New book examines the influence of medieval Welsh on Tolkien


J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote: “I love Wales…and especially the Welsh language”. Now, a Cardiff University academic has explored Wales’ influence on Tolkien in the first book-length study of his debts to Welsh language and literature.

Tolkien and Wales: Language, Literature and Identity traces the Welsh influences in Tolkien’s scholarly and creative work, paying particular attention to some relatively neglected texts. The book was officially launched last weekend.

The study’s author, Dr Carl Phelpstead of Cardiff University, said, “The book examines a wide range of Tolkien’s published scholarly work and fiction, but I also draw on unpublished manuscripts and on Tolkien’s own collection of Welsh books in order to evaluate the influence of Wales and Welsh on both his writings and on his sense of national identity.

“One of the things that has interested me most in the unpublished material has been the small bits of evidence uncovered about Tolkien’s understanding of spoken – as opposed to written – Welsh.”

Relevant material has been taken from some of Tolkien’s unpublished manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, including drafts of his O’Donnell Lecture on ‘English and Welsh’ containing material not in the published version.

Dr Phelpstead also examines annotations handwritten by Tolkien in books on Welsh topics or in Welsh. For example, the fantasy author had heavily annotated copies of The Mabinogion. Phelpstead explained, “These books are now in the English Faculty Library, Oxford. The marginal comments, corrections and other notes provide interesting evidence of the depth of Tolkien’s knowledge of medieval and modern Welsh.”

Three years ago, another scholar from Cardiff University also explored the role of Welsh culture in Tolkien’s writings. Dimitra Fimi’s book, Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, also explored the role of the Welsh language in books such as The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. She noted that Tolkien’s interest in Welsh began in childhood when he saw Welsh words on coal trucks arriving from Wales.  Fimi told the Western Mail, “It was fascinating for him. It was something out of the ancient pasts of Britain from the west.”

Sources: Cardiff University, Western Mail