A window on the past

Sarehole Mill, Friday 3 June 2022

Last week I finally embarked on a literary trail I’ve been meaning to do for years. I visited Sarehole Mill in the Hall Green area of Birmingham. All Tolkien fans know that Sarehole and its mill was the inspiration for the Shire and the mill in Hobbiton (painted beautifully by Tolkien in his signature Art Deco style).

As a young boy Tolkien lived with his widowed mother and younger brother in Sarehole, which back then was a quiet hamlet and not a Birmingham suburb. There has been a watermill on the site since 1542: in 1755, the mill was leased by Matthew Boulton, a leading pioneer of the Industrial Revolution. The current building dates from 1771. It stopped being a working watermill after 1919 and gradually fell into ruin. Happily, there was a campaign in the 1960s to restore it, a campaign that Tolkien himself financially contributed to. Sarehole Mill has therefore been preserved as both a significant Tolkien site and an important Grade II listed building in the history of the West Midlands.

There I was, on a dreamy June afternoon, gazing across a pond full of green duckweed to a beautifully preserved 18th century watermill, its tall red brick tower pointing up to the summer clouds like an echo of the towers that feature in The Lord of the Rings: Minas Tirith, Minas Morgul, Isengard. (There were two other Birmingham towers that fired Tolkien’s imagination, John Perrott’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks).

I thought of the young John Ronald and his brother Hilary playing in the grounds of the mill and incurring the wrath of the miller, whom they nicknamed ‘the white ogre’ (due to the white flour that coated his face and clothes). I reflected how Tolkien described his years with his mother and brother as the happiest time of his youth. No wonder: the two boys tragically lost Mabel Tolkien when she died of diabetes at the age of 34. Their future was preserved only through the guardianship of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, who had already taken the little family under his wing before Mabel’s untimely death in 1904. I pondered on the enormous social changes that took place between Tolkien’s boyhood and his death in 1973, and how in his writing the Industrial Revolution is akin to the works of Mordor. I recollected his service as a soldier, his injury on the battlefields of the Somme and how the shadow of war lies over all his imaginative fiction. I mused on his long courtship of his beloved Edith, echoed in the various powerful romances between mortal men and immortal Elf-women in his stories. Later that day, as my sister and I walked through Moseley Bog – the inspiration for the Old Forest in The Lord of the Rings – I thought how this ancient patch of woodland would have made the perfect playground for Tolkien and his brother, two young boys playing in an enchanted forest which found its way into a vast and entirely invented mythology.

Gazing at Sarehole Milll was like looking at a window on the past. A past with three levels: a happy childhood blighted by insecurity and rejection (Mabel Tolkien’s family disowned her when she became a Roman Catholic) – a particular moment frozen in time in England’s social history, when the class system was firmly entrenched, echoed in Tolkien’s Shire – and an entirely fictional past, as the characters in The Lord of the Rings encounter memories and echoes of ancient civilisations long gone, when they themselves are also creatures of legend, destined for doom or glory or a long journey ‘beyond the circles of the earth’.

All these thoughts passed through my mind, and I could write of many more.

Never underestimate the deep wells of creativity. The landscape of the West Midlands, the green rolling hills and the ‘dark satanic’ mills, had a profound effect on Tolkien’s imagination. Losing his mother was a lifelong sorrow, especially as she had suffered for her faith, something Tolkien never forgot and which impacted deeply on his own devout Catholic faith. That profound sense of spirituality and divine beauty suffuses all of his work, and I – and millions of others – are beyond grateful for his glorious visions.

I am the administrator for the education and learning office of the United Reformed Church. I am also an Anglican lay minister. I wrote a devotional for the anthology ‘Light for the Writer’s Soul’, published by Media Associates International, and my short story ‘Magnificat’ appears in the ACW Christmas Anthology Merry Christmas Everyone.

Post a Comment