Essay by Linda Echo-Hawk
When Roger told me that Tolkien had originally called Treebeard’s Wellinghall “Fonthill” and that it was based on a real place, I wanted to know more. Christopher Tolkien made brief mention of this history in a note in The Treason of Isengard. It turns out that Fonthill – meaning spring hill – is an estate in Wiltshire, England, and it was owned by William Beckford from 1770 to 1823.
Beckford wrote a fantasy novel of his own, called Vathek, published in 1786, and in this novel he had his own version of Wellinghall, a mountain with gardens and thickets and four fountains. Vathek, the hero, drinks the water of these fountains, “of which he could never have enough,” from “capacious bowls of rock crystal.” When a stranger gives Vathek a healing potion he “instantaneously found his health restored, his thirst appeased, and his limbs as agile as ever.”
Treebeard’s Ent-Draught has a very similar efficacy: “The effect of the draught began at the toes, and rose steadily through every limb, bringing refreshment and vigour as it coursed upwards, right to the tips of the hair.” Like the fountain of youth, the water contains restorative properties.
The similarity of these details does not escape me. Had Tolkien read Vathek? The shared elements do suggest that. And this in turn suggests that Tolkien toyed with making a direct reference to the book, using “Fonthill.” But he discarded that idea and decided to adopt a more subtle homage to Beckford.
For those who want to know more about Vathek, fantasy author Nyki Blatchley has posted a fascinating description of the book and its place as a classic of fantasy literature.