Tolkien the Playwright

We don’t often think of Tolkien as a playwright. Fantasy novelist — of course. Poet, scholar, artist – yes. But we shouldn’t forget that Tolkien also wrote one published play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” – let’s call it “The Homecoming” for short – which was produced by BBC Radio and has been read or performed at various times.

Tolkien wrote other plays, though we don’t have the manuscripts any more, to my knowledge. As a young man, he wrote plays as holiday entertainments when spending time with his Incledon relatives; he probably wrote a farce, Cherry Farm, in 1911 and in the following year, The Bloodhound, the Chef, and the Suffragette (also playing one of the parts).  He performed in plays while at school: in 1910 acting as the Inspector in Aristophanes’ play The Birds – in Greek! and also in Greek the following year, taking the role of Hermes in Aristophanes’ Peace. Near the end of 1911, his performance as Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s The Rivals was praised as “excellent in every way” (Scull and Hammond, Reader’s Guide 313-17).

Tolkien as Hermes in 1911
Tolkien (centre) as Hermes in Aristophanes’ Peace, 1911. Photo from the cover of Tolkien Studies, vol. 11, 2014. The full photograph is reproduced on page 9 in John Garth’s article in that volume.

And of course, all of his debating experience, often in humourous speeches, during his years at King Edward’s and then at Oxford would require a sense of the dramatic in taking up a persona and a position in argument (See the Scull and Hammond Chronology for reports of these debates).  John Garth surveys these and other of Tolkien’s early comedic and parodic compositions, pointing out:

By thus limbering up in his early exercises as a writer, he was later able to apply the same skills—more finely tuned, of course—to the most serious topics and with the utmost gravity.”

(Garth 11)

Even later in life, Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic. Picture him at the Oxford Summer Diversions in 1938 reciting from memory Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. John Bowers, in his recently published book Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, imagines the scene:

On the merrymaking occasion in summer 1938, Tolkien strode upon the stage costumed as Chaucer in a green robe, a turban, and fake whiskers parted in the middle like the forked beard shown in early portraits like Ellesmere’s.” 

(Bowers 208)

The performance received good reviews in the Oxford Mail, and in the following year, Tolkien returned to perform Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, this time producing a shortened and bowdlerized version of the tale for his performance (Bowers 208-211).  The poet John Masefield, one of the organizers of the event, described Tolkien’s dramatic abilities:

Professor Tolkien knows more about Chaucer than any living man and sometimes tells the Tales superbly, inimitably, just as though he were Chaucer returned.”

(quoted in Bowers 209)

Above: Geoffrey Chaucer portrait and Tolkien in the 1940s (as close as I could get to the actual date of his performance). You’ll have to imagine Tolkien’s Chaucer costume! Tolkien image from The Guardian, 22 March 2014.

Tolkien’s recitations of Chaucer aren’t the only performances that his audiences remember. His biographer Humphrey Carpenter reports how he used to start his lectures declaiming the opening lines of Beowulf in Old English (137-38). Although students complained that during lectures he mumbled and was hard to follow, these moments of dramatic performance left striking impressions.

In other words, Tolkien had experience in writing and performing dramatic pieces, and I think that he put those skills to good use in “The Homecoming.”

So why don’t we usually think of Tolkien as a playwright? I can think of several reasons. For one, we only have one publication of his in this genre, easily overlooked in the volume of fiction, poetry, letters, and essays that he wrote.

I also think that there’s a tendency to view “The Homecoming” as alliterative poetry for two voices – more like a poetic dialogue not meant for performance on a stage. I would disagree based on the manuscript evidence, but my reasons will have to wait for another time.

Maybe another reason is that “The Homecoming,” inspired by the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon,” first appeared in a scholarly journal, Essays and Studies, in 1953. Medievalists have been interested mainly in the short essay titled “Ofermod” that Tolkien appended to the play, which deals with “The Battle of Maldon,” and compares it to two other medieval texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But medieval scholars have not, in general, examined the play as a play.

Finally, we might not think of Tolkien as a playwright because of the negative comments that he made about drama in various letters and in his appendix to “On Fairy-Stories.” In that essay, for example, he claims that drama cannot adequately represent a fantasy world, but whether we agree or not, we should note that “The Homecoming” is different from Tolkien’s other writing. It’s not part of his Middle-earth Secondary World but is based on the aftermath of a battle that took place in 991 according to early English historical chronicles. “The Homecoming” is a work of historical fiction as well as being a play.

The play is now most readily available in the volume Tree and Leaf, tucked in after “On Fairy-Stories,” “Mythopoeia,” and “Leaf by Niggle.”

Tolkien certainly had definite ideas about how the play should be performed on BBC Radio, as his letters tell us, though he was dissatisfied with the BBC production that aired in 1954, with a rebroadcast in 1955. He recorded his own version at home in his study, distinguishing between the two characters’ voices and adding in his own sound effects. A copy of that recording was given out at the Tolkien Centenary Conference in 1992 (Scull & Hammond, Reader’s Guide 547). But you don’t need a copy of that tape to experience Tolkien’s voice dramatizations. Just listen to his reading of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter from The Hobbit. He does a pretty good job of performing the roles of Bilbo and especially Gollum.

Above: listen to Tolkien’s voicing of Gollum in his reading of “Riddles in the Dark”

Book cover: "Something Has Gone Crack": New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War
“Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger, Walking Tree Publishers, 2019.

It must be pretty clear that I find Tolkien’s play very interesting; in fact, it’s the topic of my current research. I’ve written about “The Homecoming” as a World War One work in my recently published essay, “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’” in the collection “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War. There, my thesis can be summarized in this way:

Like Tolkien’s better-known works of fiction, HBBS addresses issues of war and heroism that are relevant to a modern writer who is transforming his past experiences into fiction, and as is not uncommon with Tolkien, doing so through the lens of medieval literature.”

(Smol 264)

What currently interests me in “The Homecoming” is the skilful handling of alliterative metre in the play. Yes, this is a play in alliterative verses, which may sound old-fashioned and stilted, but Tolkien’s knowledge of and handling of alliterative verses is, I think, a tour de force in his creation of different styles in a demanding medium. If you’re able to attend the International Medieval Congress in Leeds , you can hear me talking about “Tolkien’s Alliterative Styles in The Homecoming” on Monday, July 6, 11:15, session 104. Look for an article as well, coming soon, I hope!

“Tolkien’s Alliterative Styles in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth” Session 104, International Medieval Congress, Leeds, July 6, 2020.

I’d love to know in the comments if you’ve read “The Homecoming” and what you think of it. Have you ever heard or seen it performed?

Works Cited

Bowers, John M. Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. Oxford UP, 2019.

Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Garth, John. “’The road from adaptation to invention’: How Tolkien Came to the Brink of Middle-earth in 1914.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 11, 2014, pp. 1-44.

Scull, Christina and Wayne Hammond. J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide. Reader’s Guide and Chronology. Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins, 2017.

Smol, Anna. “Bodies in War: Medieval and Modern Tensions in ‘The Homecoming’.” “Something Has Gone Crack”: New Perspectives on J.R.R. Tolkien in the Great War, edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Annika Röttinger, Walking Tree Publishers, 2019, pp. 263-83.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son.” Tree and Leaf, HarperCollins, 2001, pp. 121-150.

As always, if you are an independent scholar (i.e. you do not have an institutional affiliation) and do not have access to some of these resources, please send me an email and I will try to provide private research copies if possible.

3 responses to “Tolkien the Playwright”

  1. I look forward to hearing what you have to say! I’ve long had in mind creating a “casebook” of the essential papers on this play. But my real dream project is to produce this as a pair of short plays along with Christopher Fry’s “A Sleep of Prisoners”!


    • Thanks, Janet. I’ve never read the Fry play you mention, but I’ll definitely look it up — if I can get it in our current social distancing situation and university shut-down. I would love to see “The Homecoming” produced. I’m working on an article about manuscript evidence that indicates Tolkien thought of it as a staged play, not just a play for two voices.


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