Response: What Does the Term Diverse Mean to You?

On Wednesday, Naz @ Read Diverse Books posted “What Does the Term Diverse Mean to You?”. I’m bumping the review I had scheduled today to write a response to his post, as I’ve been thinking about it a lot these past two days. I highly recommend you read his original post if you haven’t done so already. He breaks down what he means when he uses diverse, a popular word in the book world whose meanings and uses are not often closely explored.

Naz makes three points about diversity in his post (which he makes clear are his own opinion, and that we don’t really have a universally correct way to use the term):

  1. That diverse/diversity are particularly Western terms
  2. That we shouldn’t refer to individual people or books as diverse
  3. That when he says ‘read diverse books’, he means read books “that represent the variety of voices traditionally marginalized and underrepresented in the (Western) publishing industry”.  I.E. ‘Read diverse books‘ =/= ‘Read a diverse book’

I immediately agreed with his third point. Where I got stuck was why we shouldn’t call individual books (that may be found, for example, on a ‘list of diverse books’) diverse – I didn’t understand why it might be okay to say ‘read diverse books’ but not ‘read a diverse book’. However, I did understand and agree with Naz’s point about using diverse collectively. I agree that diversity comes when you have a variety of stories together. I understand that only reading books about, for example, white trans boys would not be ‘reading diverse books’ because those books are not very diverse from one another. Therefore it’s important to say ‘read diverse books’ in the collective sense that Naz defined. When you’re reading diversely – when you read diverse books – you’re reading books about many different people and experiences.

As I reflected on how I use the term diverse with regards to individual books, I initially thought I used it to refer to a book that gives voice to someone who experiences the world differently from me, i.e. a character who is not a cishet, white, ablebodied, English-speaking, Canadian female. In my case, this definition includes a lot of books that feature traditionally marginalized voices. Those characters are ‘diverse’ from mainstream literature. Therefore, what harm would I be doing in saying ‘This book is diverse’? When I looked back at Naz’s post last night, I saw the answer to my question. The key issue with my definition is the word differently.

Some people may use the term to mean “different” or “other,” but we shouldn’t be using it in that context or mindset because it renders exotic the experiences of marginalized communities. And as long as we keep seeing their stories as other or foreign, then we will struggle to move past the term “diversity” and into fair and equal representation. The goal should be to make “diversity” obsolete, at least in the publishing industry, and aim for all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re “diverse” but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths.

I spent a lot of time arguing back and forth with myself about these points. I do this so I can make sure I really understand why I might change my mind on something. Suddenly, Naz’s argument clicked for me. Diverse shouldn’t be interchangeable for ‘gives voice to an experience different from mine’. That’s how I was using the term. The problem with that is, as Naz writes in the quote above, the exoticizing of others’ experiences. I didn’t think I was doing that. But, I’m finally starting to understand that just because I don’t intend to exoticize experiences, doesn’t mean I’m not. Sure, I can say that’s what I mean by diverse but using that term in that way also means I’m inherently exoticizing others experiences. Am I understanding this correctly? I managed to arrive at this conclusion by working through the following thoughts: I also agree that in a perfect world we wouldn’t have to use the term diverse – publishing would represent all the wonderfully varied experiences of people around the world. But…this is where I still get a bit hung up. We don’t live in a perfect world right now. We still have to push for those stories to be told or to be read.To me, I imagine it’s a bit like how we shouldn’t need coming out videos. Nobody should have to make a statement of their sexuality in order to be a positive role model or live as their real self – but with the way society is currently, those videos can be very beneficial to (for example) a young kid struggling with their own sexuality. Then I worry, is my kind of logic part of the reason we can’t move forward?? Am I actually embodying what I would rather abolish? Ahh headache. Maybe I’m finally starting to understand that this may be a more subtle distinction than I realize. And that brings me back to the top of this paragraph 😛 Suddenly, I thought I understood! Because diversity is a given in our world, because we want “all stories to be valid and valued, not because they’re ‘diverse’ but because they reflect our world and explore universal truths” (qt. Naz), this term should be made obsolete.

I went back to look at my review of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, because I knew even when I published that post that I used diverse in an awkward way, when I really should have used different terminology. Funnily enough, I did use diverse in the collective way without consciously intending to, as I said all of the stories in the book are diverse… Here’s the paragraph where I talked about diversity [newcomments in square brackets]:

All of Oyeyemi’s works demonstrate diversity [Here’s my use of the term in a collective sense – her books all feature diverse characters, as do the stories in this collection], and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),   the ‘diverse’ aspects  of the character’s feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story [This whole sentence could use a rewrite, to indicate simply that the characters are not defined by one aspect of their identity]. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers [I think this usage is okay]. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity. [Whoo, now I can cringe at this sentence 😛 What I am really trying to say is that Oyeyemi writes human characters with realistic identities, and doesn’t just write diverse stories for the sake of diversity.]

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this. This was a tough post for me to write, because I know I’m new to this discussion and I’ve probably still got some things wrong. What you don’t see here is the 1,000 words I deleted as I went in circles trying to make sense of everything 😛 I was nervous about posting this because of that, but I know I can’t overcome my own misunderstandings and learn and improve without engaging in dialogue so I’m taking the plunge! Please let me know if you think I’m off track. Have I totally missed the mark with my comments on inherent exoticization? Are there are other factors we should take into consideration? I’d love to hear what you think about diversity and the use of the term diverse in the book blogging realm.

Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part Three

Part One (Éowyn’s grief) | Part Two (Éowyn as a war bride)

In this series, I respond to articles about Éowyn in order to develop a more nuanced view of Éowyn, so I can better inform my opinion of her and understand her role in Middle-Earth. Ultimately, I’d like to settle whether I can successfully argue Éowyn is a feminist icon (or conclude that that’s an unwinnable debate) through examining various facets of her character.

Hatcher, Melissa McCrory. “Finding Women’s Role in The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 25.3/4 (Spring/Summer 2007): 43 – 54. Mythopoeic Society. Web.

  • Hatcher’s perspective: Éowyn is “a complete individual” (53) who best embodies “Tolkien’s highest ideal: a fierce commitment to peace” (43).
  • I appreciate Hatcher’s caution that we (Tolkien apologists) cannot fall back on presentism, as it neither “adequately explains Tolkien’s own sexism” nor does it “take seriously the powerful female characters in The Lord of the Rings” (44). Hatcher and I agree that Tolkien’s work and characters “should be judged on their own internal merit, without considering the biography of its the author” (44).
  • Hatcher draws many comparisons between Éowyn and Sam, arguing that while the two embody many of the same ideas, Éowyn “enacts in brief what Sam epitomizes throughout the entire work” (45). Hatcher sharply observes that critics view Sam’s transformation as heroic but Éowyn’s as submissive. 
    • Both exemplify all six of Gregory Bassham’s “keys to happiness in Middle-Earth”, where few other characters do (44).
    • Both have the goal of preserving Middle-Earth’s cultural memory. (45)
      • “In fighting both to participate in and to recount the story, Éowyn embodies the persistent struggle of women in the West to assert their voices and presence, to avoid erasure, and to figure in history (and in fiction) as they do in life” (45).
    • Éowyn’s shadow (vanity, love of glory) and transformation distinguishes her from Sam and makes her a more intriguing character. Hatcher writes, “Sam becomes stronger and wiser, but Éowyn conquers an evil within herself that is not present in Sam…” (51). Personally, Éowyn’s distinguishing complexity is what I appreciate most about her.
  • Now, despite all my talk about separating the writing from the author, I cannot help but think, “Look, Tolkien wrote this! He understands Éowyn’s struggle.”  when I read this retort from Éowyn: “All your words are but to say: you are a women and your part is in the house” (qtd. 47). Éowyn fears “being put in a cage of conventional female submissiveness”; therefore Tolkien recognized on some level this is something some women may fear. (‘How did he reconcile Éowyn’s character with his personal beliefs about women?’ is something I probably shouldn’t think about too much. XP).
  • Hatcher addresses arguments that Éowyn could only be a warrior when she became a ‘man’ by illustrating that Éowyn was portrayed as a warrior from her introduction in the story (49). Additionally, she succeeds at being a warrior because she is a woman, not because she is disguised as a man. 
    • Hatcher’s further exploration of that pivotal scene acknowledges that, through Merry and Éowyn, the reader sees “the presumably weak and ignored as heroes”.
    • Hatcher makes a key statement in this segment: “This defeat of evil in Middle-earth reinforces the idea that women and hobbits can be as valiant at arms at their male compeers, but they – unlike one-dimensional characters such as Boromir or Gimli – are well-equipped to pursue what is essential: peace, preservation, and cultural memory.” 
  • Hatcher addresses Éowyn’s relationship with Faramir, concluding that he wants her to overcome her weaknesses and that he does not oppress her because he understand her as an equal (51). Hatcher also highlights a quote from Jane Chance, who claims the healing of Middle-Earth is embodied by the healing of the two ‘stewards’, Faramir and Éowyn.
  • In one paragraph Hatcher suddenly speaks of the Christian ideal of marriage and Éowyn and Faramir embody that. It seemed out of place and unnecessary.
  • There are a few slips where Hatcher does a poor job at defending Éowyn in greater story context. Hatcher states (as I quoted above) that The Lord of the Ring’s characters should be judged on their own merit. Later on she writes (a sentiment I agree with), “We should not read Éowyn as the ‘only’ female character that is given any significance, but rather, the character Tolkien chose to fulfill his theme of peace” (53).  However, at times Hatcher throws in statements comparing Éowyn to other females in the story, which highlights problematic aspects of Éowyn that Hatcher does not, in my opinion, adequately address.
    • A statement in the very first paragraph best illustrates this: “While a number of critics have accused Tolkien of subsuming his female characters in a sea of powerful men, one heroine, Éowyn, the White Lady of Rohan, is given a full character arc in the novel. ” (emphasis mine) 
    • Hatcher claims Éowyn’s role is central to The Lord of the Rings’ message, as “Éowyn has more speaking lines and appears in more scenes than any other woman [in LotR]” (46). That’s not difficult to do… =.= 
    • One character does not a feminist work make. These statements are not totally relevant to the argument Hatcher is making, and I think her intended argument  (that Éowyn best embodies Tolkien’s ideal of peace) would be stronger without statements that distract to a different argument. 

Hatcher clearly articulates a number of points in arguing Éowyn’s strength and contribution to The Lord of the Rings. While at times Hatcher drifts away from her argument, I think this article has been the best of the three I’ve read so far in that it helps me to understand Éowyn’s role in context of the greater story.

Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part Two

Last month, I wrote about how The Lord of the Rings Éowyn is one of my favourite Tolkien characters, despite my struggle to comprehend her from a feminist perspective. I want to develop a more perceptive view of Éowyn, so I can better inform my opinion of her and understand her role in Middle-Earth. Ultimately, I’d like to settle whether I can successfully argue Éowyn is a feminist icon (or conclude that that’s an unwinnable debate) through examining various facets of her character along the way. What I didn’t mention in Part One (because I didn’t realize it then) is how this process mirrors what I did when starting an essay – read the source, take notes, add a few thoughts, eventually synthesize all sources into my final argument. I really do miss university! In Part One, I commented on Brent D. Johnson’s article “Éowyn’s Grief”, in which he explores her “grief and recovery [as] a portrait of many soldier’s family members who remained in England during World War I” (117). The article I will explore this week links to Johnson’s in that it also considers Éowyn’s role in context with World War I.

Smith, Melissa. “At Home and Abroad: Eowyn’s Two-Fold Figuring as War Bride in The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 26.1 (2007): 161-72. Web. (Purchase digital article)

  • Smith’s perspective: “Éowyn’s relationships with Aragorn and Faramir thus cast her in the dual roles of war bride-left-behind and foreign war bride”. She is “a negative example of the former [but] a positive example of the latter” (161).
  • Smith recounts the origin and definition of war bride (161-3). The term can refer to either “the newlywed wife left in the homeland by the soldier” (applicable to Éowyn  and Aragorn) or “a bride of foreign origin married after necessarily hasty engagement to a serviceman of the occupying, usually friendly, country” (applicable to Éowyn and Faramir) (163).
  • Smith acknowledges in footnotes alternatives to the interpretation of Éowyn’s love for Aragorn as romantic. She references Janet-Brennan Croft, who argues Éowyn’s love is the same sort of “homoerotic, non-physical ‘crushes’ experienced by soldiers” in WWI (qtd in. 163). 
    • This continues to be an aside throughout Smith’s article (although whether Éowyn’s love is romantic or not isn’t wholly relevant to Smith’s argument – Éowyn still embodies characteristics of a war bride). I prefer to take this up as the main interpretation of Éowyn’s love of Aragorn, rather than an ‘alternative view’. Indeed, this is what both Aragorn and Faramir perceive (Smith quotes Faramir’s observation on 164).
  • Éowyn as a war bride-left-behind
    • Smith compares Éowyn to Ruth Wolfe Fuller, who penned  “The Experiences of War Bride” after her “husband was drafted into the United States [WWI] army two months after their marriage” (162). Smith highlights moments when Éowyn’s reactions to Aragorn “mirror” Fuller’s reactions (164). Some examples:
      • Éowyn discourages Aragorn from seeking the Paths of the Dead in part because he will find no honour along that path. Similarly, Fuller and her husband “chose not to claim exemption because to do so would be a ‘compromise with honour'” (qtd in. 164).
      • Both cannot bear to be parted from their loves, yet they strive to their duty as necessitated by living in wartime (164-5).
      • Both are eager for news from the war front (165).
      • Smith concludes this segment stating that Éowyn functions as an “Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a modern homebound war bride” but “fails to be an exemplary one” (165) because of “petulance and reluctance to accept her role” (167). In this Éowyn differs from Fuller.
        • Smith carefully notes this is not a criticism of Éowyn’s character. In footnotes 11 and 12, she acknowledges Éowyn’s struggle to find her place in society, citing her naturally strong spirit, her upbringing among among men in a warring society, and her training that she is forbidden to use (166-7).
      • Smith also draws parallels between Éowyn and Edith, Tolkien’s wife and herself a war bride during WWI. I had not thought to connect the two. Both experience great discontent with their expected roles during wartime (166-7).
    • Éowyn as a foreign war bride
      • Smith begins her second discussion on a lighter note, writing that foreign brides do not experience so much of the “demoralizing passivity” that brides-left-behind do – that Éowyn experienced in her relationship with Aragorn. Éowyn’s “new role […] requir[es] the intrepid spirit and desire for activity so prominent in her character” (167).
      • Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship shows “many similarities to descriptions of courtship as experienced by young soldiers and their lovers in foreign lands” (167). Some examples:
        • The rapid development and forward acknowledgment of interest
          • Smith notes such characteristics are “uniquely acceptable” during wartime,  “when relocation and even death loom large in the future” and relationships must blossom “to endure separation” (167-8).
          • Tolkien himself addressed criticism of the speed of Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship, writing, “In my experience feelings and decisions […] ripen very quickly in times of great stress” (qtd in. 163).
        • Éowyn initially expresses reluctance to accept Faramir’s interest. Smith attributes this to “the idealistic faithfulness of the war bride-left-behind [doing] battle with the readiness of the foreign war bride” (168). Éowyn has already been impressed by soldier Aragorn, but uncertainty and absence lies with him, so she accepts Faramir in his stead (as foreign war brides did with their suitors). 
        • Another characteristic of the foreign war bride and her soldier is the “approval of fellow men-at-arms to make marriage possible” (168). Éowyn and Faramir’s union plays out amongst and with the support of those who have just returned from battle.
        • Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the foreign war bride is the process of assimilation she must undergo, both into her husband’s family and a foreign culture (169).
          • Éowyn sharply observes her potentially difficult situation when she says, “Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor? And would you have  your  proud  folk  say  of  you:  ‘There  goes  a  lord  who  tamed  a  wild shieldmaiden  of  the  North!  Was  there  no  woman  of  the  race  of  Númenor  to  choose?’” (qtd in. 170)
          • In the end, though, all works out for Éowyn, and her marriage to Faramir is considered a “positive unification of two cultures” (171).
    • Towards the end, Smith’s comments prompted me to think about something more related to Johnson’s article than anything Smith discusses here – about Éowyn’s renouncement of her desire to achieve honour and glory in death on the battlefield. Smith’s comment about Faramir and Aragorn thinking the Rohirrim lesser people who love war (170) prompted me to think, “Oooohohohoh it’s not just Éowyn who desires glory in war; it’s her people”. Now I realize this might turn the sexism discussion into a racism one, but at the very least I think it’s a good comment on attitudes towards war. It’s not about honour or glory, it’s about defending what one loves. Recall the iconic quote from Faramir: “[…] I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend”. Faramir holds the ‘correct’ attitude to war, which Éowyn comes to recognize. (Ahhhh and now I’ve gone back around to the sexism argument, possibly, but that’s an ongoing conversation.)
    • Smith focuses more on Tolkien’s personal views than I am interested in. Part of her argument is that Tolkien sympathized with the plight of war brides and “the difficult of the role that war imposes on women”, which Smith claims disproves the idea that Tolkien was a “narrow-minded misogynist who dooms the women in his work to weakness and failure” (171). While I appreciate Smith’s exploration of Éowyn as a war bride, I think this conclusion is a bit of a stretch from what she discusses in her article. I think the overall article would have been stronger as a sole exploration of Éowyn’s rather character, rather than as an attempt to prove Tolkien isn’t a misogynist. It’s a great exploration, and gives further understanding to Éowyn , but I don’t think it’s a strong enough argument to base a claim that Tolkien wasn’t misogynist (for the record, I don’t believe he was. I just don’t think this article is the best place to make the argument.)

    I really enjoyed the two articles by Johnson and Smith. They gave me new perspective and have me excited to dig in further. Because these are new ideas fresh me, I haven’t been too critical but perhaps later on I’ll come back and reread these and have more constructive thoughts on them. Something I’ve been thinking about is how both articles relate key parts of Éowyn’s character in context with Faramir…that’s a bit tricky; is she only defined in the context of her relationship with a man? But then, I think that’s overdoing it – everyone is affected by how they interact with other people. It doesn’t have to be a sexist thing (but perhaps it is, and that’s the issue I’m continuing to explore). Now the question is – what to read next? Smith cites some articles that look interesting. I’m not sure when I’ll post Part Three, but certainly this won’t be the end of my exploration! Have you read any stories featuring war brides, or characters who undergo circumstances similar to a war bride? What was their experience like?

    Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part 1

    Éowyn is one of my favourite characters in The Lord of the Rings (not top three, but maybe top five and definitely top ten). From a feminist perspective, I struggle with my personal view of Éowyn as an admirable woman. At a glance, Éowyn appears to be a feminist character. Given just a touch more consideration, however, the feminist label falls away. Or does it? My struggle stems from the many ways one can interpret Éowyn’s character. She’s feminist because she kills the Witchking when a man couldn’t! She’s not feminist because she’s a rarely seen anomaly in Middle-Earth! She’s feminist because she gets to be the leader of her people! She’s not feminist because she’s only the leader when there are no men left! She’s feminist because she recognizes it’s okay to be feminine and not masculine! She’s not feminist because she gives up her masculine desires to be feminine! I’m sure there are more points others would add. And then where am I left? It’s easy to dismiss her character, especially when you consider Tolkien’s views. Yet, I don’t want to stop myself calling Éowyn feminist simply because I know her creator wasn’t. Even if one disregards Tolkien’s personal views, if one looks as Éowyn as an independent character, considers her a human being and not a mouthpiece, can I still consider her a feminist icon? Or if not a feminist character, can she at least be one I can look up to without feeling guilty about it? (And then, perhaps ‘feminist’ isn’t even label I particularly care about here. Maybe whether she’s feminist or not isn’t what’s important to me. I guess I just want to feel okay with thinking of her as a role model, in spite her of [apparently?] conflicting complexities.)

    All this is to preface two articles I recently read about Éowyn that explore her from perspectives I hadn’t considered before. I’d like to summarize and respond to the ideas presented in one of those articles now, in hopes that I can get some clarification about her role in the story and expand my understanding of her.

    Johnson, Brent D. “Éowyn’s Grief.” Mythlore 27.3 (2009): 117-27. Web.
    (Purchase digital article)

    • Johnson’s perspective: “Éowyn’s  story  of  grief  and  recovery  is  a portrait  of  many  soldiers’  family  members  who  remained  in  England  during World War I” (117). Johnson cites +18 years as a military chaplain for giving him much experience in dealing with grief (119).
    • Johnson understand my Éowyn woes – his immediately asks “Is she a role model for feminists, or merely a pitiful, flat  character  (easily described  in  one  sentence),  or  is  she  a  woefully misunderstood young woman who merely wishes to die in battle?” (117)
    • The first part of Johnson’s article argues that Éowyn suffers from war-based traumatic grief rather than PTSD (117-120). He compares her experience to that of women (including war widows) during WWI.
      • Interesting point: Of Dr. Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Éowyn does not exhibit the final stage of acceptance (she doesn’t accept her place in the Houses of Healing) (119).
    • Johnson argument comes out strongly in the segment “Éowyn’s Traumatic Grief” (122-3), where he describes her symptoms of traumatic grief. I never thought of Éowyn as suffering immense grief, but Johnson makes a number of observations that demonstrate this. Some examples: Numbness to emotion (122), difficulty accepting the loss as real (123), inability to trust others, confusion over her role in life
    • Johnson explores Faramir’s role in assisting Éowyn’s recovery in the remainder of the article (124-7).
      • I initially braced myself for this part of the article. It might be understood as Faramir saves Éowyn (that would be a strike against the ‘feminist’ definition) – however, he saves her by being ‘feminine’, by having suffered great loss as well (as opposed to triumphing as warrior) and by helping her through her grief.
      • Johnson’s exploration of Faramir isn’t really part of my discussion here, but Faramir is my favourite character and I’m biased in his favour and I loved this exploration of his and Éowyn’s relationship.
    • Lastly, Johnson briefly addresses Éowyn’s decision to become a healer, renouncing her warrior ambitions. Only after experiencing great healing herself does she choose to become a healer (126). I would have liked Johnson to expand a bit on this point, but as it’s not one I ever really thought of before, I was happy to encounter it here.  
    • I nearly applauded at Johnson’s conclusion – “If  Tolkien’s  belief  that applicability “resides  in  the  freedom  of  the  reader  […]  (not)  in  the  purposed domination of the author” (LotR Foreword xvii) holds true, then each individual who reads Éowyn’s tale of grief will find hope restored in her healing and her calling as a healer. ” (127). As I wish to, Johnson demonstrates that it’s possible to look up to Éowyn (as a model of hope and recovery), regardless of authorial intent.
    • If you have any interest in Éowyn, I highly recommend this article! I’ve only given a general summary here.

    The second article I read explores Éowyn’s role as war bride, but I think I’ve written enough for now! I’ll save that article for my next response post. I’m sure as I continue to delve into Tolkien scholarship I will read more about Éowyn and my views of her will continue to evolve. The opinions I express here aren’t set in stone. I’d love to know – what is your opinion of Éowyn (whether or not from a feminist perspective)? Are there other fictional female characters that cause you to debate in this way?

    BONUS: I listened to this play list while working on this article.

    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!