Misty Alpine passes; crashing rivers that rise suddenly from nowhere; men descended from great bears; hills filled with dwarves & a dragon living under the mountain of a lake side town..
It’s easy to follow Tolkien’s imagination through the beautiful Swiss landscape, after all, it was the trip a young J.R.R made to the country that fuelled much of the creation for his Middle Earth.
In 1911, aged 19 and prior to the outbreak of WW1, John travelled in a party of 12 from Interlaken to Zermatt. In later letters to his son he would recount that his own journey mirrored Bilbo’s and some of the more practical events even featured in ‘The Hobbit’ (though gladly, not the goblins!).
Much of the path trodden by hobbits, elves, dwarves and men can be discovered on the trail through Bernese Oberland & Tolkien incorporated not just the landscape, but the deep mythology of the country to his works.
The visiting Dwarves
A staple in germanic mythology, Switzerland has an abundance and variety of them! During the time that parts of, what is now Switzerland, were inhabited by Germanic tribes the regular kind likely took the form of dwarfs as known to us through Norse mythology and closer to the kind to have featured in the works of Tolkien.
Today however they’re known as more cheery and helpful, aiding with cattle and producing magical cheeses. Unlike Bilbo’s visitors, they’re more likely to bring food than to clear out the pantry, though dairy farmer leave a small piece of cheese left over for them to use to grow the next one!
You might associate the image of modern Swiss dwarfs more with a ‘garden gnome’ than a dwarf for they’re small and often depicted with smiling faces, long white beards, green cloaks and a red hat (interestingly ‘gnomes’ are actually naughtier versions of dwarfs here who cause mischief & mishaps).
In either the older version or tamer modern version (where they’ve likely been blended with the germanic concept of land spirits) they’re known to live in the ground and be very much of the earth & no doubt the mountain varieties are hardier..
There is in fact one very hardy mountain variation: the Barbegazi! These dwarves have the same long white beards, but have also evolved thick white fur to cope with the Alpine cold. They’re said to hibernate through summer underground and to have super large feet which they use to ski down the mountain, particularly enjoying avalanches.
The Road to Rivendell
Lauterbrunnen is certainly home to Elves. A beautiful place of peace and sanctuary before the mountains, veiled by waterfalls, you can see the exact landscape come alive with Elrond’s kin in illustrations accompanying Tolkien’s archives.
According to Tolkien’s letters he would have arrived to Lauterbrunnen after a gruelling long hike from Interlaken, so the sense of relief he felt was likely akin to that of Bilbo!
A potential contributor for the inspiration for the approach to Rivendell is the deep river gorges like Aareschlucht enroute to Meiringen. Filled with a network of tunnels and caves in steep walls that were actively used during both world wars and still have active purposes today.
As for the glacial river that formed the gorges, it’s known to suddenly and rapidly rise up; a great defence against black riders.
The Misty Mountains
“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.” A letter from J.R.R to his son Michael.
The peaks certainly left an impression on Tolkien who would later populate their depths with a city of dwarves, armies of occupying goblins, Gollum and a Balrog whom Gandalf would slay atop the snowy pyramid peak of Silberhorn.
Flaming demons aside, some of Tolkien’s smaller mishaps also featured.
“From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, the journey... including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods... is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911.”
Seeking shelter from a thunder storm in a cattle shed is believed to be inspiration for the circumstances in which Bilbo’s party were ambushed by goblins and a near brush with a landslide gave rise to their hasty and painful descent down the mountains before meeting an interesting host..
The most commonly known inspiration for the giant honey-eating man who transformed into a bear is found in the saga of Hrólfr (Rolf) Kraki. This Scandinavian text was certainly down to Tolkien, an expert on lore, as was the other most cited possible inspiration ‘Beowulf’.
But the most often overlooked explanation also bears resemblance. Tolkien wandered mostly in the canton of Bern, literally ‘Bear’. The flag is a bear, everywhere is called ‘Bären’ meaning ‘bear’ in German and at the time of Tolkien’s visit it still contained living bears. Now having also met some of the huge mountain men of the Alps it certainly wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for them to transform into bears themselves.
Whats more is the religious history of the formerly Celtic region. In the local Celtic mythology & later Gallo-Roman beliefs, the bear goddess Artio was a woman who transformed into a giant bear. She was certainly worshiped in Bern as late as the 2nd century AD which a bronze figure set found in the canton and featuring her is dated to.
It’s likely that Tolkien stitched many similarities together to create Beorn but he is certainly at home here.
The Lonely Mountain
Tolkien might not have visited it but the great mountain Pilatus, a near single peak steeped in myths of dragons could well be a fit for the home of Smaug.
There are several different dragon myths recorded so fortunately for locals the dragons of Pilatus aren’t ruinous but instead have healing powers. The most trouble they cause is ferocious thunder storms or rather large frights! In the Summer of 1421 it is recorded that one farmer Stempflin saw such a dragon fall flaming to the ground landing right next to him, but all that was left on impact was a stone. The Dragon stone was legally declared as having healing powers in 1509 and still sits in the museum in Luzern today.
Interlaken, where Tolkien did visit is a more likely inspiration for his Lake Town, but more suited perhaps is Luzern with its famous wooden bridges and lake location under the shadow of the great cloud gathering peak and its dragons.
Swiss nature is certainly something to experience first hand and like Tolkien millions are captivated and inspired to flights of fantasy and delight. From dwarves to dragons under towering mountains, you might feel as small as a hobbit after following this route!