Mapping Middle Earth on Earth
JRR Tolkien’s Inspirations from England
Take a tour of the inspirational places behind the legendary stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Contributing storyteller and Brit, William Bundy, describes a few locations on the Tolkien Trail in England. Part of the, Mapping Middle Earth series by the Fairytale Traveler.
By William Bundy
The sunlight streamed through the trees as a young woman danced in a glade filled with hemlock below. A young man watched on, his face entranced as the woman moved elegantly through the cool summer air, her hair twirling around her face as she smiled and sang for his enchantment.
The young man was on sick leave from the First World War and would spend two years of his life in this part of the world, wandering its woods, and wandering his own pen across sheets of paper that would later bear seeds of inspiration for his later works of fiction. The young man’s name was J.R.R. Tolkien, and he would go onto become one of the most famous authors in history.
Tolkien was born on January 3rd, 1892, in South Africa. Growing up later on in Birmingham, he would gain inspiration for the environments of Middle Earth. Environments such as the Shire, for example, perhaps based on the Sarehole Mill in Birmingham which still exists today, and possibly the cave houses in Kinver Edge, nearby.
After meeting his future wife as a young man in Birmingham, he went to Oxford University where he studied and graduated in the English Language, before enlisting to serve in the First World War, in 1915.
Like many young men of the time, Tolkien had no idea what lay in wait for him in Northern France where the battle raged, and he soon found himself in the first great conflict of the 20th Century.
There, he lost many of his closest friends and perhaps gained a perspective on the nature of War and the impact it has on not only those who serve in it but the landscape itself, which was transformed into a blackened quagmire by the stayed stalemate of a war that seemed to have no end.
Taken ill with trench fever, Tolkien was eventually sent back home on sick leave to England, where he resided in the market town of Harrogate for a time, forming the interestingly named “Council of Harrogate” with some fellow friends of his. After this, he was sent to the East Riding of Yorkshire (my neck of the woods), where he was predominantly stationed near the small village of Roos.
It was here while walking in a glade of hemlock, that his wife danced and sang for him, forming the inspiration for the first meeting of Beren and Luthien in “The Silmarillion,” perhaps Tolkien’s grandest work in terms of mythology and world-building.
Tolkien had always had a fascination for languages, even going so far as to create his own — the most famous perhaps being Elvish — and in order to provide a home for these languages, he created the world of Middle Earth, mythology he intended for England, which he felt lacked one.
A love of landscape plays into this mythology a great deal, and Tolkien’s descriptions of them in his works are quite sumptuous and detailed. His experiences in the East Riding of Yorkshire no doubt must have had a profound impact on him in this respect; the most specific example being his time spent as a lookout guard on the Holderness coast near.
There, overlooking a submarine forest, with its stumps sticking out the raging sea — which itself was tearing into the coastline and submerging it — his mind might have gained inspiration for the lost city of Numenor, itself a vast Island which is submerged by the Sea under the direction of Eru, the supreme being in Tolkien’s mythology.
There is also a certain bleakness to the area, and I think this might have fed the artistic drive in him, unfamiliar as he was with living in an area so close to the coast, having come from more central areas of England such as Birmingham.
Indeed, while staying in the Brookland’s Military Hospital in Kingston-upon-Hull, and various other places, he wrote elements of what would later become “The Silmarillion” and various other works, and I think Tolkien’s time here in an unfamiliar place, far from home, and also dealing with the nasty coastal weather which can occur in the winter, must have made a profound impact on him.
The idea of a crumbling coastline especially carries with it a certain element of decay, and I think fading away in this respect is a key element of Tolkien’s works – an old world of splendor and tradition fading away into the Autumn to make way for seas of changes and new, uncertain worlds.
The excellent book “Tolkien in East Yorkshire 1917 – 1918,” by Phil Mathison, delves into the specifics of Tolkien’s stay in his part of the world in great detail, and I would highly recommend it. Not only does it give specific facts about Tolkien’s stays in the area, but also delves into further exploration of what impact this part of the world had on the young author, something which I drew upon for my own commentary as part of this article, as well as a guide for my own travels in the area, following in his footsteps.
Part of this involved traveling to the beautiful woodland of Dent’s Garth, near the Church in Roos. It is noted in the book as possibly being the place where Tolkien would have sat, watching his wife dance for him, and I would encourage anyone who visits the area to pay a trip there, if only to get a sense of walking in his footsteps, nearly some 100 years ago.
Although the place may not bear much of a resemblance to the glade of hemlocks where Tolkien spent a beautiful day, many summers ago, it still contains his spirit, I feel, and the spirit of his legacy lives on in the magical books he wrote, informed in part by his stay in this beautiful, remote, and magical part of England.
Written by William Bundy for The Fairytale Traveler’s, Storytellers, series — an ongoing collaborative portal from readers around the world that are contributing their local legends to this growing resource.