J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium has inspired hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans in the 80-plus years since The Hobbit was first published. Over the decades, as the epic Middle-earth saga, The Lord of the Rings, and subsequent tales and legends were published, Tolkien became famous. The books shot to fame in the 1960s, when pop culture borrowed elements from its world and "Frodo Lives!" became a popular slogan for the counterculture movement.
The Lord of the Rings is one of the best selling novels ever written, and along with its prequel, have influenced six multi-billion-dollar films. But perhaps even more compelling is its own tourism industry, known as Tolkien Tourism, in which fans travel to locations related to the books and films. Maybe you can't walk into Mordor, but you can walk into the places that inspired it.
West of the city of Birmingham, in the Midlands of England, is an industrial area known as the Black Country. Growing up in Birmingham, the young Tolkien spent time among the growing industrialization of England around the turn of the century, and would have been familiar with the black, billowing clouds of the coal factories in the Black Country.
Although Tolkien never explicitly stated that this was the inspiration for Mordor, descriptions of the hellish land match to contemporary reports of the Black Country. Mordor, in the fictional Sindarin language, translates to "Black Land," and represents Tolkien's longstanding distaste for industrialization.
Tolkien lives in Oxford for 50 years, studying, teaching, researching, and writing. It was here that he penned his famous novels, and Lord of the Rings pilgrims will find dozens of sites that the author loved.
You can stroll the Botanic Gardens, where Tolkien would often wander and think, or browse the Bodleian Library, where his original manuscripts and illustrations are kept. Maybe you fancy a pint at Tolkien's favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, where he, C. S. Lewis, and other members of the Inklings literary group would meet and discuss writing.
After studying at Oxford, Tolkien enlisted in the British military when World War I broke out. Lieutenant Tolkien was sent to France, where he participated in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Tolkien was not a warrior, and the war front took a huge mental and physical toll on him. He mourned for years for his two childhood friends who were killed in battle, plagued by guilt for still living. The conditions in the trenches were dismal, and in November of 1916, Tolkien succumbed to trench fever and was sent back to England. The horrors he witnessed in battle inspired the conflicts in his novels, and it's said that the Somme battlefield resemble the Dead Marshes.
The Tolkien family is rooted in Birmingham--though the author was born in South Africa, he always considered himself a Birmingham man. His mother moved her two children there when Ronald (as he was known in childhood) was four. He adored playing among the fields and forests outside the city, and it was during these early years reading lots of books that Tolkien's fascination with myth was born.
The Birmingham Tolkien Trail highlights all the must-see areas for Tolkien Tourists, from the two towers of Edgbaston Waterworks and Perrott's Folly, to the Shire-like Sarehole Mill, and even his aunt's farm, Bag End.
Moseley Bog is a nature reserve in Birmingham, where Tolkien spent hours playing as a child. He lived in the Moseley area of the city, close to Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog, and made up all sorts of fantastical games with his brother and friends in the wooded area.
Tolkien was very open about discussing his affection for Moseley Bog, and it having inspired the ancient forests of Middle-earth, like Fangorn, home of the Ents. It directly inspired the setting of the Old Forest, where Tom Bombadil lives.
Tolkien took a school trip to the European mainland in 1911, where he hiked through Switzerland from Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley. It doesn't take a distinguished author (as Tolkien was not at this time) to realize that the untouched Alpine mountains and valleys are laden with otherworldly beauty.
For this reason, Tolkien sketched images from Lauterbrunnen, which became the first incarnation of the Elvish valley, Rivendell, founded by Lord Elrond and where the Fellowship of the Ring was established. There is a striking resemblance between photos of Lauterbrunnen and illustrations of Rivendell.
The skeletal foundations of a Roman fort at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire are about as inspiring a a sack of potatoes, to us literary laypeople, anyway. However, Tolkien participated in an archaeological dig at the site in 1929, and later wrote a paper about it.
The site was laden in Romano-Celtic myth, but it is said that after the Romans left and the fort crumbled, local people forgot and thought the ruins were the construction of dwarves and hobgoblins, earning the site the name Dwarf's Hill (sound familiar?). At the time of Tolkien's research here, he was excited about myth and legend, and the correlations between his writings here and description of the Shire are uncanny.
Southwest of Birmingham is a natural hilly area called the Malvern Hills, resembling small mountains. Tolkien visited the hills in 1952, and passionately compared them to his own fictional mountain range, the White Mountains that separate Rohan and Gondor.
The horse-riders of Rohan are often said to be inspired by the Anglo-Saxons by Tolkien scholars, but the author himself only loosely compared the two. He would lightheartedly say that Rohan is based on Anglo-Saxon culture only in that Rohirrim are a simple people lived in the shadow of a sophisticated civilization.
In 1916, just a few months before Tolkien was sent to battle, he took his new wife, Edith, to Cheddar Gorge for their honeymoon. They stayed in the seaside town of Clevedon, enjoying the time they had before Tolkien would be gone. The two were deeply in love, and the affection they had for each other spanned about 60 years of marriage.
It's clear that Tolkien would have been very present in the moment on his honeymoon, and the spectacular scenery probably helped. Tolkien wrote later in life that this trip to Cheddar Gorge inspired Helm's Deep and the caverns in the White Mountains.
Of course, no fan of The Lord of the Rings could complete their pilgrimage without seeing the incredible, dramatic landscapes that brought Middle-earth to life in Peter Jackson's trilogy. You can take extensive and thorough LOTR tours across the country, where over 150 locations were used in filming.
You can visit the Shire in Matamata, where the Bag End set still exists, or the real-life Rivendell at Kaitoke Regional Park. The bravest adventurers can even hike across Tongariro National Park, which became Mordor, and climb Mount Ngauruhoe, the closest you'll get to Mount Doom.