Earlier this month the folks at Princeton University Press released a book by John Garth detailing the locations that likely inspired different aspects of JRR Tolkien’s imagination and writings. Sometimes it feels like about-Tolkien books are a dime a dozen, so I’ve waited to move on this one until some reviews came in. A recent article on the UnHerd platform by Niall Gooch helped me hit the “purchase” button. Here are a couple of my favorite selections from the essay (no real quotes from the book, just about Tolkien’s life and writing). The first concerns hobbits in light of Tolkien’s posthumously published Roverandom:
In this respect it foreshadows the creation of hobbits, who closely resemble rural Englishmen and women of Tolkien’s early life. They are extremely insular in a good-natured way, fond of ale and soil, and enjoy a peaceful, complacent existence under the barely-necessary authority of sheriffs and mayors. And yet, the Shire is a little enclave of quiet normality in a vast and dangerous world of magic and mystery.
Everywhere the hobbits move in Middle Earth, they are moving through the ruins of an ancient and decayed civilisation, inhabited by all kinds of dark creatures. It is stressed several times in The Lord Of The Rings that the hobbits’ lifestyle is maintained only by the vigilance and sacrifice of others outside their borders. Even the hobbits’ own history hints that their bucolic idyll is brought at a high price and is part of a much wilder and harder world — it tells of attacks by goblins and wolves. As Aragorn says to the landlord of The Prancing Pony in nearby Bree, there are enemies within a day’s march who would chill their blood.
And then on the gap in England’s mythical history:
Tolkien saw a gap in England’s pre-history. There is English folklore. However, this tends to be local and on a rather small scale. There are Hengist and Horsa, the legendary first Anglo-Saxons to lead an expedition to our shores, but nothing with the grandeur and drama of the sagas mentioned above. Tolkien planned to fill in the gaps before Hengist and Horsa with a highly-developed imaginary world that harked back to a time of elves and fairies.
Some early versions of the Middle Earth stories use a framing device of a traveller to an enchanted land, which turns out to be an antique and otherworldly Britain inhabited by the Elves who were the predecessors to the human inhabitants. Indeed, a great deal of the Tolkienian fiction not linked to Middle Earth has a similar setting: a kind of uncanny fantasy England, where people are called Tom and Bob and have village greens and summer fetes, but where dragons are in the offing and towering mountain ranges full of bizarre creatures loom on the horizon. Smith of Wootton Major, Leaf By Niggle and Farmer Giles Of Ham all have this kind of atmosphere.
One of the things I like about The Silmarillion and things like Tolkien’s letters is that you get a sense of the bigger picture. I’m looking forward to that here, too. Plus it looks like it has lots of maps!