Above the laminated breakfast menus in a guest house on President Steyn Avenue, Bloemfontein, is an unexpected sight. “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was born on this site on 3 January 1892,” reads an iron plaque engraved in English and Afrikaans.
In fact this is not quite true: Tolkien was born a few streets away in a house that would be lost to a flood in the 1920s. Some remnants of that building, along with the plaque, are now incorporated in the structure of the Hobbit Boutique Hotel — one of South Africa’s last visible links with the author, who left for Britain at the age of three.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are among the biggest selling books of all time. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations are no less phenomenal: his Lord of the Rings trilogy raked in $2.91-billion in global ticket sales and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last weekend broke the United States record for a December opening.
Yet the much-hyped release of The Hobbit is unlikely to bring legions of fans to South Africa. The country does little to promote its claim on Bilbo Baggins and the Bloemfontein tourism website omits its most famous son from a list of local attractions.
Even the four-star Hobbit Boutique Hotel is relatively coy. Although each of the 12 rooms draws on the Tolkien universe, don’t expect Gandalf and Gollum salt and pepper pots.
The chandelier, blue and white crockery, fireplaces with bellows, framed illustrations of butterflies and flowers, pendulum clocks, wood cabinets and mantelpiece decorated with golden angels are quaint but not necessarily Middle-Earth. “I’d almost say we’re borderline Elizabethan,” said the manager, Obakeng Marintlhwane.
One British guest did propose Hobbit-themed music in the garden and TV screens showing Jackson’s movies 24 hours a day. Marin-tlhwane was unimpressed. “You don’t want to be too over the top,” he said.
The hotel is typically half or two-thirds full in an average week, he added, not all of them Tolkien devotees.
“We don’t do mass marketing. We cater for a particular niche, just as Tolkien appealed to a particular niche. We get calls from people planning to see South Africa and they include the Hobbit in their itinerary even if they don’t stay here.”
A decade ago there were grand plans in Bloemfontein for a Tolkien statue in a park inhabited by characters from his books, a Tolkien stamp series and an annual literary festival to coincide with his birthday. Marintlhwane said he is unaware of any homages in the city today; an organised “Tolkien trail” has petered out.
The trail included the site of the bank where Tolkien’s British father, Arthur, was manager, the Anglican cathedral where the writer was baptised and the cemetery where Arthur is buried.
He died from rheumatic fever in 1896, a year after his wife, Mabel, returned to Britain, “exhausted by the climate”.
Three-year-old Tolkien and his younger brother, Hilary, took the long voyage with their mother and settled in the West Midlands in central England.
The South African Tourism website does acknowledge Tolkien’s brief time here, stating: “As a boy, Tolkien was a favourite among his family’s employees. On one occasion, Isaak, who worked for his father, took Tolkien home to his kraal for a night to show the baby off to his family. Isaak went on to name his first son Isaak Mister Tolkien Victor.”
It adds: “Tolkien himself claimed to have few memories of South Africa, except for a vivid encounter with a large spider — an experience he is said to have put to good use later on in his writing.”
The Hobbit is playing at cinemas in Bloemfontein, but not everyone realises its local significance. “I’m amazed,” said Phindile Magagula, 43, a chef and painter. “I watched the movies but I didn’t know he was born here. I would never have imagined.”
A museum or statue would boost tourism and help the local economy, she added. “They need to present all this history. They should do something about it. There isn’t much going on in this area; you have to go out of town.”
Cornel van Tonder, 24, a waiter at an Italian restaurant close to the Hobbit Boutique Hotel, was not so sure. “He was a great writer but his books weren’t based on our landscapes or weather,” he reflected. “They’re not culturally connected to South Africa — he was just born here. Anyway, we still have Charlize Theron: she won an Oscar.” — © Guardian News & Media 2013