Crikey intern Alexandra Patrikios writes: Sure, Frodo and Sam may have trekked all the way from The Shire to Mount Doom, but as far as epic journeys go, I can go one better. As a young girl I made the journey from Melbourne to Oxford, by way of Wellington, all to catch a glimpse of a real-life hobbit.
The year was 2003: Pluto was still a planet, Howard was prime minister, and Tatu were in the charts. It was an exciting time to be alive.
Mere months before the beginning of the New Year, I’d lined up for two hours just to score good seats for a little independent arthouse flick known as Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Captivated by the mythological lore of Middle Earth (as well as, I very reluctantly confess, the satiny skin of Orlando Bloom), I fell in love with a film franchise shot just a quick hop, skip and jump across the pond. Over the proceeding weeks, I made it my sole undertaking to nag and pester my dad so we could go to the Land of the Long White Cloud and try to spot Gandalf’s pointy hat poking through the mist.
Miraculously, my plan worked. But when I arrived in Wellington, brimming with youthful enthusiasm, things took a turn for the worse. We’d traversed the city all morning — itself not unlike a slightly bedraggled, less well-groomed San Francisco — searching for the exhibition centre, and when we eventually found it, the delay had only trebled my excitement.
That’s when it all went horribly wrong. As Tanya, the chirpy receptionist informed us, we were too late — the Lord of the Rings exhibit had flown to Singapore the day before. Noting my distraught expression, she feebly offered up a glossy brochure, adding “this has lots of good pictures.”
It was years before I worked up the courage to fly overseas again on the wings of an adolescent obsession. This time it was off to England, and the bustling streets of Oxford.
Second time round, I made sure I did my research. In amongst the cobbled streets and cottage facades, I searched for a very special tavern.
The pub in question was ‘The Eagle and Child’, known simply to the locals as ‘The Bird and Baby’, famed as a regular haunt of a one J.R.R Tolkien. With its creamy, rendered exterior and hanging wrought-iron sign, it’s the kind of place you’d expect to serve offal and beans, with a ruddy-faced barmaid to keep the ale flowing throughout the afternoon. The front rooms were smoky little wooden-panelled dens, one occupied by a rather grisly truck driver, the other a bleach-blonde woman — not exactly Merry and Pippin, but close enough.
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Walking through the dark hall, the floor opened up to the central bar, lounge and obligatory pub fireplace, crackling away audibly. Mounted inconspicuously above the hearth is a small plaque, the neat lines of cursory text slightly faded. It’s what I’d come for and, judging by the bespectacled young boy lingering nearby, I wasn’t the only one.
We’d found it. Nerd mecca.
On that very spot, every Tuesday morning during term, select members of the Oxford literati would congregate to discuss fiction, fantasy and the healing properties of Guinness. Amongst the better known members of the club were C.S Lewis and his friend, J.R.R Tolkien. Discussions ranged from the members’ own works, to intellectual debates on antiquity and literature, to the woefully overwrought prose of the Amanda McKittrick Ros.
(Here’s an excerpt from Irene Iddesleigh, just to give you a rough idea of what they were up against:
“Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”)
As I sank into the black leather booth, it gave the tell-tale squeak of plastic imitation. Looking around, I spotted flecks of paint stooping away from the wall, and in a far corner, a family of daddy long-legs appeared to be settling down for the winter.
But no number of watery tomato soup could dilute my excitement — it may have taken me three years, but I’d finally found my Middle Earth.