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Tolkien, Leek, and the Moorlands

September 4, 2012

One of our chief annoyances as Tolkien scholars has been the claims made by a remarkable number of places that Tolkien visited or lived there, wrote The Lord of the Rings on the spot, or was inspired by its scenery in creating Middle-earth, when in fact there is no or, at best, very shaky evidence (usually local ‘tradition’) offered in support. Some of these arguments are just idle, wishful thinking, or fanciful ideas of which some writer is enamoured despite a lack of documentary evidence, but as they are repeated from website to website they are soon presented as fact: for example, the notion that Perrott’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks in Birmingham were the origin of Tolkien’s ‘two towers’. Sometimes the idea is based on an actual connection between Tolkien and a place – he did live in Birmingham for a while – but often it is a blatant invention to promote tourism while taking advantage of publicity surrounding the Lord of the Rings films or, now, the films based on The Hobbit. We decided, by and large, not to dispute such claims in The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, except by omission, hoping that astute readers would see that we included entries for only those places with a genuine Tolkien connection; but we have taken up the cause from time to time in our addenda and corrigenda and in the essay we wrote for the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza Scholar’s Forum.

The latest attempt to associate Tolkien with a place in Britain was brought to light by our friend ‘Wellinghall’ on the Tolkien Collector’s Guide site. In his book Haunted Staffordshire, Philip Solomon writes very briefly about a pub, The Swan, in the old Staffordshire market town of Leek, ‘said to be one of the locations for J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings’ and reportedly visited on occasion by Tolkien’s ghost! Wanting to know more, we Googled ‘Tolkien’ and ‘Leek’ and found an August 2009 news article about The Swan, whose then new owner had named one room the ‘Tolkien Room’ because Tolkien ‘is believed to have written much of Lord of the Rings [in the pub] while downing cask ales’.

Another article mentions that a filmmaker was working on a documentary exploring Tolkien’s links with the Staffordshire Moorlands, the northern district in which Leek is located. What links are those? Tolkien had demonstrable connections with Staffordshire, and while there wrote early portions of the ‘Silmarillion’, but for the most part he was in the southern part of the county, in places such as Rugeley and Cannock Chase and Great Haywood, and was there during the First World War, long before he conceived of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Later his son John, a Catholic priest, held a series of positions in Staffordshire, and Tolkien visited him on occasion, but this was after Tolkien had written his tales of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

Yet a third online article (from 2010) argues that the Hobbit films should be made not in New Zealand, but in the ‘rugged countryside surrounding Leek’, as this was the topographical basis for ‘the Shire, Middle Earth [sic], and Mordor’! Where did this idea begin?

Since some of the articles we read cited a local historian, Doug Pickford, we added his name to our search strategy, and found that he had made certain comments on the ‘This Is Staffordshire’ website. Noting that The Swan was promoting ‘Tolkien’s local connections’ with the Moorlands, Pickford thought that its owner

may be interested to know that Tolkien first came [to Staffordshire] as a youngster while holidaying with his family and I reckon it is no small coincidence that one of the inns mentioned in his books is the Green Dragon – the former name of The Swan. Later in life he researched the Gawain and the Green Knight saga and was one of the first people to associate its connections with [the Moorlands]. The common assumption is that he gained his inspiration for his immensely popular works after spending some time on The Roches [a rocky ridge above Leek] and being impressed by the landscape.

There are several problems with this.

First, with what members of his ‘family’ did the young Tolkien travel, and when? Pickford’s statement is unsupported by any evidence we are aware of, and is complicated by the fact that Tolkien was orphaned just before his twelfth birthday.

Second, since dozens of pubs named ‘Green Dragon’ are recorded in Britain, including one in Oxford, the one formerly in Leek was not necessarily the inspiration for the pub of the same name in the hobbits’ Bywater.

Third, how did Tolkien associate Gawain (not a ‘saga’) with the Staffordshire Moorlands? Although current scholarship tends to associate the Gawain poet with Staffordshire (and Pickford elsewhere has argued for a Staffordshire location for the original of the Green Chapel), Tolkien and Gordon in their 1925 edition of the poem tie it linguistically most closely to south Lancashire. Nor can we find that Tolkien anywhere else pursued a Staffordshire connection for the poem.

Fourth, the ‘common assumption’ Pickford mentions depends upon accepting as fact that Tolkien spent time in the Moorlands during or prior to the years he was writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Again, there is no evidence for this from generally reliable authorities such as Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, nor have we ourselves found evidence in its favour. Indeed, Pickford adds, in regard to this ‘assumption’: ‘Whether that is true or not we may never know, for there is nothing in writing. It’s become part of popular folklore and it certainly makes a good yarn: one we can, and should, use to attract tourists.’

But why is it part of local folklore? How can a local tradition become established about a famous author before he was famous – here, as a youngster spending holidays with his family, presumably like many other youngsters and families? Did this too begin as a marketing ploy, made up out of whole cloth? When does folklore become more important than truth? For Staffordshire – if not Leek and the Moorlands – why not focus on Tolkien’s genuine connections with the county rather than on ‘a good yarn’ which is almost certainly pure fiction?

  1. September 5, 2012 1:53 pm

    The worse offender for “Middle-earthism” is not to be found in Britain but in Ireland. Boirinn or the Burren in County Clare has staked a claim to being an “inspiration” for Tolkien since the early 2000s. Of course it is a complete coincidence that this claim was made in the wake of the popularity of the movies and not the books… ahem 😉

    • September 5, 2012 10:10 pm

      Thanks very much for this. Tolkien liked Ireland, admired and drew the scenery, visited there several times on business and on holiday, and among other areas knew County Clare. But his visit in 1949 was his first to Eire, and by then The Lord of the Rings was finished, except for the Appendices. So this is another case of mistaken chronology, as it were – thinking that Tolkien’s inspiration for the book could have been taken from Ireland in the period 1949 to 1954 (when The Lord of the Rings began to be published); and it’s another case of a reader applying his personal image of Tolkien’s world to a real place. Several places in Ireland could legitimately claim an association with Tolkien, as places he visited, without the claim of inspiration.

      • September 7, 2012 4:43 pm

        Tolkien’s relationship with Ireland and the Celtic world in general is a fascinating one, especially his love of Welsh. I written my own view on some of aspects of that in “J.R.R. Tolkien and Ireland” for my blog, though not everyone would agree with my interpretations.

        I’ve promised myself to tackle the subject of C.S. Lewis and his Irishness some day. A close friend of mine loves the Narnia books but she has always shied away from investigating Lewis and his politics for fear of discovering something disagreeable (from an Irish point of view, that is, given her Irish Republican beliefs).

        One can love the writing without loving the writer. Though sometimes it can be difficult! 😉

  2. Andrew Wells permalink
    October 16, 2012 12:38 pm

    I am delighted that you have taken up my post on this issue and run with it, Wayne and Christina. Thanks! Andrew

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