June 23, 2020

On a family holiday in Yorkshire in 1925, J. R. R. Tolkien’s young son Michael lost a beloved toy on a large stony beach. A long search by Tolkien, and Michael’s older brother John, proved fruitless; to console the boy, Tolkien made up a story, Roverandom. It’s an odd tale, featuring a small dog, wizards, mer-people, the Man in the Moon and a fantastical flight over a mythicised England.

Like much of Tolkien’s fiction, Roverandom was not published during his lifetime, finally appearing in print in the 1990s. It is little-known, except among serious devotees. But it does help to show the way in which Tolkien’s imagination tended to work, and how his ideas developed. Roverandom blends the mundane with the magical, taking familiar places or people and making them part of a much larger and stranger canvas.

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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.

This trick of Tolkien’s, of taking the familiar and making it into the stuff of high fantasy, is one of the subjects explored in considerable depth in John Garth’s The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien. Given the bewildering array of influences that fed into Tolkien’s work — personal, geographical, historical, linguistic and poetic — it is no mean task to gather up the threads and create a coherent narrative of how different parts of Tolkien’s life and work fed into the creation of what Tolkien eventually called his “legendarium”.

By this he meant not just The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, but the entire fictional universe he created which forms the background for those stories. The sheer scale of Tolkien’s creative endeavour is indicated by the fact that after his death, his son and literary executor Christopher published not just The Silmarillion — a sprawling blend of creation story and epic history — but also 12 volumes in a series known as The History Of Middle Earth, based on his father’s notes and unpublished manuscripts, as well as a stand-alone novel, The Children of Hurin.

Garth makes clear that Tolkien’s approach was that of the magpie. Rather than drawing on one particular place or one particular tradition, he drew on all sorts of landscapes and legends. For example, the existence in Middle Earth of a quasi-heavenly enchanted land far across the Western sea – Valinor, the Undying Lands – echoes the beliefs in such places found all across Europe.

Tennyson alludes to such beliefs in his great poem ‘Ulysses’, in which an ageing Odysseus imagines one last adventure with his crew:

                                 …for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

The mention of the Happy Isles here is a reference to the Isles of the Blessed, which in Greek mythology lay far out to the West beyond the known world. The Irish Tír na nÓg and the Arthurian Avalon occupy a similar place in the mythical imagination. Ireland, perhaps unsurprisingly, had a very well-developed tradition of stories about fantastical sea voyages into the West, often in search of some kind of paradise.

Other writers and commentators on Tolkien have speculated on the experiences and locations that might have fed his creative energies, especially the Worcestershire and Warwickshire countryside he knew as a boy. Famously, Sarehole Mill is known to have inspired the mill at Hobbiton, and the steady destruction of the woods and fields of the Midlands to make way for industry and modernity finds an echo in Saruman’s destruction of the countryside close to Isengard as he creates his industrial war machine.

Garth goes far beyond these familiar topics, and opens up whole new fields of thought about what stimulated Tolkien’s enormously fruitful imagination. In a particularly fascinating section he traces how Tolkien’s original conception of his fiction changed. Initially he wanted to create a mythology which was quite specifically tied to the British Isles, and particularly to the English. His wide-ranging academic interest in literature, myth and philology — the study of how languages develop through history and storytelling — had highlighted for him the relative paucity of English myth.

The Scandinavians and the Icelanders had their sagas, and the well-developed myths of Asgaard and Ragnarrok. The Irish and the Britons too had their stories. The Germanic world, where the English originated and whence Tolkien’s family had come to England in the eighteenth century, had its own rich tapestry of legend, notably Beowulf — which blends Christian and pagan themes, and on which Tolkien was an acknowledged expert. Ultimately many Germanic themes made their way into The Lord Of The Rings, most obviously swords with their own names and their own powers, and the perils of the forest.

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.

Over time, as Garth shows, Tolkien’s vision changed. He had difficulties pulling together all the elements he wished to include in his re-imagining of pre-historical England, while still keeping it connected to, and congruent with, the existing myths of the peoples of the British Isles. So he moved to a more purely fictional setting, that of Middle Earth.

Here, he had more creative room for manoeuvre, although he retained a lot of the initial scaffolding that he had created for the earlier iterations of the story, not least in the term Middle Earth, which is a derivation in English of the Old Norse Midgard, meaning the world. The earlier influences also show up in personal names, which are often directly borrowed from Old English. Theoden, the name of the Lord of Rohan, means “King of people” in that language. Earendil, one of the heroes of The Silmarillion, is named after the evening star. Frodo is a variant on an Old English name Froda, meaning one who has gained insight through toils and snares. This means that the stories still have a feeling of being organically connected to England or English experience.

This allusive kind of connection never feels forced. As Garth stresses, Tolkien did not simply take incidents or people or settings from life and insert them straight into his legendarium, but created a “layered” fictional world that feels supremely well realised because so many influences are present. The truth of this point is well demonstrated by the still-ongoing conjectures and debates about what different places might represent. It has been suggested, for example, that Gondor might loosely equate to Byzantium, in its role as a centre of learning and culture, the last bulwark of an ancient and largely vanished civilisation, menaced from South and East, a rallying point for those who wish to defend their lands and their way of life.

I did not know before I read Garth’s book that Tolkien had spent time in the Alps as a young man, and that many of the descriptions of the mountain ranges of Middle Earth can be traced back to his experiences, via his sketches, paintings and notebooks. This makes perfect sense: there are some wonderfully dramatic mountain scenes in The Lord Of The Rings and its accompanying works, which help to give them an epic scale and feel.

Garth also discusses the impact of Tolkien’s war experience on the final shape taken by The Lord Of The Rings: this is one of the most fascinating areas of discussion. Tolkien was invalided back to Britain after fighting at the Somme, and the First World War appears to have given him not simply a renewed appreciation for the joys of a peaceful life, but a keen sense of the fragility of what he held most dear at home in England, and the great sacrifices that must be made to protect the best things in life.

After all, in The Return Of The King, Sauron’s power is only defeated at great cost. As Frodo says towards the end, “[the Shire] has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them”. The story of Frodo’s inability to truly return to normal life — his alienation from the Shire — is surely influenced by Tolkien’s having been a soldier returning to a much-changed and much-disturbed home country, one of millions in the same position.

Home, and the desire to return there, is of course one of the great recurring themes in The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. Indeed the very last words of the 1,000-odd pages of the latter work, spoken by that archetype of hardy Englishness, Sam Gamgee, are “Well, I’m back.”

As Tolkien well knew, there is a great human desire for quiet and security, for return, for what we once knew. He would no doubt have seen that as a reflection of an even greater and deeper need, for final reconciliation and entry into the true Undying Lands. But even for those who cannot share that aspect of his thought, we can appreciate his grand project: to underpin a nostalgic vision of a pre-industrial England, a land of enchantment and possibility and freedom, with a powerful and complex mythology that would bear comparison with those of any other country.