Take a journey there and back again, through British landscapes that inspired one of our era's best-loved books — not to mention the epic film premiering this week: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
Born in South Africa and raised in England from age 3, J.R.R. Tolkien wove his green and pleasant motherland into his imaginary world of Middle-earth. Now Peter Jackson, the Oscar winner behind the three "Lord of the Rings" blockbusters, stretches the 75-year-old prequel into another sprawling movie trilogy. Its first installment is rolling out worldwide on December 14 to mixed reviews.
As critics wrangle over the film's speedy new 48-frames-per-second technology, here's how to slow down and hit the Tolkien Trail in Britain.
As a boy, J.R.R. — just "Ronald" then — fed his fantasies in this hamlet outside Birmingham, making Sarehole the most likely template for Hobbiton and The Shire. The area's gnarled oak trees probably took root and grew into his tree-giants, The Ents.
Tolkien and his brother Hilary often played at the 18th-century Sarehole Mill (translated into the fictional Great Mill) and around its pond and charming cobbled courtyard. They hid from the flour-caked miller, "The White Ogre," a figure of wonder and terror. This lost paradise dominated his childhood.
Today a modest museum there welcomes pilgrims each summer (£3 adult, £2 child, open April-October and for special events this December). Down the road, Birmingham hopes to light a memorial flame brighter than the fiery letters on the One Ring. The Tolkien Society is plotting a park along the River Cole with a visitor center near Sarehole Mill.
In the meantime, take a self-guided stroll around the hamlet and neighboring Moseley Bog, which served as grist for the Old Forest, where Tom Bombadil lives in "The Lord of the Rings." Or follow in Bilbo's broad, hairy footsteps with the "Origins of Middle-earth" tour on December 14 (£6).
By age 10, Tolkien had moved into a sober Edwardian neighborhood close to Birmingham's center. Two towers loomed over the flat horizon: the Edgbaston Waterworks chimney and Perrott's Folly, a slender red-brick structure rising 96 feet (hello, "Lord of the Rings" symbolism!). The author later forged the dark land of Mordor from the surrounding terrain — the world's first industrial landscape, known as "The Black Country" for its sooty furnaces and foundries.
Tolkien left Birmingham in 1911 to study classics at Oxford University's Exeter College. After serving in World War I, he moved on to the university's Pembroke College, where he penned "The Hobbit," which hit the bookshelves in 1937. As he moved up the academic ranks, leading the study of Anglo-Saxon literature, Tolkien kept crafting his precious fantasy manuscripts.
He got by with a little help from his friends — a band of authors and academics dubbed "The Inklings," which included Narnia's creator C.S. Lewis. They met for 23 years, trading gossip and support, at their favorite haunt: the cramped, dingy Eagle and Child Pub at 49 St. Giles in Oxford.
Slip into the snug, tiny back room where all the magic unfolded and toast these literary lions with a pint or three of real ale. Then burn off the calories on a Lewis and Tolkien walking tour run by Visit Oxford from February to November (two hours, £8.50 adult, £5.75 child).
Beyond Oxford's dreaming spires — and even its gritty ring road — Tolkien's grave slumbers in a small village three miles north of the city center. His plain family plot lies in a suburban setting among other Catholics. "John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Beren, 1892—1973" reads the slab of Cornish granite. (In Middle-earth mythology, the mortal Beren fell in love with the elf-maid Luthien, whose name serves as the epitaph for his wife, Edith.)
Hobbit hounds often find the pastures of nearby Port Meadow more evocative. Horses and sheep have grazed this common land, made lush by the River Thames, for more than a thousand years among the buttercups and Bronze-Age barrows (grave mounds).
Other traces of the writer remain, including a new historic plaque marking his fellowship at the University of Leeds. But enthusiasts draw little inspiration from his bland Oxford homes (Author W. H. Auden called 76 Sandfield Road "hideous," and 20 Northmoor Road also would have fit nicely into the Shire's police-state chic under Saruman).
Fans drove J.R.R. and Edith into retiring to Bournemouth, 90 miles the south. Tolkien died while visiting the Dorset town in 1973, and the couple's bungalow — which had all the flair of a Monopoly piece — was recently replaced with energy-efficient housing. And that's no loss, really… Tolkien floated above it all. His authorized biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, noted: "It is rather as if some strange spirit had taken on the guise of an elderly professor. The body may be pacing this shabby little suburban room, but the mind is far away, roaming the plains and mountains of Middle-earth."
by Amanda Castleman
Top: Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which premieres December 14. (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)
Upper right: The young J.R.R. Tolkien played around the Sarehole Mill, now home to a museum. (Photo by Howard Sayer/Visit Britain)
Left: Tolkien studied and later taught among Oxford's dreaming spires. (Photo by Pawel Libera/VisitBritain)
Lower right: Tolkien fans looking for nature head to Port Meadow, near the author's burial site outside Oxford. (Photo by Sheila Russell via Wikimedia Commons)