Tolkien’s Sidmouth

Tolkien’s Hobbitonon-the-Hill

Many are the parts of Britain that are claimed as the inspiration for The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sarehole in Warwickshire, where Ronald’s widowed mother moved in 1896, is a convincing part-model; then there’s Buckland in Powys, Wales where it’s argued the young Ronald and his younger brother Hilary later spent a holiday with their guardian after their mother’s death in 1904. A recent item by a trainee reporter for Devon Live caught my eye with yet another claim for primacy as the original Shire:

Although you may know that Tolkien had connections with Oxford, you may be less familiar with his affection for the Jurassic Coast. According to his biographers, Tolkien essentially turned Sidmouth into the Shire.

Toby Codd, Devon Live

My not being a Tolkien scholar in any shape or form this assertion was therefore news to me, since I was only vaguely aware of Tokien having been to Devon’s Jurassic Coast on holiday at some stage. But is Sidmouth really the Shire? What’s the evidence for this assertion? Or is it all down to lazy journalism?

Continue reading “Tolkien’s Sidmouth”

Knife, sting and tooth

© C A Lovegrove

The Return of the King,
Part 3 of The Lord of the Rings
by J R R Tolkien.
HarperCollins Publishers, 1999 (1955).

Part 2 of The Lord of the Rings ended with a cliffhanger: the Ring-Bearer was trapped alive in the tower of Cirith Ungol, the Pass of the Spider, with his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee locked outside. Meanwhile, though the siege of Helm’s Deep had been lifted, Minas Tirith was now in great danger; and though Gandalf and Pippin were racing towards it they had no clear idea of how things stood with the city of Gondor.

If the title of Part 2, The Two Towers, alluded to Orthanc and the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, we’ll have seen that the one has been bested by outside forces opposed to the Dark Lord while the other will, as soon becomes apparent, be defeated from within. Part 3 will also be dominated by two movements, one directed towards drawing the attention of Sauron away from the other, drawing steadily closer towards its goal of destroying the Ring of Power.

But the end of the War of the Ring, when it comes, is not indeed the end of all: the author has loose threads in his Middle-earth tapestry to tie up. This will take us back to the Shire and require us to consider the hurts Frodo has suffered: “Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

Continue reading “Knife, sting and tooth”

Middle-earth doublets

‘The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

As I proceeded through Book VI – the second part of The Return of the King and the last book of The Lord of the Rings – I found I wanted to talk about ‘doublets’ and their place in the epic fantasy for this latest post in my Talking Tolkien series.

I don’t of course mean ‘doublet’ in the Elizabethan sense of an item of clothing worn by a courtier, though the derivation from the French doublé meaning doubled or folded over has some bearing. Nor do I mean its common usage in textual criticism as “two different narrative accounts of the same actual event.”

Instead I mean to use it to indicate, in a general sense, individuals who share some characteristics and who may follow a parallel path in the narrative. They are a little like narrative twins (almost but not quite as in Shakespeare’s plots) whose responses to finding themselves in similar situations may converge or diverge at significant points. It’ll be more helpful now if I give the instances I’m thinking of.

Continue reading “Middle-earth doublets”

Two threads

Perrott’s Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham, built 1758, 96 ft (29 metres) in height. Photo credit: Dominic Tooze.

The Two Towers
by J R R Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. 2.
HarperCollins 2012.(1954)

First there were nine. Then two were overcome by the Enemy’s minions. Two quietly slipped off and two others were captured, followed by the remaining three going on what appeared to be a wild goose chase. The fellowship so carefully put together to combat the Enemy is in complete disarray. Is the quest doomed?

The first part of The Lord of the Rings had us following an expedition eastwards from the Shire to Rivendell, where the Fellowship of the Ring was established. By devious routes the dwindling company then headed south to the point where the irrevocable split occurred, meaning a single strand narrative is no longer feasible if we are to keep track of the various players.

Thus begins The Two Towers, the central portion of Tolkien’s massive opus, when our focus shifts, now to the east, now the west, in a dangerous game of distraction, duplicity and bluff.

Continue reading “Two threads”

In Bilbo’s footsteps

Hobbiton, by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J R R Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings Vol. 1.
HarperCollins 2012 (1954)

One of the delights of rereading a favourite book, even one enjoyed multiple times, is the possibility of discovering new aspects to enjoy, despite much remaining familiar. So it is with this, my sixth or seventh visit to Middle-earth in this form, and the surprise is that the tale has not yet grown stale.

What I once saw as longueurs to skim through or skip altogether are now like an overlooked drawer or two in a treasure chest, and even passages I thought I knew well are now revealed new-minted and shiny as if I’d once considered them poor tawdry things. Knowing Tolkien had the capacity to revise and recast and rethink his material over several years has served as a lesson, for me as a reader, to re-evaluate.

Though he was, against his inclination, persuaded to publish his epic fantasy in three volumes (thus potentially jeopardising the integrity of the whole) The Fellowship of the Ring, comprising Books One and Two, does in fact hang together as a narrative, its ending acting as a caesura before the next stage when we follow different individuals and interwoven timelines in The Two Towers. This therefore justifies any overview of the volume as an individual entity.

Continue reading “In Bilbo’s footsteps”

The virtues of vice

Nemesis (1502) by Albrecht Dürer, here conflated with Fortuna

Many of us are familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins. No, I’ll rephrase that: Many of us are familiar with the concept of the seven deadly sins but, I trust, we hope we manage to steer clear of them! But in case you’ve forgotten what they are, this is them: pride, greed, wrath, envy, luxury or lust, gluttony and sloth. They sound even more impressive in Latin:

  • Superbia (pride)
  • Avaritia (greed, avarice)
  • Ira (anger, wrath)
  • Invidia (envy)
  • Luxuria (extravagance, lust)
  • Gula (gluttony)
  • Acedia (sloth)

There are virtues, some corresponding to these vices, others not, but I’ll discuss these a bit later because now I just want to focus on one particular deadly sin — avaritia — which many commentators have identified as one of the prime motivations ruling our age. Avarice or greed has also struck me as a key element in narratives by some authors which I’ve been reading. Especially, but not exclusively, writers like C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

Continue reading “The virtues of vice”

Ring cycles

© C A Lovegrove

As I proceed on my journey through Frodo’s Middle-earth — currently well into The Two Towers — it’s time to take up the metaphorical pen again as part of my #TalkingTolkien series in this, my sixth reread of The Lord of the Rings. As I approach the halfway mark — the end of Book 3 which signals the midway point of the second volume — a few more things strike me about how Tolkien paces and structures his work.

I’ve talked before about Portals, about Crossing Places and Stopping Places signposting significant points in the narrative. At some stage I want to talk about landscapes in more detail, for example how each book so far includes a mysterious woodland or forest at its heart with its odd denizens: Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in the Old Forest, Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlórien, and Treebeard in Fangorn.

But right now I want to consider how The Lord of the Rings appears to incorporate a number of so-called basic plots; while the author’s use of interlacing stories offer a kind of covering garment, archetypal plots appear to provide the scaffolding on which the fabric hangs.

Continue reading “Ring cycles”

Echoes and anticipations

Detail from Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones.

Richard C West, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘.

As I start The Two Towers in my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings I come to the fact that a fellowship of nine — consisting of hobbits, men, wizard, elf and dwarf — which the author has so carefully put together and taken through various vicissitudes, is now scattered almost literally to the four winds.

Why, a third of the way through his epic fantasy, does he deliberately unravel a plait that he has woven together out of various strands, the timelines of our nine individuals? Is it because, as we will soon intuit, he wants to replait these threads into a bigger whole?

An interpretation which has increasingly won favour in recent years — that Tolkien structured his narrative using interlace technique — serves us well enough in considering the apparent splintering of the plotline, and why any dismay felt by the innocent reader only makes sense when seen as part of a bigger plan.

Continue reading “Echoes and anticipations”

Landmarks

Built in 1758, Perrott’s Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham towers 96 ft or 29 metres. Photo credit: Dominic Tooze.

I began my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in April this year and got to ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring in July, when I decided to have a bit of a pause for the summer.

Along the way I used the tag Talking Tolkien in several posts whenever I felt constrained to discuss aspects of Tolkien’s writing or themes that struck me strongly as I read, or featured reviews of Tolkien-related titles.

In September I intend to pick up the journey again with The Two Towers, the middle section of the ‘trilogy’ (in fairness not a description that the author favoured) and I hope you will again join me, if not with the reading then at least with comments on my reviews and discussions.

Continue reading “Landmarks”

Through the portal

© C A Lovegrove

I’m in the Mines of Moria for the sixth time — literature-wise rather than literally — just after crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and I thought this might be a good moment to consider the function of Middle-earth’s portals which Tolkien introduces us to, not just in The Lord of the Rings but also The Hobbit.

In this short (?) essay I’d like to particularly consider the doors and gates leading into and out of the ground — entrances and exits such the door at Bag End, the Side-Door to Erebor the Lonely Mountain, and the Doors of Durin on the west of the Misty Mountains. There will be other examples which will rate mentions but readers will recall certain of these hold great significance for the journeys undertaken by hobbits.

I also want to consider a few motifs that Tolkien borrowed from elsewhere to fashion his underground portals and how they may have influenced him. Hopefully I will identify the keys to help unlock the mysteries of these barriers, but in doing so I give fair warning: spoilers lie ahead.

Continue reading “Through the portal”

Precious, my precious

“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”

Gollum

The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.

In my continuing read of The Lord of the Rings for my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:

“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’

And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.

Continue reading “Precious, my precious”

When two wrongs make a right

I’ve now resumed my reread of The Lord of the Rings with Book II in The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s time to talk about another aspect of the saga: morality. Not in a theological sense, however, but related to Latin mores (in the sense of social norms) — and then I want to link everything to the so-called just world hypothesis or, if you prefer, the just world fallacy.

As I will try to argue, the narrative in The Lord of the Rings can be seen to operate on these two levels: from the viewpoint of the hobbits different social norms (or the lack of them) apply to the different peoples of Middle-earth, but Tolkien also implies that his secondary world is also a just world, chiefly through the sayings and counsels of individuals like Gandalf and Elrond but also in the way that events pan out.

As is fitting I shall be referencing some established scholars who’ve covered this ground before me, but will also attempt to give my own spin on it all; whether I’ll have anything really new to say remains to be seen.

Continue reading “When two wrongs make a right”

Crossing places

© C A Lovegrove

River fords are hugely symbolic as crossing places. Think of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt or equally the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Though the crossing may sometimes be done without getting one’s feet wet — by boat or over a bridge — the physical act of wading through on foot or on horseback often holds a psychological significance.

The end of Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring has Frodo fording the River Bruinen, not only putting distance between him and the Black Riders but marking the prelude to them being swept away, rather like Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea waters. Such crossings by the hobbits are frequent in The Lord of the Rings, whether the Water on which Hobbiton sits, or the ferry across the Brandywine, or tricksy streams like the Withywindle; they almost always signify passing the point of no return as well as an attempt to leave some danger behind.

In this post, the latest of of my Talking Tolkien discussions for my sixth LOTR reread, I want to look at how Tolkien begins to structure Frodo’s journey and quest. This will only be a partial examination of course because the little party has so far just come a sixth of the way through the narrative.

Continue reading “Crossing places”

A world of pure hue

In my reread of The Lord of the Rings I’ve paused at the Ford of Bruinen, the ending of Book I in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can take stock of the way I’ve come. In so doing I note that the cover of my one-volume edition features a design by John Howe of Gandalf the Grey in full flow; however my first single volume copy had a design by Pauline Baynes front and back, adapted from her earlier slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien’s epic, with Gandalf and the hobbits gazing out over a Middle-earth landscape as one’s first view.

What sticks out for me from both Pauline Baynes designs is the strong use of colour — the yellow-gold of the trees framing the inset images, the bold red of the title and author’s name, the greens of the Shire-like landscape on the front cover, the blue tinge of Mordor’s spiky landscape on the reverse.

Memories of those colours, along with Tolkien’s own illustrations for the third edition in 1966 of The Hobbit, drew me back to an essay I remembered reading in Mythlore, a journal focused on Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as on general fantasy and mythic studies. Did I still have it? I rummaged amongst miscellaneous papers and magazines I’d brought with me over at least three house moves, and there it was, Mythlore 26, Winter 1981, Volume 7, No 4. I dived straight in.

Continue reading “A world of pure hue”

A closely woven story

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
— From the Foreword (1966) to The Lord of the Rings

As part of my discussion of The Lord of the Rings under the general heading Talking Tolkien I want to consider the dread word allegory because, despite so much authoritative refutation, one still sees the earnest question online (eg here) along the lines of “Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

A deliberate reading of a story as allegory is termed allegoresis. However, Tolkien’s own Foreword to the Second Edition denied absolutely that the War of the Ring was a closet way of referring to the Great War or the Second World War, with the One Ring a substitute for the Bomb: the crucial chapter, as he emphasised for example, “was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

So why, in the face of such a public denial, does so much commentary still obsess about the novel being an allegory? Probably the answer partly lies in what Tolkien termed applicability and a persistent inability by some to distinguish between perception and intention.

Continue reading “A closely woven story”