The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth; by John Garth; Princeton University Press; 208 pp., $29.95
Authors have always imagined alternate 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 imagined history in simple phraseology. His ability came from long immersion in laconic Anglo-Saxon and early medieval texts.
The imaginative maps of Middle-earth, with their humped mountains, trackless greenwoods, and incomprehensible distances, are made to feel real by Tolkien’s descriptive detail. Magically maintained domains, erstwhile empires, slighted monuments, blasted battlefields, and exhausting exertion are evoked artfully in the shapes of hills, bends in roads, biting midges, and 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 to the scrabbly sides of Mordor’s Mountains of Shadow further advance the mental picture of otherworldliness.
Obsessive philology also lent a sense of authenticity to Tolkien’s toponymy, suggesting linguistic evolution and hybridization over long periods, as in real European place-names. Every word of his “languages” is thought about, down to every accent and circumflex.
Tolkien was, and is, accused of infantilism, but such gibes 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. A sensitive thinker and an unusually creative conservative, Tolkien expressed 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 in 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 molded Middle-earth.
We start, like Bilbo Baggins, in The Shire, and go on to Tolkien’s central preoccupations, exploring seas, mountains, waterways, and forests, before ending in the world of men, with their crafts, industries, ruins, and wars. The mythopoeic arena is ingeniously anchored to earth. Garth’s book is in many ways a parlor game, but a significant one. 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, South Africa, but left forever at the age of three, living first in Sarehole in Worcestershire (now Warwickshire), five miles from Birmingham, colloquially known as “Brum.” In 1896, the city was much smaller, and Sarehole still a tranquil hamlet, 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 years old.
Undoubtedly the village’s ambience and landmark mill (still standing), and the wooded tracts of nearby Moseley Bog seeped into his 1920s visualization of The Shire, and the folk horror of the 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 the Welsh language). 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 Tolkien 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, morphing Atlantis into overmighty Númenor, and transforming Caesar’s Hercynian Forest into Mirkwood. But he 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 (“wildmen” in Middle English) 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 underappreciated. 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 is 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 ships for other regions, 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 the word “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.
Likewise, rivers from the Rhine via Oxford’s Cherwell and tiny Yorkshire becks are tributaries of Tolkien’s Anduin the Great, or the Shire’s modest Brandywine—dangerous or soothing, barriers or thresholds, life-givers or death-bringers.
For Tolkien, trees were an antidote to almost everything, symbolizing The Hobbit’s world “when there was less noise, and more green.” Catholicism plus patriotism may have given Tolkien special empathy with the oak, an emblematic tree of England, in one of which Charles II hid after the Battle of Worcester. The motif of the “hidden king” remains central to Lord of the Rings, personified by Aragorn, the ragged ranger in the Wild who is the secret heir to Gondor.
Tolkien’s trees are especially alive in his writings, with Elves, outsized arachnids, butterflies, white harts, squirrels, and tree-spirits coexisting amid a tangle of leaves and lore. 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, whose names are carved on the real-life couple’s gravestone. There are also parallels between the golden forest of Lórien, and the silver-leaved paradise of the Middle English poem Pearl. Even the Ents’ later overthrow of Isengard was the trees’ (and Tolkien’s) revenge on the hideous world of industrial machines.
Garth returns to World War I, describing how the death of friends darkened Tolkien’s perspective, how flamethrowers, gas, and tanks augmented the ingenious arsenals of Morgoth and Sauron, how the Battle of the Somme transmuted into the Dead Marshes before Mordor’s Black Gate. He ventures onto much shakier ground, however, upon suggesting that Tolkien’s industrially bustling Birmingham may not have been a Mordor-in-the-making, but an inspiration instead, 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, colorful, 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 time wasting. Critics will continue to cavil, and snobs will always sneer—but even this erudite and exhaustive exploration of Tolkien’s compelling creation is unlikely to be the last.