Buy your copy of Tolkien at Exeter College here

‘Simply stashed with information and ideas that will be new to many aficionados – myself included!’ — Kevin Crossley-Holland, author of The Norse Myths, the Arthur trilogy, and much else.

What kind of a man could invent Middle-earth while still a student? Find out in Tolkien at Exeter College, the definitive account of Tolkien’s Oxford undergraduate life from peacetime into the First World War. Going beyond my briefer account of his college days in Tolkien and the Great War, this later book also includes previously unseen Tolkien sketches and photos. Want to know more? Read the background article below.

  • Tolkien at Exeter College pagesFinalist for the Mythopoeic Award for Scholarship 2015.
  • ‘A must-read for all Tolkien aficianados’ — Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia.
  • ‘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.
  • ‘Rich in surprises and discoveries … a recommended read for all Tolkien fans interested particularly in the genesis of Middle-earth’ —

Buy for UK delivery (£8.70)

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64 pages. 40+ black-and-white images. Prices include postage, packing and handling.


The birth of a legend: Tolkien at Exeter College

Garth Exon article 2015(Updated version of my article in Exeter’s Exon magazine in 2015.)

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.

Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth - coverWith 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, a photo of Tolkien haring up the rugby pitch, and his own sketches of Exeter College Hall and Broad Street. Matt Baldwin in the Development Office has laid it all out beautifully.

Tolkien at Exeter College: How an Oxford Undergraduate Created Middle-earth (64pp) was a finalist in the prestigious 2015 Mythopoeic Awards 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
see links here

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,
Audible US

To buy in Italian, German, French, Spanish or Polish,
see links here

Tolkien at
Exeter College

Garth, Tolkien at Exeter College

© John Garth 2006