J. R. R. Tolkien - Britain's Most Momentous Novelist?

South African born English author John Ronald Reuel (J R R) Tolkien is world famous for writing 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit', thereby creating the fantasy fiction genre. In the spirit of full disclosure, we confess that Momentous Britain loves Tolkien. Here we are queuing to buy 'The Battle of the Five Armies', a Tolkien inspired board game, outside the very first Games Workshop before its very first day of trading on 28th April, 1978. We still maraud around 'Lord of the Rings Online' when we get a chance.

It seems a fitting time to write about Tolkien, it being the 125th anniversary of his birth (or, at least, it was when we started). We deferred publishing this account until we had seen the 'Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth' exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, in case something on show changed our thoughts. It didn't.

Our idea of momentousness means lasting impact. It is not an attribute normally applied to novelists. We have therefore created our own measurement system - explained here - to rank them. We will reveal each author’s position on the list as we come to them. Tolkien is fourth.

Tolkien's Momentousness

It might come as a surprise to some that Tolkien could possibly be Britain’s fourth most momentous novelist. He only published two fiction titles of any significance. Both narratives are along the lines: They eat, they walk, there is a battle, they eat, they walk, there is another battle, and so on until the end. They are of very little interest to a large proportion of the population, especially women (note that there was not a single girl in the queue above ... and it went 200m around the corner). Literary experts are especially sniffy about their episodic nature, their under-developed and stereotyped characters, their incidental female characters, their dodgy poems, and storylines that were obviously made up as he went along.

We do not dispute any of this. As Terry Pratchett once quipped: "If you don't believe that Tolkien is the greatest writer there ever was when you are 13 years old there is something wrong with you. If you still believe that when you are 53 there really is something wrong with you". None of it matters to our idea of his momentousness.

Perhaps Tolkien’s most obvious claim to fame is that 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' are the third and sixth biggest selling novels of all time. And, unlike 'Don Quixote' and 'Tale of Two Cities', which top the list, they remain popular and widely read. We are sceptical about the oft-quoted Don Quixote book sales estimate of 500 million. Hardly anyone could read before 1830, by which time there was a lot of competition, and at 800 pages it was unaffordable for most people for most of its life. Sales are boosted by Spanish students, for whom it is mandatory reading, but they tend to share and pass down copies. The 200 million sales estimate for Tale of Two Cities includes Penny Dreadfuls. In our opinion, their real book sales have been no more than 150 million, which means that it is only a matter of time until The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone rise to the top of the list.

Harry Potter is an important factor in Tolkien’s momentousness. J K Rowling is a Tolkien fan. Harry Potter would never have come into existence without him. There are lots of parallels between the characters and the storylines. He therefore counts towards Tolkien's momentousness. Philosopher’s Stone is already the all-time fifth best-selling novel. Its six sequels are all in the top 20. We therefore predict that, within 50 years, eight of the ten all-time best-selling novels will either have been written by Tolkien or will have been inspired by him. Impressive, no?

Stephen King (whose breakthrough novels were effectively a wild-west interpretation of The Lord of the Rings) and C S Lewis are Tolkien fans too. Their most popular titles are also in the Top 20, and in genres that do not age. They count towards Tolkien's momentousness too.

Another feather in Tolkien’s hat is that The Lord of the Rings regularly tops reader-favourite-book-polls, including monumental surveys like the BBC’s 'Big Read' and Amazon’s 'Book of the Millennium'. This is not quite what it seems, for reasons we will return to, but it is still impressive when one thinks about the vast number of fiction titles.

Novels have to vie with the Internet, TV, movies, computer games and other activities for our spare time. They are losing out. Admittedly, book readership has stopped falling, but this masks a dispiriting trend. Those of working age prefer other, more instant forms of entertainment. Book readership is being supported by the elderly, who were brought up reading for entertainment and remain, on the whole, enthusiastic readers. When they are gone, unless something changes, book readership will plummet. We allow for this in our momentousness ratings by giving more weight to who or what the author influences outside the book world. Here too Tolkien ranks highly, especially with computer games and merchandise.

Momentous Britain first used computers in the early 1970s. The only proper computer games in those days were text based: Spacewar! (a first person shoot ’em up), Star Trek (space exploration) and Colossal Cave Adventure (fantasy). These three games spawned the three genres that still dominate commercial computer gaming. Colossal Cave was originally an underground cave exploration game created by Will Crowther, a caving enthusiast. It was converted into the Moria-esque game we know by Don Woods, a Tolkien fan. It became the basis for the MMORPG genre, including World of Warcraft. Thanks to Colossal Cave Adventure, Tolkien has inspired roughly 25% of the computer games industry. His influence here is likely to last forever.

Only A A Milne and J K Rowling are above Tolkien for novel-based merchandise sales. It is true that Disney princesses collectively rank above all of them, but there are 11 princesses, each from a different story. Their only relationship to the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perraud stories is their name ... and not even that in the case of Ariel and Aurora. Harry Potter and Disney characters might have theme parks, but Harry Potter would not exist were it not for Tolkien, and Tolkien has spawned a manufacturing and retail empire, in the form of Games Workshop - see picture at top - and its rivals. Games Workshop alone has 400 retail outlets all over the world and annual sales of £160m. Total annual fantasy merchandise sales are over $500m, all of which derives ultimately from Lord of the Rings.

TV is by far the dominant form of entertainment. It is gradually changing from broadcast to on-demand, but program styles are unlikely to change. One of the most popular TV series has been 'Game of Thrones'. It is faithfully based on a series of books by George R R Martin. He is a Tolkien fan who says that Game of Thrones was inspired by The Lord of the Rings. Stephen King is another fan. Thirty-one TV series have been based on his books. Richard Matheson was a fan too. Together with Rod Serling he created the 'Twilight Zone' TV series which was the model for virtually every TV horror series since. Perhaps 10% of non-soap scripted TV series have been inspired ultimately by Tolkien and, if we are right that the popularity of superhero shows will eventually wane, probably always will be.

Peter Jackson’s three The Lord of the Rings films and three The Hobbit films are among the most popular in cinematography history. Tolkien influenced or inspired other films. Harry Potter again, with all eight Harry Potter films and 'Fantastic Beasts' making the inflation adjusted global box office Top 25. James Cameron is a fan. He wrote and produced Avatar, at 15 in the inflation adjusted global box-office sales list, with its obvious The Lord of the Rings parallels. There are 60 movies based on Stephen King novels, many of them inspired directly by Tolkien or by the Twilight Zone which was itself inspired in part by Tolkien.

We have to mention Led Zeppelin. Robert Plant is a huge Tolkien fan. 'Stairway to Heaven',  'Ramble On' and many other Zeppelin songs are based on Lord of the Rings. Plant even names his dogs after Lord of the Rings characters.

One reason Tolkien is so influential across all these mediums is that he established the fantasy genre. We try to avoid saying ‘invented’ because every author owes something to his predecessors. Tolkien most certainly borrowed ideas from mythology, Homer, Norse and Celtic sagas, George MacDonald, H Rider Haggard and Robert E Howard. Yet The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are radically different from anything that preceded them. Everyone that likes fantasy, idolises Tolkien for the pleasure he has brought into their world. For those of us bereft of imagination, he effectively did for storytelling what Einstein did for physics, opening up new vistas of possibilities.

Moreover, no one has successfully replicated Tolkien's formula. Fantasy readers tend to look elsewhere only after – or because - they have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps this will change after the success the Game of Thrones TV series, but we doubt it. GoT is too adult. People tend to get hooked on fantasy when they are still adoloscents. We guess that Tolkien will never be surpassed. He spent his entire life building a fantasy world, which was distilled into two novels. Middle-earth's imagined plant kingdom alone is gigantic - Walter and Graham Budd's plant dictionary 'Flora of Middle-earth' is 424 pages - and it is only incidental. No modern author, even if, like Tolkien, they were writing as a hobby while being paid for some sort of abstract academic work, would see this as a good investment of their time. C S Lewis and Narnia probably come closest but they are lightweight in comparison and have aged poorly. In practice, Tolkien has no genuine competition in his genre.

Creative professionals are almost invariably enthusiastic readers when they are young. If they work in the fantasy genre, whatever the medium, given the lack of alternatives they will probably have taken inspiration from Tolkien. They in turn create the characters and marketing that influence us directly. This will probably never change. It is why Tolkien has huge lasting impact and, in our view at least, the main reason he is so momentous.

Returning to a point we made earlier, this is also why Tolkien’s position at the top of reader polls is not quite as impressive as it sounds: 1) Historic fantasy stories never age, so he will keep being read and always get new fans; 2) His books are aimed at the age when people tend to be loyal to who or what inspires them (for a distressing example, one of the saintly MB wives blots her copybook with a love for the Bay City Rollers?!?); and 3) There is no competition to split the fantasy vote.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth

The Bodleian Library in Oxford has the world’s biggest collection of ‘Tolkienana’. Some items from this collection are always on display in its permanent exhibition, but they have to share space with Magna Cartas (of which the Bodleian has four), First Folios, original Jane Austen manuscripts, and other treasures. There are seldom more than half a dozen Tolkien items on display. We were starting to fear that we would not live long enough to see them all until the Bodleian decided to empty their Tolkien vaults for the 'Maker of Middle-earth' exhibition.

Soon after publishing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien sold his working manuscripts to Marquette University in Milwaukee. They have continued to acquire Tolkienana ever since. Some of their most important items, including the manuscripts, have been loaned to the Maker of Middle-earth exhibition. The Tolkien family have also loaned some papers, drawings and furniture, as well as his trademark hat and pipe.

We do not expect so many Tolkien treasures to be brought together again in our lifetime. Some of these items might never be shown again. We could not wait to go. Our initial reaction was disappointment at why the Bodleian put the exhibition in such a small space. The curators clearly knew in advance that it would be too popular for the hall because, for the first time ever, the Bodleian implemented a ticketing system to throttle visitor numbers. Even then, there were too many people for such a small space and the exhibits were too crammed.

Our interest in Tolkien: The Maker of Middle-earth was not really in the stories. We know them backwards and accept their faults. Rather, it is in the world that Tolkien created to support the stories: the races, the geography, the languages, the character sets, the architecture, the clothes, the flora, the heraldic devices and the imagined lifestyles. We hoped to find out more about how it all developed and where he found his inspiration, our plan being that we would then visit those places for our Tolkien blog.

As fans, we found the exhibition a tad overwhelming. It was emotional to see the manuscripts. It was unreal to see the original maps and the watercolours of Hobbiton, Rivendell and the Forest River, for which we have had posters on our wall since we were at school. The hand-written note where he honed the inscription on the One Ring is a marvel: it contains hundreds of increasingly intricate (and breathtakingly beautiful) tengwar characters with no mistakes. We loved the fan mail, from the White House among many. We were thrilled to discover that, like us, he did the Times crossword everyday. We doubt he did it quicker than us, because he would not have had time to create the wonderfully intricate doodles around the edge. Perhaps the highlight for us was some notes on the back of a menu where he defined the hobbit units of measurement: 3 nails = 1 toe; 6 toes = 1 foot; 6 feet = 1 two-step; etc. Great fun.

We will not go on about the exhibition too much, because we realise that it will have moved elsewhere by the time most people get to read this. Alas, it failed to provide the answer to the most important Tolkien question of all - which is, of course: Do balrogs have wings? - and it was unhelpful about Tolkien’s inspiration. We did not discover anything new. The following sections are well-known Tolkien related locations that we had visited already.

Here we are with our (£25 !?!) exhibition book, just about to have lunch at 'The Bear', where we wanted to check out the ties featured in an episode of Lewis.

Tolkien pilgrimage

Oxford

Tolkien spent virtually his entire adult life in Oxford. All the places he worked and relaxed are within walking distance of the city centre, which is just as well, because driving in Oxford is a bit of a nightmare.

Tolkien first arrived in Oxford before WWI as an undergraduate at Exeter College. The building where Tolkien lived and studied is in Turl Street. Tours are between 14:00 and 17:00. The only real Tolkien interest is a bust, sculpted by his daughter-in-law, in the chapel. We didn't like it much. Indeed, we found Exeter College more interesting for its Philip Pullman association than Tolkien's. He too was an undergraduate here. Pullman's Jordan College in 'His Dark Materials' is a clone of Exeter College.

After graduating, Tolkien had a five year hiatus in the army and another five years in Leeds. He returned to Oxford in 1925 as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College. It was during this time that he wrote The Hobbit and most of The Lord of the Rings. The college building is in St Aldates, but it is not open to the public. Most of the writing was done in his home at 20 Northmoor Road, North Oxford, which has a blue plaque, and at a dacha in Stonyhurst College, Lancashire.

At the end of WWII Tolkien moved to Merton College as Professor of English Language and English Literature. He finished The Lord of the Rings in 1948, although it was not published until 1954. Tolkien stayed at Merton until his retirement in 1959. The building where he worked was on Merton Street, right next to the Oxford Botanical Garden. Tours are between 10:00 and 17:00 at weekends or between 14:00 and 17:00 on weekdays. During his time at Merton College, he lived at 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, which has a DIY plaque above the garage.

Tolkien at Oxford Botanic Garden; © The Tolkien Trust 1977

Tolkien enjoyed wiling away his leisure time at two venerable Oxford institutions. One is the Oxford Botanical Garden, next door to Merton College. Tolkien’s favourite tree – shown in picture above – was a 200-year-old Black Pine. It is nice to think of it being the model for Treebeard, but we are pretty sure it wasn't. Philip Pullman mentions the same tree as the “many-trunked pine” in His Dark Materials. Tragically, it suffered a catastrophic injury in 2014 which lead to it being taken down. The tree used to be inside the walled garden, almost opposite the ticket office. You can still see where it was from the repairs to the wall where a branch fell. Nearby is the bench where Lyra and Will sit, helpfully inscribed 'Lyra and Will' to differentiate it from the rest.

Towards the southwest of the walled garden is the fascinating 'Medicinal Collection'. It has dozens of drab looking plants that are the basis for useful medicines.  We guess it was where Tolkien got the idea for Kingsfoil, although he never said so.

Tolkien’s more famous watering hole was the Eagle and Child pub in St Giles Street. This is where he used to meet C S Lewis and other members of the Inklings, an informal literary society. Their meeting room was the landlord’s private parlour known as the Rabbit Room. A corridor now runs through it to a restaurant at the back of the pub. All that remains of the room is an alcove beside the corridor. It has some photographs of the Inklings sitting there. Don’t get your hopes up too much of sitting there yourself. The pub is tiny and what’s left of the meeting room only seats four.

Tolkien and his wife left Oxford for warmer climes in 1968, hoping that it might alleviate Edith’s arthritis. She died in 1971. He returned to Oxford, living in rooms belonging to Merton College near the High Street. He fell ill a couple of years later while visiting his doctor in Poole and died soon after. Tolkien and his wife are buried together at Wolvercote Cemetery, which is on the Banbury Road, near its junction with the A40 in north Oxford. If you like visiting litertary resting places, John Buchan's ashes are buried at St Thomas' Elsfield, just a mile or so away.

Birmingham

J R R Tolkien was known to his family as Ronald. His early years were spent in and around Birmingham with his mother Mabel and brother Hilary, his father having died in 1895 when Ronald was three. The remaining family moved into Mabel’s parent’s house, then to the small rural hamlet of Sarehole, some four miles south of Birmingham city centre. Ronald lived there from the impressionable age of four until eight.

Our interest in this period of his life is in where he got the inspiration for Middle-earth's life-styles and geography. By his own account, this is where his vision of the Shire developed. Note the Shire rather than Middle-earth. It implies his inspiration for the rest of Middle-earth came from elsewhere. Still, there is no harm in looking.

In an interview with John Ezard of the Oxford Mail, Tolkien says of Sarehole: “It was a kind of lost paradise. There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great big pond with swans on it, a sandpit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill.” He went on to say: “I took the idea of hobbits from the village people and children”. It seems that he also borrowed some character names from them, one of his neighbours being Samson Gamgee.

The Tolkiens lived at what is now 264 Wake Green Road. Sarehole Mill and the River Cole were just over the road, Moseley Bog just behind. These three places are often claimed to be the allegorical sources for features of The Shire.

Stratford Road, 800m from the Tolkien house at the end of Wake Green Road, is another possibility. It joined Birmingham and London, the two great cities of the Empire, just as the East Road joined Lindon and Rivendell, the two major elf settlements of Eriador. Frodo says that Bilbo told him: “There was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary”. This was true of both roads, although it was even more true of Roman Watling Street, which was only 17 miles from Sarehole.  

A small book based on Hilary Tolkien’s memoirs entitled “Black & White Ogre Country” explains that the White Ogre (because he was always covered in bone dust) was a surly miller’s son named George Andrew, while the Black Ogre was a farmer who used to chase them out of his fields. Surely these must be the origins of Carl Sandyman and Farmer Maggot. In the forward to one of our copies of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien says of the Sarehole miller and his son: “I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman." It sounds like he was trying to avoid being sued, while confessing that Hobbiton’s mill and its millers were inspired by Sarehole Mill.

We went to have a look. Sarehole Mill is on the Cole River, inside the snappily named 'The Shire Country Park and Cole Valley'. The park is long and thin, following four miles of the Cole Valley. The mill is roughly in the middle. We parked at the mill and went to check out Tolkien’s house opposite. It is a comfortable looking private semi that looks to have been heavily extended since the Tolkiens left. Perhaps that is why it does not have a blue plaque.

Back to the mill. It is run by Birmingham Museums and open to the public on most days apart from Monday and Tuesdays. Admission is £6. We found it difficult to get a sense of Tolkien’s thoughts, since it is not obvious that he ever went inside and because the entire area has been subsumed into Greater Birmingham. The mill is still interesting because of its age and Mathew Boulton connections.

From the mill car park we walked up and down The Shire Country Park looking for Shire connections. Parts of the park are tranquil and rather lovely, but we could find nothing especially reminiscent of the books. Based on their location and dimensions, the stream and mill-pool could have been the inspiration for Tolkien’s Shire-Water and Bywater-Pool, but he did not mention any specific distinguishing features, so it is difficult to be sure. Eventually we gave up and headed west on Cole Bank Road for an excellent brunch at the 'Hungry Hobbit' – where else? - by the roundabout.

Moseley Bog and Joy’s Wood are run by the 'Wildlife Trust for Birmingham'. In Tolkien’s day the land was known as 'The Dell'. Presumably this is the "wonderful dell with flowers" that he mentions to Ezard. Entry is free. The main entrance, with parking, is in Yardley Wood Road. We used the back entrance in Pensby Close. From the Hungry Hobbit, we headed back towards Tolkien’s house, then turned left into Thirlmere Drive which leads to Pensby Close. Unsurprisingly, Moseley Bog is pretty boggy inside, but walking boots are not necessary because visitors are expected to stay on the boardwalk.

Others have said that Moseley Bog and Joy’s Wood are redolent of Middle-earth’s marshes and forests. Not to us. They are recent inventions. The entire area was drained, flattened and turned into playing fields in the 1950s. After intense lobbying by Joy Fifer – she of Joy’s Wood – the land was reseeded in the 1980s. It is too immature to be reminiscent of Tolkien’s marshes or forests now. We are unconviced it ever was. In Tolkien’s day The Dell was too undulating and woody to have been a marsh, while being too wet ever to have been densely wooded. We thought it might have been the inspiration for Rushock Bog, but even that is not certain.

Having studied the 1903 Six-Inch OS map, we think that the inspiration for Middle-earth's marshes and forests could not have come from Sarehole. In medieval times it was on the edge of the mighty Arden Forest, but there was virtually nothing left of it by the end of the 19th century. It could not have had anywhere that was quirky like the Old Forest, or dark and dense like Mirkwood or Fangorn, or majestic like Lothlorien by the time that Tolkien was there. As for marshes, Tolkien said that his inspiration for the Dead Marshes was the Somme. We guess that was the inspiration for all his marshes. 

In 1900, Mabel converted to Catholicism, after which her Baptist family withdrew their financial support. The Tolkien’s were forced to find more modest accommodation away from Sarehole. Their first home was at 214 Alcester Road, Moseley, which was convenient for trams to Ronald’s school (King Edwards in the centre of Birmingham). Then they moved to 86 Westfield Road, Kings Heath to be near St Dunstans Roman Catholic Church. Mabel fell out with St Dunstans and joined the Oratory on Hagley Road. The family moved nearby, to 26 Oliver Road, Ladywood. Mabel became ill with diabetes in 1904. The family moved to Fern Cottage, Rednal, in the hope that better air would help her health, but diabetes was incurable and usually terminal in those days. She died later that year. Ronald was just 12 at the time. He and Hilary were farmed out as orphans to various relatives in Edgbaston over the following six years, until Ronald went up to Oxford. They lived at 25 Stirling Road, then 37 Duchess Road, then 4 Highfield Road.

In our opinion, the most interesting and potentially influential of these places were Oliver Road and Rednal. Oliver Road was only three miles from Tolkien’s former home in Sarehole, yet it was a world apart. Sarehole was a quiet and peaceful rural idyll. Oliver Road was in Birmingham’s industrial heartland. In those days it would have been dirty, noisy, whiffy and bleak. It must have been a huge and horrible change for Ronald. He says that it was living here that inspired his dislike of industrialisation, which comes across in the books.

Tolkien explains at the back of 'Fellowship of the Ring' that the towers to which the book title 'The Two Towers' refers are 'Orthanc' and 'Minas Morgul'. His home in Oliver Road was 800m from two towers: Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks. It has often been suggested that they are Tolkien’s inspiration for Orthanc and Minas Morgul. Both are still there.

Tolkien lived at Rednal for less than a year. But he used to return on bicycle with his future wife Edith when they were courting. They must have liked the area. Rednal is in the Lickey Hills, part of which falls within the 'Lickey Hills Country Park'. This park had been gifted to the people of Birmingham in 1888, long before Tolkien went there. It is set in large rolling hills, which might have been the inspiration for the Lone Lands. It has a quarry, which might have been the inspiration for Michel Delving (the name means 'large quarry'). It has areas of interesting quirky woodland, which might have been the inspiration for the Old Forest, but no dense forest, so not we think for Mirkwood, Fangorn or Lothlorien.

Most of the places associated with Ronald’s adolescence have gone. His school moved in 1935. His first two homes in Edgbaston have been demolished, although there is a blue plaque at 1 Duchess Place, Edgbaston, explaining that Tolkien lived nearby. His home at 4 Highfield Road is still there, with a blue plaque saying he lived there from 1910 to 1911. Fern Cottage is still there, on Lickey Road, Rednal. The towers are still there, 250m apart, at either end of Waterworks Road. We went to look.

Leaving Sarehole Mill, we headed west up Salisbury Road, past the cricket ground and parked in Morrisons, Hagley Road. Then we crossed the A456 to head north up Francis Street, turning left into Duchess Road. The plaque is on Teleperformance House, under the security camera; Tolkien must be turning in his grave. We then walked to the other end of Duchess Road, turning left into Beaufort Road, then right into Waterworks Road. The folly is 250m on the right, the waterworks tower a further 250m on the right. They do not look much like Orthanc or Minas Morgul to us. Tolkien sketched them for the original book cover. The ‘real’ Orthanc and Minas Morgul look to us more like lighthouses or cladded Blackpool Towers.

Central image dust sheet for The Two Towers; © The Tolkien Estate Limited 1937

From the waterworks tower, we retraced our steps, passing Beaufort Road. The Oratory church, where Tolkien and his mother used to worship, is on the right. There is a blue plaque on the Plough and Harrow pub opposite, explaining that Tolkien and his wife spent the night there on the day before he left for active duty in France. Highfield Road is on the other side of the A456. Tolkien’s house is now half of Highfield Day Nursery, 100m along on the right, with its blue plaque (yet again) under the security camera. Then we returned to Morrisons for a late lunch.

While we were in Birmingham, we wanted to visit the city centre to see the new library and the University. The University has a clock tower that is sometimes claimed to be the inspiration for the towers in The Lords of the Rings. It seems unlikely to us. This one is another parallel sided affair and it was only completed in 1910, by which time Tolkien was about to head off to Oxford. The library is rather magnificent. One can’t help but wonder if it is sensible to spend nearly £200m on a new library when hundreds of others around the country are closing, but it is a lovely (Tolkien would have disapproved) building in a huge space. We hoped it might have some Tolkienana, but we couldn’t find any. It was still worth going for the Shakespeare First Folios and the fabulous industrial archives. We will return one day for a better look.

On the whole, we were little the wiser for our day exploring Birmingham’s Tolkien sites. If your interest is in Tolkien the man, some of the places that he lived and visited can be seen. Our interest is in whatever inspired Tolkien's love of languages and nature, his dislike of industrialisation, and any places that inspired the geography of Middle-earth. We can well imagine that Tolkien's love of nature and dislike of industrialisation were fostered in idylic Sarehole and satanic Edgbaston respectively, but those worlds no longer exist. Edgbaston is no longer industrial or dirty. Sarehole is no longer rural. They are bland middle-class suburbs with little to tell us about life 120 years ago. As for the specific places that inspired features of the Shire, the only one we can point to confidently is Sarehole Mill.

Around the country

Tolkien only spent three extended periods away from Birmingham or Oxford. The first was from 1915 when he spent five years in the army. The second was from 1920, soon after he was demobilised, when he spent five years as a junior professor at Leeds University. The other was from 1968, when he spent three years of his retirement in Poole.

Tolkien’s war story is told in minute detail in John Garth’s book 'Tolkien and the Great War'. We get the impression he had a hard time with peer pressure as an undergraduate. There were only 25 students left at Oxford when he sat his final examinations in 1915. He enlisted soon afterwards. His training was at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. During this time he lived in Great Haywood. Then he was sent to the Somme. Five months later he was back in Birmingham recovering from trench fever. After being released from hospital he returned to Great Haywood. Locals link his time here with various stories within “Silmarillion”, but none in “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings”.

Cannock Chase interests us. It has large areas of ancient dense deciduous forest. In the autumn, the deciduous trees turn red and gold. Of all the places we have followed Tolkien to, Cannock Chase is by far the most reminiscent of Lothlorien, and probably the closest to Mirkwood and Fangorn too. We guess it was the main inspiration for Middle-earth’s forests.

In the Spring of 1917, Tolkien relapsed. He was sent to convalesce at 95 Valley Drive, Harrogate. It bears a plaque which explains the details. A month later he was assigned back to active duty in the Humber Garrison. He almost immediately succumbed to gastritis. This time he convalesced in Brooklands Officer’s Hospital, Cottingham Road, Hull. The building is now the Dennison Centre, part of the University of Hull, and bears a blue plaque giving the details. Luckily for Tolkien, he was not cleared for combat until a month before the war ended, so he never saw active service again.

After being demobilised, Tolkien took a job in Oxford working on the Oxford English Dictionary. He was only there a few months before moving to Leeds University as ‘Reader’ – i.e. junior professor – in English Language. He lived at 2 Darnley Road, West Park, which is still there bearing a blue plaque beside a downstairs toilet. Once again, locals ascribe several stories in the Silmarillion with his time in Yorkshire, but none in “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings”.

In 1968 Tolkien and his wife retired to 19 Lakeside Road, Branksome Park, Poole. In part this was to escape attention from fans and in part for his wife’s health. She died in 1971. The cottage was demolished long ago. Tolkien returned to Oxford, living in rooms near the High Street provided by Merton College. He still visited Bournemouth for holidays, usually staying at the Hotel Miramar on Overcliff Drive. A blue plaque there explains the details. He fell ill while visiting his doctor in Poole and died soon after.

As far as we can tell, none of these locations outside Birmingham and Oxford played a significant role in the creation of Third Age Middle-earth – i.e. the period in which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set. However, we are more positive about some of his holidays and excursions.

Tolkien always claimed that the concept of hobbits living in holes came to him unbidden while he was marking an exam paper. We guess something prompted the thought. We agree with Sylvia Jones, Curator of the Lydney Park Estate in Gloucestershire, who says that Dwarf’s Hill on the estate is too much like Hobbiton for there not to be a link. Tolkien acted as a consultant on an archaeological dig there in 1929. The hill is covered in small holes related to Roman mining activities. Sceptical as we are, they do look a bit like holes made by small people to live in. The park is open to the public a couple of days a week during the Spring.

According to Drout’s 'Tolkien Encyclopaedia', Tolkien’s children recalled that, having acquired a car, their father would take them to Wayland’s Smithy. Tolkien senior was apparently frightened while visiting one day by what he thought to be a barrow-wight. Wayland’s Smithy is a neolithic long barrow. The entire surrounding area between Swindon and Wantage is stuffed with neolithic barrows. It seems plausible to us that this might be the inspiration for the barrow downs and the barrow-wight that captures the hobbits. Long Compton and the Rollright Stones, half way between Oxford and Birmingham, a route Tolkien must have taken often, ar eanother possibility.

If you visit Wayland's Smithy, don't make the same mistake as us by following a sat-nav to Wayland's Smithy, which takes you through fields and along footpaths. The English Heritage car park is on an unnamed road between Knighton Hill and Dragon Tree Road. It is signposted on the B4507, but has no postcode. The barrow is interesting enough - 5500 years old and with an entrance just like those in 'Lord of the Rings Online' - but we were just as excited by the tree that stands 10m or so to the south of the barrow entrance. The hollow inside has some sort of fungus that looks to all the world like fairy steps, at the top of which hangs Gimli's hammer. When we visited it also had a lovely druid straw wreath hanging inside.

This area of the Lambourne Downs between the B4507 and the M4 is worth investigating. Perhaps 10 sq km has some 30 barrows, half a dozen hillforts, stone circles, standing stones, the weird striations on Odstone Coombes, Uffingham White Horse, and dramatically undulating ground. Gazing south while driving between Ashbury and Sparsholt, the land looks exactly as we imagine Green Hill Country east of Tuckborough. If this was where Tolkien got the idea, then the B4507 became the part of the East Road where Frodo, Sam and Pippin are nearly caught by a Nazgul. 

Tolkien’s eldest son John did some of his priest training at St Mary's Hall in Lancashire. It was adjacent to Stonyhurst College, a prestigious Catholic school. Tolkien senior used to stay at Stonyhurst College when he was visiting his son. He certainly spent part of his time writing. Some say that he based Tom Bombdil’s cottage on a building in the grounds of Stonyhurst College. We have never been able to get in there to check, but it sounds plausible.