Skip to main content

The Worlds of J.R.R.Tolkien

While I was working on my recent series of posts about The Lord of the Rings, the writer and Tolkien scholar John Garth kindly sent me a copy of his new book, The Worlds of J.R.R.Tolkien. Here’s my review. 

When you’re a fan of a writer’s work, it’s natural to want to follow it to its sources, and find out what inspired it. The temptation is always to delve into their biography and connect key experiences to images in their books. I think one can go too far with that - when I was coming up with the various worlds on which the Railhead trilogy takes place, I sometimes drew on vivid memories of places I know well, sometimes took inspiration from nice photographs and concept art I saw online, and sometimes just made stuff up on the hoof to suit the demands of the story. Once it’s all been rewritten a few times, I don’t think the reader can tell the difference, and even I have often forgotten where a particular image came from. But there is no doubt that JRR Tolkien drew on some real-world influences for the landscapes of Middle-earth. He told us about some of them, identifying the Lauterbrunnen valley in Switzerland as the inspiration for Rivendell, and the shelled wastelands of the Western Front for parts of Mordor. But, as John Garth says in the introduction to The Worlds of J.R.R.Tolkien, ‘Existing discussions of Tolkien’s place inspirations are often unsatisfactory ... Tourist offices and entrepreneurs often ignore or distort the biographical facts to serve local commercial interests, and their assertions acquire the air of fact by being repeated in newspapers or on Wikipedia.’ He sets out to untangle the truth, and to put forward some plausible and well-evidenced theories of his own.

Divided into chapters based mostly around different types of landscape, the book explores how seas and shorelines, mountains, forests, the industrial midlands, and the battlefields of Flanders all fed Tolkien’s imagination and were woven into his slowly growing private mythology. It’s sceptical of some of the received wisdom (while accepting some aspects of the Birmingham - Mordor connection Garth points out that the Birmingham Tolkien knew as a young man, with its thriving toy and knick-knack industries, was also a good match for the town of Dale in The Hobbit. ) It also mentions some connections I had not heard before, suggesting the image of Luthien dancing in the woods, which is at the heart of one of Middle-earth’s most enduring myths, is a reference to a glade in Roos, Yorkshire, where Tolkien’s wife Edith danced during one of his spells of leave from the Great War. There is a good chapter on the war itself, which looms of much more of The Lord of the Rings than just the blighted wastelands of Mordor - on my recent re-read I saw its influence everywhere. Garth suggests that the glimpse of the Undying Lands at the end of The Return of the King - 'the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise' - might recall the coast of England seen from a ship bringing Tolkien back across the channel from the fighting, and that sounds plausible to me. Equally, of course, it could hark back to Tolkien's first sight of England when he travelled here from Africa as a small child. (Like Rosemary Sutcliff, another of my childhood favourites, Tolkien spent his early years abroad, and I wonder if one reason they both wrote so well about the British landscape is because they had seen it in their own childhoods with an outsider's eyes.)

Beautifully produced and laid out, the book features a nice mix of landscape photographs, maps, period photos and illustrations, and Tolkien’s own paintings. There’s even an atmospheric Adam Burton image of Dartmoor’s Wistman’s Wood to open the Forests section (although Dartmoor, which has such a strong presence in Alan Lee’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings illustrations, doesn’t seem to have been an influence on Tolkien at all.) It's beautifully produced, printed on a high-quality matt paper which serves the pictures well, and  it is ‘written to be read in order, but also to reward browsing’, with side-bars and panels expanding on the themes in each chapter.

Basically, if you love Tolkien’s work and want to know more about where it came from, this book is for you. And if you know anyone else who is, and does, their next birthday or Christmas present is sorted.


Popular posts from this blog

Excalibur at Forty

It's hard to believe forty years have passed since I watched Excalibur rise from the lake. It was Sunday, July 5th, 1981, around 2.45 in the afternoon, and I was in the ABC Cinema in Brighton. I remember it as if it were yesterday. In paintings and illustrations Excalibur often emerges from the lake at an angle. Sometimes it's in a scabbard and the Lady of the Lake grasps it by the middle; you can imagine her waggling it about to get Arthur's attention. But in Excalibur it rushes straight up, the misty water parting with a ripple around the eerily green-lit blade until at last the hilt breaks the surface, scattering slow-motion droplets like seed pearls.It's like watching the launch of an Apollo rocket. From the trees at the water's edge, mission controller Merlin looks on in awe. What he's probably wondering is, what happens next? Does he have a little boat moored among the roots to get him out to the middle of the mere where the sword is waiting for him? Or

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

One of the reasons the Arthurian Legends appeal so much to writers and film makers is that there is no single original version. If there ever was, it was a tale told by some Romano-British storyteller, sitting by a fire in a damp hall, perhaps expounding on the great deeds of a local ruler or late Roman general, and spicing up the action with some motifs borrowed from old Celtic myths. In the centuries that followed, the story grew, and changed. Lots of legends about other heroes got tacked on to it. French and German poets got hold of it and added Camelot, the Grail, and Courtly Love: Malory borrowed from them all in his Morte D’Arthur . Later, everyone from Tennyson to TH White to Rick Wakeman to little me retold the stories, altering them to fit our own vision and reflect our own times. So you can do whatever you like with King Arthur: everyone else has. At least, that’s the theory. Now here's Guy Ritchie’s 2017 box office catastrophe King Arthur, Legend of the Sword to destru

Railhead A-Z

In order to save my website it became necessary to destroy it. Before I pulled the plug I rescued the longest post on my old blog. Here it is, like the lone survivor of a shipwreck: my A-Z guide to the ideas behind my novel Railhead. At the time it was written, Railhead had just been published. I'll be putting up some posts about the sequels, Black Light Express and Station Zero , in the coming days. Railhead cover art by Ian McQue A  is for Alternative Forms of Transport ‘What I need,’ I thought, when I’d been struggling on and off for a few years with my space epic (working title, ‘Space Epic’) ‘is an alternative to spaceships…’ I’ve always enjoyed space stories. I first started reading science fiction back in 1977, when the original Star Wars film made me realise that outer space could be just as good a backdrop for fantasy as Tolkien-esque worlds of myth and legend. (Actually, I didn’t see Star Wars until 1978, but its bow-wave of publicity hit these shores the p