The Hobbit and Bevois Valley
Many towns and cities in England can claim to have been home to J.R.R. Tolkien at different times in his life. From famous ones like Birmingham and Leeds to less well-known ones like Newcastle to Poole in Dorset, Tolkien travelled the length and breadth of England during his lifetime, and wove much of its geography – urban, rural, and maritime – into his stories and poems.The legal battle that has recently besieged The Hobbit pub turns a spotlight on little-known connections between Tolkien and Southampton.
He passed through the port on several occasions. When he and his brother were brought from South Africa by their mother in 1895, the family landed at Southampton before travelling to Birmingham. During World War 1 he returned from France to Southampton on the hospital ship Asturias, and under happier circumstances late in life, he and his wife Edith sailed on a cruise from Southampton. These biographical details reveal only Tolkien that passed through Southampton. He would hardly remember the port as a small child, but as a returning soldier he may have welcomed this sign of home at last and it is entertaining to speculate on whether his vision of the Grey Havens, the city of the Elves in Middle-earth owes something to the view of the grey crenellated walls of medieval Southampton. Parts of these can still be seen from the water, and larger ranges would have been visible during World War 1, before World War 2 bombing and modern development encroached. It is also possible that the configuration of Southampton, built as it is on a gore – a triangle of land between two rivers – had an influence on Tolkien’s concept of the Elven realm of Lothlorien which he also describes as set on a gore.These possible connections are all associated with the waterfront, so it is unlikely that he knew Bevois Valley, a mile of so inland, which is the location of the ‘Hobbit’ pub.
But Tolkien’s encounters with Southampton were not all about ends and beginnings of real journeys. His method of working links his best-loved hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo, with the hero who gave his name to the valley. Tolkien maintained that his Middle-earth stories were intended as ‘a mythology for England’, and as part of the myth-making process he drew inspiration from several fourteenth-century verse romances – the most popular adventure stories of the Middle Ages. Known geographical locations are important in all of them and the heroes are always associated with those locations even though these may be woven with fantasy. Tolkien did not in the end include identifiable locations in his mythology although in early versions he used exactly this strategy, turning Warwick into Kortirion, the city of the Elves. As we know from his letters, it was from King Horn that he took the name Westernesse. It was from the romance known as Bevis of Hampton that he borrowed the two special attributes of the beautiful shirt of chain mail that Bilbo receives from the dwarves in The Hobbit and gives to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
In the story of Bevis the young hero is the son of the earl of Southampton and the Isle of Wight. On his adventures, he receives a padded jacket and a shirt of chain mail to wear over it. The story describes the jacket as ‘worth as much as many a town’ and the mail shirt as ‘well made and beautiful: no edged weapon could damage it.’ Tolkien puts these special properties of the jacket and mail shirt together in the description of Bilbo’s ‘mithril’ shirt when Bilbo tells Frodo he thinks it would protect him from poisoned daggers, and Gandalf the wizard later tells the dwarf Gimli that the shirt was worth more than everything in the Shire.
Bevis of Hampton is a fourteenth-century adventure, but Bevis is commemorated in a modern sculpture at the entrance to Bevois Valley close to The Hobbit pub.* The sculpture is said to symbolise Bevis’s sword Morglai, but its construction from metallic mesh bears a closer similarity to his chain mail shirt. It seems then particularly fitting that Bevois Valley has, for so long, been home to The Hobbit, because together they create a tangible link between Tolkien’s medieval scholarship and his creative writing, set within the English landscape and cultural traditions that inspired his ‘mythology’ and for which it was intended. This is not, however, to condone any activity or support any intervention, simply to notice the aptness of the location and the ongoing relevance of the hero in English storytelling.
[This article has recently appeared in Amon Hen 235 the newsletter of the Tolkien Society]
*An image of The Sheer can be found at http://farm3.staticflickr.co,2065/2190014131_45d70d420a_z.jpg