It’s easy to look at the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia and imagine Giant Eagles soaring overhead and the Fellowship crossing valleys towards Mordor. But with a new Lord Of The Rings show out, Hannah Collins explores the connections between Tolkien and Wales that aren’t so obvious.
This September, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien returns to our screens. Amazon’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power, set in the fantasy author’s seldom-touched Second Age of Middle-Earth, comes eight years after Peter Jackson’s six-film saga ended with The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies and almost two decades after his original cinematic trilogy. By then, the Oxford professor’s books had already become firmly established fixtures on bookshelves the world over since their publication in 1954. But these beloved, Oscar-winning adaptations exploded LOTR into a full-blown Hollywood franchise.
Still, for most fans, Tolkien’s works – however you discovered them – aren’t Balrog-sized business behemoths. Most have an incredibly personal attachment, from reading a parent’s old copy of The Hobbit as a kid or becoming enamoured with the animated or live-action versions in the 80s and 00s. This extends to entire nationalities: New Zealand, Jackson’s native home and primary filming locale proudly built an entire tourism industry around that fact. Switzerland’s alpine vistas served as the inspiration for the author’s illustrations. Lesser-known is the key link between Tolkien and Wales, however.
Not just a seminal fantasy author, Tolkien was an absolute language nerd. In fact, linguistics was the foundation he built a lot of Middle-Earth’s history and culture upon – Dwarvish, Elvish, Mannish, etc. – understanding the link between the development of language and civilisation. And Tolkien didn’t just invent numerous fictional languages over his lifetime, he created individual chronologies for them alongside the fictional lives of their native speakers.
Though primarily a scholar of Germanic and Old English, Tolkien revealed in a 1931 lecture and essay, A Secret Vice, a love of Finnish, Greek and Welsh. Having grown up in Birmingham and holidaying in Llanbedrog, Tolkien’s young ears were pricked up by snatches of Welsh: “… a flash of strange spelling and a hint of a language old and yet alive. It pierced my linguistic heart.” Later, it helped him create the Elven language Sindarin and place names for the Buckland Hobbits, such as Crickhollow (from Crickhowell). This may come as a surprise to those who associate Dwarves, stout miners with deep connections to the land, with Welsh stereotypes rather than the elegant fae or agricultural halflings. (Compounded by Jonathan Rhys-Davies’ turn as Gimli.)
Cardiff University’s Carl Phelpstead even believes that Welsh may have been one of, if not the favourite of the authors. In Tolkien’s own words: “Welsh is of this soil, this island, the senior language of the men of Britain; Welsh is beautiful.” But it goes further than that. In his 2011 book Tolkien And Wales: Language, Literature, And Identity, Phelpstead connects Tolkien to Wales’ legends as well.
One example is The Red Book Of Westmarch – a Hobbit-penned book – and The Red Book Of Hegerst, which contains the Mabinogion. He also asserts the Mabinogion story Lludd And Llefelys likely influenced Tolkien’s dragon lore, especially the wiley Chrysophylax, the home of whom Phelpstead traces back to the kingdom of Gwynedd. There are also inescapable parallels between LOTR and Arthurian legend; Aragorn and Arthur and Gandalf and Merlin. (Phelpstead, though, argues the more morally complex wizard of early King Arthur tales is actually more like the corrupt Saruman.)
Whether intentionally or not, Amazon has now paid lip service to these connections in The Rings Of Power by casting Tenby’s Owain Arthur as Dwarven King Durin IV and Penarth’s Morfydd Clark as a young Elven Galadriel. With Clark being bilingual, will we finally hear Elvish spoken the way Tolkien may have intended? That idea should not only excite Welsh LOTR fans, but also make their connection to the series even more personal.
Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power is streaming from Fri 2 Sept on Amazon Prime Video. Info: here
words HANNAH COLLINS
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