Talkin’ Tolkien in the City of Culture

The Tolkien Centenary Day at the University of Hull

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A Lincolnshire Cosplay Group kindly attended the event, raising money for Cancer Research UK

Kingston-Upon-Hull (Hull to it’s friends) may not top many people’s list of places to visit, but throughout 2017 the City of Hull has been enjoying a surge of attention thanks to its City of Culture status. Jumping on the bandwagon, that attention continues right here with a recap of the Tolkien Centenary Event, held in the city on Sat October 21, 2017.

In 1917 J.R.R Tolkien was a patient at Brookland’s Military Hospital, Hull, recovering from trench fever. 100 years later and a lot has changed. Brookland’s Military Hospital is now The Dennison Centre, part of the University of Hull’s campus, and Tolkien has become one of Fantasy’s central figures –  a famous ex-resident well worth noting, as the blue plaque on the building suggests. This was the connection the Tolkien Centenary day sought to celebrate, with anniversary lectures, cos-players, children’s activities and more generally raising awareness of Tolkien’s local links and inspiration.

Guest speakers were a key part of this event. ‘Tolkien in East Yorkshire’ author Phil Mathison was present with banners and a book stall, while the Tolkien Society’s own Michael Flowers was first up, giving a talk on ‘100 Years of Tolkien’s Hemlock Glade’. For many the main draw was to hear Professor Tom Shippey speak, giving a lecture entitled ‘Tolkien and Humberside: The Start of One World, The End of Another’. Not only did Professor Shippey remind the room that Tolkien was the ‘great expounder of Northern literature’ but went on to discuss how Tolkien’s wartime experiences, and those of other war writers, had connections to descriptions used in Middle Earth. Such a passage might be the descriptions of the way planes circled overheard, comparing these to the way the Nazgul are described.

Professor Shippey’s talk spoke perfectly to some of Jay Johnstone’s artwork featured at the event that drew upon similar themes. Jay Johnstone came armed with a car full of paintings that transformed the back half of the room into an art gallery. Jay was not the only artistic person, however, as activities ran throughout the day that encouraged kids to flex their own creative muscles. This led to many (cardboard) swords being forged, before being furiously unleashed in (cardboard) battle. Other options were creative writing exercises – ‘character sheets’ acted as prompts, and a Hobbit-themed version of Mad Libs – There and (Blank) Again – gave attendees a framework to jump start their own fantasy writing.

The day was not just about Tolkien’s literary works, though. The University’s History department was on hand to share some of Brooklands hospital’s past, including demonstrations of World War I medical techniques, with The Red Cross present to show the audience the correct modern way of doing things – just to be on the safe side. These demonstrations and accompanying information were particularly useful, drawing attention to an aspect of Tolkien’s life often overshadowed by the grandeur of his works.

Throughout Hull’s 2017 ‘City of Culture’ celebrations there has been a wealth of events celebrating and promoting authors with local links, including the virtually unknown Dan Billany (whose fascinating history is definitely worth looking up) and the Brit-noir pioneer Ted Lewis, better known as the author of ‘Get Carter’. The major achievement of this event, then, was its acknowledgement of Tolkien’s own notable contribution to the East Riding’s literary landscape.