Visiting the film sets in New Zealand and reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in snatches when she had time off piqued Laetitia’s interest in J. R. R. Tolkien. The famous creator of magical fantasy world of the hobbits was born in 1892 to English parents in South Africa. His father headed a British branch bank there. While Tolkien, age 3, was visiting England with his mother, Mable, and brother, Hilary, his father died of rheumatic fever leaving them without an income. The trio decided to stay in England, living for a time with Mable’s parents in King’s Heath and then moving to Sarehole. These are now part of a Birmingham parliamentary constituency called Hall Green but during Tolkien’s youth they were rural villages, bucolic settings similar to the region of Middle-earth known as the Shire in the Hobbit books. Bag End, the putative home (smial) of Bilbo Baggins, was the name of Tolkien’s Aunt Jane’s farm in the Worchester village of Dormston. In 1904, when Tolkien was 12, Mable died of complications of Type I diabetes. She was only 34. Banting and Best did not demonstrate the therapeutic properties of insulin until 1921. After his mother’s passing, the boys lived with Father Francis Morgan whom Mable had chosen as guardian for her children prior to her death. Tolkien attended King Edward’s School and Oxford, married Edith Bratt and served in World War I. After the war, he worked for the company that published the Oxford English Dictionary, was a reader at University of Leeds, and, in 1925, became a professor at Oxford. During his 34-year tenure at the University, he wrote The Hobbit and much of his other fantasy literature. C. S. Lewis and he were close friends and often met with other colleagues at an Oxford pub called The Eagle and the Child (or “The Bird and Baby”) to discuss philosophy and literature over a pint.
Laetitia’s tour in Birmingham began with Sarehole Mill, now a museum. During their four years in Sarehole, the Tolkien’s cottage was about 300 yards from it. In a 1966 interview, Tolkien described it as a “lost paradise.” “There was an old mill that really did grind corn with two millers, a great mill pond with swans on it, a sand pit, a wonderful dell with flowers, a few old-fashioned village houses and, further away, a stream with another mill.” The local guide at the museum told Laetitia’s group that during Tolkien’s childhood; the two millers were father and son. The son frequently chased the Tolkien boys away from the mill and they called him “the white ogre,” owing to the fact that he was always covered from head to toe with flour dust. The son was likely the inspiration for Ted Sandyman, the bad-tempered miller in Hobbiton. Some also speculate that this figure in white was part of the amalgam of life experiences that shaped Tolkien’s Gandalf character. Afterwards, the group visited Moseley Bog and viewed two Birmingham edifices believed to have inspired the title of the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien lived in Edgbaston after his mother’s death. In that community are two towers roughly 300 yards apart. Perrot’s Folly is a 96-foot tower built in 1758, by a wealthy but eccentric landowner for no known purpose; Edgbaston Waterworks Tower is an ornate structure built during the Victorian era. Laetitia made Tolkien’s Birmingham the subject of the day’s limerick.