Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

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Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Tolkien at Exeter College


Goodreads: Tolkien at Exeter College
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2020


John Garth provides in-depth biographical detail about J. R. R. Tolkien’s undergrad years at Exeter College.

Star Divider


At 64 pages and bound more like a brochure than a book, Tolkien at Exeter College is a concise overview of J. R. R. Tolkien’s undergrad years, perfect for those readers who always long to know more about one of their literary heroes. It works as a supplement to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, which focuses on how WWI shaped Tolkien’s literary works, and so does not dwell at length on Tolkien’s time in school. The stories of Tolkien’s undergrad social life are amusing, but the wealth of images, including sketches by Tolkien, will be the key attraction for many Tolkien fans.

Because Tolkien at Exeter College focuses on only a few year’s in the author’s life, the book admittedly may not be for casual Tolkien fans. They may want to start with a book like Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, which attempts to cover Tolkien’s entire life, or with Garth’s own Tolkien and the Great War, which combines biography with astute literary analysis. However, for those who already know a good deal about Tolkien’s life, but always wondered more about his early days, Tolkien at Exeter College is a treasure indeed.

The focus here is not really on Tolkien’s authorial development, although some of his sketches, as well as some of his writings for his school’s clubs are included. Notable is his account of a meeting that he recounts in a satirical manner, as if it were an epic battle. But readers should not hope to find much about Middle-earth or Hobbits here. That is largely in the future. Rather, they can enjoy learning more about Tolkien’s personality–he really more sociable, and more wild, than the famous photo of him smoking a pipe in his older years might suggest.

Tolkien at Exeter College will be welcomed by any reader who can never get enough of Tolkien. It deals with a small interlude in Tolkien’s life, but the detail it uncovers is precisely the kind treasured by avid fans. John Garth does an excellent job of drawing attention to a period in Tolkien’s life that not all biographers are interested in addressing, more concerned as they are with Tolkien’s work on Midlde-earth.

4 stars

2 thoughts on “Tolkien at Exeter College by John Garth

  1. Jenna @ Falling Letters says:

    I enjoyed this one quite a bit as well. As you note, it was something of a treat to read about Tolkien’s personality in his younger days! It was also an interesting exercise for me to reflect on my time as undergraduate in comparison with his. The anecdote about stealing a bus was my favourite, I think.


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