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  • The Hen that Laid the Eggs: Tolkien and the Officers Training Corps
  • Janet Brennan Croft (bio)

J.R.R. Tolkien, like many young men of his class and education, participated in a program designed by the British government to provide likely candidates with preliminary training that would enable them to be moved quickly and efficiently into officer positions in the military when and if the country went to war. This program was known as the Officers Training Corps, and while at King Edward’s School Tolkien was involved with the OTC, and possibly with the preceding, more loosely organized Cadet Corps program. Because of this program, Tolkien and many of his fellow junior officers in the Great War were already familiar with the procedures of drill and camp and with basic tactics of war games in all kinds of weather. The atmosphere of the training camps of World War I would not have taken them entirely by surprise, but would have been somewhat reminiscent of the great summer encampments of OTC units from around the country—though now with a far more serious purpose.1 The OTC continued training cadets during the war; in the rather chilling words of one of the historians of the program, it was the “hen that was prepared to go on laying eggs until Germany should call for a change of diet” (Haig-Brown 73).

While this is of great interest as an element in Tolkien’s biography, such long-term familiarity, beginning in his school days, with military life under canvas also lends an easy verisimilitude to his depictions of life on the open road and in military encampments in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and may hint at some background assumptions we can make about the importance of military preparedness and the consequences of lack of preparedness among the free peoples of Middle-earth. The basic supposition, rarely questioned at the time in England—that young men in the public schools, supposedly the best and the brightest of their generation, with great expectations waiting to be unlocked by dint of their education and connections, should at the same time be preparing to lead other young men, to serve and perhaps die for their country if called on—supports an underlying cultural model valuing preparedness, assuming that preparedness is never wasted, and emphasizing that watchfulness and preparedness are the responsibility of good government and its citizens.2 As it was in Tolkien’s England, so it is in Middle-earth. As Nan C. Scott explains, in Arda’s history we see a constantly repeating pattern of “wars and cycles of Watchful Peace, failures of vigilance, and once again wars,” and “to survive in Middle-earth, ceaseless vigilance and some means of defense are necessary” (24). [End Page 97]

Cadet training

Many British public schools had long had individual Cadet Corps which provided students with some early training in drill, shooting, and sometimes riding. Volunteer units had been in existence at the universities since the time of the British Civil War (Ryan 174) and had grown rapidly in “the frantic post-Crimean War period” (Teagarden 91). All these units were independently organized and “largely reflected the personality and energy of their commanding officers”—so clearly there was a great deal of variation in the quality of training (91). But in 1908, in an effort to remedy the serious problems of officer shortages that plagued the British in the South African War, a proposal was made by Sir Edward Ward, a member of Lord Richard Burdon Haldane’s Army Council,3 to reform this loose system and organize all the volunteer and cadet corps into a centrally administered, standardized program that could provide a steady supply of young men who could be quickly moved through formal military training channels when the need arose. Participants could train for two levels of certificates which would enable them to enter the armed forces at a certain rank with minimal additional training, or translate into a certain number of points on the admission test to one of the military academies (Teagarden 92, Worthington 92). This detail had the distinct advantage of relocating a large portion of the...


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pp. 97-106
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