Hi there, this is Neil, original founder of Tin Man Games. Firstly, my apologies as I’m afraid this is quite a self-indulgent blog entry, but one I’ve been wanting to write for some time now. I was wandering around the local Oxfam shop the other day and happened upon the book you see on the left. The “this is fate!” side of my nature told me that perhaps now would be the right time to put down some words and tell the story of how a boy from the shire (Buckinghamshire to be exact, although just a few miles down the road from Oxfordshire so as to hail Oxford as my center of influence) suddenly found himself living within Tolkien’s universe.
I don’t claim to be a Tolkien expert by any means. I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a couple of times each and have an unread The Silmarillion sat on my bookshelf behind me, but something about Peter Jackson’s recent films never quite sat right with me. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, especially the LOTR trilogy, of which I own the super-extended high-res quadruple disc versions (a slight exaggeration for comedy effect). No, it’s not that they are not great cinematic adaptations, it’s more that they don’t appear to be set in Middle Earth. Well not the Middle Earth I recognise anyway, in particular a Shire that I recognise.
I did a lot of my growing up in the village of Oakley during the 1980s. A small place in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to me as a kid. There were two pubs, one shop, one post office and one bus a week to Oxford. These days even most of those are gone now sadly. I’d read The Hobbit after loaning it out of from the visiting library bus that used to appear on a Thursday after school. I naturaly fell in love with The Shire and the darkness of Mirkwood and it started me on a grand journey through Fighting Fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons and beyond. A familiar tale for any UK kid who was into fantasy stuff in 80s! After receiving a Grifter (a big chunky black bike) one Christmas I used to bomb around the country roads, following the hedgerows and taking shortcuts up public footpaths that followed the edges of farmer’s fields. When I was brave enough I would head into Bernwood Forest and get myself lost on the trails, freaking myself out as the darkness of the woods closed in ominously around me. I could have sworn there were giant spiders in those trees, but I also knew a hoom, hum a hum hoom hoom from the locals would keep them at bay! To me this was Middle Earth, a very English setting with century old oak trees and a density of history surrounding me in the forms of iron-age burial mounds (barrow wights anyone?) and 400 year old thatched cottages with many stories to tell. Seeing as Tolkien lived and worked just down the road in Oxford, I think this was the image in his head too, at least of Bilbo’s home. I’m not sure he ever went on holiday to New Zealand.
So I have two links to Tolkien that I am quite proud of. Firstly I’m going to leave Oakley for a moment and cast my eye across to the city of Oxford where Tolkien was a University Professor. During the mid 80s my Mum became pregnant with my younger brother and invited my cousin to come and stay to help her out. My family originally come from the north-east of England and my mother was the first to migrate south in the 70s. As my cousin settled in, her parents, my Aunty and Uncle, also decided to head south. They had been running pubs for many years and ended up taking on a very famous pub in Oxford called The Eagle and Child! Tolkien-mad me was more than a little excited as this was the famed meeting spot of The Inklings, a writers group that included Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. My older brother got a job as a chef at the pub and I found myself most Saturday afternoons hanging out in the Rabbit Room, eating steak and guinness pie with chips, under plaques that showed this was the room the Inklings used to hang out in. I even stayed in the pub a number of times, glass collecting mostly as I was too young to do much else. As an aside, if you ever visit, have a look in the rafters above the bar and you might just spot a large ceramic eagle that once belonged to me. My Uncle gave it to me when I was very young and asked for it back when they took the pub on so he could display it behind the bar. After they left some years later, the eagle stayed. I drunkenly once asked for it back one evening about ten years ago. Needless to say they didn’t believe me and it remains there to this day – I think!
One other fond memory that only came to me just now as I began writing this, is introducing my now Wife to two of my good friends at the time over lunch on that table in the photo above, situated on the left. One of those friends is sadly no longer with us, so that actually just caught me unawares a little. Happy days indeed. Good memories.
And so, back to my second link to Tolkien and one that involves the very book that I mentioned at the top of this blog post and in particular a certain Mr. Aegidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo. I’d read The Hobbit and probably at least attempted The Fellowship of the Ring, before finding Farmer Giles of Ham on the library bus. I casually thought it to be another Hobbit-like fantasy yarn and instead found a charming medieval tale of a farmer turned reluctant hero, who found fame fighting a giant followed by the mighty dragon, Chrysophylax Dives. I remember really enjoying it, picturing the story taking place in the surrounding fields and countryside that I felt illustrated Tolkien’s imagination. And then I happened upon this paragraph:
The next day the dragon moved to the neighbouring village of Quercetum (Oakley in vulgar tongue). He ate not only sheep and cows and one or two persons of tender age, but he ate the parson too. Rather rashly the parson had sought to dissuade him from his evil ways.
This was quite exciting thought I. A village called Oakley was included in one of Tolkien’s books – what a coincidence! Not only that but it was the neighbouring village to Ham, the home of Farmer Giles. Wouldn’t it be strange if there was somewhere called Ham close to Oakley in real life? I continued to read and then something very unusual happened, I then came across this paragraph near the end of the story:
Now those who live still in the lands of the Little Kingdom will observe in this history the true explanation of the names that some of its towns and villages bear in our time. For the learned in such matters inform us that Ham, being made the chief town of the new realm, by a natural confusion between the Lord of Ham and the Lord of Tame became known by the latter name, which it retains to this day; for Thame with an h is a folly without warrant.
So Ham was renamed to Thame, pronounced Tame as in the ‘Th’ in the River Thames – certainly a folly without warrant. As Thame is a town just a few miles down the road to the village in which I lived, this pretty much confirmed Oakley in Farmer Giles of Ham as being one and the same! As you can imagine, twelve year old me (I could have been younger) was rather blown away. Even though I was pretty sure, I needed some more proof:
Whereas in memory of the dragon, upon whom their fame and fortune were founded, the Draconarii built themselves a great house, four miles north-west of Tame, upon the spot where Giles and Chrysophylax first made acquaintance. That place became known throughout the kingdom as Aula Draconaria, or in the vulgar Worminghall, after the king’s name and his standard.
Tolkien even goes on to describe the residents of Worminghall as now calling it Wunnle, which is interesting as I remember the local acting group being called the Wornall Players and wikipedia even confirms that the locals call it Wornall or ‘Wunnle’. I will look into it in more detail the next time I am back in the shire.
And so there we have it, Tolkien chose my middle of nowhere part of the world as the center stage for his tale of Dragon taming. You may be reading this thinking it’s not that special, but for me, at the young, influential point in my life where I was and where I now find myself making fantasy stories for a living, it was really quite important. This is why New Zealand can keep it’s stunning bright green fields and epic vistas, as for me much of Middle Earth is very English and a place of deeper, earthy greens and browns surrounded by tangled bramble bushes and feeling that at any moment I might just happen upon a dirty old dragon, who wandered too far south looking for local parsons to munch on.
(Hopefully this blog post reads well. I have been surrounded by post-Christmas excitable/tired children so it’s been quite testing as you can imagine!)