Peter Jackson's triumphant victory at this year's Oscars has left most of us dazzled. It was a fitting reward for his epic eight-year quest to put The Lord of the Rings on film. For better, or worse, the films released a tidal wave of emotions from the legions of Tolkien readers world-wide. I admit to being one of those who first saw the films and then went to read the books. I am glad for the effort, because it introduced me to the vast legendary world of Middle Earth as it was meant to be experienced, unabridged and totally in the mind's eye. To settle all the debates and misgivings surrounding the adaptation of Tolkien's work, Philippa Boyens, co-writer of the script, stated that the films are what they are-an interpretation by one group of devoted fans. The books, however, are timeless.
As a historian, I became keenly interested in learning about J.R.R. Tolkien and his motivation to write Lord of the Rings. It didn't take long to discover that Tolkien opposed such inquiry to understand an author's writing. To him, the finished story was the important thing, not the whims of the writer or the vague notions that prompted the imagination. Above all he despised allegory. In typical Tolkien fashion, however, he admitted that one could not help but to be influenced by life's experiences. As a consequence, most authors only mention in passing the actual locations about England that may have influenced Tolkien's creative genius. Tolkien felt a keen attachment to nature, however, and it seems this remained a weak point in the many scholarly works about this great author-until now.
There and Back Again-In the Footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien by Tony Lyons fills the gap in style. As part of the well respected Cadogan travel series, the author visits places throughout England where Tolkien visited and contemplates their influences on his writings. "What I set out to do then," he states, "was less to map Middle Earth onto contemporary England and give Ordnance Survey grid references for the fords of Bruinen or the Dimrill Stair, and more to search for the origins of ideas. I was looking for places that, whether because of their natural beauty or their histories or their emotional significance to him, became charged with creative meaning for him. While the world that finally emerged into print in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is obviously central, I was still interested in the ghosts that lay beneath it, as much for Tolkien's evolving approach to England as for the places themselves....The relationship of all these writings to England, or to ideas of England, an shed a great deal of light on the way Tolkien thought and felt about his country, and how he sought to memorialize it in the extraordinary and original way he did."
What follows is a series of chapters each devoted to a specific location where Tolkien visited at some point in his lifetime. By referencing what is known about Tolkien through his own writings and commentary, Lyons builds an impressive case for each location. Along the way he explores an evolution of thought concerning his own relationship with the books from childhood into adulthood, and Tolkien's own progressions as he evolved his legends. Of interest are the many references to early, unpublished drafts that many Tolkien readers will not have read.
Throughout the book we can see the three influences that defined Tolkien's life-a love of country and nature, a closeness with ancient peoples and history through a love for languages, and a desire to wash away the mythological influences of the Norman conquest and establish a tradition of legends entirely for England. Lyons demonstrates that this quest, and the legends Tolkien derived to satisfy his vision, came from the heart.
On his tombstone that he shares with his wife Edith it reads:
Edith Mary Tolkien, 1889-1971. Luthien.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892-1973. Beren
The names are derived from Tolkien's central myth of Beren and
Luthien about a love so powerful that the elven Luthien laid down her immortality to follow the mortal Beren. Indeed, Tolkien later said it was the most important legend from The Lord of the Rings. It was something he first imagined in 1917 while recovering from trench fever, stationed at Humber Garrison near the small town of Roos. Edith and their newborn son where staying in the village. One evening she met with Tolkien in a small wood outside the town, and with her newborn son sang and danced in the twilight amongst the trees. It was here Tolkien claimed the first ideas for the legend of Luthien first came to him. It was a legend that Tolkien would return to and rewrite over and over for the rest of his life. It was here that Tony Lyons chose to begin his book, and show us the man, his beliefs and legends were inseparable.
The author's trail leads us from the woods near Roos to burial mounds on the Berkshire Downs, a Roman temple on the Welsh border, the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, Oxford and Sarehole, Fonthill in Wiltshire and many more. The creation of Ents, the ideas for Hobbit holes and the Shire, the origins of The Voyage of Earendel, ring wraiths and Mordor, they are all here. In each place we feel a little closer to understanding Tolkien and his inspirations.
Finally, one comes away with an appreciation that Tolkien's England is under siege of urbanization. Much as in America, the quiet towns and villages, the old roads and sleepy streams are in danger of being completely lost to modernism. With an eye for the England of Tolkien's era, Tony Lyons accounts for the England that remains. There and Back Again is a deeply moving analysis of Tolkien, his work, and the country that inspired The Lord of the Rings. This book should not be missed by anyone wanting to know more about Middle Earth and its incredible, unique creator.