Does JRR Tolkien’s masterwork ‘The Lord of the Rings’ have lost Yorkshire roots? On the anniversary of Tolkien’s arrival at Leeds, and as casting starts for the new sequel film, Martin Hickes reports.
For many literature fans, JRR Tolkien is the master writer.
While his seminal The Lord of the Rings – published in 1955 - has found new fans aplenty in the wake of Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning films – new light is being shed on Tolkien’s often overlooked Yorkshire connections
The classic epic high fantasy tale - which helped spark the current vogue for fantasy related Hollywood features - and its lesser stable-mate The Hobbit, are generally thought by enthusiasts to have been conceived at Oxford University and afterwards.
But on the 90th anniversary of his arrival at Leeds University, Tolkien fans and scholars are wondering how much Yorkshire and its ‘Shire-like’ surrounds might have played on the imagination of the young English professor and author.
Casting started this year for the forthcoming film sequel The Hobbit, with Peter Jackson slated to oversee as executive producer, although the project has been mired of late in so called ‘development hell’ thanks to MGM’s troubles.
Tolkien is best known in the academic community as being the Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford from 1925 to 1945, and Merton Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959.
He was a close friend of C. S. Lewis, of Narnia fame, and the pair were both members of the informal literary discussion group known as The Inklings.
What is less known is that in 1920 he took up a post as Reader in English language at the University of Leeds, and was later made a professor there. Post World War I, in his first civilian job, he had earlier worked in dictionary editing.
Tolkien had an interview with George S. Gordon, the University's Professor of English, in 1920 and was appointed a Reader in English Language with a free commission to develop the linguistic side of a large and growing School of English Studies.
While at Leeds he produced A Middle English Vocabulary and, with another scholar E. V. Gordon, a definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both becoming academic standard works for many decades.
He was made professor later before moving back to Oxford in 1925.
Scholars and readers alike have mused for decades on the influences on Tolkien’s writing, often citing his childhood in Edgbaston and Worcestershire as being the source for his vivid, imaginative works, which are often considered an exercise in language invention and exploration.
In his formative years, he lived in Birmingham in the shadow of Perrott's Folly and the Victorian tower of Edgbaston Waterworks, which some have surmised to be influence for the the images of the Two Towers in his works, while the countryside surrounding Sarehole in Worcestershire is thought to have influenced ‘Bag End’.
But could the rolling Broad Acres have been a major influence?
Dr Lynn Forest-Hill of the Tolkien Society, says:
“Tolkien's familiarity with Yorkshire began in 1916 when he went on a course at Otley but the county's scenic influence on his work began somewhere around late May or early June 1917 when he had been posted to the Humber garrison.
“He and his wife Edith visited a wood near Roos [Holderness] which was full of hemlocks - no doubt a very beautiful and rather otherworldly sight. There among the lacy flowers Edith danced and sang.
“This event so enchanted Tolkien that he used it as the 'landscape' for the first meeting of his mythic lovers Beren and Luthien - the story of their meeting is included in The Silmarillion, ‘the prequel to Lord of the Rings’ but Tolkien wrote several versions in verse, and included the first part of their story as a poem in The Lord of the Rings.
“When the hobbits are intimidated by darkness and the fear of Black Riders, Aragorn recites part of the story of Beren and Luthien, beginning: "The leaves were long, the grass was green,/The hemlock-umbels tall and fair..."
“For a time Tolkien was posted to Easington near the tip of the Holderness peninsula. During this time he was working on The Song of Eriol, a story about wandering mariner that is included in The Book of Lost Tales, one of the extension books of The Lord of the Rings.
“Tolkien visited Whitby twice, in 1910 and 1945. On the first occasion he made some sketches, but the importance for him of this location lies probably in its Anglo-Saxon history. His awareness of the evidence of Anglo-Saxon history in the Yorkshire landscape may have contributed to the inclusion of many references in LotR to ruins and decaying evidence of a previously flourishing civilisation.
“One of the best known Yorkshire references in Tolkien's work is the name 'Wetwang'. In Old English it means a wet field, marshy place.
“Wetwang in Yorkshire may have inspired Tolkien's use of the word in LotR, since this refers to a large marshy wilderness where two rivers meet, but does not refer to a village, and he may simply have been using his own profound knowledge of OE to give his marshy location a suitable name.”
Prof Tom Shippey, one of Tolkien’s successors in the Chair of English Language and Medieval Literature at Leeds, has written extensively on Tolkien and is still doing so.
“Apart from writing The Lord of the Rings, and its associated works, Tolkien also understook a great deal of scholarly work.
“He contributed an appreciative "Foreword" to Walter E. Haigh's ‘New Glossary of the Dialect of the Huddersfield District’, and like several of his Leeds successors took great interest in the work of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, of which he was a member.
“Walter Edward Haigh taught English at the Technical College in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and was Lecturer Emeritus there at the time of publication of his Glossary (1928).
“He probably first met Tolkien in January 1922, when Tolkien gave a lecture at Leeds University to the Yorkshire Dialect Society, of which Haigh was one of the leaders.
“In his “Preface” to the Glossary Haigh notes that Tolkien had “almost from the first shown his warm approval of the work,” and Tolkien further contributed a six-page “Foreword” to it.
“What Haigh did was collect some 4000 dialect words, and list them together with their pronunciation, meaning, suggested etymology, and illustrative examples collected from local speech.
“It is likely that Tolkien influenced the collection as well as encouraged it, for Haigh’s use of illustrative examples, though oral rather than literary, follows the practice of the Oxford English Dictionary, on which Tolkien had given his 1922 lecture; while the layout of the suggested etymologies is similar to that in Tolkien and E.V. Gordon’s 1925 edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
“Tolkien mentions this poem several times in his “Foreword,” and was charmed by the way in which words familiar to him only from the medieval poem reappeared in modern dialect speech. He gives more than a dozen examples, including the dialect verb “dloppen,” in Huddersfield “to frighten, surprise, amaze, disgust,” in Sir Gawain a verb with identical meaning.
“During his time at Leeds he also published at least nine poems in very small-circulation magazines or collections, at least one of them anonymously – one of which was not recognised as by Tolkien till 1984. It would be fascinating to learn whether any other ‘lost’ poems can be identified.”
New Line Cinema was the original studio associated with the Lord of The Rings films.
The Hobbit is being co-produced with NLC's TV distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as a result of various rights issues. Again, New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.) holds the US rights, while the co-producing studio (in this case, MGM through 20th Century Fox) has international rights.