In the First World War J. R. R. Tolkien had learned to fire a rifle at a camp at Newcastle-under-Lyme, near Stoke-on-Trent. Less well known is that he had a connection with Stoke-on-Trent toward the end of his life, in the period after the first publication and tepid reception of The Lord of The Rings, and before his great work was re-discovered by a critical mass of young readers in the 1970s.
From 1960 through to the early 1970s he spent many 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, just a few years before his father retired as a university lecturer in 1959. We know, from Tolkien’s surviving published 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 here, in the early 1970s. His surviving letters don’t provide comprehensive day-to-day coverage of his life, and so there may have been earlier winter visits to Stoke which went unrecorded. One imagines that he probably continued to live his life according to the divisions of the academic calendar, as he had since the 1900s, so perhaps some of the holidays were relatively long ones.
We can thus imagine Tolkien, aged in his late sixties and seventies, being quite familiar with alighting from the Oxford train at Stoke with his trusty bicycle. He disliked cars (“Mordor-gadgets”), and the car-culture that was everywhere ruining England. Oxford-Stoke is a long-established direct train service, and there’s still a direct two-hour service today. Despite his increasing twinges of arthritis it seems Tolkien was still an avid train user and bicyclist, and until about 1968 it was still fairly easy to get a bicycle onto an inter-city train. Thus we can easily imagine him bicycling from the station through Stoke town (the barrier of the A500 did not then exist) and up onto the lower slopes of Hartshill.
He was not the cultural colossus he would later become. There would be no throng of adoring fans waiting for him at Stoke station, of the sort that might gather today for someone like Neil Gaiman. In Stoke he was just an obscure and rather isolated old man, a retired professor of medieval literature. His unwelcome retirement and his caring for his ill wife had tended to cut him off from social life. Yes, he had once published a popular children’s book in 1937, as well as a follow-up fantasy trilogy in 1954-56. But the establishment critics rarely thought of his work, and if they did they usually derided it after a hasty skim-reading. Philip Toynbee in the left-wing Observer newspaper (6th August 1961) was pleased to note of Tolkien’s works that… “today these books have passed into a merciful oblivion”. His deep national patriotism and his concern with the heroic past were increasingly out of fashion in intellectual circles in the 1960s and early 70s. What fans his work did have, in the 1960s, tended to see only the surface layer of his stories and he found such people rather annoying. The cultural seeds that Tolkien had planted in The Lord of the Rings were thus still largely dormant, and they would only grow up into a vast murmuring forest long after his death.
Once unpacked and ‘settled in’ at his son’s house in Stoke, he might have regularly strolled or free-wheeled his bicycle down to a newsagents in the town for some pipe-tobacco and a newspaper. His memory for everyday matters was noticeably declining, but he was still fascinated by the intricacies of language and the names for things, and he would have had an eager ear for our strong and distinctive local dialect and words. Possibly he visited local pubs for a pint and a smoke of his pipe, the most likely pub being the nearby Jolly Potters rather than the pubs down in the town.
One imagines that he visited the usual places on summer day-trips: the city museum (where he might have been more interested in the archaeology and the very fine natural-history rooms, rather than our world-famous ceramics); Trentham Gardens and the richly-wooded parkland estate; Biddulph Grange with its fantastical compartment-gardens and trees; the vast Arboretum of trees on the campus at nearby Keele (apparently the son Tolkien was staying with was the Catholic Chaplain there). He would have felt at home in a district that cherished, as he did so ardently, its trees and gardens. Perhaps he also once or twice waded through the bracken to see King Wulfhere’s hill-fort near Stone, since he had an abiding interest in all things Mercian. Possibly he liked to use the various bits of the local railway network to get about, as the lines were fairly extensive until the cuts made by the despised Dr. Beeching in the mid 1960s. However, any such visits would have been far too late in time to have influenced the landscape of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.
In 1965 Tolkien wrote the fine long fairy-story “Smith of Wootton Major”. One wonders if the name might come from the elegant house at Wootton near Ellastone, in the moorlands of North Staffordshire.
At that time, Wootton was the home of the war poet Major Alan Rook. Rook knew Tolkien, and might have once been his student…
Rook had the house from 1950. In 1959 Country Life reported that… “In 1950 the house was bought by the present owner, Major Alan Rook, the poet and playwright, who has solved with great ability and discrimination the problem of living in a house that is both somewhat large and exceedingly remote.” Tolkien’s great friend C.S. Lewis may also have been a visitor at Wootton, as Rook also knew Lewis well (see: Schofield, In search of C.S. Lewis, 1983). Could the ‘Major’ and ‘Wootton’ have then lent their names to the late Tolkien story “Smith of Wootton Major” (published 1967)? The theory also gains a little weight if we consider that Tolkien may have mused on the placename ‘Ellastone’ perhaps arising from ‘elf stone’.
Given his continuing scholarly interests it is also conceivable that Tolkien made at least one excursion to the eerie cleft of 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 fine scholarly edition in 1925. Tolkien would broadcast his modern English translation of Gawain on BBC radio in 1953, and would publish his Gawain book again in a revised edition in 1967. Most of the work on the new edition appears to have been done by a student of his, but one wonders if — as part of the field research for the new edition — Tolkien and his student made any trips by car from Stoke into the wild ‘barrow downs’ districts of the Gawain story. These are to be found very nearby, in the Staffordshire Moorlands and on the western edge of the Peak District.
The fading Gawain manuscript had been preserved by chance in a Yorkshire library, in a copy which was 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 where Gawain meets the Green Knight at the end of the tale, in the northern part of the West Midlands. Most likely an isolated linguistic district infused with what Tolkien referred to (following the usage of his tutors) as “Old Mercian” — roughly North Staffordshire and the Peak District of western Derbyshire, and adjacent parts of Cheshire.
However, it cannot be suggested that visits to the Gawain landscape inspired elements of Tolkien’s famous works (such as the road to the Door of the Dead, see postcard above), due to his early interest in the locations in Gawain. This is because in his 1925 edition of Gawain 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 away from a ‘perhaps south-west Lancashire’ stance on Gawain, if switch he did. Could his opinion have changed on that matter by the early/mid 1940s (perhaps due to Mabel Day), before he wrote the ‘Door of the Dead’ sections of The Lord of the Rings?
Tom Shippey, “Tolkien and the West Midlands: The Roots of Romance”, in Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien, Walking Tree, 2007. (One of Shippey’s best and most important papers on Tolkien).