On August 12, 1916 Tolkien wrote a letter to Geoffrey Smith, with permission to pass it on to Christopher Wiseman, trying to come to terms with the death of their friend Rob Gilson. It took some time for the news of Rob’s death on the first day of the Somme offensive, July 1st, to reach the other three, who were serving in the war in various places. They wrote to each other trying to make sense of the loss of their close friend. The four of them had been members of a group formed while they were at King Edward’s School called the TCBS — the Tea Club and Barrovian Society — but by the time they were in university the friendship and shared values of the core members — Tolkien, Wiseman, Smith, and Gilson — had inspired them with great ambitions for their future. But with the news of Rob’s death, Tolkien’s August 12th letter to Geoffrey Smith admits that he is disheartened and lonely, feeling as if the dreams of the TCBS had come to an end. Tolkien writes that he has spent the last two nights sitting and thinking in the woods near his camp: “So far my chief impression is that something has gone crack” (Letter 5).
As Tolkien scholars and readers, we usually see the story in this way, primarily as it relates to John Ronald. However, Elliander Pictures has produced a documentary on Rob Gilson which allows us a glimpse of the young man himself who was so important to the idealistic members of the TCBS. Elliander Pictures’ previous film, Tolkien’s Great War, is also well worth watching. In both documentaries, you will see Tolkien scholar John Garth, whose book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth is an authoritative scholarly source on the subject. You can find the previous film, Tolkien’s Great War, and information about John Garth’s work here.
ROBERT GILSON: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer from Elliander Pictures on Vimeo.