06 April 2016

A pilgrimage to Tolkien's grave

When I left Rome to spend Holy Week in Scotland, I intended to return to Rome on Easter Monday to finish working on my thesis. I had just submitted what I hoped was a nearly final draft of the thesis - with the title of "Order and Age: Confirmation in the Present Legislation of the Latin Church" - to my director and expected him to have many corrections, changes, and recommendations. To my delight, he made only a couple of grammatical corrections, offered two suggestions I was free to incorporate or not, and told me it was ready for submission without his further review.

To celebrate the completion of my thesis, I changed my travel plans and took the train from Edinburgh to London with the sole purpose of visiting the grave of the man Tom Shippey calls "the Chr├ętien de Troyes of the twentieth century," J.R.R. Tolkien.

Eight days ago I boarded the train from London to Oxford, but not before buying a bouquet of flowers to lay at his grave:

After the train pulled into the station, I spent some time wandering about the famous university city, making good use of The Tolkien Society's helpful guide, "Tolkien in Oxford" to find a couple of the houses in which the Tolkiens lived and to visit the Bodleian Library, which houses some of Tolkien's original art.

Because I wanted this to be a real pilgrimage, I set out on foot from the center of Oxford and made my way past The Eagle and Child out to Wolvercote Cemetery, some three miles from city center.

Google maps told me that after I turned left at the intersection where the cemetery began, I would find the entrance to the cemetery on the right. When I arrived at the gate, I saw this sign:

If you can't make out the altered closing time for Monday - Thursday, it has been changed to 2:00. I stood before the sign at about 3:30 p.m. and my heart sank; I had arrived too late and wouldn't be able to visit the grave of the man I revere so highly. But then I read the sign more closely and realized there must be another gate that was still open.

As I made my way back towards the intersection, I asked a woman who appeared to be a local where the main entrance to the cemetery was. She directed me to return to the intersection where I turned left and to make a left turn; the entrance would immediately be on the left. She was right:

My heart rose as I passed through the gate and I chuckled a bit when I saw the first sign pointing the way to the grave of Professor and Mrs. Tolkien:

The cemetery itself was smaller than I expected it would be and was rather charming, as far as cemeteries go:

My happiness deepened as I passed one sign after another for the Tolkiens' grave (nine in total, if I counted correctly until I passed the last sign which, for an unknown reason, was on the opposite side of the footpath as the other signs:

At long last, I reached the goal of my pilgrimage, a pilgrimage I had wanted to make for many years:

Many tokens of affection had been left for The Professor, from marbles to coins to flowers. There was a receipt from The Eagle and Child and a letter written by an American student studying at Oxford. In the letter (which was not in an envelope) was written on my birthday, the author expressed well the sentiments of my heart:
...I wish I could have known you. I wish I could have shook your hand and told you how much your writing has meant to me. And how it breaks my heart to know that this is as close to you as I will ever come in this life. For death is not the end, but only a beginning.

As strange as it might be, I feel somehow like I know you. Your stories of Middle-earth have broken and mended my heart.... I look forward to the day when I can meet you in glory and tell you just how much you've changed the world you left behind.
After placing my small token of affection at his grave, I told The Professor how has writings have affected me, especially his letters.

As I expressed my gratitude to Tolkien as best I could, my heart was filled with so great a joy that tears flowed uncontrollably down my cheeks; I was easily as happy as a boy on Christmas morning because one of my greatest hopes had been achieved. As I wept tears of joy, I remembered the words Tolkien gave to Gandalf: "I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil" (The Lord of the Rings, 6.VIII). I prayed that two of us may meet merrily in heaven where, as Tolkien said, "the presence of the great [him] does not depress the small [me]" (On Fairy Stories).

Having brought my favorite beverage with me on my little pilgrimage (all the way from London), I raised a toast to "The Professor" as some of us do on Tolkien's birthday.

I stayed at his grave for about forty-five minutes and the thought arose in my heart that I did not want to leave without having my picture taken at the grave. At about this same moment, a man who had been meticulously cleaning a nearby grave appeared ready to leave the cemetery. I approached him and asked apologetically if he would be willing to take my picture at nearby grave. He kindly agreed to do so (I suspect he'd been asked many times over the years):

I didn't catch his name before he left, but I went over to look at the headstone to which he gave such loving care:

I can only presume that Miss Druce is his sister. Please, out of gratitude for the simple kindness he showed me, please remember him and Miss Druce in your prayers.

As I made my way from the Tolkiens' grave to cemetery entrance, a man asked me if I knew where Tolkien's grave us. He was asking for a husband and wife and their daughter. I assured them they were very close and took them to the grave. As Providence would have it, they were Americans and Tolkien's grave was their last stop on their vacation in England before they returned to the U.S. the next day. I bumped into them a couple more times in Oxford later that evening.

Because by that time my feet were growing sore, I took the bus from the cemetery back to Oxford where I had an early dinner of fish and chips at The Eagle and Child, where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Inklings met so frequently:


All in all, it was a day I won't soon forget and I'm very grateful for having been allowed to visit the grave of the man whose writings have so deeply touched my heart.

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