J.R.R. Tolkien in his study with a map of Middle-earth

No, Ireland Did Not Inspire Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien in his study with a map of Middle-earth
J.R.R. Tolkien in his study with a map of Middle-earth

I love Ireland. I love the Lord of the Rings and most of the other associated works in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth canon. However just because I admire both it does not mean that I can claim a creative relationship between them based upon the most tangential of proofs. Yet that is one of the modern and largely internet-born myths on the fringes of Irish Tolkien fandom. It is also the headline-grabbing statement made on behalf of the now annual Tolkien Festival in County Clare. From the Clare Herald:

“Organised by the Burren Tolkien Society and supported by the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark and Clare County Library, the festival will feature contributions from Tolkien experts, creative writing workshops, archery demonstrations, evening feasts and lectures about the writers time in the Burren and the locations he frequented, including Poll na Gollum Cave which is said to have influenced the creation of one of the author’s most famous characters (Gollum).

Tolkien visited the West of Ireland on many occasions and spent considerable time in the Burren when he held the position of External Examiner to the English Department of NUI Galway between 1949 and 1959, during which time he revised and published The Lord of the Rings. Diarmuid Murphy, a former head of the English Department at NUI Galway, became firm friends with Tolkien during his time in Ireland.

“From studying Tolkien’s works and correspondences as well as having spoken with people who knew the man, we believe his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings, was inspired, at least in part, by his experience of The Burren.””

No, the Lord of the Rings was not inspired by the regions of Clare or Galway, not even in part. The vast majority of the saga was written between 1937 and 1949, well before J.R.R. Tolkien ever set foot in Ireland, let alone the Burren. Indeed the manuscript was all but finished by 1948, requiring only the revising of the earlier sections. Furthermore the landscapes and overall mise-en-scène depicted in the published books reflect and build upon Tolkien’s earliest writings, whether in the Hobbit (published 1937) or the “mythological” compendium that is the Silmarillion, a catch-all term for materials dating back to 1914 and perhaps earlier.

I am a self-confessed Tolkienite since I was about ten years of age. I have devoured every aspect of Tolkien’s works, even the scrapings at the bottom of the imaginative barrel (and let’s admit it, there have been plenty of those). It’s so bad that I can even name the genealogies of the various houses of the Eldar (yes, that bad). If anyone would look favourably on a theory that the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings had a significant connection to Ireland, beyond the author occasionally working and visiting here, I would. However it is simply not true, as the journalist Ciarán Dunbarr made clear in an article for the magazine Nós back in 2013 (which includes an interview with myself).

I wish the Burren Tolkien Society every success with their by all accounts excellent celebration of the author and his life this coming June (and the Boireann, one of the most beautiful locations on our island nation, certainly needs no embellishments to attract visitors). However there is a difference between celebration and modern myth-making. Tolkien’s stories and the history of their diverse origins stand on their own merit without additional, and unfortunately incorrect, legends of their roots. The truth about J.R.R. Tolkien’s mixed relationship with Ireland – and its rich literary traditions – is far more complex and interesting than any supposed tales of late geographical inspiration.

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4 comments

  1. I continue to wonder if there is a deeper mythological connection to Gollum, one that may have a linguistic relationship that Tolkien was aware of, as opposed to a geographic influence. I’ve spent considerable time trying to understand the ‘goddess’ Columbia as an archetypal symbol of colón-ialism (esp. American Manifest Destiny – my place off work in on ‘Columbia St.’ and I live in the ‘Columbia River Basin’, so it’s geographically significant to me). Deconstructing “Columbia” etymologically of course brings one to “Colm,” and I only discovered the Burren Tolkien society after curiously plugging “gColm” into a search engine. I took the results as a confirmation of sorts, so reading this is an adjustment to my own ideas.

    That being said, I can’t help but be struck by the archetypal legacy of the old Irish Dove inscribed throughout the history of colonialism as such (Colm Cille, Columbus, District of Columbia) and am seriously tempted to assume that a linguistic mind like Tolkien would have known of the word “gColm” without having been to “Poll na gColm” yet (was it not on a map either?). I’m also struck by the progressive corruption of Sméagol-to-Gollum, and how this echoes the transformation of Columbia’s cohort, Britannia, from the true indigenous personification of native Briton who is subdued below the knee of Claudius ( http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2008/01/the-rape-of-bri.html ) into the Trident-bearing “Empire Builder” possessed with an obsessive lust for power. Columbia, Britannia, Marianne- wearing Phrygian caps and Spartan helmets is a symbolic language Tolkien was no doubt fluent in. The linguistic tips-of-the-hat and layers of meanings throughout his works are profound, to say the least, as any well constructed myth should be.

    I consider LOTR to be perhaps the most authentic living myth produced during the age of Empire. Tolkien’s relationship to Britannia’s first and last colony is, as you’ve written, a curious one, and I would venture to say it had a strong “subconscious” influence, even if the word “inspiration” may not be literally appropriate. Was Tolkien “re-storying” Britain in the shadow of that neighboring Island, who’s stories lurked never to far below the surface of a Empire declining into an identity crisis and significant psychological discomfort? Rather than “not an influence,” was Gaeldom the elephant in the room?

    Of course not. What elephant?

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