The Worlds of JRR Tolkien
By John Garth Frances Lincoln, 200pp £25/$29.95
Early in his new study of the places that inspired Middle-earth, John Garth draws our attention to the painting Tolkien made for the cover of The Hobbit, with its glacial colouring and snow-capped mountains dominated by one forbidding peak. Garth then directs us to the first painting one finds on opening the book: a beguiling view of The Shire with trees dotting “a sunlit champaign”: no Lonely Mountain, just The Hill with its round doors. Through both pictures runs a road. Or rather the road.
Tolkien’s early life surely taught him that our road through life can be wild and jagged. As a child, it led him from the torrid heat of Bloemfontein where he was born to a small Warwickshire village, which he immediately loved with “a kind of nostalgia reversed”; that is, with an aching love for a new-found home. From there he was soon wrenched into the heart of industrial Birmingham. By the age of 12, the road had plunged him into orphanhood. Twelve years later, he was on the Western Front where two of his closest school friends would lose their lives. He eventually reached Oxford, via Leeds, as an academic in 1925; and the settled period of his life could finally begin.
Given all of this turmoil, it was never likely that the heroes of his stories would pass their days simply acting out some kind of harmless rural social comedy in Hobbiton. The scene would shift. The road would have its way.
However, as a “sub-creator”, making secondary worlds in an act inspired by God’s creation of the primary world, Tolkien could assume more control over where the road would lead than he could as a four-year-old boy, or an orphaned teenager, or a soldier under command. Garth describes Tolkien’s instinct as “to dip, mix and layer, drawing from personal experience, reading and imagination – a touch from here, a hint from there, a flourish out of nowhere”.
Garth has clearly spent long spells deep in the “leaf-mould” of Tolkien’s writings. Places are a combination of location, geology, ecology, culture, and, importantly, nomenclature. Tolkien recalled a childhood trip to Wales when he saw the name “Ebbw” and “just couldn’t get over it”; and Garth testifies to the part that the names on its maps played in luring him in to The Lord of the Rings at the age of nine.
The chapters in The Worlds of JRR Tolkien are structured thematically. “Roots of the Mountains” examines the outworkings of a “lasting revelation” provided by an arduous walking tour in the Alps in 1911. “Places of War” reminds us that much of Tolkien’s early “legendarium” was devised, in his own words, “in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire”. In “The Shore and the Sea”, Garth observes that one of Tolkien’s aims with his legendarium was “to remove the ‘unfortunate’ fact of America and restore the means to imagine an earthly paradise in the West”. Smaller delights include discovering that Tolkien found Venice to be “like a dream of old Gondor”. Garth brings it all to a stirring conclusion with a plea on behalf of Tolkien’s message about nature.
Refreshingly, he isn’t afraid to peel away some of his subject’s own stated contentions if he finds room for doubt. For instance, Garth notes how Tolkien “made a valiant attempt to distance himself from the Arthurian world”, before listing the many Arthurian tropes to be found in The Lord of the Rings.
The Worlds of JRR Tolkien is an enormous visual treat: from memorable depictions by Alan Lee, Pauline Baynes and Matt Ferguson of scenes from the books to Tolkien’s own maps and watercolours; from a 17th-century illustration of Saint Brendan saying Mass on the back of a whale to NC Wyeth’s Hiawatha; from a photograph of a volcanic explosion in Iceland to a view from the Malvern Hills towards Worcestershire, shrouded in mists.
It must be said, though, that Garth, whose previous book Tolkien and the Great War established him as one of the most rewarding explainers of Tolkien, has a difficult job on his hands here, having to strike a balance between creating a browsable but comprehensive survey, a handsome book of illustrations, and a satisfying end-to-end read. The text ends up choppy in places, covering enormous territories in a relatively small amount of words, with some gaps that puzzled me.