Tolkien and the Twentieth Century

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At the beginning of 1900, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, aged exactly eight, was living with his widowed mother and younger brother in a brick cottage in Sarehole, a tiny Warwickshire village. Though it was only four miles from the industrial centre of Birmingham, Sarehole, with its nearby farms, its mill by the riverside, its willow-trees, its pool with swans, its dell with blackberries, was a serene, quasi-rural enclave, an obvious model-to-be for certain aspects of Hobbiton and the Shire. The Tolkiens had been there for three and a half years — a long age from the perspective of a young child. In many respects it might be called a ‘pre-modern’ world: the mill was driven by a water-wheel (though it also contained a steam-engine) and, as Tolkien recalls in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, ‘motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one)’ (FR, 8). But 1900 saw an important, and disruptive, change in Tolkien’s life. In September he became a pupil at a school in the city centre, and as a result the family moved shortly afterwards to the inner district of Moseley, conveniently near to the tram route. It would have been too difficult, and too expensive, for Tolkien to travel daily from Sarehole.

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