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.