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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Bilbo in the Banner County?

Have you ever had one of those moments when you slap yourself on the head and exclaim, “How did I possibly get to the age I am without knowing that?”

Actually, it happens to me quite a bit, but there was a particularly striking example last week when we drove down to County Clare for an overnight stay. Clare is one of Ireland’s most scenic counties, and it is famous for the Burren, an otherworldly landscape dominated by distinctive limestone hills. (By the way, if you find yourself on Clare’s Atlantic coast, I can heartily recommend the Hotel Doolin, and be sure not to miss the nightly music seisiún at Fitzpatrick’s.) The accompanying recent photos may give some idea of the magic of the place.

In our room there was one of those books that are provided to familiarize you with local tourist attractions and area history. As I perused the tome, I came across something that grabbed my attention. It asserted that, in his creation of Middle-earth, J.R.R. Tolkien had been inspired by the Burren! This led me immediately to an internet investigation, which revealed that the author of The Lord of the Rings had indeed visited Clare while employed as an external examiner at National University Galway (as it was then known). How did I possibly not know that? That meant that one of my all-time favorite authors, for brief periods, had lived just down the road from me. He spent five summers in Galway between 1949 and 1959.

I mean, I knew the basic facts of the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, or at least I thought I did. Born in South Africa in 1892, he and his family moved when he was three back to England, where he grew up in Birmingham. During World War I he served with the British Army in France and participated in the Battle of the Somme. Afterwards he was employed in a number of academic posts leading to his becoming Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College in Oxford. His field was philology (study of language in oral and written historical sources), and he was particularly known for his translation of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. I still remember how I grieved when, as a newly arrived student in France in 1973, I read in Time of his passing at the age of 81.

I had completely missed the Ireland connection. Apparently, he was an examiner at University College Dublin as well, and he received an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland in 1954. A 2012 item on the website reports that archivists at NUI Galway uncovered summer exams from 1949 that he had graded. Topics included Shakespeare, the novels of Walter Scott, “poetic justice and the hard facts of life,” and the preternatural in literature. “We wonder,” posed the article, “if a bad mark led to Tolkien writing ‘you shall not pass’ on the exam papers?” Ouch.

The website tells of a Burren Society Tolkien Symposium that was held six years ago. It was organized by publican Peter Curtin, who had spoken with a Ms. Crowe, who had worked for many years for a Dr. Martyn. He had been friends with Tolkien and explored the Burren with him. “Amongst the craggy fissures and creeping woods of the Burren,” writes, “there is a cave called Pol na Gollum (Hole of Gollum).” A 2012 article in the Connacht Tribune also tells of Tolkien’s time in Galway, saying that he enjoyed frequent trips with his friend NUIG English Professor Diarmuid Murphy (did Mr. Curtin get the name wrong?) to the Burren and Connemara.

So that is definite proof, right? The West of Ireland had a significant influence on the creation of Middle-earth. But hold on. A 2015 item on the Irish republican website An Sionnach Fionn (The White Fox) says, “No, The Lord of the Rings was not inspired by the regions of Clare or Galway, not even in part. The vast majority of the saga was written between 1937 and 1949, well before J.R.R. Tolkien ever set foot in Ireland, let alone the Burren.” The article goes on to assert that Tolkien’s manuscript was all but finished by 1948. It further notes that Middle-earth was first described in The Hobbit, which was published in 1937. Amusingly, the first reader-contributed comment under An Sionnach Fionn’s post reads, “Shhhhhh……We need tourists.”

So maybe Ireland was not that much of an influence on Tolkien’s works after all. Still, I defy anybody to spend time in the West of Ireland and not come away with the distinct impression that this place is somehow connected to the way society works in the Shire.

Anyway, I do know a couple of things for certain. Ireland is definitely having an influence on my writing. And J.R.R. Tolkien has definitely had a strong influence on it as well—especially on my book The Three Towers of Afranor. The same is also true of my fourth book which, with any luck, may see the light of day sometime this year.

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