Tolkien at Exeter College: Birth of a legend

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.

With Peter Jackson, Exeter College, July 2015

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, by John GarthTolkien 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.

This entry was posted in 100 years of Middle-earth, Book news and reviews, John Garth’s writing, Tolkien in the First World War, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Tolkien at Exeter College: Birth of a legend

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I would heartily second Holly Ordway’s characterization of it as ‘an excellent complement’ to Tolkien and the Great War – and what a Salmagundi of delight and instruction in its own right, too! And, like Tolkien’s own writing (and that of Lewis and Williams, for that matter) it’s gratifyingly ‘centrifugal’, whetting the readers’ appetites and sending them off eagerly to discover more about things mentioned – such as, for example, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha music, in my case (happily available on YouTube thanks to The Longfellow Chorus)!

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Speaking of “Tolkien haring up the rugby pitch”, I was intrigued to see a recent little ‘complementary’ item on Exeter’s site about Tolkien buying football boots on 11 October 1913!:

    • John Garth says:

      Actually this piece, and others in the wider media, were preceded by a couple I published in my capacity as digital editor of Oxford Today, the University magazine. My colleague Richard Lofthouse first broke the story that Duckers’ was closing in November, and we published some Tolkieniana in a follow-up news item about the sale of the ledgers. I was able to bring in some extra information and imagery from my research on Tolkien at Exeter College (plus, in the headline, a touch of off-kilter humour from my love of Sixties music.)

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thank you – how interesting to see the very entries! (What a sad occasion, though!)

  3. Sue Bridgwater says:

    Reblogged this on Skorn and commented:
    Got my copy – don’t miss yours!

  4. Pingback: Tolkien at Exeter College « The Spyders of Burslem

  5. Brian Tither says:

    In this modern age it is really not surprising that an Old English specialist like yourself resorts to ‘blowing your own trumpet’ so to illustrate how the under-graduate JRR Tolkien created Middle-earth. Particularly given that Gjallarhorn is too tightly in Heimdall’s grip at Bifrost between Midgard and Asgard for academics to make use of so to signal the Ragnarok that could result from people relying too much on movie directors like Peter Jackson and his ensemble of Hollywood actors to portray Middle-earth!

    I do not think that many people these days have even got a picture of Tolkien as an inkling writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1930s and 1940s, or in old age when fame caught up with him in the 1960s. Let alone a picture of him beginning his Middle-earth legendarium in 1914-15 with the poem that he wrote about Earendil the star mariner inspired by the lines in Crist: ‘eala earendel, engla beorhtast,/ ofer middangeard monnum sended’ (‘hail morning-star, brightest of angels,/ over middle-earth sent to men’)!

    Rather the picture that most people these days have of Tolkien is of someone whose works supposedly needed a boost to its readership at the end of the 20th century from Oscar winning movie productions based on those works such as those that Peter Jackson directed. This is while ignoring how the audience from the 80-100 million book sales of The Lord of the Rings that occurred in the near half-century before the production of the movies were announced provided a lot of free publicity to those movies. And now it seems that the special effects that promoted The Hobbit movies, so to justify them being a trilogy, is being employed to promote Mortal Engines, Peter Jackson’s next venture, and movies of similar ilk, which are based on books that do not have the quantity of readership that The Lord of the Rings had even before the production of the movies were announced.

    This is despite Christopher Tolkien having works published like his father’s Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur and Beowulf: a translation, during the movies hiatuses to illustrate how Tolkien developed his legendarium, which is interpreted by many fans of the movies merely as the Tolkien Trust cashing in on the movies, as they interpret the Trust’s suing of the movie studios over the franchise attached to both trilogies, which the Trust is doing to stop it. This is with the Trust possibly losing in counter-suing by the studios only the money that it was entitled to in the first place, which it had to sue for, as per the contract that JRR Tolkien signed when he first sold off the film rights, but in the process having stopped the franchise going beyond the limits that the original contract had set.

    Fortunately I am protected from such movie fan ignorance by having done a paper at a university here in New Zealand titled: ‘Tolkien and Medieval literature’, in the year after the first Lord of the Rings movie was released. This introduced me to how Tolkien doing his studies in, and teaching of, works such as The Saga of the Volsungs, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, amongst others, influenced the creation of his legendarium as well as Finnish texts like The Kalevala and an assortment of Welsh texts, amongst others, all which was only enhanced by me doing papers in Old and Middle English and Old Icelandic.

    However, the most interesting thing in doing this was attending a lecture at the end of the ‘Tolkien and Medieval literature’ paper, given by a guest lecturer, who I had as a lecturer ten years earlier, who spent the lecture reminiscing about his own under-graduate experience at Oxford in the years that The Lord of the Rings was published. And while this included him talking about his encounters with Tolkien at Oxford and after Oxford, before Tolkien’s death, when he had become a lecturer in Old English like Tolkien, what stood out for me was how my former lecturer and the other young male under-graduates lived like Tolkien in the university colleges in study groups for which was assigned a tutor and a scout, all which is reflected respectively through Frodo and his cousins, Bilbo and Sam.

    One of the most interesting things that my former lecturer said about that experience was that despite him being English born, he and his study-mates, who were also English born, were wary of Tolkien thinking that the university made a mistake in appointing him as the Professor of Anglo-Saxon over New Zealand born Kenneth Sisam, a graduate of both Auckland College in New Zealand and Oxford, in a close contest. This is with Tolkien alluding to that closely fought appointment in his valedictory address when retiring from being Professor of English at Oxford to be replaced by New Zealand born Norman Davies, a graduate of both Otago University in New Zealand and Oxford.

    As you well know Sisam was also Tolkien’s tutor in Old English even before Tolkien wrote such things as Earendil the star mariner, effectively making him Tolkien’s Bilbo. Tolkien also said of Sisam in a letter that he owed him a debt of gratitude for introducing him to texts that he had never heard of before, which feasibly could have included Crist. This is because in my experience of studying Old English in class we looked at more common texts than Crist like Caedmon’s Hymn, The Battle of Maldon, The Dream of the Rood, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Wulf and Eadwacer, Judith and Beowulf.

    Furthermore, my experience of learning Old English et al demonstrated to me how Tolkien’s under-graduate experience at Oxford, not to mention my former lecturer’s experience there, had evolved to the lecturer I had for Old English et al assigning a Bilbo from her honours students to help half-wise Sams like me with our letters, while our lecturer, who did her PhD at Oxford, readied her Frodos for doing PhDs at places like Oxford and Cambridge. And given my lecturer was a woman, as was the Bilbo that she assigned for me and other Sams, who were mainly women like most of the class, as was my lecturer’s last Frodo before she retired, I think Tolkien did very well in having Bilbo teach Sam his letters and then having Sam teach his daughter Elanor her letters! Also, given how my classmates attempted to challenge the university we attended in the midst of it cutting our programme I think that we developed a great understanding of how undergraduates would often get their scout to spy on any meetings between any of their classmates and senior lecturers so that they could also be part of the action. Meanwhile, our tutorials and discussions are something I am reminded of when I read The Lord of the Rings and consider the ‘tutorials’ that the Hobbits have on their way to Mordor, which alas are not reflected in the movies.

    Hence, I hope that Tolkien at Exeter College reflects that experience and I hope that it was reflected to Peter Jackson when you showed him Tolkien’s own college memorabilia at the Bodleian Library. Perhaps what is needed now is a bio-pic of Tolkien produced by a movie director who accurately reflects how Tolkien’s under-graduate experiences, his experiences in war, his experiences as a lecturer and an inkling shaped his legendarium, and how this is not understood by those who have since become Tolkien’s fans.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      If I may bring another New Zealander into the picture, in the context of “introducing him to texts that he had never heard of before”, or, in this case, introducing any interested reader today both to texts quite new, and texts heard of, but never yet read – or even browsed in – J.A.W. Bennett’s contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature, the volume on Middle English Literature (excluding Chaucer and the drama), which was completed after his death by Douglas Gray and published in 1986, seems a rich source of things Tolkien knew, or probably knew – and taught – or might well have, making one curious what interplay there may have been between various later mediaeval English works and Tolkien’s own fiction.

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