The City of Dreaming Spires

Magdalen Tower – Photo by Becca Tarnas
Magdalen Tower – Photo by Becca Tarnas

There is nothing quite like riding the train at magic hour, into the City of Dreaming Spires. I spent much of the day in London, including several important hours catching up with an old friend, having a fantastic brunch at The Breakfast Club in Soho, and walking through Hyde Park during the sunny, warm afternoon. As the day dwindled toward evening I walked from Warwick Avenue to Paddington Station, past canal boats floating low in the water covered in bright, chipping paint and overgrown planter boxes of flowers.

The departing sun set the sky alight in lavender, periwinkle, rose and indigo while the train sped toward Oxford. I chose to walk the mile and a half from the station to my lodgings in a friend’s college rooms so I could take in the city along the way. Sure enough I passed beneath the lit steeple of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and not long after the tower at Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis spent much of his teaching career. Crossing the bridge over the River Cherwell I could look back and see clearly why Oxford has been called the City of Dreaming Spires: the old college buildings send up spire after stone spire into the starry night air.

I arrived into my rooms which were warm and welcoming, filled with familiar books, including a shrine with Jung’s Red Book upon it. I found it somewhat amazing (although not surprising once I reflected on whose room I was occupying and our similar academic interests) that I had come halfway around the planet to study Tolkien’s visionary artwork, the contents of his Red Book, in the Bodleian Library, and right in my bedroom would be an accessible copy of the other Red Book to which I am comparing the results. It felt like an affirmation I was in the right place.

The Bodleian Library – Photo by Becca Tarnas
The Bodleian Library – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Early the following morning I awoke, soon to realize I was shaking—with anticipation, nerves, excitement, I wasn’t entirely sure. I planned to arrive at Admissions in the Bodleian at 9:00 am as they opened, and hopefully if all went well in getting my reader’s card I’d be meeting with the head archivist of the Tolkien special collection by 9:30. Walking through the streets of Oxford, down Queen’s Lane and under Oxford’s own Bridge of Sighs toward the library, I felt a deep sense of connection to this place. Ten years ago I once had the dream of attending this university, and now again that desire was reawakened. I could feel the past presence of those literary figures who had shaped me in such a formative way. Something in the heart of Oxford was calling to me once more.

I entered first the oldest building of the Bodleian, which had many doors branching off the courtyard with signs over their doors reading Schola Naturalis Philosophae and Schola Moralis Philosophae, among several others. Soon I was redirected toward the Weston Library, a newer building although still seemingly old to my eyes. I entered Admissions, handed in the various forms explaining my research purposes along with three (three!) forms of identification. To my relief I was approved without much delay but, before handing me my reader’s card, I was to swear an oath aloud that ran four lines long:

Bodleian Library Oath

Then to the lockers where I left all my belongings except a pencil and blank sheets of paper, through the secure entryway, up the stairs and into the reading room. There I was met by the Tolkien archivist, a wonderful woman who has what I felt to be one of the most admirable and enviable positions in the library. We spoke for a little while about my research goals and then she set me up at a table with the first of four boxes of Tolkien’s artwork that I would be studying over this morning and the following.

The Reference Library in the Weston – Photo by Becca Tarnas
The Reference Library in the Weston – Photo by Becca Tarnas

My hands shook a little as I opened the first box, but I soon relaxed into the process, turning from one drawing to the next. What did I find there? Well, I’ve signed too many forms to risk revealing much here without the permission of the Tolkien Trust. But I’ll just simply say that I believe I found what I came for, that my thinking in these areas has been affirmed, and perhaps someday I will be able to express the fullness of what I saw in my dissertation. Much of Tolkien’s great art has been published already, for which I am immensely grateful. But a few pieces remain hidden which would be wonderful if they could be seen by the wider world. And the sequence itself of the artwork has its own story to tell.

After several hours and even more pages of notes I decided it was time for a change of scene, so I packed up and departed the library. I made a brief stop in Blackwell’s Bookshop, my favorite book store in the world that I hadn’t been inside of for about five years. Of course they had a whole Inklings section right up at the front, and I was able to get a copy of Verlyn Flieger’s edited edition of Tolkien’s fantastic essay “On Fairy-Stories,” first given in 1939 as the Andrew Lang lectures at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. They also had lovely little editions of several of Tolkien’s short stories; I limited myself to two: Smith of Wootton Major and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book, each with accompanying introductory and critical essays.

The Eagle and Child – Photo by Becca Tarnas
The Eagle and Child – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Lunch at the Eagle and Child pub seemed the only appropriate place to go next, so I walked up St. Giles to the legendary “Bird and Baby,” and was soon sitting in the back room with a pint and vegetable pie, gazing at oil portraits of Tolkien and Lewis and scribbling notes on my morning’s research.

That afternoon I met up with a family friend who happens to be teaching in Oxford for the next two months, so we spent the next several hours catching up and discussing ideas on an array of topics, from philosophy and religion, to literature and travel. We walked home through Oxford in the evening together, conversation still well underway.

Morning found me once again in the Sir Charles Mackerras Reading Room, pouring over more drawings. But finally the time came for me to depart and I left with reluctance. Would I have the opportunity to again be a researcher in these halls? I hope my life may take such a turn.

For the afternoon I had a special pilgrimage planned: a long walk from Oxford city center first to 20 Northmoor Road, where Tolkien and his family lived seventeen years, and then on a few more miles up to the Wolvercote Cemetery where Tolkien and his wife Edith are buried beneath one gravestone. It felt important to me to walk, to really put in the time and effort and make it to each place on foot.

20 Northmoor Road – Photo by Becca Tarnas
20 Northmoor Road – Photo by Becca Tarnas

I noticed as I was walking down Northmoor Road I was shaking a little again. The wooden gate bears a metal number 20, and bushes and blackberry vines grow about the entrance. Someone else has made their home here now, and it looks simple and well-kept. The only distinguishing feature is a small blue plaque near the gable of the roof stating:

J.R.R. Tolkien
Author of The Lord of the Rings
Lived here 1930-1947

I tried to imagine what it might have been like to live here, raising four children, preparing lectures, marking exams, and writing thousands upon thousands of pages of fantasy and Elvish lexicons during some of the spare hours in between. I peered at the smaller house next door, number 22, where the Tolkiens had lived for a shorter period before, from 1926 to 1930. Eventually I continued on my way, grateful to have glimpsed these two homes.

The walk up to Wolvercote Cemetary was actually much longer than I expected, and a few times I thought I might be lost. I started to worry I wasn’t going in the right direction, or worse yet that I was but had somehow mistaken the cemetery and was walking far out of my way for nothing. I departed the road I had been on, thinking perhaps the cemetery was further east. I began to walk down an unfamiliar road when suddenly I had a strong sense to turn around. I did, and following intuition more than anything else I realized I was now on Banbury Road, the very road the cemetery was meant to be on. Sure enough just several hundred feet further, and a little sign pointed me into a wide, grassy cemetery. A brass plaque indicated to follow the signs to Tolkien’s grave. I had made it.

The Tolkiens are buried right near the back of the cemetery, a modest plot with a granite stone at the head and a rose bush with a few blooms, their fading petals marking the end of summer. The stone reads:

Edith Mary Tolkien
Luthien
1889-1971

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
Beren
1892-1973

I cannot recount here all the emotions that arose in me at the sight of this grave. I’ll simply say it was a deeply meaningful experience, far more than I was even expecting. I spent a long time there. At one moment a strong wind picked up, shaking the trees. I was reminded of when the wind blew through the trees as Tolkien and Lewis were on Addison’s Walk by Magdalen College, the night that Lewis had his conversion experience, which Tolkien commemorated in his poem “Mythopoeia.” Finally I felt it was time to depart. As I turned away I saw a small, pure white feather on the ground. Rarely do I collect tokens of remembrance, but this time I felt the feather was for me.

The Tolkiens' Grave – Photo by Becca Tarnas
The Tolkiens’ Grave – Photo by Becca Tarnas

It was a joy to rest my feet as I sat on the upper deck of the bus back toward city center, right at the front window so I could see clearly the whole return journey. I felt in a place of great peace. Arriving back into the heart of Oxford, I walked over to Exeter College, where Tolkien studied as an undergraduate, and was able to enter with my newly acquired reader’s card. (“I’m a visiting researcher, may I enter the college?”) Passing the emerald green quad I entered first the chapel, where a tapestry of the Adoration of the Magi adorned the front left-hand wall. A copper bust of Tolkien stood near the back, not too far from the door. Although small, Exeter’s chapel is exquisite. From there I somehow found myself in the Fellows’ Garden, a peaceful lawn bathed in sunlight, trees and flowers scattered throughout, a large fig climbing the stone wall by the private college library. Toward the back right of the garden is a small pond filled with water lilies, and a stone staircase ascending the outer wall of the college. Coming to the top of the stairs I found myself with a spectacular view looking out toward the round Radcliffe Camera, the tower of the University Church just beyond it. Below me a crowd of tourists happened to be walking by, but up here on the wall of Exeter College I was secluded, in the peace of an idyllic garden where generations have come to study outside.

Exeter Fellows' Garden – Photo by Becca Tarnas
Exeter Fellows’ Garden – Photo by Becca Tarnas

After Exeter I went on to visit two more colleges: Christ Church College, which is by far the largest and wealthiest, with vast meadows stretching beyond it, and Magdalen, where C.S. Lewis was situated. Walking down the echoing corridor beside the Magdalen quad I had an internal image of black-robed students walking down these same halls, when suddenly I turned a corner and a whole choir of schoolboys in the very black robes I had been imagining processed down the passageway before me, turning quickly (and the smallest ones in the back shoving each other) into an arched doorway to the left. My footsteps carried me further until I passed out of the wrought-iron gates and across the small bridge over the River Cherwell onto the pathway of Addison’s Walk. Turning left I walked for a ways beside the river, stopping when I came to the next bridge and seeing to my right in the meadow a large herd of deer. All of the females and fawns were standing eating grass, while the two males with antlers—one significantly larger and presumably older than the other—sat on the ground on either side of the herd. After a moment in quiet reflection beside the deer, I turned back the way I’d come. I noticed a few things I had missed on the way in: a few large stumps that had been carved into thrones rooted directly into the ground, and a small moored boat that looked like it must belong to Ratty from Wind in the Willows.

Radcliffe Camera & University Church – Photo by Becca Tarnas
Radcliffe Camera & University Church – Photo by Becca Tarnas

By now completely exhausted from all my walking, I returned to the University Church which had a garden café at the bottom, and sat with a perfect cup of English tea and a scone, replete with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Just refreshed, I went to meet the same family friend I had joined the afternoon prior and we walked together over to Christ Church chapel to attend Evensong. It’s one thing to tiptoe into the college chapels when no one is there and take in the art and carvings on the walls, it’s another to come in when candles are lit and the air vibrates with the voices of young men and boys in the choir.

Thus, after a beautiful dinner and evening, my time in Oxford was coming to a close. The following morning I packed everything up and walked back toward the train station the same way I had walked in. An autumn mist had descended on the city, turning the morning Sun’s light into diffused rays that scattered across the yellow stones and fading trees. I felt a reluctance to leave this place. But if I am meant to return to the dreaming spires at some point in the future then I must trust that I will.

Dreaming Spires by Morning Light – Photo by Becca Tarnas
Dreaming Spires by Morning Light – Photo by Becca Tarnas

Becoming Acquainted with “The Inklings”

“It was a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with
vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien[1]

The Oxford Inklings have long held a fascination for me—a group of great literary authors meeting weekly to share their poetry and fiction, and discuss their ideas and beliefs. A meeting of the minds who, at different points in their careers, produced The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Poetic Diction, The Place of the Lion, and multiple other works across a great range of genres and topics. How did these writers come to know each other? How much did they influence one another’s work? Such questions as these are addressed by Humphrey Carpenter in his biographical work The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends.

The InklingsIn many ways, Carpenter’s The Inklings is primarily a biography of C.S. Lewis, with the lives of Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and others woven in when their narrative threads cross paths with Lewis’s. Yet this is perhaps an entirely appropriate approach considering the group that called themselves the Inklings ultimately orbited around Lewis—the meetings took place in his Magdalen rooms, and his friendship was what the members of the group held in common. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s weaving together of these many, and often disparate, biographical threads produces a compelling tapestry that displays a historical picture both complex and deep, inviting one into the nuanced differences of multiple intellectual and creative lives.

Certain aspects of this interwoven narrative particularly shone forth for me, such as the descriptions of the shared feeling between Lewis and Tolkien when reading certain myths and stories of familiarity with the unfolding tale, a sense of longing and nostalgia as though one has somehow participated in this story before. It is a feeling with which I also am familiar, becoming apparent to me the first time I heard The Hobbit read aloud. Names such as Rivendell, Middle-Earth, and Dale, the songs and laughter of the Elves, all felt deeply familiar from the first time I heard them. Tolkien was able to imbue his own stories with that same essence that he and Lewis felt and found so richly compelling in the myths of Northern Europe.

Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship could really be seen as the core of the Inklings, as it was they who were the most consistent members throughout the duration of the informal literary group. Another moment I found particularly touching and unique to their characters was when Lewis first critiqued a poem of Tolkien’s, but instead of simply writing a commentary in his own voice he rather chose to execute his narrative creativity by annotating the poem “as if it were a celebrated piece of ancient literature, already heavily studied by scholars with such names as ‘Pumpernickel,’ ‘Peabody,’ ‘Bentley,’ and ‘Schick;’ he alleged that any weaknesses in Tolkien’s verses were the result of scribal errors or corruptions in the manuscript.”[2] Their creativity is coming through even in these most simple of interactions, giving the reader a greater sense of the imaginations able to access the worlds of Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole of the book was the one entitled “Mythopoeia.” It centers around Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, first through his recognition of a divine presence when he, in his words, “admitted that God was God,”[3] and ending with his belief in the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The key to his conversion was a recognition of the truth of myth, as articulated both by Barfield and by Tolkien. Barfield’s book Poetic Diction had a major impact on both Lewis and Tolkien, in which he describes the way in which language has evolved to show a correlated evolution of consciousness, from mythical perception to rational intellect. In Carpenter’s narrative: “In the dawn of language, said Barfield, speakers did not make a distinction between the ‘literal’ and the ‘metaphorical,’ but used words in what might be called a ‘mythological’ manner.”[4] One of the examples Barfield uses to illustrate this is when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English it can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence. This is also the perspective from which Tolkien argued when he and Lewis entered into debate about the truth of myths. To quote Carpenter’s narrative at some length:

[Lewis] still did not believe in the myths that delighted him. Beautiful and moving though such stories might be, they were (he said) ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

No, said Tolkien. They are not lies.

Just then (Lewis afterwards recalled) there was a “rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”[5]

Tolkien goes on to illustrate his point with what surrounded them in that moment, the trees and night sky overhead. I find it significant that in this pivotal moment it is as though the world itself is speaking, to offer its subtle yet powerful evidence to the words Tolkien says. No, myths are not lies. They are all around us. The rush of wind, spiritus, makes its presence known. The men hold their breath, spiritus. Spirit is present.

To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music.[6]

I would even alter Carpenter’s language further in keeping with what both Tolkien and Barfield understood. The stars were not “as living silver” they were living silver. Not only did the first humans to speak of trees and stars “see” them differently, they were different because they were in participatory relationship to these ancient people.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity came about later that night when Tolkien explained first that “not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth,”[7] and then later not only is “the death and resurrection of Christ . . . the old ‘dying god’ story all over again,” but that “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact.”[8] Tolkien’s recourse to myth, first by showing the truth of it, and then by showing how myth entered history in the story of Christ, is what led to Lewis’s conversion, and hence to his many works of Christian apologetics and allegorical fantasy.

The Inkling with whom I was the least familiar, but whose life and personality I felt completely charmed by and engaged with, was Charles Williams. The portrait Carpenter draws of him feels so alive, I was amazed I had somehow gone so long without an introduction to Williams and his work. In Carpenter’s words:

He would treat someone’s personal worry with the same vitality that he showed in [his] lecture, the same grave courtesy and fiery vision; so that it was easy to go home feeling that this was what it would have been like to meet Dante himself, or Blake, or even Shakespeare.[9]

Williams seemed to be an immensely complex and nuanced figure, always holding in balance perspectives of light and shadow: “Behind every bad thing he could see something good, and also behind every good thing he could see darkness.”[10] Furthermore, “He was able to embrace everything—belief and doubt, hope and disillusion, love and hatred—within the secure irony that he had developed.”[11] Meeting Williams through biography first, rather than through his fiction, has left me simply with the wish that I might have met him.

Carpenter’s biographical style flows best when he is able to paint a narrative picture, as though one were really present, for example, at a particular meeting of the Inklings. He does this in a chapter entitled “Thursday evenings,” in which he combines quotations from works and letters with multiple reports of what the evenings were like to give a fictional portrait of an Inklings gathering (he does this also in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography in which he narrates a sample day of Tolkien’s life in Oxford). The effect is absolutely enticing, making the reader feel almost as if they were there, and wish that to do so were really a possibility.

Perhaps my most pervasive feeling as I read The Inklings was a continual desire to have been able to participate in this group, wondering what it may have been like to listen to the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings when it was still titled “The New Hobbit,” or to hear Barfield and Tolkien discuss language, or Lewis and Williams on poetry and theology. And this longing actually brought forward an unexpectedly painful realization as I continued to read about this group of writers, at least one of whom has fundamentally shaped who I am and how I think, feel, imagine, and engage creatively with the world. All of the Inklings were men, and a woman was never permitted to be present at a Thursday gathering, or invited to join in the conversation at the Bird and Baby pub on Tuesday mornings. I realized that at the table of my intellectual forebears I, as a woman, would not have been welcome.

It was Lewis who held the most, to be frank, misogynist views, but I was pained to find the ways in which Barfield and Tolkien also agreed with him. Lewis has said that

“the husband is the head of the wife just so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church” adding: “If there must be a head, why the man? Well, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” And elsewhere: “Do you really want a matriarchal world? Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?”[12]

I had hoped such views might have been confined to Lewis, but Tolkien has also written:

“How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp the teacher’s ideas, see his point—and how (with some exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him. It is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.”[13]

I do recognize that such sexist views are, in large part, a product of the time in which these men lived. Yet I also cannot help but feel their words with pain, and recognize the countless women whose voices have been silenced, again and again, by such mistaken and degrading beliefs. It is an injustice to recognize at once how much Tolkien and so many other male writers have shaped who I am through their words and imaginal creations, and then to know that they regarded “the female mind as inferior to the male.”[14] If somehow I were able to go back through time and arrive at Lewis’s Magdalen door on a Thursday evening I would not have been permitted to cross the threshold because of my gender.

There is some comfort to know that perhaps Williams might have made an argument for my entry if such a situation were to occur (and it would be far more likely to occur in the supernatural fluidity of space and time in Williams’ novels than elsewhere). Williams once said that it would be likely that “any principle of the relations of the sexes will be wrong, since there are, after all, no such things; there are an infinite number of women and an infinite number of men.”[15] Williams, it seems, would have at least based his admission on individual merit rather than blind gender exclusion.

Perhaps because of these statements from Lewis and Tolkien I was particularly delighted to meet on the page the woman who became Lewis’s wife later in his life, Joy Davidman.

Lewis was astonished by her. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he wrote of her. “Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure of being exposed and laughed at.”[16]

That such a woman came into his life and made the powerful impact she did felt long overdue as I was reaching the later pages of Carpenter’s book. But the role Joy Davidman played in Lewis’s life was indeed significant, and one that seemed to make a lasting imprint.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were resistant to having their personal lives explored in the context of their literary works, likely because they did not want the work to be psychoanalyzed and picked apart in search of biographical details and hidden personal truths. My sense is that this desire in part comes from their belief—shared at least after Lewis’s conversion—that myths ultimately are true. Because the source of myth is beyond simple human invention, but is rather the divine imagination creating through the human artist, the personal lives of the creators should not be looked to for the source of the stories. A human being is simply the container for them, the vessel into which the divine inspiration pours. And while such myths may be “partially spoiled in each writer by the admixture of his own mere individual ‘invention,’”[17] the hope is that we as readers, as fellow explorers of imagination, can see past those personal faults, and truly “glimpse” the reality of “Other-worlds.”[18]

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006), 67.

[2] Carpenter, The Inklings, 30,

[3] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 40.

[4] Carpenter, The Inklings, 41.

[5] Carpenter, The Inklings, 43.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carpenter, The Inklings, 44.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] Ibid, 90.

[12] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 169.

[14] Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[15] Carpenter, The Inklings, 171.

[16] C.S. Lewis qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 237.

[17] Carpenter, The Inklings, 138.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 64.