The Birth Place of Middle Earth
Decades after his death, JRR Tolkien is still one of the most popular authors in the world, creator of the most famous fantasy mythos ever and a highly respected linguist and history scholar. What places inspired his writing? Where was Middle Earth born? Right here in Mercia.
Tolkien's mother hailed from Worcestershire and as a boy he spent a lot of time exploring the fields and forests, particularly around the Teme Valley area. This landscape was his basis for the countryside of The Shire, indeed the hamlet of Bagginswood lies just on the border with Shropshire. Bag End, the Baggins family home, was and still is a real place...young JRR stayed at a farm of that name in the beautiful village of Dormston while recovering from illness and it still bears the title, although sightseers are not welcome there these days.
The villages of the Shire themselves were inspired by Tolkien's early life living in Birmingham. He wandered around Moseley Bog which he acknowledged as the basis for the Old Forest, home to Tom Bombadil and the malevolent Old Willow. A stream runs through this woodland, now surrounded by housing, ending in a reed ringed marshy pond and this led to the idea of the Withywindle, the brook that entices travellers in the Old Forest along it's banks and into the clutches of the Willow. Near to Moseley Bog is Sarehole Mill, another haunt of young Ronald, with it's working water mill and cottages it gave him the visual idea for the pastoral peace of Hobbiton and the other villages of The Shire. Industrialisation was just beginning to encroach on this beautiful area and this struck a chord with Tolkien, this was reflected in the depictions of Saruman destroying the nature around Isengard and of his and his men's occupation of The Shire while the Hobbits were away.
Speaking of Saruman, his lair in the Tower of Orthanc is based on Perrot's Folly, a magnificent brick tower in the Edgbaston area of Birmingham. Tolkien went to school at the nearby King Edward School and also the Oratory for a time and saw the tower every day...along with it's brother. The bizarre Water Board tower is just a hundred yards along the same road, a slim gothic edifice which seems to stare back at Perrots Folly. This was the basis for the tower of Cirith Ungol in Mordor. Some say that it was actually his vision for Sauron's fortress of Barad-Dur, others that it was either Minas Tirith or Minas Morgul. as the original book cover showed Orthanc with it's white hand symbol and Minas Morgul (Minas Ithil – Tower of the Moon originally) with it's crescent moon tipped tower. He probably had that tower in his thoughts when he wrote about all of them.
The aforementioned Oratory is just a minute along the road from the two towers, a green domed concentration of classical architecture. On a sunny day this stunning domed edifice was Tolkien's Minas Ithil, shining city of the tower of the moon. In darkness it became Minas Morgul, the same city now a place of death and decay, it's domes and spires green with mould and glowing dimly with corpse light.
Although the treks across the Misty Mountains in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were based on JRR's epic journey by foot along a large section of the Swiss Alps, it was a visit to the Malvern Hills here in Mercia that consolidated the idea.. Tolkien visited a friend in Great Malvern for a couple of days and shared what he had been working on. He was insecure about whether the public would take to the fantasy world he created and work had slowed. His friend owned a tape recorder, a machine Tolkien had never seen before, and he invited him to record and play back some of the poems from Middle Earth he had been working on. He liked how they sounded, and it gave him a sense of how other people might feel his work. The next morning the pair took a long walk across the peaks of the Malverns and Tokien was struck by how similar to his vision of the Misty Mountains the hills were, as if such a place was not so fantastic an idea to potential readers. That was it – he returned home reinvigorated and determined to see the book published.
The Prancing Pony is familiar to most as the inn in Bree where the hobbits first met Aragorn, or Strider as he was known first. When young JRR walked past the Ivy Bush pub on the corner of the block the Oratory was in he saw and heard the smoke and laughter filled lounge each time a punter opened the door, this gave him the early vision for the Prancing Pony and it's interior. He changed the name to reflect the horse trading business of Bree but didn't forget it...as the Ivy Bush became the name of another inn in The Shire, where Sam's father, or “the gaffer”, held court and span yarns.
Tolkien was stationed at Cannock Chase for army training and his new wife Edith moved to a house in Great Haywood to be nearer to him. The old Lord Hatherwood of Shugborough Hall moved his estate workers into a huge stone construction in the village called “The Ring”. Some say this was the origin of “one ring to rule them all...”
By all means take a look at these landmarks and monuments but I'd advise against getting too close to Bag End – I got short shrift from a local when I took a couple of pictures last year as sightseers had nicked the name plate from the gates – perhaps if I'd arrived hooded and on a black horse though...
Perrot's Folly - or the Tower of Orthanc
Perrot's Folly in a darker aspect
The Water Board Tower - likely basis for the tower of Cirith Ungol in Mordor
In black and white the tower does take on an Orcish aspect
Moseley Bog, inspiration for the Old Forest
Sarehole Mill, basis for Hobbiton and some of the other villages of The Shire
The Oratory in Birmingham - where the idea for both Minas Morgul and it's happier first incarnation as Minas Ithil was shaped
From the front the Oratory does take on the Mordor look
The Ivy Bush, inspiration for the Prancing Pony but also used as the name for The Gaffer's favourite inn
Bag End - the name plate has been nicked unfortunately
The Malverns - where the Misty Mountains were finalised