What Lies Behind the Tolkien Door: Fact and Fiction in Stow-on-the-Wold

Above: The entrance to St Edward’s Church grounds, Stow-on-the-Wold

All stories have their beginnings. More often than not, the proverbial grain of truth in every tale, a little-known fact in fiction, if you will, hides precisely there – in the very genesis of a work of art, in the author’s moment of inspiration rooted in reality. Whether it’s an emotion, a memory, a person, or a place – what unlocks a story are tiny keys that click and clack, here and there, before one of them fits in the lock of the main gate.

The Myth and the Mythmaker

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the father of modern high fantasy, was a philologist, academic, poet, author, and creator of Middle-earth, the setting of his best-known epic novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien 1940s
PHOTOGRAPH BY Unknown author

Tolkien was born in 1892 to English parents, but if his surname sounds interesting to our untrained ears, it’s because it’s of old German origin. Perhaps, the flair for languages ran in Tolkien’s veins from day one. His mother introduced him to imaginative stories that encouraged Ronald to begin reading at the tender age of four.

Without a father, who died when Ronald was three, and with little money, Tolkien’s childhood was still a happy one, spent playing in nature that most likely inspired the landscapes of Middle Earth. Alas, his early bliss was cut short by the death of his mother which left 14-year-old Ronald under the watchful eye of the Catholic Church. From then on, his artistic freedom was severely restrained as the new guardians considered imaginative stories too frivolous.

When Ronald met his future wife Edith at a boarding house, she immediately became his great source of inspiration. A fellow orphaned, artistic soul, she was the perfect companion both in conversation and in throwing sugar lumps into the hats of passers-by in a teashop (which they frequently did). In Tolkien’s fantasy tale Beren and Lúthien, Lúthien is Edith.

What further inspired his epic fantasy stories was his participation in WWI. Ronald served as a lieutenant for five years, experiencing his share of horrors on the battlefront that inevitably shaped the armed conflicts in fictional Middle Earth. In 1972 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Tolkien studied classics and English language and literature at Oxford, graduating with first-class honors in 1915. After WWI, in 1920, he became the co-author of the Oxford English Dictionary and the youngest member of the academic staff at the University of Leeds. Later on, he assumed the position of Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then the Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.

Many keys opened the door to Tolkien’s imagination. His mom, his wife, Norse mythology, war, his aunt Jane's farm called Bag End, and his close friend C. S. Lewis from their literary discussion group The Inklings. Today, we want to bring to your attention a particular place in Gloucestershire that inspired a significant spot in Middle Earth.

Annon Edhellen, Edro Hi Ammen (Elvish Gate Open Now For Us)

Durin's Door
PHOTOGRAPH BY The Fellowship of the Ring

The Moon now shone upon the grey face of the rock; but they could see nothing else for a while. Then slowly on the surface, where the wizard’s hands had passed, faint lines appeared, like slender veins of silver running in the stone. At first they were no more than pale gossamer-threads, so fine that they only twinkled fitfully where the Moon caught them, but steadily they grew broader and clearer, until their design could be guessed.

At the top, as high as Gandalf could reach, was an arch of interlacing letters in an Elvish character. Below, though the threads were in places blurred or broken, the outline could be seen of an anvil and a hammer surmounted by a crown with seven stars. Beneath these again were two trees, each bearing crescent moons. More clearly than all else there shone forth in the middle of the door a single star with many rays.

(excerpt from chapter IV of The Fellowship of the Ring)

Behold the Doors of Durin! Also known as the Elven Door or the West-gate to Moria – the dwarven kingdom of Khazad-dûm. Constructed by Dwarves and Elves working together (before that became unheard of), the doors were built to ease travel and trade between Khazad-dûm and the elven kingdom of Eregion. After Sauron’s attack on the Elves, the doors were sealed shut and the password was forgotten.

The beautiful design of the door is inlaid with ithildin, which only reflects starlight or moonlight, making the passage otherwise invisible. It depicts the emblems of Durin, the Tree of the High Elves, and the Star of the House of Fëanor. The inscription is a riddle that reads: "speak friend and enter", to which the answer is a password in Elvish. In The Lord of the Rings, the fellowship arrives at the door on their way to Mordor and (at least in the book) Gandalf eventually solves the riddle, remembering and uttering the Elvish word for friend: mellon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgHCM68KkPY

Stow-on-the-Wold, Where The Wind Blows Cold

Stow-on-the-Wold is a tiny market town in Cotswold, England, and its name translates to ‘holy place on the hill’. Positioned at the junction of six Roman roads, in the past, it was an important trading spot. Stained by the English Civil War, the town played host to the 1646 Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold that took place between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists.

Today, this peaceful, charming little town is filled with townhouses, cafés, and gift shops built from golden stone. You might want to visit Fosse Gallery for contemporary British art, Borzoi Bookshop, or Tudor House Antiques. Yet, we also recommend sitting down on one of the benches in the town’s square and simply breathing in the atmosphere of a picturesque place that is safely tucked away from the noise and business of the outside world. You will feel time slowing down in Stow-on-the-Wold.

There are many gems hidden in this romantic town, but any self-respecting Tolkien fan should immediately put this one on their bucket list. In St Edward’s Church, which dates back to the Middle Ages, there is a door. But not just any door – the Tolkien Door. The north porch of the church, built 300 years ago, features a heavy brown gate arched with beautiful stained glass. It is set in between two yew trees that have now quite literally become an integral part of the design – a sight fit for a fairy tale.

The Tolkien Door, St Edward’s Church, Stow-on-the-Wold
PHOTOGRAPH BY Kinga Lewandowska

Can you see some similarities to the mythical West-gate? Yes, this door most likely served as Tolkien’s inspiration for the Doors of Durin in Moria! We know for certain that the writer visited Stow-on-the-Wold in his lifetime and the resemblance is simply uncanny. It’s completely free to admire this breathtaking spot – no Elvish enchantments or magic formulas needed this time! And the inhabitants of the town seem to be embracing the Tolkienesque spirit whenever they can, too. Can you see what the sign below reads?

One of the house doors in Stow-on-the-Wold called Bag End
PHOTOGRAPH BY Kinga Lewandowska

Once Upon a Time

Tolkien established his position in the pantheon of the greatest writers of all time. His spectacular world, Middle-earth, and his story-building skills leave us in awe anytime we pick up any of his books, but particularly The Lord of the Rings – a wonderful tale about the value of friendship, the victory of good over evil, and the fate of the world in the hands of the smallest, yet the bravest of us.

How incredible that we can have a glimpse at what inspired this great literary mind, that we can stand in the presence of something that helped unlock one of our favorite stories. Now, it’s your turn to visit Stow-on-the-Wold, and don’t forget to “speak friend” to enter (wink-wink).

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Kinga Lewandowska

Kinga Lewandowska is a content writer and word artist based in the UK. Her area of interest and expertise is literature, literary history, and storytelling. Coming from a music journalism background, she currently works for CBA Content where she helps her audience and fellow creators weave the essence of art into their marketing strategies. Say hello on Instagram @kinga.leew!