The English towers and landmarks that inspired Tolkien’s hobbit sagas

Readers of The Lord of the Rings must surely imagine lifting their eyes in terror before Saruman’s dark tower, known as Orthanc. Over the years, many admirers of the Middle-earthsagas have guessed at the inspiration for this and other striking features of the landscape created by JRR Tolkien.

Now an extensive new study of the author’s work is to reveal the likely sources of key scenes. The idea for Saruman’s nightmarish tower, argues leading Tolkien expert John Garth, was prompted by Faringdon Folly in Berkshire.

“I have concentrated on the places that inspired Tolkien and though that may seem a trivial subject, I hope I have brought some rigour to it,” said Garth this weekend. “I have a fascination for the workings of the creative process and in finding those moments of creative epiphany for a genius like Tolkien.”

A close study of the author’s life, his travels and his teaching papers has led Garth to a fresh understanding of an allegory that Tolkien regularly called upon while giving lectures in Old English poetry at Oxford in the 1930s.

Comparing mysteries of bygone poetry to an ancient tower, the don would talk of the impossibility of understanding exactly why something was once built. “I have found an interesting connection in his work with the folly in Berkshire, a nonsensical tower that caused a big planning row,” Garth explains. While researching his book he realised the controversy raging outside the university city over the building would have been familiar to Tolkien.


JRR Tolkein

JRR Tolkein.

Tolkien began to work this story into his developing Middle-earth fiction, finally planting rival edifices on the Tower Hills on the west of his imaginary “Shire” and also drawing on memories of other real towers that stand in the Cotswolds and above Bath. “Faringdon Folly isn’t a complete physical model for Orthanc,” said Garth. “It’s the controversy surrounding its building that filtered into Tolkien’s writings and can be traced all the way to echoes in the scene where Gandalf is held captive in Saruman’s tower.”

Garth’s book, The Worlds of JRR Tolkien, is published next month by Frances Lincoln and is to be translated into nine languages. It will argue that many assumptions previously made about the origins of scenes from the sagas are wrong.

“We have a good idea of when Tolkien was writing each bit, but he kept his cards pretty close to his chest when it comes to his creative process. I think it has been misleading just to visit places he went to and draw simple conclusions,” said Garth. He is unconvinced by a prior claim that The Two Towers in the title of the second book of Lord of the Rings were influenced by buildings in Birmingham, including Perrotts Folly in Edgbaston.


Maiden Castle earthworks in Dorset

Maiden Castle earthworks in Dorset may have inspired the Barrow-downs. Photograph: Arcaid Images/Alamy

One of Garth’s key discoveries concerns an ancient battlescape that reappears across Tolkien’s writing. It has its basis in the large earthworks at Maiden Castle in Dorset, he now believes, and is best known to readers in the shape of the contours of the atmospheric Barrow-downs in Lord of the Rings.

“It is a former place of a battle with tombs, dating from a ‘deep time’; the place where the Barrow-wight captures the hobbits when they need to be released from his power,” said Garth. “Tolkien does the scene beautifully. It is one of his real talents as a writer.”

In the year before Tolkien wrote this passage, major excavations in Maiden Castle had been chronicled in a newspaper column of archaeological highlights written by his friend REM Wheeler. “Wheeler, who invented ‘stratigraphy’, the study of archaeological layers, was a great populariser,” said Garth. “The excavations in Dorset were given an awful lot of space and I am pretty confident that Tolkien read it, especially as he knew Wheeler. At the time, though, Tolkien still didn’t have a clue where he was going with his story. He… liked the setting of a place of former battles.”

The significance of Warwick and Warwick Castle in the genesis of the Middle-earth books has also become clearer to Garth. Tolkien travelled there on romantic breaks with Edith Bratt, his future wife, and his love of the trees of the area and of a particular hill can be closely linked now to the Elven forests that his fans later came to love.

The Guardian

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