Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford undergraduate created Middle-earth

New 2022 edition of former Mythopoeic Award finalist – with additional information, insights and images, all on higher-quality paper in colour cover

Tolkien at Exeter College pages

‘A must-read for all Tolkien aficionados’ — Planet Narnia author Michael Ward

From peacetime into war, here is the definitive account of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life as an Oxford student, when he first created the Middle-earth mythology behind The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

With new discoveries and insights plus previously unseen Tolkien sketches, photos and manuscripts, Tolkien at Exeter College goes well beyond my briefer account of his college days in Tolkien and the Great War.

The first edition (2014) was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award for Scholarship 2015.

For more information, see below.

What readers and critics said about the first edition:

  • ‘Simply stashed with information and ideas that will be new to many aficionados – myself included!’ — Norse Myths author Kevin Crossley-Holland.
  • ‘They say good things come in small packages, and John Garth’s latest chronicle on the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien is a very good thing indeed. Like its predecessor ... it belongs on the bookshelf of every Tolkien scholar’ — Mythlore.
  • ‘A must-have for anyone seriously interested in Tolkien’s life and work.... with new discoveries and insights (and photographs). This new, short book is an excellent complement to the longer study (Tolkien and the Great War), and deepens our understanding of the origins of Tolkien’s lifelong work on The Silmarillion.’ —Holly Ordway, ‘The Best Books I Read in 2015’.
  • ‘What a Salmagundi of delight and instruction in its own right’ — David Llewellyn Dodds, editor and Arthurian scholar.
  • ‘In-depth and illuminating … Worth it for the images alone.’ — Falling Leaves book blogger Jenny at GoodReads.

Buy for UK delivery (£14.00)

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Buy for delivery elsewhere ($21, in US dollars)

68 pages including 250gsm colour cover; more than 45 black-and-white images on 115gsm silk-finish pages; 20,000 words. All prices include postage, packing and handling.


The birth of a legend: Tolkien at Exeter College

Garth Exon article 2015John Garth

(Article first published in Exeter’s Exon magazine in 2015; updated to reflect changes in 2022 edition.)

When you picture J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s probably as a member of Oxford’s Inklings, writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the 1930s and ’40s, or in old age when fame caught up with him in the 1960s. Yet he first wrote about Middle-earth in 1914–15 while studying at Exeter College, Oxford University. My 2003 book Tolkien and the Great War started a shift in interest towards the author’s early development. In Tolkien at Exeter College, published by the college in 2014, I return to focus tightly on his undergraduate years.

So how did Tolkien first strike his lifelong creative seam? It’s an unlikely and fascinating tale, involving Beowulf, Hiawatha, the outbreak of war, and – most crucial of all – the college library’s Finnish Grammar. We meet a fresh Tolkien – a classicist who nearly failed Mods; a socialite and slacker who climbed college walls, ‘hijacked’ a bus, and was arrested during a town-versus-gown confrontation. We see his fortunes transformed by an extraordinary sensitivity to language and by a yearning to imagine the dim unrecorded past.

With the help of a series of diverting sidebars, we also see him in context of an Oxford that is both familiar and unfamiliar. There are the student meetings which he recorded in inimitable style as secretary (including one prototypical epic of battle between order and chaos); and the parties and performances he attended. There is a shocking tragedy just a couple of flights of stairs from his room; and the official machinations which allowed him to switch from Classics to English. We meet the friends he gathered in a kind of proto-Inklings, and we follow them into the Great War.

At the same time we trace the invention of ‘Elvish’ and of the first Middle-earth hero, Eärendil the star mariner. And we hear of Tolkien’s return to the college as a Somme veteran to read aloud his first mythological epic of battle.

John Garth and Peter Jackson 2014I first spoke about Tolkien’s Exeter life at a Tolkien conference hosted by the college in 2006. In writing Tolkien at Exeter College, I enjoyed the amazing support of former Rector Frances Cairncross, who invited me to showcase my work at Founder’s Day and in the 2014 City Lecture. It was a delight to to broach Tolkien’s own college memorabilia at the Bodleian Library, and to revisit the college archives with the assistance of archivist Penny Baker and librarian Joanne Bowring. When Sir Peter Jackson came to Oxford to give a lecture in 2015, it was my privilege to show those archives to him (right) and his partner Fran.

By the kindness of the college, the Tolkien Trust, and some hardcore Tolkien collectors, I’ve been able to include in Tolkien at Exeter College a wealth of rare archival images – some previously unseen, including a 1911 matriculation line-up, photo of Tolkien in action on the rugby pitch, and his own sketches of Exeter College Hall and Broad Street.

The new 2022 edition includes new information not available in 2014 as well as new insights and new images of Tolkien and friends. The text has been carefully revised and higher-quality sources have been found for several key images. All these improvements reflect my own additional archival research as well as material first seen in the official Tolkien exhibitions at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and Morgan Library in New York, 2018–20.

We have moved to perfect binding, added a colour cover, and given a silk finish to the inside pages for better image quality. With input and advice from the college’s head of communications, Matthew Baldwin, I have completely redesigned the cover and made judicious improvements to the original design and layout for every page.

Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth was a finalist for the prestigious 2015 Mythopoeic Award for Scholarship (won by Tolkien and the Great War in 2004).


The Worlds of
J.R.R. Tolkien

UK hardback
John Garth – The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien

US hardback
John Garth – The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien

To buy in French, Russian, Czech, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Hungarian, German, or another language
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Tolkien and
the Great War

UK paperback/ebook
John Garth Writer Tolkien And The Great War

US paperback/ebook
Tolkien and the Great War HMH

Audiobook read by
John Garth

Amazon UK, Audible UK,
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Tolkien at
Exeter College

Garth, Tolkien at Exeter College

© John Garth 2006