WAS The Lord of the Rings, the epic story of the Hobbits and their fight to save Middle Earth from the dark rule of Sauron, and which has thrilled millions of filmgoers and four generations of readers, inspired by our corner of Wales?

Colin Duriez, one of Britain's foremost Tolkien scholars, maintains it was.

More than that, he believes that the friendship between J R R Tolkien and fellow writer C S Lewis was cemented by their shared love of Welsh mythology, especially the Mabinogion.

The friendship between the two - the latter known to millions of children through his Narnia stories - lasted 40 creative years.

The two met while at Oxford, in the snug confines of the Eagle and Child pub, which from 1933 onwards was to be the headquarters of the Inklings, the literary group where mythical themes, often with an understated Christian element, were explored.

Tolkien, Mr Duriez believes, had long since been excited by Wales' distinct Celtic identity.

"Tolkien was born in South Africa, but as a small boy lived in Birmingham, and together with his brother, would look for the slow, rhythmic bursts of steam trains... the wagons coming from the mining valleys of South Wales over 100 miles away, bearing the coal to feed the Industrial Revolution.

"The wagons bore names like Blaen-Rhondda, Maerdy, Senghenydd, Nantyglo and Tredegar. He could not pronounce the names, yet they sparked something in his imagination."

Colin Duriez, known to thousands of Tolkien fans for his A Guide To Middle Earth, was, like his literary hero, partly inspired by the Valleys.

On only the second page of his new book, J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis - The Story of a Friendship, Mr Duriez underscores the importance of Wales in his imagination.

"Tolkien admitted that the Welsh language had always attracted him more than any other.

"He elaborated that his writing always began with a name. Welsh was in fact to inspire one of the two main branches of his invented Elven languages, and many of the names in his mythology, such as Arwen, Anduin, Rohirrim and Gwaihir," Colin Duriez says.

But how many among that great throng of Tolkien admirers could guess that humble coal trucks with the names of Gwent pit villages on their sides fuelled a truly panoramic imagination?

J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis - The Story of a Friendship, by Colin Duriez, is published by Sutton Publishing at £8.99 in paperback.