Though J.R.R. Tolkien arrived at Exeter College as a Classics (Great Books) scholar, he found his real passion resided in Germanic and Northern language and myth…

Tolkien at Exeter College: How An Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth by John Garth (66 pages, Exeter College, 2015)

Never judge a book by its size. This little book is only sixty-three pages long, but its author, John Garth, knows very well how to write concisely and vigorously—White and Strunk would be proud. In other words, there is a lot in this short book.

Tolkien would be proud as well, for Mr. Garth does him nothing but justice. And, in what must be a bizarre coincidence, the two authors share not just a first name, but Garth actually means “beloved” in Tolkien’s Gnomish language of 1917. John Garth, is, quite truly, “John the Beloved.”

Mr. Garth’s longer book—the one that made him justly famous—Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) is not only a must own, but, arguably, the finest scholarly book yet written on Tolkien as a man and a thinker. In that book, Mr. Garth ably demonstrated the necessity of friendship, association, and fellowship in Tolkien’s real and invented worlds.

I had the blessing of reviewing that book when it first came out, and, for what it’s worth, my appreciation of the book has only increased in admiration over the fifteen years since it first appeared. At the time, I wrote:

This is not accidental, for, as Mr. Garth shows rather effectively, Lewis and the Inklings became, in many ways for Tolkien, an elaboration and continuation of Wiseman and the TCBS. Mr. Garth is an excellent writer and thinker, and, when describing the war and its effects, he can be quite moving. His section on English patriotism and the English desire to see themselves as Fairies during the Edwardian period, and his understanding of language, especially Qenya, are alone worth the price of the book.

In 2005, however, I also criticized the book for missing a few sources (largely, American ones) and for being poorly (physically) constructed. The former criticism seems a bit ridiculous now, a decade and a half later, given the depths of Mr. Garth’s painstaking research. It’s as if I criticized Mozart for playing too many notes. Rather frivolous, frankly, on my part.

As to the latter, the book’s layout and physical construction had nothing to do with Mr. Garth’s actual writing. Whatever wear and tear my copy experienced when I first read it, the book is still in the exact same shape, fifteen years later. It might have broken down quickly, but it didn’t continue to deteriorate. Maybe I just got a bum copy; or, maybe I was just cranky when I wrote the review. As I returned to that mostly positive review I wrote thirteen years ago, I was rather embarrassed at my thirty-seven-year old self for being so particular.

Well. . .

Tolkien at Exeter College, Mr. Garth’s more recent book, is, for all intents and purposes, a prequel to Tolkien and the Great War. One hopes that future editions of the larger book will include the best aspects of the newer, shorter one.

The author divides Tolkien at Exeter College into multiple sections, each self-contained, but each also connecting rather artfully to the rest of the work. Mr. Garth begins by explaining why Exeter College would have been so attractive to someone such as Tolkien. Only a few generations before Tolkien arrived there, the wildly romantic William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones studied there. As Burnt-Jones had perceptively written in 1853, echoing not just Tolkien but Christopher Dawson and Russell Kirk:

And in truth we begin more and more to see the final futility of the cramming System of education in this day. The age is utilitarian indeed, and every public speaker feels bound to remind his hearers of it in every oration, but truly it is at the sacrifice of their hearts’ blood and their children’s too that men are purchasing this possession. More and more is the age losing sight of the end and aim of man’s existence, and of the legitimate means thereto. lt will not learn that it is wisdom and not knowledge that is to be attained, the mind and not the body that is to be considered; that that only is an education, wherein the man is cultivated, not as an instrument towards some ulterior end, but as an end unto himself alone…we must enlist you, dear brother, in this crusade and Holy Warfare against the age, ‘the heartless coldness of the times.’

The Exeter of the nineteenth century had not only been influenced by the Oxford Movement of John Henry Newman and others, but it had dedicated itself to the ideals of the Arthurian mythos.

It was also, Mr. Garth properly argues, the most Roman Catholic-friendly of all Oxford colleges. Tolkien, as a practicing Roman Catholic, found several other Catholic students at Exeter, and he attended Mass at St. Aloysius, as did Christopher Dawson, three years older than Tolkien. Dawson studied at Trinity College, but he did not convert to Catholicism until early 1914, several years after his arrival at Oxford. It should be remembered, though, that anti-Catholic prejudice remained strong at Oxford well into the 1960s, despite the success of such Catholic luminaries as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Father Martin D’Arcy. As the Jewish Sir Martin Gilbert remembered, he and the Roman Catholic Tolkien had to sit at a separate table while each taught at Merton. Jews and Catholics, it seems, didn’t quite meet Oxford’s WASPish standards.

Though Tolkien arrived at Exeter as a Classics (Great Books) scholar, he found his real passion resided in Germanic and Northern language and myth. Actually, he loved all myth, but it was northern myth that most inspired him, especially the languages behind the myths. Mr. Garth does a wonderful job making the various classes Tolkien took as alive today as they were for him a century ago.

As Mr. Garth did in his previous big book, he continues to explore the societies to which Tolkien belonged while an undergraduate. Always, it seems, Tolkien desired “on good, convivial conversation, ranging from intellectual cut-and-thrust to quick-witted wordplay” that such company brought. Often, these groups met purely for friendship, while, at other times, they sought a common goal, perhaps in scholarship or imagination. Not surprisingly, Tolkien almost always played a critical role in every group. Mr. Garth does an excellent job going through the school records and revealing some fascinating speeches and tidbits from the young man. In one paper, delivered to the Essay Club, he wrote of his admiration of Catholic poet, Francis Thompson: “One must begin with the elfin and delicate and progress to the profound: listen first to the violin and the flute, and then learn to hearken to the organ of being’s harmony,” he concluded, noting that humility must always proceed creativity.

Tolkien could even be political, from time to time. After the German destruction of the University of Louvain in Belgium, Tolkien wrote to one of his closest friends, “The duty of patriotism and a fierce belief in nationalism are to me of vital importance…I no longer defend the Boer War. I am a more and more convinced Home Ruler…I don’t defend ‘Deutschland uber alles’ but certainly do in Norwegian, ‘Alt for Norge.’”

As deeply intelligent as Tolkien was, Mr. Garth rightly shows, he was also very much a young man of his era, especially when it came to playing pranks and causing trouble between town and gown. Tolkien’s own part in all of these raucous moments, in hindsight, seem far more mischievous than wicked, more naughty than rebellious, but still rather hilarious. Like many undergraduates, he spent far more money and time being spirited than was probably wise, but he was still the young man who spent his scholarships and awards on William Morris books and Welsh grammars. He was also quite good at rugby and tennis.

Tolkien’s undergraduate days ended in July 1915 as he graduated with top marks and highest honors. Less than a month later, though, he had already begun his training for the British army, entering as a second lieutenant. Of the 57 students who had entered Exeter with Tolkien in 1911, only thirty-four (including Tolkien) would survive the Great War.

Please trust me. If you have any interest in Tolkien, mythology, World War I, or Christian humanism, your library must hold Mr. Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War as well as Tolkien at Exeter College.

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