Spring of 1945

I’m working on a short story (along with my creative writing class), and it’s a really fun experiment for me. It’s alternative history, and it’s almost fan fiction. It’s kind of goofy. Here’s part of it for you to enjoy.

Spring of 1945

It was the spring of 1945, and Hitler was about to plant his boots on English soil. The United States had refused to come into the war, in spite of the unprovoked attack on military personnel and civilians alike at Pearl Harbor. The testing of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos had gone horribly wrong, wiping out the local population and affecting millions of people in the subsequent fallout. With Japan and Italy as strong axis supporters, Germany marched on across Europe: east, west, and north. Russia soon succumbed. London was on her knees, bombed into submission, beaten and dying. Churchill, defeated and desolate, committed suicide, and the nation collapsed into impotent mourning.

Oxford had survived the Blitz; the rumor was growing that Hitler coveted it for his British headquarters, and many residents were bracing themselves to accept the possibility that he would set up his center of operations in the ancient university city after the inevitable end of the war. There, in the golden bubble of Oxford, the towers and spires dreamed on. But the corridors of the great colleges were nearly empty of echoing footfalls: most of the faculty and nearly all of the students had been massacred in the killing fields of France. As the war dragged on and the Allies lost one battle after another, as Germany was victorious at Monte Cassino, at the Battle of the Bulge, as D-Day failed and the Nazis overran Normandy, a desperate Britain had begun calling up older and older men, younger and younger boys, and finally women.

Oxford fought to keep her irreplaceable Dons, those human receptacles of wisdom and culture. If England’s greatest minds were blown apart on the battlefield, who would rebuild civilization when the warmongers were done destroying? If England won the war but lost her wisest men, how would victory be any different than defeat? And now that defeat was inevitable, the men of letters were more valuable than ever before: they were the last hope of the human spirit, the tiny enclave of all that was good in human history, and they were the only ones who could rebuild all that had been lost. So argued the University’s Chancellor, more and more feebly, as his faculty were killed off one by one, and he heard the tramping boots of England’s enemies drawing near.

Huddled in the back room of a smoke-darkened pub, four men shared one cigarette among them, passing it from hand to hand. The smoky haze hovered over their heads and wrapped around their dark coats, hiding them from a hostile world. The Chancellor’s special authority hovered over them, too, keeping them safe in the ivory tower while their friends, brothers, sons, colleagues, and students fought on the south coast and in the skies above England. One was unfit, anyway, with a nervous disorder that made his hands shake so badly he could not shave himself, but had to go to a barber every morning. The others were beyond the usual age of fighting men: one, a hearty, loud, beefy man of forty-six; the other two tall, slender, ages forty-six and fifty-three, the younger with the delicate build of a dancer—but men a decade older than they were dying in the air and on the beaches and in the streets of London even now.

Were they cowed and quiet, this quartet of veterans from the first war, these men held back in their books while the world fell apart around them? Did they creep and crawl with embarrassment that they were not fighting again while their loved ones were? Did they shudder and shake with fear of the coming invasion?

An enormous guffaw exploded from all four mouths, puffing away the smoke and rattling the walls. Four heads were thrown back, hands slapping the table or someone else’s back in merriment, faces red with laughter, feet pounding the floor in delight. The slender dancer leaped up and cut a caper in the middle of the floor. Then the tall, thin fellow did him one better by clambering upon the table and beginning to declaim in a loud voice:

“Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.”

After only two words, the big fellow joined in, adding his booming voice to the other’s rather garbled articulation, and the ancient sounds rolled across the pub:

“Hēr līð ūre ealdor eall forhēawen
gōd on grēote. Ā mæġ gnornian
se ðe nū fram þisum wīġplegan wendan þenċeð.”

As the chanting went on, the other two joined, a line or so behind, adding modern English antiphonally to the din:

“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
Courage the greater, as our might lessens.
Here lies our leader, all hewn down,
The brave man in the dust. May he mourn for ever
Who now thinks to turn from the warplay!”

The gentleman on the table tripped on an empty beer stein—there had been only two pints to share among them that evening, what with the rations and the shortages—and the others reached up to steady him, roaring with laughter as they offered their hands to help him down from the table.

“No, no!” he protested. “I have a song to sing first!”

They struggled with him for a moment, trying to bring him down from the table-top, but he resisted, shook himself free of their hands, and announced:

“The Man In The Moon Came Down Too Soon.”

“The old man had better not send you off to war, Tollers,” the beefy chap bellowed. “You’d only sing songs at the Germans to frighten them away.”

“And then begin analyzing the history of their language,” the lithe little fellow put in. “And Jack would retell their own myths to them until they all fell asleep with boredom and we could walk right into Berlin over their snoring forms.”

C. S. “Jack” Lewis howled at this, banging the table with his fist. The table shook, and Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wobbled among the dishes. He put out a hand to steady himself, and it landed on the head of the stoop-shouldered man on his right, who grasped it and burst into a fluid stream of quotation,

“A pack of blessings light upon my head,
Happiness courts me in her best array,
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
I pout upon my fortune and thy love.”

Tolkien and Lewis, tears of merriment running down their faces, shouted together:

“Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable!”

And Lewis went on:

“Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art. Thy tears are womanish. —But you are a true man, Williams, and regular charmer to the ladies. Maybe the top brass should send you to Germany to seduce all the Jerry’s women. You could do what you liked with them as either a cad or a Don Juan, undermining national morale and making way for an Allied invasion—if you were not a thoroughly good man.”

Tolkien harrumphed, as it he wasn’t quite sure about the “good man” part, but kept his hand on Charles Williams’s head to steady his precarious balance upon the table. Williams beamed up at him, a beatific smile that glowed upon the little fellowship, transforming his face from simian wizardry to angelic beauty. Owen Barfield looked on, tapping his heels in an impatient rhythm on the floor, and said:

“But we need Charles here more than over there. Not for the women, but for the sanity and consciousness of England herself. Your doctrines of love and forgiveness keep madness at bay here in this city of wisdom in our trying times.”

The others nodded soberly.

“I have never heard anything like your lecture on Milton,” Lewis agreed. “It is the first, and probably the last, time that I have ever seen a university doing what it was meant to do: teaching wisdom.”

Williams stood gracefully, catching Tolkien’s hand to steady the professor, who still stood on the tabletop, waiting to sing his song. Williams bowed ceremoniously, one hand on his heart, then kissed his hand to each of them, gracious as an emperor.

“Wisdom shall soon cease in this city and all such ordered civilizations of our times,” he said, “if we are all sent off to wield our useless weapons in aged hands, to die beside our sons and brothers, and for all our learning to be buried with our bones in France.”

A blue haze settled over the friends for a moment—then Tolkien burst out, waving the smoke away from his face with a slender hand:

“Enough of this serious chatter! I have a song to sing!”

Then he began warbling:

“There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.”

There was much more of this song, and much more of their talk, in a tiny pocket of laughter that Oxford night before Hitler landed.

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."

14 thoughts on “Spring of 1945

  1. Charles Huttar says:

    What fun! (except for poor Winston. Was he sober when he did it?) I’m eager to see where you go next.

  2. Joe says:

    Intriguing start. What happened to the Russians?

    • I’m open to suggestions! What do you think I should do to the Russians?

      • Joe says:

        By March 1945, the Red Army was 35 miles from Berlin. Even without Americans in the fight, Hitler was toast. If the Eastern Front stays the way it was in our world, that probably figures into your protagonists’ attitudes.

        To take the Russians out of the fight, you have a real imaginative challenge: what could possibly have happened to them that’s worse than the real, historical events?

  3. I guess I’ll have to do quite a bit of thinking about how to get Russia out of the way earlier, before they got that far….

  4. Joe says:

    So we won’t get Charles Williams’s thoughts on England’s glorious communist future? Shame. Maybe Anastasia survived the massacre, rallied the people, restored the monarchy before the Nazis got started, and then turned out to be just as bad at warfare as her father.

  5. I guess that’s what I do: give out writing assignments. 🙂

  6. Joe: How about this?
    ” Hitler had made plans to invade Russia early in the war, but had changed his mind and strengthened his alliance with Stalin. With the Soviet Union, Japan, and Italy as strong Axis supporters, Germany marched on across Europe: east, west, and north.”

    • Joe says:

      That would work. It’s probably best if it stays as far in the background as possible, since it’s only important to your readers who are (a) Russian or (b) smart-alecs.

  7. Which are you? 😉

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