This is Tolkien’s Oxford: a map of Middle Earth. I first find him beneath the Bridge of Sighs. Behind the bridge’s glass panes, Tolkien glimpses the willow-light of Rivendell. Arwen and Aragorn lean towards one another under the awning, murmuring in Sindarin.
I follow the professor of Anglo-Saxon past the door of the Bodleian Library with its taffy-colored crests of vanilla stags, pomegranate phoenixes, and blueberry wolves. We stroll down Brasenose Lane, past the butterscotch-and-tea walls of Exeter College, where, as an undergraduate, he first met Beowulf, Sigfried, and the dwarves Durin, Dvalin, and Dain. As we turn south, smoke-woven sunlight canopies the path, and the tinfoil-crinkle of magpie melodies follows us through the trees. Toast-gold in the sunshine, the towers of Merton College are stacked behind high walls. Merton’s professor sees the outlines of Gondor sketched over the towers, ramparts, and arrow-slit windows.
Behind ancient stone, Lothlorien grows. A branch of unwithered spring blossoms in bitter December. Though my cheeks are scalded by the chill, blooms unfold like dawn over the wall. Under the Magdalen Bridge, Lothlorien’s skiffs await two hobbits, but only dapple-feathered geese ruffle the waters.
As daylight’s blades slant against the cobblestones, dulling to a steely twilight, Tolkien crosses Saint Giles to The Eagle & Child.
The pub burrows deep into a warren of brick chambers with low roof-beams. Wood-paneled pockets hold booths and benches. In one of these snug dens, the Inklings will be waiting for him. Tolkien orders at a bar the color of spilt stout. In the varnish of syrupy cider and flat ale, he finds hobbit footprints tracing a tipsy jig across the planks. As he sinks into the booth, the dented leather exhales the savor of toasted oatcakes and late autumn cider. Elbows on the table, he leans closer to a candle caught in a glass jar like a sparrow-sized firefly.
As night slips through keyholes and buttonholes, Tolkien walks to the Thames. From a stone bridge, he greets the Evening Star. Rising from the mother-of-pearl horizon, she blisters bright as Eärendil.