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Tolkien’s mythic plan for England The author wanted to write a great saga that would fill a gap in the nation's pre-history

Hobbiton is surrounded by horrors. Credit: IMDB


June 23, 2020   7 mins

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.

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.


Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.

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Jonathan Patrick
Jonathan Patrick
4 years ago

Enjoyable read. I find it hard to understand though how one can talk about the influences behind the writing of The Lord of the Rings and not recognize the deep influence of Tolkien’s Christian faith – how the ring was “meant” to come to Frodo, that “good and ill are not one thing among elves and another among dwarves”… but that is our job to discover the good, the theme of suffering leading to salvation, the celebration of the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. This is a deeply Christian myth that borrows from the deep truths found in so many of the great myths of the world.

Andrew Shaughnessy
Andrew Shaughnessy
4 years ago

Another Christian link is that Sauron was defeated on March 25th, which became New Years Day. Until the 18th century New Years Day in England was the Feast of the Annunciation or “Lady Day”, which fell on March 25th, nine calendar months before Christmas.

lucidgoldfish
lucidgoldfish
4 years ago

Absolutely! And that is what some of the other commentators miss. Hear, hear!

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

A very enjoyable article by someone who is obviously enthusiastic about and committed to Tolkien’s project. I’ve always felt there’s someone rather ersatz about it myself. Straightforwardly, the notion of latterly inventing “a powerful and complex mythology that would bear comparison with those of any other country” is impossible, since the validity of a mythology depends on belief. Some people believe in God and the Devil; some people once believed in Norse and Greek gods (hence the abiding validity and vitality of the myths that belief created) no-one (including Tolkien himself) believes in Sauron. I find C.S. Lewis a much more admirable writer than Tolkien because he drew on a myth, or belief, that still did and does command widespread assent; the potency of Aslan as a figure depends on the fact that, for Lewis as for millions of people, he’s effectively real.

That notwithstanding, I do think there’s something rather decadent about even the best fantasy fiction. The decline of prose literature from the nineteenth-centuries peaks of such masters of realist fiction as Tolstoy and George Eliot (the latter also a magisterial chronicler of the industrialisation of the Midlands) to the twentieth-century choice between inward-looking modernism and mock-medieval fantasy strikes me as not only an aesthetic misfortune but also, to an extent, a moral one.

zgillmore
zgillmore
4 years ago

Your comment on belief is insightful. In college I took several classes on Tolkien and several on C. S. Lewis and not once did anyone mention or contemplate the role ‘belief’ played in their myths. I never considered it myself.

How wonderful.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  zgillmore

The teach Tolkein in college??!!! I know things were bad, but I didn’t know just how far they had sunk. Tolkein is enjoyable enough, but essentially it’s just just fantasy.

Niko Lourotos
Niko Lourotos
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

“Just fantasy”?
Yes, in the way that Homer was just epic poetry and Plato was just philosophy.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

They still teach The Faerie Queene in (some) universities. Also “just fantasy”. (But I’m being provocative; I’d much prefer it personally if Tolkien wasn’t studied in college…).

lucidgoldfish
lucidgoldfish
4 years ago

Isn’t that the point to college, at least in the liberal arts subject matter; to broaden your horizons beyond your own interests to give a fuller understanding of the human condition and the world at large. There was plenty in college and high school that I had to study that i would rather not, and alot of authors i would really prefer not to read again…. Joyce comes to mind.

But i did have to because it is part of our culture and heritage. Tolkein, and fantasy at large, you can not deny the enormity of impact that he, and fantasy, has had on the world. If you did, you’d be either under a rock, or just flat out lying to yourself.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Some still teach Theology! How mad is that? In fact it has always been a ‘backdoor’ for Oxbridge entry.

Robert Norris
Robert Norris
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I am late to the party! Interesting this idea of ‘just fantasy’. Some would say the same about literature being ‘just literature’, in the sense that it doesn’t help you turn yourself into a productive unit in the global economic system. If you were referencing straightforward sword-and-sorcery fantasy, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But knowing something about what went into the creation of the Lord of the Rings, I find it hard to dismiss it as ‘just fantasy’. This is a highly receptive, highly trained, profoundly wise and informed Edwardian sensibility at work who understood from firsthand experience that the roots of myth are steeped in blood – or as we might say in today’s language, trauma. Growing up on a diet of Tolkien was good prep for Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, the War Poets and TS Eliot, and I find myself thinking that if the Waste Land was conceived in a Swiss sanatorium, Tolkien’s grand epic was properly conceived in the trenches on the Somme. Moreover, I remember it coming as no surprise whatsoever, when I was about sixteen at school in Italy, and had been wrongly accused the year before of plagiarism by my Italian and Latin teacher for having produced a fully rounded fantasy short-story during a writing exercise, to discover that in the meantime a new literature anthology had been adopted by her which included fantasy as a literary genre and, more specifically, passages of the Lord of the Rings translated into Italian. Just fantasy? Eliot was dismissed as a ‘lugubrious fellow’ by the Queen Mother… she had no idea…

Michael Gatliff
Michael Gatliff
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I’m late to the party as well. They also teach Gargantua and Pantagruel in college.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago

Although isn’t Tolkein’s fantasy as much an outgrowth of 19th century fiction as anything else? Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is often classed as historical fiction but in reality is far more a fantasy than about medieval England – and helped introduce many false tropes and myths about the era that have been hard to shake off – than a historically accurate and realistic portrayal of the period. And it was largely because of a similar set of concerns about industralisation and modernism. Specifically the desire for a more organic society idealised from that period by Catholics, the Oxford movement, neo-Gothic architects and romanticists in general as a reaction against industralisation along with a desire to produce art charged with trascendent symbolism beyond what was seen as mere plastic and materialist art from the renaissance onwards. This was a large part of what animated Tolkein too, remembering he was a prominent scholar of Old English with its highly symbolic and ritualised poetic forms.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Richard Bell
Richard Bell
4 years ago

Thanks you Niall …… I had already just purchased John Garths book and had it next to me as I read your article. Looking forward to getting into it. As an Englishman living in California it strikes me that the USA is lacking its pre-history stories ( native Indian’s aside ). This country is made up so much of other people, created by incomers from around the world. The United States is such a young country in comparison to its worldly owners. Having now lived here for not far of twenty years I can see how misunderstood it is. Like a high speed dragster it has sped from nothing to going to the moon in a few hundred years !!!

lucidgoldfish
lucidgoldfish
4 years ago
Reply to  Richard Bell

Growing up in the US, I was always fascinated with places where kids were surrounded by ruins thousands of years old. Yes, the lack of history and millenia old myth is felt and very apparent.

cererean
cererean
4 years ago

I wonder if, perhaps, there is room for someone to forge an English mythology that acknowledges, as we now know the be the case, that the English people are descended both from the Anglo-Saxon settlers and the pre-existing Celtic inhabitants? Our cultural inheritance by rights is both Brythonic and Germanic (and there are points of commonality in both of those – elven-like beings, for example, can be found in either).

Still, despite that vast inheritance, we have only one truly English folk hero, an outlaw insurgent fighting against the Norman yoke. Who of course got co-opted by the aristocracy into being one of them fighting for the “rightful king”. Blech.

Michael Upton
Michael Upton
4 years ago

Thank you for this perceptive and thought-provoking article. There are Anglo-Saxon worlds outwith England which someone so talented could use as imaginatively; I am thinking of southern, unCeltic Scotland.