Above the laminated breakfast menus in a guest house on President Steyn Avenue, Bloemfontein, South Africa, is an unexpected inscription: "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.

The statement is, in fact, 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 best-selling books of all time. Peter Jackson's film adaptations have been similarly successful: his Lord of the Rings trilogy raked in US$2.91 billion in global ticket sales and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last month broke the United States record for a December opening.

Yet The Hobbit's much-hyped release is unlikely to bring legions of fans to South Africa. The country does little to promote its claim on Bilbo Baggins, while the Bloemfontein tourism website omits its most famous son from a list of local attractions.

Even the four-star Hobbit Boutique Hotel is coy. Although each of the 12 rooms draws on Tolkien's universe, don't expect Gandalf and Gollum salt and pepper shakers. The chandelier, crockery, fireplaces with bellows, framed illustrations of butterflies and flowers, pendulum clocks, wood cabinets and a mantelpiece decorated with golden angels are quaint but not necessarily Middle-earth.

"I'd almost say we're borderline Elizabethan," says the hotel's manager, Obakeng Marintlhwane.

One British guest proposed Hobbit-themed music in the garden and television screens showing Jackson's movies 24 hours a day. Marintlhwane was unimpressed. "You don't want to be too over the top," he says.

The hotel is typically half or two-thirds full on an average week, he adds, and not all of the guests are 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 hotel in their itinerary, even if they don't stay here."

A decade ago, Bloemfontein had grand plans for a Tolkien statue to be erected in a park, a Tolkien stamp series and an annual literary festival to coincide with his birthday. But Marintlhwane says 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, had returned to Britain, "exhausted by the climate". Three-year-old John 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, however, 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 [a small rural village] 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."

Bloemfontein ("flower fountain" in Dutch) was the capital of the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State, now the Free State province. It gave birth to the African National Congress in 1912, the right-wing National Party in 1914 and athlete Zola Budd in 1966. It has a monument and museum devoted to the Anglo-Boer war but struggles to compete with Cape Town or Kruger National Park as a tourist hub.

The Hobbit is playing at cinemas in Bloemfontein, but its local significance is lost on many residents. "I'm amazed," says Phindile Magagula, 43, a chef and painter. "I watched the movie 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 adds. "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, is not so sure. "He was a great writer but his books weren't based on our landscapes or weather," he reflects. "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


Getting there: South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Bloemfontein via Johannesburg.