By Tristan Herzogenrath-Amelung |


It is seldom a bad idea to talk about The Lord of the Rings. Rather than hobbits, elves, and Ringwraiths, however, I would like to talk about its author, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien. I believe that both his academic and literary exploits hold a valuable lesson for anyone in academia, and especially for those pursing a PhD.

Some of you might know that during his time in Oxford, Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, a group of what he described as ‘practicing poets’. These were like-minded literary enthusiasts under the informal leadership of C. S. Lewis, who enjoyed meeting up for a drink or three and sharing and criticising each other’s work. In Oxford you can go and have a drink in the very pub they often gathered in: the Eagle and Child. The Inklings are certainly the most famous of Tolkien’s literary fellowships, but by no means the only one.

In his youth, Ronald (as he was known to his friends) was a founding member of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or T.C.B.S., a secretive congregation of boys with an interest in the literature of the ancient and medieval worlds. Their clandestine meetings would often involve large quantities of tea, and discussion of their artistic ambitions. While at Leeds, Tolkien co-founded the Viking Club, where he and his undergraduates would meet to drink beer and enjoy Norse poetry and drinking-songs, along with readings and criticisms of some original compositions of their own. After moving to Oxford, Tolkien created the Kolbítar group to translate, interpret, and discuss Icelandic sagas and Old Norse literature. He was also a member of the Oxford Arthurian Society, and the Oxford Dante Society.

Literature naturally played a central role in all of these gatherings, but two other elements stand out: drinking (whether tea or beer) and criticism. Members would meet up not only to share a drink, but also to share their own works and to receive critical feedback from their fellow cup-drainers. And in the case of the Inklings, such criticism could take on rather harsh forms. The fact that these meetings played such a constant and important role in Tolkien’s life suggests that the ways in which the criticisms were delivered were sustainable and productive; otherwise we might expect members to have stopped attending to avoid embarrassment, shame, or ridicule.

Drinking is of course the other element: what better environment for voicing critical responses to each other’s work than at a pub, surrounded by good friends? Alcohol (or an egregious amount of tea) can lower inhibitions people might have about sharing their work or being honest in their opinions. And after all, drinking together is a deeply social act, based on trust in and appreciation of one’s company. Here it is important not to confuse criticism of one’s work with criticism of one’s person. Where there is mutual respect, trust and friendship, text and author can be separated to create space for an honest exchange of thoughts and ideas, designed to help and improve, not to hinder and diminish.

Unsurprisingly, many PhD students find the idea of sharing their work daunting. Writing a thesis is often so seclusive and personal that our sense of self-worth ends up being intricately bound up with our sense of the quality of our writing. Criticism, then, turns into criticism of both the work and ourselves as individuals. It is much easier to avoid this sort of exposure and tell oneself that the piece of work is not quite ready yet, or that feedback from a non-specialist would not be that helpful anyway. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. In the end, the only criticism many or most of us get is from our supervisors, in a setting that is a far cry from the Eagle and Child: usually a cramped office, both parties sober, a slight feeling of being on trial, interrupted by phone calls and knocking undergraduates, and culminating in relief when it’s finally over.


The Inklings’ corner in the Eagle and Child

Ronald and his tea-sipping friends, I believe, were onto something. It is interesting to recall the shared etymology of the words ‘pub’ and ‘publication’. It makes perfect sense to discuss one’s own academic work and potential material for publication in the one place that offers an ideal framework for constructive criticism: the public house. Meeting up for a drink to informally publish our work to others, to discuss and criticise our academic writing, can help to improve the work itself, increase our confidence, and strengthen the bonds of friendship that tie a group together. This in turn can also relieve the sense of isolation, of being lost at sea with only one’s topic to hold on to. All it needs is a friend, a drink (it comes in pints!), and some honesty. And who knows, maybe some time in the future a picture of your group will hang in the corner of an old pub you used to frequent.

Tristan Herzogenrath-Amelung is a third year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. He studies the concept of loyalty in the armies of ancient Greek city-states and early Hellenistic kingdoms, combining ancient evidence with modern theories about combat motivation, combat psychology, and organisational structures. You can find his page here.

(feature image © Tristan Herzogenrath-Amelung; picture 2 © wikipedia)