From the Wunderalpen to Middle Earth

At this point we will deal with the greatest story-teller of the 20th century: J.R.R. Tolkien. He created the legendary landscapes of Middle Earth and interwove motifs of the Celtic and of the Northern European mythology to his world-famous novel "The Lord of the Rings". Taking a closer look at Tolkien's biography and the geography of Middle Earth, we, maybe unsuspectedly but inevitably, encounter the Alps, more precisely the four-thousand-metre peaks of the Berner Oberland (Bernese Oberland). It was those mountains, on his journey through Switzerland in 1911, which inspired Tolkien to create some of the fantastic locations in the novel:

First, he and his 11 companions travelled from Interlaken to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, a U-shaped glacial valley, with breath-taking steep faces. Tolkien was so deeply impressed by Lauterbrunnen, that decades later he modeled Rivendell, meaning "deeply cloven valley", after it. In her essay "The Lyfe and the Auncestrye" Marie Barnfield points out that even the name of the river flowing through Rivendell is a reminiscent of Lauterbrunnen (possible meaning: "lauter"-loud, and "Brunnen"-well, fountain, spring): Loudwater.

Eiger Their journey continued up to Wengen and down again to Grindelwald, passing the Kleine Scheidegg (a mountain pass), always beneath the mighty, glacial mountain range of Eiger, Mönch ("monk") and Jungfrau ("maiden/virgin"). The panorama is absolutely breath-taking even for people who have travelled the whole world. Tolkien, who was only 19 years old when he saw - and experienced - the high mountains for the first time, must have been simply overwhelmed by the sight of those four-thousanders. No wonder that the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau occur in his great novel. That is they are mirrored in the mountain range, and more precisely the three peaks, of the Misty Mountains, which are part of the Dwarven realm Khazad-dûm: Caradhras (Redhorn), Celebdil (Silvertine) and Fanuidhol (Cloudyhead).

\n Eiger

Over Hill and Under Hill

There was one glacial peak northwest of the Jungfrau which was not so well-known but which inspired Tolkien in a special way: the Silberhorn.
In 1968 he wrote in a letter to his son: "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.)

Silberhorn The Silberhorn is a pyramid-shaped mountain peak, which is year-round fully covered with snow. No dark rocks break through the glistening white cover of snow. In his book, Tolkien calls that mountain Silvertine or Celebdil. It is the place where Gandalf fights the Balrog. From far away the fight looks like a tremendous storm, accompanied by thunder, lightning, avalanches, and rock slides.

SilberhornBefore Gandalf defeats his enemy tossing him off the peak, he follows him up the "Endless Stairs", which lead from the deepest underground up to the peak of the Silvertine, where a window in the snow cover leads outside.

There is another detail in the Dwarven realm Khazad-dûm which probably originates in Switzerland: the idea that halls and stairways of stones pass through the mountains. In the summer of 1911, the summer when Tolkien was travelling through the Berner Oberland, the last section of track of the Jungfraubahn, a gauge rack railway, was completed. For 15 years the workers were tunnelling unwearyingly through the mountain. The end of the line is the Jungfraujoch at 3454 m above sea level. Until today it is the highest railway station in Europe. Starting from the Kleine Scheidegg it surmounts 1400m difference in height, more than 7km of which pass trough a tunnel built into the Eiger and Mönch mountains. Maybe it was that unique construction that inspired Tolkien to create the Mines of Moria.

His journey also led him from Grindelwald to Meiringen, then to the gloomy Grimselpass with its flat, gray rock faces, on to the friendly Rhone valley, and onward through Wallis (Valais) and to Zermatt. Tolkien returned home taking with him a treasure trove of memories and impressions, which kept on firing his imagination for many, many years to come.

Eiger and Mönch

Of Orco and Fangga

It is not only the geography of Middle Earth and the Alps which is aligned, and that alignment does not stop in Berner Oberland. There are also some interesting linguistic relations, which may not be well researched because they are not very widely known.

For example, the word "Orc": Tolkien used the Old English word "orc" meaning "demon". There might be also a reference to the Latin "Orcus", the name of the Roman god of the underworld.

However, the Ork, Orgg, or Orco is also a legendary creature in Tyrol. He is a demon who is up to mischief on the mountain pastures and in the alpine woods. Very frequently he appears in the Ladin valleys of the Dolomites, where he is said to be heard cheering during the nights. He can change his guise, appearing sometimes as fiery bird, sometimes as dog, or as huge ogre. Preferably he jumps on the backs of his victims, almost crushing them underneath his unbearable weight. Only after one has managed to carry the "Aufhocker" ("the one who perches on somebody") to the next wayside cross, he will relieve the burden. The Orco has haunted the South-Tyrolian legends as scary creature and bugbear for centuries, or maybe even much longer. He definitely existed when Tolkien let his Orks populate Middle Earth. Maybe the Old English Orc and the Ladin Orco/Ork have once been one and the same. A long, long time ago, almost forgotten, when the peoples of Europe did not yet live where they live nowadays.

There is another legendary figure, widely unknown in the plains, but native in the alpine regions of Austria, South Tyrol, and Bavaria: the "Fangga". The "Fänggen" (plural of "Fangga") are said to live in the woods. In this case there is a striking etymologic affinity to "Fangorn Forrest" in Tolkien's novel. In Vorarlberg, the westernmost province of Austria, there are also male Fänggen, while in the Tyrolean legends only females occur. They live in caves, have the size of a tree and are said to hold magic powers. They are skilled with the very old knowledge of the healing power of certain plants. They are dressed in garments made of tree bark, fern, and lichen, and their hair is full of "Baumbart" (a certain kind of lichen, the usnea filipendula).
In the legends they are described either as hideous and witch-like, or as fairylike and beautiful, changing from region to region as well as in the different legends. There is a remarkable and inseparable bond of the Fangga with nature and the woods. If the woods in which they live are chopped down, they disappear forever. (Further literature on this topic: "Von wilden und weisen Frauen“ von Margareta Fuchs und Veronika Krapf; Loewenzahn). Even though sources do not tell us if Tolkien ever knew about the alpine Fangga, the idea suggests itself that the people of the Ents, living in Tolkien's Fangorn Forrest, are somehow affiliated with the "Fangga" described above.

Gandalf, the mountain spirit

There is yet another reference to the Alps: the dark mines of the Dwarven Realm are called the Mines of Moria, a "Morion" being a dark rock crystal, colored by natural nuclear radiation. Maybe that is mere coincidence.
However, we know for sure that also the character of Gandalf originates to a certain extent in the Alps. Tolkien modeled him after the painting "Der Berggeist" ("The Mountain Spirit") by Josef Madlener (1881-1967), who also wrote children's books. In his biography Humphrey Carpenter relates that Tolkien owned a postcard reproducing that painting. He wrote on the cover in which he kept it "the origin of Gandalf". The painting shows a bearded figure wearing a wide-brimmed round hat and a long coat, feeding a white fawn from his upturned hand. In the background there are snow-capped mountains.

We can conclude that a lot of Tolkien's fascinating world originates in the Alps, where we can still find it today if we take a closer look - not only on the skyscraping peaks and the paths leading up there, but also in the fantastic and versatile legends of the Mystic Alps.

Gandalf Path