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The origins of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth

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J.R.R. Tolkien lived for much of his early life in and around the British industrial city of Birmingham, but he was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State in southern Africa in 1892. Both his parents, Arthur and Mabel, had moved there from the Birmingham area and married in Cape Town in 1889.

The places he lived led to the development of the fictional world of Middle-earth, the setting for his famous stories The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). These books, written later in his life while living in Oxford, were destined to change English literature in the later part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. They have spawned a vast world of fantasy fiction such as that represented by Harry Potter, DiscWorld and Star Wars and on into the world of computer games.

In a recent estimate, The Hobbit had sold over 75 million copies and The Lord of the Rings over 100 million worldwide, and has been translated into thirty-eight languages. With the release of the Lord of the Rings films millions more all over the world have discovered Tolkien’s fictional world of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Dragons, Wizards and Men. It is amazing to think that in recreating Tolkien’s fictional worlds on film New Line Cinema went 12,000 miles from England to New Zealand and probably used more computing power than a space agency to produce what Tolkien must have seen in his mind’s eye when he was writing the books.

Birmingham may appear to be a strange place for the roots of some of the greatest fantasy works of the twentieth century, but, with its industrial heart and sleepy rural surroundings, all within a short walk or tram-ride of each another, this area did play an important part in the creation of Middle-earth. The time period of Tolkien’s early life was one of great change: it began in late Victorian times and moved through the Edwardian period to finish in the great tragedy of the First World War and the Battle of the Somme, in which Tolkien and many of his school friends fought.

The city of Birmingham in the early 1900s was full of people from all over the world and had steam-driven trams, trains and engines and levels of pollution that we could only imagine in our worst nightmares. The rural edges of Birmingham, in the counties of Worcestershire and Warwickshire, had horse-drawn carts and ploughs, blacksmiths’ shops, watermills, timber-framed buildings and meadows full of wild flowers.

In a rare interview in 1966, reproduced in The Guardian newspaper in 1991, Tolkien described how important the little hamlet of Sarehole on the rural edge of Birmingham had been in the development of his fictional vision:

It was a kind of lost paradise… There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill…

Further on in the article he re-emphasizes the importance of his childhood memories of the area:

I could draw you a map of every inch of it. I loved it with an (intense) love… I was brought up in considerable poverty, but I was happy running about in that country. I took the idea of the Hobbits from the village people and children…

This idea of a simple life was very much to Tolkien’s liking and when writing about the heroes of the books, the Hobbits, he said:

For they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well farmed countryside was their favourite haunt. They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water mill, or a handloom, though they were skilful with tools.

This is on the very first page of the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings written many years after his childhood days in the little hamlet of Sarehole on the edge of Birmingham.

Some of these same places exist today and are like walking through one of Tolkien’s manuscripts; one or two of the pages are missing and some of the pages are at other locations, but by a miracle much has survived to this day. Other places and events, of course, also played their part in Tolkien’s fictional world but places and people from his time in Birmingham are scattered throughout the pages of his writing.

Extracted from The Roots of Tolkien’s Middle Earth by Robert S. Blackham

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