ohn Ronald Reuel Tolkien lived in Oxford for 50 years. I had come to see the dim pubs where he drank and found inspiration and to visit the homes where he scribbled The Lord of the Rings, one of the biggest-selling and most beloved books of modern times. But the university where Tolkien taught medieval languages and literature from 1925 to 1959 does not exactly promote the association.
In his day, being a reclusive Anglo-Saxon expert was respectable; shape-shifting from frumpy Oxford don to storyteller of wizards, dragons and rings of power was not. “How is your hobbit?” his colleagues had mocked. In my visit to Oxford, I would find only the faintest trace of Tolkien’s time here etched in the silhouettes of the eight Oxford homes and four colleges he haunted.
Five minutes after my London train screeched into the Oxford railway station, I didn’t expect to run into David, a friend for decades but not seen for some years. He told me he was in town for a meeting of Oxfam, the charity for which he works. We agreed that after checking into our guest houses, we’d find each other that evening at the Eagle and Child, one of Tolkien’s regular drinking spots.
Seven o’clock. I waited outside “the Bird and Baby.” That’s the name Tolkien cronies C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams gave the 17th century pub where the Inklings, their literary club, met Tuesday mornings from 1939 to 1962 to discuss their writings. I looked up at the pub’s sign: a raptor flying away with an infant. Seeing it flapping in the wind, I wondered if the image had inspired a famous scene from The Hobbit, Bilbo and company’s rescue from a pack of wargs and goblins by the Lord of the Eagles, with the diminutive Bilbo “swinging in the air, his arms nearly breaking.”
Then David arrived and we pushed through the door. But the pub came as a disappointment: modern beer signs, a computer at the bar and a plaque reading, “The Inklings were here.” Alas, the Eagle and Child had been remodelled since Tolkien and company warmed their toes by the fire. However, pub food like bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes) hit the spot after this typically gloomy Oxford day.
After a few rounds, we relocated to another literary hangout just down the street, the White Horse, sandwiched between two wings of Oxford’s famous Blackwell’s bookshop. This was more like it: a low-ceilinged lair with rough wooden tables and a rougher clientele. In the 1940s, Tolkien received feedback on drafts of Rings from his erudite beer aficionados.
I ordered a pint, and David got a brandy. We raised our glasses: To the Professor.
David has known me since my adolescence, when I found Tolkien’s imaginary Middle-earth an enticing refuge for a Dungeons and Dragons-playing nerd too chicken to try out for basketball or kiss girls.
David said he read the Rings as a 1960s Canadian college kid – but not since. I admitted that my total immersion in Tolkien’s fantasy of fellowship among men, elves, hobbits and dwarves now made me a tad uneasy. But swords-and-sorcery was important to me then, I told him. I wanted to understand why.
So, I said, I’m drawn to wander the same backdrop of medieval streets that Tolkien did.
We had another round, then bid farewell as we headed to our hotels. David had to return to Canada the next day.
On the walk back, marvelling at the well-preserved masonry high and low, I was reminded that the Oxford that Tolkien first attended as a student in 1911 had roots reaching to the 11th century. The town grew up with the university. But this didn’t mean all residents were scholars, nor were the streets always this calm: 13th century fighting demanded private dormitories. Hence, fortress-like block walls and iron gates guard students of each college (39 independent colleges make up Oxford University).
Before sleep, I speculated whether the university’s jagged skyline of church spires stirred Tolkien’s visions of cities like Minas Tirith. Or if the reproduction here of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs led to the Bridge of Khazad-dum spanning the chasm that Frodo, Aragorn, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Legolas, Boromir and Gimli cross while chased by orcs through the Mines of Moria.
There, on this bridge, Gandalf the wizard strikes down the foul Balrog. I remembered the lines from The Fellowship of the Ring:
“But even as it fell it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled around the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Fly, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.”
And I slid off into sleep.
Quest: Day two. Map? Check. Elvish lembas?(technically, English breakfast). Check. Hangover? Check. Off, then, into the mists.
I assumed that a chronology of residences housing J.R.R., his wife, Edith, and their four children would lead me to some insight into the professor. But as I walked from home to home – from the plain facades at 1 Pusey St. and 50 St. Johns St. (1918-21) to the more spacious suburban homes at 22 and 20 Northmoor Road (1925-47), then the smaller row houses east of town at 3 Manor Road and 99 Holywell St. (1947-53), and finally to the post-Lord of the Rings Tudor-style house in nearby Headington (1953-68) – all I learned was that Tolkien was restless.
In fact, his homes seemed mundane to me, if not dreary. I wondered if by staying put in Oxford, his wanderlust was sated only by uprooting every few years. I also wondered if the current residents of 20 Northmoor couldn’t wait to pry off that blue plaque declaring, “J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, lived here 1930-1947.” (Likewise at 76 Sandfield Road, whose stone tablet with a Smaug the dragon motif is the only other Oxford address to mention Tolkien’s 17-year struggle to write Rings.)
The homeowners probably wouldn’t appreciate Tolkienites lurking about and snapping pictures, either. I stayed only long enough to imagine the author staring into the fire, pipe in hand, his family asleep, then dipping his pen to write, in longhand, a line of Gandalf’s dialogue or to invent a few words for an Elvish song.
Back in town, I decided to examine Tolkien’s academic side. How had Exeter College, his alma mater, and Pembroke and Merton colleges, where he taught, chosen to remember him? The answer was that, other than conferring an honorary Doctorate of Letters upon him a year before his death in 1973, they hadn’t chosen to remember him much at at all.
The Bodleian Library does contain hundreds of papers related to Middle-earth, but its archives are not open to visitors. Still, in the gift shop of the library, which is open to visitors, I was tempted by Tolkien souvenir posters, books and cards. (I later read that Tolkien modeled evil Sauron’s temple to Morgoth after the Bodleian’s domed Radcliffe Camera. Touche!)
Despite teaching at Pembroke for 20 years, then at Merton for 14 before retiring in 1959, Tolkien remains a scholarly shadow. The only material evidence is a bronze bust of Tolkien’s likeness sculpted by his daughter-in-law, Faith Tolkien. It’s in the English Faculty Library, practically off campus.
At this point, I realized that for me to conjure the Professor would require imagination. I headed to Magdalen (pronounced “maudlin”) College, where Tolkien’s best friend and colleague, C.S. “Jack” Lewis, lived.
Thursday evenings in the 1930s, in Lewis’ dorm behind the college, Tolkien had recited early drafts of The Hobbit. I couldn’t enter the dorm itself, so I wandered the landscaped grounds and the nearby 15th century cloisters. I then crossed the footbridge over the River Cherwell. The riverside pathway is called Addison’s Walk. Here, on Sept. 19, 1931, the two friends had an intense conversation that lasted until 3 a.m. Tolkien ultimately persuaded Lewis, who could not grasp Christian symbols such as the Resurrection, to accept Christ’s sacrifice.
“Myths are lies,” Lewis had said.
“Myths are not lies,” Tolkien had replied, among the swaying trees of Magdalen Grove. Materialistic progress leads only to the abyss, Tolkien had argued, but the myths we tell reflect a fragment of the true light.
Seeking truth in all storytelling – the Bible, Beowulf, the annals of Middle-earth – was Tolkien’s lasting gift of fellowship to us.
But I had no time for reflection, now, as dusk approached. The last site on my tour would have to be Tolkien’s final stop, too: I took the bus about 3 miles north of Oxford, to Wolvercote Cemetery.
Little brown signs led me past characterless tombstones to Tolkien’s. With a thick headstone and a stone border framing a rectangle of rosemary, pansies and roses, his and his wife Edith’s grave resembled a bed. Some fans had left offerings: a candle, a wooden rosary, a jeweled barrette. In raised black letters on the flecked granite tomb, I read:
Edith Mary Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
“Luthien” and “Beren” are the central figures of a 1917 story Tolkien wrote about a mortal man who falls for an immortal elf-maiden. This theme would bloom again later, in The Lord of the Rings, between the characters Arwen and Aragorn.
In Oxford, had I found the man who had managed to turn himself into myth? In part. But Tolkien also lives on in our heads, in the images we conjure from his rich mythology for us all, Middle-earth.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a travel writer and poet who has been featured in the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. He last wrote for the Grapevine on Cooking and Travelling in Thailand.