Few provincial cities anywhere are more crowded with incident and achievement than the English university city of Oxford. In a short stroll visitors may pass the house where Edmund Halley discovered his comet; the site of Britain's oldest public museum, the Ashmolean; the hall where architect Christopher Wren drew his first architectural plans; the pub where Thomas Hardy scribbled his notes for Jude the Obscure; the track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile; the meadow where a promising young mathematician named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson refined The Formulae of Plane Trigonometry, An Elementary Treatise on Determinants and, of course his famous children's trifle called Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Walk down the broad and curving High Street, thought by many to be the most beautiful in England, or through the maze of back lanes that wander among the golden, age-worn college buildings, and you will be able to follow in the footsteps of Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Jonathan Swift, John Donne, Roger Bacon, Cardinal Wolsey, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Arthur Quiller-Couch, Indira Gandhi, Hilaire Belloc, and Margaret Thatcher, to name just a few who have lived and worked and studied here.
The heart of the city is Carfax. The name comes from the Latin quadrifurcua, or “four-forked.” It is from here that the city's main streets run to the four points of the compass. This was the center of the walled medieval city--built on the foundations of an early Saxon trading settlement which was located near the ford in the river there for the cattle and oxen (hence the name "ox-ford").
It was in this remarkably rich environment of Oxfordian wonder, on this day in 1921, that the esteemed professor of etymology, J.R.R. Tolkien, began to recount the stories of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Hobbits of Middle Earth--one of the most remarkable achievements in English literature.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, was born in South Africa in 1892. After a brilliant undergraduate career, he became a medieval scholar, philologist, and professor at the university. His scholarly work at concerned Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature.
His depth and breadth of scholarship is most evident in the epic works he created about the fantasy world he called Middle Earth. He wrote The Hobbit in 1937 as a children's book. Its sequel, the trilogy entitled The Lord of the Rings--finally published after much anticipation in 1954 and 1955--included The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. The work is an imaginative masterpiece that has captured the imagination of generations ever since. It is a profound tale of the conflict between good and evil told against a backdrop of rich cultures, vibrant characters, and stunning prose and poetry. And just for the record, the books are far better than the blockbuster films.
Tolkien’s close friend and fellow professor, C.S. Lewis, commented, “such a tale, told by such an imaginative mind, could only have been spawned in such a place as Oxford.” Oxfordian wonder, indeed.