Tolkien, Middle-earth… and Wales

The best thing in The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien apparently thought it was the Elvish language – and that was based unashamedly on Welsh.

Middle-earth expert John Garth confirms this in his new book The Worlds of JRR Tolkien: “Welsh was an underpinning inspiration for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said – and he thought his Welsh-inspired language Sindarin had ‘given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it’.”

As Garth points out, that suggestion is debatable – considering how many other treasures the epic work contains.

But, while Tolkien drew inspiration from rural England, industrial Birmingham (think Mordor), the Swiss mountains and the great forests and rivers of Europe, Wales also played its part in shaping his visions of Middle-earth.

All of these elements, plus Tolkien’s experiences on the battlefields of the First World War, are analysed, appreciated and wonderfully illustrated in Garth’s excellent and enlightening book.

The title of Tolkien’s fictitious Red Book of Westmarch (supposedly the hobbit writings that formed the basis for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) was an echo of the Red Book of Hergest, the actual Welsh medieval manuscript containing among other things the tales of The Mabinogion.

“As an Oxford undergraduate [Tolkien] delved into the Welsh legends in The Mabinogion and into Welsh philology,” says Garth. “At Leeds University in the early 1920s, he taught Medieval Welsh.

“As a child he had yearned for the Britain of Arthur and Merlin. From eight or nine, he was enchanted by Welsh, glimpsed in names on coal trucks [behind his home in Kings Health, Birmingham]. On an early train journey into Wales, he spotted the name Ebbw and ‘just couldn’t get over it. Not long after I started inventing my own languages.'”

I asked John Garth if Wales was actually a direct inspiration for the land of the Blue Mountains to the west of The Shire.  “Tolkien was inspired by the familiar geography of Britain,” he said. “He does show this England-like Shire with, to the west, a Celtic-style area with highlands and by the sea. But he never gives us a detailed description of the Blue Mountains.” 

However, Westmarch (an area just to the west of the Shire) does seem to have a real resonance with the Welsh Borders. “Westward, both England and the Shire look towards lands still occupied by the peoples who preceded them,” says Garth in the book. “The western English counties bordering Wales were blessed, Tolkien felt, with a particular enchantment rooted in long contact between two cultures he loved.”

Tolkien drew on many sources for his back story of the Atlantis-like destruction of the island of Númenor. One seems to have been Cantre’r Gwaelod, the name given to the land now under the seas of Cardigan Bay, to the north of Pembrokeshire. The earliest known form of the story of the flooding of Cantre’r Gwaelod, in which a maiden allows a well to overflow, is said to be that in the Black Book of Carmarthen.

Other versions exist, and according to legend, the church bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod can still be heard ringing in times of danger. But what interested Tolkien, says Garth, is the existence of several legends of drowned lands in the traditions of the different Celtic peoples of the Atlantic shores – Irish, Cornish, Breton as well as Welsh.

In another arguable Welsh connection, local researcher Seamus Hamill-Keays has found remarkable similarities between the Buckland estate in Powys and the area known as Buckland traversed by the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings.

Garth concedes: “Tolkien’s Buckland has the Bucklebury Ferry across the Brandywine, where Frodo Baggins’s parents drowned in a boating accident. Buckland on the River Usk once had a ferry too and was the scene of a 19th-century boating tragedy.” However, he says, there is no proof that Tolkien ever visited the Welsh Buckland – although it remains possible that he did.

Certainly when one puts Tolkien’s map of Buckland next to a map of “the real thing”, the correspondence is fascinating.

© Frances Lincoln / © National Library of Scotland

Garth’s previous book, Tolkien and the Great War, has sold more than 30,000 copies worldwide, and his latest work looks set to appeal to an even wider audience.

The First World War must have cast a huge shadow over Tolkien and over Middle-earth. Garth agreed: “He was a young man with a lot of imagination in a situation of mortal fear – which had left him incredibly bereaved – but it catalysed his earliest Middle-earth writings and he tapped into its mythic qualities.”

We can only be grateful that the young Tolkien survived the trenches and lived to tell the most amazing of tales.

The Worlds of JRR Tolkien by John Garth (Frances Lincoln, £25)

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth (HarperCollins, £9.99)

http://www.johngarth.co.uk

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley retired from The Oldie magazine to return to freelance journalism. He previously held executive staff jobs at the London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express before freelancing for 20 years for newspapers including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the ‘i’ paper, plus a wide range of magazines. He continues to write about music, travel and health, and blogs at www.nigel-summerley.blogspot.com.

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