The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Midde-Earth by John Garth
This has quickly become one of my favourite books.
The snapshot of the cover that you’re looking at next to this review doesn’t do the physical book justice. This is a beautiful hardback that opens up to reveal paintings, watercolours, and drawings – some done by Tolkien, and others dating back to seventeenth-century prints.
In real life, the cover is a deep, rich navy that emphatically sets off the white of the snow-covered mountains beneath the gold title. The designer has succeeded in conveying a sense of Tolkien-like wonder and enchantment that is echoed in the content of the text.
The title is misleading in the sense that this is not simply a book of locations, as a movie guide to The Lord of the Rings film sites might point you to Hobbiton in the Waikato, or down to the South Island. Nothing so basic or blasé. Rather, it takes us into Tolkien’s background and his inspirations for his work. It covers myths that captivated the writer’s mind and other influences on Tolkien’s work, linguistic and personal. The leading premise of the book is that these influences were grounded in places. These are places Tolkien lived, moving from the African veldt (where he was born to English parents) to England, and places that inspired him, such as the mystical far North that figured in English tales and legends. These places also come out of Tolkien’s acute awareness of and connection to his natural environment. There are eleven chapters, beginning with ‘England to the Shire’, but the book never settles so much on one geographic place as kinds of places, such as ‘The Shore and the Sea’ and ‘Tree-woven Lands’. The casual reader will peruse with interest, and a seasoned enthusiast of Tolkien’s writing will find references to Tolkien’s stories even more illuminating. And while it is not strictly a map of places to be ticked off the traveller’s list, it does discuss locations that have become well-known and associated with Tolkien, and that might be visited.
Language is a large part of Tolkien’s books such as The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is not only because he was an adept writer, but because of his linguistic interests – ranging from Welsh to Finnish. John Garth describes how Tolkien’s invented language, so well known now as the language of the Elves in The Lord of the Rings, developed from story to story. He also gives us a sense of the larger cosmology (the Creator, the early Anglo-Saxon/Norse conception of the world) that informed the universe of Tolkien’s books – a universe that he argues that Tolkien always saw as our own.
The writing is not offputting by being academic, but it takes us deeper into Tolkien’s worlds and influences than a book that might be produced ‘just for the look’. Garth’s views are balanced and articulate, drawing plausible conclusions about tales Tolkien read and phrases that inspired him. It explains Tolkien’s early childhood experiences, his ‘reverse nostalgia’ for the tiny hamlet Sarehole he moved to as a youth, and the wartorn landscape of the ‘chalky Somme mud’ that fed into his depiction of Morder’s tortured earth.
This is not only a book for the Tolkien enthusiast. It will also speak to those, young and old, seeking inspiration, whether they be writers, or artists, or dreamers.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Quarto Group UK