Bloem plans to lure Tolkien pilgrims

Exactly 111 years since the birth of writer J.R.R. Tolkien in Bloemfontein, the Free State capital now aims to convert itself into a site of pilgrimage for the thousands of enthusiasts worldwide captivated by the fantasy world of Middle Earth.

Jake Uys, probably the city’s most fervent ”Tolkienite” and chairman of the local Haradrin society (named after characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), said on Friday that a new campaign would be conducted in the coming year to promote global awareness of Bloemfontein as the celebrated writer’s birthplace.

Projects considered include the construction of a Tolkien statue, possibly in a park inhabited by characters from his books, the issuing of a Tolkien stamp series, and an annual Tolkien literary festival to coincide with his birthday on January 3.

Uys, also owner of the award-winning local guesthouse Hobbit House, said since the launch of Bloemfontein’s Tolkien Trail for tourists around a year ago, he has handed out 898 brochures depicting the route through Bloemfontein.

The city’s Tolkienites now want to consolidate on this marketing success.

Mar’c Scholtz, executive director of Mangaung Tourism, the local tourism promotion organisation, said nothing prevents the city from accepting a hobbit as its icon.

”Tolkien is Bloemfontein’s best kept secret. He is regarded worldwide as the father of fantasy writing. Lord of the Rings was voted Book of the Millennium. All the fantasy writers who came after him, followed in Tolkien’s footsteps.

”Many say he spent only the first three years of his life in Bloemfontein, and that it was thus not of such great importance. However, those were very important formative years for the little boy.

Scholtz hopes to attend many hobbit feasts in Bloemfontein in years to come.

The first was held a year ago, with the release of the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Haradrin Society in cooperation with Mangaung Tourism then presented the movie’s first Bloemfontein show shortly after midnight on the day of its worldwide release. The show was preceded by a feast in proper hobbit style — with loads of beer, bread and berries.

Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, in Bloemfontein where his father, Andrew, was manager of the African Bank Corporation. One of the main attractions on the Tolkien Trail is the building in which his father worked, in the city centre on the corner of Maitland and West Burger Street. The Tolkien family lived in a house next door.

Nearby is the Anglican St George cathedral, where Tolkien was baptised on January 31, 1892. The grave of Tolkien’s father, who died on February 15, 1896 in Bloemfontein, is still to be seen in the city’s President Brand cemetery. In the National Museum, also in the city centre, visitors can view an exhibition on Tolkien in the Bloemfontein hall.

In Hobbit House in Westdene, visitors and patrons alike ”eat, sleep and live” Tolkien, in the words of Uys. All the rooms in the house are named after places in Tolkien’s books. Tolkien’s sister, Priscilla, now 73, stayed there two years ago on a visit to Bloemfontein from England.

Tolkien’s mother, Mabel, moved in 1895 for health reasons with him and his brother to England. His father died soon afterwards, shortly before his 30th birthday, of rheumatic fever in Bloemfontein. Mabel died 10 years later and Tolkien was raised by a priest, Francis Morgas, near Birmingham in England. – Sapa

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