The Hobbit is officially released today. Peter Jackson’s re-imagining of JRR Tolkien’s diminutive hero sees a band of plucky dwarves, friendly elves, brave warriors and a particularly helpful wizard called Gandalf battle their way across a Middle Earth represented by New Zealand. But, as fantastic and breathtaking as the scenery on the screen is, The Hobbit’s author never set foot in the country. In fact, many say Tolkien’s childhood in (you guessed it) England was the inspiration for the scenery in his epic tales. Here, Chris Moore reclaims the sights and scenes of The Hobbit for England!
Tolkien was actually born in South Africa but moved to Birmingham aged three, in 1895. His earliest memories were forged in the small Worcester village of Sarehole into which he, his brother and recently widowed mother moved. He often recounted finding great joy in exploring the surroundings: places with names such as Moseley Bog, Lickey Hills and most notably his aunt’s farm, locally known as Bag End (sound familiar? If you’ve not yet read the book and plan to see the film, it soon will).
Tragically, at age 12, Tolkien was orphaned and the Birmingham Oratory, where his guardian was a priest, became his home. The building stood in the shadows of Perrott’s Folly tower and the enormous Victorian Edgbaston waterworks. Tolkien aficionados have often speculated as to whether these stark looming buildings gave the author the visual imagery for the dark towers of Mordor.
Have a look at Perrott’s Folly, daily visible to the recently orphaned 12 year old, and decide for yourself.
Tolkien was passionate about the countryside and stalwartly against the effects of industrialisation, stubbornly refusing to abandon his bicycle. Around the turn of the century in the Midlands, England’s industrial heartland, he would have been exposed to the effects of the rampant march of factories and smokestacks exploding up through the surrounding countryside. In fact, his village home of Sarehole became absorbed by the exponential growth of Birmingham as the city flourished. Even into the late ‘40s, as The Lord of the Rings was being written, when Tolkien visited his son, a chaplin in Stoke-on-Trent, the author would have witnessed the vast clouds of black smoke produced by the city’s famous pottery works (there is a Tolkien Way near the Hartshill area of Stoke). Could these industrial visualisations be incarnate in the depiction of the ever-hungry furnaces of Mordor and their threat to the pleasant villages and dales of The Shire?
As well as being smitten with the rural idylls in the Midlands, which were disappearing before his eyes, Tolkien was enamoured of both the Oxfordshire countryside (where he later lived and studied) and the Cornish coast. It is tempting to suggest that the England of Tolkien’s youth was evocative of a kind of scenic battleground which was later depicted in the author’s books and latterly via film adaptation. As glorious as the locations in New Zealand are, the real Middle Earth could well have been the Midlands.