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Idle Speculation on Tolkien in Brittany and Normandy

May 13, 2014


As many of you know, I live in Normandy, France. I often fly back to the UK from the airport at Dinard, some seventy-five kilometres away over the border in Brittany. The route I drive to and from the airport takes me along the N176 road, giving me beautiful views of the amazing Mont St Michel – and my thoughts often drift towards Tolkien.

Apparently Mont St Michel was the inspiration behind Peter Jackson’s visualisation of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings trilogy of movies. Standing on the great terrace at the abbey of Mont St Michel and looking out over the bay and surrounding countryside, I’m always struck by the similarities with the citadel from which Denethor took his deadly plunge. So much so, in fact, that I’ve wondered if Tolkien himself might have been inspired by the place. I’d often thought that maybe Tolkien could have passed this way during his time in Northern France during the First World War – but whenever I’ve tried to research the issue, or read his letters, I’ve never found any connection – he was based much further east, around the Somme.

Recently, however, I read of an earlier trip to France by Tolkien, in the summer of 1913, acting as tutor to two Mexican boys. Tolkien spent a total of six weeks in northern France; first two weeks in Paris, but then travelling to the fashionable (and apparently somewhat vacuous at the time) seaside resort of… Dinard, in Brittany. The location of the airport I drive to on a regular basis. Tolkien was involved in a tragedy there – the mother of the Mexican boys was killed in a car accident, apparently curtailing the various “sightseeing activities” in the region and forcing a return to England. But the fact remains; in the summer of 1913, Tolkien was sightseeing in and around Dinard, in Brittany.

The road to Dinard from Paris is pretty much the same today, although obviously larger and busier – the N176 I drive regularly. As you approach Dinard, Mont St Michel is beautifully visible in the north, a huge edifice, the only outstanding feature in this very flat terrain. Tolkien would have seen this in passing; and, an ardent mediaevalist in charge of sightseeing activities and tutoring two young boys, how could he not have taken the detour to see this most amazing of sights?

Here’s a curious note: along the road to Dinard, just where the road to Mont St Michel branches off, between the communes of Macey and Servon, there’s a little crossroads, just a small village of a handful of houses and an old inn. The name of the village? Well, it’s called Bree (“Brée” in French). And the old inn? It’s called “Le Sillon de Bretagne”, the “Saddle of Brittany”. I wonder if it ever had a sign of a prancing pony over the door?

Can anyone confirm my idle speculation? It occurs to me Tolkien may well have done some stomping in these green and hobbitish vales in northern France, and maybe picked up a memory or two to serve him in good stead in his later writing.

Cheers,

Sarah

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2014 9:23 pm

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  2. May 14, 2014 6:35 pm

    Hi Sarah,

    a perfectly lovely place to live in from all that I’ve heard 🙂

    In recent years there has been a lot of speculation about the sources of inspiration Tolkien drew from – and yes, Normandy has been named a few times. You can also look for a rather noble family of Ro(c)han, if you like, that would supposedly also have to do with his works.

    As celebrity tourism really has become a million dollar business all sorts of areas have now claimed connection to successful authors and series. I am working my way against the tide but then I only have a small blog about this 😉

    I am working on an on-going series talking about “Tolkien must have had something to do with this” and the “French connection” is on my to-do-list. Afaik there is no link at all or if so then one that is purely linguist and based on medieval manuscripts Tolkien worked on which have nothing to do with the town of “Brée” as such 🙂

    By the way, there are other fortified places close to the sea in England which look remarkably like Mont St Michel (or the other way around 🙂 – John Howe and Alan Lee will have used quite a few sources to come up with the final design.

    See my series here:
    http://www.thetolkienist.com/things-j-r-r-tolkien-has-never-said-done-written-or-had-anything-to-do-with-an-on-going-series/

    • July 24, 2014 12:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Marcel – and an interesting blog series. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think that Tolkien would have stopped at Bree on his way to Dinard in 1913 – it’s kind of hard not to if you’re travelling from Paris on that particular road. I’d love to find some correspondence from that period of his life, however – his published letters don’t cover it, although there were apparently some recently discovered letters of his from that period which were recently auctioned. I wonder if they hold any secrets… 🙂

      • July 24, 2014 2:16 pm

        Isn’t this the fun of it – finding out the secrets? 🙂

        First thing I’d ask is – did the road you mention already exist in Tolkien’s times?

        And if you are looking for material on unpublished letters – Tolkien studies is a field of research which has seen decades of work. Have a look at the “Chronology” by Hammond/Scull – and if it’s no in there, then Tolkien will (probably) not have been there. 🙂

        Still, now that the new bridge is in place I’d definitely like to see Mont St Michel! 🙂

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