Stephen Oliver, Principal of Our Lady’s Abingdon in Oxfordshire, has uncovered a copy of the school’s annual journal from 1936 which contains two extremely rare poems by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The journal is the only known source for Noel, an unusual poem for Tolkien given its direct Christian theme of the birth of Christ. The Shadow Man is the more well-known of the two, and is an earlier version of Shadow-Bride published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (both the earlier and later texts are available in the expanded edition published in 2014).
The existence of a precursor to Shadow-Bride has been known for some time. Tolkien included it in a list of poems where he noted that it had been published in the “Abingdon Chronicle”. This eluded scholars for some time until Wayne G. Hammond, a Tolkien bibliographic expert and Tolkien Society member, was informed of The Tablet from 15 February 1936 which referred to “a poem or two” by Tolkien in the Abingdon Annual of Our Lady’s School.
Hammond then contacted the school who couldn’t initially locate their copy, but directed him to the archives of the Sisters of Mercy at Bermondsey who founded the school in 1860. Their copy was duly found and Hammond reported on the discovery in 2013. Whereas the earlier version of Shadow-Bride was expected, the existence of “Noel” came as a complete surprise.
The Principal of Our Lady’s Abingdon recently found the school’s own copy while searching the archives for another project, and the story has been reported as a brand new discovery in the Oxford Mail, The Guardian, BBC News, and elsewhere.
Tolkien’s precise connection and contact with the school is unknown, but as a Catholic school close to Oxford informal channels of communication through friends is possible. It has also been suggested that it represents an early example of an Oxford school outreach activity.