Wen in England: Tolkien and tea at Cambridge


Staff Columnist


As a member of Wellesley’s Class of 2015 and a native of Beijing, China, I am currently reading International Politics at The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. This column aims to give a feel of what life is like as a semester student at Cambridge. This week, I focus on extracurricular activities.


It was 7:00 p.m. and my first meeting at Cambridge University’s Tolkien Society. Conversations in the room revolved around The Hobbit and its recent film adaptation. At last, I had found my own little “niche,” with people who shared my interests, and I felt at home.

Among the society meetings I have been to, the Tolkien Society and the Tea Society have proven most interesting. The Tolkien Society hosts weekly meetings during which members discuss and debate about the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and his son, Christopher Tolkien. The society allows non-members to join discussions, but it requires members to pay a five-pound fee per academic year in order to gain access to all the publications and journals of the society. Members of the society submit articles or poems for each issue of the society’s main journal, Anor. Unsurprisingly, the name of the journal is a Lord of the Rings reference, the word “Anor” being the Elvish word for sun. Article topics range from explaining the linguistic origins of certain Middle Earth names to exploring the daily routines of dwarves to identifying real-world parallels in Tolkien’s imaginary Middle Earth world.

Weekly meetings include debates about various aspects of J.R.R. and Christopher Tolkien’s works and their movie portrayals. For instance, the topic for the first Society meeting I attended was The Desolation of Peter Jackson. The meeting took place shortly after the release of the movie, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” and members debated both the poor and praiseworthy aspects of the movie. The meeting lasted from 7:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m., though we didn’t spend all our time criticizing Jackson’s latest work. Conversations near the end of the night revolved around character development in the book.

I was astounded by the extent of Tolkien knowledge the society members possessed. I always considered myself a Tolkien nerd, but compared to people who can trace the family history of dwarves, can map every nook and cranny in Middle Earth geography, and know the etymology of Middle Earth vocabulary, my “nerdiness” can only be called elementary at best. Cambridge’s Tolkien Society has an annual competition with Oxford’s Tolkien Society, hosted in turn by the two universities. The competition is composed of a series of quizzes on Middle Earth history, geography, important characters and other details. The questions are mainly drawn from “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” and “The Simarilion.” This year, Cambridge’s Tolkien Society claimed victory over their rival!

Pembroke’s Tea Society, on the other hand, is much more relaxed compared to the zeal of the Tolkien Society. The Tea Society provides students with an excellent opportunity to taste a range of different teas, cakes and scones in a classic English afternoon tea environment. While the society also meets weekly, it differs from the Tolkien Society in that people who attend pay a one or two-pound fee per meeting to enjoy all the delectables the society has to offer.

Many Cambridge student organizations require a membership fee and function as “clubs” or “societies,” whereas most of Wellesley’s student organizations receive funding from the student activities fee and are free to join. At Wellesley, many organizations require regular attendance from their members. The Tolkien Society and the Tea Society do not compel their members to make that type of weekly commitment, and most other organizations at Cambridge function in a similar fashion. This extracurricular structure affords students flexibility that can prove immensely useful during times of heavy academic workload.

Lastly, students studying abroad at Cambridge for a semester can also join sports teams. Since most semester students do not live in housing owned by Pembroke College, but in housing owned by another college within Cambridge University, we can choose to join the sport teams of either Pembroke or another college that we live in, like Downing College or Corpus Christi College. Sports range from rugby to basketball to crew, which is known at Cambridge as rowing (and the people who row are called “boaties.”) Cambridge Riding Club allows students from all colleges to join for a 20 pound racecourse fee per trip. The range of sport opportunities offered by Cambridge and its various colleges is most definitely a highlight of life at Cambridge. Because Cambridge is a larger institution than Wellesley, students can enjoy the facilities of more than one college. This, in part, is one reason Cambridge offers a larger variety of sports and activities than Wellesley does. That being said, the weekly commitment of Wellesley extra-curricular activities fosters a sense of community and unity that is unique to its campus. Such community is rarer at Cambridge.


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