There is a small village in the heart of Ohio — I don’t know its name — but it has a connection to J.R.R. Tolkien and it was, in fact, the complete inspiration for Middle-earth. Don’t believe me? Just wait — one day that village will have a Tolkien festival, local taverns will name themselves for Tolkien place-names, and the county tour books will mention that Tolkien once mailed a letter that was received by a friend of a friend who had a connection to someone in or near Ohio sometime in the late 1950s.
Perhaps I seem a bit skeptical or jaded or condescending or exasperated. Certainly it’s none of the above, for I am truly bemused and moved by the all the regional claims of kinship to Middle-earth that come out of some of the darnedest places. I have no doubt that one day the Ethiopian Tolkien Literary Scholarship will celebrate his direct borrowing from their history (“Gondar for Gondor” may become a rallying cry).
It is far more likely, I think, that J.R.R. Tolkien heard about Homo floresiensis through some distant connection with archaeology than that he based all of his stories on the numerous sleeping lofts he is said to have visited. The man is more well-traveled in Tolkien mythology than Orome on Nahar.
There are verifiable themes in Tolkien literature that we can reasonably say are drawn from Greek, Babylonian, Egyptian, Celtic, Norse, (continental) Germanic, Old English, Slavic, and Hebrew literatures and mythologies. Tolkien cast his creative nets afar and he trawled the imaginations of the ages, but the claims being staked on his name have become a fashion of the 21st century.
Whether one speaks of a beach in Scotland or a cave in Ireland or a swamp in northern France, someone ultimately comes along and says something like, “Oh, yes, J.R.R. Tolkien used this to design Middle-earth.”
And who am I, an American who has barely visited England twice for less than a total of a month, to say that these are not truths but rather are examples of exactly the kind of folklore he would have loved and honored for they are steps upon the Great Philological Journey of creating new chapters in the evolutionary histories of modern languages?
Well, I have always put my foot down about something and if I cannot argue against the tavern or the bridge or the woody glade near your house that has a sign saying, “J.R.R. Tolkien slept here” then at least allow me to argue in favor of using a calendar and a little bit of math. Allowing for the possibility that no one has formally documented in a biography, a published (or auctioned) letter, a scholarly treatise on the manuscripts, or even a coffee table book that J.R.R. Tolkien visited A Certain Spot prior to, say, 1937 then we must ask if his visits to A Certain Spot in the late 1950s clearly justify claiming a connection with words Tolkien published in 1937.
It is such a niggling factor, a minor inconvenience, that I should want to know if J.R.R. Tolkien ventured within an evening’s conversation of any alleged inspiration for his fiction prior to his alleged use of said source. I can nonetheless well imagine that merely raising the issue may result in many doors being forever closed to my footsteps; I shall receive no invitations to speak at local gatherings, and my name shall not be spoken in circles among the True Faithful. For I have dared to question the connection between the Professor and Where He Slept Upon a Time.
I draw no amusement from the phenomenon for it truly interests me to know that Tolkien did spend time in so many places. When I was younger, before the Internet opened up my eyes to a myriad of obscure anecdotal sources about the lives of millions of people, I barely imagined Tolkien wandering past his lawn gate. In my mind he was some stodgy old man sitting in a house in England writing stories and making up names in imaginary languages. And as anyone who has read even a smidgen of modern fantasy fiction knows, it’s not easy to make up convincing names in imaginary languages. I just figured he had a really good natural talent for the business.
My first inkling of what the Inkling may have actually done came when I watched Tom Shippey talk about how Tolkien used words in the 1992 centenniel video. If I recall correctly, Shippey was standing by a window and there was a road behind him. He pointed to the road and proceeded to explain a bit about its history (or some road’s history) and ultimately came around to wudu-wasa (“wood-wose”). Any fan of Turin Turambar should recognize that name.
What I gleaned from this anecdote (which may also have appeared in one or two books Shippey has written) was that J.R.R. Tolkien paid attention to slight details in the most obscure of places. If he took a fancy to a name he might use it. If not, well, he might find something like it to use. But how does one hear about all these delightful little details if one doesn’t get out and wander the countryside, taking in conversations with random strangers? Now I find it difficult to shake the image of the Professor wandering from English village to English village, having tea with the local vicars and housewives, making notes in a little brown book, waiting to hear yet another interesting anecdote.
Having engaged in retrospeculation myself I know fully well how tempting it is to provide a (possible) connection between something in Tolkien’s fiction (like, say, the Two Trees of Valinor) and some obscure point of history (such as the Persian story about Alexander and the Trees of the Sun and Moon). It’s too good a tale not to tell, and yet in the telling I may be weaving part of a larger tale that is no more true than the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree (which most scholars now dispute but technically no one has actually proven it never happened).
If I can verify that Tolkien saw something, read something, or otherwise came into contact with knowledge about a potential source of inspiration then I am all the more interested in the potentiality of the inspiration. But there are so many details of his life that are long lost to posterity I doubt we could possibly stem the tide of proud adoption of the Tolkien legacy even if Christopher Tolkien tirelessly responded to every such assertion. His legacy has become a living legacy of invention, inference, and attachment.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. I think that future generations will want to explore this rich storyscape we have gone about inventing since at least Julius Caesar’s day (although the Epic Poets of ancient Greece may have started it all with their incessant writing about Troy). The process of telling stories about the story-tellers is itself a great story. For one day someone will start a wonderful conversation by saying, “J.R.R. Tolkien slept here” and it won’t matter any longer whether he actually had or would have; it will only matter that there is a story and an audience for it. Just be sure you keep the dating of your events believable.