This week, as the sun came out in the UK, I took a trek out to J. R. R. Tolkien’s grave. Located in the Wolvercote cemetery a 50 minutes walk (or very short bus ride) out from the centre of Oxford, I’m amazed I’d never gone out, and it was well worth the time.
Wolvercote Cemetery is perhaps a surprising setting for the burial of such a famous author. A few hundred metres from a busy roundabout leading into Oxford, and the Park and Ride, it represents quite an abrupt change from hectic noise to quiet and peacefulness. The cemetery itself is a beautiful location, though, and an incredibly interesting site for those interested in genealogy and local history. Clearly they’re aware of their most famous grave – a number of verge signs guide visitors towards Tolkien.
A word of warning though, or at least a polite request. This is very much still a functional cemetery, and many of the graves there are relatively new. Be aware that if you come as a tourist there will likely be people around who are there to grieve and process – act accordingly.
The grave itself is clearly well visited, and when I went to visit it was adorned with a number of flowers and coins from fans and well-wishers. Tolkien is buried with his wife Edith, and the gravestone bears the now-famous inscriptions of Beren and Luthien for the couple. Interestingly, Tolkien’s eldest son John is buried in the graveyard too, not far from his parents. It is worth remembering however, if you do decide to go and visit, that the cemetery is still very much in use with some very recent burials – there will probably be mourners present, and it’s important to bear that in mind and be respectful.
Tolkien’s works have had a profound impact on my life, and makes up a considerable part of my bookshelf. Beyond just an interest in fantasy, his work as an academic inspired my own current PhD research – when choosing a PhD project my only self-imposed restriction was that if Tolkien had still been alive, he would have been my supervisor.
Tolkien’s works have been at the center of a rather unpleasant debate of late, and one that I think needs addressing. In February the Tolkien Society announced the theme for its Summer Seminar – Diversity. This is an exceptionally good theme, and one central to Tolkien’s works. The perception and misuse of Race and Nationality are central themes, for example, and disability is frequently recurring. Moreover, questions about how Tolkien’s work is received among a diverse audience are also crucial – does a strong context in European/ ‘Anglo-Saxon’/ Scandinavian folklore and myth exclude certain readership? Do we engage with the texts we love in a different manner?
Despite the fruitful potential for discussion, this theme was met with some unfounded criticism online by people who think this is somehow spoiling a ‘pure’ art form. This is bollocks, of course. It’s part of a broader faux uproar that emerged when Amazon revealed it had cast non-White actors in its upcoming Middle Earth adaption, angering people who clearly think the text only belongs to White people. Not only does this fuss completely ignore the role of literary criticism in an academic context, it restricts and excludes people from enjoying a fantasy tale that has brought so many people happiness.
Crucial here is the notion that Tolkien is himself fallible. His works are exceptional, but the hero-worship around him shouldn’t restrict us from meaningful and constructive criticism of him and his works. I’d recommend the Alliance of Arda Facebook page as a great starting point to discuss and learn on this topic – their focus is on an intersectional approach to Tolkien’s work, especially in regard to race. Standing in front of Tolkien’s grave makes clear a number of strange realisations – this man is clearly a hero to many, as the gifts left at his side show, but in a cemetery surrounded by so much similar loss, we must not put Tolkien on so high a pedestal as not to question, query and criticise his work.