Welcome to another installment of Mapping Middle Earth on Earth, written by our Lord of the Rings / J.R.R. Tolkien expert, William Bundy. Here he brings us into the enchanted world of the real inspirations for Middle Earth in Switzerland.
Explore Rivendell and the Misty Mountains in their real form along the journey Tolkien once took which inspired one of the greatest works of all time.
The Birth of Middle Earth Where Reality Meets Fantasy in the World of JRR Tolkien
A young man wandered through rugged alpine landscapes, his features young and still full of wonder and possibility at the world that lay before him. Traveling with him were companions, a Fellowship almost, but not of Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits, but of men, making a long and pleasant sightseeing sojourn through some of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth.
Seen from above, these figures might resemble the multitude of characters that populate one J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, an environment shaped and sculpted by pen and paper, upon a map drawn of memories and moments from another Earth — that of our own.
As the man walks along, his senses take in breathtaking waterfalls, blue skies, untouched by the hand of man through planes that had yet to come. He sees gigantic statues, carved of the Earth over millions of years, creating art so gigantic and complex, that no human mind could conceive of it. It could only be inspired by it, and use it to create scenes from some of the most imaginative literary sculptures the world had ever seen.
The man I am referring to of course is J.R.R. Tolkien himself, a giant of literature, whose Middle Earth worlds have drawn in countless millions of readers over many years, drawn in by his seemingly limitless imagination and talent for languages and populating worlds to fit them. With the amount of impact this legend has had on our culture, it’s hard not to question if there are real inspirations for Middle Earth. Something Christa and I have been pondering for a long time.
Finding the Real Inspirations for Middle Earth
His Middle Earth is drawn from a variety of influences — the green landscapes of England, the homely beauty of Sarehole Mill, and the bleakness of industry, to name a few. Chiefly though, I think, is the incomparable beauty of nature itself, which was on full display as his party made their way through the Swiss Alps, one of the greatest mountain ranges on Earth.
The Swiss Alps and Tolkien
The Misty Mountains form the backbone of his own fictional Middle Earth, and it’s little surprise perhaps that such majestic mountains on his own doorstep would form the inspiration for his own Alps. These mountains often test the characters in his most famous novels, traversing them as a kind of test almost; battling dark forces that threaten to overthrow the entire adventure, and often take them down into deeper places where no lights — or hope (seemingly), are to be found.
It is Tolkien’s fascination with the tall and the deep that I think permeate his work to a degree — the huge tower of Barad-Dur, the deepness of the delved Dwarves halls, and the majestic splendour of the Glittering Caves that call to mind a three-dimensional view of the Earth itself, and how it is a major characters in his world. One that constantly tests, traps, and often leads to triumphs for the characters of his books, and provides some of the most spectacular sequences in fantasy literature.
The dwarven halls of Moria provide this for example, with the mighty Balrog being sent into the dark depths of the Earth, before fighting with Gandalf up the endless stairs to the Mountain’s highest peak; the only suitable place in Tolkien’s world for a battle between two mystical beings – the highest and greatest natural arena in the world, literally touching the clouds and breaking through.
This fascination with the Earth is drawn, I feel, at its deepest here, and mountains themselves are a representation of the greatest that nature’s landscapes can draw, being of such gigantic proportions that men often set themselves the task of assailing them, if nothing more for the challenge of “conquering” them as much as anything else.
Tolkien would have seen for himself first-hand their beauty, and traveling as he did as a young man, all of 19, they no doubt left an endurable impression on such an already fertile and active imagination (one that was already conceiving entire languages).
Tolkien’s Journey to Middle Earth
Back then, in 1911, Tolkien was still embarking on a journey of study and language, and his formative experiences in the trenches of World War I would be several years away. These experiences (in my belief) informed much of the darkness in his Middle Earth creation and led to perhaps other aspects of his legendarium being shaped by environmental factors (the coastline of Holderness for instance).
However, in 1911, things must have still seemed golden, and before any darkness, there has to be the day, and in this case, what a golden and glorious day it must have been.
At the time, Tolkien was a friend of the Brookes-Smith family, and as such, he was invited along to one of the regular walking holidays they undertook each year, with 13 other companions (including a local guide).
They went in July/August of that year, the height of the summer, and the weather must have been glorious when they went, with blue skies providing a perfect painting with which to inform a keen eye of creative instinct.
Starting in Interlaken, Tolkien’s group traversed through the landscape to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a deep valley that many scholars now believe was the direct inspiration for the valley of Rivendell, a place instrumental to events both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, home of Elrond, and his council, amongst other things.
Lauterbrunnen, Middle Earth’s Rivendell
The name Rivendell itself means “Deeply Cloven Valley” and the Lauterbrunnen, with its steep sides and many waterfalls (72 to be exact), certainly fits this description, with the mountains of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau lying beyond.
Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau the Misty Mountains
These three peaks are reflected in the Misty Mountains themselves, as Caradhras (Redhorn), Celebdil (Silvertine), and Fanuidhol (Cloudyhead), which form part of Khazad-dum, the great Dwarven Kingdom where Gandalf (and many dwarves) met their fate.
The Jungfrau itself is home to another mountain, the Silberhorn, and formed in Tolkien’s imagination the Celebdil, the vast peak upon which the endless stair ends and a battle between wizard and demon is finished, with Gandalf smiting the Balrog on the mountainside. Tolkien is quoted as saying:
“I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret, and the Silberhorn sharp against deep blue.”
And it’s clear that this peak left an indelible impression upon the young man’s mind.
It also seemingly might have informed the valley of Snowbourne, to be found in Rohan, with several of the peaks forming Dunharrow and Dwimorberg respectively (from Marnie Barnfield, who wrote an article in The Lyfe an the Ancestrie, published by the Tolkien society in 1990, from which some of the information in this article has been sourced).
This area then became instrumental in shaping several of Tolkien’s ideas, and he is even quoted as saying that (from The Letters of JRR Tolkien, #306):
“The Hobbit’s (Bilbo’s) journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains…is based on my adventures in 1911…”
a sure-fire sign in my book that this area is marked in his imagination, as much he marked it with his footsteps.
It is also worth noting that the phonetics involved are important as well, as Lauterbrunnen formed the basis for Rivendell’s river and its English and Elvish names, i.e. Loudwater & Bruinen, another reminder of Tolkien’s fascination with words and language, something which often forms a key basis for his works.
Art has formed a key component of the Tolkien legendarium also, and Tolkien’s own painting of Rivendell has been noted to resemble the area of the Lauterbrunnen, further deepening the association between the two. Tolkien had also come down into the Valley through a route resembling the one the company takes into Rivendell, so clearly, this place has special significance in Middle Earth’s origins, prompting as it has done more modern interest in an area of natural beauty.
Tours Following Tolkien’s Footsteps
This interest is manifested in the company Alpenwild, which now runs walking tours following in Tolkien’s footsteps, formed by Greg Witt, and informed by the knowledge of Tolkien expert Alex Lewis. Additionally, a source for this article – a piece on TheOneRing.net — covers one of these trips, and it is strongly implied that Tolkien may have been inspired by other locations, so definitely worth a read, and it goes into some depth about the area and its many points of interest.
The Largest Collection of Middle Earth Media
The area is also now home to the largest collection of Middle Earth media anywhere in the world, at the Greisinger Middle Earth collection in the village of Jenins, and it is a tribute to the importance of this area that such offerings are now available. I can only wonder if the wildest imaginations of a young man traversing through this land of beauty and snow could have contemplated such things existing, all those years ago.
Certainly, he was enchanted, and as Tolkien returned to England, he carried some of the beauty of the wild and rugged land that would later inform his own wild and rugged adventures; adventures that would one day change the world, providing seeds for many more dreamers and wanderers yet to come…all climbing their own mountains of inspiration.
Much of the information in this article is taken from several existing articles on the internet, some quoting other books that have written on the subject, and I am grateful to the authors for providing this.
As always your questions and comments are always enjoyed. We love feedback and will always reply to your comments.