I 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the years I have been privileged to read Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, Elizabeth Elstob‘s notebook and books, and Tolkien’s unpublished drafts and lectures.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. Unfortunately, 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.
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.
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.
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.
*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]