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“Goblin Feet”, a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien
Pieter Collier

J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for his Middle-earth related works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In these books we discover orcs, goblins and elves, which are completely different from the “fairy” creatures that most people think about when they hear their names. Yet before the First World War, when Tolkien was still an undergraduate, he wrote a poem about goblins as “tiny elfin creatures”, called “Goblin Feet”. We can find this early “fairy” poem inside the little book, Oxford Poetry 19151.

Oxford Poetry is a literary magazine published annually since 1913 by the University of Oxford. Basil Henry Blackwell, Tolkien’s first publisher, founded it in 19102. Oxford Poetry 19153 was published by Blackwells on 1 December 1915 and edited by Gerald H. Cole and T. W. Earp, the latter a fellow contributor with Tolkien from Exeter College and the co-editor who selected his “Goblin Feet” along with six poems of his own.

Already in 1920, Dora Owen, who had read “Goblin Feet” in Oxford Poetry 1915, reprinted the poem in The Book of Fairy Poetry4, together with a colour illustration by Warwick Goble. Since then it was reproduced many times in various collections of children’s poetry, like the Basil Blackwell anthology Fifty New Poems for Children5, which included such notable writers as Edith Sitwell and Robert Graves6. The first two verses of “Goblin Feet” were reprinted in Carpenter’s biography7, while the second, third and fourth verses are reprinted in Tolkien and the Great War8. Today it is most conveniently found in The Annotated Hobbit by Douglas A. Anderson9.

Tolkien wrote the poem “Goblin Feet” in a very hard period in his life. He was twenty-two and had completed the second year of his English degree course at Oxford University when hostilities broke out. In the summer of 1914, millions of young English men were signing up to fight in the First World War. When Britain declared war on Germany, on August 4, he was on holiday in Cornwall10. By October, despite pressure from his aunts and uncles, he had decided to defer enlistment in the armed forces until after his degree. Later in life he said that this was because he did not relish military action; but at the time he told friends that as a young man with a fiancée and little money, he had to prioritize his future academic career. He was glad to discover that there was a programme at Oxford which gave him military training while he finished his studies.

In October, beginning his final undergraduate year, Tolkien joined the Officer Training Corps. Now Oxford was full of soldiers, makeshift military hospitals and war refugees. His friends enlisted in the army, including G.B. Smith and R.Q. Gilson, whom he met up with in December 1914 in a “Council of London” that saw their clique, the T.C.B.S. (The Tea Club Barrovian Society), acquire a new moral and cultural sense of purpose11.

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“During the Christmas break of 1914 the society met for the last time. They spent a weekend together in London, smoking pipes, drinking beer, sharing stories and thoughts and having an all-together wonderful time. Immediately after that weekend in London Tolkien began to write poetry.”

The other three members of Tolkien’s T.C.B.S. (The Tea Club Barrovian Society) were going to join the war soon, and felt that it was important to spend some time together before they went. So during the Christmas break of 1914 the society met for the last time. They spent a weekend together in London, smoking pipes, drinking beer, sharing stories and thoughts and having an all-together wonderful time. Immediately after that weekend in London Tolkien began to write poetry. Among these was “The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon”, which eventually was published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil12. He selected a similar “fairy” subject in “Goblin Feet”, which was written on 27–28 April 1915 in his rooms at 59 St John Street13. In Humphrey Carpenters’ biography we read that Tolkien wrote it to please Edith Bratt (later Mrs. Tolkien) because she loved tales of “spring and flowers and trees, and little elfin people”14. The result was as close to the Victorian depiction of fairies as it can get; goblins and gnomes are interchangeable, as they were in the “Curdie” books of George MacDonald, which Tolkien had loved as a child15. The fairy creatures are called by a variety of names, like “leprechauns” and “gnomes” and there are references to their “fairy lanterns”, the “fairy lane” they tread, and to their “goblin feet”. The issue of fairy diminutiveness is constantly underlined by the abundant presence of adjectives like “little”, “slender” and “tiny”, and although it is not very explicit, the fairy creatures seem to have acquired insect qualities, possibly associated with their ability to fly, since they are grouped together with “beetle-things” and “honey-flies”. On the whole, the power of the poem is that it relies on a sketchy, enchanted imagery, where little supernatural beings are imagined without concrete detail, as a “slender band of grey”16.

At that time “Goblin Feet” can be said to be his first published work of any significance17. Still Tolkien soon felt that the composition of occasional poems without a connecting theme was not what he wanted. With his mind occupied with the seeds of mythology he prepared for his final examination in English Language and Literature.

Having achieved a first-class degree in June 1915, Tolkien enlisted in the army and reported for basic training. He spent nearly a year stationed in England, where as a university graduate he was given an officer’s commission and had to go through advanced training. He was not interested in leading a platoon so he decided to specialize in signalling. Also signalling just seemed to be the best use for his talent with languages. Eventually he was given the post of signalling officer for the Thirteenth Battalion of an army section known as the Lancashire Fusiliers, purely a training unit, near Lichfield, Staffordshire, and as winter drew in he moved with it to bleak camps on Cannock Chase. He soon got bored by training, oppressed by military discipline and depressed by the war. In a letter written to Edith he said: “The usual kind of morning standing about and freezing and then trotting to get warmer so as to freeze again … All the hot days of summer we doubled about at full speed and perspiration, and now we stand in icy groups in the open being talked at!” He was defiantly not impressed with the training.

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“Encouraged by this he sent a selection of his verses to the publishers Sidgwick & Jackson. Sadly all poems were rejected. At the start of 1916, he began to receive letters from Smith and Gilson describing the horrors of the Western Front.”

Tolkien hoped to get some income from his poetry. The poem “Goblin Feet” had been accepted by Blackwells for the annual volume of Oxford Poetry18, and encouraged by this he sent a selection of his verses to the publishers Sidgwick & Jackson. Sadly all poems were rejected. At the start of 1916, he began to receive letters from Smith and Gilson describing the horrors of the Western Front. In March, he returned to Oxford for his official graduation and, in Warwick, married Edith Bratt, who then took lodgings at Great Haywood, near Cannock Chase.

Tolkien’s first encounter with fighting was in France, in the Battle of the Somme, which is remembered as the bloodiest battle ever fought in history. On the first day of the battle, nineteen weeks before he arrived, 19,000 British troops were killed. And by the time the battle was over more than 800,000 of the British had been killed.

When Tolkien arrived he was stationed nearby in the town of Bouzincourt, where he waited to be sent into the front lines of battle. While he waited, he came across a most unexpected and pleasant surprise. One of his fellow members of the T.C.B.S., G.B. Smith, arrived in the town for a brief rest. He had already been in the front line of the battle and fortunately returned uninjured. His company had been pulled back to rest before returning to battle. Over the next few days, the friends talked much about life, poetry, and war. Before long Tolkien’s battalion were given orders to go into battle. Tolkien and Smith said goodbye for the last time.

“It turned out that the advanced troops had failed, and when Tolkien arrived on the battlefield he found a scene that he described as pure animal horror. A sea of dead and dying men covered the once-beautiful French countryside that had been stripped bare of all things lovely and replaced with mud, trenches, and burned and blackened trees.”

Even though the battle had raged on for many weeks, and bodies had been mounting, the Thirteenth Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers marched forward with high morale. They were fighting for the freedom of their country and maybe even for the freedom of the world. They had been told that the battle was nearly over, as advance troops had surely dismantled the German defences. It turned out that the advanced troops had failed, and when Tolkien arrived on the battlefield he found a scene that he described as pure animal horror. A sea of dead and dying men covered the once-beautiful French countryside that had been stripped bare of all things lovely and replaced with mud, trenches, and burned and blackened trees. The British troops continued to advance, but many of Tolkien’s company were killed and the assault did not rout the Germans. Fortunately, Tolkien survived and was sent back to Bouzincourt to recuperate. When he arrived there he found a letter from G.B. Smith informing him that Rob Gilson had been killed in battle. The T.C.B.S. was no more. Over the next three months Tolkien’s battalion alternately advanced into battle, and retreated to the town to regroup.

He never forgot the brutality and horror of the battle. Many years later he drew on these memories to create his own lands. The blackened landscape of Mordor, and the Battle of Helm’s Deep were both based on The Battle of Somme. Tolkien never wrote “fairy” poetry like “Goblin Feet” again.

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“The creatures of “Goblin Feet” are typical of exactly the sort of fairy J.R.R. Tolkien later came to loathe as he became increasingly interested in another, older sort of fairy, the elves and fairies of medieval texts.”

In older age Tolkien even showed rejection of “Goblin Feet”. In some respects, as Tom Shippey and Humphrey Carpenter noted, the creatures of “Goblin Feet” are typical of exactly the sort of fairy J.R.R. Tolkien later came to loathe as he became increasingly interested in another, older sort of fairy, the elves and fairies of medieval texts19. When asked for permission to have the poem reprinted in yet another anthology in 1971, he is reported to have answered: “I wish the unhappy little thing, representing all that I came (so soon after) to fervently dislike, could be buried for ever.”20

Despite the fact that “Goblin Feet” was rejected later by Tolkien, the poem does reflect his ideas and influences before the First World War, and it fits very well with the imagery and subject matter both of “Wood-Sunshine” (an earlier poem by Tolkien), and of his next venture, the poem “You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play”.

Pieter Collier is the webmaster and author of TolkienLibrary.com, and a passionate Tolkien book collector.

General- LOTR The Two Towers

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, “Goblin Feet”, in Oxford Poetry 1915, Eds. G.D.H. Cole & T.W. Earp. Oxford: B.H. Blackwell (1915), pp. 64–65.
2. Christina Scull, Wayne Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide. London: HarperCollins (2006), pp. 118.
3. Christina Scull, Wayne Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology. London: HarperCollins (2006), pp. 76.
4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Fairy Poetry. Ed. Dora Owan. London, New York: Longmans, Green and Co. (1920), pp. 177–178.
5. J.R.R. Tolkien, Fifty New Poems for Children: An Anthology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (1922), pp. 26–27.
6. Perry C. Bramlett, Joe R. Christopher, I’m in fact a Hobbit: an introduction to the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Georgia: Mercer University Press (2002), pp. 91.
7. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R Tolkien: a biography. London: George Allen & Unwin (1977).
8. John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War. London: Harper Collins (2003), pp. 40.
9. Douglas A. Anderson, The Annotated Hobbit. London: Unwin Hyman (1988), pp. 77.
10. John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War. London: Harper Collins (2003), pp. 40.
11. John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, pp. 58.
12. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. London: George Allen & Unwin (1962)
13. Scull, Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, pp. 64.
14. Carpenter, J.R.R Tolkien: a biography.
15. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, pp.76.
16. Dimitra Fimi, Working with English: Medieval and Modern Language, Literature and Drama 2. Ed. Matt Green. Nottingham: Working with English (2006), pp. 10–26.
17. Carpenter, J.R.R Tolkien: a biography, pp. 74.
18. J.R.R. Tolkien, in Oxford Poetry 1914-1916. Ed. G.D.H. Cole & W.S.V. B.H.Blackwell. Oxford: B.H.Blackwell (1917), pp. 120.
19. J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael Drout. Routledge (2006), pp. 185.
20. The Book of Lost Tales: Part One. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen and Unwin (1983), pp. 32.

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