- Tolkien's Oxford
Of the ancient English universities, Oxford holds a special place in the public imagination that not even Cambridge (despite its at least equal academic reputation and its equally historic buildings) can quite match. This perception probably has some roots in a degree of snobbery, but it is most evident in literary writings of the last century and a half, from Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Towery city, and branchy between towers," through such works as Gaudy Night, to Brideshead Revisited and beyond—a series of nostalgic idylls that help feed the tourist industry of this big post-industrial city that happens to have a university in the middle. Most of this literature has been written by those who were students or visitors there—temporary residents with rosy memories. Those who look rather more steadily at the city and the university will find that this idyllic picture needs a certain degree of modification. For example, Oxford is not quite as hospitable or as pleasant as might be thought. In the nineteenth century, the notorious Master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, exemplified the Oxford attitude; when the equally famous (outside Oxford) Professor John Stuart Blackie of Edinburgh said, "You mustn't think too hardly of us, Master!" Jowett replied, "We don't think of you at all," and a modified form of this attitude is still occasionally perceptible. In a different sense, those getting to grips with the one-way system soon realize that [End Page 299] if you have business in Oxford you will know your way around, while if you do not know your way around you have no business being in Oxford. Moreover, the Town vs. Gown hostility still flourishes, especially on the Town side. Although university rags are much less antisocial these days than in the times when the highjacking of a bus by students was a fairly normal event and upper-class undergraduates were frequently heard baying for broken glass, students still can get picked on by locals, especially around Carfax on a Saturday night. Hopkins was not so enthralled as to ignore its underside, when he spoke of the city's "base and brickish skirt," and even the besotted Dorothy L. Sayers found her heroine's punt going past the municipal tip. Moreover the university is often seen by its denizens as less than the ideal academic haven. As Joseph Wright said to the young Tolkien:
"What do you take Oxford for, lad?" "A university, a place of learning." "Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. It's making fees. Get that into your head, and you'll begin to understand what goes on"(Letters 336).
Tolkien however was not a temporary resident, but spent most of his adult life in Oxford, mainly working; hence the glamour was tempered by grammar, both in the figurative and literal senses, and mundaneity played a greater part in his life than either rosy memories (his early nostalgic romantic vision was of Warwick rather than Oxford) or, conversely, horror stories of snobbery or isolation. He and his family were part of the everyday life of Oxford—shops, schools, pubs and the like—and had their very normal place as moderately high-status locals. A great deal has been written in various places about Tolkien's everyday life, not least by Tolkien himself in his letters and elsewhere, and there are various walking tours, real or virtual, of Tolkien-related places in Oxford. All the same, somewhat surprisingly, the life story and the locations have seldom if ever been brought together—certainly not in a thorough study.
Until now, that is. Enter Robert Blackham, known to British Tolkienists for his entertaining and informative presentations, particularly at Oxonmoot, and more widely for his book The Roots of Tolkien's Middle-earth, reviewed by Tom Shippey in Tolkien Studies IV (2007). This latter is a survey of Tolkien's connections with Birmingham and district, which is obviously extremely important for the light it sheds on Tolkien's formative years, and one would...