A little piece of Middle Earth

Looking towards Buckland Hill from the Black Mountains, with the Brecon Beacons beyond

Seamus Hamill-Keays
‘Tolkien and Buckland: An Analysis of the Evidence’
Brycheiniog: Cyfnodolyn Cymdeithas Brycheiniog /
The Journal of the Brecknock Society XLIX 2018

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote that The Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” — that is, around 1897 — and “based on rural England and not on any other country in the world.” And yet, in South Powys, Wales, there’s a persistent local tradition that Ronald based the easternmost outpost of Middle Earth’s Shire in the Vale of Usk, in particular between Brecon and Abergavenny. Buckland in LOTR was suggested to be based on Buckland near Bwlch, and Frodo’s house at Crickhollow was presumed to be inspired by Crickhowell.

In addition, Tolkien is reputed to have spent time at nearby Talybont in the early forties while putting LOTR together. When I examined the evidence, such as it was, I concluded that “if the Buckland and Crickhollow of The Lord of the Rings really were inspired by the Buckland and Crickhowell of the Usk valley then [the visit] happened before the forties,” when the trilogy was complete. But I had no real inkling when exactly that could be.¹

“The closest [Tolkien] admits to first-hand contact with everyday Welsh is on coal-trucks marked with placenames, railway station signs, a house inscription declaring it was adeiladwyd 1887 (‘built 1887’), all presumably from one or more holiday trips to places far to the west,” I wrote. “That Tolkien visited Wales at some stage seemed undeniable to me; but when?” A recent article by Seamus Hamill-Keays, kindly brought to my attention by the author, plausibly suggests the answer, buttressing his hypothesis with a wealth of supporting material.

First, let’s eliminate JRRT’s previously known trips to Wales. In 1920, in his late twenties, Ronald went on a family holiday to Llanbedrog on the Llŷn peninsula in North Wales. Presumably the family went by rail without stopping to explore on the way. Then, in the last couple of years of the war when he was an external examiner for the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, we may surmise he again travelled by rail. Neither of these two periods would have entailed him visiting the Usk Valley. While staying with George Sayer in Malvern in 1952 he went on a drive to the Black Mountains, but this of course was after he’d completed LOTR.² He did travel frequently across Wales to sail to Ireland, but as he noted in 1955 “I first set foot in ‘Eire’ in 1949 after The Lord of the Rings was finished.”

However, Daniel Grotta (who wrote a biography of the author in 1992, J R R Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth) gives an unsourced clue, perhaps based on information provided by Tolkien’s college scout and his Welsh wife whom he’d interviewed:

“Shortly after [Ronald’s mother] Mabel Tolkien died [in November 1904] Father Morgan, Tolkien and Hilary went by railway for a fortnight’s holiday in Wales.”

Hamill-Keays suggests that this railway trip could have taken place either during the Easter break or the summer holidays in 1905 when Ronald was thirteen and his brother Hilary was eleven. The key to this presumed holiday in the Vale of Usk is Father Francis Xavier Morgan Osborne, the boys’ guardian. Who exactly was this man?

Father Morgan was born into a family of wine merchants before being ordained a Catholic priest in 1883. Through his Morgan ancestry he was related to Godfrey Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar, veteran of the Crimean War (he’d survived the famous charge of the Light Brigade) whose main seat was at Tredegar House in Newport, South Wales. Though we have no firm links between the two men, it’s very probable that they were at least nodding acquaintances. Lord Tredegar was also well acquainted with James Price Williams Gwynne-Holford, owner of Buckland Hall in the Vale of Usk, both being contemporaries at Eton, Justices of the Peace on the same bench and active politically as Tory MPs.

This then is the chain of connections Hamill-Keays proposes to account for Ronald and Hilary’s familiarity with Buckland in the Usk valley: a fortnight’s holiday somewhere in Wales after their mother dies; their guardian’s kinship with the aged Lord Tredegar; and the latter’s close association with J P W Gwynne-Holford of Buckland who may have provided a base for the holidays. Are these merely coincidences? The author of this paper thinks not.

How would they have travelled? We’re explicitly told they took the train. From Newport (where Father Morgan’s distant relative owned the Restoration-era Tredegar House) they will no doubt have taken the Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil Junction Railway to Talybont, the nearest station to Buckland. We know the non-English place names which the young Ronald will have seen excited him immensely, and of course the heavily industrialised landscape of Merthyr could well have been very suggestive of Mordor, in both name and nature.

But it’s the correspondences between the two Bucklands that further help to firm up the conviction that there exists a real connection between them. The topographical configurations of both territories (despite huge differences in scale) is sometimes so close as to be beyond dispute: the orientation of the rivers Usk and Brandywine; the shapes of both Bucklands; and the extensive woodland on Buckland Hill corresponding to the sinister Old Forest. Hamill-Keays points not just to Ronald’s likely familiarity with an underground ice-house near the estate farm as a model for the tunnel into the Old Forest but also to comparable gates by the bridges to the north, as well as to the drowning of Frodo’s parents echoing a local tale of a gamekeeper who drowned in the Usk by Buckland Hall. (A now dilapidated footbridge later replaced a ferry across the Usk, the counterpart of Middle Earth’s Bucklebury ferry.)

Comparing the two Bucklands (1) Wales (2) Middle Earth. Similarities are the shape of the Bucklands with river to the west and woodland to the east, along with comparable bridges and placenames. Based on 1905 OS map and Tolkien’s final map of the Shire, after Hamill-Keays. The orange circle shows Frodo’s house Crickhollow, and the green arrow the position of the underground way into the Old Forest. CL

Hamill-Keays ends by affirming that his thesis needs further research to corroborate it, and it’s true — we have a lot of circumstantial evidence though the key documentary proofs are lacking. It’s hard however not to be convinced by the substantial topographical similarities when allied with the admittedly lone reference to the Tolkien siblings holidaying in Wales at a sufficiently early and impressionable point in their lives.

Tolkien was always insistent that The Shire was “based on rural England”; but the Welsh Marches — which this corner of Breconshire just edges into — have long been, like their Pembrokeshire counterpart — a bit of “Little England beyond Wales”. They may now, thanks to Hamill-Keays, also be said to contain a little piece of Middle Earth.

View northeast across the Usk Valley to the wooded Buckland Hill

¹ “Where was the Shire?” https://wp.me/s2oNj1-shire
² “Wales and Tolkien” https://wp.me/s2oNj1-wales

8 thoughts on “A little piece of Middle Earth

    1. A few online tourist sites have repeated the local tradition about Tolkien being here in the 40s, and I gather Buckland Hall hosted a Tolkien conference at one stage, but this recently published paper may, I guess, persuade the tourism people to push it even more! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Strange that Hogsback, in South Africa, remain adamant that part of the influence came from a visit there. Based on the countryside, I can well believe it. It is un-African and very quaint Middle-Earthish. As is the Zomba Plateau, in Malawi, but that is too small (and he certainly didn’t go there.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I remember you writing about the Hogsback. I left Kowloon, the peninsula opposite Hong Kong, when I was four but I do have a small store of vivid memories from my time there, so I’ve no doubt that Tolkien (who, too, left South Africa at the age of four) could equally have retained strong impressions of the countryside. But it seems that any such connections have remained undocumented so any speculation has to remain just that — speculation. Misty Mountains they could well be though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting post. I had no idea about this being a posibility. I’m glad to see papers still being published on the real topographic inspiration for such influential books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Silvia. I wonder if now if the vague traditions about the area’s connections with Tolkien will be not only corrected (sadly, I suspect unsupported hearsay will still win the day) but but form a firm basis for informed tourism and literary pilgrimage. One can only hope! 🙂

      Like

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