Tolkien’s Birmingham: Part 1 – The Influence Of Environment On The Author
Environment, particularly in an author’s formative years, can leave an indelible mark upon an author’s point of view, certainly upon his or her selection of settings. After all, where would the Brontë sisters have been without their Gothic upbringing on the Yorkshire moors, or even more Gothic time at the “charity” schools for girls they attended?
Where would Rudyard Kipling have been without his time in India, both in early childhood and in his key transitional years between 17 and 22, to draw upon as he began writing? But sometimes, what an author selects from that environment to influence his or her writings can be surprising.
For example, it wasn’t Cornwall, or Wiltshire, or Somerset, or any other corner of southern rural England’s bucolic paradise that left a mark on John Ronald Ruell (“J.R.R.”) Tolkien, or inspired him to create Middle Earth, or to write The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and other literary milestones. It was Birmingham – England’s second city and industrial backbone – as unlikely a place as anyone could fathom to be the inspiration for The Shire, Hobbiton, the Old Mill, the Old Forest and The Two Towers – unless you’ve stayed there long enough to know the area. Once you have, as we’ll see, it makes perfect sense.
But to understand what this place meant to Tolkien and why he turned it into such a paradise in his books, you have to understand a bit about his background and early upbringing. His parents, Arthur Tolkien and Mabel Suffield, grew up in Birmingham. Arthur’s father, a music-seller and piano teacher, had moved from London to Birmingham in the early 1840s. The Suffield family had been in Birmingham since 1810. John, Mabel’s father, ran a drapery and hosiery store in central Birmingham.
Arthur had become a bank clerk in Birmingham when, in 1889, the Bank of Africa offered him the position of branch manager in South Africa, and he accepted. Arthur was already engaged to Mabel; and sent for her in 1891, shortly after her 21st birthday, when he and Mabel had met the terms for John’s permission and blessing. J.R.R. Tolkien (“Ronald” to friends and family) and his younger brother Hilary were born in Bloemfonteinin, an Afrikaans-speaking area in the Orange Free State, in 1892 and 1894, respectively. It was in the midst of the veldt, hot – scorching at times – dusty and virtually bereft of trees, even in what passed for the town park.
The political situation was tense, owing to growing antagonism between the Boers and the English settlers.
Mabel found its climate – physical and political – not to her liking, and in April 1895, she, Hilary and Ronald set out to visit her family in King’s Heath and Arthur’s in Moseley, both near (today part of) Birmingham. Arthur intended to follow on, but stayed temporarily in South Africa to take care of the family’s investments.
Tolkien’s only memory of Arthur was of him closing the family trunk and painting their name on it: It was the only fond memory he’d have of the place. While Mabel and the boys were staying in King’s Heath, news arrived that Arthur had contracted rheumatic fever, followed by a severe hemorrhage. On 15 February 1896, he died; Mabel and the boys never made the planned return to South Africa.
Life thereafter with the respective grandparents was all very well as a temporary measure, but Mabel needed a modicum of privacy and independence, while Ronald and Hilary, at four and two, respectively, were fast approaching the age for their education to commence. Having only the slender means provided by a modest number of South African shares Arthur had left her, Mabel’s search for healthy, inexpensive lodgings led her to Sarehole and nearby Moseley Bog, and Tolkien to his first experience with the English countryside.
Though only four miles, as the crow flies, from downtown Birmingham, the hamlet was rural, for all intents and purposes. It was part of the old Forest of Arden and stood on either side of a wide country road where cattle were herded to market in central Birmingham. Its name was Anglo Saxon in origin, and meant ”the place where service trees grow.”
Tolkien was well aware that the hamlet – indeed all of Birmingham – had initially been part of the forest. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to realize how, in his teen years, as he got about more and saw the bleakness and pollution of Birmingham’s heavily industrial northern and eastern parts, Tolkien would come up with Isengard and Mordor – especially in contrast with the arboreal southwestern portion where he’d been brought up.
The Shire, Hobbiton, the old Mill and the Old Forest? These he would find a little more than 300 yards from the front door of his new home in Sarehole. The featured picture is a detail of the Sarehole Mill courtyard the way it looked in Tolkien’s day.
For more pictures, see my Facebook page. We’ll return to Sarehole Mill next time.
G. H. McCallum
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