Idle Speculation on Tolkien in Brittany and Normandy
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.