John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 1892. His parents, Arthur and Mabel, moved to South Africa from England a few years earlier so that Arthur could develop his career in banking. At the age of 3, JRR Tolkien returned to England with his mother and younger brother to visit his mother's family, but unfortunately his father died whilst they were away which meant the Tolkien family never returned to South Africa and instead settled in a small village called Sarehole in North Worcestershire, which is now a part of Birmingham. Even though he lost his father at a very young age, John had a happy childhood in Sarehole and said that the times he spent there were the happiest years of his youth.
He was to be hit with a double blow at the age of 12 though, when his mother passed away rather suddenly. John and his younger brother Hilary were sent to live in Edgbaston with the family’s Catholic Priest, Father Francis Morgan, who brought them up as their guardian.
JRR Tolkien was a good student and won a scholarship to King Edward VI school in Birmingham. From there he applied to Oxford University but failed to get accepted. Some say that his blossoming relationship with a Miss Edith Bratt distracted him from his studies and indeed Father Morgan certainly thought so as he banned John from seeing her until his 21st birthday. John obeyed his command and worked hard at his studies and was rewarded with a place at Oxford University to study linguistics a year later. As soon as he turned 21, he rekindled his romance with Edith and the pair were officially engaged to be married in 1913.
In 1914 JRR Tolkien joined the Lancashire Fusiliers and fought in the Battle of the Somme in World War 1. It is believed that some of his traumatic experiences during the war may have fuelled the darker side to his famous stories. Tolkien was discharged from the army in 1916 due to repeated bouts of trench fever and returned to Birmingham to marry his fiance, Edith.
After the war he continued with his linguistic studies and in 1920 joined the University of Leeds and a few years later moved on to become a professor at Oxford University. It was whilst teaching at Oxford that Tolkien wrote his award winning fantasy novel – the Hobbit. It was published in 1937 and became a bestseller. Owing to its success, he was offered a contract to write a sequel and the rest is history — The Lord of the Rings series, partially inspired by ancient European myths, with its own sets of maps, folklore and languages was created.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are amongst the most popular books in the world, with sales of tens of millions of copies. The Rings trilogy was also adapted by film director Peter Jackson into an award-winning trio of films starring Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett and Viggo Mortensen, to name but a few. Jackson also directed a three-part Hobbit film adaptation starring Martin Freeman, which was released from 2012 to 2014.
He based many of the locations in the "Lord of The Rings" on areas around Birmingham that he experienced during his youth. For example, the structure of Isengard was based on the University of Birmingham, the Two Towers of Gondor were based on Edgbaston Waterworks tower and Perrott's Folly, and the Shire was inspired by Sarehole, the village in which he grew up.
He based the description of Mordor, home to the evil Lord Sauron, on the Black Country, a region of Birmingham which was heavily polluted by iron foundries, coal mines and steel mills due to the Industrial Revolution. The air in it was so thick with smog and dust it was difficult to breathe and may contribute to the way local people speak today – the infamous Brummie accent - think 'Tommy and Arthur Shelby' in 'Peaky Blinders'.
Anyway, let’s get on and take a look at the places that inspired the fairy-tale locations in Tolkien’s famous fantasy stories…
John and his brother Hilary spent many hours exploring the grounds of Sarehole Mill and being chased off by the miller’s son, whom they nicknamed the ‘White Ogre’. Today Sarehole Mill is part of Birmingham Museums Trust. As well as being a working watermill, the museum features the ‘Signposts to Middle Earth’ exhibition which tells the story of Tolkien’s connections with Sarehole and the surrounding area, which is said to be the model for The Shire in the Hobbit.
The Bog was an ideal place for Tolkien’s childhood adventures. The Bog is recalled in Tolkien’s description of the ‘Old Forest’, last of the primeval wild woods, where ‘Tom Bombadil’ lived. It is now preserved as a Local Nature Reserve managed by the Birmingham & Black Country Wildlife Trust.
The Shire Country Park follows the attractive and varied valley of the River Cole as a nature reserve some four miles from Small Heath to Yardley Wood. It was named in 2005 to reflect Tolkien’s links with the local area. The park contains wetland, grassland, woodland and heath, and supports a wealth of animal, plant and insect life. Herons, mallards and moorhens are a common sight, and if you are lucky you may spot a kingfisher hunting for fish along the meandering river. The ford at Green Road (formerly Green Lane) is one of the few remaining fords along the Cole Valley and would have been very familiar to the young J.R.R. Tolkien.
When Tolkien’s mother converted to Catholicism in 1900, the family worshipped at St Anne’s Church in Alcester Street, Digbeth. After moving to Edgbaston in 1902, Mabel and the boys attended Cardinal Newman’s Oratory on the Hagley Road. The family lived nearby in Oliver Road and, for a while, JRR Tolkien was enrolled at St Phillip’s School, at that time located in the same street.
Whilst living in Edgbaston the young J.R.R. Tolkien would have been very familiar with two distinctive local landmarks. The extraordinary 96ft (30m) high Perrott’s Folly is named after John Perrott who had it built in 1758. The tall Gothic Tower was originally part of a hunting lodge. In the 19th century it became one of the first weather recording stations in the country. Along the road at Edgbaston Waterworks stands a later Victorian chimney tower. The tower was part of a complex of buildings designed by Joseph Chamberlain and William Martin in 1870. The pair are said to have inspired Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith, the Two Towers of Gondor, after which the second volume of The Lord of the Rings is named.
During World War 1, the University of Birmingham was used as a hospital for injured soldiers. Tolkien spent 6 weeks here when he first returned from the war in 1916 recuperating from trench fever. He recovered from his illness but never returned to the front line of the war.
The Chamberlain Tower, the university’s most familiar landmark, may have been another source of inspiration for The Lord of the Rings. At night, the tower’s brightly illuminated clock face is thought to have provided Tolkien with the idea for the terrifying Eye of Sauron.
Our Favourite Tolkien Quote: “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.” –J.R.R. Tolkien
You can find out more about Birmingham and Tolkien here:
Birmingham Visitor Information: www.visitbirmingham.com
Birmingham Museums Trust: www.birminghammuseums.org.uk
Birmingham City Council: www.birmingham.gov.uk/tolkien
Credits to: The Birmingham Tolkien Trail, Birmingham Museums Trust. Text researched by Chris Upton, Revised by Kristina Williamson, 2001 and Chris Rice, 2013
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