Visit the birthplace of 'The Lord of the Rings'

'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'

It was an idle scribble on the blank page of a school examination paper. Sitting by the window of his study on a summer day in the early 1930s, a thin-faced Oxford professor let his mind wander from correcting papers and into a world that would become Middle-earth.

"The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" are among the most widely read and loved books of the 20th century. It's estimated that more than 100 million people have read the epic tales, which have been translated into 40 languages.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his mythology of Middle-earth in Oxford, England, where he lived for most of his adult life. Mr. Tolkien was not Oxford's first mythmaker in residence; Geoffrey of Monmouth compiled the Arthurian legends there during the 12th century.

While Geoffrey's Oxford is largely buried under later chapels, colleges, and residences, Tolkien's Oxford is still much as it was when "The Hobbit" was created.

There is no better base for a tour of Tolkien's Oxford than the Eagle and Child pub, a few blocks north of the town center.

On the pub's wooden signboard, an eagle soars off, clutching a swaddled baby. (Tolkien's heroes are rescued by giant eagles at several crucial moments in his stories.)

The Eagle and Child dates from 1650, and in the 1940s became the favorite watering hole of a group of writers who dubbed themselves "The Inklings." The group included Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their friends.

It is no fun to go on a Tolkien tour without talking about Tolkien, so I arranged to meet two local enthusiasts: Ian Collier, publicity officer for the Oxford Tolkien Society, and Russ Shannon, president of the Taruithorn Society, a Tolkien group for Oxford students. (Although I'd expected the president of the Taruithorn Society to have a patrician British accent and a degree in "Really Old English," Shannon is a doctoral student in engineering from New Jersey.)

"Taruithorn was Tolkien's elvish name for Oxford," explains Mr. Collier, who works for a publishing company. "It means 'place of the high eagles.' You do wonder how much influence the pub had on it."

We were sitting in the same dark-paneled room where Tolkien read chapters of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" aloud to his fellow Inklings.

The room is the best in the pub. But it is also so small that if the Fellowship of the Ring were to gather here, Aragorn and Gandalf would be forced to stand in the hallway.

The Eagle and Child is a regular meeting place for Tolkien and Taruithorn members. "The Tolkien Society was set up as a serious literary society," says Collier. "Of course, like Tolkien, we prefer to have serious literary discussions [in a pub]."

The shoulder-to-shoulder coziness of the Inklings' lair has had unexpected benefits for young Oxford students. "You wouldn't believe how many couples have gotten together through the Tolkien Society and Taruithorn," says Shannon. "It's almost a dating club."

Exeter College and Old Ashmolean

Tolkien came to Oxford as a young student in 1911. His rooms in mock-gothic Exeter College looked down Turl Street toward All Saints' Church. Judging by sketches Tolkien made when he lived there, the scene is much the same today as it was in his undergraduate days.

Around the corner from Exeter is the 17th-century Old Ashmolean Building. The imposing exterior is guarded by a row of stone busts resembling Socrates on steroids.

After graduating from Exeter and serving in World War I - before writing the books that made him famous - Tolkien worked behind the Ashmolean's fierce facade, composing word definitions for the New English Dictionary.

More than 50 years later, the dictionary staff asked for Tolkien's help with a new entry, one that his writings had added to the language. The word was "hobbit."

The Gates of Mordor

After a short stint at Leeds University, Tolkien became an Oxford professor, teaching Anglo-Saxon and English at Pembroke and Merton Colleges for 35 years.

Seven of Tolkien's former homes can be seen in and around Oxford, although none of them are open to the public. Tolkien hated the cramped, utterly plain row house on Manor Road, where he twice typed out the entire "Lord of the Rings" while sitting on a bed in the attic.

Tolkien saved his worst condemnation for the noise and stench of traffic near his Holywell Street cottage, calling it "Mordor in our midst." But Tolkien had happy memories of his days on Northmoor Road, where he lived in two homes for a total of 23 years. It was at 20 Northmoor Road where he first daydreamed of hobbits.

Northmoor Road lies in a quiet suburb north of central Oxford. I walked up Northmoor on a sunny March morning, trying not to look like a tourist.

Tolkien himself had no trouble moving between suburbia and Sauron. "I have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. Afternoon lawn mowing," Tolkien casually wrote his son.

One of Tolkien's favorite escapes was Oxford's Botanic Garden, the oldest in Britain. The garden is directly opposite Magdalen College (pronounced, inexplicably to Americans, as "MAWD-lin"), where the Inklings often met in C.S. Lewis's rooms.

Tolkien's favorite tree is still there, an enormous Austrian pine two centuries old. While the branches of most trees grow outward in many directions, this tree looks like a many-armed giant, all of its thick limbs raised skyward in supplication. It is easy to imagine this tree inspiring Tolkien's Ents, the walking, talking tree-people of Middle-earth.

Fame, fans, and the film

Tolkien became quite famous, both to his satisfaction and dismay. "Being a cult figure in one's own lifetime I am afraid is not at all pleasant," he wrote. "But even the nose of a very modest idol ... cannot remain entirely untickled by the sweet smell of incense!"

Tolkien was able to maintain a sense of humor, even while besieged by phone calls from fans. In response to a suggestion from an editor, he wrote: "Removing the number from the directory seems better than the method adopted by [C.S. Lewis's brother], which was to lift the receiver and say 'Oxford Sewage Disposal Unit' ... until they went away."

At the Eagle and Child, talk turned naturally to the hugely ambitious "Lord of the Rings" movie, which opens Dec. 19. "People are both looking forward to the movie and dreading it," says Shannon.

Collier explains that the Tolkien Society is reluctant to comment on the new film. "Our president is J.R.R. Tolkien. He was president when he was alive, and after he died, his family agreed he could stay on in his job. So, our official opinion is 'wait and see.' Very bland. Very politically correct. But it saves us so much trouble. Personally, I'm quite keen on the idea [of not voicing an opinion]."

Tolkien himself endured listening to a BBC radio adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings."

When an American filmmaker inquired about making an animated version, Tolkien was resignedly practical: "I should welcome the idea of an animated motion picture, with all the risk of vulgarization; and that quite apart from the glint of money, though on the brink of retirement that is not an unpleasant possibility. I think I should find vulgarization less painful than the sillification achieved by the BBC."

A later British cartoon version was not much better. "Gollum is a frog, and all the elves appear to have been on very strange drugs," says Collier, laughing.

What would Tolkien think of the new, high-budget film? No doubt, the spectacular computer-generated effects would impress. But in the end, Tolkien would probably prefer his own private vision of Middle-earth.

Luthien and Beren

Wolvercote Cemetery lies several miles past Tolkien's old home on Northmoor Road. A few low stone markers point the way to the grave of Tolkien and his wife, Edith.

It is a simple rectangle of rough Cornish granite. Delicate white lady's slippers are planted over the grave. Visitors have draped small pendants over one of the corners of the tombstone: a Celtic cross, a fairy, a kneeling archer, and a crucifix.

Romance is noticeably scarce in Tolkien's works. Yet "Luthien" is carved below Edith's name, and "Beren" below Tolkien's.

The love story between Luthien, an immortal elf maiden, and Beren, a mortal man, is at the heart of Tolkien's "The Silmarillion," a collection of Middle-earth legends.

Tolkien died at age 81, less than two years after his wife.

He explained to his son after Edith's death in 1971: "I hope none of my children will feel that the use of this name is a sentimental fancy ... but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief part of the Silmarillion ... for ever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting."

Touring Tolkien's Oxford

Oxford is an easy one-hour train ride from London's Paddington Station. The Oxford Tourist Centre distributes a "Tolkien in Oxford" guide written by Ian Collier of the Tolkien Society. You can also find more information through the center's website, www.oxfordcity.co.uk/guide/infocent.html.

A detailed guide to Tolkien sites around Oxford, complete with photographs and a map, is online at: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~tolksoc/TolkiensOxford.

Blackwell's Bookshop (telephone 01865-333606) is a few blocks from the Tourist Centre, on Broad Street across from Old Ashmolean. Once a week (usually Wednesdays), it offers an "Inklings" literary walking tour.

Blackwell's also sells detailed Oxford maps that are essential in finding Tolkien sites on the edge of town, such as Northmoor Road and Wolvercote Cemetery. When visiting former Tolkien homes, remember to be respectful of the current residents' privacy.

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