Ox­ford

Steve Roberts takes us on a Tolkien tour

Cotswold Life - - NEWS -

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 ‘Mid­dleearth’, 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 first­class 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 An­glosaxon 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’.

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. ‘Mid­dleearth’ 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 sup­por­t­act, 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 ‘sec­ond­com­ing’ for JRR (that we know of), per­haps be­cause his real Lúthien had al­ready pre-de­ceased him.

‘Tolkien had to go ex-di­rec­tory be­cause of all the fans phon­ing him up’

The quad­ran­gle, Ex­eter Col­lege, Ox­ford, where Tolkien was an un­der­grad­u­ate

A view of Merton Col­lege, Ox­ford, in­clud­ing the chapel, from St Mary’s. Tolkien was Pro­fes­sor of English Lan­guage and Lit­er­a­ture at Merton, 1945–1959

ABOVE: The cor­ner of The Ea­gle & Child pub, Ox­ford, where the ‘In­klings’ met, 1930–1950 IN­SET: The Ea­gle and Child pub, St Giles’ Street, Ox­ford, where the In­klings met from the ear­ly1930s to late-1949

BE­LOW: Bust of Tolkien, chapel of Ex­eter Col­lege, Ox­ford, where the fu­ture au­thor ob­tained a first-class de­gree

ABOVE: St An­drew’s Church, on the cor­ner of North­moor Road and Lin­ton Road. Tolkien lived in North­moor Road between 1926 and 1947, firstly at No 22, then at the larger No 20

North­moor Road, in north Ox­ford, Tolkien’s home from 1930–1947

The grave of JRR Tolkien and Edith Tolkien, Wolver­cote Ceme­tery, Ox­ford

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