by Ethan Gilsdorf
Oxford–I had vowed to take Dead Man’s Walk. To sneak into Gothic-trimmed courtyards. To wander beside the shadow of J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, and listen for remnants of his voice.
I had come to see the dim pubs where he drank up inspiration and to visit the homes where he scribbled The Lord of the Rings, one of the biggest-selling and most-beloved books of all time.
Alas, I heard the trail was unmarked. Shrouded in rumor and false steps. I would have to find my own path.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) lived in Oxford on and off for some 50 years: first from 1911-15 as a student, then from 1917-19 as a tutor and staff member of the New English Dictionary, and lastly as a professor of medieval languages and literature from 1925-59. Aside from spending some retirement years in the suburbs and the seaside town of Bournemouth, Tolkien haunted Oxford nearly his entire adult life.
For three decades, Oxford was also full-time home to Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Christian writings like The Screwtape Letters. From 1917-1920, C.S. Lewis attended Oxford, then onward from 1925 taught as a Fellow at the university’s Magdalen College (pronounced “maudlin”) until his departure in 1954.
Lewis and Tolkien first met in 1926 at a Merton College English Faculty meeting. Initially Lewis noted some apprehension: In his diary, he wrote of the “smooth, pale, fluent little chap” that there was “no harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”
But the colleagues soon discovered they shared a like-minded interest in languages, poetry, myth and storytelling. They both avoided contemporary culture, neither had a car nor would drive one, and both largely ignored politics and the news. And in their fledgling efforts as novelists, they served as each others first readers. “The unpayable debt that I owe to him was not influence but sheer encouragement,” Tolkien wrote decades later. “He was for long my only audience.”
The two soon became fast friends — even though Lewis had established himself in the literature faction of the English faculty, while Tolkien placed himself firmly on the linguistics and history of languages side. (Tolkien disliked most literature and found little use for any work penned after the medieval era). Together they helped revise the English syllabus, and for the first time, the Oxford English School created a dialogue between the philology and literature camps.
Intellectually, they craved each other’s companionship. But their relationship had emotional depth as well. They bonded over their harrowing experiences in the trenches of World War I. They shared the loss of their parents, which they had both endured as children. Sorrow over their pasts and their retreat from modernity gave them no where to go but their imaginations. They lost themselves in anachronistic tales and created make-believe places — engaging in what today we might disparagingly call “escapism.” Of course, the realms of Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle-earth are fraught with troubles, wars, and imperfections, at least as much as our so-called real world.
But their comradeship, began out of necessity, ended decades later unresolved, marred by petty rivalries and burdened by unspoken resentment.
When “Jack” Lewis, as Lewis was known, began to publish in the 1930s and 1940s and lecture on Christian topics, Oxford quickly embraced him as a literary and religious celebrity. Yet the same institution never fully adopted its other reclusive literary anomaly. Even today, both town and university remain uncertain how to remember Tolkien’s contribution to letters. Only the faintest traces of his days here remain etched in the silhouettes of the eight Oxford homes and four colleges associated with his studies and scholarship.
Among his colleagues, Tolkien was somewhat of an oddball. His groundbreaking essay on Beowulf and his definitive translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cemented his scholarly status. But the publication of The Hobbit in 1937 and The Lord of the Ringsin 1954 and 1955 clashed with his academic reputation. He could find respectability as a frumpy Oxford don and Anglo Saxon expert, but harboring second life telling stories of wizards, dragons, and rings of power was barely tolerable, even if the books sold well. “How is your hobbit?” Tolkien’s colleagues reportedly mocked.
For Lewis, his extra-curricular activities were more widely accepted. His sermons were entertaining and well-attended. In the 1940s, The Screwtape Letters were a best-seller and their BBC broadcast made Lewis a household name. He graced the cover of Time magazine in 1947. By 1950, when the first book in his Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, appeared, Lewis’ fame had easily eclipsed Tolkien’s. In the end, that success and other factors would eclipse their friendship as well.
My visit to Oxford in the fall of 2003 fell just before the release of The Return of the King, the third and final installment in Peter Jackson’s well-received film trilogy. Tolkien mania was at an all-time high. But Tolkien and Lewis’ city–which at various times also hosted T.E. Lawrence, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham Greene, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson, Iris Murdoch, and Percy Bysshe Shelley–seemed to barely recognize its literary pedigree. Surely that would change, I wondered, especially when Lewis fever would rage again once The Chronicles of Narniafilm hit theaters in 2005.
To be honest, Lewis didn’t interest me much. But I was an unabashed Tolkien freak. Susceptible to such things, I had sensed a quest swelling inside me: to recover and record Tolkien’s legacy, as best I could. He may have eschewed the spotlight, but I believed Tolkien–master map-maker and quest-taker–would have approved of my stumbling and peripatetic, if obsessive, path. I’d probably run into the specter of Jack Lewis along the way.
Besides, Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth had once rescued me. I owed him. So, charged with a mission high and mighty, I set off on my pilgrimage. Alone.
Naturally, then, five minutes after my London train screeched into the Oxford railway station, I didn’t expect to run into David. But there he was, walking down George Street.
We stared at each other, flabbergasted.
“What are you doing here?” we more-or-less blurted simultaneously. I explained my lofty undertaking.
David lives in Ontario, when not flitting off to the Sudan or Bangladesh doing humanitarian good deeds. He told me he was in town for an Oxfam meeting. Amazing coincidence. Or something else?
We hugged, regarded each other again, and agreed that after checking into our guest houses, we’d find each other that evening at The Eagle and Child, one of Tolkien and Lewis’ regular drinking spots.
I took David’s presence as an omen. And I wondered if a fellowship was enigmatically gathering for my Oxford quest.
Seven o’clock. I waited outside the “Bird and Baby.”
That’s the name Tolkien, Lewis, and their cronies Charles Williams, Nevill Coghill, Owen Barfield, and W.H. Lewis (Jack’s brother) gave the seventeenth-century pub where The Inklings, their literary club, met from 1939 to 1962 on Tuesday mornings to discuss their writing.
Lewis had first joined Tolkien’s “Kolbitars” society in the 1920s, an informal group dedicated to reading Icelandic and Norse sagas (thus named because coal biters sit so close to the fire they virtually bite the coals). The Inklings arose when the club began trying their own hand at forging myths from the glowing embers. With Lewis at center stage, the members would read aloud to each other, in weekly installments, chapters of novels or lines from epic works in progress. The Inklings were bards, storytellers, and entertainers, but mainly for themselves.
To our eyes, saturated with television, DVDs, e-mail, and instant messaging, the scene of full-grown men reciting myths and heroic poems around a fire seems quaint (and the men-only policy somewhat chauvinistic). Yet these cherished “Beowulf and beer” sessions served as an important refuge away from wives and children and serious scholarly matters.
Many hours were spent wreathed in pipe smoke, drinking beer, discussing and debating, and developing the now endangered art of male friendship, which Tolkien went on to champion in The Lord of the Rings characters Frodo and Sam. He modeled his walking-talking tree character of Treebeard after Lewis’ booming oratorical voice. Lewis probably based Dr. Ransom, a philologist from Out of the Silent Planet, on Tolkien. His also managed to celebrate his love of pub life: Ransom, after returning from Mars to earth, immediate sought out a neighborhood bar: “A lighted door was open. There were voices from within and they were speaking English. There was a familiar smell. He pushed his way in, regardless of the surprise he was creating in the bar. ‘A pint of bitter, please,’ said Ransom.”
The camaraderie between Jack and the man he called “Tollers” inspired the chapter on friendship in Lewis’ book The Four Loves.
These literary meetings also helped cure their dissatisfaction with literature. Tolkien’s letters recount that Lewis once said to him, “If they won’t write the kinds of books we want to read, we shall have to write them ourselves.” Tolkien agreed to try “time-travel” and Lewis “space-travel,” well before either fantasy or science fiction were the established genres they are today.
And they wrote. And rewrote. And squabbled. And rivalries began.
Tolkien and Lewis didn’t see eye to eye on matters of literary taste. Tolkien admitted Narnia was “outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his.” He found Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm “a distressing and in parts horrifying work.” He gently accused Jack of recycling Middle-earth nomenclature for his own stories. He called Lewis’ writing “creaking” and “stiff-jointed,” and suggested it was unoriginal, saying “Lewis was a very impressionable man.”
For his part, Lewis complained that Tollers was a niggler and a perfectionist, and never keen to accept advice. “His standard of self-criticism was high and the mere suggestion of publication usually set him upon a revision,” Lewis wrote, “in the course of which so many new ideas occurred to him that where his friends had hoped for the final text of an old work they actually got the first draft of a new one.”
Their differing writing paces also became a source of stress. While Tolkien wrestled over The Lord of the Rings for some 17 years, Lewis rushed his Narnia series to publication, composing the entire seven part series in seven years, and churning out book after book of what Tolkien considered Christian apologist works — Allegory of Love, Surprised by Joy— at what was to him an alarming rate (a sentiment fueled, perhaps, by Tolkien’s frustration with his own snail’s pace). In 1967, four years after Lewis’ death, Tolkien wrote, “To tell the truth, [Jack] never really liked hobbits very much.”
Still, despite their differences, the two Oxford professors helped each other at crucial points in their literary careers. Tolkien recommended a publisher for Lewis’ science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis favorably reviewed The Hobbit in The Times, and both wrote a blurb for the back of The Lord of the Rings and gushed over it in the press. (Apparently, this was before journalistic ethics considered friends reviewing each other a conflict of interest.) “This book is like lightning from a clear sky,” Lewis said of The Fellowship of the Ringwhen it appeared in 1954. It represents “the conquest of new territory.” In a letter to a friend, Lewis hoped the book “would inaugurate a new age.”
Lewis was right — it did. And in the end, Tolkien surpassed Lewis as one of the most popular writers worldwide.
Back at the Eagle and Child, waiting for David, 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 in which giant eagles rescue Bilbo and the company of dwarves.
David soon arrived, smiling, and together, we pushed through the door. But the pub came as a disappointment: modern beer signs, a computer at the bar, and a plaque marking “The Inklings were here.” Alas, The Eagle and Child had been remodeled since Tolkien and Co. warmed their toes by the fire. However, pub food like bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes) hit the spot after a typically gloomy Oxford day.
We relocated to another literary hangout just down the street, The White Horse, sandwiched between two wings of Oxford’s famous Blackwell’s bookshop. Ah, this was more like it: a low-ceilinged lair with rough wooden tables and a rougher clientelle. Here, in the 1940s, Tolkien received feedback on drafts of Rings.
I ordered a pint and David got a brandy. We raised our glasses. “To the Professor,” I said. It was easy to see why Tolkien made pub life so central to his fictional milieu and characters lives. The White Horse may as well have been The Prancing Pony or The Green Dragon. That shady guy in the corner could have been Strider, hiding his kingly lineage behind a moustache of beer foam.
David has known me since my Reagan-era, adolescent days, back when places like Tolkien’s Middle-earth were enticing refuges for a Dungeons and Dragons-playing nerd too chicken to try out for basketball or kiss girls.
David said he read the bootleg, Ace paperback edition of Ringsas 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 had always wanted to understand why.
I’m drawn to wander the same backdrop of medieval streets that Tolkien did, I said. And to try to understand what made Tollers tick.
David said he was leaving in the morning. We had another round, then bid farewell as we headed to our separate hotels. The Fellowship was broken.
On the walk back, marveling at the well-preserved masonry high and low, I was reminded that Oxford had roots reaching into the eleventh century. The town grew up cheek-by-jowl with the university. But residents weren’t always synonymous with scholars, nor were the streets always this calm. A spate of thirteenth-century town vs. gown rioting resulted in private dormitories. Hence, the fortress-like block walls and iron gates that guard students in each of the 39 independent colleges that make up Oxford University. The term “ivory tower” took on new meaning.
Before sleep, I speculated whether the university’s jagged skyline of church spires stirred Tolkien’s visions of cities like Mina’s Tirith. Or if the reproduction Venetian Bridge of Sighs led to the Bridge of Khazad-dm 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. “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,” Tolkien wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring. “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. Umbrella? Check. Elvish lembas? Check. (Actually, I ate an English breakfast nearly as hardy as lembas, the food Frodo and Sam subsist on during their journey from the Shire to Mordor). And hangover? Check. Off, then, into the mists.
I assumed a chronology of residences that housed J.R.R., his wife Edith, and their four children would lead me to insight. But as I walked from home to home — from the plain facades at 1 Pusey Street and 50 St Johns Street, where the Tolkiens lived from 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 Street (1947-53); and finally to the post-Lord of the Rings Tudor-style house in nearby Headington (1953-1968). I learned, in essence, 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. Or by daydreaming. While grading exams, he was known to sketch castles. Did Middle-earth, the unfinished kingdom whose stories Tolkien began in the trenches of the Battle of the Somme and tinkered with for his entire career, become his ultimate form of armchair travel?
Even the first lines of The Hobbit–“in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”–were scribbled on one of his student’s papers. Tolkien began the book in the 1930s while he lived at 20 Northmoor Road. The house itself supposedly inspired certain passages, like this one describing Bilbo Baggins hobbit hole: “The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable hall without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors.” Off the hall “many little round doors” opened on to rooms “first on one side and then on another bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes kitchens, dining-rooms.”
I wasn’t allowed inside. But I learned later of the similarity between Bilbo’s home and this real one at 20 Northmoor, where a long corridor runs the length of the house, and small rooms open on either side. The homeowners probably wouldn’t appreciate a Tolkienite like me lurking in the bushes and snapping pictures. The current residents probably 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.” (At 76 Sandfield Road is a stone tablet with a Smaug the dragon motif, the only other Oxford address to mention Tolkien). So I didn’t linger long, but still took the time 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 invent a few words for an Elvish song.
Back in town, I wondered what Tolkien’s academic side would reveal. How had Exeter College, his alma mater, and Pembroke and Merton Colleges, his employers, chosen to remember him?
Other than conferring an honorary Doctorate of Letters upon him in 1972, a year before his death, they hardly remembered him at all. The Bodleian Library, where Lewis often studied, does contain hundreds of Middle-earth-related papers, but its archives aren’t open to visitors. Some of Lewis’ documents are occasionally on display, such as his original Narnia manuscripts. I did not see any papers first-hand, but “the Bod” shop tempted me with 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. No wonder the structure seemed so ornately menacing).
Despite Tolkien teaching at Pembroke for 20 years, then at Merton for another 14, before retiring in 1959, he remains a scholarly shadow in Oxford’s memory. The only material evidence of him 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.
I realized conjuring the Professor would require imagination. I headed to Magdalen College, where Jack Lewis lived on campus, as many bachelor tutors did during the school term. Thursday evenings in the 1930s, The Inklings met here, in Jack’s rooms in The New Building. There, Tolkien recited early drafts of The Hobbitprivately to Lewis. When he wasn’t in Oxford, Lewis shared a house called The Kilns, with his brother Warnie, in Headington Quarry, on the outskirts of town. Here, his permanent address, he made a home with Joy Gresham during their brief marriage. (The California-based C.S. Lewis Foundation owns The Kilns today).
I couldn’t enter Magdalen’s dorm itself, so I wandered the landscaped grounds and the 15th century cloisters. I then crossed the footbridge bridge over the River Cherwell. The riverside pathway is called Addison’s Walk. Here, on September 19, 1931, during an intense conversation that lasted until 3 a.m., Tolkien convinced Lewis, who couldn’t grasp Christian symbols like the Resurrection, to accept Christ’s sacrifice.
“Myths are lies,” Lewis had said that night.
“Myths are not lies,” Tolkien countered, among the swaying trees of Magdalen Grove. Materialistic progress leads only to the abyss, Tolkien said, but the myths we tell reflect a fragment of the true light. He argued the Christ story functions as a myth, just like the Scandinavian myths they had loved, with one difference: The Christian myth was true.
“October 1931. Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this,” Lewis wrote to Arthur Greeves, soon after the conversation, and his conversion. “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with tremendous difference that it really happened.”
Seeking truth in all storytelling — the Bible, Beowulf, the annals of Middle-earth — was Tolkien’s lasting gift. I recalled my pub conversations with David. Me grasping why heroic tales of victory and sacrifice were so crucial to me in high school. And still today.
Tolkien’s logic was enough to persuade Lewis to become a Christian. But to Tolkien’s dismay, Jack chose to join the Anglican Church. This didn’t sit well with Tolkien, who was a Catholic. Tolkien had helped Lewis see the light, but Jack’s fame and celebrity, which arrived soon after, was at odds with Tolkien’s quiet and devout ways. Lewis popularity as “Everyman’s Theologian,” as Tolkien put it, was disturbing. He had become a disappointment.
Tolkien wrote in 1964, “We saw less and less of one another after he came under the dominant influence of Charles Williams,” a writer who Tolkien perceived as a wedge between himself and Lewis, “and still less after his very strange marriage.” That marriage was to Joy Gresham, unacceptable to Tolkien because she was divorced and American. Though Tolkien later called Lewis “his closest friend from about 1927 to 1940,” by the early 1950s, their friendship had soured.
When Lewis left his job at Oxford in 1954 to accept the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, their fellowship had finally broken. It reminded me of the end of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo, irrevocably changed by his adventures and his wounds, chooses to leave Sam behind in the Shire and sail onward with Bilbo, Gandalf, and the elves to the Undying Lands.
“But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.'”
Frodo replies: “‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam.'”
Neither Lewis nor Tolkien, it seems, fully recovered.
The causes of any waning friendship are hard to fathom. Sometimes, people simply outgrow the need for each other. In 1949, towards the beginning of their unspoken falling-out, Lewis wrote to Tolkien, “I miss you very much.” Upon Lewis’ death in 1963 (on the same day John F. Kennedy was killed), Tolkien was moved to write to his daughter Priscilla that Jack’s passing “feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”
In Oxford, I had no time for reflection. Dusk drew its cloak over the sharp spires of the city. The last site on my tour would have to be Tolkien’s final stop, too: I took the bus about three miles north of Oxford, to Wolvercote Cemetery. Tolkien, seven years Lewis’ senior, had lived a decade longer. (Lewis is buried elsewhere, in Headington Quarry’s Holy Trinity Church).
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 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
“Luthien” and “Beren?” They are heroes of a 1917 fairy-story Tolkien wrote about a mortal man who falls for an immortal elven-maiden. This theme bloomed later, in The Lord of the Rings, between the characters Arwen and Aragorn.
Had I found the man who had managed to turn himself into myth? In part. But Tolkien also lives on in our minds, in the images we conjure from his rich mythology for us all, Middle-earth.
After five years in Paris, Ethan Gilsdorf moved back to the States at the end of 2004 and now lives in the Boston area, where he makes his living as a freelance journalist, poet, critic, editor and teacher. His work has been published in dozens of magazines, newspapers, guidebooks and literary journals world-wide. Read more at http://www.ethangilsdorf.com/.