In which I blow my own trumpet…
When you picture J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s probably as a member of Oxford’s Inklings, writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1930s and ’40s, or in old age when fame caught up with him in the 1960s. Yet he first wrote about Middle-earth in 1914–15 while studying at Exeter College, Oxford University. My 2003 book Tolkien and the Great War started a shift in interest towards the author’s early development. In Tolkien at Exeter College, published by the college in 2014, I return to focus tightly on his undergraduate years.
So how did Tolkien first strike his lifelong creative seam? It’s an unlikely and fascinating tale, involving Beowulf, Hiawatha, the outbreak of war, and – most crucial of all – the college library’s Finnish Grammar. We meet a fresh Tolkien – a classicist who nearly failed Mods; a socialite and slacker who climbed college walls, ‘hijacked’ a bus, and was arrested during a town-versus-gown confrontation. We see his fortunes transformed by an extraordinary sensitivity to language and by a yearning to imagine the dim unrecorded past.
With the help of a series of diverting sidebars, we also see him in context of an Oxford that is both familiar and unfamiliar. There are the student meetings which he recorded in inimitable style as secretary (including one prototypical epic of battle between order and chaos); and the parties and performances he attended. There is a shocking tragedy just a couple of flights of stairs from his room; and the official machinations which allowed him to switch from Classics to English. We meet the friends he gathered in a kind of proto-Inklings, and we follow them into the Great War.
At the same time we trace the invention of ‘Elvish’ and of the first Middle-earth hero, Eärendil the star mariner. And we hear of Tolkien’s return to the college as a Somme veteran to read aloud his first mythological epic of battle.
I first spoke about Tolkien’s Exeter life at a Tolkien conference hosted by the college in 2006. In writing Tolkien at Exeter College, I enjoyed the amazing support of former Rector Frances Cairncross, who invited me to showcase my work at Founder’s Day and in the 2014 City Lecture. It was a delight to to broach Tolkien’s own college memorabilia at the Bodleian Library, and to revisit the college archives with the assistance of archivist Penny Baker and librarian Joanne Bowring. When Sir Peter Jackson came to Oxford to give a lecture in 2015, it was my privilege to show those archives to him and his partner Fran.
By the kindness of the college, the Tolkien Trust, and some hardcore Tolkien collectors, I’ve been able to include in Tolkien at Exeter College a wealth of rare archival images – some previously unseen, including a 1911 matriculation line-up, a photo of Tolkien haring up the rugby pitch, and his own sketches of Exeter College Hall and Broad Street. Matt Baldwin in the Development Office has laid it all out beautifully.
Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth (64pp, black-and-white) was a finalist in the prestigious 2015 Mythopoeic Awards for Scholarship (won by Tolkien and the Great War in 2004). Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, has described it as ‘a must-read for all Tolkien aficianados’. According to Mythlore, it is ‘a very good thing indeed … belongs on the bookshelf of every Tolkien scholar’. Holly Ordway, in an article on her books of the year, called it ‘an excellent complement’ to Tolkien and the Great War which ‘deepens our understanding of the origins of Tolkien’s lifelong work on The Silmarillion’.
Do you have your copy? Buy it from my website.
This is an updated version of a 2015 article I wrote for Exeter College’s Exon magazine, left.