How A Trek Through Switzerland Inspired J.R.R. Tolkien To Create A Magical Middle-Earth

I made a plan to journey into Middle Earth to follow in the footsteps of a young J.R.R. Tolkien. “From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains,” he once wrote, “the journey… including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods… is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911.”

My goal was to head southwest, past the sharp snowy peaks glimpsed through misty mountains that overlook Lucerne and the lake town of Interlaken. I would venture into the dark green valley from Lake Thun into the Bernese Oberland area. I would be searching for Elfs and hobbits in hopes that Rivendell would be a place I could rest.

Experts believe that the inspiration for Tolkien’s legendary Middle Earth tomes, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, were all taken from this spectacular region in Switzerland. The Alpine villages are all protected by the famed 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 educate myself more to the background of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973), the former english professor at the University of Oxford, who wrote The Hobbit in 1936, and The Lord of the Rings in 1954. Both of the legendary books were located in the invented world of Middle Earth. But the inspiration for the pre-historic location was inspired from a hiking trip in 1911, when Tolkien was only 19. He trekked through the area as part of a group taking a walking tour 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 throughout his life.

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

Alas, the pandemic idled my planned journey to Middle-Earth, but I continued to examine how Rivendell and the Misty Mountains would inspire countless adventurers to trek along to recreate the journey of a young Tolkien.

I spoke with Greg Witt who operates the popular Alpine Wild walking tour company: “For a 19-year-old orphan living in England who had never seen Alpine peaks, towering waterfalls, tumbling glaciers, and deep-cut glacial valleys, Tolkien’s 1911 summer hiking through the Swiss Alps left an indelible impression. Not only the iconic scenery, but the place names, like Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, and Grimsel Pass have a Tolkienesque ring to them.”

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’s thoroughly documented Tolkien’s route and has uncovered and documented many details I wasn’t aware of.”

“We offer the In the Footsteps of Tolkien tour on demand 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 features many of the settings which inspired Tolkien. I live at the mouth of Lauterbrunnen Valley, a classic glacial valley ringed by 72 waterfalls plunging over thousand-foot cliffs. I drive up the valley at least once a week and every time consider how that scenery shaped Tolkien’s Rivendell. Tolkien also passed by Trümmelbach Falls, a ten-tiered 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 have been surrounded by dozens of immense glaciers—something he would have never seen in England.”

Author William Bundy shared with me the inspiration of the region, “Tolkien’s Middle Earth is drawn from a variety of influences — the green landscapes of England, the homely beauty of Sarehole Mill, and the bleakness of industry, to name a few. Chiefly though, I think, is the incomparable beauty of nature itself, which was on full display as his party made their way through the Swiss Alps, one of the greatest mountain ranges on Earth.”

“The Misty Mountains form the backbone of his own fictional Middle Earth, and it’s little surprise perhaps that such majestic mountains on his own doorstep would form the inspiration for his own Alps,” he continues. “These mountains often test the characters in his most famous novels, traversing them as a kind of test almost; battling dark forces that threaten to overthrow the entire adventure, and often take them down into deeper places where no lights — or hope (seemingly), are to be found.”

“Back 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 (in my belief) informed much of the darkness in his Middle Earth creation and led to perhaps other aspects of his legendarium being shaped by environmental factors (the coastline of Holderness for instance).”

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

“Starting in Interlaken, Tolkien’s group traversed through the landscape to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a deep valley that many scholars now believe was the direct inspiration for the valley of Rivendell, a place instrumental to events both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, home of Elrond, and his council, amongst other things. This interest is manifested in the company Alpenwild, which now runs walking tours following in Tolkien’s footsteps, 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 eternal sunshine, and the Silberhorn sharp against dark blue: the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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

“It is a reminder – and a bit of a word of warning – that inspiration does not always follow logic,” says Howe, “It was not the obvious and famous mountain trio of Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch that inspired Tolkien, but rather a side peak of one of these.”

He adds, “Tolkien did not directly lift sections of landscape from the Swiss Alps and sprinkle them across his far vaster Middle-earth, but took back with him a series of vivid and sublime impressions that may well have resurfaced naturally as he wrote.”

If you get a chance and want to dig really deep into the land of Hobbits, there is the largest collection of Middle-Earth objects at 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 mostly of art and literature as well as collectors’ items. All of the rooms are designed to make you feel like you are a visitor in Middle-Earth. Through the door of the hobbit hole you get into the museum, with rooms that are mostly most underground.

“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the sea comes the end of our fellowship in middle-earth. Go in peace!” J.R.R. Tolkien

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