Friday, September 26, 2014

Fairy tales

“The industrial landscape of the Black Country was on Tolkien's horizon growing up – like a demon, encroaching on the green idyll he lived in,”

There is a new exhibition on the scene about Tolkien and the Midlands which some would say inspired Tolkien to write Lord of the Rings, the inspiration lying in the Satanic mills of the North, the heavily industrialised conglomerate towns of the Midlands, all filled him with such hate that in his imagination Mordor was a representation of the Black Country.

Well I lived my first 15 years on this earth in the Black Country, and can understand my need to escape such a place but was it that bad?  First of all I tried to remember the fiery furnaces but none came to mind, only the blacksmith's fire at the dairy where he shod the great cob horses that pulled the milk floats, and I would ride my pony into Wolverhampton to have her shod.  Then there was the vast empty spaces of the factory that my grandpa managed.  The oily black surface of the walls and floors, driving down lanes to different work shops, for the factories in those days were vast.  The great car factories of Coventry come to mind, all now gone, and Villiers which made motorbike engines, where my grandfather worked has disappeared from view. When the hundreds of factory workers came out through the gate, walking or riding bikes it was as if a Lowry painting had come to life.

What is true is that all the towns were joined by long ribbons of housing estates, Bilston, Darlaston, Wednesbury, Walsall, Wolverhampton and of course Birmingham, there was no where to rest the eyes on a green field, now I expect it is different, a tidying up must have occurred. 

I have loved the stories of Tolkien, the great tree ents, the hobbits, and the trolls and when I had read the three books in the 1960s, the films I later watched translated them into a more accurate form.  What I would say is, that imagination can run rife, but Tolkien built his stories up over a period of time and I am not sure that the Black Country was the template for Mordor.

When I thought about the stories, I could not remember a 'wicked stepmother/queen', in Lord of the Rings and it set me thinking.  C.S. Lewis had the terrible Ice Queen in the Land of Narnia,  Hans Christian Andersen had the bad Snow Queen, a story that I had loved as a child but Tolkien kept his main female characters good and life affirming.

The Snow Queen with Kai

This thread of thought, and I did not sleep well last night, bought to mind my three stepmothers, and the middle one who was so remote that I can hardly remember her at all. In my child's mind, she seemed to have stayed upstairs in her bedroom.  Barbara was a classic beauty, copper-red hair, green eyes an alabaster skin sprinkled with freckles, she was not cruel just not there and rather cold. She was the mother of my half brother Peter, and the upset between my grandfather and my father.  I came across a photo of her on the web a few months ago, she had become a councillor in Wolverhampton, though old in the photo she still had traces of her old self.  In the photo below this must have been the time Peter came into my life, and in my imagination he was Kai of Andersen's Snow Queen and I was his  friend called Gerda who had to protect him.  I suspect I thought Barbara was the Snow Queen, of course she wasn't, just an ordinary girl in a situation that was difficult, her parent's home granted me at the time a safe and secure place to visit and I would go cycling round the park behind their home all on my own on a tricycle which seems ridiculous now.

To return to Tolkien... the Guardian covers the subject more thoroughly, and like me has its doubts as to the Black Country being the inspiration for Mordor, as Stuart Jeffries  so rightly says the Midlands was the power house of England, people were proud of their work, it may have been dirty but it was bustling with energy and life.

Writing this shows that sometimes we wind our lives round stories and fairy tales, they may never reach the conclusive happy ending of these tales but our lives fall into  patterns we can understand.......


  1. I never knew that he used the Black Country as the setting for Mordar, but I suppose when you compare heavy industrial town with peaceful green countryside, there is a juxtaposition.

    I take it you were quite young when Barbara was your stepmother, to see her as the Snow Queen! One of my childhood friends had a stepmother, and she always said she was a horrid one - mind you, the only time I saw that woman smile was when Lynda ended up in A&E with concussion after a fall from a riding school pony (the wicked stepmother was a cleaner in the Hospital). Strange . . .

  2. Problem with me I can never tie up my childhood into a sensible timeline and so the curiosity remains. Barbara must have been in my life from about when I was 6 years old till 11 years old, as we always had someone else to run the household, she seemed to drift in and out of the house ;) School holidays we were sent off either to the two farms or down to a rented house in Bournemouth.