The things that remain are most significant – the melancholy and nostalgia, the sense of diminishment or „fading“, particularly of the elves, and their association with trees and hills. The imagery of water: particularly the flow of the river and the importance of the sea – signalled by its capitalisation in the later versions, these are all themes Tolkien returns to again and again in his later work. The sea is often a presence sensed or feared in The Lord of the Rings, and in both this book and in The Silmarillion it is connected with loss, separation and exile. The story of the elves in all his works is the story of their passing and re-passing over the great western or sundering Sea.


                Kortirion as a concept went through many changes, originally the city on the Isle of Tol Eressea, it was a refuge for Elves returning into the West from which they originated but were not permitted to enter. By the time Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion, the city had become Tirion and it too was built on a green hill and was the home of elves in the far west from which the most destructive of the elves emerged. The creation of Kortirion in the poem was thus an early step towards the ethical cosmology and epic mythology which underpins Tolkien´s vision of Middle-earth as it is alluded to in The Lord of the Rings and described in The Silmarillion.


                To anyone not familiar with Tolkien´s elves it may seem as though his association of Warwick with them is peculiar. In the twenty-first century it may seem odd to say that any town was described as „the city of elves“. However, although Tolkien´s works echo with images of fading and diminishing, and with the Otherworld of elves and fairies, these are emphatically not childish fantasies. Tolkien´s elves are not the gossamer sprites of the Conan Doyle photographs, nor the charming children with wings illustrated in the flower-fairy books. Tolkien´s elves developed from the myths and legends he studied and delighted in. His concept of elves is closer to the Irish and Welsh myths of beautiful and dangerous beings. Indeed, in his essay called „On Fairy Stories“ he describes the world of the fairies as „the Perilous Realm“, because its beauty acts as an enchantment on mortals.


                This concept is expressed vividly in the fourteenth-century verse romance known as Sir Orfeo, which Tolkien edited. In this story, set in Winchester, the fairy king is violent and dangerous, threatening to have the mortal wife of King Orfeo torn to pieces if she refuses to go with him. Elves also have a place in more famous English literature. Chaucer wrote satirically in the Wife of Bath´s Tale of the coming of Christianity when, he said,


now kan no man se none elves mo

For now the grete charitee and prayeres

Of lymytours and othere hooly freyes



maketh that ther ben no fayeres.

For ther as wont to walken was an elf

Ther walketh now the lymytour hymself.

Now no one can see elves any more. Now because of the great kindness and prayers of wandering and other kinds of friars there are no fairies. For where elves used to walk the wandering friar himself now walks.


                However, the most famous warrior elf in the English literary „canon“ is probably the Red Cross knight in Spenser´s Elizabethan epic poem The Faerie Queene. In this post-Reformation allegory, the warrior elf fights against contemporary images of evil. So the connection of Warwick/Kortirion with fading and with elves participates in a literary tradition that associated them with change as well as with aggression and in all these instances they are depicted as Other but no less in size and presence than the mortals with whom they interact.


                The connection between elves and the hill on which Kortirion is built recalls the importance of green hills in ancient Celtic mythology where they were regarded as the entrance to the Sidhe, the Otherworld where the immortals dwell. It was said that mortals who entered the Sidhe would find, if they ever came out, that time had passed differently outside. Tolkien uses this concept of different times in his description of the hobbits´ experience of staying in the Golden Wood of Lothlorien. He hints at it first in the narrative which states „They remained some days in Lothlorien, so far as they could tell or remember“ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Bk. 2 ch. 7), but picks it up later in Sam´s observations about the moon „we´d been a week on the way last night, when up pops a New Moon as thin as a nail paring, as if we had never stayed no time in the Elvish country … Any one would think that time did not count there.“ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Bk. 2 ch. 8). In a more modern context, this sense of discontinuous time reflects upon the „sense of history“ often reported by visitors to places of historic interest, and touches on the wonder to be felt when encountering ancient monuments such as long barrows and medieval cathedrals; a sense Tolkien probably encountered as he walked up the hill to Warwick castle.


                As the elves of Kortirion live on, rather than in, their hill, so in The Lord of the Rings elves do not dwell inside hills, although they do in the earlier tale of The Hobbit where the elves of Mirkwood have the protection of what might be described as an underground „palace complex“ inside a hill. Tolkien differentiates between the elves in Mirkwood, which is an especially dangerous place, and the elves dwelling farther south where the danger is less. Elrond, living in Rivendell, has the protection of the mountains and the river, while Lothlorien, much further south is not protected by physical geography but by the power of the Lady Galadriel. However, the creation of Lothlorien shows again Tolkien´s special association of elves with trees and hills, although these trees are the Mallorns of his own creation rather than the elms of Warwick/Kortirion. Nevertheless, the ancient cities of the elves in Lothlorien are both built on green hills. Looking from one to the other Frodo sees „a hill of many mighty trees, or a city of green towers“ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Bk 2 ch. 7).


                For Tolkien, the Celtic world of immortals was one that had known its greatest days. The melancholy of diminishment is perhaps best known in his descriptions of the High elves of Lothlorien for whom „spring and summer have gone by“. But Tolkien would also have been well aware that the concept of fairies had itself diminished. From tall and beautiful Celtic warriors and hunters, by way of Oberon, Titania, and Puck, they became the ephemeral little creatures of the Conan Doyle photos and other nineteenth and early twentieth-century representations, such William Allingham´s the humorously gothic poem beginning


Up the airy mountain,

Down the rushy glen,

We dare no go a-hunting,

For fear of little men.

Wee folk, good folk,

Trooping all together;

Green jacket, red cap,

And white owl´s feather.


                Tennyson managed a grander vision with his „horns of Elfland faintly blowing“, and the „fairy Lady of Shallott“. These gothic representations of a faerie Otherworld delighted the Victorians, but Tolkien´s vision was on a more epic scale, and „Kortirion among the Trees“ was a step on the road of that epic creative journey, although the poem, like Warwick itself, is barely mentioned by early commentators on Tolkien´s life and work.


                The physical environment of Warwick, its history, castle, and medieval buildings all echo through the Lord of the Rings. However, while the town and its ancient history have a special place in Tolkien´s Middle-earth, Tom Shippey, in his recent book J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, remarks that „Tolkien repeatedly said he was „a West-midlander by blood“ and his connection with Warwickshire has meant that the countryside beyond Warwick has been searched for hints of its influence on Tolkien´s creativity“. Of all the Warwickshire locations, Hob Lane has probably caused greatest interest because it contains the significant first syllable of the word „hobbit“. This lane has led to many linguistic „blind alleys“, even though in The Lord of the Rings „hobbit“ is only the Shire dialect version of the name. In Middle-earth the men of Rohan refer to members of this small race as „holbytla“, which is what Theoden King of Rohan calls the hobbit Merry Brandybuck. The Rohan connection points to Anglo-Saxon, no surprise since Tolkien used Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, culture, and social structure to create Rohan.


                An Anglo-Saxon dictionary distinguishes 2 parts to Tolkien´s word: „hol“ and „bytla“, and these translate as „hol“ meaning „hole“ and „bytla“ meaning either „builder“ or „dweller“, while the verb „bytlan“ means „to build“. So we have the perfect description of a hobbit, from „holbytla“, someone who „builds“ holes in which to live. The alteration in spelling from „holbytla“ to „hobbit“ reflects similar changes in the transmission of many words that have come down to modern English from Anglo-Saxon times, and Treebeard the ent gives the modern English translation when he makes a new line in the old lists of the inhabitants of Middle-earth to accommodate the hobbits he has just met. He calls them „half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers“. This easy encounter with a dictionary removes the difficulty of reconciling the medieval word „hob“ meaning „devil“ with the charming and stout-hearted hobbits; a difficulty which only arises from hasty etymological assumptions.


                Other Warwickshire locations cause other difficulties. Near the village of Long Compton, long barrows, ancient burial mounds, can still be seen, and together with the Rollright stones have been taken by Tom Shippey and others as inspiration for Tolkien´s description of standing stones and barrows in The Fellowship of the Ring. But in these instances, no matter how persuasive any location may be, we have to allow that Warwickshire is not the only place in England where long barrows and standing stones can be found. They are part of the British landscape from Shetland to Cornwall. Furthermore, leaving the sources unspecific allows Tolkien´s mythology for England to be just that, inclusive rather than exclusive. Moreover, we know from Tolkien´s letters that he specifically visited the long barrow south of Oxford known as Wayland´s Smithy.


                Leaving geographical influences unspecific allows readers in every region of the world the freedom to participate in Tolkien´s vision of Middle-earth. But in the case of Warwick, we should not losing sight of the importance he attached to this particular place because we can trace the town´s influence on Tolkien´s creative vision. The geography inspired his very early creation of the elvish city of the trees – Kortirion, the city of the elves on Tol Eressea, the Lonely Isle. This city went on to become Tirion in The Silmarillion. Tolkien himself said that the history of Tol Eressea was the history of England, and Warwick was a „disfigured Kortirion“, using „disfigured“ in the sense particular to his mythology, to suggest that because it was no longer the dwelling place of elves its ancient mythical beauty had waned, a sense captured in all the versions of the Kortirion poem. Nevertheless, Warwick´s remaining beauty was such that he dedicated his poem to the town and returned to its images again and again in his writing throughout his life.




Extracts from Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Book of Lost Tales 1


Kortirion among the Trees


Tolkien gave one early copy an Anglo-Saxon or Old English title: Cor Tirion þaera beama on middes and it is „dedicated to Warwick“.


The First Verses


O fading town upon a little hill,

Old memory is waning in thine ancient gates,

The robe gone gray, thine old heart almost still;

The castle only, frowning, ever waits

And ponders how among the towering elms

The Gliding Water leaves these inland realms

And slips between long meadows to the western sea –

Still bearing downward over murmurous falls

One year and then another to the sea;

And slowly thither have a many gone

Since first the fairies built Kortirion.


O spiry town upon a windy hill

With sudden-winding alleys shady-walled

(Where even now the peacocks pace a stately drill,

Majestic, sapphirine, and emerald),

Behold thy girdle of a wide champain

Sunlit, and watered with a silver rain,

And richly wooded with a thousand whispering trees

That cast long shadows in many a bygone noon,

And murmures many centuries in the breeze,

Thou art the city of the Land of Elms,

Alalminórë in the Faery Realms



Second version – 1937


O fading town upon an inland hill,

Old shadows linger in thine ancient gate,

Thv robe is grey, thine old heart now is still;

Thy towers silent in the mist await

Their crumbling end, while through the storeyed elms

The Gliding Water leaves these inland realms,

And slips between long meadows to the Sea,

Still bearing downward over murmurous falls

One day and then another to the Sea;

And slowly thither many years have gone,

Since first the Elves here built Kortirion.

O climbing town upon thy windy hill

With winding streets, and alleys shady-walled

Where now untamed the peacocks pace in drill

Majestic, sapphirine, and emerald;

Amid the girdle of this sleeping land,

Where silver falls the rain and gleaming stand

The whispering host of old deep-rooted trees

That cast long shadows in many a bygone noon,

And murmured many centuries in the breeze;

Thou art the city of the Land of Elms,

Alalminórë in the Faery Realms.



Third version


of which Christopher writes that it was „composed (as I believe) nearly half a century after the first.“




O ancient city on a leagured hill!

Old shadows linger in your broken gate,

Your stones are grey, your old halls now are still,

Your towers silent in the mist await

Their crumbling end, while through the storeyed elms

The River Gliding leaves these inland realms

And slips between long meadows to the Sea,

Still bearing down their weir and murmuring fall

One day and then another to the Sea;

And slowly thither many days have gone

Since first the Edain built Kortirion.     Edain = mortal men.




Alalminórë! Green heart of this Isle

Where linger yet the Faithful Companies!

Still undespairing here they slowly file

Down lonely paths with solemn harmonies:

The Fair, the first born in an elder day,

Immortal Elves.