Response: Literary Pilgrimages

A few weeks ago, James of James Reads Books posted a Sunday Salon about literary pilgrimages. James defines literary pilgrimage as a “trip taken specifically for book related reasons” that “involves staying away from home at least one night”. I left a comment about my own journeys, but I’d like to share more here.

New York City

In May 2012 I took a short trip with my aunt and uncle to New York City. I didn’t consider the trip a literary pilgrimage at the time, though it does fit the definition as the primary purpose of the trip was to visit the 5th Avenue library along with a number of bookstores. This was the first really spectacluar library I ever visited. My favourite bookstore was a children’s booktore, Books of Wonder, home to a wide selection of new books, rare books, signed books, and other related paraphernalia. Visiting McNally Jackson was a neat experience, as my city is home to the flagship McNally Robinson. I also thought the Scholastic Store was a lot of fun – younger me would have spent the whole day there. Walking past the big publishing houses gave me a bit of tingle, thinking about what goes on inside those buildings (the romanticized bit, where wonderful stories are coming together to be shared with the world). Even though the trip lasted only four days and I was ill the whole time (which meant I didn’t manage do everything I wanted to), I did visit the sites I wanted to see most. New York is one of the few cities I definitely intend to visit again in the future. 


Last August I visited Oxford. Unlike New York, I considered the trip a literary pilgrimage from its conception. The primary purpose was to do some Tolkien-related site-seeing (including visiting his grave – I never visit graves, but this was important to me), and to do other children’s literature related site-seeing. I do realize that Tolkien would likely have thought this sort of ‘tourism’ absurd. For my part, I will say the experience of visiting locations is, for me, less about knowing the author and more about knowing the place that gave birth to these stories. I also wanted to pay my respects, as I believe Tolkien accomplished an incredible feat in the creation of his mythology, which has come to be deeply important to me. This website offers a 360° virtual tour of a number of Oxford locations important to Tolkien.

On the morning of my first full day in the city, I visited Blackwell‘s Art and Poster Shop, In the Music shop, and the Norrington Room (click for another incredible 360° view!). I have to agree with their self-description as “one of the finest bookshops in the world”. I spent an hour browsing just in the Norrington Room – so many niche academic books I would never find elsewhere! And there were still three more floors to explore. I returned to the store every day during my stay, increasing my TBR list by ~20%. After lunch, I took a 2.5 hour river cruise down the Thames. I’m certainly not the target audience of this company, but they offered what I was looking for and I had a very nice time, chatting with an elderly woman and the boat operator.  In the afternoon, I visited Tolkien’s home on Northmoor Road and his grave.  Looking back, I can’t believe I did all this in one day! 

I decided to walk to Wolvercote Cemetery, stopping by Tolkien’s house at 20 Northmoor Road on the way. The man at the hostel, whom I asked for bus directions, thought I was crazy when I told him I would just walk, but I knew it wouldn’t take me more than an hour and I love to walk through a beautiful city. As I began my walk, I felt a bit unprepared. I realized I wanted to bring something so I stopped in a flower shop along the way and picked up a little jar of flowers. Shortly after I left the shop, it began to rain heavily. I nearly made it to Tolkien’s house, but the rain was strong and I didn’t want my flowers to get too damaged so I stopped just on the streetcorner for a bit under a tree, then continued when the rain lightened.

  I paused just for a moment outside his house. It’s in a quiet residential area, and people still live in the home. I felt an odd, un-recreatable sensation – if you’ve visited a place you’ve only seen in photographs or met someone you’ve only seen on television, I think you’ll know what I mean.
I spent nearly an hour and a half here, sitting on a nearby bench, alone with my thoughts, then listening to audio recordings of Tolkien reading LotR, and finally reading The Hobbit to myself. I left a small note. This was the closest I could come to saying thank-you to Tolkien. Again, it’s hard to describe what this meant to me or how I felt, but I’m so grateful that I had this opportunity. When I left, another girl who reminded me of myself approached the grave. I found this very uplifting, a reminder that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Left: The Eagle and Child pub (AKA the Bird and Baby), where the Inklings often met to share their works. Right: Tolkien’s last home in Oxford, near Merton College.

I wanted to take the City of Oxford’s Tolkien walking tour, but that wasn’t offered when I was there, so I took the general tour University and City tour. Happily, Exeter College – where Tolkien completed his undergrad – was a part of this tour. Above are photos of Exeter’s dining hall and a bronze bust of Tolkien, sculpted by his daughter-in-law, in Exter’s chapel.

Afterwards, I headed back to the Bodleian Library for another tour. Again, I would have loved to take the extended tour including the reading rooms, but it wasn’t offered when I was there. I did the standard tour, which still included some fantastic sights! Don’t skip this one if you’re a library lover (or a fan of the Harry Potter films – even I recognized some of the locations). The Magical Books exhibit on at the Bodleian at the time more than made up for anything I felt I missed out on. Including numerous pieces of original Tolkien artwork from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the exhibit “takes as its theme the work of some of the foremost modern exponents of children’s fantasy literature”. His works spellbound me – being able to view them up close and in person was just as moving an experience as visiting his graveside was. It is hard to describe this feeling without sounding fanatical – again, for me, it goes deeper than thinking “Whoa, Tolkien touched this!”. Hmm…it’s the notion that many years ago he created those works, that he saw them from where I saw them, and that he looked at them and thought of how they represented his stories many years ago, as I do so now. Well, I don’t know. Maybe in the end I am just a bit fanatical (please forgive me, Professor Tolkien). If you know what I’m trying to describe, please help me out in the comments!

 On my final day in Oxford, I spent a lot of time walking around the University Parks. Above are photos of Tolkien’s bench and two trees planted to represent the Trees of Light from The Silmarillion, installed by the Tolkien Society and the Mythopoeic Society in 1992. Telperion is a silver-leaved maple and Laurelin is a false acacia.

Visiting Oxford was my great literary pilgrimage. I would love to live there someday. I hope to take a literary pilgrimage to Paris in the future, to feed my presently-dormant interest in the Lost Generation and begin to explore French literature. Have you ever taken a literary pilgrimage, or made a special book-related trip? Do you have any plans for one? Please share!