Reflections by Dan Cruver and John Pletcher
For many years, fans and scholars alike have enjoyed conjecturing about those places—the regions, locales, and situations—that might have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterful creation of Middle-earth. John Garth’s recent book aims to make a significant contribution to such pondering, but with serious grounding that moves Tolkien readers beyond mere conjecture.
Garth’s new book includes “a wealth of breathtaking illustrations, including Tolkien’s own drawings, contributions from other artists, rare archival images, and spectacular color photos of contemporary locations across Britain and beyond, from the battlefields of World War 1 to Africa . . . He reveals the rich interplay between Tolkien’s personal travels, his wide reading, and his deep scholarship . . . Garth draws on his own profound knowledge of Tolkien’s life and work to shed light on the extraordinary process of invention behind Tolkien’s works of fantasy.” (from the back cover)
In this reflective article, Dan Cruver and John Pletcher spotlight two of the book’s focus areas, sharing favorite highlights and discoveries.
Spotlight on Tolkien’s “Roots of the Mountains” (by Dan)
Gollum: ‘What has roots as nobody sees?’ Bilbo: ‘Mountains, I suppose.’ That’s how Garth begins the fifth section of his book (p. 83), namely, with one of Gollum’s riddles from The Hobbit. Bilbo and Gollum were deep inside the roots of a literal mountain when they engaged in their riddle battle, but with a clever metaphorical flick of his pen, Garth turns Gollum’s riddle into an invitation to explore the origins of the mountains of Middle-earth in the subterranean regions of Tolkien’s mind. The title of this fifth section of Garth’s book is “Roots of the Mountains” (pp. 83-99).
As soon as I read Garth’s opening sentence of the section on The Alps, my immediate thought was, “Of course!” He wrote, “A single visit to Switzerland laid the foundations for almost every mountain scene Tolkien wrote” (p. 83). On the opposite page (82) is a breathtaking photo of the valley of Lauterbrunnen with this caption, “[T]he first glory of Tolkien’s 1911 Swiss walking holiday and the clear inspiration for Rivendell.” In the photo, off in the distance, are two towering (pun intended) wispy waterfalls, the water of which plunges several hundred feet to the valley below. To look at that photo is to see “the roots” of Rivendell’s waterfalls.
Tolkien was nineteen when he went on that walking holiday in the Swiss Alps, and Garth does an excellent job of piecing together evidence of that trip’s influence on Tolkien’s Middle-earth journeys through mountainous terrain. For example, Garth writes, “The [walking] party was twelve-strong, at some point swelled to fourteen — the size of Thorin’s party in The Hobbit” (p. 84). Both the striking beauty of the Alps and the size of the hiking party seem to have shaped Tolkien’s imaginative world.
The mountains of the Swiss Alps left a metaphorical imprint upon Tolkien’s mind as well. Garth writes, “Mountains seen in the distance 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” (pp. 85-86).
Garth also includes one of Tolkien’s illustrations titled, Rivendell Looking East (p. 87). To look at it is to see obvious evidence of the valley of Lauterbrunnen’s influence on Tolkien’s Rivendell. Garth’s description of Lauterbrunnen alone provides clear evidence of its influence: “Lauterbrunnen is a half-mile (0.8km) span of woods and meadows between glacier-carved limestone cliffs rising up to 1,500 feet (457m). Many glacier-fed streams fill it with the sound of water, tumbling in seventy-two falls to join the White Lütschine in its rocky bed” (p. 86). I found this extended section of Garth’s “Roots of the Mountains” to be especially illuminating.
In the remainder of the chapter, Garth provides wonderful insight into what influenced Middle-earth’s mountain vistas, from the origins of Misty Mountains (pp. 89-90) to Mount Doom (pp. 91-93). For those who wish to deepen their appreciation for Tolkien’s mountain-building, Garth’s new book should be the go-to resource.
Spotlight on Tolkien’s “Tree-woven Lands” (by John)
In his seventh section, John Garth winsomely walks us into Tolkien’s woods. He supplies this astute observation: “Forests are places of wonder, or of wandering, even in his very earliest writings.” (p. 113) Garth proceeds to take us to some of those earliest places such as Whittington Heath and the hilltop beeches of ancient Hopwas Hays Wood. These tree-woven places supplied inspiration for very early poems and stories like Wood-sunshine and Kullervo.
Garth shares with readers regarding those woods in Tolkien’s childhood that most likely influenced his writing. Highlights from his early years include contemplative time in Moseley Bog. During playful days, there was actual tree climbing with his brother, Hilary, in Lickey Hills near Rednal. Garth delivers special focus on the impact of huge oak trees.
Tolkien’s location of inspiration for the woods where lovers Beren and Lúthien meet is linked to Dents Garth, the wood at Roos, Yorkshire. There amidst white flowers, Ronald was enchanted by the dance of his wife, Edith in 1917. This real locale inspired his brilliant, woodsy crafting of Doriath, where Beren first sees the elf-princess, Lúthien, dance in The Silmarillion.
Coverage of treescape must certainly include Garth’s beautiful treatment of Lothlórien, the famous location of Galadriel and Celeborn’s tree-house. Garth says “Lothlórien’s most formative influence was surely the 1915 poem Kortirion among the Trees, a celebration of Warwickshire as ‘the land of Elms, Alalminórë in the Faery Realms.’” Garth supplies special explanation about Tolkien’s invention of the mallorn-trees with golden leaves in autumn and golden flowers in the spring. Among other magnificent pictures, the book includes a stunning depiction of Lothlórien from Tolkien’s own artistry (p. 119).
Ethelfleda’s Mound at the western end of Warwick Castle supplied potential influence on Tolkien’s creation of both Lothlórien in The Silmarillion and Kortirion in The Book of Lost Tales. Garth delivers insight on the Professor’s envisioning those tree formations like ship masts. Here is a visual mapping that mirrors the actual tree formation and clusters at Warwick Castle.
It seems likely that Mirkwood of The Hobbit morphed in Tolkien’s mind from the Forest of Night in The Silmarillion. No doubt these frightening woods and their vampire-like villain, the Necromancer, found some influence from Bram Stoker’s novel and eventual stage production, Dracula. However, Tolkien places his Necromancer in a darker, thicker, more wild forest domain with his design of Mirkwood.
Garth expounds on how Tolkien borrowed this place from Julias Caesar’s Gallic Wars of two thousand years prior. Germanic people living north of the historically foreboding, literal forest called it Myrkvidr. Tolkien interpreted myrk to denote a real sense of gloom. As a young man in 1911, Tolkien observed this region first-hand while traveling in Europe via riverboat and train. Garth sees Tolkien’s own rendition and blend of woodscape for both Mirkwood and Taur-na-Fuin (the Forest of Night) directly influenced by the sights he saw on that journey as well as his familiarity with the ancient tales of prior centuries.
In this seventh book section, Garth also supplies wonderful treatment of the Old Forest, linking its origination to wordplay on two local Oxford names, Buckland and Wood Eaton. And of course, there are further verbal roots to Anglo-Saxon terms as well as medieval Latin. With such observations, Garth links Tolkien’s creation of woodlands with his deep love and lifetime of work in philological linguistic scholarship.
Concluding this section, special attention is given to Hollin and the Doors of Durin, Fangorn and the lost forests of Beleriand. Ancient cathedral architecture also delivers potential impact on the crafting of Tolkien’s forests.
Attentive details from Tolkien’s lifetime of influences proves fascinating. Garth’s work demonstrates even further why the famous author was mesmerized with trees and vast woods, incorporating them liberally in his tales. This new book invites us as adoring readers into even deeper wandering in the woods of Tolkien’s wonder.