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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Birmingham

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Myths and Legends
Talking Tolkien

But Ronald Tolkien was about to set out on a quest too. In 1900 he passed the entrance exam to King Edward’s Grammar School in New Street, and the family was obliged to move nearer to a tram route into the city. They lived for a few months at 214 Alcester Road, near to Moseley village.

Perrot’s Folly
© Reproduced by permission of Birmingham Library
It was then that the most significant change took place in the family’s life: Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism. For the next few years the family would be almost permanently on the move, as Mabel searched for a Catholic church she felt comfortable with. The odyssey took them first to Westfield Road in Kings Heath, and then to Oliver Road in Ladywood, close to Cardinal Newman’s Oratory Church on the Hagley Road.

Here the young Ronald encountered a very different kind of environment from Sarehole, but one which also left its mark upon his imagination. Five minutes walk from the Oratory stand two unlikely towers. One is a Victorian waterworks tower next to Edgbaston Reservoir; the other is a folly, a 96-feet tower of brick, built for no obvious purpose by one John Perrott in 1758. Do we have here the origin of the two towers - Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith - from which the second volume of The Lord of the Rings takes its name?

Inspiration for the two towers?
© Reproduced by permission of Birmingham Library
The years spent in Ladywood were dark ones. In 1904 Mabel Tolkien died of diabetes, leaving her two sons first in the custody of a priest - Father Xavier Morgan - at the Oratory, and then with an aunt in nearby Stirling Road. But here too there was to be a remarkable connection with the world of Middle Earth. Across the road from their aunt lived the widow of Dr Sampson Gamgee, a well-known Birmingham physician. Tolkien knew the name from his Sarehole days, as the pioneer of a kind of dressing (similar to cotton wool) which was locally known as ‘Gamgee tissue’. Years later the name Sam Gamgee was to re-appear in Tolkien’s writings as Frodo’s faithful servant and the last ring bearer.

J. R. R. Tolkien left Birmingham for Oxford in 1911, and never again lived in the city. But memories of Sarehole and Ladywood, the Old Forest and the Two Towers, remained with him. The memories were still fresh 40 years later, when Tolkien settled down to write a sequel to The Hobbit. And remarkably the places he remembered are still there today.

Words: Chris Upton

Pages: Previous [ 1, 2, 3 ]

Your comments

1 Chen Qinghao from Singapore - 9 January 2004
"The hobbit was published earlier than TLOTR and it received very good response from the public and the publishers than resquested Tolkien to weite a sequel to it. But Tolkien, irresistably, wrote the sequel for adult readers. Anyway, thanks for this article for I didn't know all these possible inspirations for Middle Earth. "

2 Jeremy Main from Brussels via London and Stirling Road - 5 January 2004
"I'm just working through Njal's Saga at the moment: in Chapter 23, there's a reference to a leading character, Mord, as Lord of the was aparently a general periphrasis for a Nordic chief. I lived at 23 Stirling Road for a while in the 1970s - right under the towers in question. They're downright overpowering pieces of Victorian Gothic, and spiritually daunting. As the book in question describes the gathering storm, and is the darkest section of the trilogy, I rather feel that there can be no doubt he was refering to the dark towers. At least he didn't have to put up with the National Express coach park at their foot - now that was a piece of orcish devastation if you need one... "

3 Ted from Small Heath now San Francisco - 4 January 2004
"I have always lived under the assumption that, although Tolkien's main school was Edward IV, he actually also briefly attended Bordesley Green Grammar Technical School for Boys... Any ideas? "

4 Terry Dixon from S Leics - 4 January 2004
"Sean, Tolkien got his love of language from his job as a professor of English at Oxford University. He was fascinated by the Ealy eEnglish and Nordic sagas, e.g. 'Beowulf and 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. I believe that the Runes came from the Nordic Runes, a norse writing system. He invented the Elvish language as a an academic exercise and then wrote the Lord of The Rings as a saga to use this language. "

5 David Hume from Essex, England - 4 January 2004
"to sean : Tolkien was interested in languages throughout his life. He created many languages, the most detailed of which are Quenya and Sindarin, two of the languages developed by the elves. The elvish script is an alphabet caled Tengwar, also created by tolkien, who wished to produce a way of writing that was aestically pleasing. The runes, such as those used by the dwarves, are old saxon runes, i believe, probably born out of tolkiens work as a professor in the field of Anglo saxon writings and mythology (such as beowulf). "

"To Adrian: As far as which of the towers in the books are actually "the two towers" even tolkien himself was unsure, as he referred to different pairs as being "the two." Personally i always thought of the two as being orthanc and minas morgul, as those are the towers that feature in the books, orthanc in aragorn, legolas and gimli's half, minas morgul in frodo and sams half, though this view appears to be unsupported"

6 Alfredo Passo from Bariloche (Argentina) - 4 January 2004
"to Sean. What I recall is that he was deeply influenced by nordic mythology, from there it cames all the inspiration of Dwarves and runes. The elven, well I don´t know where does it cames his love of languages, by the elvish was "influenced" by many different tongues, but especially Finish. I din´t know about those two towers, but one thing is shure, it is not clear which two towers in Middle Earth were the Two Towers of the title... "

7 Paul Nash from Airth, Scotland, via North and South London - 23 December 2003
"To Dianna: no, the Hobbit was written first. Tolkien then worked on the history and languages supporting the story, but began The Lord of the Rings in response to enquiries for more information about hobbits. "

"To Adrian: I've often wondered about this. Was Tolkien's title to do with the two evil Towers or the one evil versus the other good? I'd be interested to hear your reasoning on this (if this site will permit that!)"

8 Indeep S. Chase from Los Angeles - 19 December 2003
"The "Lord of the Rings" is one of the best novels I have read, Tolkien's brain child is a great masterpiece. This is clear description of keeping the creative flame burning bright."

9 Tahir Maher from Reading (via B-ham) - 18 December 2003
"Nice to know that the Lord of the rings -is a Brummie !!!"

10 Bob Cowley from Birmingham and Australia - 18 December 2003
"Congratulations to Chris Upton for so ably describing the influences of Birmingham on the young Tolkien. It brought back flickering memories of my own childhood in the city as well as the stories my mother relayed to me of her childhood in Ladywood."

11 Ravinder Chaggar from Hall Green, Birmingham - 18 December 2003
"What a book, what a film, what a guy! The mill still stands today, even if it is now used for the youth of today to consume their illegal alcoholic beverages. Mr Tolkien...Hall Green salutes you! "

12 Adrian Room from Shropshire - 18 December 2003
"I am quite sure that the Two Towers in the title of the book actually refers to Orthanc and Barad-dûr and not Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith."

13 Matthew Davies from Birmingham - 12 December 2003
"Tolkien went to King Edward VI School for Boys - not King Edwards Grammar School."

14 Sean DePoto from Florida, United States - 12 December 2003
"Do you know of where he got his inspiration and love for the runes and elven (language) lore? I'd love to learn more about those things."

15 Gerard Larkin Haverstock Esq from Carluke. N.Lanark, Scotland - 12 December 2003
"Thank for a look into the life of the great writer of the 2oth century, just to see were he comes from to and to look at the great man."

16 Dianna Buckreis from New York - 12 December 2003
"The last line states that the trilogy was written as a a sequel to the Hobbit. Wasn't the Hobbit written after no publisher would take on the trilogy? "

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