Tolkien scholar John Garth tells us about “an unusual but historically significant tangent” of his Tolkien research that coincidentally led to the recovery of a long-lost series of magazines published by famous WWI poet Wilfred Owen.
Don’t forget to follow the link to read the entire article; it’s definitely worth the time.
Secrets of The Hydra: how Tolkien research uncovered lost Wilfred Owen magazines
Historic missing issues of a magazine edited by First World War poet Wilfred Owen have been found and donated to archives in Oxford, in a move hailed as ‘a stunning discovery’. When copies also went to an Edinburgh university, it prompted a well-earned fanfare in the Scottish press. What was not revealed then was the part played in that discovery by J.R.R. Tolkien, by dogged research, and by a marvellous coincidence.
The Hydra: The Magazine of Craiglockhart War Hospital was edited for six issues in 1917 by Owen, who was being treated for shell shock there. In this Edinburgh hospital he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, who called the place ‘Dottyville’. Under Sassoon’s guidance, Owen found his poetic voice and began writing in his classic ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ mode – elegant yet blunt, brutal yet deeply moving. He published two of these poems in The Hydra, and several by Sassoon also appeared in its pages.
The Hydra was named in reference to the hospital’s pre-war hydrotherapy role, but the some issues had a fearsome cover image showing the many-headed monster of Greek myth – a classic piece of wry humour by officers suffering from war trauma. Such is the Hydra’s significance that the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, run by Oxford University, makes all its issues available for reading online. All, that is, except for three issues which, despite a nationwide appeal in 2006, were feared lost forever.
I had read about the Hydra in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration, which tells of Owen and Sassoon at Craiglockhart. Regeneration, along with Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, catalysed my interest in finding out what Tolkien’s war experience had been like, and so kickstarted my work on what eventually turned into a book, Tolkien and the Great War. While researching it, I found that a school contemporary of Tolkien’s called George Henry Bonner had gone on to be hospitalised at Craiglockhart and had edited the Hydra in 1918. I was intrigued by this link between Tolkien and Owen, though they never met. Owen is the benchmark for war writers, but in my book I argue that Tolkien also tells the truth about war in his own very different, mythic way.