The wisdom of wizards

Cardiff Waterstones wizard by Chris Riddell

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.
— Dumbledore

Harry Potter turns 40 today (he was born on 31st July 1980, fifteen years to the day after his creator) so I thought I would offer you a few choice words from just three of the best known fictional wizards in modern times.

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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.

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My top ten mazes

Ritratto Di Gentiluomo by Bartolomeo Veneto in Bartolomeo Veneto, l’opera completa, Firenze: Centro Di, 1997. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve long had a fascination with mazes and labyrinthine paths, whether it be their patterns, their history, their symbolism or their psychology. My bible for a long time was W H Matthews’ classic overview Mazes and Labyrinths: their history and developments (first published in 1922 and republished in 1970). I also pored over G R Levy’s The Gate of Horn (1948, republished 1963) which looked at how caves may have contributed to the lore of the winding path, while taking copious notes from a library copy of Jack Lindsay’s fascinating Helen of Troy (1974).

I learnt the difference between unicursal and multicursal mazes, and also the correspondences between the classic Cretan labyrinth and the Christian maze (as typified in Chartres Cathedral); I taught myself how to draw the classic pattern freehand, and traced it out on beaches for the amusement of children and, later, grandchildren; I corresponded with experts (for example Adrian Fisher and Jeff Seward, author of Magical Paths) and exchanged notes and booklets on the subject with them.

And, of course, I read fiction that featured the labyrinth and the maze in all its wonderful variety.

Here are ten titles about these conundrums that I especially remember and value (links are to relevant reviews or discussions).

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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.

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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.

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Less majesty

rider-of-rohan
One of the Riders of Rohan from Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Fotonovel Publications 1979

The road travelled by the illustrated story is long and, as it were, goes ever on. Its several origins can be found in ancient Mesopotamia and on Viking gravestones, in Palaeolithic cave paintings and on the Bayeux tapestry, on medieval church walls and in early modern chapbooks. In the 20th century we were introduced to French comics called bandes dessinées and to Japanese manga and the graphic novel, while the addition of photographs gave rise to Italian fumetti and the American photonovel. When Tolkien’s epic fantasy appeared in the middle of the last century it was only a matter of time before the film of the book was produced, leading much more rapidly to … the photonovel of the film of the book.

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