[I drafted this a month ago and hadn’t gotten ’round to publishing yet. It’s still rushed, but if I don’t publish it, I never will.]
Oxford is one of those places so closely associated with the Tolkien that a certain discernable longing to visit it; to walk the cobbled streets where the Professor’s own feet trod; to visit his frequent haunts. In short, many Tolkien fans see Oxford as a sort of pilgrimage that they would like to take at least once in their lifetime.
I am doubly fortunate in that I have now been twice. Though it must be said that the first hardly counts, as it was one Saturday afternoon/evening in 2012 during a friend’s stag-do. In addition, I was feeling physically ill most of the night, and it wasn’t due to alcohol consumption. Indeed, I’d hardly had a drop. The guys had all had a ‘genius’ idea to eat a big lunch so as to have plenty of stodge in our stomachs to ‘soak up’ the alcohol which was to come that evening. A fine idea, to be sure. But it was too much. I was so full that, for most of the evening, the idea of putting anything at all — even water — into my stomach made me feel physically ill. This is no doubt part of the reason I don’t look as enthusiastic as I should during my first visit to The Bird and Baby. Okay, I admit that I was talked into having a single pint on my visit to the pub because, well, you sort of have to. But, for reasons stated, it was difficult to enjoy.
Ever since then I have wanted to return to Oxford for a ‘proper’ visit. On this past Sunday (1 July, 2018), I managed to do that. It was a whirlwind visit and I still didn’t see everything I wanted to see or in as much detail. For that, I feel I need at least a dedicated weekend. Still, I finally got closer to Tolkien’s Oxford than I’ve ever been before.
I knew I wanted as much time in Oxford as I could manage, and also knew that I needed to leave by about 15:00 due to commitments back home. So an early start was a must. I awoke around 03:30 when the dog asked to go outside and, knowing I’d get very little sleep again before I wanted to set out, I simply jumped in the shower and got ready to go. Setting out from my home in the Northwest of England at around 04:20, I settled myself in for the 2.5-3hr drive.
I stopped at a motorway services rather early on and had a watery, tasteless coffee. It wasn’t until around 06:30 that I managed to get breakfast and a real strong coffee in me. (Incidentally, Harry Ramsden’s make a helluva breakfast bap. Willing to advertise for you for free breakfast, Harry. Just sayin’.)
Eventually, I arrived in sunny Oxford. The skies were cloudless, the sun was shining, and I found the Park & Ride at Peartree with little difficulty (parking within the city of Oxford is reportedly both difficult and expensive). Unfortunately, I was over an hour early to catch the earliest bus. Still, I had arrived and it was clear sailing from here.
I wandered around looking for a toilet (who knew when I’d next find on once in the city) and came across this beauty. It’s a Morgan 44 (apparently) and according to the owner (who wandered over to chat as soon as I started taking pictures), it’s only 2 years old. I learned that the Morgan Motor Company still makes cars to the (more-or-less) same body design that they’ve been using for over sixty years, right down to using timber frames and hand-rolled sheet metal. It was a thing of pure beauty. They are, apparently, a bit pricey (though not unobtainably (how is that not a word?) so) to both buy and upkeep, as parts wear out quicker than they would on modern cars. But dang. Just look at ’em.
But you aren’t reading this post for coffees and sexy cars, and if you’re still with me, you probably want to see a bit more of Tolkien’s Oxford. I arrived in the city proper just before 09:00. I had actually travelled down primarily for the Tolkien Exhibition at the Bodleian Library. But as my tickets were not until the 11:30 slot, I had some time to kill. So, using the Bodleian Library’s Tolkien Trail walking tour, I set off to explore. I cannot recommend this handy little web app highly enough, and many thanks to Joe Bartram for bringing it to my attention. All you need is your phone and a GPS signal, and the web app will step you through several of the most popular Tolkien locations. Even at a brisk pace (to accommodate the short time I had to spend in Oxford), I was able to take a few moments at each location and try to reflect on Tolkien, his life, his family, and his work.
I hit the usual haunts associated with Tolkien’s Oxford: The Bird and Baby, The Camera, several of Tolkien’s homes in the area, etc.
The one major milestone I didn’t manage to visit and wish I had (but couldn’t simply due to lack of time) was Tolkien’s final resting place with Edith. But
You always have to have something to return for, right?
Eventually, of course, I made it back to the Bodleian for the exhibition. What can I say?
You enter the exhibition down a short corridor upon the floor of which is projected an early draft of the map of Middle-earth. On the walls to the left is a shot, cycling video montage showcasing some artwork from the releases of The Lord of the Rings. On the wall to the right are some art pieces, but these are not originals. They are the ones you may order through the shop (and indeed there is a kiosk right there in the corridor if you simply cannot wait. Not sure this was needed.) On the wall at the end of the corridor (and thus facing you as you enter) is projected the artwork of the Doors of Durin from FotR. “Say ‘Friend’ and Enter”
The actual door to the exhibition is on the left at the end of the hall, whereupon you enter a not large but not small square room. Immediately in front of you are a few display cases standing freely in the centre of the floor. These are tall and have their contents displayed primarily in a hanging fashion (“on the wall” of the display cabinet, so to speak). This helps because it allows a good viewing, even if there are people immediately in front of the glass (although it must be said that throughout the exhibition this wasn’t an issue. The inflow of patrons is controlled well and it never felt crowded).
There is also a stack of laminated print-outs containing all the captions for the display pieces in large print, just in case you can’t quite get close enough to read. But again, this was never a real issue.
The exhibition ran more-or-less clockwise around the room if you go in order of the print-outs, but this is certainly not required. However, doing so does follow a generally linear timeline through Tolkien’s life from his infancy through the war and into post-publication of the great works.
I cannot possibly go into everything here, but some highlights:
- Tolkien’s original working maps, taped together from several sheets of paper, containing many corrections and even the odd burn hole from a pipe.
- Original art pieces I’d never seen before, such as those contained in The Book of Ishness — a title I’d neither heard of before, nor seen samples of. This artwork was absolutely stunning. And I know I’m biased. But some of this work was some of the most detailed, most vibrant, often darkest and most mysterious work that I’ve ever seen Tolkien produce.
- Artwork in general. This gets a separate mention because I have a profoundly deeper appreciation for Tolkien’s art post-exhibition. The sharpness of the pen scratches in Conversation with Smaug blew me away. These cannot be reproduced in a print in a book…it simply isn’t possible. But to stand there and see the original indentations into the paper … to see the fineness of the detail which Tolkien achieved with pen and ink…I was absolutely gobsmacked. Then there was the drawing of the three trolls of Mirkwood, and the description accompanying it where it was described how Tolkien made effective use of negative space. Negative space is something I have come to appreciate in the likes of Mike Mignola (Hellboy) but somehow never really noticed in Tolkien’s work before. Take another look at that trolls artwork and think about it from a negative space perspective. It’s an incredible example.
- The Desk and Chair. I had no idea that my own writing desk was incredibly similar to Tolkien’s own. I never considered what his desk may have looked like, and yet there it was: a humble fold-down desk not unlike my own. A humble desk for such an immense man.
- Character. Above all, the exhibition did a wonderful job of putting character and personality into a man whom I’ve known only through published works. I felt I somehow knew Tolkien more intimately upon leaving. It gave me a sense of contentment…and yet also of longing.
Of course, the exhibition book is breathtaking, but you’ll have heard all about that from others. I will post a review properly as-and-when I manage to get through it. As of now, I have only managed to flick through it in several brief sessions. I hope to have gone through it cover-to-cover by year’s end (but that’s a big ask).
A delightful account of a special day. I smile at the thought of Tolkien’s Oxford contemporaries grimacing angrily as they see their foe’s name on banners at the Bodleian.!
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