J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford - The Eagle and Child Meeting Spot. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Home > Articles > Literature & Movies Featuring Oxford 

J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford – Hobbits, the Inklings, and the University

J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford - The Eagle and Child Meeting Spot. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

J.R.R. Tolkien is closely linked with Oxford and its University. Tolkien was in the midst of his English Literature studies at Oxford when World War I broke out. He was able to delay his enlistment until he had completed his degree, at which point he joined the Oxford University Officer Training Corps. At this time, Tolkien began writing for the first time, expressing his emotions via his poems.

Learn more about the Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis’ literary group in Oxford:
The Inklings: Celebrating Oxford’s Fantasy Literature Trailblazers

Who was Tolkien?

As an English language scholar, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892–1973) was and still is a noteworthy figure. “Middle-earth“, the world he created, is the setting for both The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955), two of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-known novels. Humans, elves, dwarves, trolls, goblins, orcs, and hobbits all resided there.

With a few notable exceptions, Tolkien has been roundly praised by the English literary establishment, and he is adored by millions of readers around the world. Many members of the burgeoning “counter-culture” also embraced him in the 1960s, owing to his concern for environmental issues. One of Tolkien’s notable accomplishments was his teaching of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at Oxford University

Childhood and Adolescence

It’s believed that the word “Tolkien” (pron.: Tol-keen; equal stress on both syllables) is of German origin; Toll-kühn: foolishly bold or stupidly smart. Tolkien’s great-great-grandfather, John Benjamin Tolkien, immigrated from Gdansk to the United Kingdom in 1772 with his brother Daniel and became completely Anglicized in the process.

It’s safe to say that Arthur Reuel Tolkien firmly believed that he was an Englishman. Bank clerk Arthur left the United States for South Africa in the late 19th century, hoping to get promoted. There, he married Mabel Suffield, a native of the West Midlands who came from an all-English family.

John Ronald was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa as “Ronald” to family and friends. Recalling his terrifying encounter with an enormous hairy spider while in Africa had a profound effect on his writing.

His father died in 1896, and he and his mother returned to England; the West Midlands in particular, where he grew up with his younger brother Hilary.

Tolkien, the Oxford Professor

J.R.R. Tolkien joined Oxford University in 1911 after winning a scholarship to study Classics at Exeter College. He had, initially, few illusions about academic life; but he did see it as a haven of unworldly knowledge.

Tolkien produced a small number of scholarly writings, one of which was the lecture “Beowulf, Monsters, and the Critics“, a major work that changed the way people looked at the poem. This is probably the most influential thing he wrote at Oxford 0 the rest of his work became more popular as his popularity increased due to LotR. There have been a few other instances where Tolkien’s statements have revolutionized acemics’ understanding of a specific topic, such as in his essayEnglish and Welsh,” where he explains where the term “Welsh” comes from and cites phonaesthetics.

Many believe Tolkien was, by temperament, a perfect fit for the mostly male milieu of teaching, research, the exchange of ideas – as well as the occasional publication of his thoughts. 

Tolkien also served as a professor and was active in university politics and administration. Other than that, his academic life is generally considered largely unremarkable. 

The Inklings and The Eagle and Child

The Inklings is one of Oxford’s most famous informal literary discussion groups. The group is associated with both Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, both literary enthusiasts who praised the value of narrative, especially in fiction. There were many regular members of the Inklings, most of them academics at the University of Oxford

The Inklings met at the pub “The Eagle and Child“, on St. Giles’ Street, Oxford (the pub was a part of an endowment that belonged to University College since the 17th century). There were no rules, officers, or agendas. When they met, the group read and discussed unfinished works such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. Charles Williams also read his novel All Hallows’ Eve to the Inklings.

Tolkien's Life in Oxford

Tolkien had a simple home life in Oxford with his wife and two children. Edith gave birth to Priscilla, the couple’s lone daughter, in 1929.

Tolkien developed the practice of sending his children annual illustrated letters purporting to be from Santa Claus. In 1976, a collection of these letters was published as The Father Christmas Letters. He also created and read to them several bedtime stories.

John entered the clergy as an adult, while Michael and Christopher both served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Michael afterward became a teacher, Christopher a university professor, and Priscilla a social worker.

Later i nlife, Ronald and Edith moved to the nearby area of Headington after living in North Oxford.

Oxford's Eagle and Child - Front View

What Did JRR Tolkien Teach at Oxford?

Beginning in 1945, J.R.R. Tolkien taught at Merton College and served as the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature from 1959 to 1961. As a professor of English language and literature, he also taught at the universities of Leeds and Oxford (1940–25 and 1925–59).

Did Tolkien do Well at Oxford and Was He a Good Professor?

According to the Tolkien Society, despite not having the finest grades, he never did as well as most other students in Oxford. Early in his university career, he began to study the classics, Old English, and Germanic languages as part of his undergraduate studies.

As a professor, Tolkien seems to have been a competent teacher – albeit one that frequently mumbled and was sometimes difficult to understand. He was also socially awkward and prone to practical jokes!

Learn More About Tolkien in Oxford

Discover the rich tapestry of Oxford University that shaped the lives and friendships of two literary giants, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and delve into the academic and social landscapes of Oxford during their time.

Explore literature landmarks and filming locations in Oxford and its surrounding areas. Harry Potter, Tolkien, Lewis, Carrol, and many more. Browse All >

Our collection of articles with ideas for things to do and see, the history of this incredible city, the University, its museums, literature and movie inspirations, filming locations, and much more.