Professor Tolkien, from his seat in the back of the Eagle and Child pub, the Bird and Baby, as it was known around Oxford, watched as his old student, Arlen Cavanaugh, weaved his way, a Guinness stout aloft in each hand, to him. Tall and thin, his blond hair swept back to reveal twinkling blue eyes, pointy ears and a narrow face, his former student seemed to glide effortlessly around and through the knots of people standing, talking and drinking, in the crowded pub. Did his feet touch the floor? The professor remembered that Arlie had been a great athlete, swift and graceful on the rugby field where he seemed never to lose his balance, and the squash courts, where be bested all comers, smiling impishly and barely breaking a sweat the whole match. The word elvan came to Professor Tolkien’s mind, which surprised him since he was used to thinking of elves as smallish creatures.
On the five-minute walk from Pembroke he had had a quick lesson in the improbable. Arlen, a poor student from a rich Midlands merchant family, had, after flunking out of Oxford, wangled an appointment to Sandhurst, where he lasted less than a month, and then managed somehow to land a job in Naval Intelligence, where he now worked directly under its director, a man named Hugh Sinclair, who Arlie referred to as Uncle Quex. SIS, MI-6. Quite.
“Why the note under the rock?” the professor asked when Arlie was seated.
“I was just having fun. You know me.”
“That’s why you were sent down, Arlie.”
“No doubt, sir.”
“What’s your interest in Havamal?” The professor had pulled the note out of his pocket and spread it on the scarred wooden table.
“We think Herr Hitler is interested in it as a code book.”
“That’s absurd,” John Ronald replied. “It would be easily deciphered.”
The professor, now forty-six and with World War One between him and his youth, rarely recalled his undergraduate days with anything but pain. Two of his best friends lay buried in the Somme Valley. He smiled now though, thinking of the brashness of the TCBS’ers, as he and his small coterie of public school classmates called themselves, not unlike the brashness of Mr. Cavanaugh.
“So you’re lecturing me now,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to turn his smile into a frown of mild indignation.
“No, sir. Just correcting your usage. Codes are decoded, ciphers are deciphered.”
“Is this what you’re learning at Bletchley House?”
“Yes, sir. Among other things.”
“Excellent. Learning something.”
“We had the same thought,” Cavanaugh said, “about Havamal. The Germans have Enigma machines. They are well beyond code books.”
“Should I still be worried about German aggression?”
“Professor…Are you serious?”
“I was rather hoping the headlines were accurate.”
“There’s no chance of that. Hitler’s a madman.”
“Are you sure?”
“They have seen my strength for themselves, have watched me rise from the darkness of war, dripping with my enemies’ blood.”
“My God, Arlie. You were listening.”
Silence, and a disarming, boyish smile from Arlie; then, the smile short-lived, the young man’s face suddenly deadly serious: “He’s killing Jews by the thousands. He’s arming himself to the teeth. Uncle Quex says he’ll invade Poland next year.”
“And what is it you need of me?” The quote from Beowulf had penetrated the professor’s defenses. He had learned about evil on the Somme and did not want to believe that its great dark shadow was again falling over the world. But of course it was. And here was a young man some might consider intellectually challenged to remind him, to jar him from his personal struggle with what was after all just a novel, a fiction, epic though he hoped it might be.
“Do you know a Professor Franz Shroeder?” Cavanaugh asked.
“Franz Shroeder? Yes. He taught one term at King Edward’s when I was there.”
“He’s a top man in his field.”
“Correct. Norse Mythology, of which Havamal is a core text.”
“He’s retired I believe.”
“I hadn’t heard that.”
“Or on a long sabbatical.”
“You can get to the point, Arlie. Indeed, having heard Grendel’s words fall from your lips, I am eager to know what it is.”
“You’re going to Berlin on Wednesday, to talk to a publisher, I believe. A German translation of The Hobbit.”
“What else do you know?”
“You have a five-day visa.”
“Shroeder is working on something on direct orders from Himmler. We’d like you to help us find out what it is.”
“Who is Himmler?”
“The head of the SS, Hitler’s political police. A nasty bunch. The Gestapo comes under his command. You’ve heard of them of course.”
“I have. Difficult to avoid hearing of them from time to time. How would I do this – discover what Shroeder is working on?”
“The Hobbit is popular in Germany, among those who read English. It appears the German-only readers are clamoring for a translation. Shroeder is something of a celebrity there at the moment because of the Nazis’ obsession with runic symbols and all that Aryan nonsense. We’ve arranged for you to meet with Professor Shroeder. Famous Dons Discuss The Norse Gods and Middle-Earth.”
“I see. Are you wincing, Arlie?”
“You should be.” Tolkien retrieved his pipe and tobacco from his jacket pocket and proceeded to fire up. It was a comfort to him, this ritual, and also an excuse to think. Who is Himmler? indeed. Where have you been, John Ronald? “It’s a children’s book,” he said, finally.
“Perhaps,” his former student answered. “But there are certain…the Nazis seem to like it.”
The Professor, drawing on his pipe, raised his eyebrows and then lowered them slowly. Bloody Nazis, he thought, surprising himself. He had, he realized, been so miserable over his writer’s block and his London publisher’s failure to see reason that he had forgotten to pay attention to the real world, which was obviously careening toward disaster. Cease the self-indulgence, John, he said quietly to himself. Cease and desist. “Go on,” he said out loud.
“There will be stories written,” Cavanagh continued, “for UK and German consumption. The Reuters man will be working with you. The Nazi Propaganda Ministry is all in.”
“Yes, it’s a gambling term.”
“Ah, are you a gambler, Arlie?”
“I’m afraid I am.”
“What Reuters man?”
“His name is Ian Fleming. He’s in Germany now, covering Munich, the annexation.”
“How will we accomplish our objective?”
“We have a simple plan.”
“As simple as there and back again, I suppose.”
This time Arlie Cavanaugh did not get the reference. So much for an author’s pride. Or did he? He was hunching forward now, his blue eyes twinkling again, ready to explain.