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On the Tolkien Trail, Part Three
by Shaun Spain


Before I go any further I would just like to take the time to explain a few things about this third part of my Tolkien Trail series.

Most of what I am writing is simply conjecture based on my knowledge of the area of England known nowadays as the West Midlands. I have seen places that I find remarkably similar to those of the world of Tolkien. Coinciding with the fact that I know for certain that Tolkien himself has visited and/or knew these places makes the connections even stronger. What I present here then, are the possible inspirations behind the two strongholds of the villainous contingent of "The Lord of the Rings".

The Lay of the Land

Giving you some idea of where these locations lie in respect to Sarehole and Ladywood (places Tolkien lived during his childhood) will lend some validation to my theories. I therefore present you with the following map.

The Conurbation of Birmingham, England

Armed with this knowledge, let us continue the trail.

Orthanc Uncovered

". . . Isengard is a circle of sheer rocks that enclose a valley as with a wall, and in the midst of that valley is a tower of stone called Orthanc."

Such is the description of the stronghold of Saruman the White. But where on Earth could such a place exist?

If we stretch the imagination (and remember that imagination is what hones the inspiration) then that circle of sheer rocks could be a circle of buildings. Now, I know a place in Birmingham that Tolkien would have known (for he allegedly walked through a nearby park on occasion) and it fits the description almost perfectly: it is the University of Birmingham in Edgbaston.

The semi-circle of buildings around "Old Joe"

The red-brick, Victorian construction is a truly beautiful thing to behold. When I first went there to study I spent several peaceful moments simply gazing at the brick-work and smiling (I do love architecture at its best).

The pinnacle of Orthanc is, I believe, the Joseph Chamberlain clock tower (or "Old Joe"). At over 360 feet in height, it dominates the surrounding landscape. I remember sitting in my halls of residence about a mile away and looking out of my window to the distant shape of Old Joe on the horizon. I certainly found it inspirational and I fail to see how Tolkien could not feel the same.

Make of it what you will, but I believe that Saruman’s home was inspired by Old Joe.

The Horror of Mordor

It is more difficult to endow one area of England with the label: "Here lies the inspiration for Mordor". Many people equate the utter bleak landscape of Mordor with a natural volcanic waste.

I disagree. Tolkien shows quite blatantly, his love for all things natural and an utter abhorrence of things constructed by humanity — particularly the hideousness of industry and mechanization. A volcano therefore, though its ashen flank and zone of destruction would seem inhospitable to mankind, would not (I am sure) disgust Tolkien. Something much worse is needed.

There is such a place — not far from where Tolkien grew up. During the industrial revolution the scene must have been mirrored in many areas around the world. Tolkien lived in the rapidly expanding Birmingham when he was allegedly most affected by his surroundings. It is for this reason that I believe Tolkien’s inspiration for Mordor is drawn from a place not too far away.

Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862, said that the place was "Black by day and red by night".

A local poet wrote of it:

When Satan stood on Brierley Hill
And far around him gazed,
He said: "I never more shall feel
At Hells fierce flames amazed."

This place became known, because of its black ground and the choking black smoke from innumerable furnaces, as the Black Country.

The boundaries of the Black Country are somewhat hazy. Certainly, the district known as Dudley is at the heart of it. But Sandwell is said to be it too, as is Walsall and even parts of Wolverhampton.

Wherever it is and whatever its boundaries, the Black Country is certainly something that would raise the hackles of Tolkien and any nature lover the world over. Great iron foundries and abominable constructions marred the horizon, just as the great open-cast mines scarred the land. Horrific, despicable and repulsive: certainly the Mordor amongst us.

What did Tolkien say of Mordor?

". . . Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life."

Something bleak in the Stour region

". . . the last remains, maybe, of some sweet rain gathered from sunlit seas, but ill-fated to fall at last upon the walls of the Black Land and wander fruitless down into the dust."

And there are tunnels for canals, built for the shifting of heavy loads

"Legging it"- a barge through a grimy tunnel

And like sentinels, bastions of a former age, there stand ancient and once resplendent buildings amongst the ash and black.

Dudley Castle looms over the Black Country

And the landscape of the industrial revolution was like a wound.

A bleak lime pit

Though the Black Country fits so well the description of Mordor, I can’t help but feel that World War II also influenced its design. How so? Take a look at this picture of my home town of Coventry in 1941.

City centre devastation

Birmingham too, suffered a similar fate. It took many years to rebuild the cities levelled by the blitzes, which the Allies and the Nazis inflicted on one another. War and industrialization, it seems, leave behind a similar waste land.

Bear in mind also that Tolkien himself served as an officer in World War I. The miserable conditions offered by trench warfare may have inspired Mordor as much as the batman-officer relationship inspired the Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins friendship.

So these, I believe, are the inspirations for Mordor. Again, make of them what you will.

In Conclusion

I have barely touched on the material laid before us in "The Lord of the Rings". The inspirations for the myriad languages, the myths and the characters, have hardly been mentioned. Many more Tolkien Trails could be written but I shall leave them for another Tolkien fan.

Whatever inspirations can be attributed to a work such as "The Lord of the Rings" and the related mythology, it takes an incredible imagination to mature and form them into a tale so wholly absorbing. That imagination belonged to J. R. R. Tolkien — from zero to hero, just like a Hobbit rising from obscurity to world-wide renown. There is therefore nothing more inspirational to me than the man himself.


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