Oxford is J. R. R. Tolkien’s home.
And, as The New York Times has reported, a group of Tolkien scholars and aficionados have banded together in a fellowship in an effort to purchase and restore the home Tolkien owned when he wrote The Hobbit.
“Project Northmoor” rightly recognizes that there is no formal literary center for Tolkien studies nor a home in Oxford dedicated for this purpose like there is at “The Kilns,” a former C. S. Lewis home owned and maintained by the C. S. Lewis Foundation. In fact, Tolkien’s papers are housed in the United States at Marquette University, and many of his letters and other items are preserved and studied at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College.
While “Project Northmoor” is a noble effort to acquire perhaps the key Tolkien home in Oxford, Tolkien lived in several locations in Oxford spanning from 1911, when arrived as a college student at age 19, to his death in 1973 at the age of 81. What follows is a brief introduction to those locations.
Tolkien studied as an undergraduate at Exeter College from 1911 until World War I took him and many of his classmates away from Oxford. Before departing for war in France, Tolkien married Edith Bratt in 1916.
When Tolkien returned from the war, he gained employment at the Oxford English Dictionary and lived nearby on St. John’s St and then Alfred St until 1920. Incidentally, Alfred St was later renamed Pusey St and it is thought his flat was in the space now occupied by Regent’s Park College.
1 Alfred Street was the first recipient of a “letter from Father Christmas” on December 22, 1920, to John Tolkien, age 3. These letters started a tradition that would continue for the next twenty-three years arriving at the various Tolkien homes and to the Tolkien children: John, Michael, Christopher, and Pricilla.
Tolkien moved to the University of Leeds in 1920, but returned in 1925 to Oxford to teach at Pembroke College and to live at 22 Northmoor Road.
In 1926, Tolkien would make a new friend and start a new society. Meeting first at an English faculty meeting, Tolkien found that C. S. Lewis shared his interest in Norse literature. By 1929, their group expanded and met regularly and were known as the Inklings.
Tolkien moved to the house next door, 20 Northmoor, in 1930 and remained there until 1947. This the home “Project Northmoor” seeks to revitalize as a Tolkien literary center, and with good reason.
While Tolkien had been thinking of Middle Earth and the world that his stories would one day inhabit, it is clear that during his time at 20 Northmoor Road is when he began to write The Hobbit. As he did not have rooms at Pembroke, he officed at home in the front room. Sometime prior to or during the Summer of 1930, while grading papers, Tolkien had an idea, a first line that would bring to life the world of Middle Earth to house his created language:
“All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual tasked forced upon impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.” (To W. H. Auden, June 7, 1955, Letters, 215.)
The Hobbit would be published in 1937, when Tolkien was 45 years old, and he immediately started work on the sequel.
Also, during his years at 20 Northmoor Road, Tolkien’s friendship with Lewis continued to grow. on September 19, 1931, Tolkien and Lewis were walking and talking on the grounds of Magdalen College wherein Tolkien explained his belief in the truth of the Christian “myth.” This led to an extended conversation into the early hours of September 20 where Lewis would relate later to a friend that:
“I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ – in Christianity …. My long night talk with … Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.” (To Arthur Greaves, October 1, 1931, C. S. Lewis Letters, Vol. 1, 974.)
In 1945, Tolkien began to teach at Merton College and the Tolkiens moved to two homes owned by the college. First on Manor Road from 1947-1950 and then on Holywell from 1950-1953. (The door to 99 Holywell has appeared in the Inspector Lewis television show).
During these years Tolkien completed the writing of The Lord of the Rings. As Tolkien was a noted perfectionist who had difficulty finishing a project, he needed constant encouragement. The chief encourager of the value and necessity of this project was C. S. Lewis. Writing after Lewis’s death, Tolkien said:
“But for the encouragement of C. S. L. I do not think I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings.” (To Clyde S. Kilby, December 18, 1965, Letters, 366.)
In 1953, Tolkien moved out to Sandfields Road (closer to C. S. Lewis’ home at The Kilns). While there, The Lord of the Rings was published during 1954-1955 when Tolkien was 62-63 years old.
Tolkien retired from teaching in 1959 and in 1968 he and his wife moved south to Bournemouth.
Following Edith’s death in 1971, Tolkien returned to Oxford and lived on Merton St. until his death in 1973.
The church home Tolkien regularly attended was St. Aloysius Catholic Church at 25 Woodstock Road and, of course, his frequent eating and fellowship home with the Inklings was The Eagle and Child pub at 49 St. Giles.
In his later years, he would spend a good deal of time sitting under a large tree in the University Botanic Garden off High St, but sadly, the tree was removed in 2014.
The Tolkiens final earthly home is in Wolvercote Cemetery at 447 Banbury Road.
Hats off to the organizers and supporters of “Project Northmoor” as they seek to revitalize the study and presence of the life and work of J. R. R. Tolkien in Oxford. May they succeed in their aims to acquire one of Tolkien’s homes so many can travel there and back again.
For further reading:
- “Friendship to the Nth Power,” by Jason G. Duesing
- “Tolkien’s Oxford”
- “Tolkien Estate Timeline”
- Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth
- The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski
- J. R. R Tolkien: A Biography by Leslie Jones
- “Tolkien Maker of Middle-Earth” Bodleian Exhibit, June-October 2018
All photos taken by Jason G. Duesing (2018).