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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Sarehole Mill
Sarehole Mill

© Courtesy of Marketing Birmingham
Talking Tolkien

Over the 15 years of his stay in Birmingham, Tolkien lived in no less than eight different houses. Remarkably, five of those houses are still standing in Moseley, Edgbaston and Ladywood. They range from the decidedly down-market to the surprisingly grand, but none has attracted the attention as much as 264 Wake Green Road (or 5 Gracewell, as it was then known). Here, by his own admission, Ronald spent his happiest childhood years, from the summer of 1896 until 1900.

Tolkien at his Oxford home. Photo: Pamela Chandler
© Diana Willson
If there is any place that re-connects Middle Earth to the real world it is here. Here still stands Sarehole Mill, the city’s last surviving water mill, where Ronald and his brother, Hillary, used to hide from the ‘White Ogre’, the name they gave to the flour-covered mill owner. In later life Tolkien himself contributed to the fund-raising to save the mill.

Here too is Moseley Bog, the remains of an old clay quarry, where Ronald and Hillary found a mysterious and secret world of giant trees and hidden streams. Could this be the Old Forest, where Tom Bombadil hides away? Certainly the hamlet of Sarehole, full of sensible country folk, sounds like Hobbiton personified. The author’s own illustration of the settlement of Hobbits for his first book, showing hill and mill and cottages, only serves to cement that connection.

The village of Sarehole was then at arm’s reach from the big city, but even while Tolkien was there the suburbs of Birmingham were growing all around it. That sense of encroachment and threat is present throughout The Lord of the Rings. Some have read the book as an allegory of Britain during the Second World War, as the country strove to protect its green and pleasant land from the ‘Dark Lord’ in Berlin. But the book is as much about the attack on England from the growing forces of suburbia and industry. Whatever the truth of all that, few have questioned that Sarehole represents, as much as anywhere in the real world can, the village from which Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee set out on their long quest.

Words: Chris Upton

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Your comments

1 Derek Armstrong from Canada - 5 January 2004
"I grew up near Tolkien's house in Wakegreen Road, Moseley and Moseley Grammar School's cross-country course was through the Bog. The dark wood, cliffs of the old sandpit, the little stream and quaking marsh certainly engendered fantasies in my mind - viking warships and battles etc. At that time (50s)I had no interest in reading Tolkien's fantasies! In fact the books were so ignored that Birmingham had plans to build all over that land, and did in part. Now since the films, they've discovered a great tourist attraction - maybe next, Hobbit hollow, Tolkien tea rooms et al! "

2 Margaret Castell from Palm Springs, California - 4 January 2004
"I was a child in the early 1950s, went to school at Edgbaston High Sch. for Girls on Hagley Road. Every day on the 2nd bus home (29A) I'd pass Sarehole Mill. It was a lovely, mysterious place, in the middle of suburbia but it was still a somewhat rural area. I never saw a living person there and I don't think anyone was allowed in it. I'd get off the bus at the end of Sarehole Road where it joined Robin Hood Lane, walk up to Webb Lane where there was actually a small farm by the railway line, with cows. This was 1954. Lovely open common area along Robin Hood Lane with hawthorn bushes, grass and hard to believe you're in a city. Tolkien would have known this area well and also a place called the Dingles, a small river flowing from the mill pool to a park (Tritiford?) a couple of miles away, an open area to walk in, and great fun to play along the river. I also took the other bus along Wake Green Road, crossing Alcester Rd. probably passing another of his homes throug! h Mosely on my way to and from school. I always felt the Mill was special and have never forgotten it. Birmingham's southern suburbs were very lovely in those days, a different world and great for a child to grow up in. I live in Southern California now but those days are vivid in my memory. They must have stayed in Tolkien's also. "

3 Terry Dixon from S Leics - 4 January 2004
"Paul, I both agree and disagree with you. I agree that the book was not an allegory for the second world war. However I do believe that the theme did make a point about industrialisation and the destruction of a simpler more rural way of life. These were not new ideas, The pre-Raphaelitr brotherhood of the late 19th Century (Willam Morris, D G Rosetti et al) started the movement as a reaction against industrialisation in the late 19th C. Also other Authors had pursued this theme around the same time as Tolkien for Example Huxley in Brave New World. "

"Tolkien was brought up in what was quite a rural area and must have seen the effects of industry encroach (The Black Country is relatively close with mines and steelworks etc). I feel that when Saruman is hailing the rise of Industry over nature in The Two Towers, Tolkien is making a point. See also the comments by the Ent, Treebeard about Saruman's loss of love for the trees and his new love for Industry. I do think that Tolkien was making a statement about thes things as weel as writing as an academic exercise in Language and as a result of his love of Sagas. It is a monumental and Complex work which has many facets and messages, enjoy it at all of it's levels. "

4 Paul Nash from Airth, Scotland, via North and South London - 23 December 2003
"For those who remain convinced of the connection between The Lord of the Rings and the Second World War: please read that foreword. Tolkien makes it clear that his story is not an allegory of that conflict, nor of any other conflict. "

"I think it is a little misleading to see it as an argument against the destruction of the countryside. That Tolkien was concerned about this is clear; but that concern is an element he used in the story. He did not write the story to persuade or warn anyone of anything; he wrote it because he wanted to write it."

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