A new show called The Making of Mordor claims the steelworks and blast furnaces of the West Midlands inspired The Lord of the Rings. So did Tolkien see orcs there too? Stuart Jeffries, a Dudley boy, reports

Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings
Visions from the Black Country … Tolkien’s Mount Doom as seen in the film of Lord of the Rings.

“The country is very desolate everywhere. There are coals about and the grass is quite blasted and black.” So wrote Victoria, the 13-year-old princess, in her diary in August 1832 after travelling through the recently industrialised land of pits, steelworks, blast furnaces, forges and fire north-west of Birmingham – a place that was just beginning to be known as the Black Country. “The men, woemen (sic), children, country and houses are all black,” she added, “but I cannot by any description give an idea of its strange and extraordinary appearance.”

A century and a half later, Caitlin Moran’s dad had a go. As Moran recalls in her memoir How to Build a Girl, he was driving her through the Black Country to collect a poetry prize in Birmingham. “Halfway up Brierley Hill, he points to the quiet street-lit valley below. All empty industrial estates and small, coiled ribbons of housing. ‘When I was a kid, you’d come up this hill, and all of that’ – and he gestures to the valley in front of us – ‘was on fire. The foundries and the forges and the ironworks. The potteries. The whole place glowed – sheets of sparks, 50 foot high. The fires never went out. It looked like hell. That’s what your Lord of the Rings is about. Tolkien was from round here. He was writing about how the industrial revolution turned the Midlands from Hobbiton to Mordor.’”

Mr Moran needed to tell his precocious daughter about her native land’s history because the fires did go out all over the Black Country just before she was born. Her heritage of hell was airbrushed. The blast furnaces that Mr Moran reckoned looked like hell stopped burning in the late 60s. I know this because, as a little boy, I would sit on my nan’s back step in Wednesbury at night and look out over Bilston’s vista of flaming furnaces – as thrilling a view as the night-time sight of Teesside’s chemical works that reportedly inspired Ridley Scott’s vision of Blade Runner.

Tolkien’s iron fortress in Mordor, as seen in Lord of the Rings
Black Country Art 2
A detail from Edward Wadsworth’s In The Black Country (1919). Courtesy of Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

By the end of 1979, the year the final steel cast was made at the Elisabeth furnace at the Spring Vale steelworks, though, the fires had gone out. Now a wood has been planted over that furnace. Where I was raised, in Sedgley, the last Black Country pit was closed in 1968 and replaced by a country park. “It’s the regreening of the Black Country after its devastation,” says Carol Thompson, curator of The Making of Mordor, a new exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery about the links between Tolkien’s fantasy fiction and the Black Country’s industrial past.

But while the Black Country has become the Green Country, some feel conflicted about the change. Moran writes that her father, like many middle-aged men, felt in two minds about their homeland reverting to Hobbiton after spending 150 years as Mordor. I share his misgivings. There was a pride, not just in the industrial achievements of the Black Country, which made everything from the Titanic’s anchors to Royal Brierley’s cut-glass liqueur glasses, but in its sense of embattled abjection (the legend that I was proudly told as a child was that Queen Victoria lowered the blinds of her train carriage when she passed through – to spare her the sight of our merry hell). And then there was the terrible, intoxicating beauty of the Black Country ablaze at night, the fumes that caught in your throat and made you know you were home.

What is the Black Country now? A green and pleasant land, possibly teeming with contented little people with oversized hairy feet? In the battle between industry and nature, did nature win? Has what made the Black Country special gone for good? These questions become significant in The Making of Mordor, not least because, as you doubtless already know, in the Elvish Sindarin language that Tolkien uses in The Lord of the Rings, Mor-Dor means Dark or Black Land.

Tolkien was brought up during the 1890s in the nearby Birmingham suburb of Hall Green, at a time when it was a place of fields and watermills – a prototype, perhaps, for the Shire, although one long since replaced by the suburban idyll of semis for the second city’s industrial workers. “Where he was raised was very rural which he adored,” says Thompson. “During his later life, he said that time was his happiest. But he saw the industrial landscape encroaching on his way of life as a child. He was very open about his loathing of industrialisation, which the Black Country stood for.”

Black Country Art
Woodland walks … (left) Olafur Eliasson’s installation The Forked Forest Path offers a Whitmanesque choice of paths to take; (right) Orcs journey through the forest in the film. Photgoraph: Eliasson Forest Photograph: Press

Even if Tolkien saw and was revolted by the Black Country, it’s not clear that he transposed it in fiction as Mordor. The sci-fi fanzine Niekas has claimed that Tolkien happened upon Mordor while on a cruise in the Mediterranean. He sailed past the volcanic Italian island of Stromboli while it was erupting at night and, according to the magazine, “he’d never seen anything that looked so much like Emyn Anar”. Also known as Mount Doom, Emyn Anar is the volcano Frodo must hurl the ring into. The Black Country, by contrast, has no volcano and no evil wizard (unless you count blameless but hirsute Roy Wood of Black Country glam rockers Wizzard, which would be unfair). So its claims to be Mordor can be overstated.

The Making of Mordor, then, is an intriguing proposition, linking Tolkien’s fantasy fiction with a disappeared landscape that may have inspired it. So if you want to see what the industrialised Black Country looked like, then forget about wandering the streets from Darlaston to Gornal: that industrial heritage, for the most part, is history. Better to go to Wolverhampton Art Gallery to see such 20th-century depictions of the terrible beauty of the area as the vorticist Edward Wadsworth’s woodcuts of quarries, furnaces and slag heaps; or Edwin Butler-Bayliss’s paintings of Black Country industry, most notably Tipping the Slag; or Michael Ayrton’s depictions of chainmakers stripped to the waist as they bash out metal.

“These are grim images that would support Tolkien’s case that industrialisation is terrible and dehumanising,” says Thompson. She singles out Ayrton’s chainmakers. “They almost look like orcs – they’re so monstrous and dehumanised by their work. This is industry as corrupting power.”

For all its compunctions, The Making of Mordor is also the Black Country staking a belated claim to have influenced Tolkien. For decades, other astute parts of England have already been linking themselves to the lucrative fantasy franchise. There are, for instance, three Tolkien trails fans can follow: one through the Ribble valley in Lancashire; another through the suburbs of south Birmingham; and a third through Oxford. Each one claims to be the inspiration for Tolkien’s imaginary landscapes. Everybody wants a piece of JRR.

The Making of Mordor includes drawings from Tolkien’s sketchbooks, some personal items (pipe, hat, signed menu, first editions) and works by Lord of the Rings illustrator Ted Nasmith (who also illustrated that rival fantasy franchise, Game of Thrones). But the exhibition is about more than Tolkien. It’s about that unresolved conflict deep in the British soul between industry and nature, between Mordor and the Shire. Indeed, The Making of Mordor doesn’t simply depict industry as corrupting or dehumanising. Thompson cites Mervyn Peake’s paintings of the glassblowers of Smethwick’s Chance Brothers factory as an unintended retort to Tolkien’s notion of industry: “Peake’s subjects look balletic, delicate, as though they’re performing choreographed moves.” Peake, author of the Gormenghast fantasy trilogy, was more conflicted about industry than Tolkien: his poem The Glassblowers, displayed along his paintings in the show, may describe its subjects as goblins in a subterranean world, but it is clearly entranced by them. “A lyric ease pervades their toil,” he wrote, noting that the work makes “Their firelit bodies lordly as they blow”.

Black Country Art
Sarehole Mill, near the hamlet of Sarehole, Birmingham, where Tolkien grew up. Photograph: David Mansell
Sunbeam Union Mill
Euripides Altintzoglou’s photograph of the long-closed gates of Sunbeam Union Mill, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton. Courtesy of Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Lordly? Poetic licence: most of the workers blowing cathode ray tubes for military use were – this being the middle of world war two – women. In any case, such aestheticised, outsider perspectives as Peake’s don’t get to the heart of this part of England: for that, you need the contemporary photographs by Brian Griffin of Black Country chainmakers working at Solid Swivel, one of the few remaining furnaces making chains for Royal Navy ships. “Brian, who’s from Birmingham, makes them into these incredibly strong characters from a society that’s gone through such a lot of struggle over the past couple of hundred years,” says Thompson.

Visitors to Wolverhampton Art Gallery will be confronted by more than 1,000 saplings, taken from the woods that were planted over the Spring Vale steelworks. This is Olafur Eliasson’s installation The Forked Forest Path, offering a Whitmanesque choice of paths to take – one leads to a room filled with images of Mordor, the other reveals how the old industrial sites have been regenerated since the Black Country.

If you choose the latter, you’re quickly on an intriguing journey. You’ll come across night-time photographs of trees in the Black Country by Richard Billingham, the artist best known for his unflinching photographs of his mother and father in their Cradley Heath council flat. “They capture,” says Thompson, “the uneasiness between nature and industry and show how nature endures despite everything.” You’ll see Billy Dosanjh’s film Year Zero: Black Country, which takes an episodic short story form about early immigrant experiences in the Black Country, using reappropriated archive footage and collected anecdotes, all from the perspective of the outsider.

Perhaps most poignant of all is Euripides Altintzoglou’s photograph of the long-closed gates of the Sunbeam car factory on Wolverhampton’s outskirts. “It’s not an image of misery,” says Thompson. “It’s suffused with blue skies and the optimistic sense of nature returning.” It chimes, she says, with the motto of the city: “Out of darkness comes light.” Tolkien, perhaps, would have liked it.

The Guardian, 19 september 2014