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On the Tolkien Trail, Part Two
by Shaun Spain

The Later Years

Oxford, England. I knew what I was looking for: the colleges at which Tolkien spent many of his years. Exeter College was where Tolkien performed his undergraduate studies. Merton College was where he sat his professorship. Knowing someone who studied at Oxford University was helpful; I was told of the beautiful gardens that abound and was urged to visit them. "Yes!" I replied. I waned to visit them, because at the back of my mind was the gnawing thought: that the gardens of the colleges of Oxford are the gardens of Rivendell.

Exeter College

Right in the centre of Oxford is Tolkien’s first stop: the college in which he spent his youth and early adulthood: Exeter College.

(Oxford, 1999. Exeter College, Turl Street frontage)

Turl Street is an unassuming promenade, and the front of Exeter College seemed unimpressive as I strolled along. When I say unimpressive, I don’t mean in architectural style or state of repair, but because of it’s seeming to blend in with the rest of the street. I had walked many streets in Oxford by this time and there was nothing particularly different about this one. However, when I located the entrance to the college and stepped through, what greeted me reminded me of yet another reason for which I had come. . .

(Oxford, 1999. The view upon entering the Exeter College grounds)

. . . beauty.

I was stunned. The creeping greenery that adorned the building’s face like an old beard was quite breath-taking. The feeling I had when stepping into that place was one of sheer amazement! How could this thing have been hidden, not to be seen as I walked along the street outside? Not yet recovered from this sight, I turned to my left.

(Oxford, 1999. Exeter College Chapel, exterior)

And what little breath I had regained, was taken instantly. I have always found churches and temples impressive, and Exeter College’s chapel was no exception. I wondered how many times Tolkien had come here, or had stood where I was standing and admired that view.

I felt drawn towards that seemingly miniature door. My feet were not being told where to go by my brain — they apparently knew of their own accord. Inside, inside! I wanted to see what kind of vaulted chamber lay within.

(Oxford, 1999. Exeter College Chapel, interior)

As I stepped in, the sound of a Bach organ piece greeted me, and the vast hall arched above. I can barely describe the atmosphere — there were but a few people inside and all held their silence in reverence for that place. I was gazing around, gawping and drooling and inwardly cooing. I just knew that Tolkien could not have come to this place without being moved in some way. But in what way, and whether it inspired anything in his works I don’t know. These questions, I am afraid, I cannot answer.

I had a feeling that there would be something — some mention — of Tolkien in here! I just knew that there had to be some memorial to Tolkien at hand. My sister — who was accompanying me — continued to gaze around as I turned back towards the doors and searched.

And there it was . . .

Can you imagine my utter horror when, after getting my photographs developed, those of the Bronze-cast Head of Tolkien turned out to be blurred! I have to admit that I am no photographer. I tried to get the inscription on the base but it was no good. Let me just tell you that it named Tolkien and explained that he had been at Exeter College.

Upon leaving the chapel I ventured through a narrow gap and was enthralled at the sight. I didn’t raise my camera once to it, unfortunately. It would not have captured the most enigmatic feature in any case; from an open window somewhere above, the sound of angelic choir voices ululated and held me in a trance. If my sister hadn’t comically stumbled down an unseen step I may have been stood there to this day. As it was, the dream was shattered and the hunt was on for Merton College.

Merton College

Sympathise with me, if you can. Misfortune had dealt me a sore blow. I had come to Oxford with a mind to visit the gardens of the colleges, and guess what? They were all closed! To the public, at least. Two colleges were hosting large wedding parties (lucky them) and the rest were simply closed! Even Merton College was closed off, and I could not enter the premises to photograph anything.

However, I had entered the city via a more picturesque route (guided by my ever mindful sister) and I passed what can only be described as some brooding giant’s castle; it was none other than Merton College!

(Oxford, 1999. Merton College, rear-view from fields)

Later on, as I navigated my way around the town, I grabbed a map and guided myself towards the front entrance to the college. I had no idea at that time that the college was closed, but I went with an expectant heart.

(Oxford, 1999. Merton College, front)

It was then that I found out the truth. Merton College was closed to the public. Even so I was determined to photograph something. I peered through the door, considering a mad dash inside and a few hasty snap-shots, when I saw people milling around. Foiled! I couldn’t get in without being noticed — and I was so obviously a tourist that I knew I would be found out instantly. Instead, I pointed the camera through the door and clicked.

(Oxford, 1999. A view of Merton College from the doors)

The architecture inside looked enticing, but as you can see from the picture, I was already drawing attention. So, being utterly defeated, I retreated and took a bitter photograph of the chapel’s exterior.

(Oxford, 1999. Merton College Chapel, exterior)

Nevertheless it was worth it. The steeple is certainly grand, and those flèches held my attention for quite some time. This then, was where Tolkien spent his later working life as a professor. I at least had had the chance to gaze at it.

Inspiration . . .

What was there left for me to see? All the gardens were closed and Merton was shut. I had spotted another plot of gardens to the north of Merton College and they had been open when we came into town. By the time I left the colleges behind it was getting late. Confound it! I was just too late for the only open gardens in Oxford! They shut the gates as I approached!

Trudging my way home and feeling both dissatisfied and yet happy, I caught sight of something that I just had to photograph. I took my time with it and managed to cheer myself up a little.

(Oxford, 1999. White bridge spanning the river)

Since I didn’t succeed with my plans for the gardens I shall leave you with a myriad pictures from around Oxford. I’m sure you will agree that, considering Tolkien must have seen these things many times, he could not have remained unmoved and uninspired. Imagine for yourself, if you will, what inspiration he drew from them, and whereabouts — if at all — they emerged in Middle Earth.

(Oxford, 1999. A Fabulous Spire)

(Oxford, 1999. Four Pillars and Five Standing Figures on the roof)

(Oxford, 1999. A Halls of residence? If anyone knows, contact me)

(Oxford, 1999. The Púkel-men Faces)

(Oxford, 1999. The Camera Building)

(Oxford, 1999. Another spire and Rosetta Window)

Coming soon is Part Three: Orthanc and Mordor uncovered . . .

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