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What inspired Tolkien's Middle Earth?


6th Oct 2022 Editor’s Picks

What inspired Tolkien's Middle Earth?

More than a mythical masterpiece, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was inspired by real people and places, from WWI trenches all the way to the Swiss mountains

The world-building powers of JRR Tolkien are unparalleled. By creating an entire realm and history for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he managed to make one of the most detailed fictional worlds we have ever seen.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the scope of his imagination single-handedly changed the fantasy genre forever. 

But Tolkien also had some help. As a keen explorer, he encountered all sorts of cultures and landscapes throughout his life, which found their way into the Middle Earth that he dreamed up.  

Old Joe, Birmingham—Orthanc

Red brick clock tower known as Old Joe at University of BirminghamThe University of Birmingham's clock tower is thought to have inspired Isengard's black tower

Famed for being the largest freestanding clock tower in the world, the University of Birmingham’s campus clock may also have made an early impression on Tolkien, who briefly went to school in neighbouring Edgbaston.

Popular legend has it that the clock tower, known affectionately as “Old Joe”, inspired Isengard’s black tower, Orthanc, which Saruman occupied during the War of the Ring. 

Another theory goes that Tolkien based the all seeing Eye of Sauron on the clock—it certainly bears a resemblance at night, when its lit clock face can be seen from some distance. 

Sarehole, Birmingham—The Shire

Life in The Shire is idyllically rural, and is lifted from Tolkien’s own childhood in the village Sarehole just outside Birmingham. The nearby Moseley Bog, where he played as a child, meanwhile became the Old Forest, where the hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil. 

Tolkien famously disliked industrialisation, and was horrified to see his countryside home swallowed by Birmingham’s encroaching urbanisation. “The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten,” he wrote in The Lord of the Rings’ foreword. 

"Moseley Bog, where he played as a child, became the Old Forest, where the hobbits encounter Tom Bombadil"

The battle between good and evil in the books often reads like an environmentalist tale of nature versus industry. In The Scourge of The Shire, Saruman’s attack on Fangorn Forest and the fires and noxious gases of Mordor, we see the soot-blackened activity that defined Birmingham’s Black Country. 

That makes the march of the Ents all the more poignant. Tolkien grants nature a little revenge fantasy when his tree guardians tear down Isengard’s factories.

Welsh language—Sindarin Elvish

Morfydd Clark plays Galadriel in Rings of Power, her face is lit orange and covered in volcanic ashCredit: Courtesy of Amazon. Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in Rings of power

Tolkien was a great lover of many languages, but the one he loved most was probably Welsh. In his own words, “Welsh is of this soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; Welsh is beautiful.” 

It makes perfect sense, then, that he would draw from Welsh to create Sindarin, the language spoken by the elves who choose to stay in Middle Earth. 

Morfydd Clark, who plays Galadriel in Rings of Power, has spoken about how being a bilingual Welsh speaker helped her tap into her character.

“I feel I can be much more romantic and deep in Welsh,” she says. “That was really useful for me because I was thinking, What's the language of her heart? What language does she think in?

Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland—Rivendell 

We’ll likely see the establishment of Rivendell in Rings of Power, the refuge that Elrond builds in the Second Age. To admire its picturesque landscape in real life, you need only turn to the village Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland

"Like Rivendell, Lauterbrunnen sits in a deep glacial valley hidden by mountain peaks"

Tolkien visited Lauterbrunnen when he was 19, on a rather hairraising hiking trip through the surrounding mountains—the summer heat caused the path to melt and rocks to fall around his walking party.

This hazardous adventure later inspired the dwarves’ journey from Rivendell through the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit

Like Rivendell, Lauterbrunnen sits in a deep glacial valley hidden by mountain peaks. The Weisse Lütschine river, also like Middle Earth’s River Bruinen, flows through the village, which is famous for the 72 waterfalls that cascade around it. 

The Somme—Dead Marshes

WWI soldiers wait for instructions in trenches at the Battle of the SommeCredit: Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Inspiration first struck Tolkien while serving in the trenches at The Somme

The Great War summoned Tolkien to France in 1915, where he was stationed at the Somme—one of the most devastating battles to decimate the French countryside. 

Journeying across the Somme was treacherous. The combination of shelling and trench warfare transformed the chalky ground into slippery clay and craters filled with rainwater, where bodies of lost soldiers lurked beneath the surface. Many would fall into these pools and drown. 

In The Two Towers, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam across a similarly mud-choked landscape, where faces in the water beckon. “All dead, all rotten,” Gollum tells the others. “Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago.”

Tolkien later acknowledged the Somme’s connection with the Dead Marshes in a letter, and wrote that, “My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war".

It was also here, in snatches of time between fighting, that he first began making notes on his new mythology, which would eventually be published as The Silmarillion

Jewish diaspora—The nomadic dwarves

Dwarf with red bears wears armour and looks sternly into distanceCredit: Courtesy of Amazon. The language that Tolkien's dwarves speak is inspired by Hebrew

As a linguist, Tolkien drew from many existing sources to construct the languages of Middle Earth. For the Dwarvish language, Khuzdul, he turned to Hebrew. “Their words are Semitic obviously,” he confirmed in a 1964 BBC interview.

In The Hobbit, the dwarves are a nomadic people without a fixed home, after being forced from the Lonely Mountain by Smaug the dragon. Their depiction is not unlike the status of the Jewish diaspora throughout European history, particularly the medieval literature that Tolkien drew so much influence from. 

He verified this link in a letter to his daughter, writing that, like the Jewish, dwarves are “at once native and alien in their habitations”.

"Tolkien was a great sympathiser with Jewish people’s plight in Nazi Germany"

Tolkien was a great sympathiser with Jewish people’s plight in Nazi Germany. When a German publisher enquired whether he had Aryan roots, which would allow them to publish his book, he was incandescent. 

“I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.” he wrote to his British publishers. 

Mount Stromboli, Sicily—Mount Doom

Rings of Power gives us a rare glimpse of Mount Doom’s terrifying volcanic power when its pyroclastic flow engulfs the Southlands, but it turns out that you can get an even closer look just off the north coast of Sicily. 

Stromboli is an active volcano that erupts every 20 to 30 minutes, earning it its nickname, the “lighthouse of the Mediterranean”. 

Stromboli may not have directly influenced Mordor’s foreboding landmark—Tolkien sailed past the volcano on a cruise in 1966, a full decade after The Fellowship of the Ring was first published—but some believe that he had an aha moment when he saw it. 

In the words of Tolkien Society of America co-founder, Dick Plotz, "he'd never seen anything that looked so much like Emyn Anar."

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