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

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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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Saturday, 17 December 2016

The 28 books that stopped my worrying, sent me travelling, and shaped who I am today

It's a long, long journey out of the trap of anxiety and not believing in yourself. When you're used to hiding away, making yourself smaller, and never speaking up, a bold change is needed for things to be different.

When I was living at home, I didn't have the motivation nor the opportunities to leap out of my comfort zone and I feared what people might say if I were suddenly not shy. I had to go travelling to test drive a more confident version of myself. And when I had experienced what it felt like to not hide in the corner, I decided to move abroad and keep challenging myself.

Even when you have shed the most unwelcome and crippling parts of anxiety, the kind that stops you from going out and experiencing the world like everyone else, sometimes it can still suck. A niggling feeling threatens to take you back to where you were before. The world can feel too much and you just want to get back into bed. At those times, it can feel as if you haven't progressed at all. 

While this doesn't happen to me so much these days, it's more likely when I visit home and I'm surrounded by the people who knew what I was like growing up. Then I can revert back to my young-and-painfully-shy setting and my achievements in work and life seem utterly implausible to everyone in the room.

But I've grown so much and I know that these are momentary blips. My confidence bounces back. I go back to my job and jump into my habitual I'm confident and got my shit together persona. I remember that I don't have to be shy and nervous and that it's much easier and less stressful if I'm not.

I wasn't sure I'd get here, but it happened – with the help of a whole lot of brilliant books, a few people who really left a mark on my life, and a bit of professional intervention. Of those things, there are some I can't share with you, but I can definitely share books. Here are those that come to mind first.

Livraria Lello Porto, Portugal – an influence for Harry Potter and probably the most beautiful (and busiest) bookshop I've been to. Image from Local Porto.


1. Meditations - Marcus Aurelius

This is the book I reread to...  Learn by heart how to approach life with more resilience than I thought possible.

2. The End of Your Life Book Club - Will Schwalbe

To make sure I keep reading and talking about books.

3. Gratitude - Oliver Sacks

To remember life is "an enormous privilege and adventure".

4. Walden - Henry David Thoreau

To spend more time in nature and living simply.

5. Deep Work - Cal Newport

To learn how to really focus.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning - Viktor E. Frankl

To think about the true value of a sunset.

7. When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi

To decide how I want to be spending the time I have.

8. The Creative Habit - Twyla Tharp

To fiercely defend my creative time at the crack of dawn.

9. The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank

To never forget how lucky I am.

10. Philosophy for Life: And Other Dangerous Situations - Jules Evans

The first book I ever wrote about on Tolstoy Therapy.

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Fiction and verse

11. Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

To offer dreams of coffee, whisky, mountains and libraries.

12. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy

To imagine life and love, war and peace.

13. "Ulysses" (poem) - Lord Alfred Tennyson

To be strong when I think of the past.

14. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth von Arnim

To imagine escaping abroad.

15. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

To think about what’s enough.

16. King Lear - William Shakespeare

To contemplate how small a place we occupy in the world.

17. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis de Bernières

To love.

18. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J. K. Rowling

To think back to my first role model in fiction.

19. The Odyssey - Homer

To learn how humans have kept going since the beginning.

20. The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

To persevere.

21. The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende

To realise that quiet can mean power.

22. The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng

To create a garden in my mind.

23. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

To remember that spring is the best season "for plans and proposals".

24. Great Expectations - Charles Dickens

To never forget my family and where I came from.

25. The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien

To just set off.

26. Brooklyn - Colm Tóibín

To be conscious of the repercussions of changing myself.

27. The Secret History - Donna Tartt

To marvel at a mind filled with poetry, language, and facts.

28. The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

To seek refuge in bookshops.

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