Books: Lose yourself in the places that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien

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“The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The places that inspired Middle-Earth,” By John Garth, Princeton University Press. 208 pp. $29.95

After months of lockdown, political unrest and the inescapable threat of environmental collapse, some of us long for a glimpse of a world other than our own. Readers can find one in John Garth’s “The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien,” a fascinating, gorgeously illustrated and thought-provoking examination of the landscapes, cities and architecture that inspired Tolkien during his lifelong creation of Middle-earth.

Garth is the author of “Tolkien and the Great War,” a seminal work that underscored how Tolkien’s fiction, far from being a bit of donnish fancy, was in many ways rooted in his experiences at the Battle of the Somme and his observations of an irrevocably damaged world in the aftermath of World War I. “If Tolkien has a message,” Garth writes in his new book, “it is simple. Modern life tends to blind us to the true value of things.” As Tolkien himself put it, “If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.”

That wonder and delight seems to have begun to flourish soon after Tolkien first saw England, at the age of 3. Born to English parents in what is now South Africa, his mother had brought him and his younger brother to her home country for what was to have been an extended visit. A year later, Tolkien’s father, still in Africa, died, but the family remained in England.

“I loved it with an intensity of love that was a kind of nostalgia reversed,” Tolkien wrote of England in his great essay “On Fairy-Stories.” Tolkien’s “aching love for a newfound home,” Garth writes, burgeoned into a vast creative enterprise, what Tolkien termed his legendarium. It includes not just his best-known books – “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Silmarillion” – but numerous others edited by his son Christopher and published posthumously, including the 12-volume “Complete History of Middle-earth,” as well as maps, paintings, drawings, notes, poetry and lexicons compiled for the languages that Tolkien, a philologist, invented for the denizens of his secondary world.

Garth, a journalist as well as a Tolkien scholar, proves an exceptional guide to Middle-earth. Much has been written about the “Tolkienesque” landscapes that inspired Tolkien’s work, many now co-opted by the tourism industry – long-barrows and fallen castles, British and Northern European woodlands, ruins, mountains and rivers. Garth also emphasizes those places, “real and imaginary, that Tolkien knew from his reading.” The resulting palimpsest of the real and imagined, ancient and modern, urban and bucolic, mythic and historic, is what gives Middle-earth its powerful singularity – the “tremendous sense of perspective,” as Garth puts it, that is so “vital in making us feel that Middle-earth was not intended for the story, but existed before it.”

The first chapters in “The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien” are arranged according to geography (primarily the British Isles and Northern Europe) and topography (oceans and seashores, mountains, rivers and lakes, woodlands). The book’s last four sections explore landscapes where humankind has left its physical mark, in the form of ancient ruins, industry, farmlands or warfare. Throughout, the oversize pages are filled with maps, reproductions of Tolkien’s own paintings, illustrations from various editions of his books by Pauline Baynes, Alan Lee, John Howe and others, in addition to contemporary and archival photos.

As with the journeys undertaken by Bilbo, Frodo and their companions, some of the most memorable passages describe hiking through the wilderness. Garth recounts a nearly month-long walking tour in the Swiss Alps undertaken by Tolkien and his brother, Hilary, in 1911, shortly before Tolkien embarked upon his studies at Oxford. This Alpine sojourn reveals the roots of Rivendell, the Misty Mountains, Caradhras, Dunharrow and the Dwimorberg, places that readers have returned to and thrilled to countless times. Tolkien’s illustration of Rivendell is reproduced, along with a photograph of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, showing a nearly identical prospect. Elsewhere, images of Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera, Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel” and even Albert Speer’s scale model for the Nazi’s Berlin Volkshalle suggest the source of Tolkien’s vision of Morgoth’s Temple.

Tolkien only visited the Alps once. Yet his experience of the sublime “conveyed for him a ‘sense of endless untold stories’ – that same impression of potentially limitless exploration which is vital to the success of his legendarium.” Garth’s masterful book ends with a reminder that a profound concern for the environment and its despoliation imbues Tolkien’s work. In 1954, novelist Naomi Mitchison, having read early proofs of “The Lord of the Rings,” wrote Tolkien inquiring about various unresolved elements in the tale, including the fate of the Entwives. His response: “They would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult – unless experience of industrialized and militarized agriculture had made them a little more anarchic.” Tolkien’s hand-scrawled note alongside reads: “I hope so – I don’t know.”

Tolkien as feminist eco-warrior! Years after his death, his legend – and legendarium – continue to inspire and astonish.

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