Some J. R. R. Tolkien’s stories contain unpleasant characters of different kinds, and in order to irritate a reader they do not even have to be at the forefront of the narrative. Sometimes it is enough for them to appear just a few times to leave a bitter aftertaste and a long-lasting impression. The millers of The Lord of the Rings firmly belong to this category.

Tolkien’s own experience of meeting millers was far from pleasant. In his childhood Ronald, his mother Mabel and his brother Hilary lived in Sarehole, a mile away to the south from Birmingham. In Tolkien’s childhood it was a beautiful, picturesque place. At that time Ronald was about five, Hilary was barely three, and it is no wonder that the beauty of the English countryside had a profound effect on Tolkien senior at such a tender, formative age. There was also Sarehole Mill.

Sarehole Mill was a brick building with a chimney. The way to it lay across a beautiful meadow, and the Tolkien brothers often went to the mill together. They would gaze at the machinery within the mill, at the people working: the place was attractive as it was scary. Tolkien thus wrote about his experience of Sarehole Mill:

As for knowing Sarehole Mill, it dominated my childhood. I lived in a small cottage almost immediately beside it, and the old miller of my day and his son were characters of wonder and terror to a small child.

(Letters, № 303)

The father and the son mentioned were rather intimidating, especially the son. In Tolkien’s biography by Humphrey Carpenter he is described as the man “with white dusty clothes and sharp-eyed face” (Biography, p. 36). The brothers called miller the son the White Ogre. He would always shout at them to go away as the boys were around, watching the mill and the workers. This combination of the mill itself with fancy machinery and the menacing millers so contrasting with the peaceful, breathtaking surroundings must have had a great effect on the young boys.

In 1933 Tolkien revisited Sarehole only to find out that the place had changed beyond recognition. Roads had been built, trees had been cut down and the beautiful scenery had been tainted by the march of progress. That could not have been to Tolkien’s liking and he deeply regretted the sad change that the place he loved had undergone.

Another encounter of Tolkien’s with millers happened much later in his life and it was not a face-to-face meeting. Tolkien was working at Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the figures of the millers captured his imagination, as shown by his notes [1]. In Chaucer’s work The Miller’s Tale is followed by The Reeve’s Tale, and the latter is a retaliation to the former’s mockery. In these tales miller the tale teller and miller the tale character are shown as rather vicious, rude brutes more interested in rumours, fruity stories, quarrels and scandals rather than more wholesome pastimes. They are not the ones whose company most people would find warm and nice. The millers of The Lord of the Rings have all the same irritating qualities.

The first miller we meet in The Lord of the Rings is Sandyman. We find him sitting at The Ivy Bush and doing his best to offer the most scandalous details about Frodo’s parents’ deaths in a boating accident. He is only happy to try and argue that it was Primula who pushed Drogo from the boat, with his pulling her after him. The miller also has a thing or two to say about Frood and Bilbo themselves, and they are far from nice. No wonder Gaffer Gamgee, who is quite fond of the two, does not like the miller very much.

A very similar situation repeats itself years later after Bilbo is gone, and that is already Gaffer’s son Sam and Sandyman’s son Ted who are talking, this time at The Green Dragon. The young miller does not show any qualities different from his father’s. He is equally narrow-minded and unable to accept any ideas that are unusual or strange. He dismisses all the tales of Elves, dragons and walking trees as childish nonsense, and does so in a very arrogant manner so as to make Sam Gamgee look like a fool believing in fairy tales. His viciousness is even more prominent than his father’s as he goes as far as calling both Bilbo and Frodo “cracked”. Every inch of his behaviour is aimed at attracting attention from the lot of The Green Dragon by uttering as many disparaging remarks as possible.

As Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin return from their dangerous journey, not quite the Hobbits they were when they left, Ted Sandyman, on the contrary, is not much changed. Still vicious and unpleasant, the miller now works at a new mill built by Lotho Sackville-Baggins. The old mill was knocked down, and the new one is bigger and uglier, filthier and fuller of  “outlandish contraptions”.  Ted, however, is now only cleaning the wheels of the machinery while his father used to be miller the master. Ted seems happy, though. He is full of self-importance and arrogance, still interested in the affairs of the others, but looks rather scruffy:

There was a surly hobbit lounging over the low wall of the mill-yard. He was grimy- faced and black-handed.

(Return of the King, p. 359)

Sam is quick to find an explanation: “No time for washing, but time for wall-propping” (ibid.). Knowing millers and their interests, Mr Gamgee cannot be far from the truth here.

Tolkien did not like when his biography was used as a lens to look through at his books. Even though the millers of his childhood, The Canterbury Tales and The Lord of the Rings may share a similar set of unpleasant qualities, it does not mean that the Sandyman millers were intentionally based on any of the characters Tolkien had encountered either in his life, or in books. The Professor would not have approved of such a direct connection. In the Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings he wrote: “It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. xix).

Notes: 

[1] Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer, p. 194.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  4. H. Carpenter – J. R. R. Tolkien. A Biography; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2016.
  5. John M. Bowers – Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer; Oxford University Press; Oxford; 2019.

Featured image: Pixabay.com

6 thoughts on “The mill-o’-the-wheel.

  1. Sandyman’s mill and Sarehole Mill were water-mills, not windmills like the picture. Water-mills used to be very common in England. Near where I live in Hertfordshire is a small river called the Oughton. It is only three miles long from its source to where it flows into another small river, but in mediaeval times there were four mills on it. The pattern is the same on other nearby rivers e.g. Beane, Mimram, Lea — there was a mill anywhere that had enough head of water.

    A few water-mills have been restored to working order and are fascinating places to visit. Some I know are at Mill Green on the Lea, at Anglesea Abbey in Cambridgeshire and Houghton Mill on the Ouse in Huntingdonshire.

    It’s a strange fact, easily verified, that Sarehole Mill was once the site of experiments by the industrialist Matthew Boulton who was the business partner of steam engine inventor James Watt. Boulton once said to James Boswell, the biographer of Samuel Johnson: “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have — power”. I can’t help but think these circumstances were known to Tolkien and fed into the story of Sandyman’s mill.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to browse through Middle-earth Reflections!
      The picture wasn’t intended to illustrate Sandyman’s mill. I chose it as a collective mill image and used it for purely decorative purposes.

      That’s a lovely insight into mills you’ve offered here, and I thank you for that! I imagine how interesting and educational it is to pay a visit to those mills.

      1. Thanks Olga. Water-mills are lovely things, and more complicated than you might guess from Tolkien’s remarks in the Prologue. I hope you get a chance to visit one some day

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