The Tolkien Brothers and their Shire: An Interview with Chris Tolkien
by Anieshka King | September 7, 2023
Chris Tolkien is J. R. R. Tolkien’s great-nephew, one of the few remaining relatives of Tolkien’s with first-hand memories of the writer. We meet at Chris’ garden nurseries just outside the Worcestershire town of Evesham, on the same plot of land that Hilary Tolkien bought when he moved to the area.
AK: I thought we could start with you telling me how you’re related to J. R. R. Tolkien. Am I correct in thinking you’re the grandson of his brother, Hilary?
CT: Yes. J. R. R. was my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother. To us he was always Uncle Ronald. My grandfather Hilary and Ronald were born in Bloemfontein in South Africa, where the family had moved for their father’s work. The climate didn’t agree with their mother or Ronald, so she came home with the two boys. Sadly, both their parents died not long after. The two of them stayed very close right through their lives. They used to play together – my grandfather would say: “we made up stories together but only one of us wrote them down.”
AK: Do you think some of Hilary’s stories could’ve made their way into Ronald’s writing then?
CT: Oh, most definitely. Some of the things that Hilary said when they grew up together would absolutely have influenced him.
AK: That leads onto something I wanted to ask about – there’s been quite a bit of speculation about whether certain real locations and characters correspond to those in Middle Earth or at least served as inspiration. Do you have any insight into that?
CT: Well, there are certain characters that we’ve always speculated about. I mean, if you think that from the 1920s Hilary bought this patch of orchard with his fruit trees, and Ronald loved to come and visit here and just wander amongst the trees… Might be something to do with the shire, I don’t know – who does? But he had a brother he was very close with and who lived in the Vale of Evesham in a green orchard with lots of trees.
The one thing that we believe was a nod from Ronald to Hilary was the little character Tom Bombadil, because he used to tickle bumblebees and that’s one thing my grandfather taught me to do from a young age. That’s exactly what he used to do; he’d been doing that all his life.
AK: So Tolkien spent quite a bit of time here with Hilary?
CT: Not a lot of time, but they were in regular contact; they used to write letters to each other. I remember him coming up some summers when I was younger. My predominant memory of them is two lovely, elderly – very English – gentlemen, who would sit and talk. They would smoke their pipes, they would reminisce, they would go out and play bowls on the lawn, have a tot of whiskey together – and it was fascinating just sitting and listening to them talk. No particular stories that I remember. I do remember Ronald saying that he loved the peace and solitude of what Hilary had here, and he loved walking amongst the trees, which they’d do most afternoons when he came to visit. They just seemed like two people who had reached the latter part of their lives and who were truly content with what they had.
And really when Ronald came to visit, he was never anybody other than grandpa’s brother coming to visit, simple as that. Everyone who visited Hilary in the summer got roped into picking some plums to go out to market, and I think Ronald did too.
Ronald did talk about his writing a bit, about how, particularly in America, the fame that had come was ridiculous – and I remember him making one or two slightly irreverent comments about Americans and the fact that it was all a bit crass.
AK: It definitely seems like they shared a love for nature – that comes through in Tolkien’s writing.
CT: Yes, what I’d say about Hilary is that he was never happier than when he was amongst his trees. He never had a lot but was always very content with what he had.
AK: Sounds like a very hobbit-like attitude!
CT: I suppose it was. And I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice – he was always very considered in what he said. I was only 14 when he died but he was still someone who had a great influence on me.
AK: In terms of personality and character?
CT: And interests too – he’s without a doubt where I got my interest in becoming a nursery man from. He loved his flowers and his plants. I remember him teaching me when I was young all the Latin names of the plants, some of which might have been slightly made-up. He used to have a climbing plant on the outside wall of the house and when I was about 7 he tried to convince me that this plant had the ridiculously long name of Tropaeolum Speciosum Grandiflorum Rubrum.
AK: It sounds like Hilary was quite mischievous – do you think that trait was shared by his brother?
CT: Definitely, and there was sometimes a glint in their eyes when they spoke to each other. They were quite similar in their character. My grandfather used to like watching a bit of cricket and Ronald would sit and watch it with him while he came, but the two of them would just sit there both with their pipes, both very gentle people.
AK: I think that comes through in Tolkien’s writing – you get the impression of someone very measured, calm, patient, who thinks things through meticulously.
CT: Yes, and my father said Ronald was always really, really happy when he was here – that he just loved the solitude, the peace, the being away from anybody you knew, somewhere nobody knows you, where you can just wander up and down as you like. So I think he would come quite often for that reason.
On one occasion I remember them both trying to blow smoke rings together – both with some success. You just sort of sat and watched with a smile – two brothers that have both been through an awful lot. They both went through the First World War, they were both injured at some point. To have gone through all that horror and violence and bloodshed – I think that was probably one of the reasons that my grandfather loved it here.
AK: The other thing I wanted to ask about was the film Tolkien, whether you’ve watched it, and what the reception within the family was like.
CT: I found it an enjoyable watch, but again, like everything else in history, everyone is only really interested in J. R. R. None of the books and films have ever, to my mind, quite given my grandfather the place he deserves. He seems to have been a bit airbrushed out of it. And you think – two brothers who were orphaned as early as they were, grew up together, went to school together, went off to war together, and then stayed in touch throughout the whole of their lives. There are going to be a lot of crossovers in thoughts, deeds, and actions, just by the sheer amount of time they spent together.
AK: Yes, he must have had a profound influence on his brother.
CT: Yes, and Hilary used to even write to Edith [J. R. R. Tolkien’s wife] from the trenches. The three of them were close. It never bothered grandfather two hoots – but I think it would’ve been nice if his place had been acknowledged a bit more, had been a little more prominent. Doesn’t really matter. My father certainly thought that it did though, because he knew first-hand how close Ronald and Hilary were. But the film is about J. R. R., that’s what people want to see and find out about. They don’t want to find out about the intricacies of what his brother did. Nevertheless, I think they were so close that you can’t ignore the influence they had on each other.
Recently a book of Hilary’s stories was published [Black and White Ogre Country: the Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien]. It was all just from a little notebook that he’d scrawled in, stories he’d written in his late years, so quite disjointed, and some of them don’t have an awful lot of sense. But you’ll see just from the style of certain characters where certain influences came from.
We wander towards Hilary’s old house, weaving through plum trees that he planted. Chris points out a pear tree that was a favourite of J. R. R.’s because of its intricate, gnarled bark. There are two staddle stones, now subsumed by a hedge, that Chris remembers Hilary and his brother sitting on, smoking their pipes.
It is almost impossible, standing here in this tranquil grove nestled by gently sloping fields, not to think of the Shire.∎
Words and Photography by Ani King.