Tolkien’s nod to the medieval homage ritual in LotR


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As I indicated in a previous entry, I wanted to post some of the images that I used when delivering my Tolkien 2005 conference paper. That paper (without the images) is included in the proceedings now on sale by the Tolkien Society.

Back in 2005, my presentation, “Male Friendship in The Lord of the Rings: Medievalism, The First World War, and Contemporary Rewritings,” discussed the Frodo and Sam relationship in both medieval and modern contexts. I wanted to show that a tradition of male friendship, especially in war, stretches far back in time.

For example, just as Roland has his Oliver in the Song of Roland (here pictured in a 14th-century manuscript):

Roland and Oliver

and Beowulf has his Wiglaf (by J.H.F. Bacon, c. 1910):

Death of Beowulf

so too, Frodo has his Sam:

Sam Frodo Mount Doom LotR Framecap Lib

While I wanted to show how a tradition of male friendship can be traced back to the early medieval period (and I could have gone beyond that, of course, but I only had 20 minutes for my talk!), I also tried to place the Frodo-Sam relationship in a modern and contemporary context. I looked at the nature of World War One friendships, then at how Peter Jackson had portrayed Frodo and Sam in his films, and finally at how subsequent fanfic writers have generally represented the two.

But as I was thinking about the medievalized elements in Frodo and Sam’s friendship, I was struck by one moment in Return of the King when the two of them are near the end of their climb up Mount Doom. Consider this passage:

 ‘Help me, Sam! Help me, Sam! Hold my hand! I can’t stop it.’ Sam took his master’s hands and laid them together, palm to palm, and kissed them; and then he held them gently between his own.

At this point, Frodo and Sam are very close to the end of their climb. As the Eye moves to gaze at the Captains of the West, Frodo falls to the ground as if he’s “stricken mortally.” Sam is kneeling beside him. Of course, it’s completely natural for Frodo to ask Sam to hold his hand to keep it from reaching for the Ring around his neck. And it’s quite in keeping with Sam’s previous attempts to comfort his Master by holding his hands, as he does several times before this in various situations.

But the specific actions that are described here are also reminiscent of the medieval ceremony in which a vassal pays homage to a lord. Typically, the vassal places himself in a lower position than his lord by kneeling before him. He offers his hands in a prayer gesture, palm to palm, to his lord, who places his own hands over them as a sign that he will offer protection to his vassal.

medieval homage ceremony

From a 12th-century manuscript. Act of homage

On Mount Doom, Frodo is in the lower position on the ground and Sam is kneeling above him. Frodo offers his hands as a vassal would do, and Sam takes them between his own, as if he were the superior in the relationship. I find this reversal very telling. Sam has always directed his loyalty to his “Master,” acting as his servant. Now, Frodo is acknowledging Sam’s leadership role by putting himself into Sam’s hands, both literally and symbolically. He is becoming Sam’s man, as if he were a vassal pledging himself to a lord.

This reversal only acknowledges what has already happened in the story by this point. Sam has increasingly taken the lead in their journey and made decisions for both of them in his effort to protect Frodo.

The ceremony of homage between vassal and lord existed in many European countries and over centuries in the medieval period, so it should not be surprising that variations occurred. In my 2005 article, I interpreted the scene in the light of one of these versions, in which a vassal kisses his lord’s hands in the ceremony. Because it’s Sam who kisses the clasped pair of hands, I had read that as a sign of  “a reciprocal exchange in which Frodo acknowledges the need for Sam’s leadership and protection, and Sam acknowledges his willingness to be both vassal and lord” (324). Since writing this, though, I’ve read that in some instances the lord did kiss the vassal’s hands and in others, the kiss did not occur until an oath of fealty was sworn after the homage ritual. In any case, some historians do point out that the ceremony of vassalage created a reciprocal relationship between the two parties, with equal demands on both sides.

Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth 1969

Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth 1969.

However we interpret the details, I can’t help but see the basic homage ritual (hands clasped together and enfolded in another person’s hands) as reflected in this moment between Frodo and Sam. In that light, the scene looks forward to the time when Sam will become the Master of Bag End; in fact, to me it makes that conclusion seem inevitable.


The original article in the 2005 proceedings did not have a bibliography attached. For the sake of completion, you can look at the Works Cited list here [pdf].


Roland and Oliver. Illustration from the Song of Roland. 14th century. Wikimedia Commons Image;

Frodo and Sam. Peter Jackson, Return of the King. Image from The Lord of the Rings Image Library.

From a 12th-century manuscript, Liber Feudorum Major. Wikimedia Commons Image:,_Count_of_Urgell#/media/File:LiberErmengol_Arnau.jpg

Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth 1969 investiture ceremony.


Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s LotR has arrived (for real this time)


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Approaches to Teaching Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Other WorksI can now definitively say that Leslie Donovan’s Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works is available. Back in July, I posted an announcement of the book’s August release, but it’s only this week that I’ve received my copies from the publisher and that I’ve noticed the book is available for order (and not just pre-order) on Amazon websites.

Leslie Donovan has collected a wealth of information that can be used by teachers who want to run a full course on Tolkien’s works or who want to incorporate a study of his works into various kinds of college and university courses.

In “Part One: Materials,”  Leslie describes editions of Tolkien’s works, multimedia aids for teaching, and the standard scholarly and reference works useful for the study of Tolkien. In identifying these resources, she draws on her years of experience as a Tolkien scholar and teacher, but she also had additional input in 83 survey responses received from Tolkien teachers (Preface xi). You can click on the images below to read the full table of contents.

“Part Two: Approaches” consists of 29 essays describing ways of teaching Tolkien — at different levels; in large classes and small; in English departments and others; from a medieval or a postmodern perspective — I have yet to sample all of them. The contents of Part Two are divided into the following sections: Teaching the Controversies, Tolkien’s Other Works as Background, Connections to the Past, Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, Interdisciplinary Contexts, and Classroom Contexts and Strategies for Teaching. My own article is on “Tolkien in the First-Year Literature Survey Course” and is based on my teaching of English 1171 here at Mount Saint Vincent University.

To supplement all of this information, you can also check out the resources posted in the new journal Waymeet for Tolkien Teachers, where some of the essay-writers have posted their course materials.

Click on the thumbnails below to read the full table of contents.

Approaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings & Other Works. Contents Part OneApproaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Other Works. Contents Part Two ApproachesApproaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Other Works. Contents Part Two continued

Tolkien 2005 Proceedings on sale


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Tolkien 2005: The Ring Goes Ever On ProceedingsIt’s hard to believe that the Tolkien 2005 conference — The Ring Goes Ever On — was held ten years ago at Aston University in the UK. Looking over the list of participants in the mammoth proceedings published after the event, I see names of people I had met just a little while before; some that I had known or followed online for a few years; and others I had yet to meet in the coming years. (Do I sound like I’m looking into Galadriel’s mirror?). The event, co-sponsored by the Tolkien Society and the Mythopoeic Society, packed into five days an enormous number of presentations and activities.

It was difficult deciding which papers to go to, and sometimes the rooms were so full that people had to be turned away. I remember a few highlights: having Priscilla Tolkien herself open the event by wishing that “a star would shine upon our meeting.”  Getting the opportunity to tell Alan Lee that I loved his design of Meduseld. Discovering some of my favorite fanfic authors and having the opportunity to talk to them. Going to a Q & A with Priscilla Tolkien. Listening to presentations by scholars such as Tom Shippey, John Garth, Ian Hunter (all of whom spoke to huge audiences; Ian’s talk on Lord of the Rings porn parodies was certainly an eye-opener!). Meeting up with some of my TORnsibs.

But I digress. The point of this post is to help the Tolkien Society announce that the proceedings of the conference are now on sale for 10 British pounds (approximately $20 Canadian and $15 US). So if you couldn’t be there, or if you were and would like a record of the event, this is your chance to get the enormous two-volume proceedings, with nearly 100 articles, at this discount price. Go to the Tolkien Society offer here for more details.  A full list of contents is available at the Tolkien Gateway site.

My presentation, “Male Friendship in The Lord of the Rings: Medievalism, the First World War, and Contemporary Rewritings” is included in Volume 1. Here is a summary of what I discuss in that article:

My paper explores continuities in the institution of male friendship from the Middle
Ages to the First World War and then looks at contemporary explorations and understandings of the central male friendship in The Lord of the Rings, that of Frodo and Sam. I look at some examples of medieval forerunners before examining the nature of male friendship in World War One through the perspectives of critics such as Sarah Cole, Santanu Das, Joanna Bourke, and Allen Frantzen. I focus my discussion of
The Lord of the Rings on the Cirith Ungol scene, in which Frodo and Sam sleep together, and on the Mount Doom scene, in which Frodo asks Sam to hold his hands, a gesture that I argue mimics the medieval ritual of swearing fealty to a lord. I then examine the contemporary reception of the Frodo – Sam relationship in the Peter Jackson films and in reactions to them. I conclude by considering slash fan fiction and its version of male friendship.

In the next few days, I’ll post some of the illustrations that I used when I gave my talk, and I’ll write a little bit more about Tolkien’s adaptation of the medieval ritual of homage.

Of course, my article is only a small part of a very large collection that could keep you reading Tolkien essays for some time. Go to the Tolkien Society website to order!

Travels with Tolkien; or, What I Did Last Summer


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A couple of weeks ago, my department held a reception for our students, and the event included a series of brief talks called  “What I Did Last Summer.”  Our intention was to introduce our work to our students and also to combat the popular misconception that professors have the summer “off.”

We wanted to give students a glimpse of what their professors do when they’re not teaching. The talks — which had to be under 10 minutes — described various tasks that we performed over the summer, from collective bargaining on behalf of the faculty union, to the writing of short stories, to doing research for articles and conference papers. I offered to talk about my research and conference trips to Oxford and New York, but the time limit was a challenge!

I’ve already written in this blog about my research trip to Oxford and my conference trip to New York, but in case you’re still interested, here is another version of the story; I’ve recorded the talk that goes with my slides. I hope this presentation gives some insight into the main ideas that are fuelling my work these days.

CFP: Tolkien in Vermont 2016



Tolkien in Vermont conference

Conference organizer Chris Vaccaro has sent out the call for papers for the 13th Annual Tolkien in Vermont conference. This is a small, friendly event with a featured speaker and papers by professors, independent scholars, and students. This year’s theme is Tolkien and popular culture, with keynote speaker Dr. Robin Reid.

Tolkien and Popular Culture
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont
April 8-9, 2016

Abstracts should be sent by January 15th to Chris Vaccaro at

To look at previous years’ programs, you can go to the conference website.

Eala! Unlock your word hoards!


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I’ve just heard about a new project, the journal Eala, which will publish compositions in Old English and other medieval Germanic languages. The founding editor and editor-in-chief of Word Hoard Press, Richard Littauer, plans to publish the journal online and include original compositions in Old English, Old Norse, and the like, as well as translations.

I can’t help thinking that Tolkien would be pleased to see this kind of venture, as he was a proponent of writing in the alliterative verse styles of Old English and Old Norse, either in the original languages or in modern English. As readers of his recently published Beowulf know, Tolkien was adept at composing in Old English – see his prose story “Sellic Spell” in that volume as an example. Tom Shippey has written about the difficulties of counting just how many poems and fragments Tolkien wrote in alliterative meter in both modern and Old English; in his essay “Tolkien as a Writer of Alliterative Poetry” in the book Tolkien’s Poetry, Shippey counts 22 compositions in modern English alliterative meter plus “The Homecoming”; another nine complete poems and five fragments in Old English, and that’s not including modern English poems imitating Old Norse alliterative style. In other words, Tolkien wrote a lot of alliterative verse.

Although Tolkien did write in other verse forms besides alliterative meter, he believed that alliterative verse was a natural form for English speakers and advocated its use – but who was listening? Lately, though, I’ve seen signs of interest in bringing medieval poetry more in contact with modern writers. Jane Chance, for example, is hosting an “Original Medievalistic Poetry Reading and Open Mic” at next year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I’ll have to check it out next May in the hopes of hearing some alliterative compositions. And here’s another sign of interest from a couple of years ago: Modern Poets on Viking Poetry: A Cultural Translation Project resulted in the publication of poems in modern English, which can be downloaded here.

These last two are projects that highlight the influence of medieval poetry on modern writers, but to write “correct” alliterative verse in a medieval language like Old English is another matter entirely. I’m looking forward to seeing what shows up in Eala.

Happy Birthday, Bilbo and Frodo! #HobbitDay


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Bilbo and Frodo happened to have the same birthday, September 22nd. ‘You had better come and live here, Frodo my lad,’ said Bilbo one day; ‘and then we can celebrate our birthday-parties comfortably together.’  (Lord of the Rings, chapter 1).

Listen to Tolkien talking about the original “flash point” for the writing of The Hobbit:

Tolkien also designed the book jacket for the first edition, pictured below.

Hobbit dust jacket

Here is the book cover of the edition that I first read as a teenager, illustrated with a drawing by Tolkien.

The Hobbit. 1966

The Hobbit book cover, Unwin Books, 1966.

Since its first publication in 1937, The Hobbit has been reprinted many times and translated in 110 editions in 64 languages, according to Tolkien book collector Yvan Strelz. Check out his amazing collection of translations on his website, Elrond’s Library. You’ll find editions in languages from Albanian to Yiddish, and the book covers are fascinating in themselves. Do you remember what your first edition of The Hobbit looked like? Or if you’re a recent first-time reader of The Hobbit, did you pick your edition by the cover?

Teaching Tolkien’s Works: new book and journal


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Approaches to Teaching Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings & Other Works Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works is a volume of essays published by the MLA (Modern Language Association) in their Approaches to Teaching World Literature series. The book, to be released tomorrow, August 1st, is edited by Leslie Donovan, and contains essays on teaching Tolkien’s works in various programs and course levels. I’m planning to post the Table of Contents as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

I have an essay in the book, “Teaching Tolkien in the First-Year Literature Survey Course,” which is based on my experience in teaching a section of English 1171 in my department here at Mount Saint Vincent University. In this course, I teach Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring in the context of other works in the English literary tradition. (For an upper-level course dealing with more of Tolkien’s works, you can check out my English 4475: Tolkien and Myth-making webpage).

Associated with the release of this book is a new digital journal for Tolkien teachers:  Waymeet for Tolkien Teachers: a digital journal for teaching J.R.R. Tolkien’s works and life in post-secondary schools. The journal is starting to gather materials under links for Syllabi, Class Materials, Online Resources, Articles, Publications, and a discussion Forum. In the journal you can find the syllabus for my 2014 version of English 1171, “Introduction to Literature: Reading Historically.” The journal also contains my research paper assignment from that class, simply titled “100-level research paper” under the Class Materials > Formal Assignments link.

Take a look at the rich resources already being posted on Waymeet: materials on teaching Tolkien’s works in courses on medieval and modern studies, myth, war, children’s literature, science. I think that this journal and the MLA book will become a valuable source of inspiration, tips, techniques, and materials for anyone teaching Tolkien’s works in universities and colleges. I’m definitely looking forward to browsing through the materials before my next round of teaching Tolkien.

You can pre-order the Approaches to Teaching book from Amazon in the US, Canada, or the UK or from the MLA bookstore.

A Look Back at The New York Tolkien Conference


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New York Tolkien Conference banner. Image by Luke Spooner

banner image by Luke Spooner

When I heard that a Tolkien conference was going to be held in New York City last month, of course I paid attention, as I find any reason to visit New York a welcome one. When I investigated further and saw the list of presenters — Janet Brennan Croft, Kristine Larsen, Nicholas Birns, Laura Lee Smith, Chris Vaccaro, Dawn Walls-Thumma, and others who kept getting added to the roster —  I was convinced I had to go. The conference gave me a great opportunity to talk about my research on Tolkien’s art, and I was also pleased to be invited to participate in the Women in Middle-earth roundtable (more on my sessions below). Plus, as with most conferences, it was a chance to catch up with friends and meet new people.

Organized by Anthony Burdge and Jessica Burke, the conference featured Janet Brennan Croft as the Scholar Guest of Honour. Janet’s keynote, “Barrel-Rides and She-Elves: Audience and ‘Anticipation’ in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy,” started off the day’s proceedings. Janet pointed out the challenges that Jackson faced in making The Hobbit, which is supposed to be a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, but was made after what is supposed to be its sequel. Following me? If not, you can always look up a version of Janet’s talk, complete with diagrams illustrating the internal and composition chronologies of versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, here.

Janet Brennan Croft

Janet Brennan Croft, Scholar Guest of Honour. photo K. Larsen

Janet used Tolkien’s criticisms of Zimmerman’s screenplay as a way of discussing some of Jackson’s issues in trying to make The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a seamless sequence, including problems of tone, audience, plot structure, and characterization.

After the plenary, it was time to disperse to various sessions. The conference call for papers had elicited so many presentations for this one-day event that the speakers had to be divided into four or five concurrent sessions for every timeslot. I found myself wishing that I could be in two or three places at any one time throughout the day. Luckily, two of the sessions were taped and posted online, so if you were in another room or just stayed at home, you can still listen to Dawn Walls-Thumma talking about “The Loremasters of Feanor: Historical Bias in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Transformative Works.” This link will take you to a page that also includes the text of her talk and the slides that she showed. The other taped session was “History and Technique: Sourcing the Arms, Armor, and Fighting Techniques of Middle-earth” featuring Rebecca Glass and Kat Fanning (if you follow the link, you’ll have to scroll down the page to their video).

Kristine Larsen in the Women in Middle-earth panel. photo C. Vaccaro

Kristine Larsen in the Women in Middle-earth panel. photo C. Vaccaro

Chris Vaccaro NY Tolkien Conference 2015

Chris Vaccaro talking about Beowulf. photo K. Larsen

I attended two regular sessions other than my own. First up was Kristine Larsen‘s paper, “‘While the World Lasted’: End Times in Tolkien’s Works.” Kristine talked about Tolkien’s references to the end of the world, mainly in The History of Middle-earth, The Fall of Arthur, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, and commented on the prevalence of this theme in his work in the 1930s. Chris Vaccaro‘s presentation on “Affection Between Men in Tolkien’s Beowulf” took a look at the way in which a phrase from Beowulf, “dyrne longath,” has been rendered by many different translators, with interpretations varying widely: do the words refer to deep feelings? secret longings? affection? Chris looked at departure scenes in Beowulf and in Tolkien’s work in the light of this phrase.

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien

It was certainly a day packed with ideas and events. I was part of the Women in Middle-earth roundtable discussion along with Janet Brennan Croft, Jessica Burke, Rebecca Glass, and Kristine Larsen. We had a free-ranging discussion about various characters, our first-time reactions as readers and/or movie-goers, and critics’ views of women in Tolkien’s works. One of my points (based on a lecture I had heard recently) echoed the concerns that Janet and her co-editor, Leslie Donovan, express in their recently published anthology, Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien  — that any literary critic who wants to talk about women in Tolkien’s life and work should be informed about previous and current research on the topic. That doesn’t mean that they have to agree with other critics’ opinions, but they shouldn’t just repeat cliches or make statements as if they are the first to look into the question without investigating further. I recommend this book for its combination of older essays and new research for anyone interested in the topic of women.

I was scheduled to give my paper in the last regular session, and thankfully even near the end of a very full day some people showed up and offered interesting comments and questions. My presentation, “‘If you’re a vivid visualizer’: Words and Images in Tolkien’s Sub-creative Process,” extends some of the research that my colleague Jeff MacLeod and I have been doing on Tolkien’s artwork and his visual imagination and style. (We have one essay published, “A Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy,” and another one on Tolkien’s painterly style that has just been submitted to a journal). My basic question for this presentation was: what can a manuscript sketch such as the Tower of Kirith Ungol (still spelled with a “K” at this point) tell us about Tolkien’s process of composition? How do words and images interact in Tolkien’s drafting of the story?

Tower of Kirith Ungol sketch

Tower of Kirith Ungol sketch

You can find this image in Hammond and Scull’s book, J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator, and in The History of Middle-earth, the Sauron Defeated volume. I’ve also been fortunate enough to look at a digital scan of the manuscript at the Marquette University Tolkien archive. In my presentation, I talked about the placement of the sketch on the page, the sequence of pencil and pen drafting, and the effect on the wording of Tolkien’s draft of the story at this point.

Here I am talking about Tolkien's painterly style

Here I am talking about Tolkien’s painterly style (though it looks like I’m demonstrating the height of Durin’s folk)

To set up the ideas for this manuscript examination, I showed examples of Tolkien’s artwork and talked about how he is a “vivid visualizer.” This opening quotation in my presentation title comes from “The Notion Club Papers,” an unfinished story that you can find in Sauron Defeated. In this time-travel story, Tolkien describes characters with different talents: some are vivid visualizers, others have a predilection for words and languages. Sometimes in the story those two abilities working together enhance the characters’ understanding. I talked about how a sketch like the Tower of Kirith Ungol shows this close interplay of words and images in Tolkien’s creative process.

To round off our busy day, we had one closing plenary session. A copy of the 2005 Ring Goes Ever On conference proceedings * was given to Baruch College librarian Chris Tuthill as a gift from the Tolkien Society’s Tolkien to the World program. Then we sat back and listened to the Minstrel Guest of Honour, John diBartolo and The Lonely Mountain Band, who provided some lively music to close out the fellowship of the day. You can sample their music from the links on the conference blog. By the end of it all, Anthony and Jessica’s question about whether they should make this a regular event was met with an enthusiastic yes.

at the New York Tolkien Conference, Baruch College

New York Tolkien Conference, Baruch College

You can read abstracts of all the presentations here. For accounts of different paths through the program from mine, you can read Myla Malinalda’s description of the sessions that she attended on Middle-earth News or Dawn Walls-Thumma’s report for the Signum Eagle newsletter,The New York Tolkien Conference: Friends and Fellowship. And if you’re interested in knowing about future meetings, you should subscribe to the conference blog, follow @herenistarion on Twitter, or join the Facebook group.

Although the conference was only a one-day event, I did extend my stay in New York by a few days. Accompanied by my daughter, we took full advantage of the city: we visited museums (the Frick, the Guggenheim, a few galleries in the Met); we went boating in Central Park and walked on the High Line; we saw a play, Skylight; a musical, An American in Paris; a performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company; and we took advantage of free Shakespeare in the Park tickets to see The Tempest. Add to that a day of Tolkien fellowship — well, that’s not bad for a four-day trip.

*Among the many essays in the 2005 Ring Goes Ever On volumes donated to Baruch College you can find an essay by Kristine Larsen, “‘A Little Earth of His Own’: Tolkien’s Lunar Creation Myths” and one by me: “Male Friendship in The Lord of the Rings: Medievalism, the First World War, and Contemporary Rewritings,” which you can read here.

Please feel free to comment on your own experiences at the conference or to provide links to any other accounts of the event that you know of. Or just tell us your thoughts!

Ahhh, Oxford!


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OxfordI love Oxford. I have no idea what it’s like to be a student there or a member of faculty. I don’t know what it’s like to be a resident (expensive, I’m guessing, if I’m to believe Kirstie and Phil*). But as a visiting academic / tourist, I love it. This is where I can walk through medieval streets to the Bodleian Library, where over the years I have been privileged to read Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, Elizabeth Elstob‘s notebook and books, and Tolkien’s unpublished drafts and lectures. This is where I can stroll by the house in which Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings or order a beer in the Eagle and Child pub, which was a regular meeting place for Tolkien and his friends. The parks, the river, the colleges — they all make for a lovely sojourn in which the daily duties of the regular academic term can be traded for the pleasures of concentrated research.

I finally returned to Oxford, after more years than I could believe, for a week in June. Academic attire in OxfordUnfortunately, I could not schedule my research trip to take advantage of Peter Jackson’s visit to Oxford, which I missed by a couple of weeks. Oh well. I had plenty of other things to enjoy, such as the Bodleian Library’s Marks of Genius exhibit. Here, you can see Shakespeare’s First Folio, the Magna Carta, Blake’s Songs of Innocence, Mary Shelley’s journal, fragments of Sappho’s poetry, and so much more. But of course, a main attraction for me was Tolkien’s dust-jacket design for The Hobbit, complete with marginal notes to the publisher. It’s fantastic to be able to see some of Tolkien’s original artwork, as his pictures are under extra restricted access in the archive.

Stairs to the reading room, Weston Library

Stairs to the reading room, Weston Library

The Marks of Genius exhibit, which runs to September 20, is displayed in the newly renovated Weston Library, formerly known as the New Bodleian. This building has now been partially opened up to the public, with a wide-open entrance off Broad Street leading into a spacious entrance hall, shop, and cafe. Even better, the modern manuscripts reading room, where the Tolkien manuscripts are consulted, is just around the corner and up the stairs (you need a reader’s pass to get into this part of the library though **). I’ve written about the experience of working in the old reading room; I was not disappointed by the new one, which is a large space, with full-length windows between bookshelves all down one wall, and beautifully restored elements from the original 1930s building: a stunning carved wood ceiling, massive chandeliers at either end of the room, broad tables with a mix of re-upholstered old chairs and the newly designed Bodleian chairs. I was told that even some of the wastepaper containers were refurbished wood. Another welcome addition is the Headley Tea Room for staff and readers — when hours of squinting at Tolkien’s handwriting was taking its toll, I could pop down to the Tea Room for a stiff Americano to wake me up and fuel a few more hours of manuscript transcription.

on the way to the Library

On the way to the Library

What I was mainly reading during this visit were Tolkien’s lectures and notes on Old English poetry and versification. I’m interested in Tolkien’s verse drama, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which he wrote very carefully in alliterative meter. It’s fascinating to follow the evolution of this play from its earliest drafts, when Tolkien was playing with the Battle of Maldon story initially by writing in iambic meter, then switching to alliterative verse. I’ve given conference presentations on this play a few times already, pointing out how scrupulous yet creative Tolkien was in his use of the meter and how he used his retelling of the story to work out some scholarly and poetic ideas of his. It’s now way past the time when I should have produced a final written version of my ideas, and I hope I’ll be able to report soon that an article will be forthcoming.

Oxford, looking to the Radcliffe Camera

Looking towards the Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Library)

While in Oxford, I was also thinking a lot about Tolkien’s unfinished story, “The Notion Club Papers,” partly because I was looking ahead to my talk at the New York Tolkien Conference, where I was going directly from Oxford and where I was going to talk about the story. Whenever I can, I like to stay at a bed & breakfast at 100 Banbury Road, not only because it’s a nice B&B just around the corner from Tolkien’s former home on Northmoor Road, but also because Tolkien mentions that address in “The Notion Club Papers.” (I’m still puzzling out why that particular address).

This is an unusual story for Tolkien because it’s set in twentieth-century Oxford and features a group of men who meet regularly to read and discuss their work, much like the Inklings did. Even so, it features strange visions, new languages, time travel, lots of talk about dreams and myths, bits of Old English. It’s fun to stand in the same place as the characters and look at the same landmarks, such as the Radcliffe Camera. Most of my photos of Oxford were taken on sunny days, but one particular day that threatened rain seemed the perfect moment to envision the storms and “great wind” about to sweep over Oxford in “The Notion Club Papers.”

Most of the time, though, the weather was fine, and after a satisfying day at the library, it was a pleasure to take leisurely paths back to my hotel through University Parks or around Christ Church Meadow. The week, of course, went by far too quickly.

Oxford, punting on the river.

*Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer are the hosts of the TV show Location, Location, Location. Yes, I am a fan of real estate shows, and especially this one, which lets me peek into British homes. [back]

**If you’re interested in doing scholarly research in the Bodleian, you should look at the Library’s information page about getting a reader’s card. To work with Tolkien’s manuscripts, you’ll also need permission from the Tolkien Estate lawyer; the Library staff can advise you on this matter. [back]


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