Where was The Shire?

Black Mountains
Black Mountains above Crickhowell, Powys, with Table Mountain’s silhouette on the right

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 […]”

Buckland Hall, Bwlch, Powys (credit: Richard Fensome http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/735769)
Buckland Hall, Bwlch, Powys (credit: Richard Fensome http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/735769)

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, from the Encyclopedia of Arda: http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/c/crickhollow.html
Crickhollow in Buckland, from the Encyclopedia of Arda: http://www.glyphweb.com/arda/c/crickhollow.html

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.

Crickhowell, Powys in the mid-20th century from the Bartholomew Half Inch map series of the mid twentieth century (credit: http://www.oldemaps.co.uk/map-crickhowell.jpg)
Crickhowell, Powys in the mid-20th century from the Bartholomew Half Inch map series of the mid twentieth century (credit: http://www.oldemaps.co.uk/map-crickhowell.jpg) a: Route to Buckland at Bwlch, on the Brecon road. b: Heads of the Valleys road. 1: Crickhowell. 2: Table Mountain. 3: Sugar Loaf Mountain. 4: River Usk, in the Vale of Usk.

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.

Crughywel

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.

Mynydd Pen-y-fâl
Sugar Loaf Mountain (Mynydd Pen-y-fâl) viewed from Crughywel hillfort (Table Mountain), Crickhowell

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.

References

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.)

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35 thoughts on “Where was The Shire?

  1. Interesting sleuthing you’ve got here! It’d be interesting to know if Tolkien ever visited the area as a child. Even if he wasn’t there at the time of writing LOTR, it could be some childhood memory influenced his creation of The Shire. That would’ve been in a time when holidays abroad would’ve been rare, with families visiting other places in the UK to escape from the ennui of home life.

    1. Thanks for the compliments! It’s generally suggested that Tolkien’s inspiration for the Shire was the countryside of his childhood, particularly Warwickshire and Worcestershire, but whether he came across the border to Wales in his early years I’ve yet to discover. if and when I get any more details I promise I’ll do a follow-up post!

    1. Thanks for these, Brent. The only Kocher I’ve got and read is Master of Middle Earth but what I remember of it is that it is a literary study of LOTR and his other fiction work. I read a general introduction by Lin Carter to Tolkien’s work some time in the late 60s but no longer have the copy (it fell apart I suspect, as most paperbacks did then), but what little I remember is that it too discussed Tolkien’s literary inspirations.

      Thomas Shippey and Verlyn Flieger are new to me but I’ll keep an eye out for them. I remembered there was a recent-ish study called Tolkien and Wales and having looked that up I’ve written to the author in the hopes that he may be able to shine a light on all this. We’ll see!

      1. It’s been a while since I read Kocher & Carter, I was pulling likely titles off my shelf.

        Carpenter’s pretty good, as I recall. Shippey’s been a big name as a “go to” for Tolkien scholars for at least the last 10-15 years. Flieger’s probably the biggest name in Tolkien scholarship.

        1. I’ll check out Shippey and Flieger sometime, thanks, Brent. In the meantime I’ve had a reply from the author of Tolkien and Wales and will include some of his comments in a follow-up post soon.

  2. Well, I’ll be the avuncular relative of a gorilla!
    I had always thought that the inspiration for The Shire was Hogsback in the Cape. This was borne out from knowing he was born in Bloemfontein, and from my own visits there I could well imagine this being the lovely area depicted. The locals are at pains to perpetuate this idea, but I now see that their claims are on rather tenuous ground when one takes into account that Tolkien left at the age of three. IF he had visited just before departure, would the impressions remain in such a young mind? Would dispatches from his son on his visits be sufficient fuel? Anyway, I can bear out that the scenery and atmosphere fit to a tee. The pictures in this link don’t even do it full justice.

    https://www.africanbudgetsafaris.com/blog/hogsback-village/#anchor_tolkien

    1. Dear Brother of a Simian Mother …

      Joking aside, I was interested in this pictorial album of Tolkien’s original homeland, however inadequate. Far from Hogsback being the Shire (granted it has a more temperate aspect than that usually associated with the Cape) I would have thought that Hogs One, Two and Three, if the young J R R remembered them at all, would be contenders for the Misty Mountains.

      I think back to my first four years in Hong Kong and some memories emerge distinctive and strong, but most remain hidden like the proverbial iceberg. It’s possible Tolkien incorporated a few of his in LOTR, but perhaps more allusively — maybe, say, the men of the South whom Sauron summoned to his cause? But it’s all very intriguing!

      1. Intriguing it is. Hogsback is extraordinary in having its own individual climate, quite un-Cape-like. Reminds me of the plateau on Zomba Mountain in Malawi — from tropical Africa to mid-European in one easy climb!

    1. And now you have commented! My attitude towards, say, Austen may have been similar to yours, Gert: I resisted for a long time, pretending it’s not for me, or having a perverse pride in not reading it, but finding it glorious when I did eventually succumb. It’s clear I wouldn’t have been ready for Austen any earlier, and there’ll be authors I’ll never be ready for.

      I’m not one of those, though, who’d say that resistance is useless — I’d be the first to say that LOTR, for all its strengths, is sylistically uneven, impenetrable in places even at the umpteenth reading, and probably too popular for its own good. Steer well clear of it!

      1. It just never appealed to me, and then of course when everyone was reading it and saying you MUST read it, that was it. (In the same vein I’ve never read Harry Potter, or Arripotaire as they call him on the French news). Jane Austen, now that’s a different matter.

        1. I too have an aversion to consuming the latest fiction, film or tv show just because it’s fashionably “in” or because I’m told I ought to — I’m just contrary like that even though it’s supposed to be equivalent to cutting off my own nose to spite my face. Us Contrary Mary’s should stick together!

          At least, until we’re damn well ready to dip our toes in if we choose to!

  3. This is scholarly stuff, Chris. Even handed, well researched and compellingly put together. Such a shame Tolkein didn’t answer these questions himself before he died. But then, where would be the fun in knowing all the answers 🙂

  4. I like the way so many people can claim to be from or to have walked in the place that might have inspired Tolkien’s picture of the shire. You’ve done some really interesting work looking at possibilities; I tend to think that most authors use memory and desire, along with geography, to create their fictional places.
    Shippey and Flieger are two of the best Tolkien critics around (by the way, Flieger is female).

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head there I think, Jeanne — just in Wales and the Marches I see that Cardigan Bay and the border with Shropshire have been claimed as inspiration. It’s the same with Arthur — I have shelves groaning with books each arguing for one or other part of Britain being his one and only true home. I’m with you entirely that authors use this thing called imagination, allied to experience, to conjure up their landscapes.

      Thanks for the reminder on Shippey and Flieger, and pointing out the gender of the latter — I suppose Verlyn is not an obviously gender specific name!

  5. Whilst i didn’t enjoy reading the LOTR, i do like the *idea* of it, if that makes sense? I love the idea of hobbits; of Smeagol/Gollum; of Orcs and Elves…..but i just couldn’t get into the writing. I feel really awful saying that, as i know it’s so popular! I feel even MORE awful admitting that – conversely – i LOVED the films…..*hangs head in shame*…generally i’m a “preferred the book” kinda person. But The Lord Of The Rings is the one case in which i’m ashamed to say that the opposite is true! Oh well.

    Anyhoo, my original intention was to comment on the beautiful photos here! That first one is especially magical. I’m not familiar with any of these areas (Australian here; have never visited these parts unfortunately), but, they sound – and look – quite enchanting.

    1. I enjoyed the films very much too — still do! — but reading is an entirely different experience, and Tolkien’s language can take some getting used to, and of course not everyone gets on with it or ‘gets’ it, and that’s fine, there’s no law about having to be a fan of the writing!

      Thanks for your appreciative comments on the photos: they’re all Instagram-edited pics I took on my phone (which explains the low res quality). We’re really chuffed to live in this area, with views like this available from our bedroom window and on walks. Though I’ve never visited, Australia must have just as amazing scenery (I’m thinking for example of the Blue Mountains, which look gorgeous) and of course New Zealand, where the films were shot, quite rightly touts itself as Middle Earth.

      1. Well that’s a relief to hear. I know it has SUCH a huge following, so i’ve always felt a little guilty about not being able to get into the book! But give me the movies anyday. And a hobbit house!

        No worries; they really are lovely snaps! I’m envious that you can see such things from your house! Admittedly though, we do have some similarly lovely scenery here in Aus. I took these shots close to where my parents live, for example: https://siddiebowtie.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/and-now-for-something-completely-different/ That’s up in New South Wales. But down here in Victoria we have some equally magical landscapes. I currently live in a gorgeous village in the mountains…so i can’t complain!

        And oh, yes. New Zealand! So beautiful.

          1. Aww, why thanking you muchly! It was posted when i’d just begun blogging here, and i’m pretty sure you’re the only one who’s actually listened to it, so double thankyou! The only reason the photos are there is to detract from the possible boredom inducing effects of the drum. And, i suppose, to evoke a mood. The mountainous areas of NSW countryside are breathtaking. I’m not sure what it is about being up in the hills, but personally, they make me feel more alive somehow. The fresh air; the greenery; the views….sigh! How lucky we are to be near places of such beauty.

            1. Hills like that definitely are — to quote the song — alive with the sound of music … made by nature and heard by one’s inner ear as much as by the conventional ears. 🙂

            1. Ohhhh. Ah. See, i can be quite stupid ( if that wasn’t already obvious), and that went over my head. Whilst i dabble with musical instruments, i’ve never actually had any lessons, and can’t even read music. I don’t even know what most musical terms mean, let alone what you’re supposed to call the instruments…..*walks away redfaced* ( i really do want one of the dulcimer thingies i mistakenly thought you were referring to, though….so lovely..)

            2. Hammered dulcimers (without keys!) are very popular in traditional music from Eastern Europe, especially in countries like Hungary. 🙂

              Don’t be abashed about what you may not know — there are huge swathes of knowledge I am and will remain ignorant of — the crucial thing to remember that your video reveals is that you’re a natural, and there are many trained musicians who’d envy your innate talent!

            3. They’re lovely….i definitely covet one now.
              Well, thankyou. That’s very nice of you! I mostly do just feel like an idiot, though, or- especially when i do anything musical- an imposter. You know; the turd in the punchbowl, and all that. But you’re very kind and diplomatic, and i do appreciate it!

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