Tolkien’s Shire: From Middle England to Middle-earth – People, Places & Past Times.

Sarehole as Hobbiton:

J.R.R. Tolkien lived near Sarehole Mill as a child in what was then a Worcestershire village and is now part of the Hall Green district of Birmingham. Together with the neighbouring Moseley Bog, the Sarehole area inspired the Tolkien stories of Middle-earth.

Above: A painting of the scenic countryside that inspired Tolkien’s ‘Shire’ for a leaflet accompanying a guided walk. The tour begins at the traditional Eighteenth-Century water mill. They can also explore the woodland and Moseley Bog, passing Tolkien’s childhood home.

Above: There has been a mill on this site since 1542, but the current building dates from the mid-18th century. The mill has connections with Matthew Boulton, who leased Sarehole Mill between 1756 and 1761 and used it as a ‘flatting mill’, producing sheet metal used for button manufacturing. In the 1850s, a steam engine was installed, and a chimney was built.

The Tolkien Trail – Late Victorian & Edwardian Birmingham.

Birmingham’s diverse industrial base made it a serious rival to Manchester as England’s second city in the later nineteenth century. The Corporation gained a reputation for its municipal enterprise and public works, including one of the country’s most extensive urban tramway systems. On the map above of Birmingham in 1885, you can see how the tramways were at first drawn by horses, then gradually replaced by motorised trams by the end of the century. The grimy, haphazard industrial inner city was soon surrounded by a ring of public parks in the rapidly expanding suburbs. Despite its reputation as a factory city, Birmingham has always had more trees than people.

Ronald’s parents, Arthur and Mabel Tolkien were originally from Birmingham but had emigrated to South Africa to further Arthur’s career in banking. Their two sons were born there. Following Arthur’s sudden death in 1895, the family settled in the hamlet of Sarehole, where they lived for four years. In 1900 they moved to a house on the Alcester Road in Moseley, from where Ronald took a tram to King Edward’s School in New Street in the city centre. The family soon moved again to Westfield Road in Kings Heath and then to Ladywood near the Catholic Oratory church. Mabel, a recent convert to Catholicism, was diagnosed as diabetic. Though she drew strength from her new faith, she died in 1904.

KEY TO MAIN MAP: (1) Tolkien’s first home, 264 Wake Green Road, (2) Sarehole Mill, (3) Moseley Bog, (4) Cole Valley, (5) The Oratory, (6) Perrot’s Folley/ Edgbaston waterworks tower, (7) Highfield Road/ Plough & Harrow Hotel, (8) King Edward’s School, (9) the University of Birmingham,
(10) Library of Birmingham/ repertory Theatre (Gamgee plaque).

For four happy years, Ronald Tolkien grew up, together with his younger brother Hilary, in what was still, then, rural Worcestershire, just to the south of the expanding suburbs of Birmingham, including Hall Green. Following his father’s death in South Africa, his mother returned to Birmingham to rent a cottage in Sarehole, a small hamlet with an old mill, on which Tolkien later based the village of Hobbiton. He later said that the hamlet was where he spent the happiest years of his youth. Memories of his country childhood coloured much of his later writing. The brothers spent many hours exploring around the mill and being chased off by the miller’s son. Nearby Moseley Bog became his Old Forest of Middle-earth. The contemporary painting of Sarehole Mill (below) shows how it would have looked from their home across Wake Green Road, and the Ivy Bush provided the basis for the Tavern in Chapter One of The Lord of the Rings, where Gaffer Gamgee ‘held forth’. A little towards the city centre in Edgbaston is Perrott’s Folly tower (left), considered the model for at least one of The Two Towers.

Further out into Worcestershire, Ronald and Hilary enjoyed exploring the ClentLickey and Malvern Hills, which would later inspire scenes in his books, along with nearby towns and villages such as BromsgroveAlcester, and Alvechurch, and places such as his aunt Jane’s farm Bag End, used in his fiction.

Mabel Tolkien taught her two children at home. Ronald, as he was known in the family, was a keen pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany and awakened in him the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. Young Tolkien liked to draw landscapes and trees, but his favourite lessons were those concerning languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin very early.

Reality, Re-imagination and Fantasy:

National Geographic’s documentary film Beyond the Movie – Lord of the Rings (2001) features footage from Peter Jackson’s first film of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, and some insightful interviews with the son of Tolkien’s publisher, Rayner Unwin, and with some of the cast, crew and film-makers. The documentary provides more detail about these locations and poses thought-provoking questions about the historical, geographical and folklore background for those who want to go beyond the fanciful film. The filmmakers faced a significant challenge in reimagining and locating Hobbiton in the very different landscapes of New Zealand. They were, perhaps, more successful in recreating the book’s representation of the epic struggle between good and evil and, in it, Tolkien’s reflections on the events of the early twentieth century, though not, as his friend C. S. Lewis testified, as in any sense allegorical of them. The documentary deals with Tolkien’s real-life roots and scenic memories from childhood on the rural outskirts of Birmingham. The true greatness of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is to be found in its exploration of the changing realities of a world being made modern rather than simply venturing into the realm of fairy tales, ancient myths and languages, however fascinating. It is therefore difficult to categorise the trilogy simply as ‘fantasy literature.’ Like much of the best late Victorian and early Edwardian literature, Tolkien’s works draw on the realities of contemporary rural life at a time of immense social change. Doing so reflects a re-imagination of those realities forged with folk traditions. 

The DVD cover. There are two further sections which are well worth viewing: The Anglo-Saxons (inc. Beowulf) and Karelia & Elvish.

Following their mother’s death, Ronald and Hilary remained in the Ladywood/Edgbaston area in the overall care of a priest, Father Francis Morgan. Tolkien spent the whole of his adolescence in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham. In 1903, when his mother was still alive, he won a scholarship to King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and later briefly attended the Catholic St Philip’s School near Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Oratory. Initially, the brothers went to live with their aunt in Stirling Road until 1908, when they moved into lodgings. Tolkien later used the name ‘Sam Gamgee’ for Frodo’s faithful companion in The Lord of the Rings. ‘Gamgee tissue’ was the local name for cotton wool, invented by Dr Gamgee, who is commemorated by a blue plaque in the city centre. The surgeon’s widow lived opposite Tolkien’s aunt, so Ronald would have been familiar with the name.

Tolkien as a student at Oxford, 1911.

At the age of sixteen, Ronald fell in love with another orphan, Edith Bratt, when he and his brother Hilary moved into the boarding house where she lived in Edgbaston. She was three years his senior and having agreed with his guardian to wait until Tolkien was twenty-one to marry, Edith and Ronald were formally betrothed at Birmingham in January 1913. Two years earlier, in 1911, Ronald had left to study at Exeter College, Oxford, where, following his army service, he spent the rest of his academic life. Although Tolkien never lived in the city again, he referred to Birmingham as his hometown and himself as a ‘Birmingham man’. Later in life, he explained that he drew inspiration for his writing from the people and landscapes of the city and the surrounding countryside. Edith and Ronald were finally married in Warwick in 1916. In 1944, Tolkien wrote to his soldier son Michael that she was courageous to marry a man with no money and no prospects except that of being killed in the Great War. Besides being his lifelong companion, Edith became Ronald’s muse for one of his fictional characters.

The Fellowships of ‘the Pals’:

The recent (2019) biopic starring Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins is not simply a love story. It also explores Tolkien’s formative years as he finds friendship, courage and motivation among a group of fellow outcasts at King Edward’s School. Their bond strengthens as they mature until the outbreak of World War One, known then as ‘the Great War,’ which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. These war-time experiences also inspired him to write his Middle-earth novels.

Field Marshal Kitchener whose face & finger were featured on recruiting posters when he became War Secretary in 1914.

If there was any doubt as to whether the trade unions and the working classes would support the war, that doubt was soon swept away within a week of the declaration of war in a wave of patriotic fervour and a spirit of youthful adventure. The resolutions of class solidarity, the vows of internationalism, and the pledges of strikes to stop the war were all whispers in the wilderness when it came.

The photograph, Sergeant and recruits, shows how hundreds of thousands of workers enlisted. The posters behind evoke the ‘jingoism’ of the times.

Tolkien’s ideas for his trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, became forged in the heat of the Great War of 1916-1918. Britain entered the war as the only belligerent relying on a volunteer army. Such was the response to the call to join the colours that the first Military Service Act, introducing conscription, was not passed until January 1916. Following Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits to his New Army, men were promised if they joined up with colleagues or friends, they would be able to serve in the same unit. The first battalions of pals to join up were in Liverpool, and soon the rest of the country followed. The battalions included the Birmingham Pals and the Cambridge Pals. The Fellowship of the Ring seems to be based on the sense of adventure, comradeship and the reality of the loss and suffering of friends in the war. At first, Tolkien did not directly experience this volunteer army. Tolkien’s relatives were shocked when he elected not to volunteer immediately for the British Army. In a 1941 letter to his son Michael, Tolkien recalled:

“In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.” 

A platoon of the Worcester Regiment marching to the Western Front in August 1914

Instead, Tolkien entered a programme by which he delayed enlistment until completing his degree. He later recalled that by the time he passed his finals in July 1915, the hints were “becoming outspoken from relatives”. He was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on 15 July 1915. He trained with the 13th (Reserve) Battalion on Cannock Chase, based at a camp near Rugeley, Staffordshire, for 11 months. In a letter to Edith, Tolkien declared his distaste for army life, complaining:

“Gentlemen are rare among the superiors, and even human beings rare indeed.”

On 2 June 1916, Tolkien received a telegram summoning him to Folkestone for posting to France. The newlyweds spent the night before his departure in a room at the Plough & Harrow Hotel in Edgbaston. He later wrote:

“Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute. Parting from my wife then… it was like a death.”

Men of the 1st Battalion in Tolkien’s Regiment, The Lancashire Fusiliers, in a communication trench near Beaumont Hamel,
during the 1916 Battle of the Somme.

Tolkien began his fantasy Middle-earth writings at that time. The Fall of Gondolin was the first prose work he created, and it contains detailed descriptions of battle and street fighting. He continued the dark tone in much of his legendarium, as seen in The Silmarillion. The Lord of the Rings, too, was later described by some literary critics as a war book. However, Tolkien was reluctant to explain the influences on his writing while explicitly denying that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, but admitting to certain connections with the Great War. His friend and fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis, also described the work as having the quality of Great War literature in many of its descriptions. In France, he had found himself commanding enlisted men drawn mainly from the mining, milling, and weaving towns of Lancashire. Their influence on him is evident, particularly in the Fellowship of the Ring and the character of Sam Gamgee. According to fellow-author John Garth, Kitchener’s army at once marked existing social boundaries and counteracted the class system by throwing everyone into a desperate situation together. Tolkien was grateful, writing that it had taught him…

“… a deep sympathy and feeling for the Tommy; especially the plain soldier from the agricultural counties”.

John Garth echoed this when he commented that Tolkein “felt an affinity for these working-class men”, but military protocol prohibited friendships with “other ranks”. Instead, Tolkien was required to …

“take charge of them, discipline them, train them, and probably censor their letters … If possible, he was supposed to inspire their love and loyalty.”

Tolkien later lamented,

“The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

Many of Tolkien’s dearest school friends were killed in the war. Among their number was Rob Gilson of the Tea Club and Burrovian Society, their school club, who was killed on the first day of the Somme while leading his men in the assault on Beaumont Hamel. Fellow T.C.B.S. member Geoffrey Smith was also killed during the battle when a German artillery shell landed on a first-aid post. Subsequently, after his invaliding out to England with ‘shell-shock’, Tolkien’s battalion was almost completely wiped out. Quite naturally, this was to have a profound effect on his future writings.

The Origins of Tolkien’s Mythology & ‘High Fantasy’:

After the war, Tolkien became a professor of English language and literature at Oxford, writing his series of elaborate fantasy tales in his spare time, mainly for his own children. The longest and most important of these was The Hobbit, which he began in 1930 as a coming-of-age fantasy. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion (edited, completed, and published by his son, Christopher, in 1977) formed a connected body of tales, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays about an imagined world of ‘Middle Earth’. Tolkien gave the word ‘legendarium’ to his collection of works on this fictional realm. In 1937, The Hobbit was published with Tolkien’s illustrations and was so popular that the publisher asked for a sequel. In 1954, his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, was published in three parts, carrying over the essential elements from the Hobbit, particularly the ‘One Ring’ that must be destroyed before it can be used by the Dark Lord Sauron. The Lord of the Rings was also an extension of the tales of the Silmarillion.

Besides being a professor of English language and philology, Tolkien read in thirty-five languages, everything from Old Norse to Lithuanian. He invented his first created language when he was just a teenager. His tales were designed around these carefully constructed languages, including fifteen Elvish dialects and languages for the Hobbits, Ents, Orcs, and Dwarves. Tolkien also wrote several shorter works during his lifetime. This included poetry related to his legendarium; Tree and Leaf, a mock-medieval story, Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book. Tolkien’s success with the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings led to the accolade of him as ‘the father of modern fantasy literature,’ otherwise known as ‘High Fantasy.’

The Geography of Hobbiton & The Shire and ‘The Common Speech’:

Tolkien provided a series of maps to accompany his tales, including the following maps of the Shire. These help us to envisage the scale of the dramatic landscapes he describes and the journeys he narrates.

The Shire was divided into four quarters, the Farthings, North, South, East and West, and these again into many folklands, which still bore the names of some leading families. Each Farthing had three Shiriffs.  Outside these were the Marches, East and West, and Buckland. Meriadoc (Merry) and Peregrin (Pippin) both belonged to great families, the Brandybucks and the Tooks, giving their names to Buckland and Tookland. Apart from Bilbo and Frodo, the Bagginses were spread throughout the Shire. Ham Gamgee, …

commonly known as the Gaffer, held forth at The Ivy Bush, a small inn on the Bywater road; and he spoke with some authority as he had tended the garden at Bag End for forty years,

His son, Samwise Gamgee, took over, thereby becoming Frodo’s ‘faithful companion’.

In his Prologue to the First Book of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote of the Hobbits’ language that…

of old they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion… A love of learning… was far from general among them, but there remained still a few in the older families who studied their own books and even gathered reports of old times and distant lands from Elves, Dwarves and Men.

Appendix F provides more detail on The Languages and Peoples of The Third Age. The language represented in the books by English was the Westron or Common Speech of the West-lands of Middle-earth in the Third Age. The Westron was also used as a second language of intercourse by all those who retained a language of their own, even by the Elves, not only in Arnor and Gondor but eastward to Mirkwood. It was a Mannish speech, enriched and softened under Elvish influence.

This map gives a close-up view of Hobbiton, the Old Forest, the Barrow-Downs and the ‘border’ town of Bree on the East-West Road, which provide key early chapter locations in The Lord of the Rings.

The Common Speech, the Westron, was current throughout all the lands of the kings from Arnor to Gondor and about all the coasts from Belfalas to Lune. The Hobbits of the Shire and of Bree had used the Common Speech for a thousand years before the time of Bilbo and Frodo. Tolkien informs us that …

they had used it in their own manner freely and carelessly; though the more learned among them had still at their command a more formal language when occasion required.

There is no record of any distinct Hobbit language; Tolkien tells us:

In Ancient days, they seem always to have used the languages of Men near whom, or among whom, they lived. Thus they quickly adopted the Common Speech after they entered Eriador, and by the time of their settlement at Bree, they had already begun to forget their former tongue. This was evidently a Mannish language… akin to that of the Rohirrim…

Of these things there were still some traces left in local words and names, many of which closely resembled those found in Dale or Rohan… While more were preserved in the placenames of Bree and the Shire. The personal names of the Hobbits were also peculiar and many had come down from ancient days

“Mind Your Ps & Qs” – At the Sign of the Prancing Pony:

In Chapter Nine of the first book, the Hobbits arrive at the inn in Bree to sojourn overnight on their journey out of the Shire. The landlord, Mr Butterbur, invites them to join the company in the bar with their news, a song or a story. Merry decides not to, cautioning his fellow travellers to be mindful of their mission and to speak politely:

So refreshed and encouraged did they feel at the end of their supper… That Frodo, Pippin, and Sam decided to join the company. Merry said it would be too stuffy;

“I shall sit here quietly by the fire for a bit, and perhaps go out later for a sniff of the air. Mind your Ps and Qs, and don’t forget that you are supposed to be escaping in secret, and are still on the high road and not very far from the Shire!”

“Mind your Ps and Qs”, meaning ‘be careful to say “please” and “thank you”, is redolent of late Victorian, middle-class English, the kind of phrase Tolkien’s mother might have used with her young son when sending him to his aunt’s house in ‘respectable’ Edgbaston. In using this contemporary colloquial phrase, Tolkien deliberately emphasises the Hobbit’s use of the Common Speech of the Shire and Bree. In the light of subsequent events, Merry’s warning was apt, revealing how Tolkien used the colloquialisms of his youth to represent the Common Speech of Middle-earth, which, on this occasion, the travelling Hobbits were using far too freely. This, of course, was the cue for the appearance of the Ranger figure, Strider, who later transforms into the manly hero of the book, Aragorn. From this point, the pace becomes relentlessly rapid until the friends reach Rivendell and the beginning of the fellowship and their quest. More of all that later…

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