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Fornost Erain

Fornost Erain (Sindarin: North Fortress of the Kings) was known as Norbury (of the Kings) in Westron, where it means the same thing. It is located on the North Downs a hundred or more miles north of Bree, at the far end of the Greenway. (R.337, S.331) It was captured by Angmar (The Witch King) in TA 1974 (R.398), and was liberated in TA 1975 by the Battle of Fornost (R.458), to which the Hobbits sent some archers. (R.400, HoMe xii, 9) Fornost was subsequently abandoned, after which it became known as Dead Man’s Dike.[1] (F.320-1)

In one of his earlier drafts, Tolkien says that the Hobbits called FornostNorthworthy. (HoMe xii, 5) This name has an interesting first-world relative that demonstrates a number of parallels with Fornost. Most of the parallels are the stuff of a Victorian school curriculum in English History, which young Tolkien could hardly have missed. The intrusiveness of the history of the name Northworthy is most likely what suggested the name to Tolkien, and equally quickly caused him to reject it, because the allusions would have been clearly apparent to readers of Tolkien’s generation.

Northworthy (Norþworþig = North Enclosed Dwelling) was the Anglo-Saxon name for a town on the banks for the River Derwent (Celtic: River of Oaks), before the establishment of Danelaw, under which the name of the town was changed to Derby (Danish: Town of the Deer). Northworthy fell to the Danes in 854, but was not recaptured by the Saxons until Æthelflæd took the town in 917 at the cost of the lives of four of her thains,[2] a Tolkienesque word if ever there was one.

This historical episode would have cast the Witch King of Angmar in the role of the Danes, who came from the far north, as Angmar lay in “the North beyond the Ettenmoors.” (R.397) The Dúnedain would then take the part of the Saxons who were driven out of Fornost, and who later recaptured it. In this form, the tale would have been too close to allegory for Tolkien’s liking.

The geographic parallels are less obvious, because they come from another part of English history. Tolkien grew up in Birmingham, and Harrison observes that “the Roman road best known to dwellers in Birmingham is the Icknield Street (or Ryknield Street as it is sometimes called to distinguish it from another road of the same name).” The road “runs nearly due north through Birmingham.” In Sutton Park (on the north side of Birmingham), a stretch of three miles “of this fine old road is quite distinct as to direction width, and level, although it is, of course, grass-covered.”[3]

Harrison’s description of the segment of the road preserved in Sutton Park as “grass-covered” exactly matches Tolkien’s explanation of why the once great thoroughfare from Bree to Fornost was now known as the “Greenway.” (F.29, 210) It was overgrown with grass, because it was little used (F.207), but as Harrison points out, the distinctive features of such a construction made it nonetheless easy to follow, and identify as man-made. Even if it did not inspire Tolkien’s Greenway, the Sutton Park Roman Road offers a first-world example of what Tolkien was talking about. It would be a good addition to the “Tolkien Trail” leaflets produced by the city of Birmingham.

The direction that the Roman Road in Sutton Park takes (north) matches the direction of Tolkien’s Greenway, which was otherwise known as the North Road. (F.207) The ancient British road the Ryknield Street, and the Roman road with which it usually coincided lead to Derby. The British road is believed to have crossed the River Derwent via a ford at or near Derby, while the Roman road crossed via a bridge a bit higher up the river. The two roads become one again at the Roman station of Derventio (now Little Chester), which was the “most considerable Roman station in the county.” From there, the road continues north-north-east to Chesterfield.[4]

While Fornost was over 100 miles from Bree, it is just over 40 miles from Birmingham to Derby, which is as it should be, because the stuff of myth is always larger than life.

[1] For a discussion of the possible first-world location of Dead Man’s Dike, see: Hooker, The Hobbitonian Anthology, pp.91-92.

[2] Victoria Thompson, Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2012, p. 11.

[3] W. Jerome Harrison, “Some Notes upon a Proposed Photographic Survey of Warwickshire,” (Read before the Birmingham Photographic Society, December llth, 1889), The Midland Naturalist: Journal of the Midland Union of Natural History Societies, volume 13, Birmingham: The Herald Press, 1890, p. 14.

[4] “Derbyshire,” The Imperial Cyclopedia: Cyclopedia of Geography, volume 1 (Abaco—Gujerat): The Geography of the British Empire, 1850, London: Charles Knight, p. 933.

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