While Edith was still lodging beneath the shadow of the white tower of Withernsea Lighthouse, her husband had a recurrence of trench fever and was sent to the first of the two Houses of Healing he would become acquainted with in East Yorkshire: Brooklands Officers’ Hospital on Cottingham Road in Hull. This ten-week stay was the first of two long stints lasting in total for around 22 weeks at this convalescent home, and his time spent there was extremely productive. In the first instance he was able to spend long periods working on the building-blocks of his emerging language, known at the time as Goldogrin. There have been many writers who have attempted to follow Tolkien in writing fantasy narratives, but none of them have matched his care in creating grammars and languages. For Tolkien language was the key-spring of the imaginative process, the language, as he often attested – words or names came first – and stories followed afterwards. In addition to the time spent on the foundation of his lexicons, vocabularies, and grammars Tolkien also wrote down for the first time the earliest versions of two stories which he continued to write, rework, and re-imagine for almost the whole of his writing life: ‘The Tale of Tinúviel’ and ‘The Tale of Turambar’. The central importance of Lúthien Tinúviel is exemplified by his placing of the fictional name Lúthien under his wife’s name on their gravestone more than half-a-century later. Meanwhile Christopher Tolkien carefully adapted and edited the various strands of the Turambar narratives written mainly in the 1950s in an attempt to create a cohesive whole for what in effect became Tolkien’s final published posthumous ‘novel’, The Children of Hurin in 2009.
Brooklands was operated by Margaret Strickland-Constable (née Pakenham), who was actually the commandant, not the matron as stated by some earlier researchers. The matron was actually a Mrs B. Hyde, of whom nothing more is known at present. Margaret Strickland-Constable was soon to be a war widow, as her husband killed himself in a London hotel on his return from the front in December 1917. Brooklands was only officially opened as a hospital for officers as late as 31st July 1917 by Major General Sir Stanley von Donop. On completion accommodation was provided for only 17 patients, and on the opening day three were installed, to be joined by Tolkien only a fortnight later. So, if his trench fever had returned 3 weeks earlier than it had, he may well have been shipped to a hospital much further afield. Brooklands enjoyed a good reputation amongst local officers, as an overheard comment by Margaret’s brother, which Strickland-Constable proudly included in her diary, implies: “What you want to do is arrange to have a good crash, so as to get sent to Brooklands.” Likewise, Tolkien found the surroundings congenial, and surviving ordnance survey maps from 1910 show that the substantial grounds contained several mature trees. Cottingham Road itself was at that time a fairly quiet leafy-lined thoroughfare, and on the other side of the road was the recently-founded municipal college, later the university campus, but in 1917 that area consisted mainly of large open fields.
Are there any similarities at all between the fictional Houses of Healing and Brooklands, which Tolkien found himself enduring for 22 weeks in total in 1917 and 1918? Well, Kingston-upon-Hull and Minas Tirith-upon-Anduin are both described as cities, but the associated landscapes could hardly be more different. In 1917, as now, Hull was a city of the plain barely rising above sea level, whilst Minas Tirith was carved into a spur of Mount Mindolluin and enjoyed the health benefits of mountainous airs. Minas Tirith was constructed from stone, indeed it was known as the Stone-city. In contrast, there is very little local stone around Hull, and many of the surviving medieval buildings including Holy Trinity Church are largely constructed of brick.
There are two short descriptive passages of the environs of the Houses of Healing in The Lord of the Rings. In the first Gandalf escorts the bier of Faramir to them for treatment, where we are informed:
about them was a garden and greensward with trees, the only such place in the City. There dwelt the few women that had been permitted to remain in Minas Tirith,
since they were skilled in healing or in the service of the healers.
In Brooklands hopefully there were also nursing staff who were skilled in the service of the healers! Yes, Brooklands also had a greensward, or a lawn, as we would call it, and trees, and unlike the nearby “Cedars”, the ones in Brooklands were largely of deciduous trees. In the second extract Merry, Pippin, Legolas and Gimli are discussing their adventures after the Battle of the Pelennor:
For a while they walked and talked, rejoicing for a brief space in peace and rest under the morning high up in the windy circles of the City. Then when Merry became weary,
they went and sat upon the wall with the greensward of the Houses of Healing behind them; and away southward before them was the Anduin glittering in the sun,
as it flowed away, out of the sight even of Legolas, into the wide flats and green haze of Lebennin and South Ithilien.
Hull is renowned by its students as a windy city, but not because of its altitude. In winter when the wind is from the east it blows straight from the cold continent and seems to penetrate every corner. In relation to Brooklands the Humber does flow to the southward, and it does widen as it reaches the wide flats of Sunk Island and South Holderness, but because Hull is so flat the Humber cannot be glimpsed from Brooklands, and its alluvial nature means it does not often glitter unless the light is just right in relation to the viewer! The Anduin flows west to the sea, but the Humber flows eastwards.
As mentioned earlier Strickland-Constable’s diaries for the time survive, and although she does not mention Tolkien by name we do know that he was in Brooklands for the second long period when the Zeppelin raid of 6th August 1918 took place in Hull. She mentions two majors with neurasthenia who hid under their beds when the bombardment took place, but the remainder, including Tolkien were said to be “quite calm.” Although Tolkien shared some of his time at Brooklands with an officer friend, and was able to produce some good work on his emerging mythology, it seems the diet he ‘enjoyed’ there could have been a lot more nutritious. On 11th of October 1918, precisely the same day Tolkien left Brooklands for the final time Colonel Easton wrote to the local newspaper asking for presents of game (presumably birds like Pheasant, and possibly venison) to be donated to the institution, which he pointed out was the only officers’ hospital in Hull and the surrounding district. A medical report notes Tolkien lost 2 stone in weight after his attack of gastritis and during his second stay at Brooklands, so some of this may have been due to insufficient nutritious food.