Exhibition on Young J.R.R. Tolkien

by Jul 19, 2005Events

Here’s an excerpt from an article at icBirmingham.co.uk detailing an exhibition celebrating JRR Tolkien’s Birmingham childhood:

Exhibition tracks life of young JRR Tolkien

Fifty years after the publication of Lord of the Rings, an exhibition celebrating JRR Tolkien’s Birmingham childhood opens in Birmingham today.

Helen Gabriel looks at how much we know about his life in the Midlands…

For 18 months I have been living almost directly opposite the former residence of one of my heroes – but I had no idea until I visited the Tolkien’s Boyhood in Birmingham exhibition at the city’s Central Library.

Whether it’s because Tolkien is still viewed by some as the territory of pipe-smoking hippies with feet furry enough to make any hobbit proud, or because people would rather associate his fantasy fiction with the snow-capped mountains and rolling hills of New Zealand where the Hollywood version of Lord of the Rings was filmed, it’s still a littleknown fact outside the city that Tolkien thought of himself as a true Brummie.

The city has been openly criticised for not shouting loudly enough about its influence on one of its most famous sons, not least by a BBC Inside Out programme which is due to be aired in September.

But on August 9,700 of Tolkien’s biggest fans will descend on the city to attend a week-long seminar of the International Tolkien Society at Aston University, which will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lord of the Rings.

The Tolkien’s Boyhood in Birmingham exhibition has been put on to coincide with the seminar, and offers an insight into the day-to-day life of young John Ronald Reuel.

Maggie Burns, who painstakingly researched and coordinated the exhibition, said: “There is just so much here that people don’t realise is here. I think it’s partly because of the way Tolkien is regarded because it’s fantasy and was written in the 1970s.”

Prior to Tolkien’s birth, his parents moved to South Africa because his father was offered the chance of promotion at the bank where he worked. His mother, Mabel, joined him and the couple had two sons John and Hilary.

In 1985, when Tolkien was five she brought him and his brother to Birmingham to visit family.

His mother’s family, the Suffields, had moved to the city in the early 19th century and had a lace shop in the centre of town.

While Mabel and her sons were in England Tolkien’s father developed rheumatic fever. They received a telegram to say he was ill, and then another which said he was dead, so they never returned to South Africa.

At first the family stayed with relatives in Kings Heath before moving to Sarehole Mill, perhaps Birmingham’s best known and most celebrated link with Tolkien.

The two millers, George Andrew senior and junior, are referred to in the foreword of Lord of The Rings.

Ms Burns said: “Someone who is still at the mill knew the younger miller and said he used to complain about people picnicking on their land, near all the machinery. He said the Tolkiens were some of the worst.”

The family moved to Moseley and Tolkien was a pupil at King Edward’s School, then based in New Street on the site where King Edward’s House now stands, from 1900 to 1902.

He then attended St Philip’s, attached to the Oratory in Edgbaston, after his mother converted to Catholicism. He returned to King Edward’s, aged ten, with a foundation scholarship in 1903 and studied there until 1911.

The exhibition plots his journey home from school in old photographs. Also displayed are some of Tolkien’s humorous writings from the school magazine, of which he was editor, and reports from the debating society, of which he was a member, including one from 1911 where he is critical of Shakespeare.


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