Middle Earth and Mid Wales

Detail of Pigot & Co.’s New Map of England & Wales […] &c.: Wales in 1830

As part of my anticipation of March’s Wales Readathon (or Dewithon) this post revisits and expands a little on an idea I first posited in the post Parallel lines — the possible connections between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the alternate Wales of Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken’s fantasy The Whispering Mountain was first published in 1968, based on research she’d conducted in Brecon public library, undertaken (I’m assuming) the year before. Coincidentally 1968 was also the year that the authorised one-volume UK edition of The Lord of the Rings was issued, which I personally remember purchasing that autumn as a student (and avidly reading when I should have been studying).

LOTR of course was originally published between 1954 and 1955, and I fancy that Joan Aiken, just in her thirties, would have been familiar with the three-volume hardback edition before she embarked on the so-called prequel to the Wolves Chronicles, The Whispering Mountain. Why do I suggest this, in the absence of any written evidence that I’m aware of? Just consider the following coincidences.

Map of Middle Earth by Chris Taylor and Chris Guerette http://www.ititches.com/middleearth/me.pdf

1. Hero. The young protagonist has a typically Welsh name: Owen is the medieval Owein or Owain, and like the Breton Ywain is ultimately from the Latin Eugenius meaning well-born. However, I’m struck by Joan Aiken’s choice of the first name beginning with ‘O’, which immediately reminded me of the hobbits Bilbo and Frodo, whose names end in ‘-o’. Too far-fetched? Unconvinced? Well, nor am I convinced really, if that were all—but it’s not all.

2. The Return of the King. Early on in The Lord of the Rings Frodo and his companions come across the mysterious Ranger called Strider, who later turns out to be Aragorn, the man who will be king at the end of the epic. In The Whispering Mountain Owen and other boys from Pennygaff come across an unknown hunter in a wooded river valley who turns out to be Davie, Prince of Wales, and who in a later novel is crowned king in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

3. Loathsome creature. Gollum is the onetime (and now long-lived) hobbit Smeagol who’s obsessed with the One Ring, which he once found in the caves under the Misty Mountains and which he is determined to take back from the nasty noser Baggins who’s now carrying his Precious. In Wales, the diminutive troglodyte is called Abipaal, obsessed with the golden Harp of Teirtu which he succeeds in stealing from the ruffians (who in turn stole it from Owen) before restitution is eventually made. Gollum and Abipaal: two equally obnoxious characters whom, at times, we can’t help feeling sorry for.

4. Precious. In Tolkien’s trilogy Frodo is tasked with returning the One Ring to its rightful place, Mount Doom, although it is sought by Sauron, by the Dark Lord’s minions and, of course, Gollum; while in the Wolves chronicle it’s Owen who’s tasked with finding and returning the much-coveted Harp of Teirtu to the museum in Pennygaff. The tasks prove extremely burdensome to both protagonists.

5. Dark Lord. Sauron, formerly known as the Necromancer in The Hobbit, is the malign antagonist who wants to get his hands on the One Ring, sending out servants to find the Ringbearer and retrieve the desired object; but despite his best efforts [spoiler alert!] he is ultimately defeated. Similarly, the Marquess of Malyn is the villain in Wales who’s obsessed with obtaining the musical instrument to join his collection of golden artefacts, sending his servants to the Hughes’ museum and elsewhere to obtain it; like Sauron he too is defeated, and also like Sauron he is utterly despicable and feared.

6. Troglodytes. Dwarfs (or, to use Tolkien’s spelling, dwarves) are associated with underground caves and mines, and in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are most at home below the earth; they are prepared to associate with hobbits, but reluctantly. Their equivalents in Aiken’s fantasy are the equally diminutive and secretive Fur-Niskies or Phoenicans who live in the tunnels connecting Malyn Castle with the Whispering Mountain, Fig-Hat Ben.

7. Mountains. High eminences play a significant part in both narratives. In Middle Earth we get acquainted with ranges such as the Misty Mountains and the Iron Hills, as well as more solitary peaks such as Erebor and Mount Doom. In alternate Wales we have the Black Mountains and the slumbering Fig-Hat Ben. In both tales the climactic scene takes place within the most spectacular of the mountains, respectively Mount Doom and Fig-Hat Ben.

8. Journey. In Tolkien’s fantasy world the two hobbit heroes travel there and back again, to the Shire they call home, though at the very end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes on a final sea voyage westwards. In The Whispering Mountain there is some reversal: Owen’s back story involves a sea voyage from the South China Seas before his Welsh wanderings finally take him back to his family’s village where the novel began. In addition, Bilbo and Frodo travel eastwards towards mountains in their respective quests whereas Owen works his way westwards from his mountain village to the sea before his eventual return.

9. Two Towers. At the climax of each tale a stronghold is destroyed: in one it is Sauron’s tower in the southeast, Barad-dûr in Mordor, in the other it is Malyn Castle in the west, by the sea.

10. Elder guide. The two narratives feature characters who stand in the same advisory role to the protagonist that Merlin has with Arthur. In LOTR it’s Gandalf of course, while Owen has Brother Ianto, newly returned from China: the latter’s wizardry is less to do with magic, however, than in fashioning replacement glasses for Owen who is helpless without them.

The Whispering Mountain (1968) has always been treated as an outlier in the Wolves Chronicles because it seems to stand apart from the first three novels, involving none of the main participants we’ve already met in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), Black Hearts in Battersea (1964) and Night Birds in Nantucket (1966) although it too is set in the reign of James III.

Perhaps part of its oddness comes from a different rag bag of influences: while the earlier novels drew from Dickens or the Brontës or from Joan’s own experiences in New England, for example, this Wales-set novel seems to have deliberately mined not only historical Welsh culture and Arthurian tradition but also—as this post argues—Tolkienian motifs. Surely I’m not the only person to note that the ferocity of the wolves in the sequence has a lot in common with the fierce Wargs of Middle Earth?

Finally, as in LOTR, few females are involved in The Whispering Mountain. We only really have Arabis Dando who plays an active role. Arabis to me seems like a cross between Eowyn and Goldberry: at times she is proactive like the warrior princess of Rohan, at others she is more fey, being learned in herbal lore like her father Tom, who I fancy may be the equivalent of Tom Bombadill in some of his aspects.

Please note that I’m not proposing that Joan Aiken determined to produce a faint imitation of The Lord of the Rings: the fact that, as far as I’m aware, no one else has noted as close a correspondence as the one I’ve proposed above may indicate otherwise. I’m sure it wouldn’t have won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for 1969 if those giving the award suspected anything of the sort!

But equally it may confirm that Joan Aiken was a consummate writer who could take motifs and tale-types from wherever she chose and meld them into something new and of itself. The only question remaining, I think, is whether she was consciously influenced or inspired by Tolkien’s great epic, and that’s one I’m not in a position to answer.

14 thoughts on “Middle Earth and Mid Wales

  1. Fiona

    That’s a fascinating analysis – and I haven’t even read Aitken’s – let alone anyone else’s – works on the subject.

    Will do when I’ve batted a few students out of the way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Fiona, I really enjoyed ferreting out these possible links in the hope that others would be similarly intrigued … and it worked!

      It’s worth reading or having a sight of The Whispering Mountain to get a flavour of it, to see how different the tone of it is compared to LOTR, and to decide if the points of comparison I point out were deliberate — or just a case of common motifs turning up by chance in two different fantasies. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s an interesting comparison. Whispering Mountain is yet another of the Wolves books I haven’t picked up yet, but reading your analysis is making me want to. I see from goodreads that this is numbered ‘0’ so it wouldn’t be out of order reading it next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it has the feel of a standalone title in the sequence (and it does so more convincingly than some of the other titles) and is usually referred to as a prequel, hence the zero numbering.

      Timewise it certainly fits in before The Cuckoo Tree and Dido and Pa but how much before (a year? two years? more?) is a bit contentious!

      Whenever its placement, Mallika, you wouldn’t have any problem enjoying on its own merits.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Another fascinating analysis! I have to say Joan was not a great fan of Lord of the Rings, she thought it overblown, but loved the energy and style of The Hobbit. But as you say she knew her myths and legends and loved to use and re-use the best…and she loved Wales and I’m sure never saw it as dismal herself – only through the eyes of the odd disenchanted character!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No indeed, “dismal” was Malyn’s judgement on Pennygaff in particular, wasn’t it! I seem to remember you previously mentioning Joan wasn’t enamoured with LOTR, Lizza, but I couldn’t remember if this judgement was before or after it appeared as a one-volume paperback.

      In any case, as many of the parallels apply equally to The Hobbit (Arkenstone instead of the Ring, Smaug instead of Marlyn, Lonely Mountain instead of Whispering Mountain)—and LOTR being almost a plot rerun of Bilbo’s adventure—the similarities as much as the undoubted differences do strike me very much!

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. Ye gods, Sir, you’ve done it again! I was just brainstorming up a few post ideas over the next month or so; with Lent looming I was inspired, of all things, to talk about the “re-imaginings” of fairy tales in current literature–how we seem to enjoy certain storytelling elements over and over and over again. Rather like everyone’s been given the same ingredients but told to go cook their own meals. Yes, there are stark differences, yet many of the tastes are familiar, similar. I would say you’ve found an example of precisely that–also something you know Jones loved poking in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. 🙂

    Yes, this is all inspired by Lent. I’ll explain why later. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Intrigued by your Lent reference, Jean, so look forward to your post on it!

      Yes, re-imaginings of fairytale tropes are fascinating (no doubt you’re aware of the amazing resource tvtropes.org) and DWJ was good at that, particularly in Fire and Hemlock, as you know. And I’ve had Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin recommended to me so many times that I feel guilty I haven’t got round to it yet.

      Have you come across Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots? It’s an an innovative way of looking at narrative plots; however, the book itself is long, turgid and opinionated—I had to rapidly skim over the second half when he tied himself up in Freudian knots—and you’d do best, if you haven’t seen it, to look at a summary, such as Wikipedia’s. With titles such as Voyage and Return, The Quest, Overcoming the Monster, and Rags to Riches, you can see so many tales slotting comfortably into the categories he describes.

      Liked by 1 person

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