In the summer of my junior year of college, I embarked on a pilgrimage to Oxford. As a Tolkien fan - fan actually doesn't cover it, his works are spiritual texts for me - Oxford is a place I needed to go. Oxford is where Tolkien went to school, at Exeter College; he was a Don for Merton College. Tolkien first met C.S. Lewis and wrote much of “The Lord of the Rings” at Magdalen College, particularly on Addison's Walk, a trail through its deer forests. He founded the Inklings writing group at the Eagle and Child pub right in the center of town, where he proofread the Narnia series and C.S. Lewis encouraged him to write. Tolkien is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery just north of the city, and he lived note 5 blocks from where I stayed on Woodstock Road for a 3 week study abroad program through New College.
These are the things I grew up knowing and researching about the man whose works got me through the biggest challenges of my life, whose wisdom through Gandalf and Frodo have formed my moral base like no other and given me the strength to carry on through any hardship. I needed to be there.
A clear lover of the hero's journey, I saw the challenge of this pilgrimage as part of the necessity for it. Exploring England solo and venturing from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to remote little Oxford was a challenge I was even more excited to take knowing it would be a challenge. It felt like a necessary sacrifice of comfort to come out stronger on the other side.
The journey there was not simple. A train ride to Philly from Lancaster. A flight from Philly to Heathrow, London. A bus from Heathrow to Oxford. A 2-mile walk to the first destination, my one-night passage, bag in hand.
I would be staying with my best friends' mom Helen's best friend, an elderly eccentric recluse whom I had never met (indeed Helen hadn't seen her in 22 years) and who didn't have any technology to contact me beforehand. If there were delays in any way, would she find me? Her address was on a scrap of paper in my phone case. I remember checking for it often on the train, at the gate, in the air, and on the bus. When I wheeled up to the corner I was to meet her at, found blessedly by a kindly bus driver's direction, I felt like I was on Joseph Campbell's hero's journey. She was my Gandalf sending me on the quest.
June was a wonderful woman of a bygone era - her tiny High Street flat in Oxford was wall-to-wall pictures of naked women, some classic paintings and some newer, cartoonish art. Her bathtub, stove and kettle, and cold-running taps were of any and all eras - I would have believed her unquestioningly if she had told me they were 100 years old or 30. Her expressive way of talking without meeting your eyes made you wonder if she was blind; indeed so did her walk. It’s as if she walked with her hands as her eyes, warding in front of her. Her oversized dresses - which I later learned she made herself - like billowing sheets on a line. Most magnificent was her "garden": a concrete pad with ancient wooden fencing, from which hung hundreds, definitely hundreds, of plants at all heights and in full late-June bloom.
There was nowhere to unpack. I slept on her couch, old but delicately cared for. When I asked if there were plugs for me to charge my phone, I was met with angry silence. After 10 seconds of looking at the judgment in her eyes, she gestured, sweeping with her whole arm, at a chair I presumed the plug was behind. It was then I realized there was no electric lighting, only open windows and sconces on the walls. I plugged it in once she had gone to bed, and in case she somehow sensed it, I sent only one quick text of "I'm here and safe" to my family and turned it off promptly.
In the 20 hours I spent with her, I learned much about what I wanted out of my own life: to live unapologetically as myself, and find solace in solitude through plants, reading, art (though usually more clothing is involved), and to ignore technology every chance I get. This experience framed my time in Oxford, and whenever I went out and felt a pang of self-consciousness as an "ugly American", it dissipated at her memory. I felt more empowered in those weeks than ever before in my life, founding more than my religious appreciation of Tolkien, but an added one of the English eccentric that I feel myself growing into more and more. I explored and walked and WALKED like never before, 10-20 miles a day depending on my journey's end, and read and wrote and grew.
PHOTO: Tolkien's residence, 20 Northmoor Rd, Oxford. He wrote most of LotR here, specifically in that garage, while teaching at Merton College of Oxford! It was a 10 minute walk from where I stayed!