Monday, 11 January 2016

Tolkien in Staffordshire and Stoke

Opening 6th March 2016, the Cannock Chase Museum exhibition J.R.R. Tolkien & Staffordshire 1915-1918: A Literary Landscape surveys the influence of the middle part of Staffordshire on Tolkien. This follows on from 2015's excellent Tolkien and the Black Country exhibition at the Walsall Art Gallery.

Less well-known is that in his later years he also had a connection with North Staffordshire. This was the period after the first publication and lukewarm reception of The Lord of The Rings, and before the great work had been re-discovered and hailed by the new post-1967 generation of young readers.

Being an Oxford lecturer he had long holidays. From the late 1950s through to the early 1970s Tolkien spent many of his holidays with his son — who lived at 104 Hartshill Road, at the top end of Stoke town in Stoke-on-Trent. His son had lived there from 1957, and we know (from Tolkien's surviving letters) that the senior Tolkien spent the summer of 1960 in Stoke with his son, and many summer holidays thereafter. We also know from his letters that he spent winter holidays there, in the early 1970s — and perhaps earlier.


Picture: Northcote House, 104 Hartshill Road, seen today. Converted to a children's nursery.

It's thus fascinating to imagine that Tolkien, in his late sixties and seventies, might have been quite familiar with alighting from the Oxford train at Stoke station (there's still a direct two-hour service, today) with his trusty bicycle. He was an avid train users and bicyclist. Perhaps he bicycled from the station through Stoke town, and up onto the lower slopes of Hartshill. Once settled in, he might have regularly strolled down to a Stoke newsagents for some pipe-tobacco and a newspaper. He was fascinated by languages, so no doubt he would have had an eager ear for the strong and distinctive local dialect.

Given his academic interests it is perhaps conceivable he made at least one excursion to the eerie Lud's Church in the nearby Moorlands, stated nationally in 1958 (R. V. W. Elliot, article in The Times) to be one of the settings for the ancient tale Gawain and The Green Knight — of which Tolkien had published a scholarly edition in 1925. He would publish the Gawain book again, in a revised edition, in 1967.

The fading Gawain manuscript was preserved by chance in a Yorkshire library, in a copy perhaps made in south-west Lancashire. But the mature Tolkien stated that the original author's...

"home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery."

Specifically, for the precisely described landscape, the northern part of the West Midlands — most likely the isolated linguistic district which Tolkien called "Old Mercian" and which lay in North Staffordshire and the Peak District of North West Derbyshire, and adjacent parts of Cheshire. However Tolkien's mature linguistic placing of the Gawain poet in "the West Midlands", and the general agreement of scholars on the topography, was too late to allow anyone to suggest that the North Staffordshire moorlands and western Peak landscape thus inspired Tolkien's famous works, via his early interest in the locations in Gawain. This is because his youthful 1925 edition of Gawain was an early work, and at that time he and his collaborator could only suggest a broad resemblance to old manuscripts known to have been...

"written at Hales in south-west Lancashire, not many years earlier than 1413. This resemblance, however, only goes to show that the dialect of the copyist was of Hales in south-west Lancashire".

Thus we have no indication that the pre-Lord of the Rings Tolkien associated Lud's Church with a Gawain location. It would, however, be interesting for Tolkien scholars to more precisely date the exact point at which Tolkien privately switched from a 'perhaps south-west Lancashire' stance to a 'West Midlands' stance on Gawain.

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