Harken, friends of Halflings, I have a question! But before I ask it, let me lay bare the background.
Here in the Black Mountains of Wales, in the Vale of the Usk, there is a popular local tradition that J R R Tolkien was inspired by the local scenery and placenames to borrow several locations, thinly disguised, for his vision of the Shire in Middle Earth. Among the several places I’ve either seen or heard touted are Buckland near Brecon, Llangattock Mountain north of the South Wales Valleys, Sugar Loaf Mountain by Abergavenny, and Crickhowell, all in this southeastern corner of Wales.
For example, as part of the annual Crickhowell Walking Festival (“Now in its 10th year!”) is a walk which is described thus: A Walk Through Tolkien’s Shire.
Crickhowell is thought to be the inspiration for “Crickhollow” village in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit”.
Of course you will immediately note several objections to this statement. The phrase “is thought” is a wonderful catch-all: no reference, no evidence, and no doubt easy to conclude that it is the actual inspiration. Secondly, Crickhollow is not mentioned in The Hobbit, though it does appear in The Lord of the Rings. Thirdly, it is not a village. In Chapter V of The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ we’re told that Crickhollow is “Frodo’s new house”:
It was an old-fashioned countrified house, as much like a hobbit-hole as possible: it was long and low, with no upper storey; and it had a roof of turf, round windows, and a large door.
Let’s put these objections aside for the moment as probable misrememberings. Here is my actual question, and I’m genuinely interested in the answer: Did Tolkien actually visit this part of Wales? And where might I find the evidence? (Yes, I know technically that’s two questions, but they are inter-related!) Only then can we evaluate whether south Powys has a genuine claim to be a model for the Shire.
Here’s what it says on the relevant page of the Visit Wales website:
“Tolkien stayed in the appealing village of Talybont-on-Usk in the 1940s, while working on parts of The Lord of The Rings. Writing at a time when industrialisation was transforming the British countryside, his nostalgic depiction of The Shire was inspired by rural Wales. It’s easy to see similarities between the landscapes in his books and the hills and meadows of the Black Mountains. He named the hobbit settlement [sic] of Crickhollow after Crickhowell, nine miles from Talybont.”
Now, ‘Crickhollow’ is a tolerable anagram of Crickhowell, and it’s easy to surmise that Tolkien, with his love of words, happily adapted it to his purpose. But does this apparent overlap have enough weight?
This is followed by this statement:
“In The Lord of the Rings, Buckland was a colony of hobbits between the Old Forest and the Brandywine River. Tolkien is thought to have based this part of Middle-earth on the Buckland Estate, whose ancient, protected woodlands stand beside the River Usk […]”
It is absolutely true that there is an area called Buckland upriver from Crickhowell, by a village called Bwlch (Welsh for a “pass” through hills or mountains). The listed historic Victorian building that is now Buckland Hall in the Estate is the latest in a series of incarnations dating back to the Jacobean period. But again I can find no references other than vague assertions that Tolkien was familiar with the area. This is what the website of Buckland Hall (“a magical 4-star* country mansion set in the stunning scenery of the Brecon Beacons”) tells us on its history page:
“During the forties, another visitor to the area was busy composing his opus magnum, a work that would make his name famous amongst the love generation of the Sixties and beyond. J R R Tolkien apparently visited Talybont-on-Usk, the village overlooked by Buckland, to write sections of Lord of the Rings. He borrowed generously from the locality to feed the voracious appetite of his book for people and place-names. His friend, Fred from Tredegar [a town just over Llangattock Mountain, in the South Wales Valleys], appears as Fredegar and Crickhowell turns up as Crick Hollow [sic].”
Again, we have some tantalising details with no supportive evidence. Tolkien visits “during the forties” but Tolkien’s timeline on the Tolkien Society’s website doesn’t mention this. (Absence of evidence in this instance of course doesn’t mean he wasn’t present at all during this period.) Buckland Hall notes that Tolkien “apparently” visited Talybont. Is that another way of saying this is merely a local legend?
Who the “Fred from Tredegar” who inspired a hobbit name was I haven’t yet discovered. It’s interesting that Fredegar (“Fatty”) Bolger is one of the few hobbits who knew that Frodo carried the Ring, and that he stayed behind at Crickhollow when the four other hobbits set out for Rivendell. But is it the case that Fred + Tredegar = Fredegar was only a Tolkien in-joke? As it turns out, Fredegar (modern French Frédégaire) is the name of an author associated with a 7th-century Frankish chronicle, one which also references Pepin the Short; Pepin is a variation on Pippin, one of those hobbits that went on to Rivendell — we’re certainly getting a lot of coincidences here! The jury’s still out though, I feel.
(Martin Fleming at Buckland Hall disputes that “the Buckland that gets ten mentions in The Lord of the Rings” is the Buckland in Oxfordshire — Berkshire, as it was before 1974. However, based on the opinion of “a New Zealand researcher for The Lord of the Rings film production” that the Buckland near Talybont was the real inspiration, the hotel feels confident they have it right!)
So far we’re presented with the possibilities that Crickhollow and Buckland have their originals in the Vale of Usk, and that Tolkien may have visited the area in the 1940s when he was writing The Lord of the Rings (which he was working on between 1937 to 1949). Let’s suppose for the moment that this is all true: do the toponymic similarities bear up to scrutiny?
Crickhollow** in Buckland stood outside and to the northeast of Bucklebury, itself on the east bank of the Brandywine River. To reach it Frodo and his companions had to pass through Stock and cross by ferry. Now, Buckland in Wales is indeed to the east of the River Usk, but that’s as far as the similarities goes. A closer parallel is with Crickhowell a scant few miles downriver. Like Bucklebury it’s on the east bank of the river (the northeast bank, to be precise) and coming from the west you have to pass through Llangattock down to the river (which occasionally floods). No ferry here, however: to cross the Usk one uses the longest medieval stone bridge in Wales. Now if the small town of Crickhowell is indeed a stand-in for Bucklebury, where is the site of Frodo’s “old-fashioned countrified house”? Step forward Table Mountain.
Table Mountain is a small but distinctively flat-topped Iron Age hillfort overlooking Crickhowell. Though the evidence is lacking this hillfort is likely to be the original Crickhowell, Crughywel in Welsh: this translates as Howell’s hillock, though we can only speculate as to who Hywel or Howell was. Is it just the eye of faith that sees this as “long and low, with no upper storey” and “a roof of turf”? True, there are no round windows or large door, but we can imagine them. (From below it even resembles Hobbiton Hill as illustrated by Tolkien himself in The Hobbit.)
From the drafts of LOTR (edited by Christopher Tolkien) we read a passing reference to one of the “neighbouring villages” of Bree being called Crick — later to transform into Crickhollow — and it may be significant that Crickhowell locals often refer to the town simply as ‘Crick’. However, if Tolkien really did base Crick/Crickhollow on Crickhowell he couldn’t have done so during or after a visit here in the forties, as local tradition has it, for one simple reason: as the authoritative timeline for the author tells us, Tolkien began drafting The Lord of the Rings in late 1937 after the successful publication of The Hobbit, and had taken it as far as Rivendell by late 1939. If there is a connecting link it must have been made before 1937.
One other related local tradition has it that Erebor, the Lonely Mountain where Smaug had his hoard, is based on Sugar Loaf Mountain (Mynydd Pen-y-fâl) to the northwest of Abergavenny. The principal basis for this, it seems to me, is that it has the same characterstic conical shape — albeit less exaggerated — as Erebor, as seen in the map drawn by the author for The Hobbit. (Mynydd Pen-y-fâl means something like “the top of the summit mountain”.) Sugar Loaf as Erebor seems to me like special pleading, especially as Tolkien was writing the LOTR prequel from 1930 onwards till its publication. Unless of course Tolkien knew the area well before the 1940s.
As for the notion that Mordor is based on the fiery sky seen at night from Crickhowell in the early 20th century, due to the industrial activity from Merthyr Tydfil, Ebbw Vale and so on lighting up the sky, I’ll leave it to the reader to judge as they ponder the answers to my question.
Barbara Strachey, Journeys of Frodo. Unwin Paperbacks, 1981
J R R Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien, The History of the Lords of the Rings, Part One: The Return of the Shadow. Unwin Paperbacks, 1990 (1988)
J R R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. HarperCollins 1993 (1968)
Visit Wales: http://www.visitwales.com/holidays-breaks/sightseeing-and-tours/tolkiens-wales
British Listed Buildings: http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/wa-21186-buckland-hall-aka-buckland-house-buckland#.WJoh-4XXLIU
Buckland Hall: http://www.bucklandhall.co.uk/buckland_hall_content.php?art_id=112
The Tolkien Society: https://www.tolkiensociety.org/author/timeline/#hobbit
The Encyclopedia of Arda by Michael Fisher, “Crickhollow”: http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/c/crickhollow.html
Uncredited images are from my own photos
** Postscript: I meant to add that, according to Christopher Tolkien, Ringhay was the original name for Crickhollow in “A Conspiracy is Unmasked” chapter as first written. This is quoted as referring to the “wide circle of lawn surrounded by a belt of trees inside the outer hedge”. The hedge in question is the High Hay, a long belt of trees demarcating Buckland and separating it on the east side from the Old Forest. The word Hay itself means ‘hedge’, and in this part of Wales the most familiar Hay of course is Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh for which is Y Gelli (meaning a grove, copse or small wood). Hay is 15 miles due north from Crickhowell as the crow flies, or 20 miles by road. (The Return of the Shadow, 229.)