Sunday, 18 December 2016

Living and hiking the literary heritage of Tolkien in the Swiss Alps


Looking out of my window at the Reichenbach Falls and the mountains above it comes with a small sense of triumph. I have hiked over them to reach Grindelwald on one hike and more recently Chaltenbrunnen, the reddish Hochmoor (or upland moor) at 1875m. The landscape is awe-inspiring here and, of course, more so as you venture up.

The literary heritage that the Swiss Alps have acquired is not really a surprise – beautiful landscapes produce beautiful art. And being such a bookish person, it's probably also expected that as I learn more about the echoes of my surroundings in literature, I love the mountains here that little bit more.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set "The Final Problem" here in Meiringen, home of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland. Tolstoy recorded in his diary his impressions of a walk from Montreux on the Lake Geneva shore to Meiringen in the spring of 1857 (more on that another day). And in 1911, J. R. R. Tolkien came to Switzerland, aged nineteen and about to start his first term at Oxford. 

The Wellhorn, Wetterhorn and, hidden away, the Reichenbach falls of Sherlock Holmes fame.

"On foot with a heavy pack", Tolkien set off with a group about the same size as that in The Hobbit and, in the Alpine heart of Switzerland, walked from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen and Mürren.

The group then went northeast to Grindelwald and Meiringen, south east through the Grimsel Pass, and then south west by the Aletsch glacier in the direction of the Matterhorn, arriving finally at Sion in the Valais canton.

I took the opposite direction of Tolkien for only a portion of the way – from Meiringen to Grindelwald, then Grindelwald to Lauterbrunnen and Mürren - but still savoured the overlaps with Tolkien's own adventure.


Following Tolkien's hiking path through the Swiss Alps. This point is close to the Kleine Scheidegg train station.


The Aareschluct in Meiringen, one of the towns that Tolkien passed through in 1911. 


Switzerland's Misty Mountains: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

Like so many other travellers, Tolkien and I have both admired the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Tolkien went on to use these mountains as inspiration for The Misty Mountains in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings among other components of his legendarium.

Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dûm, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirak-zigil and Bundushathûr.

- Spoken by Gimli in The Fellowship of the Ring


Tolkien is also thought to have based Rivendell on the Lauterbrunnen valley. It makes sense: the landscape here is utterly sublime. Even the name, 'Lauter Brunnen', meaning 'many fountains' in German, is magnificent.

Tolkien's original illustration of Rivendell, 1937 (public domain).

Walking down into the Lauterbrunnen valley from Grindelwald

"Evil things do not come into this valley... We are sitting in a fortress. Outside it is getting dark."

- Spoken by Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring

- - - - -

Being here in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland is in itself rejuvenating. I love the peace, the mountains, and the life I've cultivated for this stage of my early twenties. But thinking about the inspiration that Tolkien found here in the Alps also reminds me to set aside time for writing. 

Of course, it's not that I want to follow in Tolkien's literary footsteps. It's rather so I can document my experiences and create something out of them. It doesn't have to change the world, it just needs to be written.

Memories are wonderful furniture for a mind, but they don't leave a physical mark. Even if your audience isn't much to speak of, there's still much to be said for journaling, documenting, writing, and creating. I think that one of the obligations of having beautiful memories is to share them with others, or at least to put them out there so they have a chance of discovery. I hope you can find the time to do that too. It would surely be a worthy goal to have for the year ahead.


A version of this article was originally published here.


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