In 1911, when Tolkien was only 19, he travelled with a on a walking tour of the Swiss Alps. It was his first and only experience of truly large mountains, and as he later made clear in several of his letters, the experience inspired the mountain landscapes in his Middle-earth writings.
`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.
Gimli, The Lord of the Rings.
The Hobbits that lurk in Alpine villages
No one will believe you are going to Middle Earth. Most visitors arrive in Zurich ready to shop on Bahnhofstrasse and sightsee in the Niederdorf old town. Or they use the Swiss city as a jumping-off point to explore the resorts of St Moritz, Klosters or Davos.
But head southwest, past the misty mountains and jagged peaks that tower over the city of Lucerne and the lake town of Interlaken, and up the deeply cloven valley that winds from Lake Thun into the heart of the Bernese Oberland region – and with a little imagination you could find yourself staring into the verdant Elvish valley of Rivendell or in the middle of a huffing and puffing Hobbit walking party.
That’s because the steep-sided cliffs, glacial grottoes and fertile dells of forests and wildflowers were the true inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Naturally, the stunning Alpine villages of Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald and Wengen – and the soaring Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks that guard them – are not some sort of hidden secret; travellers have been exploring these valleys since the Berner Oberland Bahn railway opened in 1890.
But their role in the creation of Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth epic is less known. The author acknowledged as much in the 1950s in a little-known letter to his son, Michael. “From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains,” he wrote, “the journey… including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods… is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911.”
In popular imagination, New Zealand has become the home of dwarves, elves, dragons and 4ft-tall hairy-footed Hobbit burglars since director Sir Peter Jackson used his homeland as the backdrop for his version of Middle Earth in the Academy-Award winning film series. But for JRR Tolkien, it was Switzerland that won his heart.
Traversing the Bernese Oberland on a summer holiday had a profound effect on the 19-year-old author-to-be. Some 57 years later he wistfully remembered the regret at leaving the eternal snows of the Jungfrau and the sharp outline of the pyramid-shaped Silberhorn peak against the dark blue of the sky. They were “the Silvertine of my dreams,” he wrote, referencing one of the peaks that stood above the Dwarven city of Moria in The Lord of the Rings.