Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Tolkien's Hemlock Glade, Part 2

A Hemlock Glade, The Houses of Healing, Two Towers and a Beacon: Tolkien in East Yorkshire, Part 2: Roos (& Halsham)
Cow Parsley in Roos Churchyard - May 2014
 Cow Parsley & fresh Beech leaves in Roos Churchyard - May 2015
Modern map of Roos with Dents Garth marked to the upper right (north-east) of the church


I contend that the pivotal event for Tolkien's mythology of Edith's dancing for Ronald among the Cow Parsley (“the hemlocks”) almost certainly occurred between 10th May and very early June 1917.  This was the inspiration for the dance of Lúthien Tinúviel, which reverberated in Tolkien's imagination for the remainder of his life.   Tolkien mentions Roos three times in his published Letters.  On the first occasion in 1955 he informed his American publishers: “The kernel of the mythology, the matter of Lúthien Tinúviel and Beren, arose from a small woodland glade filled with ‘hemlocks’ (or other white umbellifers) near Roos on the Holderness peninsula – to which I occasionally went when free from regimental duties while in the Humber Garrison in 1918 [sic]”(12). [Tolkien was misremembering here many years after the events.  John Garth has shown this must have been 1917].  His 1964 letter to Christopher Bretherton gives a largely similar account (13), as does his 1972 epistle to his youngest son, Christopher after Edith’s death.  However, there is one subtle difference, because in the final “Roos” letter Tolkien tells Christopher that the woodland glade was “at Roos”(14).  There are a few possible candidates in the Roos area, but it has been generally accepted after John Garth’s identification in Tolkien and the Great War (2003) that the wooded area of Dents Garth behind All Saints’ Church in Roos at the south-eastern edge of the village is the most likely location for Edith’s dance. 

Unless further documentary evidence becomes available the absolute certainty of the identification of the woodland will have to remain conjectural, but there are a few striking local landmarks, which would seem to support the identification.  Dents Garth and Roos churchyard contain Beech, Horse Chestnut, and all the other tree and plant species mentioned in the various versions of the encounter between Beren and Lúthien.  The only exception is a mature Elm tree – Beren leans on a young Elm in the earliest surviving version of the text (15), but mature examples of this species were probably lost in the devastating effects of the Dutch Elm disease of the 1970s and 80s.  A sapling, probably growing from a sucker of one of the original trees may be found just south of the church car park to this day.  The continued presence of an active noisy Rookery in Dents Garth would seem to indicate the previous presence of Elms in the woodland, as traditionally this is the tree species in which Rooks prefer to nest.  This evidence is bolstered by the nearest farm to Dents Garth, which in Tolkien’s time, as now was called “The Elms.”
Railings surrounding the crypt stairs at the north-east corner of Roos Church (2015)

Ivy & ferns covering subterranean stairs to a crypt before undergrowth was cleared (c) 2006 Paul Glazzard
Heraldic Device of the Sykes family
Detail of the hand from the Sykes' family Heraldic Shield 

About 5 metres away from the Cow Parsley in the churchyard is a railed off area, which contains a damp subterranean staircase surmounted by an escutcheon depicting the palm of a hand above three circular features containing wavy lines, which represent water.  This is the heraldic device of the Sykes family, (the hand denotes a baronet) who commissioned the exterior stairs down to the crypt probably during the restoration of the church in 1842.  Of course in Tolkien’s mythology Beren had to make the much more perilous journey down to Melko’s underground fortress of Angamandi (later Angband), and his heraldic device, drawn by Tolkien much later, features a hand, because his hand clasping a Silmaril was lost to the ravening wolf Carcharoth.  It is possible that the disembodied hand on the Sykes family shield may have triggered a story in which Beren lost his hand.
Tolkien's sketch of Beren's heraldic device

A further plausible link to Tolkien’s fiction is a three-trunked tree between Roos church and the entrance in the southern exterior churchyard wall.  In the earliest-surviving version of Tolkien’s story, Lúthien is imprisoned by her father Tinwelint (later Thingol) in Hírilorn a mighty Beech tree: “so deeply cloven was her bole that it seemed as if three shafts sprang from the ground together and they were of like size, round and straight, and their grey rind was smooth as silk, unbroken by branch or twig for a very great height above men’s heads”(16) As John Garth remarked, when I mentioned the finding of this tree, the three-trunked tree "seems such a specific and seemingly random detail"(17) of the story, that the finding of such a tree actually in Roos near the genesis of the tale is suggestive.
Three-trunked Lime Tree in Roos churchyard
The tree in Roos churchyard, which would have been there in Tolkien’s time has some similarities to his description, including the cloven bole, the three shafts of equal size, the grey bark, and branches above the height of men, although now there are some new tiny lower twigs.  The fairly smooth bark is now partly obscured by ivy stems, but crucially this tree is a Lime, or more poetically a Linden tree, not a Beech.  However, the adjacent tree, slightly further from the church is a Beech.  
Three-trunked Lime Tree surrounded by Cow Parsley
Finally, on the southern side of Dents Garth is a meagre unimpressive waterway heading south out of the village. This is very hard to see in the summer months as it is concealed by the heavy undergrowth.  I have visited this area many times in the summer, but only became aware of its existence during a winter excursion.  In Tolkien’s forest of Neldoreth in which the tree Hírilorn grows is a river called Esgalduin.  By no stretch of the imagination could the tiny Roos Beck be classified as a river, but the hidden aspect of the beck may have more significance.  Roos Beck is reputably visible at the North End of Roos, (although I have been unable to locate it), and emerges again south of the church, but for much of its course it is hidden and was until recently neglected as it passed through the bottom of residents’ gardens as it heads towards the church.  It was only after torrential downpours in late June 2007 that the hidden Roos Beck caused severe flooding, and was cleaned out, and the course repaired (18).   In Tolkien’s tale the tiny hidden stream was transformed into the far more majestic river Esgalduin.  The ‘esgal’ element in Esgalduin, means ‘screen’ or ‘hiding’, and Esgalduin actually translates as “River under Veil”(19), so as unlikely as it sounds Roos Beck may be the original inspiration for the much more magical River Esgalduin.  The former presence of Elm trees, the heraldic hand, the three-trunked tree, and the hidden beck may seem pretty inconclusive separately, but together they do combine to become more substantial evidence that Dents Garth is indeed the location where Edith danced for Ronald, and the legend of Beren and Lúthien was conceived, and inspired Tolkien for the following 50 years!
The almost dry course of Roos Beck - 25th May 2015
So far no convincing location has been put forward for the precise site where the Tolkiens lived during the 6-week gap between Edith living in Hornsea and Withernsea.  The clues are very slim, but in a reworked version of an old poem now retitled The Horns of Ulmo Tolkien added that it was rewritten “in a lonely house near Roos” (20).  Mathison believes this refers to Tolkien’s billet at Thirtle Bridge Camp, but I contend that Tolkien would never have described a location at which over a thousand men were stationed as “a lonely house near Roos.”  On balance I believe he was based away from the camp and in a house not adjacent to other dwellings, but not too far from Roos.  One possibility is a building on the outskirts of Halsham, which had a few isolated buildings at that time, as it does now.  It is much smaller, and more strung-out than the comparably more tightly-packed Roos. 
Victorian Map showing relative densities of Roos & Halsam
Even if Tolkien wasn’t actually living in Halsham at that time, it is likely he would have been drawn to the village in his free time, as it is a fairly short walk of about two miles from Roos across the fields.  It should always be remembered just how important Tolkien's Catholic faith was to him.  According to the Victoria County History, there “is little evidence for Roman Catholicism” in Roos (21), but Halsham is quite a different matter.  In medieval times Halsham was the seat of the Constable family, and after the Reformation the family remained loyal to their Roman Catholic faith, and they kept links to the parish even when they moved to their impressive new Elizabethan Hall on the Burton Constable estate.  Halsham had an excommunicated recusant in 1595/6, and there were between 8 to 16 Roman Catholic recusants in the 1660s and 1670s.  As late as the C18th 8 Roman Catholics were still living in the village (22).   For a devout Roman Catholic, such as Tolkien, he would have no doubt been intrigued by the only location in the immediate area which maintained links to his faith down the previous 4 centuries.  There is still visible evidence of the faith in the village.  The most striking reminder is the mausoleum of the Constable family.  This was constructed between 1792 & 1802, and it had been restored as recently as c.1900 (23).  I was reminded of the domed buildings in Rath Dínen, the Tombs of the Dead Kings, in Minas Tirith, but the Tolkien scholar and bibliographer Charles Noad has remarked that it is very similar to Sauron’s temple in Númenor, as it is described in the Notion Club Papers.  When Lowdham in The Notion Club Papers sees the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford he is reminded of Sauron's temple, which perhaps fits the description of Halsham Mausoleum better than the Radcliffe Camera, although in Tolkien's fiction the dimensions have become truly monumental:  "it was in the form of a circle at the base, and there the walls were fifty feet in thickness, and the width of their base was five hundred feet across the centre, and they rose from the ground five hundred feet, and they were crowned with a mighty dome; and it was wrought all of silver, but the silver was turned black"(24).  Of course the dimensions in Tolkien's work are on a massive scale, but in a version of a text in Old English there is an aspect which does lead to rather interesting speculations.  This states: "it was built 'in the midst of the town...on the high hill which before was undefiled but now became a heathen fane'"(25).  As mentioned earlier Halsham is a small settlement not a town, but the mausoleum was built on the highest point of land in Halsham.  When it was being constructed evidence was discovered of a possible prehistoric burial site.  Would Tolkien have disapproved of ancient remains being disturbed to construct a Roman Catholic monument to the dead, to such an extent that he would consider it a heathen fane?  This is an aspect which requires further  consideration and research.
Halsham Mausoleum
Halsham Mausoleum

The original order for Tolkien’s posting to Holderness was made on 27th November 1916 from the headquarters of the Lancashire Fusiliers, which at that time was actually based in Halsham (26). However, by the time Tolkien had arrived only a few months later the HQ had been moved to Tunstall, which was more convenient for Thirtle Bridge Camp (27).  Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that the military maintained some presence in the village.  The most likely building in Halsham for the HQ is the largest building, now known as Halsham House (1584), but previously it was a former almshouse and school. When visiting the mausoleum I walked past Halsham House, and noticed a strange alcove built into the side of a wall, possibly at the time of original construction, which contained a small statue.  On closer examination this proved to be a figure of the Virgin Mary.  The Catholic credentials of Halsham are plain to see today after a little investigation, but whether this, or a similar statue was present when Tolkien was in the area is another moot question.
Halsham House
North-facing alcove on Halsham Hoiuse containing a statue of the Virgin Mary.  Some of the cement work looks modern, so is the alcove a relatively modern feature, or has it just been recently repaired?

Part 1 (Introduction & Hornsea) may be read here
Part 3 (Thirtle Bridge & Withernsea) may be read here
Part 4 (Brooklands Officers' Hospital & Godwin Battery) may be read here
Part 5 (Easington & Spurn Point) may be read here  

My thanks to Marcel Aubron-Bülles, Jerry Aurand, Chris Delworth-Kerr, Linda Flowers, John Garth, Phil Mathison with whom I was able to consult on various aspects of my research while I was writing this paper.   


11. Mathison, p.34.
12. Carpenter, Humphrey (ed.) with Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, (George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p.221.
13. Ibid, p.345.
14. Ibid, p.420.
15. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales, Part Two, (ed.) Christopher Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, 1984) p.11.
16. Ibid, p.18.
17. Tolkien Society Facebook page, 29 May 2015.
18. Rooster, 147, 148, 150 [July, Aug, Oct 2007].
19. J.R.R. Tolkien, Silmarillion, (ed.) Christopher Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, 1977) p.358 & p.329.
20. Garth, p.237.
21. Kent, p.93.
22. Allison, p.39.
23. Ibid, p.32.
24.  J.R.R. Tolkien, Sauron Defeated, (ed.) Christopher Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, 1992), p.367.
25. Ibid, p.384.
26. Mathison, p.12.
27. Ibid, p.56.


Dave Knight said...

I looked at Dents Garth, but it seemed to be too public a place for the dance to be private. So I moved on to the fox covert to the south (shown in the map). The Roos Drain runs immediately to the north of it and there is a little wooden bridge of the most basic construction over it. Whether one like it was there in 1917 I cannot say, but one would be needed for the same reasons it is there today.

The woodland is rather wild today and it was getting late, so I did not try the interior, but it is clearly a place in which a couple could be truly alone together. Whether the interior was too dense for dancing in 1917 I cannot possibly say, but this is a truly private place where the incident could have occurred, and the tiny Roos Drain is immediately adjacent, with only the public footpath between it and the trees.

Michael Flowers said...

Hi Dave,

Thank you very much for spending the time to comment.

Dents Garth is a relatively private place. Last May a short film was made re-enacting the dance of Lúthien in that woodland. This took more than 2 hours, and not a single individual walked past the filmmakers. I have been several times over the last few years, and I've never seen anyone else in the woodland.

The big question is does Fox Covert have an understory of Cow Parsley? I will check it out, if I don't have to trespass, but if it doesn't have any Cow Parsley it can be ruled out.

All the various findings in an around the churchyard, seem to corroborate the identification of Dents Garth. The most upto-date version of my piece may be read here:

Thanks again for taking the trouble to comment

Best wishes

Michael Flowers said...

Hi Dave,

I've just returned from a visit to Fox Covert. When we arrived we realised that we had checked it out 5 years ago.

The northern part is full of Willow Carr and is waterlogged, and isn't suitable for dancing of any kind. There was a thin line of Cow Parsley around the wood, but none inside, as far as I could see.

I walked along the eastern edge to the southern corner, and when the vegetation allowed peered in. Although the southern part was drier, I couldn't find any evidence that any member of the umbellifer family grew inside.

I'm afraid I have to conclude that Fox Covert is far less likely to be a suitable candidate for the site of Edith's dance. It may be slightly more private, but it doesn't have the variety of tree species mentioned by Tolkien in various versions of the story, and all the clues in and around the churchyard suggest Dents Garth is a much better fit. (No beech, linden, chestnut or elm, yet all of these are in Dents Garth)

Thanks for adding your point of view, and it was interesting checking it out, but I'm afraid I haven't seen anything this afternoon to make me change my mind.

Best wishes

Rob Pearcey said...

Hi Dave,
I was a Roos resident from 1973-1982 . Confirm the existence of many elm and beach trees a big storm brought a lot of these trees down in 1976. The woodland just to the North of the churchyard likely to be the location of Edith's Dance This land was owned by the Elms, Sir Basil Reckit.
My father was station in the area in 1917 as a 16 year old joined up for the last 18 months of WW1ended up staying until the 1920s , wish I listened a bit closer to his stories when he visited my cottage on Lamb Lane on the banks of Roos Beck


Michael Flowers said...

Thanks very much Rob for your interesting comments