 2001-2 and 2005-7 (as well as President 2004-05 and Secretary 2003-04)

‘O agéd city of an all too brief sojourn’

I first became aware of Taruithorn about eighteen years ago. I was sitting in the Math Resource Center [sic [that was the author’s [sic], not mine – Editor]] of Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado and surfing the net on an Apple Mac during a free ‘period’. Tolkien had been my life since about 1992, and I thought of Oxford as one would think of the Heavenly Jerusalem – a place no mere mortal such as myself could ever attain to in this life, but one whose contemplation could solace the weary soul. And then I saw it – the Taruithorn website – and photographs of some Taruithorn Holiday (of the mid-90s it must have been). I looked at the unknown faces. There was no inkling in my mind of the future, but I have remembered that moment ever since.

Less than four years later, I rushed into a room in the Exam Schools and went straight up to the Taruithorn table, my heart pounding. The person manning it (Russ Shannon?) was doubling as an Arthurian, so I joined the Arthurians on the spur of the moment as well. I came out of Fresher’s Fair elated: the impossible had happened, the dizzying gulf between the Math Resource Center in an American suburb far far away and the glamorous and mysterious world of those people in the online photographs had been bridged.

Exactly fourteen years ago (Hilary 2001) I became Miruvor editor. That too was unplanned. I had no idea, my first Michaelmas, of the internal politics of the society, of the perennial desperate scramble to find and co-opt new members onto the committee. Walking down Queen’s Lane with Lukas Lehmann on a dark and cold evening, I felt the offer of the editorship as an unexpected and unearned honour, both thrilling and frightening. Oh for those prelapsarian days! When the turn came, a few years later, to serve as Secretary and then President, the awe had long since evaporated, but the Taruithorn of those later years (c. 2003-2006) had instead become a homelike, comfortable place, that fit like the proverbial glove. We had no shortage of committee members then! Committee meetings – with turnouts of ten or above being commonplace – were almost livelier than the Friday meetings proper. This was also the time of the Russian hegemony – we occupied all the main posts, and on our watch the battle with the Tolkien Estate solicitors over the licence fee was fought and won. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! And I too finally went on a Taruithorn Holiday.

Back in 2000-2001, I had been aware of the presence in the society of a certain mathematician from Teddy Hall. I knew that he spoke Russian, that he had a weird hairdo, and that he was the treasurer, and – as such – on the receiving end of exasperated rants from certain members who shall remain nameless. We did not exchange two words that entire year. By the time I went on the Taruithorn Holiday, we were dating – and hiding the fact strenuously from everyone in the society. I now have no idea why – but we would time our comings and goings to make sure that no one would notice we were heading in the same direction. If it had not been for Taruithorn, I would have missed all the fun of a clandestine love affair. Then we gave up on the charade and got married – neither the first nor the last in a long line of Taruithorn weddings.

Part of the D.Phil. thesis I was writing when I was president focused on late-Victorian and Edwardian socialist societies. I thought at the time that the nature and history of Taruithorn as an institution showed some remarkable parallels with those societies, and I think so still, though it has now lasted longer – a quarter century! – than quite a few of them. But of course it is not just the dynamic of Victorian socialist societies that Taruithorn replicates, but that of any small voluntary organisation, although with the constant turnover of student generations everything happens at an accelerated pace. There is no time to ossify – the constant infusion of new blood prevents that – but there are plenty of opportunities to splinter and fall apart, to take the wrong turning and scare off potential new recruits to the Cause. This has not happened yet, and long may Taruithorn continue – until a three-volume history of the Society is published by Oxford University Press. And then the game will be up.

Between summer 2001 and Michaelmas 2003 I was back in American suburbia, working – with full conscious intent this time around – to get back into the Heavenly Jerusalem. I succeeded, and the fallow years were mercifully cut short. In 2006 I technically moved to the Other Place, to take up my first job, but I continued living in Oxford, editing Miruvor and attending meetings. By 2008 this was becoming progressively harder to do, and in 2010 the gates of Tolkien’s City were finally shut upon me and I went as an exile into the North. I had been clinging on for a good decade: much of it frustrating and awkward, but much of it glorious beyond anything I had experienced before or since. For the last five years I have watched things unfolding as Húrin from his seat in Thangorodrim, though Taruithorn’s fate has been a happier one so far than that analogy implies. When I am released at intervals to wander back, I exclaim, in the words of the old Oxford eulogist:

How changed is here each spot man makes or fills! 
In the two Hinkseys nothing keeps the same […]
Here came I often, often, in old days –
I see each new generation of Taruithorn pass by like

A troop of Oxford hunters going home, 
As in old days, jovial and talking […]

But let it never be said of me as of Arnold’s Scholar-Gypsy: she ‘came to Oxford and [her] friends no more’.

Undertowers

Hebe Stanton (Secretary 2014-15) gives us the second of the Anniversary issue’s lovely Shire-based stories.

A long time ago in the noontime of the world – for the morning had passed, and the Ages were wearing on – there lived a famous family of hobbits in the shadow of ancient towers. They were not like other hobbits, who rarely do anything more gossip-worthy than steal the occasional mushroom from a farmer’s fields; for one thing, they were archivists and librarians, and studied languages long-lost to this green earth; for another, they lived within far sight of the Sea, which was thought to make them strange and dreamy and altogether unfit for good wholesome Shire life. Though their work, and their general existence, was admitted to be necessary for the balance of things, and they were routinely praised from afar, the earthier inhabitants of the Shire were, secretly, thankful that the Fairbairns of the Towers rarely descended from their green hills.

Be that as it may, the Fairbairns were quite content in their labyrinthine dwellings amid the immemorial Elven-towers. Occasionally young and excitable hobbits from the Four Farthings were sent to live with the family for a time, so that they might satisfy their taste for adventure safely, as it were, and lose their longing for the wide blue yonder in ancient tales of the Great Danger and even ancienter tales of times when Elves and Ents and other strange creatures could still be seen walking the wide lands. As a matter of fact this hardly ever worked; more often than not the young hobbits would come back older and dreamier, more remote from their fellows, and always vaguely dissatisfied with the everyday realities of life in the Shire; but they no longer showed any inclination to travel beyond its borders, which was good enough for their beleaguered parents.

Such a child, in any case, was Elfreda Goodbody of the Southfarthing. Owing to the influence of a rather Tookish grandmother who claimed to have met the King in the South as a very young child – a piece of nonsense, of course, but very memorable for an impressionable six-year-old like Elfreda – she had grown into a rather vague tweenager, much given to drifting about the Shire-fields in an attractively waifish way, wandering at twilight in pale dresses through the gentle woods in search (so she claimed) of Elves, or reading old picture-books in sunny glades (as she liked to call them). Quite apart from being unnatural in the generally hale and hearty Goodbodies, this behaviour was beginning to attract veritable hordes of hobbit-boys who would pop up at odd moments, hoping to catch sight of her unguarded. It was deemed advisable to send Elfreda to Undertowers before anything untoward happened.

Elfreda, surprisingly, was not as elated by this as one might expect. In actual fact she had quite enjoyed being trailed by what she liked to think of as her entourage of admirers, and was not at all pleased at the prospect of being sent to an isolated outpost of the Shire where there would be no hope of Adventure, or, failing that, an untoward encounter with the handsomest of the hobbit-boys. But, as so often happens in these cases, her feelings were not consulted, and she found herself being shipped off in the month of April, just when the Shire was at its fairest, to the high and white Elven-towers in the West.

The journey was long and, mostly, uneventful, though rain on the second day meant a long and dull day spent before the fire at the Red Dragon in Tuckborough. But soon enough the Goodbody pony-trap was winding up the long road in the twilight of evening to Undertowers. It was an unprepossessing place, for the most part, built in the old style into the hills; the only outward sign of its existence were a multitude of round windows looking out onto the road, which spiralled on up into the foothills until it was lost in the shadows of sunset. The front door – round and green, in memory, apparently, of its founder’s home at Hobbiton in the Westfarthing – lay in a place where the road cut a ledge into the side of the largest of the hills: at that time of evening the shadow of ancient Elostirion lay upon it. The hobbit-servant who had travelled with Elfreda (and was to return to the Southfarthing the next day) rang the bell, and the green door was opened – after a few minutes – by an old, old hobbit whose hair was quite as white as milk.
He beamed: “Elfreda, I presume? Welcome to Undertowers! My name is,” (here he appeared to think for a moment) “Adalgrim Fairbairn, although hardly anyone calls me that any more. I, and all the Fairbairns, are, of course, at your service!”

Elfreda curtsied coldly. “And my family at yours,” she said, because it was what was expected of her.

“Come in, do,” said Adalgrim, motioning to the pair at the door. “The nights are cold here, and it does not do to let the night-shadows wander in.”

Elfreda followed, not without a look back over the Westmarch to the Shire proper, where lights were kindling in the valleys like stars. A shadow seemed to pass across her mind then, and she wondered if she would ever return to the quiet lands of the Southfarthing.

* * *

It would not be inaccurate to describe Undertowers as labyrinthine. Almost a small town in itself, its tunnels and passageways extended right through two or three of the tallest hills of the Westmarch, though the central chambers were reserved for the libraries and archives for which the Fairbairns were famed. The living quarters were all close to the surface, where windows looking out over the Shire or into the West could comfortably illuminate them. In true hobbit tradition, the number of pantries and kitchens was very large – food to stock them was bought in daily from the lower lands – and meals were frequent, large and raucous. The Fairbairn clan was extensive, and its numbers were boosted by numerous visitors from the Shire proper. It was easy enough for Elfreda to settle into a tolerable routine, though she remained aloof from hobbits of her own age. She did, however, spend much of her day in the library-passages deep beneath the surface, mostly at first because there was nothing better to do. But there was a strange peace to be found in wandering with a safety lantern through caverns lined with oaken shelves where the dust motes swirled and the spiders scuttled (these, it was said, were growing ever larger in these late days – although why the days were late was never specified by the fairhaired scholars who had studied deepest in the archives). Occasionally she would come across other browsers, lanterns bobbing in the silent dark as they pored over fading shelfmarks or sat in forgotten corners, immersed. But mostly the tunnel system was vast enough that she remained alone.

She liked to gather six or seven volumes at once and carry them out to the lighter upper levels to read; on finer days she would venture out on to the hills, to find quiet haunts in which to study. At first her fare was little more original than the picture-books she had read at home in the Southfarthing; but as the days passed into weeks she found herself reading myths, legends, fairytales, histories of the long-vanished Third Age; of faraway cursed lakes where gold and jewels had lain untouched for centuries; of forgotten Elf-realms between the Mountains and the Sea (she murmured their fair, alien names under her breath to herself: Lothlorien, Imladris, Eregion, Ithilien), of lands lost under wave, of great cities of white stone and unnamed horrors in the East. The world seemed impossibly vast in those books where wonder still dwelt in the corners of the earth, and it never occurred to her that wonder lingered yet in her own Shire, where vast libraries lay beneath green hills shadowed by towers made in times long-forgotten by a race that had perished utterly from this Middle-earth.

It was not long before Elfreda’s time was spent wholly among the legends of other times. She sought out treatises on Elf-magic, bestiaries written in old Osgiliath; she found rare copies of the Quenta Silmarillion, and devoured the tales of the Silmarils, marvelling at ancient oaths and noble loves and terrible slaughters, impossibly high and distant. She traced through vague shadows on the borders of old stories the mythology of the Ainur, and would spend hours imagining the Song at the beginning of time, the great and cataclysmic moment when the World came into being. She had fallen to the perilous spell of Undertowers, and there were none now left in Middle-earth who could rescue her.

* * *

It was in a time of high summer, when the orchards of the Shire were swelling with fruit and the hills of the Westmarch basked in long days of sun (though it was never hot, for a constant Western breeze blew in from the Sea), that Elfreda decided to climb Elostirion, the tower that Gil-galad built for Elendil in the long ago. She had discussed the plan with Adalgrim, who had over the months become a sort of confidante (for they were both lonely souls); he had opposed it superstitiously, saying that it was sacrilegious, dangerous, foolish. Who knew what old and twisted magics lay there still? But Elfreda was determined; she very much doubted that any Elf-magic could be dangerous, at least not in the way that Adalgrim hinted, and she wished very much to see the Sea of which she had read so much, which, it was said, could be seen on a fair day from the top of the tower. As far as she knew, no Fairbairn had climbed the tower which overshadowed their home for at least a hundred years.

She took with her a knapsack of easily-stored food, for she was a hobbit first and foremost. She left from a back door of Undertowers, a little higher up the hill than the famous green door, which opened out onto the white road winding into the unexplored passes and valleys of Emyn Beraid, the Tower Hills. But that was not her way; for the road went West, dwindling as it did so into a path used only for long rambles, until it vanished utterly into the forgotten places of the earth. Instead, she took a track that led off almost straight up the hill upon which Elostirion stood. The way was steep, and occasionally there were flights of steps cut into rock as she climbed; but soon enough Elfreda had reached the summit of the hill, and she stood in the shadow of Elostirion as the sun began to wester.

If I told you that Elfreda felt no fear as she squeezed through the half-open stone door of the tower I would be lying. Her heart was pounding, though she did not, like Adalgrim, fear hidden traps or dark monsters. She feared only emptiness: that she would climb the tower and find, after all, nothing but dust and cobwebs and the whispering West wind. That, for her, would be the ultimate terror: the knowing that the Elves and their works had indeed passed utterly from the earth.

And yet she climbed. Within the tower was only a single staircase, spiralling ever upwards, hugging the walls. To Elfreda (who, you must remember, was less than four feet tall) the climb seemed endless; even more so because the steps had been made for Elven-legs, and were far too high for her hobbit-legs to reach comfortably. She had to stop often, to sit in an alcove or a windowsill and eat a little seedcake or drink a little water. But she never stopped for long; the silence in the tower unnerved her, and the curving staircase seemed to extend into infinity below and ahead. Not even the wind outside could be heard, though there was no glass in the windows spaced at intervals along the staircase. And still she climbed through infinite white.

It seemed many hours later (though in reality the sun was still quite high in the Western sky) when Elfreda noticed the light streaming from above beginning to brighten, until all at once she emerged from the endless staircase into the large chamber of white stone at the top of the tower. Here, at least, the windows were glassed, framed by five elegant arches of stone through which light almost brighter than was bearable streamed unceasingly. In the centre of this glaringly bright, aggressively silent room stood an empty pedestal carved in the likeness of a white tree with stars amid its leaves. Elfreda knew that once this pedestal must have held the lost Seeing-Stone of the North, and the knowledge filled her with a strange fright and awe. But then she looked through the windows.

The world upon which the windows of Elostirion looked was not the world that she knew. East she gazed, out to the Shire which she knew so well, and saw nothing but forest and rolling downs. South she looked, and the Tower Hills rolled before her. There was no sign of Undertowers and the villages of the Westmarch, but it seemed to her that shimmering figures moved in the passes between the hills, and parties of travellers moved along frequented roads. North she turned, and – glory upon glory! – a city rose shimmering in the afternoon light, beyond the wide and calm Gulf of Lhun, a city of towers and ships and ever-circling gulls, a city that had been ruined for long years before Elfreda’s birth. She looked, in fact, upon the Grey Havens, Mithlond of old, and it lived again through the far-seeing glass of Elostirion. Ships moved through the ancient Gulf, riven by unimaginable tumults in the War of the Valar, and horses moved on the roads around the city, and spires of smoke rose turning in the sunlight of the Elder Days. And in the far West, when finally Elfreda turned her eyes from the elven-city, she saw upon the horizon of the vast and heaving Sea a white sail journeying East into the wonder and sadness of this Middle-earth.

* * *

It is a sad fact that Elfreda never was seen again at Undertowers, and no Goodbody ever knew where she had gone, or why. But it is said among the Fairbairns (who nevertheless say a good many things whose truth is doubtful) that at the setting of the sun upon the day she left a star burned upon Elostirion’s tip, and a sound as of unearthly song, achingly sad and fair, was heard through all the Westmarch.

Taruithorn on Television

In January last year, the Society made a rare television appearance, on which Anahita Hoose (Treasurer 2013-14 & 2015-present, Miruvor Editor 2011-12, Society Hero) gives us her report:

Yes, it’s true – our society is featured in Cerigo Films’ upcoming documentary, À la récherche du Hobbit (Looking for the Hobbit), broadcast on the Franco-German channel Arte, in December 2014. This surprising turn of events came about after the director, Olivier, and other members of the crew made a trip to Oxford for reconnoitring purposes in autumn 2013. They initially contacted TolkSoc to ask if we could give them any advice on Tolkien-related places to film, but after Amrit, Joe, Martha and I met them we accidentally managed to impress them so much that they decided to put the four of us on camera.

Photo by Cerigo Films

Photo by Cerigo Films

The connecting theme of Looking for the Hobbit is illustrator John Howe’s quest to find the inspiration behind Tolkien’s invention of hobbits, in the course of which he discovers sources for other elements of the legendarium in various European mythologies and locations (with a somewhat controversial focus on Arthurian inspirations). The series also features the Sorbonne academic Leo Carruthers, with whom we are seen interacting in the first episode.

We spent the morning of the first of the four days it took to film our scenes in the Eagle and Child, reading to each other out of Tolkien books, over copious amounts of tea. Such, apparently, is the manner in which we spend our mornings as a society; at least, the idea is that Leo enters to find us about our characteristic activities. Joe’s exemplary spoon-twirling abilities qualified him for special directorial praise. Being filmed was a novel experience made more embarrassing by having microphones concealed under our clothing – I was surprised at one point to find a cameraman descending upon me with the words “Anahita, your battery is running down.”

We all felt very awkward the first time we were required to converse on camera (rather than hiding behind Tolkien’s words), with the horrendous and hilarious result that, when asked to respond to Amrit’s reading of the first description of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, what we produced was a sort of critical examination of his fashion sense, each of us expressing a preference for a different item of wizardly attire (“I like the boots.” “But what shade of blue was the hat?”). I rather suspect Olivier of enjoying our pain too much to say the magic word “Coupez!”

Photo by Cerigo films

Photo by Cerigo films

On the morning of Day Two, Joe and Amrit were filmed talking to the wizard-like John Howe. The morning was livened up by the producer accidentally breaking Amrit’s phone; she later bought him a replacement. In the afternoon, all four of us joined John Howe in Exeter dining hall. John (forbiddingly silent though he initially appeared) proved extremely approachable and good at drawing people out, but he did not show us the contents of his sketchbook. He was supposed to have just returned from his European travels in quest for the origins of hobbits, so Joe had the difficult task of asking him whether he had succeeded without sounding like an interrogator or an examiner. Then, when John confessed that he had discovered pretty much everything about Tolkien’s sources except what he’d been looking for, we had to reveal that we had the answer – hobbits were based on ordinary English people – and could cite the proof texts from the Tolkien books we had about us as usual.

On Day Three everyone assembled for lunch in the Royal Oak, including Leo. Not having met us before, he greeted each of us with the words “Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielvo”, to which, somewhat distressingly, none of us were capable of responding adequately without asking him to repeat it. (I also found eating in the Royal Oak as a vegan something of a trial, since the only vegetarian dish on the menu could not be prepared without dairy products. Waiter: “Are you vegetarian as well?” I: “Yes.” Waiter responds despondently. Martha: “She’s a vegan!” Waiter (more despondently): “You’re vegan as well?”…)

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We were then driven to Northmoor Road, which we were filmed approaching with Leo (from the wrong direction if we’d really walked from the Eagle and Child, where we were to be filmed offering to show him Tolkien’s houses). We spent the afternoon being filmed in the road, which we regularly had to leave to avoid being run over by one of the many learner drivers out practising their skills, and being instructed by Olivier to say less about Tolkien than we wanted to. During this time we all learned to dread the words “Encore une fois!” In compensation, however, we were each presented with a thematically appropriate marzipan figure (either a wizard or a hobbit), which was a lovely surprise.

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On Day Four we had to present ourselves at the Eagle and Child again at 8 in the morning. Accordingly, I slept blissfully until 8.30, when I was woken by Joe ringing me and dressed very hurriedly before joining everyone else for a morning of casual on-camera chat with Leo, culminating in our being filmed walking off with him, ostensibly to Northmoor Road. We were then released to go on with our lives, having had an unquestionably memorable experience!

You can read more about the documentary at http://www.cerigofilms.com and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cerigo-Films/112115042200325, where some pictures of us have appeared. [Additionally, we hear that those travelling on Air New Zealand can view our performances at will – Amrit.]

A Unique Perspective: Twenty-five years around Taruithorn

Matthew Kilburn, longest regular attendee of the Society (and Society Super Hero), shares his fascinating view of the Society’s history.

I’ve been described as an ‘accidental Tolkien fan’, for reasons which this article will help to explain. Yet here I am, asked to write something for this anniversary Miruvor on the grounds that I have a ‘unique perspective’ on Taruithorn and its history. I’m not sure why I’m here, but will try to explain what I’ve gained, what I’ve enjoyed and what I’ve learned from Taruithorn, and why I am still around.

Confessions of a latecomer
I didn’t take to Tolkien when growing up. I read The Hobbit when I was nine and was unimpressed, as I often was with books which I was told I would like and which would be good for me. It seemed rather twee and I had difficulty imagining Bilbo as anything other than the anthropomorphized bear protagonist of Stan and Jan Berenstain’s Inside Outside Upside Down, a favourite book from when I was much younger. If this betrays contrarian impulses, my shunning The Lord of the Rings a few years later, when almost all my contemporaries seemed to be reading it, probably confirms that assumption.

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Lurking in the background were my memories of having read about Tolkien in Sunday newspapers a few years before, probably in the wake of the publication of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography. A self-conscious child, I was attracted by reading about Tolkien and his imagined worlds and languages, but at the same time felt I couldn’t possibly emulate them. I shunned Tolkien in part because at the age of seven or so I didn’t see any point in learning from him. Not been there, someone else has done that.

The road goes ever on, if one can be bothered to follow it. In October 1989 I came up to Oxford, where I was at St John’s but socialized little there. I joined the nascent Doctor Who Society, and ended up spending more time there than I had expected. During my first Hilary term, in the January and February of 1990, I became aware of plotting towards the establishment of a Tolkien Society at Oxford, involving Sarah Sturch, Louise Dennis and Liz Humphry. Louise, I think, suggested that I join; I declined on the grounds that I didn’t know much about or like Tolkien. I remember explaining my reaction to The Hobbit to Sarah, who said I had probably been too young for it. This was a thought-provoking put-down, as the child I had been had considered himself too old.

The King and the Professor
One society with which I did become slowly but increasingly involved was the Arthurian Society, which undertook trips – ‘pilgrimages’ – to sites associated with the historical and mythological King Arthur, staged a banquet every Michaelmas term, had speakers, dressed up in costume inspired by the dark and middle ages straddling the borders between re-enactment and live roleplaying, and so on. There were some aspects to which I was more attracted than others, but I had always been fascinated by the gap in the historical record which the figure of Arthur aimed to fill, though in the event not enough to pore away at the languages and the like to study it.

In effect, this was a move towards Taruithorn. I became unhelpfully tangled in the politics of this a little, but by the early 1990s the Arthurian Society was living on borrowed time, or at least a transfer of people from Taruithorn. Tolkien and his works seem easier to unite around than King Arthur, who can be a divisive figure in that enthusiasts are always arguing over too many points of difference to list here.

A useful entry point, though, is that I was excited by concepts which encourage a culture of creativity and adaptation. Doctor Who was written and made by teams of people with differing ideas about what they were working on and was divided into serials (and latterly episodes) with new settings. Even at less than their best, they hint at wider universes beyond the details they depict. The first active contribution I made to the Arthurian Society was a review of the film A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949). This musical starring Bing Crosby is a light-hearted adaptation of Mark Twain’s double-edged satire of late-nineteenth-century America’s contradictory obsessions with medievalism and the fast buck, but I’d argue that both are as Arthurian as Malory or Chrétien de Troyes. Tolkien’s works are part of a legendarium of a complexity both laboriously intricate and for all its detail tantalisingly incomplete; there are lacunae and inconsistencies in the core published works which invite speculation and new imaginative fanworks, possibilities only widened by The History of Middle Earth and lately The History of the Hobbit. Authenticity might lie in fidelity to and faith in the source material, and an imaginative engagement not only with this but also the intentions of the author but also a knowledge of its reception, whether these are personal to the fan creator or not.

In summer 1993, when I was twenty-two, I at last read The Lord of the Rings. I found it hard going at first, though as someone who read a lot of Penguin Classics translations when I was in my teens, particularly from classical and mediaeval works, I enjoyed the sense that this was a translated text which had been through several generations of transmission before it reached us, and where each change in voice could represent a different editor or an interpolation from a variant manuscript. Battles and epic heroism never did very much for me, though my reactions came together into something satisfying with ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ as macroverse and microverse converged, and the waning of Frodo and his passage into the West made the appropriate impression for someone already conscious that victory and loss are rarely exclusive at any moment. I think I wrote about the experience for Miruvor, though I don’t have the issue to hand and (reluctant as I was to embrace word-processing, which I associated with dodgy dot-matrix printers) I was using an electric typewriter at the time and didn’t take a copy of the article.

My project of the time, though, apart from my doctorate, was the rescue of the Arthurian Society. This seemed to work at first, but involved the promotion of people whose visions were more different than I’d realised from those of the friends whose endeavour I’d joined. This was my first real lesson in the importance of people enjoying what they do and each other’s company. University societies of our kind should be relaxed, imaginative, enjoyable places, and the reformed Arthurians, initially at my prompting, had strayed much closer than I’d anticipated to being just another lecture series.

Late 1990s and early 2000s
Unsurprisingly, the focus of several of my Arthurian friends became Taruithorn, and when I finally went to a meeting – in Trinity 1995 – I encountered the sort of companionship that the Arthurians had sought, had found, and lost again. President Sarah Mackie’s introduction to the meeting was more than anything else warm and unforced without any hint of pretention. While a lot of my social life over the next seven years was spent trying to prop up and then peacefully wind down the Arthurians, I had increasingly more to do with Taruithorn, though this largely involved turning up to the occasional speaker meeting, AGMs and firework, mathom and punt parties, as I was finishing my doctorate as well as helping keep the Arthurians on life support. I did enjoy hearing the latest works by the Taruithorn Singers, including a surely still legendary song about baked potatoes. I also remained a regular attendee at the Doctor Who Society as well as a writer for non-Oxonian Doctor Who fanzines. I came back for occasional Arthurian and Taruithorn events in the period 1997 to 1999 when I wasn’t living in Oxford, often staying in a then Taruithorn-dominated house on Howard Street.

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The 1999 punt party (photos from the Archive)

The 1999 punt party (photos from the Archive)

In October 1999 I left London (where I’d been living with first one and then two Taruithorn ex-presidents) to return to Oxford and a job I very much wanted at what was then called the New Dictionary of National Biography. I remember going to some Taruithorn meetings including one which ended up very merrily in our senior member Martin Grossel’s room, then I think in Blue Boar Quad in Christ Church. There was also the tenth anniversary banquet in Hilary 2000, held at St Peter’s, followed by the bearing of the Taruithorn white tree banner down New Inn Hall Street and through Bonn Square, which went without any hitch I recall despite Bonn Square’s then reputation as a haunt for the inebriated and potentially violent. However, I was not too well for the latter part of that evening and retired to the flat I was then renting in Kidlington early.

This anniversary event was well-attended, but at the time membership was going through one of its cyclical downturns. There had been talk of some sort of merger with the Arthurians, though this reunion of Arnor and Gondor did not take place as our Elessar was forced to withdraw from Minas Tirith and return north to the land of the Dúnedain. Nevertheless, some Arthurian traditions were adapted for the Taruithorn, especially the dances at banquets. For a little while things went badly. I remember turning up to a quiz preparation meeting early in 2001 where I think only five people appeared. One of the themes which emerges in the tenth anniversary Miruvor is speculation about the Peter Jackson films and the realisation that circumstances were about to change. However, the 2002 ‘Looseley [sic] Based on the Film’ banquet wasn’t very well-attended, though there were a few non-core types, and we seemed dwarfed by the size of West Oxford Community Centre.

The Taruithorn Singers (photo by Andrew Wells)

The Taruithorn Singers (photo by Andrew Wells)

Whips not necessary
During the early 2000s I kept feeling that I should really be drawing away from student concerns, but the lie was given to this by the emergence of another non-student, Colin Jack, as one of the great ideas people of the society at this point. I think it was Colin who suggested the rebadging of the society as the ‘Tolkien and Classic Fantasy Society’ and broadened its remit to discuss authors including Terry Pratchett. The strategy suggested inclusiveness and helped bring new people into the society, as did the more general wave of interest which followed The Felllowship of the Ring’s release. Most important, though, was the conjunction of personalities which came into the society and filled several gaps in the early 2000s, too many to list here, whose names are prominent in the committee lists of most of the decade. Where there’s a whip, the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Return of the King said, there’s a way; but after a few years of desperation, we suddenly and definitely didn’t need one to keep people in.

My most useful skills seemed to be the ability to drive and the possession of a car. The car helped with bonfires and banquets, and the driving could also be applied to hired minibuses. Two fellow-conspirators and I drove a busload of Taruithorn to Sutton Hoo in Trinity 2004, which I remember for headlines about interest rates alarming the homeowners in the front seats, certain people being more hands-on with the exhibits in the museum than was allowed, the general light and open vistas of that Sunday, my bursting someone’s theory about algorithms supposedly used to determine when route confirmation signs appeared on primary routes by pointing out gently that they always followed junctions, and apparently none of the talkers, singers or sleepers in the back of the minibus noticing that we had decided to drive back via Cambridge, where we had or sought supper. Less than a year later, I was part of a group which made the visit to the university assessor which led to the successful deflection of an attempt by the Tolkien Estate’s solicitors to charge us a licence fee for the use of Tolkien’s name, a cause taken up by other societies; I felt I’d taken part in something useful, defending respectful communal enjoyment of someone’s work from those insisting that every exchange of ideas should be understood as a commercial trade.

By this time Taruithorn was firmly settled in Christ Church for regular meetings, and I remember a period when by the good grace of Dr Grossel we made great use of the fellows’ garden, not only for the strawberry party but also for a becloaked dramatic reading and even a ‘history meeting’ where we explored the archive. There were walks through Port Meadow, via the Perch when it was still a riverside pub of the amiably self-referential eccentricity increasingly rare in Oxford, complete with giant chess pieces and swings, and where our wander back might involve being witness to fighting cows and being greeted by horses starved of human company. There were discussions about fantasy, fact and fiction into the night over ice cream in G&Ds or over coffee and tea in college rooms. This was a happy period when I found myself enjoying simple pleasures with what I now realise was unnecessary guilt. I thought I was gatecrashing another generation’s party, but if I was, I seemed to be made welcome.

Banquests, guests and cards
The mid-2000s saw the banquets blossom beneath a lattice of creative talents of which Tora Hallatt was the most enduring and most celebrated. There were several people who would only attend the banquet, so extensive was its reputation, despite it being held in the North Oxford Community Centre in Summertown, well beyond the traditional borders of student Oxford where Wolfson and St Hugh’s are in lands where live dragons, in school or otherwise. I was glad to get to know many older members better too.

The 2002 Banquet (Photo by Matthew Kilburn)

The 2002 Banquet (Photo by Matthew Kilburn)

The 2003 Banquet (photo from the Archive)

The 2003 Banquet (photo from the Archive)

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The 2004 Banquet (photos from the Archive)

The 2004 Banquet (photos from the Archive)

After my salaried job in Oxford finished in 2006, Taruithorn helped provide a distraction from the uncertainties of a freelance career. Highlights included the visit by the authors of the Ring of Words, who seemed taken aback by the energy and volume by which everyone greeted each other and caught up on happenings and gossip, and meeting the Swedish Tolkien Society when they visited in May 2009. They presented us with a set of home-made trading cards, which by the time this article sees print I just might have placed in the Society archive where they belong, six years late.

During the 2000s I became a semi-regular attendee at Oxonmoot, the annual Oxford-based gathering of the Tolkien Society held in a college in September on the weekend closest to the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. I initially went to see old Taruithornites there – the earlier generations of Taruthorn were more closely connected to the Tolkien Society than their successors, as a look through early termcards shows. I also hoped to research potential Taruithorn speakers. There have been a few people whom I’ve sounded out about coming to Oxford, only to find they live too far away to make a visit to Oxford practical. I eventually joined the Tolkien Society and came close at some points to being more involved in it. For several years the committee of the Tolkien Society met in Oxford, sometimes leading to confusion if Taruithorn wanted to use a room in a college which the Tolkien Society were using. After one of these meetings, I joined some of the committee, which included some old Taruithorn members, for dinner, and I was informally asked by some of the officers if I’d consider being editor of its journal Mallorn, which I declined. I was also vaguely involved on the fringes of Oxonmoot planning at one point. However, I realised I had many other interests I would be better exploring, and I seriously thought I might block people with a greater passion for the professor and his works. There was also a nagging suspicion that my lack of knowledge of Quenya and Sindaril or of genealogies of Numenor, Gondor and Arnor would lead to me being found out quickly.

Ageing well
There was a perhaps inevitable distance between me and Taruithorn by the end of the 2000s. I helped precipitate an argument about Miruvor’s future where I tried to propose a solution which could be all things to all people and only contributed to postpone the continuation of the magazine in any form for some time. One summer, following my misconstruing a message from Martin Grossel, I thought we needed a temporary new senior member, which turned out not to be the case. After these, I deliberately decided I was out of the loop and stepped back.

I’m not sure why or when I started to pay more attention again; or perhaps I was never really away. So here I am, scanning old Miruvors for the internet, helping administer the Taruithorn International Facebook group, and turning up to committee meetings to comment upon anniversary plans, and writing for this publication.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, I have failed to submit my decades-promised article on why I was right not to like The Hobbit when I was nine. Perhaps I am displaying my respect for tradition in this regard. Perhaps I am admitting that the article is unfinishable. Perhaps this is because I was wrong.

Taruithorn represents and helps realise the breadth of experience and the humanity of its inspiration. We have not actually hijacked a bus as undergraduates, nor have we collectively taken up pipe-smoking, but I like to think J.R.R. Tolkien would find us convivial company. Viewed across the society’s twenty-five years, its members past and present have become a society of (among others) medical practitioners, of engineers, of charity workers, management consultants, librarians, neuroscientists, publishers, ethicists, civil servants, astrophysicists, procurement specialists, teachers, computer scientists, geneticists, clergy, university administrators, psychologists, artists, accountants, internet marketing gurus, and even the occasional philologist or literary scholar. Often people have managed to pursue several different careers, sometimes at once, and make them complement each other. Tolkien of course understood his characters through different aspects, depending on their company, their location or especially their own choices in the face of a world of unfolding change. As a society, we seem always to have cooked a lot, with a noticeably sweet tooth at times, though what we drink – and how alcoholic it is – has changed with the inclinations of the Oxford members of the day.

We don’t live in the Undying Lands. Oxford is a tangible and mortal place and the university only part of it. Each time we meet might be the last gathering of that particular fellowship. I’m not alone in that my time with Taruithorn has involved its fair share of lost, won, and unrequited loves, though the society has been very good at making marriages. Most importantly it’s the friendships, the acceptance and celebration of variety and creativity for their own sakes, the equality and openness which stay with me. In a fraught and competitive world of multiple tutorials, uncertain futures and contested presents, Taruithorn has managed to be an oasis of amicability, community, frivolity and free expression for a quarter of a century now, and long may it continue to do so.