Bloemfontein: On the trail of Tolkien

An index to this series appears on the first post.

August 13, 2017

Why would any famous son or daughter of a city be ignored? J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and of Lord of the Rings, was born in Bloemfontein. Trying to learn a bit more about his origins in this city, however, led in interesting directions.

I should start by explaining that J.R.R. Tolkien was born to Arthur and Mabel Tolkien, British citizens. They had been drawn to Bloemfontein by the offer of a lucrative banking position for Arthur. Mabel joined her fiancé in Cape Town via a three week journey by ship just after her 21st birthday.  They were married in the cathedral there on 16 April, 1891, with a honeymoon in the Atlantic suburb of Sea Point.  Immediately thereafter they took the long train run to Bloemfontein.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892; a year before, his mother had been in England!  During 1892, Bloemfontein was the capital of a Boer Republic called the Orange Free State. The Union of South Africa was still eighteen years in the future.  Mabel Tolkien didn’t think much of her new home, writing to her family of the “Owlin’ Wilderness!  Horrid Waste!”  She tolerated it for her husband, who seemed completely absorbed in his new position as manager at the Bank of Africa.

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The Tolkien family in Bloemfontein, November, 1892 (I first saw this picture in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography.)

I had read that the Tolkiens had been part of the Anglican church in Bloemfontein, so I spent my Sunday morning visiting the cathedral (along with its Catholic neighbor). It was Confirmation Sunday, and the service had all the special elements one might expect. The bishop came to the service in order to interact with the Confirmation class. After the service, he posed for photographs, and he even took a photo with me!

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I met the Right Reverend Dintoe Letloenyane!

Seeing the cathedral after a “high” church ceremony was a bit mystical. Smoke from the incense drifted in the sunlight pouring through the high windows. The Cathedral is dedicated to St. Andrew and the angel Michael.  It was built in 1866 and substantially expanded in 1883 (the old nave is the new one’s choir and chancel).

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Looking from the new nave into the old

I took some photographs throughout the cathedral, but my target stood close to the entrance. While a baptistry in a Baptist church is essentially a bathtub large enough to immerse multiple adults, the Anglican church baptizes infants, and the white bowl was fitted with a metal cover suspended from the ceiling. I was pleased to learn that the city had memorialized J.R.R. Tolkien with a plaque celebrating his baptism on January 31, 1892. (The plaque was added on November 11th of 1992, the centenary year.)

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The baptistry was bathed in light!

The early history of J.R.R. Tolkien is a tragic one. His mother Mabel had tired of enduring Bloemfontein’s harsh summers, and she and J.R.R. Tolkien (and his younger brother, Hillary Arthur Reuel Tolkien) returned to the U.K. in 1895. Only a year later, his father, who had stayed behind to complete his bank contract, died of rheumatic fever. Knowing that Arthur Tolkien was buried in Bloemfontein, I perused the cathedral’s garden of memory, but I did not see any cenotaphs for that period. I later learned from a member of the church that Arthur Tolkien had been buried in the large cemetery on the other side of the hill.

If the baptism and burial aspects were the ceremonial aspects of the Tolkiens, could we find non-spiritual evidence of the Tolkiens? Sadly, the house where the Tolkiens lived (included in the premises of the Bank of Africa in Maitland Street) was destroyed in a flood during the 1920s. It was at this house where J.R.R. Tolkien, then a toddler, was bitten by a tarantula; his nurse sucked out the poison.  The National monuments Council issued a historic marker for J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthplace, but you will not find it at the former site of his home! Instead, one must visit the Hobbit Hotel, located at 19 President Steyn Street.

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I was surprised to learn that these could be moved!

The proprietors of the hotel have not gone overboard with the Tolkien theme. Each room has a needlepoint sign, naming the room after a particular character from the series. I paused for a moment at the signboard for Frodo’s Room, because who wouldn’t?  The hotel offers a little library of books with a tree top-level porch nearby. Yes, the hotel does have the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though they are on display downstairs, where they are closely watched since their hardbound copies vanished. I really liked their garden pub, with a distinctive tree-wrapped bar.

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It’s a bar, but it’s it’s also like a woodland realm!

In short, J.R.R. Tolkien is not forgotten in Bloemfontein. His memory is cherished in at least two places. I would certainly encourage the city to build on this beginning, though. I know I am not the only reader to feel so strongly about his importance!

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4 thoughts on “Bloemfontein: On the trail of Tolkien

  1. Pingback: From the Beach to Bloem! | Picking Up The Tabb

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  4. Michael Skipper

    Wow! What a wonderful, serendipitous trip down memory lane. I was also born in Bloemfontein, matriculated at Saints and I have strong connections with the Cathedral of St Andrew & St Michael. I vaguely remember our history teacher talking about the Tolkein family going for walks over the school’s playing fields. Young J.R.R would probably have been in a pram. Thank you and God bless you!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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