How a Switzerland trek inspired JRR Tolkien to create a magical Middle-earth

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I made a plan to travel to Middle Earth to follow in the footsteps of a young JRR Tolkien. “From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains,” he once wrote, “the journey…including the slide down the sliding stones in the pine forests…is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911.”

My goal was to head southwest, past the sharp snowcapped peaks that I could see through misty mountains overlooking Lucerne and the lake town of Interlaken. I would go into the dark green valley of Lake Thun in the Bernese Oberland. I would look for elves and hobbits in the hope that Rivendell would be a place where I could rest.

Experts believe the inspiration for Tolkien’s legendary Middle Earth books, the hobbit and Under the spell of the Ring, were all taken from this spectacular region of Switzerland. The Alpine villages are all protected by the famous Jungfrau peak. For years, hikers have been visiting these valleys in hopes of recreating the Lord of the Rings experience.

Before visiting the area, I wanted to learn more about the background of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), the former English professor at Oxford University, who wrote the hobbit in 1936, and Under the spell of the Ring in 1954. Both legendary books were set in the invented world of Middle Earth. But the inspiration for the prehistoric site was inspired by a walking tour in 1911, when Tolkien was only 19. He traveled through the area as part of a group hiking in the Swiss Alps. This was the only time he ever visited the majestic area, surrounded by its towering mountains and deep valleys, and it stayed with him all his life.

I imagined wandering through Interlaken at the northern end of the Lauterbrunnen, a beautiful, deep valley beyond overlooking three famous peaks, the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. The views of the mountains and mountain villages were actually mentioned by Tolkien: “I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret, and the Silberhorn sharply against dark blue.” In fact, Lauterbrunnen is cited by numerous historians as Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has abandoned my planned trip to Middle-Earth, but I continued to explore how Rivendell and the Misty Mountains would inspire countless adventurers to join them to recreate the journey of a young Tolkien.

I spoke to Greg Witt, who runs the popular Alpine Wild hiking tour company: “For a 19-year-old orphan living in England who has never seen Alpine peaks, towering waterfalls, tumbling glaciers and deeply carved glacial valleys, Tolkien’s summer 1911 hiking passing through the Swiss Alps left an indelible impression.Not only the iconic landscape, but also the place names, such as Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen and Grimselpass, have a Tolkienesque touch.”

He adds: “The best account of Tolkien’s journey and how it inspired his Middle-earth is Martin Monsch’s book: Switzerland in Tolkien’s Middle-earth: In the footsteps of his adventurous summer journey in 1911 – with hiking suggestions. He thoroughly documented Tolkien’s route and exposed and documented many details that I was not aware of.”

“We offer the In the Footsteps of Tolkien tour on request or for a private group, not as one of our regularly scheduled tours,” he says. “I live in the Jungfrau region of the Bernese Alps, which is home to many of the environments that inspired Tolkien. I live at the mouth of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a classic glacial valley surrounded by 72 waterfalls plunging over 1,000-foot cliffs. I drive up the valley at least once a week and each time think about how that landscape shaped Tolkien’s Rivendell. Tolkien also passed the Trümmelbach Falls, a ten-level underground waterfall that would have left a powerful impression on any 19-year-old. His journey took him high into the remote upper Lauterbrunnen Valley, where he would be surrounded by dozens of immense glaciers – something he would never have seen in England.

Author William Bundy shared with me the inspiration of the region: “Tolkien’s Middle-earth is inspired by a variety of influences – the verdant landscapes of England, the domestic beauty of Sarehole Mill and the gloom of industry, to name but a few. But above all, I think, is the incomparable beauty of nature itself, which was fully manifested as his companions made their way through the Swiss Alps, one of the largest mountain ranges on Earth.

“The Misty Mountains are the backbone of its own fictional Middle-Earth, and it may come as no surprise that such majestic mountains on its doorstep would inspire its own Alps,” he continues. “These mountains often test the characters in his most famous novels, crossing them almost like a test of sorts; fighting against dark forces that threaten to topple the entire adventure, often taking them to deeper places where no light – or hope (apparently) can be found.”

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 informed (in my opinion) much of the darkness in his Middle Earth creation and led to perhaps other aspects of his legendarium being shaped by environmental factors (e.g. Holderness shoreline).”

“The journey of the Hobbit (Bilbo’s) from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains…is based on my adventures in 1911…” JRR Tolkien

“From Interlaken, Tolkien’s group moved across the countryside to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a deep valley that many scholars now believe was the direct inspiration for the valley of Rivendell, a site that played a major role in events in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, home of, among others, Elrond and his council. This interest is reflected in the company Alpenwild, which now organizes walking tours in the footsteps of Tolkien, formed by Greg Witt and informed by the knowledge of Tolkien expert Alex Lewis.”

“I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret: eternal snow, etched as it seemed against the eternal sunshine, and the silver horn sharp against dark blue: the Silvertine (Celebdil) Of my dreams.” JRR Tolkien

According to acclaimed author John Howe, in his foreword to the Martin S. Monsch book on Tolkien: “Some mountain landmarks are cited as inspiration by Tolkien, the most explicit being the Silberhorn, a side peak of the Jungfrau.

“It reminds us—and a warning—that inspiration doesn’t always make sense,” says Howe, “It wasn’t the obvious and famous mountain trio Jungfrau, Eiger, and Mönch that inspired Tolkien, but rather a side peak of one of these.” .”

He adds: “Tolkien has not lifted parts of the landscape directly from the Swiss Alps and sprinkled it over his much larger Middle-earth, but has brought back a series of vivid and sublime impressions that may very well resurface naturally as he wrote.”

If you get the chance and really want to dig deep into the land of the Hobbits, there’s the largest collection of Middle-earth objects on Greisinger Middle Earth Museum in the village of Jenins. The museum houses Bernd Greisinger’s private collection focused on Middle-earth, the world’s largest of its kind, consisting primarily of art and literature and collectibles. All rooms are designed to make you feel like a visitor to Middle-Earth. Through the door of the hobbit hole you enter the museum, with rooms that are usually the most underground.

“Well, here, dear friends, on the shores of the sea comes the end of our community in Middle-earth. Go in peace!” JRR Tolkien

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