Saturday 3 August 2013

I Want To See Mountains

[The roots of Rivendell? Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland]

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains.”

It is the opening chapter of his monumental trilogy The Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien is putting words into the mouth of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, that undoubtedly reflect his own feelings.

Tolkien fell in love with mountains decades before he came to write about hobbits. In the summer of 1911, just before starting his university studies, the nineteen year old had joined eleven others in a walking journey through the Swiss Alps. Beginning in Interlaken, they had walked first up the Lauterbrunnen valley. Its steep sides, cut by shining waterfalls and clad in deep green forest, are surrounded by some of Switzerland’s highest peaks, including Jungfrau, the Eiger and Mönch.
Tolkien was so awestruck by what he saw and experienced in the Alps over those few weeks, that its landscapes, legends and even some of its place names, found their way into his works. In the 1950s he admitted in a letter that "the hobbit Bilbo's journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains... is based on my adventures.”

Even towards the end of his life the memories remained vivid. In 1968 he wrote to his son Michael: "I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret: eternal snow, etched as it seemed against eternal sunshine, and the Silberhorn sharp against the dark: the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams." (The letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 306.)

[The always-snowcapped Silberhorn in Switzerland]
Just over a century after Tolkien’s Swiss sojourn, our own journey finds us intersecting parts of his path. We pause for a picnic lunch near Lauterbrunnen, and we too are awestruck by our surrounds. The deep U-shaped valley is the perfect “riven dell” – as indeed it was in Tolkien’s mind, when he used it as inspiration for the elvish stronghold of Rivendell. Even the name “Lauterbrunnen” seems to reflect the name he gave to Rivendell’s stream, “Loudwater”.

 [One of many waterfalls near Lauterbrunnen]

In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien describes the wider scene.

“Sam walked beside [Frodo]...looking at the great heights in the East. The snow was white upon their peaks. The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a faint scent of trees and flowers, as if summer still lingered."

For us summer is more than lingering, it is in full swing. The mountains above Lauterbrunnen glow with the remains of late spring snow, but any clouds are decorative rather than threatening. Everywhere at altitude wildflowers are abundant, and in the lower fields farmers are making hay.

Each town and village we visit in the Alps seems to have its own special mountains. In Chamonix it is Mont Blanc; in Zermatt the Matterhorn. But in Grindelwald, it is the Eiger that dominates. Day and night from our chalet we stare up at the legendary mountain. By night a single light glows from the steep flanks of the monstrous mountain. To me the mountain is legendary in terms of the ferocity for climbers of its north face. (Its name is plausibly translated as “ogre”.) So I am utterly amazed to learn that the light comes from a railway station: the Eigerwand.

[The North Face of the Eiger from Grindelwald] 

In the late 19th century, industrialist Adolf Guyer-Zeller had begun work on an ambitious rack railway up and eventually through the Eiger. Today’s Jungfraubahn is the highest railway in Europe, taking you via the Eiger onto the glaciers just below Jungfrau and Mönch.

During Tolkien’s 1911 visit the railway had already been cut through the Eiger, and would be fully opened the year after his visit. That incredible engineering feat must have impressed the young student, and is likely to be the inspiration behind the Mines of Moria that the dwarves tunnelled beneath the Misty Mountains.

[Workers digging the Eiger tunnel, early 1900s]

Yet I'd be willing to wager that it was the ferocious beauty of the mountains that impressed the young Tolkien more than any human endeavour. That was certainly the case for us. 

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