My introduction to Tolkien came at the tender age of seven, when my parents were confronted with the horror of an 18 hour flight, and a Heathrow bookshop that had no children’s section. Fortunately for all concerned, a frantic hunt of the shelves unearthed a copy of The Hobbit. And that was that. When we landed in Brunei, while my parents were concerned with minor issues like starting a new life in South East Asia, my one and only question was where we could find an bookshop that would sell The Lord of the Rings.
For many years, however, reading Tolkien was a largely solitary pleasure. Middle Earth was my lifeline through seven unenjoyable years at boarding school; however grim an English boarding house might be in February, you could always take your mind away to Lórien, or Ithilien, or Rivendell. And even Shelob was better company than my violin teacher. But while I knew a few other people who had read Tolkien, I didn’t know anyone else who could recite The Ballad of Beren and Lúthien in its entirety, or was on their second set of the paperbacks because the first set had fallen apart through over-reading, or who got through the worst moments of Oxford entrance by thinking that in the end the Shadow was but a small and passing thing; there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.
The only person I knew of who shared my love of Tolkien was Anna Bowles – in the year above me, and therefore entirely out of bounds in the strict hierarchies of a girl’s boarding school. But both being Oxbridge candidates in English gave a tiny amount of latitude, so I think we managed to have about three conversations over the course of two years; and I knew that, when Anna duly went up to St John’s to read English a year ahead of me, she had become editor of the mysterious publication Miruvor.
And so in due course I pitched up at Freshers’ Fair in 1995, utterly terrified, holding on to Anna’s welcome-to-Oxford note and the knowledge that somehow, somewhere in this crowd of people there must be some kindred spirits. But Taruithorn was in the last room of the whole Fair, and by that point I was starting to feel hunted: there are only so many student societies touting for your custom you can take. And then I came into the last hall, and amidst the whole terrifying confusion of OUSU, and OU, and OUDS, and the Oxford Tiddlywinks Society, I saw that someone had hung the banner of the Tree and the Stars.
And that was it. I met Anke and Ian and Matthew that day; and a few days later, a whole cluster of new members and Olden Folks who would become my closest friends at Oxford. Taruithorn went far beyond a mere literary society: it was a glorious group of people who taught me an enormous amount about how to have fun for the sake of it; how to put time and effort and creativity and delight into something which was completely mad and frivolous, but wonderful at the same time. Whether it was writing and recording superb parodies like The Song of the White Tree, or solemnly thinking up Dwarvish dishes for a five-course banquet, or spending hours on creating a fabulous Smaug costume just because you could – Taruithorn was the home of so much talent, and glorious eccentricity.
And it wasn’t just creativity. Along with the tolerance of other people’s eccentricities went an enormous amount of warmth and kindness. I will never forget Sunday evenings at 18 Howard Street, Anke and Ian’s place, where Anke had dressed the vacuum cleaner in a Vorlon costume and we spent months watching our way through Babylon 5, eating a different chocolate dessert between each episode. Or the stress-filled hours before various banquets, where the committee took it in turns to support each other through nervous breakdowns as the meringues refused to whisk; and then washing up afterwards in a haze of exhaustion and goodwill. Or Anna’s suggestion that we post a guard over the Fireworks Night bonfire to prevent people from widdling on the potatoes, which became an instant catchphrase: Sarah Mackie’s performance of Don’t Widdle On The Potatoes, to the tune of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, made it onto the Taruithorn CD and remains a classic of the genre.
Most of the other people I knew thought that Taruithorn was mad. Actually, now that I am an Olden Folk and spend my days with the kinds of people who focused their time at Oxford on becoming President of the Union, I would say that Taruithornians as a whole were outstandingly sane. So it is fantastic to see the society still going strong – congratulations to everyone who has kept the spirit of Taruithorn alive! Mae govannen!