A Tolkien tour in Oxford
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Stephen Roberts walks in the footsteps of the Oxford scholar who enjoyed attending parties dressed as a polar bear, and once chased a neighbour while dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon
For a man who’s famous on all four corners of the globe, it’s perhaps apt that the author JRR (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien has major associations with four places: South Africa (where he was born); Birmingham (where he grew up); Oxford (where he was an academic); and Bournemouth/Poole (where he holidayed, then retired). We could also throw in ‘Middle-earth’, of course, his fantastical creation that showcased both ‘The Hobbit’ and the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. This is Cotswold Life, however, so I was headed for Middle England. My search for Tolkien would begin and end in Oxford.
The author and philologist (studier of language), was born in Bloemfontein (South Africa), in January 1892, arrived in England aged three, and was then educated at King Edward VII School, Birmingham. Despite the exotic surname, Tolkien’s parents were English (his father was a banker, based in South Africa, when JRR was born), however, the paternal side of things had emigrated from Germany, possibly in the mid-18th century.
The Oxford connection began in October 1911, when Tolkien was 19, and he headed to Exeter College, to continue his studies. Initially a Classics scholar, he changed tack halfway through, transferring to English Language and Literature. It would prove a wise move for Tolkien, who graduated in 1915 with first-class honours. Bright lad. The following year would see the still-young Tolkien marry Edith Bratt (1889-1971), who was three years wiser, in March 1916 (24 plays 27). He circumspectly finished his degree before joining up, but then fought at the Somme, before being invalided out with trench fever.
It would be 1925 before Tolkien returned to Oxford. He would shift to the other side of the fence, still entrenched in academia, but as a professor, becoming firstly, a professor of Anglo-Saxon (1925-45), then of English Language and Literature (1945-59). That first spell of 20 years, immersed in Anglo-Saxon, was at Pembroke College, where Tolkien held a fellowship. He had also begun some private tutoring (a man after my own heart), from mid-1919, including undergraduates at the all-women (at the time) colleges of Lady Margaret Hall and St Hugh’s College. Tolkien would busy himself with writing too. It was during the Pembroke years that he’d write ‘The Hobbit’ and the first two volumes of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.
Tolkien’s Pembroke sojourn would almost exactly coincide with his residence in Northmoor Street, about a 2½-mile drive from the college, in Oxford’s northern suburbs. JRR would live, firstly, at No. 22 (1926-30), then at the larger No. 20 (1930-47), a house adorned today with a blue plaque, which was erected in 2002. It wasn’t all work and domesticity, however, as the ‘Inklings’ was an informal literary discussion group, linked to the university, which met for nearly two decades (early-1930s to late-1949). The group met on Tuesday mornings in a corner of ‘The Eagle and Child’ pub, in St Giles’ Street, Oxford. One of the other members was C.S. Lewis (‘The Chronicles of Narnia’), who was a sometime friend and advocate of Tolkien.
The professor would be more famous, of course, as an author. His works included an edition of the Arthurian ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (1925), studies on Chaucer (1935) and a translation of that great Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Beowulf’ (1936). As war clouds gathered again, it looked likely that Tolkien, academic and wordsmith, might be drafted into cryptography, but, it was deemed that his services would not be required. It seems he wasn’t ‘the right stuff’.
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In 1945, Tolkien moved colleges to Merton, where he took up duties as Professor of English Language and Literature, a role which he fulfilled until he retired in 1959 (aged 67). It was during the Merton years that Tolkien finished the last part of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (1948), close to a decade after he’d first begun sketching the stories. Getting things finished quickly was never a trait of his.
Now, you might be thinking that an academician-author might not be exactly the life and soul of the party, but I suspect you would have been quite wrong where Tolkien was concerned. Apparently, he enjoyed attending parties dressed as a polar bear, once chased a neighbour whilst masquerading as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon and was even known to pawn his false teeth as payment in local shops. I wonder whether he ever paid for some chops with his choppers? I’d like to say he enjoyed ‘clubbing’, but his clubs were more of the literary and scholarly persuasion. He did enjoy late nights and drinking, though. Tolkien clearly had a mischievous, riotous side, however, that might have found favour with the elves of his imagination. It all sounds very near the knuckle though. One is tempted to say that Elf and Safety would have been all over him like a cheap shirt today.
The scholar, prof and eccentric had built up an interest in language and saga. He was also fascinated by the land of ‘Faerie’: fellow-author and near-contemporary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was similarly enchanted. All the ingredients were there for Tolkien to write tales of a world of his own invention, populated by strange beings, with their own meticulously-constructed language and folklore. ‘Middle-earth’ was born with ‘The Hobbit’ (published 1937), a tale of the journey of ‘Bilbo Baggins’ and the dwarfs to recover treasure from ‘Smaug’ (the dragon) and all the perils they encounter. Tolkien, an accomplished amateur artist, was able to provide his own illustrations (some of his unpublished artwork was to go on display in Oxford in the summer of 2018).
There was then the far more complex sequel, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (published 1954-55), a trilogy (though not originally envisaged as such) featuring Bilbo’s nephew, ‘Frodo’, who aims to destroy a powerful, but highly dangerous, ring in ‘Mordor’ (the land of darkness and evil). Later works included ‘The Adventures of Tom Bombadil’ (1962) and ‘Smith of Wootton Major’ (1967). There was also ‘The Silmarillion’, which was unfinished on Tolkien’s death, but completed and published by his son, Christopher (1977). This told the story of a romance between a man and an elf and was allegedly inspired by the very real love of JRR and Edith. The real man left a legacy too. One of the first to earn a living from scribing ‘fantasy fiction’, he made it easier for those who followed in this genre.
Tolkien’s literary works made him famous, but fame didn’t always sit comfortably with him. It was the public attention that peeved him, the loss of privacy that irked, and he hated becoming a ‘cult figure’. He had to go ex-directory because of all the fans phoning him up (I know the feeling). The literary ‘establishment’ was critical of his output (too bizarre perhaps), but millions of readers across the globe disagreed. The sales of his books made him wealthy too: fame and fortune. With the money rolling in, however, he regretted he hadn’t retired earlier.
Mr and Mrs Tolkien had regularly holidayed down on the south coast, in Bournemouth, and it was to that part of the world the couple headed, when the great man decided Oxford had got too hot for him. At the time, Bournemouth was very much an upper-middle-class resort and retirement there gave the long-suffering support-act, Edith, her moment in the spotlight, as she set out to become a ‘society hostess’. Those were the days.
When Edith died first in November 1971, aged 82, the author returned to Oxford, Merton College giving him rooms just off the High Street. A favourite eatery in this final phase of Tolkien’s Oxford life was the Eastgate Hotel, close to where the High Street joins Merton Street. When it was time for him to join Edith in ‘Middle-earth’ in September 1973 (aged 81), Tolkien was buried in the same grave in Wolvercote Cemetery, which is about 1¾ miles further north than Tolkien’s former homes in Northmoor Road. The grave bears not only the names of husband and wife, but also Beren (male) and Lúthien (female), characters and lovers from ‘The Silmarillion’. It seems that Tolkien was just an old romantic. In fiction, Beren is killed, but restored to life as a result of Lúthien’s pleading. In reality, there was no ‘second-coming’ for JRR (that we know of), perhaps because his real Lúthien had already pre-deceased him.
Taking the Tolkien tour
The Eastgate Hotel, 73 High Street, where Tolkien ate during his final years in Oxford.
Merton College, where Tolkien was a professor from 1945-59.
Pembroke College, where Tolkien was a professor from 1925-45.
Exeter College, where Tolkien was an undergraduate.
The Eagle and Child pub, St Giles’ Street, where Tolkien was one of the Inklings.
Northmoor Road (OX2 6UP) where Tolkien lived at Nos. 20 and 22.
Wolvercote Cemetery (OX2 8EE), where Tolkien and his wife are buried.