A version of this story was posted on JRR Tolkien Examiner on 9/28/09.
In the wake of information released by a British government agency last week, news media globally have been reporting on the supposed “spy” career of author and philologist JRR Tolkien.
If it’s hard to imagine the introverted, scholarly Oxford professor traveling the world, assassinating Nazis and bedding beautiful French Resistance fighters between swigs of a martini, shaken – not stirred, you are right to be skeptical. The media reports (such as JRR Tolkien trained as British spy; Lord of the spy rings anybody?; Tolkien’s Spy Past Inspires Hunt for Hobbit, Rings Spooks) greatly exaggerate the content and importance of what is in truth a mildly interesting bit of trivia from Tolkien’s life.
According to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters, in March, 1939 the 47-year-old Tolkien trained for three days at the GCCS’ main decryption facility at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire. This was part of a wider effort to recruit Oxbridge dons for the war effort. The United Kingdom declared war on Germany in September of 1939.
In January 1939 Tolkien was asked whether in the event of a national emergency (i.e. war) he would be prepared to work in the cryptographical department of the Foreign Office. He agreed, and apparently attended a four-day course of instruction at the Foreign Office beginning on 27 March. But in October 1939 he was informed that his services would not be required for the present, and in the event he never worked as a cryptographer.
This footnote refers to Letter 35, in which Tolkien mentions to his correspondent, C.A. Furth of publisher Allen & Unwin, his need to take a week out of his schedule in “preparation for a possible ‘National Emergency.'”
So it is clear that Tolkien’s extremely brief career in espionage was not so much of a secret, at least to those who read footnotes.
The GCHQ is one of the UK’s three Intelligence Agencies, and is a part of the UK’s National Intelligence Machinery. The GCHQ works in partnership with the Security Service (aka MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to protect the UK’s national security interests.
Paperwork related to Tolkien’s training is on display at a museum at the GCCS which is only open to the agency’s staff.