J.R.R. Tolkien and South Africa

I notice from the other threads that there are a lot of knowledgeable Tolkien fans who visit this board. I’m not one myself but I have read his main works, years ago. My question is about something else I read in the distant past about Tolkien viz. that he lived in South Africa for a time as a child. This was notably absent from a biography I saw on television amid the hype for the recent film. I know Tolkien’s son trained in S.A. during WWII and that many events and situations in LOTR bear a striking resemblance to events in S.A. history. Can any of you Tolkien mavens shed some light.

Tolkien lived in South Africa until he was 3, but I don’t think he ever considered himself South African or that his birthplace had much of an impact on his life. What events in LOTR bear resemblance to events in S.A. history? Are the Riders of Rohan really Boers? :slight_smile:

Though Tolkien was born in South Africa, England seems to have been the country he idealized, and the country he gave his heart to.

In my opinion, “The Shire” represented the idealized Victorian England of Tolkien’s imagination. And toward the end of the trilogy, when we see a squalid Shire, where no one can enjoy a beer or a pipe, we’re meant to picture post-war England, with its rationing and shortages.

I think Tolkien recognized that, while England HAD to fight the evil of Nazi Germany, and did so admirably, victory came with a cost. Post-war England was very different from Tolkien’s cherished, sentimental notions of England. And while he knew that, with time and hard work, some of the things he loved in old England could be restored, other aspects were surely gone forever.

Just so the Shire. The Hobbits did what they had to do, and stopped Sauron. But the Shire they returned to wasn’t the same place any more.

As to resemblance the bit where the riders of Rohan are shown a secret pass by the Pukel-men (or whatever they’re called) is an awful lot like the Boers and Bushmen, I believe something similar happened when Boers crossed the Drakesburg range to strike at the Zulus. The topography of Tolkien’s world is nothing like Europe but very like S.A… Many aspects of Tolkien’s world ‘feel’ like a mix of European myth and S.A. mythic/history.

To be specific, Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, at that time (1892) an independent Boer Republic. It became part of the Union of South Africa after the Boer War. I hadn’t realized that Tolkein had been born there until I visited Bloemfontein several years ago.

Having traveled a bit in South Africa, I can’t agree. Sun-drenched veldt? The strange Cape fynbos? The bleak Karroo? Not really. Even the Drakensberg isn’t much like any mountains in Tolkien’s world, being grass-covered rather than forested. Middle Earth is very much like Europe, except of course for Mordor.

Care to elaborate? I don’t see this one either.

I guess it depends on how you visualize Tolkien’s world, to me it seemed pretty bleak with fertile pockets and plenty of velt. Certainly not the endless forest of primeval Europe. Regions in Middle Earth don’t seem to match up very well as though bits of Europe had been scattered around an alien landscape. I mentioned the riders of Rohan who seem less like knights and more like a commando, with every man a homesteader and a rider. Orcs seem very Zulu-like with the whole tiny army against a horde of uncivilized foes reminiscent of the Bantu wars, to be fair it’s also a bit like Roland against the Moors but the Moors only had a local superiority whereas the few in Tolkien’s world are oppressed by teeming, regenerating hordes. Helms deep is a bit like Blood River where the Boers held off a massive Zulu force behind a laager.

I’m not saying he lifted anything directly only that the striking flavor of Tolkien’s world might owe something to a cross pollination. I wonder if anyone ever brought it up to him

“It has been supposed by some that “The Scouring of the Shire” reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not. It is an essential part of the plot, forseen from the outset, though in the event modified by the character of Saruman as developed in the story without, need I say, any allegorical significance or contemporary political reference whatsoever.”

-JRR Tolkien, Foreword to Fellowship of the Ring .

Since Tolkien left South Africa when he was three, and never went back, it’s hard to see how its landscape could have influenced him much. In any case, the landscape around Bloemfontein is particularly unspectacular.

Tolkien’s Europe isn’t a primeval one, it’s more like a Dark Ages or early Middle Ages one. Much of the landscape has previously been settled for thousands of years, although some is now abandoned. Rohan is more like the plains of Hungary than anything else, with mountains on the borders - the Carpathians and the Alps. Gondor is Byzantium. The orcs, I think, are much more like Huns than Zulus.

I’m no Tolkien expert- I’ve read “The Hobbit” once, and the LOTR trilogy once. That makes me an utter piker compared to the average SDMB poster. (Dare I admit I TRIED reading “The Silmarillion” a few times, was bored to tears, and never tried again?).

I don’t doubt that Tolkien denied any intentional similarity between post-war England and the post-Sarumon Shire. He was probably utterly sincere. And yet, Tolkien denied that MANY things in his books were intended as allegories (for Christ, for Hitler, for many other things), even when similarities seem obvious.

Now, Tolkien disliked facile analogies and allegories. That was one of the things he disapproved of in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. He thought a good story should stand on its own merits, without beating the reader over the head with message-laden metaphors. I STILL believe, however, that however much he wanted to deny or downplay them, he DID include some such metaphors.

I’m perfectly willing to agree that England is not the Shire, that Hitler is not Sauron, that Frodo is not Jesus, and so on. But it’s straining credulity to suggest that the real world and Tolkien’s own beliefs (religious, political, cultural) entered into his work, and that real events and characters don’t appear in LOTR, to some extent. At various points, Frodo is clearly SUPPOSED to make us think of Christ (as is Gandalf, at others), and the Shire is supposed to make us think of England. That’s not ALL they’re supposed to make us think of, but that’s no small part of it.

I don’t blame Professor Tolkien for dismissing simplistic analyses (like mine; I fully admit that I oversimplified), but I rather doubt he was being completely truthful in his denials.

The fact that Tolkien left South Africa at three seems to me to be an argument for the influence of S.A. since he would have had no direct memory of it but only second hand as stories from family members. Its not so much the territory of S.A. that Middle Earth resembles as the map.

Goblins before Tolkien were solitary or at most small groups whose menace was in their magical powers and general sneakiness. Was there any representation of them as a horde before LOTR?

Tolkien was actually 4 when his family moved back to England. Here’s a pretty good biography of Tolkien:

Tolkien’s childhood memories were mostly of Sarehole, a suburb of Birmingham. Birmingham was close enough for Tolkien to be aware of a big, industrial (and pretty grimy at that time) city that was slowly encroaching on the rural hamlet of Sarehole. Undoubtedly these childhood memories had some effect on scenes in The Lord of the Rings in which industrial horrors of Sauron and Saruman attacked the Shire.

Tolkien had little conscious memory of South Africa. His father had only taken the assignment in South Africa because the English bank for which he worked had promised him a promotion for going there. Certainly Tolkien never considered himself to be a South African, just an Englishman who happened to be born in South Africa. If you want to know more about Tolkien’s life, read Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of him. TV biographies are a waste of time.