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A Walk Along the River Lhun

Did J.R.R. Tolkien model the geography of Lindon on Wales? This question has only been asked a couple of times on the Internet, as best I can determine, and no one has really devised a convincing argument in favor of the idea. So it’s not a burning issue but it piqued my interest after I noticed a question on the Tolkien Society’s Facebook page about whether the Lonely Mountain might have been inspired by the Wrekin (a large hill northeast of Birmingham, west of Telford and east of Shropshire).

The connection between the Wrekin and the Severn should be obvious to anyone as unfamiliar with English geography and history as I am. And that is why I wondered if Lindon might be geographically styled on Wales. It’s because of the Bristol Channel, you see, that large expanse of water between southern Wales and northern Devonshire and Somerset. The area was once called Dumnonia.

Do you see all the Tolkien connections in there? No? Let me ‘splain.

A long time ago some militant Latins from the Mediterranean got it into their heads that they should attack the Isle of Brittannia, which was at that time home to many tribes of people whom we collectively call Celts (and maybe some other folks, too). This much of history is well-known. Southwestern Brittannia was called Dumnonia (I have no idea of why) and it was the home to an ancient Celtic tribe called the Dumnonii (doh!). Linguistic evidence suggests that this tribe may have been related to similarly named groups in Scotland and Ireland; and it’s possible that some of their descendants established a small kingdom in Brittany (northwestern France) after the Angles and Saxons started seizing territory in post-Roman Brittannia.

Dumnonia was thus very important to J.R.R. Tolkien because, well, because he slept there or something. I am sure you know the story and if you don’t then one will eventually find its way to you. However, Dumnonia had the distinction of being one of the areas of ancient Britain which probably retained its original population and maybe even its aristocracy throughout the period of Roman rule. The Dumnonians became powerful after Roman power collapsed and withdrew from Britain.

Historians believe that Saxon armies began making inroads into Dumnonia in the mid-600s. By the 880s the last Dumnonian king, Donyarth, died, and the former Dumnonians were pushed back into Cornwall. Eventually even Cornwall was integrated into England. The Saxons considered the Dumnonians to be Welsh (foreigners, like the peoples to the north around the Cambrian Mountains). Unlike the kingdoms of Wales, Dumnonia eventually collapsed and vanished but its people established colonies in Brittany.

Wales was never fully Romanized, either. The Romans just didn’t have the resources to civilize all the contentious tribes of Britain. They could crush their armies in battle but they could not control their society. And so the tribes of Wales eventually established new kingdoms after the Romans left and they slowly consolidated power and dynasties until the Norman English conquered them under Edward I. Sure, the Normans had attacked Wales before and established some lordships there but Edward defeated the last independent Welsh prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.

The Welsh language survived the conquest and eventually influenced Tolkien’s Elven languages, especially Sindarin. Tolkien vacationed in Lamorna Cove in 1932 with his family and there he amused his children by naming a charming local man “Gaffer Gamgee”, choosing the name from childhood memory (it was the name of a famous 19th century doctor). See Letters Nos. 76 and 257 for the pertinent details.

I don’t know what Lamorna means, by the way, as online sources differ on its meaning: it could be “morning” or it could be “beloved”. There is a Lamorna in Scotland, too. But I digress. We were talking about Dumnonia, Cornwall, and Wales because they are all connected to Tolkien in some way, and that means they are (indirectly) connected to Lindon.

The Gaffer Gamgee anecdote brings to mind how Tolkien made up names first and then developed stories around them. Gamgee had been used for a while as a nickname for “cotton-wool” and (according to Letter No. 257) that inspired Tolkien’s Farmer Cotton (and family) along with their close relationship with the Gamgees (Sam played with the Cotton boys as a lad and he and Rosie — well, you know the story, I’m sure). It’s hard to make up literary history like this. Had it not been for the stubborn nature of the Dumnonians and other ancient Cornishmen, Lamorna Cove might never have retained its ancient Celtic name and who knows if there would have been a colorful local gentleman sharing gossip who would inspire Tolkien to devise the name Gaffer Gamgee?

So the next time you meet someone from Cornwall, buy him an ale and thank his heritage for the inspiration that led to Sam Gamgee, without whom Frodo would never have made it halfway to Mordor. But I digress.

We were to talk about the River Severn, which flows into Bristol Channel, and which when you compare maps of the Welsh and Lindon areas seems to resemble the Gulf of Lhun (or Gulf of Lune). Let us not dwell upon the spotty etymology of Lhun (which when Tolkien still had a Noldorin language was to be related to the word luin meaning “blue” and connected with Lhunorodrim and Lhundirien (“blue towers” aka the Ered Luin or “Blue Mountains”)). Nay, rather suffice it to say there is no place for Lhun in the Sindarin language and so we must assume that this name should have been replaced but never was. Still, the River Lhun was closely connected to the Blue Mountains, which were homes to Dwarves (and their mines).

Now, it may seem foolish of me to associate Wales with mines and mining but I’m going to go out on a limb and wake this sleeping giant, if you don’t mind. After all, we’re talking about the River Severn.

Severn, by the way, has an interesting etymology. Remember those Latin guys who wandered up from Italy a couple thousand years ago? Well, legend says that they heard a legend about a Celtic princess who drowned in a river. The princess’ name was, supposedly, Hafren and — so typical of these guys — they Latinized it into Sabrina. Yes, somehow the modern river name takes its name from the teenage witch (because J.R.R. Tolkien knew her great-grandmother, but that’s another story).

So now we have J.R.R. Tolkien visiting Cornwall in former Dumnonia, staying at Lamorna Cove which shares a name with some place in Scotland and he met a colorful local man there whom — to amuse his children — he nicknamed Gaffer Gamgee and thus included that name in his growing tales about hobbits (eventually), leading eventually to the great friendship between the Gamgees of Hobbiton and the Cottons of Bywater, all thanks to some doctor in the 19th century who invented Gamgee tissue (or “cotton-wool”).

Of course, anyone with a map of England can easily see that J.R.R. Tolkien studied and worked in Oxford (once known as Oxenford but that does not enter into this story except as a curious linguistic aside), and Oxford as everyone knows is located in the Midlands, formerly Mercia, somewhat northwest of London and rather east but not too far away from … the River Severn, which was named for a legendary princess (or goddess by some accounts) named Sabrina by the Romans but her Celtic name was supposedly really Hafren (which I understand was to be pronounced ha-V-ren).

Poor Princess Hafren, if she really lived, had no idea that her name would — thousands of years later — be connected with a story about Hobbits. For you see this all has to do with the fact that if you put a map of Lindon side-by-side with a map of Wales there is a clear juxtaposition between the Cambrian Mountains and the Ered Luin AND the River Severn seems to form a boundary similar to that formed by the Lhun. Both of which flow out into enclosed bodies of water.

And did you know, by the way, that Hafren is supposedly Welsh for “boundary”? Well, I found that on the Internet so it must be true. But there are indeed some online Welsh dictionaries that say the -(f)fin element in some names means “boundary”. Haf/Hav- means “summer”. How we get “boundary” from Havren escapes me, but I’m no linguist. There is a Welsh name Ren which, I think, means “ruler” (but I get that from a baby name Website — so I make no promises). Gosh, Hafren looks like “Summer Ruler” to me, but what do I know. The name means “boundary” even though we use the Roman variant as a girl’s name. I am just glad Audrey Hepburn never learned all this, because I don’t know what she would have made of it. But I digress.

We have now established that J.R.R. Tolkien had a flimsy connection to the River Severn. He in fact crossed it on numerous occasions as he passed into or through Wales, and although he denied in Letter No. 229 having “[n]ever walked in Wales or the marches in [his] youth”, he did confess to loving walks through Wales in his adulthood. And that is important to know for Tolkien did spend time in and/or near the Forest of Dean — which lies beyond the western banks of the River Severn (and which also features prominently in a Harry Potter book, but I digress).

Now, the Forest of Dean is a very storied place and it purports to be the inspiration for Tolkien’s forests in Middle-earth. Well, the Puzzlewood part of the Forest of Dean does, at any rate. But claims upon Tolkien abound throughout the English Isles. And even southern Ireland can probably lay a claim or two upon his legacy. The Forest of Dean, however, holds a special place in the hearts of Tolkien enthusiasts because if you know your Tolkien arcana then you know that J.R.R. Tolkien spent time in Lydney Park studying an inscription (or so the legend goes) that some people believe may have inspired his evil One Ring. But I digress, for the Forest of Dean is a mere waypoint on this journey along the banks of the Severn, which finds its roots in middle or northern Wales and empties itself into the Bristol Channel, that some have noted strongly resembles the Gulf of Lhun (if you squint hard enough and think about Summertime Kings whose daughters may have drownded).

Hopefully I have not confused you much for you see if you follow the River Severn to its very roots (or so they say in Wales) you will eventually come to an interesting place called Severn-Breaks-Its-Neck. We Americans would think, “Oh, how English a placename” but this is in Wales so I’m really confused about what it denotes in terms of etymological significance. According to this interesting Website if you should ever be near Llanidloes, Wales you can visit the FOREST OF HAFREN (which, so far as I can determine, was never a boundary between anything). The forest, according to local tradition, takes its name from Afon Hafren (we call it “the River Severn”). Now, before you hang me for dragging on about this running river joke, I want to warn you: be prepared for a shock, for all is not as it seems.

The Severn (I mean, the Afon Hafren) runs down from a local mountain near the Forest of Havren called Pumlumon. Well, that’s the spelling on the above-linked Website but some people may know the name as Plynlimon, which by either name is accounted the highest peak in middle Wales. The Welsh name (Pumlumon) means “five peaks”. Now, as soon as I read that piece of information I thought to myself, “Hm. Where have I seen five peaks on a mountain before?” But let’s not rush this story just yet. We were running down the River Severn as I recall.

Did you know that the Severn is the longest river in Britain? Well, I’m sure many British school students have been taught that but it’s apparently got a long history that ends up right in the middle of Middle-earth, so to speak. So it’s Frodo’s cousin once-removed on its mother’s side and Sam Gamgee’s wife’s sister’s daughter the other way round. What that means is that there’s quite a few stories bound up with the river and its roots.

And one of those local legends says that there is a sleeping giant beneath the five peaks of Pumlumon. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh, in Farmer Giles of Ham there was a sleepy giant or something” and you’d be about right because there is a giant in Farmer Giles and as Tolkien explained himself in Letter No. 116 Farmer Giles of Ham “is a definitely located story (one of its virtues if it has any): Oxfordshire and Bucks, with a brief excursion into Wales. The places in it are largely named, or fairly plainly indicated.” Well, you can’t argue with a citation from J.R.R. Tolkien, can you? (Actually, I have known some people who did — but I digress.)

So we have followed the River Severn down into Bristol Channel where we have explored the history of Devonshire which was once the heart of Dumnonia and in the last corner of which, Cornwall, there was a cove named Lamorna that was home to an eccentric gossipy fellow whom J.R.R. Tolkien quaintly nicknamed Gaffer Gamgee much to the amusement of his children, and from there he returned home to work on his first book about hobbits (aptly named The Hobbit, or There and Back Again). But his work also occasionally called for him to spend time at the University of Wales in Cardiff — which has nothing to do with this journey but let me point out that Tolkien was quite familiar with Welsh philology and in Letter No. 241 (written to his aunt, Jane Neave, in 1962) he shared some details of Welsh philology and history. Among one of his (to me) more interesting comments was that “All ‘scholars’ are apt to be quarrelsome, but Welsh scholarship and philology are a faction-fight. My reference on p. 3 [of a proof for a lecture he gave in 1955, to be published in 1963] to ‘entering the litigious lists’ was not mere rhetoric, but a necessary disclaimer against belonging to any one of the factions.”

OMG — that is so Fëanorian in tone I want to shibboleth in my boots!

Another interesting anecdote from that letter goes on to say:

…that Sir John M. J. built himself a fine house near Bangor overlooking the Menai Straits, to Môn (Anglesey). But the ‘friendly’ nickname for the inhabitants of that isle is (on the mainland) moch ‘swine’. Some gentry from Beaumaris paid him a visit, and after admiring his house, asked if he was going to give it a name. ‘Yes’, said he, ‘I shall call it Gadara View. ‘. . . .

And anyone with a map of Wales can easily find Bangor, which is located northwest of the Forest of Hafren on the southern shore of Conwy Bay in a straight line from Cardiff, which is situated upon the north shore of the Bristol Channel.

Coincidence? Who cares?!

Bangor is at the crossing into the historic Island of Anglesey, which anyone who knows their Roman history should recall was the scene of a great climactic battle between the Romans (those Latin guys who converted the name of “Summer Ruler” into a girlish “Sabrina”) and the Druidic Celts. I forget the details of the battle but it involved chariots and lots of yelling and screaming.

In all of this loosely connected arcana and folklore I cannot find a single shred of evidence to support any specific claims about what may have inspired some notable part of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Is Pumlumon supposed to be the Lonely Mountain? It’s hard to say. But the Lonely Mountain has six arms, which could mean it has seven peaks (not five). Still, a multi-peaked mountain in the wilderness from which a major river runs sounds very tantalizingly familiar.

It’s easy enough to see why people assume Tolkien was inspired by this and that. He wove everything together and made it all sound so familiar. For example, near a lake named Llyn Idwal, which is near Bangor in the Glyder Mountains, is a place called Twll Dû, which Jenkinson’s practical guide to North Wales (1878) translates as “black chasm”. According to Black’s tourist’s guide to Wales (1910):

Llyn Idwal is a smaller lake (1/2 mile from bend of road) situated in a dark deep hollow of the Glyder mountains, at a considerable elevation above the falls of Benglog. The lofty, black perpendicular rocks, by which it is surrounded, render it a scene of gloom and horror, sometimes made still more appalling by the violent agitation of the waters, which currents of air toss up in waves like those of the ocean in a storm.

In the rocks which overshadow the pool is seen a deep, black chasm, called Twl-dû (the black cleft), or as it is popularly named, the Devil’s Kitchen, extending 450 feet in length, 100 in depth, and only 6 in width. A stream rolls down the cleft, several times broken in its descent by the jutting rocks. After much rain, the water falls in one vast cataract several hundred feet in height. At the bottom are a number of circular holes in the rocks, produced by the falling water, vulgarly called the Devil’s Pots. An ascent may be made with care by the scree on the left-hand side of the chasm.

I sense echoes of the west-gate of Moria and the Dwarves’ secret tunnel in the side of Erebor in this description. One cannot help but wonder if J.R.R. Tolkien had not read this book.

If nothing else, the little bit of folklore we have about Princess/Goddess Havren is also very Tolkienien in feel: sad, concise, and leaving one to wonder. It is a long river beside which we stroll, and whether we call it Lhun or Severn or something else it really doesn’t matter for, you see, we are walking in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien and that is enough.

About the Author: Michael Martinez