John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in a country that, even though it no longer exists today, provided much inspiration for the “genesis” of Middle-Earth. Founded in 1854, that mysterious country was called the Orange Free State, and it was one of seven independent states in what is now South Africa. The westernmost of these entities was also the biggest: Cape Colony. The “middle” land was OFS (Orange Free State). To the northeast was the Transvaal Republic. To the east was the Colony of Natal, along with three Native Lands: Swaziland, Zululand, and Basutoland.
The Boer War technically began in Tolkien’s own town: the dramatic breakdown of the Bloemfontein Conference, where President Kruger of Transvaal and High Commissioner Sir Alfred Milner of Cape Colony rejected any sort of compromise in regards to land claims.
The Tolkiens almost certainly talked a lot about that war, which ended when young J.R.R. was nine years old. So he grew up in a political maelstrom, hearing countless stories about the Great Trek and the battles of Modder River and Magersfontein – with the big climax being the Boer defeat, ultimately triggering the fall and dissolution of both OFS and Transvaal.
Cecil Rhodes was a British aristocrat who dreamed of grandiose accomplishments in Africa, but he was way too ambitious, passive aggressive, megalomaniac and insufferable – that’s Fëanor for you.
Kruger was the grizzled and grumpy ruler sitting unmoveable and resolute in the shuttered circle of his forbidden veld – that’s Thingol, yes, and the Transvaal Republic is the Kingdom of Doriath.
In those days, the deepest mine shaft on the planet was in Kimberley, right on the Orange Free State border. That one’s easy: the Moria.
The “Great Trek” was the celebrated long march of the Boer people towards the northeastern veld, but it also became the name of the Elves’ long march west from Cuiviénen to Beleriand.
The inhabitants of the Native Lands became the infamous “Easterlings”. In retrospect, that one wasn’t such a good idea, but what can you do – this was the general sentiment among the Boers back in 1900. These guys were proud, clever, courageous, but not very educated. Many Boer farmers used to think that the Englishmen could “see England from Cape Town”. When you read about this, you can’t help but being reminded of the whole Tol Eressëa situation: is it within sight of Valinor, or not?
Cape Town is the only great port from which seafaring vessels sail to England – it serves the same allegorical purpose as the Grey Havens. And there is another port, Durban (Umbar), but it is much more exotic and no ships from there sail directly to Valinor...
My point is this: I don’t have any beef with New Zealand but, once in a while, I’d like to hear: “South Africa is Middle-Earth”. Two different countries can “be” Middle-Earth at the same time, don’t they?
South African geeks, where are you? Apart from one medieval rock band, nobody says anything. Speak up, guys. Make some noise! You live in Gondor and Rohan, after all...