We arrive in Oxford completely travel-weary and weighed down by heavy packs. However, even in the midst of exhaustion and confusion, the quiet cobblestone streets of Oxford are relaxing, displaced in time.
Oxford has a rich literary and artistic history, but our interest here lies in fantasy literature: Oxford as the genesis site for Middle-earth. I’ve been reading fantasy literature my whole life and could hardly begin to express the investment I have in Tolkien’s works, and how mythology and fantasy have shaped both my prose and my poetry. E and I share a connection on this subject; our shared love of Tolkien is one of the things that brought us together as friends .
E is far more organized and detail-oriented than I am, and this trip to Oxford was entirely her idea. She has color-coordinated charts put together and has researched the sites in Oxford related to Tolkien as a student, professor, and writer. Every place we plan to visit touches a different nerve, our imaginations, our nostalgia, our academic interests.
1) Merton College
There is a weathered stone table in the corner of the Merton Fellow’s Garden, near a tree with a woman’s ashes scattered into its roots. From there (a leafless view in the winter), Tolkien and Lewis drank tea and talked of other worlds. Of larger tables coated in lion’s blood, of darker towers set equidistant from one another, and they were real as the deer in the fields and the cold beginning to creep into the air.
2) Pinus Nigra, Tolkien’s favorite tree, Oxford Botanical Gardens
3) The houses where Tolkien lived at various points in his life
4) Tolkien’s grave
E put together these beautiful decorated stones for us to leave as tokens at the professor’s grave. We have some quiet moments there, and it is amazing to see all the offerings that have been left in commemoration of this writer. Books, potted plants, letters, a framed poem in Spanish.
5) Magdalen College
Addison’s Path is a tree-lined path surrounding a deer park at Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis taught. Here, he and Tolkien would walk together, and it is reputedly the site of their famous conversation about myth that resulted in Lewis’s conversation to Christianity. It is amazing to walk down this path at sunset, realizing that this is the place where somebody found, through honest conversation with a friend, the new morality and perspective that would define his life and writing from that point forward.
6) The Eagle and Child
The Rabbit Room. A fire-lit corner under a sloping roof. The group of men who surrounded this table formed a unique community of writers, reading aloud to one another. Maybe this is where Tolkien’s work was first criticized, his books shot down or disagreed with while still in their handwritten phase. Maybe this is where those ideas were first met with something other than resistance, among like-minded scholars. Maybe the type of community and encouragement provided by the Inklings is all Tolkien needed to start a movement towards an impossible literature.
(We also visited the Lamb and Flag, located just across the street, the Inklings would reputedly head over to the Lamb and Flag on the rare occasions when the Eagle and Child ran out of beer.)
7) Bodleian Library
For me, our experience in Bodleian Library is one of the most memorable of the trip, partially because it comes as a surprise to both of us. Our trip happens to coincide with an exhibition at the Bodleian titled “Magical Books: from the Middle Ages to Middle-earth”. The exhibition features rare texts by fantasy writers associated with Oxford, including Tolkien, Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman, as well as the medieval and mythological texts that inspired and informed their worlds. We see everything from Arabic scrolls to bestiaries from the Middle Ages, and are fortunate enough to see hand-written drafts and first-edition published copies of Tolkien’s work. We even see his original hand-drawn, colored pencil sketches from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The range of texts presented paints a picture of the imaginative and historical origins of Middle-earth, and I find myself overwhelmed, exhilarated, and speechless.
Oh, and the Bodleian has a gift shop. E and I spend more money than I would care to admit there.
8) St. Aloysius Parish, where Tolkien attended Catholic mass
9) University Park, two trees planted to commemorate the centenary of Tolkien’s works
My choice of poem for this post should come as no surprise.
Galadriel’s Song of Eldamar
I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew.
Beyond the Sun, beyond the Moon, the foam was on the Sea,
And by the strand of Ilmarin there grew a Golden Tree.
Beneath the stars of Ever-eve in Eldamar it shone,
In Eldamar beside the walls of Elven Tirion.
There long the golden leaves have grown upon the branching years,
While here beyond the Sundering Seas now fall the Elven-tears.
O Lórien! Too long I have dwelt upon this Hither Shore
And in a fading crown have twined the golden elanor.
But if of ships I now would sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?