Birmingham Has yet to Embrace Tolkien – Why?

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Tolkien and his works are inextricably linked to Birmingham, and hints of Middle-earth can be found across the region. He grew up in Kings Heath, a suburb of the city, and spent a considerable amount of time in Hall Green, home to Moseley Bog, believed to be the inspiration for Fangorn Forest. The city captured the imagination of a young Tolkien, helping create some of the most iconic fantasy locations, most of which are now imprinted on the subconscious of the Western World. Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Pumping Station, a slender red-brick tower, helped inspire Orthanc and Minas Morgul. Sarehole Mill in Hall Green inspired the old mill in Hobbiton, south of which his Aunt had a farm called Bag End. Tolkien and his brother spent hours playing at the watermill, only to be chased away by the Miller’s son, whom they nicknamed the ‘White Ogre.’ The Chamberlain Clock Tower, here at the University of Birmingham, with its imposing height and menacing giant clock-face, inspired the Eye of Sauron.

The Chamberlain Clock Tower at the University of Birmingham
The Chamberlain Clock Tower at the University of Birmingham

This city is the Shire. It is Middle-earth. Bloated black smoke would gurgle from the chimneys of the Black Country skyline, which would blot out the sun only to clear on Sundays when the factories were closed. The parallels with Isengard’s industrialisation and Mordor’s use of machinery to oppress nature are clear.

Tolkien is inarguably a son of Birmingham – so why has the city not claimed him as their own? And more importantly why hasn’t the city cashed in on its claim to Tolkien?

Birmingham Museum has a relatively unheard of Tolkien Trail. Sarehole Mill is only open twice a week. The city has no statue, no iconic feature that links Tolkien to the city, and no businesses that are boastful of Birmingham as the city of Tolkien. Where’s the Inn of the Prancing Pony in the City Centre?

An images of Sarehole Mill in Birmingham - inspiration for the Mill in Hobbiton in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
Sarehole Mill in Birmingham – inspiration for the Mill in Hobbiton in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

In the recent West Midlands Combined Authority tourism strategy there was no mention of Tolkien. It is unthinkable that Stratford-upon-Avon council would release a tourism strategy and not mention Shakespeare, so why are civic leaders across the city shy to boast about one of Birmingham’s greatest literary giants?

The reason why might go to a deeper aloofness which blights the region’s personality. We’re just not very good at shouting about our success. Rolls Royce is not seen as a Midlands business, but a national asset. Other than Cadbury and Jaguar Land Rover, we have not actively sold our success stories – for example, the sports-performance snack brand Grenade, which is a young company based in Solihull, with £37m in revenue.

The region overlooks its own triumphs. Recent YouGov polling of regional perceptions found that 17% of people from the West Midlands dislike the West Midlands. Many of us suffer from self-deprecation, a hangover from a nation that has ridiculed and mocked the city, from the accents to the concrete motorways which choked the city’s perception and growth.

Civic leaders should make the case for the Bodleian Library’s Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition to be permanently based in Birmingham following its international tour. The MayorInt ’s vision for an integrated metro system should incorporate a Tolkien line, perhaps instead of the Chamberlain line (because everything in Birmingham is already named after Chamberlain). And the Combined Authority and the City Council should explore how they can exploit the city’s connection to Tolkien as part of a revised tourism strategy.

With confidence, this city should remind the world (and ourselves) that we’re great enough to have inspired Tolkien and Middle-earth.

This blog was written by Ben Brittain, Data and Policy Analyst, City-REDI.

The opinions presented here belong to the author rather than the University of Birmingham.

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6 thoughts on “Birmingham Has yet to Embrace Tolkien – Why?”

  1. My name is Bob Hawtin, also known as the gaffer! I’m the chairman of the middle earth festival committee. I have long wondered why the council don’t own Tolkien, we have had an annual festival for years in the park behind the mill,which is where he played as a child. The council won’t help one bit to stage the event. They charge us for the use of the park, insist we surround the festival with a 6ft high fence, refuse to let medieval tradesmen stay with their tents
    It often feels as though they don’t want the event to continue.

  2. The Inn of The Prancing Pony was in Bree, not The Shire….I always thought The Ivy Bush on the Hayley Road, within a stones throw of Perrot’s Folly, should have made more of the Tolkien thing… considering the pub is mentioned on Page 1 of Fellowship.

  3. I think that the lack of anything celebrating this great man is due to the film company that owns the rights to Tolkien’s works and actively pursue any business or entity that wishes to use names related to The Hobbit etc. No one wants a cease and desist letter.

    I live at Rednal and there is an old cottage that was once lived in by Tolkein, I seem to recall that it has a blue placque and that’s it.

  4. In the 1960s a representative of Tolkien’s publisher gave a talk on his work to a packed audience at the Midlands Arts Centre. She didn’t mention his connection with Birmingham.
    In the last 20 years there have been Tolkien weekends at Sarehole Mill.

  5. Yes this is a puzzle – and there have been attempts to put this right. Former Hall Green Councillor and Lord Mayor, Mick Wilkes, tried hard to boost the profile of the area’s links with Tolkien, especially Sarehole Mill, but with relatively little success.

  6. I have often wondered the same thing – it seems a big omission. I thought Tolkien’s aunt or mother’s family lived down by Evesham somewhere. Is the interested party now the Tolkien family and estate, or the film company with the marketing rights? One aspect of Tolkien’s heirs to bear in mind was that they are probably a bit snobbish now, and look down on their origins, and money and all that. There may be other reasons why they don’t want to draw attention to the area and their history. Tolkien ought to be a massive foreign tourist draw to the Midlands, coupled with Shakespeare, Warwick Castle etc

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