J. R. R. Tolkien: Lord of the Spies?

J. R. R. Tolkien's training with British intelligence should inspire fans of The Hobbit and high-fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings to search for buried secrets and spies in his prose. (Grima Wormtongue comes to mind!)

J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Spies?
J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1920s; author of some of the most influential works in 20th-Century literature


J. R. R. Tolkien: Lord of the Spies?

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J. R. R. Tolkien's training with British intelligence should inspire fans of The Hobbit and high-fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings to search for buried secrets and spies in his prose. (Grima Wormtongue comes to mind!)

J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Spies?
J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1920s; author of some of the most influential works in 20th-Century literature


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J. R. R. Tolkien's GCHQ link

Tolkien, an inspiration for Game of Thrones’ author George R. R. Martin, was an Oxford University professor who invented entire languages for his legendary Middle-earth narratives and he trained to crack a few languages at the top-secret Government Code & Cypher School in the months leading up to WWII.

John Ronald Reuel - or J. R. R. Tolkien, as he’s more commonly known - was ‘hand-picked’ by British spies, alongside others from top universities, to take a truncated language course before the outbreak of the war, GCHQ said. The Government Code & Cypher School (later renamed GCHQ) ran courses for those who might join the organization in 1939 as the war between Britain and Germany appeared inevitable.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Spies?
GCHQ archives: Tolkien and 12 others were identified to become WWII spies

J. R. R. Tolkien: Spy training

There were apparently 50 names put forward by the British government as likely candidates. Tolkien agreed to attend a 'tester'’ day in London, part of a three-day course where he received training in Scandinavian languages and Spanish.

The acclaimed philologist (historical linguistics expert) had 'keen' written after his name in the GCHQ archived records, possibly indicating Professor Tolkien was willing to undertake such work, or simply a note on how to pronounce 'Tolkien'.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Spies?
A map of Middle-earth with Tolkien’s annotations found in a copy of The Lord of the Rings

Bletchley Park snub

Although Tolkien spent days training with codebreakers in 1939, he was unsuccessful in his bid to join legendary British cryptanalyst Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, home of the British codebreakers working to crack the German Enigma Code. "Perhaps it was because we declared war on Germany and not Mordor," a GCHQ historian told Britain's Telegraph.

Tony Comer, the GCHQ linguist and historian behind the Mordor comment, said it was actually Tolkien's language skills that ruled him out: “Tolkien’s specialism was in old high German, not in the modern language that was being used by the military. There were a lot of younger men and women who’d spent a year in Germany in the late 1930s who were much better at current, colloquial German so they could be recruited.”

“It’s not a snub to Tokien. It’s just his skills weren’t the ones that Bletchley really needed,” Comer added.


At the time, The Hobbit was already a major literary success and Tolkien was mulling over his sequel, The Lord of the Rings. Both would later be turned into epic movies, enchanting a new generation of Tolkien fans. 

J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Spies?
J. R. R. Tolkien in Oxford, a year before his death in 1973


J. R. R. Tolkien: WWI soldier

In addition to being an author and professor, Tolkien was a battle-hardened soldier.

Born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Tolkien moved to England with his family after his father's death in 1896 and grew up in the West Midlands. During WWI, he served on behalf of the British forces including at the 1916 Battle of the Somme, a bloody British and French operation against the Germans that killed two of Tolkien’s closest friends.

He enlisted as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and saw action almost immediately. After four months in the trenches, however, Tolkien fell victim to a typhus-like condition known as 'trench fever', according to war records held in Britain’s National Archive. Tolkien returned to England where he served either in hospitals or in home service camps, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

The period during his war service undoubtedly influenced the world Tolkien later created in The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of Rings (1954-55).

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