Monday 19 August 2019

Was Gollum born in the Burren? JRR Tolkien found inspiration for Lord of the Rings in the west

JRR Tolkien found inspiration for 'Lord of the Rings' during his visits to the West of Ireland in more ways than one, writes John Daly

Sharp contrast: Gollum may be named after part of the Burren
Sharp contrast: Gollum may be named after part of the Burren
JRR Tolkein

Imagine if your college English paper was corrected by JRR Tolkien, one of the world's most famous authors. Such was the rare event confronting university students in 1949 and 1950, when the man who would go on to write Lord of the Rings was the external examiner to the English Department at what is now NUI Galway. As the Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford, Tolkien's summer job in Galway led him to becoming captivated by the West of Ireland - a region that would go on to have a direct impact upon his iconic novel, then in progress.

He became particularly fascinated by the Burren - a place whose topography bears a striking resemblance to the 'Misty Mountains' of Middle Earth. Tolkien became particularly taken by Poll na gColm cave - a location that may well have influenced the creation of one of the author's most famous characters, Gollum.

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JRR Tolkien first came to Ireland in 1926 on a walking tour with his friend, CS Lewis, who would later author The Chronicles of Narnia - a visit that began a lifelong love of Ireland for Tolkien, and which would eventually have a direct influence on his own literary output.

In 1949, during his tenure as Professor of English at Merton College, Tolkien readily grasped the summer work opportunity as external examiner at what was then known as University College Galway - an annual task that would bring him back to Ireland on a number of occasions over the following decade.

During his time at the university, he lodged with Dr Florence Martyn at Gregans Castle, the Martyn ancestral home at the foot of Corkscrew Hill at Ballyvaughan, in the heart of the Burren. Peter Curtin, founder of the Burren Tolkien Society, has devoted much of his life to investigating the possible links of the area with the characters and places in Lord of the Rings. "From studying Tolkien's works and correspondences, as well as having spoken with people who knew the man, we are certain that his most famous work, The Lord of the Rings, was inspired, at least in part, by his experience of the Burren," he says.

Curtin believes that Tolkien denied the Burren links when his masterwork was published in 1954 as he might have feared that admitting to such Irish influences might have been unpalatable to his largely English audience at the time. "In the few years leading up to his death in 1973, however, Tolkien spoke more openly about how his writings were influenced by the themes and ideas of Irish and Celtic mythology," Curtin said.

Although Tolkien referred to Gaelic as "an unattractive language", he admitted that he had studied it and found it to be of great historical and philological interest. "In one of his letters, he said he was 'suffering from acute Éire-starvation', having not visited his favourite counties of Clare, Galway and Cork for a number of years."

Back in the 1970s, Curtin made the acquaintance of Miss Crowe, who was Dr Martyn's housekeeper when Tolkien was a guest during his university visits. "Miss Crowe believed that the rugged, mysterious landscape of the Burren, which was in sharp contrast to the idyllic English countryside familiar to Tolkien, inspired him in creating the journey from the Shire, which features prominently in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings."

Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the Rings trilogy, in 1954 - by which time he had visited the Burren on many occasions. The Burren is also home to the largest cave system in Ireland, compromising 15 miles of underground passages. The entrance is called Poll Na gColm, phonetically enunciated as 'Gollum'.

In The Book of the Burren, co-author Anne Korff notes the cave as a natural habitat of the rock dove - a bird that makes a distinctly guttural sound, also very similar to Tolkien's throaty Gollum. "I believe that Tolkien, in writing the way he did, demonstrated the necessity for us to keep the umbilical connection with our natural instincts, and our environment alive and healthy," Curtin believes.

Yet another indicator that Tolkien might have found his inspiration for the Lord of the Rings there is the topography of the region, which bears some striking resemblances.

Dr Charles Travis, a geography research associate at Trinity College, compared the actual topography of the Burren - particularly around Gortaclare Mountain - with the Misty Mountains from Middle Earth's Rohan region in the foreground.

"Dr Travis confirmed that the curve of the Misty Mountain range in Tolkien's 'imaginary' map seems to fit the actual topography of the Burren, and could arguably support the case of it being one source of inspiration for Tolkien."

Yet, while Tolkien clearly held a great curiosity for the landscape and people of the West of Ireland, his comment to an academic colleague, George Sayer, Professor of English at Malvern College, Worcester, that Ireland was "a place full of evil that could be felt everywhere from the trees to the peat bogs to the cliffs" remained a source of some controversy.

"Rather than referring to any perceived evil in the Irish people, I believe Tolkien meant the evil that permeated the Irish landscape and mythology," says Dr Francis McCormack, lecturer at NUIG in medieval languages and literature.

"It is likely he was talking about those mischievous and malevolent spirits who dominated the Irish imagination, like the banshee, the fairies or the leprechaun."

Dr McCormack, who is also an MA in Old and Middle English Language, believes Tolkien wrote about Ireland and its landscape in a very affectionate way: "It does seem a possibility that those evocative places he visited so many times did influence his writings."

'Tolkien', starring Nicholas Hoult as the author, is in cinemas now


Tolkien: the gentle soul who thought out loud

JRR Tolkein

Rose MacNamara, daughter of Professor Diarmuid Murphy, with whom JRR Tolkien sometimes stayed during his West of Ireland visits, recalls the author as a kindly, sometimes eccentric, individual with an obvious love of nature, who frequently took afternoon naps in the open air amongst the crags and rocks of the Burren.

Aged just 16 when she met the author for the first time in 1949, she often accompanied Tolkien (above) and her father, who was head of the English Department at University College Galway, on their long drives around Connemara, the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren.

"He loved nature, and would never allow us to pick a wild plant. 'It's just not done,' he would always say," she recalls.

"He was a very gentle man, tall with long grey hair, and was often inclined to think out loud and say what was on his mind. Sometimes I didn't know if he was addressing me or thinking things out," she remembers of a person completely at ease in a place that inspired him.

In later life, as a nun based in India, Rose received a letter from Tolkien following the death of her father, informing that his son, Father John, had said a Latin Mass for the repose of his old friend's soul, and at which he was the server. He finished the letter with a request: "Spare me a prayer, I have need of it."

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