Realms of fiction

Wild flowers seen from ground level

The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien – The Places That Inspired Middle-Earth

John Garth, Frances Lincoln, 208 pages, £25

Authors have always imagined alternative universes, but in the bulging gazetteer of authorial Erewhons, from the transient town of Abaton via Atlantis, Earthsea and Hogwarts to Zyundal in the Isles of Wisdom, none attract such obsessive attention as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Tolkien’s creation is uniquely satisfying to so many because of the grandeur of his imagination, and his ability to suggest huge regions and arcs of ‘history’ in simple phraseology, a legacy of long immersion in laconic Anglo-Saxon and early medieval texts. His maps of Middle-Earth, with their humped mountains, trackless greenwoods and incomprehensible distances, are made feel real by descriptive detail. Magically-maintained domains, erstwhile empires, slighted monuments, blasted battlefields and exhausting exertion are evoked artfully in shapes of hills, bends in roads, biting midges, bumps that once were walls, monoliths marking now-nameless monarchs, the dazzling towers of Minas Tirith, the tiny turf-flowers of Rohan, and the outsized thorns that cling desperately to the scrabbly sides of Mordor’s Mountains of Shadow.

Obsessive philology also lent a sense of authenticity to Tolkien’s toponymy, suggesting linguistic evolution and hybridisation over long periods, as in real European place-names. Every word of his ‘languages’ is thought about, every accent and circumflex. Tolkien was, and is, accused of infantilism, but such jibes scant his scholarship, and the adult emotions that suffuse his child-friendly corpus – acute awareness of history’s contingency, the friableness of foundations, the indispensability of legend. Tolkien was a sensitive thinker and an unusually creative conservative, who happened to express a wistful worldview in an original and uniquely accessible way. He wanted to “rekindle an old light in the world”, to make mythology for a Mass Man century – especially England, whose lack of an autochthonous origin-tale always troubled him.

John Garth has written excellently on Tolkien’s formative wartime experiences (Tolkien and the Great War, 2003). He now brings near-nerdish knowledge to bear on other parts of Tolkien’s thought-universe, investigating other influences that mould Middle-Earth, and lend layers to its legendarium. We start, like Bilbo Baggins, in The Shire, go on to Tolkien’s central preoccupations, then explore seas, mountains, waterways and forests, before ending in the world of men, with their crafts, industries, ruins and wars. The mythopoeiac arena is ingeniously anchored to earth. Garth’s book is in many ways a parlour-game, but a parlour-game of significance. The slightness of the genre belies the resonance of the stories.

The Shire is a distillation of England, but especially the West Midlands. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, but left forever at the age of three, living first in Sarehole in Worcestershire (now Warwickshire), five miles from Birmingham. “Brum” in 1896 was much smaller, and Sarehole still tranquil, its roads traversed by horse and cart, its nights still starry. “I loved it with an intensity of love that was a kind of nostalgia reversed”, Tolkien recalled decades afterwards. He also claimed, “I always knew it would go – and it did” – which, if true, was remarkably astute, as he left Sarehole for Birmingham at just eight.

Undoubtedly the village’s ambience and landmark mill (still standing), and the wooded tracts of nearby Moseley Bog seeped into his 1920s visualisation of The Shire, and the folk-horror Old Forest immediately to its east. But there was a much broader vision of a reassuring polity, a realm of rich soils, comfortable assumptions, and settled yeomanry, which yet was studded with reminders of ancient alarums, old occupations, and pleasingly far-off potential dangers.

Garth discerns the market-gardening Vale of Evesham, the mellow Malvern hills, prosperous Gloucestershire, the silent but significant standing stones and white horses of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, still-used Roman roads, and the wild hills of Wales visible in the blued distance (Tolkien was fascinated by Welsh). He also finds trace-elements of more surprising places, including Staffordshire, Warwick and the low-lying East Riding of Yorkshire. The Old Forest’s presiding spirit, Tom Bombadil, was originally a wooden doll, a family toy, while the famous Boffin’s Bakery in Oxford acted as yeast when surnaming one Shire sept. Tolkien’s England was to him a kind of ‘Elfland’, and the Shire both Everyshire and Noshire, simultaneously parochial and perilous.

Tolkien was well acquainted with classical lore (Atlantis becomes overmighty Númenor, Caesar’s Hercynian Forest, Mirkwood), but was magnetized to “the nameless North”, devouring Anglo-Saxon, Finnish, Germanic, Gothic, Icelandic and Viking language and literature. Although the Elves are essentially ‘Celtic’ (resembling the Irish Áes Sídhe, or ‘People of the Mounds’), their tongue is based largely on Finnish, in whose un-Indo-European exoticness Tolkien took recondite delight. His epically ambitious Silmarillion, about the origins of Middle-Earth, leans heavily on Finland’s verse-epic, the Kalevala. The dragons, dwarves, fire-demons, goblins, orcs, trolls, wights and wodewoses that populate his pages are derived from hyperboreal lore, like Beowulf, the Heimskringla and Nibelungenlied – while his giant spiders and terrifying night-riders stem from even more atavistic sources. (The toddler Tolkien was bitten by a tarantula, and retained a filmic image of running terrified to his nurse, who sucked out the venom.)

Tolkien’s interest in the American west is too little appreciated. The young author adored ‘Red Indian’ stories, and later read voraciously on indigenous languages and Indian-European contacts. Garth detects Amerindian echoes in the skin-clad self-sufficiency of the wild men of Drúadan Forest, Hiawathan stoicism in Éarendel, the tragic death of Minnehaha in Túrin’s equally waterfall-besotted sister Nienor, and of the Inuit in the Lossoth of Beleriand’s far North.

The East is ill-famed in Tolkien’s compass – the direction of Mordor, and a general source of bitter winds and unease – but he dug avidly in the Near East for ideas. Babylonian and Egyptian legends, the travels of Alexander, and the Old Testament all seep into his saga of Númenor, with its Semitic-Akkadian inspired language, hubristic and long-lived kings, Assyrian-style architecture, and eventual angry sweeping away, an epochal disaster from which only the righteous Elendil escapes, flying before the Flood like Noah.

The sea is scarcely seen in Lord of the Rings, except eventually as the final road for Frodo and Gandalf, for whom the Third Age has ended, and Middle-Earth no longer enough. But it is omnipresent as an unsettling zephyr, an inchoate longing that reaches far inland and into the fattest hobbit’s heart, hinting at escape and rest – a highway to the Undying West, as the Atlantic was for Celts. Elves are always passing through, taking ship for another region, as Arthur left for Avalon. The sea is more obvious in other works, Tolkien being unfailingly interested in Irish navigators, the saga of Vinland, polar explorers, and foundered lands factual and fanciful. Garth daringly suggests ‘hobbit’ may stem from a Yorkshire folk-tale about a sea-cave goblin, Hob-Hole Hob.

Mountains bulk massively in Tolkien’s geomancy – barren, beautiful, fencing enemies in or out, forbidding, terrifying, toilsome, wild. It is surprising to learn that his visionary peaks were largely derived from a single 1911 walking holiday in the Swiss Alps. Mordor’s volcanic crucible Mount Doom also borrows from his fascination with “tormented hills” (its thunderous noises reminiscent of artillery bombardments), while Helm’s Deep’s caves resemble those at Cheddar, seen by the Tolkiens on their honeymoon. Rivers from the Rhine via Oxford’s Cherwell and tiny Yorkshire becks are tributaries of his Anduin the Great, or the Shire’s modest Brandywine – powerful or homely, dangerous or soothing, barriers or thresholds, life-givers or death-bringers.

Tolkien’s trees are especially alive, with Elves, outsize arachnids, butterflies, white harts, squirrels and tree-spirits coexisting amid a tangle of leaves and lore. Catholicism plus patriotism may have given Tolkien especial empathy with the oak – emblematic tree of England, in one of which Charles II hid after the Battle of Worcester. (The ‘hidden king’ motif is central to Lord of the Rings, personified by Aragorn, the ragged ranger in the Wild who is secret heir to Gondor.) The shell-shocked author watched his wife dancing in a forest glade in 1917, and translated that fey vision into the meeting of the doomed lovers, Beren and Lúthien (which names are carved on the real-life couple’s gravestone). There are parallels between the golden forest of Lórien, and the silver-leaved paradise of the Middle English poem, Pearl. For Tolkien, trees were antidote to almost everything, symbolising The Hobbit’s world “when there was less noise, and more green”. The Ents’ later overthrow of Isengard was the trees’ (and Tolkien’s) revenge on the hideous world of machines.

Garth returns to World War I – how the death of friends darkened Tolkien’s perspective, how flamethrowers, gas and tanks oddly augmented the ingenious arsenals of Morgoth and Sauron, how The Somme transmuted into the Dead Marshes before Mordor’s Black Gate. He ventures onto much shakier ground to suggest that Tolkien’s industrially bustling Birmingham may not have been a Mordor-in-the-making, but actually inspiring with its Gothic Revival public buildings, and as a locus of Arts and Crafts artisanship. The idea is undeveloped, but even if true, it seems an unimportant contraindication of a more consistent outlook – one that posits a chivalric, colourful, communitarian, and more ecological order for a world sorely in need of such.

It is Tolkien’s ability to be at once radically nostalgic and emotionally uplifting that has made his oeuvre so perennially popular, offering jaded writers (and Westerners) a respite from ugly realities. Escaping through pleasing fictions is not always a responsible course, for us any more than it would have been for Tolkien’s heroes, but to many it feels like the most irresistible kind of waste-of-time. Critics will continue to cavil, and snobs will always sneer – but even this erudite and exhaustive exploration of Tolkien’s so-compelling creation is unlikely to be the last.

This review first appeared in the March 2021 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

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