“… I journeyed on foot with a heavy pack through much of Switzerland…”
So the elderly J R R Tolkien wrote to Joyce Reeves on 4 November 1961 , recalling his journey of fifty years earlier when he was a mere nineteen years old and just about to go to Oxford. He points out that he was with a mixed group of about the same size as that which accompanied Bilbo in The Hobbit and experienced many of the same dangers and deprivations.
Along with a later letter to his son Michael , we know some of difficult yet exhilarating conditions of their journey – the sleeping rough (the men of the group at any rate), snow, dangerous walks along mountain ledges, more snow, precipices, thunderstorms, fast flowing rivers and torrents of water, an avalanche with falling rocks, and walks through mysterious woods, even having to get rid of horrible spiders.
One gets the impression that Tolkien really enjoyed reminiscing about his death-defying journey as a young man and conjures up a vivid impression of his experiences in the 1967 letter to his son who has just been on a similar trip. Tolkien begins “I am delighted that you have made the acquaintance of Switzerland, and of the very part that I once knew best and which had the deepest effect on me” .
I was thrilled when I realised that my holiday in Switzerland a few weeks ago was going to cover much of the same area as Tolkien and his party. I was alerted to this by Alex Lewis’ article in Amon Hen 244, the Tolkien Society bulletin (November 2013) about his Alpenwild tour and so I read the relevant letters by Tolkien and any other material I could find in biographies and on the web. My tour was with Great Rail Journeys, so there was much less walking involved, apart from dashing between platforms at stations to get the next connecting train!
Tolkien writes that his group went first from Interlaken on mountain paths to Lauterbrunnen. It was fascinating to read Alex Lewis’ and others’ accounts of the story of St Beatus at Interlaken – the Irish monk who drove a treasure-guarding fire-breathing dragon out of the mountain over the main lake there.
It’s hard not to see this as Smaug and Laketown. I was particularly pleased that our boat on the lake was actually called ‘St Beatus’
and had the city’s coat of arms on the side which depicted the monk with a sword defeating the dragon.
As the boat drew away from the shore I had a great view of this misty mountain where it all happened and where the saint is buried.
St Beatus of Lungern is known as the Apostle to the Swiss because of his role in bringing the gospel there, sent from Britain to evangelise the Helvetii. His dates are somewhere between the 6th and 9th centuries. His grave is there in the caves at Beatenburg (Interlaken) and the Augustinian monastery built over it could be the model for the Last Homely House in Rivendell. I can imagine that the highly religious young Tolkien would have been delighted and moved to find a story here from Christian Europe that was so similar to the ones he loved in Norse mythology, especially involving dragons!
Then Tolkien’s party, which included his brother Hilary and his Aunt Jane Neave, went east over the mountains to Grindelwald, as did we. Of course ‘wald’ means ‘wood’ but does ‘Grindel’ have any relationship to ‘Grendel’ and therefore a reminder for Tolkien of Beowulf?
Tolkien’s party then reached Meiringen. This is where my party was based and we stayed at the Park Hotel du Sauvage. It is possible that Tolkien stayed here as it was the place where the English tended to stop when visiting.
It is a beautiful art nouveau building and was called the Englischer Hof by Conan Doyle for his classic Sherlock Holmes story about Holmes’ struggle at the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’.
It would seem likely that at least some of Tolkien’s party would have been interested in the Holmes and Moriarty connection as here as they had to take the path past the Falls where the supposed death of Sherlock took place.
From Meiringen we too explored the gorge of the Aare river with its massive cliffs and terrifying steep plunges towards gushing torrents of water. It seems it was difficult to escape dragons even here as the Worm (der Tatzelwurm) that used to guard this place was portrayed on a plaque at the entrance to the rocky gorge.
My first view of Lauterbrunnental was from one of several trains that eventually took us up the Jungfrau. There was one moment in particular where the view of the valley looked like Tolkien’s drawing of Rivendell.
Tolkien gave the name Bruinen (Loudwater) to the river flowing through Rivendell. This is the Swiss valley of loud water running through the valley with the towns of Murren and Wengen on cliffs on either side.
Climbing the Jungfrau – we were able to get to the highest train station in Europe, the Jungfraujoch, but Tolkien’s party would have stopped at the second level as the final stage of blasting through the rock and building the railway was only completed in 1912. The views were stunning. Tolkien wrote: “I left the view of the 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.”
Tolkien’s group ended their Swiss journey by crossing the Grimsell Pass, playing a game pretending they were beavers by building a dam, climbing up to the Aletsch glacier where they endured an avalanche, on to Valais, and then to Zermatt and the stunning view of the Matterhorn.
Tolkien concludes in his letter to his son Michael: “I do not suppose all this is very interesting now. But it was a remarkable experience for me at nineteen, after a poor boy’s childhood. I went up to Oxford that autumn…” . Oh, and if you do come across any spiders on your travels there, Tolkien recommends to Michael the dropping of hot fat from your candle onto their fat bodies!! Not an option for Bilbo and Co of course. I’m glad to say I didn’t meet any either in the woods or my hotel room.
 In Letter 232 in Humphrey Carpernter (ed.), The Letters of J R R Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin, London, p308f.
 In Letter 306 from 25 August 1967 to Michael Tolkien, in ibid., p391f.
 ibid., p393.