In March 2019, the J.R.R. Tolkien literary society featured Kathryn Colucci in their publication, Amon Hen. Kathryn and her husband are long-time fans of Tolkien, and Kathryn reminisced on her time in France, where she’s convinced she found Gondor.
Finding Gondor and a word about Ents, by Kathryn Colucci
My husband and I celebrated his winter graduation from the University of London in 2007 by planning a road-trip through France. The idea was to forego the major tourist-y cities such as Paris and Versailles, and considering heavy traffic patterns, we were not disappointed. Instead, we were delighted by the beautiful palace in Fountainebleau, the sobering WWII (invasion of Normandy) memorial in Caen, and the quaintness of Bayeux with its dizzyingly long tapestry. However, nothing could have prepared us for the majesty of the scene as we approached Mont St. Michel.
“Hey look, that’s Gondor!”
And indeed it was.
Or at least it was Minas Tirith, the White City, per the descriptions of J.R.R. Tolkien and the illustrative interpretations of Alan Lee.
It was with growing anticipation that we wound our way past a residential neighborhood that consisted of tan and brown single family homes. One right-turned later, and with a little jolt, we were on a road that ended in a visitor’s car park. The car park was completely surrounded by a gray-brown field of wet sand, which can prove perilous for any dare-devil who treks on the surface when it is wont to be quicksand. (Since then, this car park has been demolished in lieu of a mile-long footbridge/shuttle system.) Despite it being a plain of sand and not a field of grass, the vastness made for an earthly parallel to Pelennor Fields.
Mont St. Michel is a tidal island, which means that during the new moon, the full moon, and other times of the year, water surrounds the Mont at high tide, cutting it off completely from the mainland and transforming the Mont into a true island. While we were not there to witness such effect, we’ve seen it on Miyajima in Japan and its famous floating red shrine.
At the time of our visit, only 42 people or so were proper residents of Mont St. Michel. Once inside the Mont, we did not see a single automobile, though perhaps with good reason; the streets were heavily cramped with shops and restaurants all along the uphill path. They sold everything, from souvenirs to clothing to local food. Because it was the winter holiday, there were plenty of Christmas-themed items for purchase too. That blatant commercialism, reportedly a firmament since the middle ages, took away from the overall Middle-Earth experience, although it is not unreasonable to think that the merchants of Minas Tirith would have done so likewise and with as much zeal.
We climbed the ramparts to the abbey, as though we ventured on the very stone paths walked upon by Aragorn and countless generations of stewards and kings since Elendil. In actuality, it was religious pilgrims who once travelled up the streets to pay homage in the 11th century abbey that caps the highest point of Mont St. Michel. This is a true testament of architectural prowess considering the potential for instability atop a rocky hill and the technology de jour.
Stepping inside the doors of the abbey’s church, it was as though we were transported into the very court of Gondor itself. All around us were gothic-style stone walls, high ceilings, and tall windows that ushered in the daylight with great abundance. Through a side exit laid a romantic green though it lay dormant for winter. This was where the monks once had their garden for growing vegetables and medicinal herbs. The garden is surrounded on all sides by cloisters – exterior halls with little archways in quick succession overlooking the garden. One set of cloisters was designed open on both sides, and offered an exhilarating view down on the streets of Mont St. Michel, past its walls, and upon its surrounding land.
A little after noon, we settled for a restaurant that served oysters and snails so slowly it was almost two and a half hours before we saw the light of day again. It was delicious, but we were not used to this particular custom, which felt more like dawdling than anything else. However, if one were a hobbit at heart, he would have most assuredly been right at home. Mont St. Michel is an UNESCO site, and is a must-see for Tolkien fans young and old who aren’t afraid of throwing caution to the wind and heading out the door for an adventure on the continent.
Along the same vein of not visiting major tourist cities, although this time in England, we spent a few hours in Nottinghamshire with the intent to see Robin Hood attractions. The Robin Hood exhibit is for youngsters, and a Robin Hood festival is held every year near the end of summer. However, Sherwood Forest is worth a trip in and of itself for a taste of Fangorn Forest without Fangorn’s eerie atmosphere.
Sherwood Forest is approximately 128 km (80 miles) from Tolkien’s childhood hometown of Birmingham. The forest consists of various ancient oak trees with so many knots, bumps, and gnarls that one can immediately identify an Ent’s facial features – a nose, an eye, a chin – and sometimes arms. Considering the geography, it is not unreasonable to think that Tolkien may have come across such a tree during the formative years of childhood when he developed an affinity to nature and greenery.
We did not venture far enough into the wood to determine if there was a spot so dense that no sunlight could penetrate the forest floor. However, one could find out for himself if one wishes to visit the actual legendary forest of another adventure story in order to glimpse a prototype of Middle-Earth’s legendary Ent.
Happy travels! And may you never fall prey to a giant spider.