Tolkien’s Oxford

Amy Mugglestone
12th September 2022

With its legacy of academic excellence and breathtaking medieval architecture, Oxford is a place like no other. Rich with history and a beacon for the country’s cleverest minds, it’s no wonder that the city of ‘dreaming spires’ has inspired so many of the UK’s most celebrated authors, with C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien, among them. 

Since his death almost fifty years ago, Tolkien’s stories have continued to delight new generations, and Middle Earth fans still make the pilgrimage to Oxford, where he spent most of his adult life, to see the place where their favourite characters first came to life. A scholar of the English language and professor of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien worked and studied at many of Oxford’s most famous landmarks, and his legacy can be found all over the city. 

To celebrate the release of the Tolkien-inspired Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, we decided to check out some of Oxford’s top Tolkienesque attractions. Most of these places are famous in their own right, so it’s a great way to learn about the city in general, while eagle-eyed hobbits may spot some landmarks that seem very familiar…

Radcliff Camera

Radcliffe Camera

Located at the heart of the city, the iconic Radcliffe Camera is a natural focal point. Built in 1737-49, it is by no means Oxford’s oldest building, but its stunning neoclassical style makes it one of the city’s most recognisable sights. Those familiar with Tolkien’s The Simarillion may find this circular structure familiar for other reasons, however, as it is said to be the inspiration for the temple to the Dark Lord Morgoth, built by Sauron in the doomed Kingdom of Númenor. 

Sauron’s temple is said to be ‘in the form of a circle at the base’ and ‘crowned with a mighty dome’, but unlike the benign and welcoming library reading rooms at the Rad Cam, it was the site of many dark rites, including human sacrifice. The Radford Camera is part of the Bodleian Library complex, and public access is by guided tour only. Book your tour online, or take a walk part at dusk for more forbidding vibes.

Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens

Britain’s oldest botanic garden was founded in 1621, and now contains over 5,000 species of plants. It’s a beautiful spot for a walk or a picnic, as well as for following in the footsteps of some of your favourite authors. The Botanic Gardens were one of Tolkien’s favourite places, and he was particularly fond of a large Austrian black pine which became the inspiration for the Ents, a race of giant, treelike people who inhabited Middle Earth. The famous tree remained at the Botanic Gardens until 2014, when falling branches became hazardous, and the difficult decision was made to have it removed. At least, that’s the official line. Perhaps the pine was an Ent all along, and simply got up and walked away…

It seems that Tolkien wasn’t the only writer to be inspired by the Botanic Gardens, which also feature in a surprising number of other literary favourites. Lewis Carroll is known to have visited with Alice Liddell and her family, and the Waterlily House can be seen in the background of the illustration of ‘The Queen’s Croquet-Ground’ in early versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. More recently, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy cited a bench at the back of the gardens as one of the special locations that occupy the same space in both Lyra’s and Will’s worlds.

Bodleian Library

Bodleian Library

One of the oldest libraries in Europe, the Bodleian contains a copy of every book printed in Great Britain, growing by around 5,000 items every week. It also hosts exhibitions, lectures and other events, many of which are free. 

One of the highlights of the Bodleian collection is the Tolkien Archive, a treasure-trove of original manuscripts and drawings, including a rare map of Middle-earth annotated by Tolkien himself. Here you will also find the 15th century compilation of Welsh history known as the Red Book of Hergest, which inspired Middle Earth’s Red Book of Westmarch, an historical manuscript written by hobbits, and containing the events of both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

The History of Science Museum

Before becoming a professor, Tolkien spent 1919 and 1920 working on the Oxford English Dictionary at the old Ashmolean Museum, which now houses the History of Science Museum. Tolkien had a lifelong passion for creating new languages, and is known to have created at least fifteen Elvish languages and dialects, as well as languages for the Ents, the Orcs, the Dwarves, the men and the Hobbits. He later said of his time at the OED that he had “learned more in those two years than in any other equal part of my life.”

There are no permanent Tolkien exhibits at the History of Science Museum, but it is still well worth a visit, with fascinating collections including ancient scientific equipment from around the world, and Albert Einstein’s blackboard!

Ashmolean Museum

Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, and was founded in 1683. Its star exhibits include an intricately carved 9th century jewel owned by Alfred the Great, and the lantern used by Guy Fawkes in 1605. Despite having no proven connection to Tolkien, the Ashmolean is a must for any Oxford itinerary, and some may find the cabinet of gold Posie rings, complete with inscriptions, oddly familiar…

Pembroke College

Pembroke College was founded in 1357, and is worth visiting for its stunning architecture alone, with buildings from nearly every century since its founding. Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon here between 1925 and 1945, and fans can follow in his footsteps with a stroll around the grounds, or a visit to the chapel. The College is open most days, except in May and June, when it will be closed for exams.

Merton College

Merton College

One of the oldest of Oxford’s colleges, Merton was founded in 1264. It is home to Oxford University’s oldest quad, Mob Quad, which was constructed between 1288-1378, and a 13th century chapel with some of its original stained glass.

Following his time at Pembroke, Tolkien was Professor of English Language and Literature between 1945 and 1959. He would often write outside at an old stone table, which can still be seen today. It has even been suggested that this may have inspired the setting for The Council of Elrond, where the Fellowship of the Ring was first formed.

The Eagle & Child

The famous pub where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other members of The Inklings literary group used to meet sadly closed its doors in March 2020. Plans for an ambitious makeover have stalled, and the Eagle and Child looks set to remain closed until at least 2024. Here’s hoping it won’t be much longer.

Tolkein's Old Home

Tolkien lived at 20 Northmoor Road between 1930 and 1937, during which time he wrote Lord of the Rings. This Grade II listed building is a private home, and does not open to the public, but you can see the commemorative blue plaque on the wall outside.

Wolvercote Cemetery

Wolvercote Cemetery

Wolvercote Cemetery is the final resting place of Tolkien and his beloved wife Edith. The gravestone bears Tolkien’s full name, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and also refers to the couple as ‘Lúthien’ and ‘Beren’. These were Tolkien and Edith’s pet names for one another, as well as characters in The Simarillion. The love between Beren, a human warrior, and Lúthien, an elf maiden, ends with Lúthien renouncing her immortality so they can be together, an act later mirrored by Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. When Beren first sets eyes on Lúthien, she is dancing in a fairy glade, a scene that was inspired by seeing Edith dancing in a field.

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