NOTES FROM WALES I:
BUCKLAND AND WESTMARCH AND ELVES, OH MY!
My family and I just got back from England, where we spent two weeks touring Cornwall and Wales. We saw Doc Martin’s village, Tintagel Castle, Dartmoor, Tintern Abbey, the shop of the Tailor of Gloucester, and lots of other fascinating things, which I hope to be writing posts about in coming weeks.
None of us had ever been to Wales and we weren’t sure what to expect. My husband’s ancestors came from Wales. They settled in Colorado, probably drawn there by mining, either the gold and silver being dug out of the mountains or the coal being mined around Louisville, but that was all we knew about them.
Or about Wales, for that matter. Our knowledge was pretty much limited to How Green Was My Valley and The Man Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, and we had vague notions of coal mines, castles, and mountain valleys (all of which we saw.)
I was also aware of some of the literary connections–Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey; Portmerion, where The Prisoner was filmed; Llandudno, where the real Alice in Wonderland spent her summers; Doctor Who; and, of course, Dylan Thomas.
But the literary connection I hadn’t expected to find was that of J.R.R. Tolkien–I hadn’t even realized he’d been to Wales. But its influence on The Lord of the Rings was everywhere in the names–the Border Marches, Buckland, Dinas Bran, Dwimmerlaik, the Hillmen, Olwen, Elidir–and in the woods and rushing streams and dells, the mountains and mines and the promise of the sea beyond.
Standing on the battlements of Conwy Castle, looking out across the estuary, I felt like Pippin in Minas Tirith. I kept expecting the black-sailed ships of the Corsairs of Umbar to come sailing up from the sea. Picking our way along a stony path over tangles of exposed roots to get to a waterfall you could walk behind, we might have been Frodo and Sam being led by Faramir to the Window of the West. And one night of pouring rain we ate in a warm, smoky old pub that was a dead ringer for the inn at Bree.
We saw wide rushing rivers that were the image of the Bruinen that Glorfindel carried Frodo across, stone houses perched high up on the side of a mountain like Rivendell, dark, ominous tarns like the one that lay just outside the gates of Moria, and ugly slag heaps straight out of Mordor.
And listen to this description from a Victorian guidebook of the view from a peak in Snowdonia:
“…to the west and north, the mountains of Gwynedd, including Snowdon, home of the 4 eagles…to the southwest, a line of serrated hills, running far into the sea, forms the promontory of Eivion and Lleyn, land of gigantic fortresses and weird, lonely peaks, to the east…the iron and lead hills of Flint, shading into the distant vale of Maelor, to the south the upper waters of the holy Dee and the Berwyn ranges: Aran, Cader Idris, Cader Vronwen…to the east, the hills of Powys fade away into the dim, distant lowlands of England…”
Doesn’t that sound exactly like Tolkien? I know he said the attempted ascent of Caradhras was inspired by a trip to the Alps, but it’s obvious Wales’s mountains had an influence on him, too.
And so did Wales’s history. Everything we learned about it reminded us of Lord of the Rings, too, from the Red Book of Hergest (the inspiration for the Red Book of Westmarch?) to Legolas’s longbow. The Welsh invented the longbow and were deadly at it, and when they joined the English at Crecy and Agincourt, they were unstoppable. Reading about the battles, I couldn’t help thinking of the army of elves, marching in with their longbows to fight with Aragorn at Helm’s Deep.
And when I read about Owen Glendower, a hero with royal blood who was forced to live the life of an outlaw in the wilderness, waiting to regain his birthright, it was impossible not to think of Aragorn. Especially when Glendower appeared out of nowhere to save the day, unfurling his banner as he rode–a white banner with a golden dragon on it.
When I got home, I did some research on Wales and Tolkien and discovered that not only had he taught medieval Welsh at the University of Leeds from 1920 to 1925, but that he’d written part of The Lord of the Rings while staying in Talybout-on-Usk, only a few miles from the Buckland Estate. But when I looked up “Wales’ Influence on Tolkien,” I could only find essays on the elves’ language and their singing. Wales’s influence on them can’t be denied. The Welsh are famous for their choirs and their beautiful voices, from Ivor Novello to Charlotte Church. And the origin of Elvish is obvious. As one elderly native speaker said of the elves when she saw the movie, “Why, they’re speaking Welsh!”
But it’s clear to me after having been in Wales, that its influence on The Lord of the Rings was much broader. Everywhere you look, you are of reminded of Mirkwood and Minas Tirith, of old wars and rings of power and abandoned mines. And elves. And dragons. “I love Wales, and especially the Welsh language,” Tolkien once said, and that was obvious everywhere we went. Wales is definitely Tolkien country!
Conwy Castle, or the walls of Minas Tirith
Brecon Beacons, or Faramir’s path
Snowdonia, or the Misty Mountains
Sgwd Isaf Clwn-gwyn (White Meadow Falls), or Window of the West
Swallow Falls near Betws-y-Coed, or Bruinen
The mining slag heaps at Blaeunau Ffestiniog, or Mordor
Photos courtesy of Cordelia Willis