Posted by WCPLtn
By Howard Shirley, Teen Library Assistant
“Then what is Durin’s Day?” asked Elrond.“
The first day of the dwarves’ New Year,” said Thorin, “is as all should know the first day of the last moon of Autumn on the threshold of Winter. We still call it Durin’s Day when the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together. But this will not help us much, I fear, for it passes our skill in these days to guess when such a time will come again.”
The Hobbit, ‘A Short Rest’
Fortunately, while it may pass the skill of Thorin and Co. (who clearly spent more time looking for gold underground than looking up at the heavens), it does not pass our skill to discover the date of Durin’s Day. All one needs is a copy of The Hobbit, a good lunar calendar, and an understanding of what is meant by the terms “Autumn” and “Winter” in the mind of an expert on Medieval English Literature, which Tolkien himself was.
Lunar calendars are easy. Most calendars today already depict the moon’s phases, and if not, the Internet provides easy access to lunar information for any region and day on Earth. At this point, we need only consult The Hobbit to see what characteristics of the lunar cycle are associated with Durin’s Day.
From Thorin’s conversation with Elrond we see that “Durin’s Day” assumes that the moon and sun are visible at the same time in the sky. Such an event is not unusual; indeed throughout the year both the sun and the moon will be visible in the sky together, sometimes at dawn, sometimes throughout the morning or the afternoon, and sometimes at sunset. But which of these moments is meant by Thorin’s description? And since this happens many times in the traditional “Autumn” months of September, October and November, which month is meant and which phase is being described? If we go merely by Thorin’s description, Durin’s Day could cover many days in the year, and potential several days in a row! Yet clearly in the story Durin’s Day is indeed a specific day that happens only once a year (and if you read the story, that fact is crucial to the plot). So any given day when the moon and the sun are seen together is not necessarily Durin’s Day, even if it’s Autumn and even if it’s about to become Winter.
Which Moon Is It?
The first thing to determine is which phase of the moon applies. As it circles the Earth, the moon undergoes different phases depending on the amount of sunlight or Earth-shadow which strikes the moon’s surface. Although the progression is gradual, these are typically referred to as a New Moon (when the moon is on the sunlit side of the Earth and cannot be seen either during the day or at night), a waxing crescent (when the moon is only visible as a crescent shape; waxing means that shape is becoming more lit), a half-moon (equal parts light and shadow, appearing as a semi-circle), a waxing gibbous moon (meaning more than half is lit, sort of like a squished circle), and a Full Moon (all sunlight and no shadow). From this point the lit portion of the moon grows smaller, or “wanes,” giving a waning gibbous moon, a half-moon, a waning crescent moon, and finally back to New Moon again. In this context, “the last moon of Autumn” is not the last night that a moon can be seen before it “disappears” as a New Moon, but rather the entire cycle from New Moon to New Moon. This is important to consider, as this means that Durin’s Day comes as the moon’s cycle overlaps the “threshold of Winter” (the meaning of which we will examine later). Whichever full cycle of moon is in the sky on the last day of Autumn and the first day of Winter before becoming a New Moon again is therefore the “last moon of Autumn.” So the relevant moment of Durin’s Day therefore is when that moon first appears after the New Moon, not when it disappears for the New Moon. (Why isn’t Durin’s Day the date of the phase called the New Moon? Because the moon has to be visible in the sky with the sun in order to be Durin’s Day. The New Moon phase is never visible, so Durin’s Day is never the exact date of the New Moon.)
This is further echoed by The Hobbit when Durin’s Day arrives in the book:
If he lifted his head he could see a glimpse of the distant forest. As the sun turned west there was a gleam of yellow upon its far roof, as if the light caught the last pale leaves. Soon he saw the orange ball of the sun sinking towards the level of his eyes. He went to the opening and there pale and faint was a thin new moon above the rim of Earth.
The Hobbit, ‘On the Doorstep.’
Later in that same scene the book reads:
The gleam went out, the sun sank, the moon was gone, and evening sprang into the sky.
Thus, moonset and sunset occur together in this passage. What we are left with is a visible “new moon—“ obviously the silver sliver of a waxing crescent, not the invisible New Moon—which sets either just before or just after the sun.
Visibility is a debatable issue here, but in general anywhere from 24 to 36 hours after the New Moon the fresh crescent phase will reveal a visible arc. You and I might strain to see this in our overly-lit cities, but in Bilbo’s time and place—sitting on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain, far from any city lights or even the sight of Laketown, that fingernail of moon would be clear to the keen-eyed hobbit.
So, for the moon in question we have the first visible crescent after a New Moon, for the cycle that overlaps with the “threshold of Winter” as the beginning of Durin’s Day. But we’re not done yet…
When’s the Threshold?
This is the single largest point of confusion about dating Durin’s Day. What did Tolkien mean by “Autumn on the threshold of Winter?” Various arguments have been put forth for this. Some go with the date of Winter being the Winter Solstice, placing the “last moon of Autumn” as being the moon cycle that precedes the moon cycle that coincides with the Winter Solstice (usually around December 21st; the date varies each year). Such arguments place Durin’s Day as occurring in the last weeks of November or the first weeks of December.
However, this idea is based on assuming that the Winter Solstice marks the start of Winter. It does not. Rather the Winter Solstice is actually the mid-point of Winter. This may seem odd when you think about things like freezing temperatures and snow, which in the Northern Hemisphere range typically from December through February. But those are merely the climatic effects of the season, not the markers of the season itself. The day of the Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. While the effects of winter are just building up steam, as it were, the Earth and Sun are actually progressing back towards Spring!
The text of The Hobbit goes further to suggest that a late November or early December date for Durin’s Day simply doesn’t fit. The “doorstep” of the Lonely Mountain is described as being a hidden, pleasant area adorned with a carpet of grass, and the valley below it as having grass “for the ponies to eat” (The Hobbit, ‘On the Doorstep’). Obviously, this implies living, green grass, as can still be found in middle and late fall, not the dead brown grass of early winter, which would not be refreshing to either ponies, dwarves, or a lone hobbit. Keep in mind, too, that The Hobbit is set in an environment analogous to early 20th century rural Europe, the climate Tolkien was familiar with, where late November and early December are marked by mostly barren and dead vegetation, if not snow-covered ground. Since Tolkien himself drew the mountain as having a snowy peak, presumably year-round, this implies that the lower slopes of the mountain themselves have a significant elevation, and thus would be subject to colder temperatures fairly early in winter. Yes, that’s a supposition, but the likelihood of green grass thriving on a mountain slope in December or even November remains on the thin side. But note also that Bilbo can still see the pale leaves of Mirkwood, even from the heights of the Mountain. Given the distance from forest to mountain, it’s unlikely even a sharp-sighted hobbit could discern leaves on mostly barren trees, as would mark late November. So these natural details imply a climatic season more in line with October or very early November than the onset of climatic winter in December.
So what then determines the “Threshold of Winter” for the dwarves? A clue can be taken from the very nature of Durin’s Day. The key elements of Durin’s Day are not the progress of climate or the changes of the seasonal cycle—neither of which the dwarves would much note, living their lives largely underground—nor even the progression of the stars (as would fascinate the elves), but rather the position of the sun and moon, the sole sources of natural light that would enter the dwarves’ underground halls.
If the progression of the sun and moon are then the method for determining Durin’s Day and the Dwarven New Year, then the progression of sun and moon are probably the determining factor in their dating of the seasons. We can see this significance in the earlier passage where Durin’s Day is first mentioned—when Elrond spies the magical “moon-letters” on Thror’s Map in Rivendell, and notes:
“They can only be seen when the moon shines behind them, and what is more, with the more cunning sort it must be a moon of the same shape and season as the day when they were written… These must have been written on a midsummer’s eve in a crescent moon, a long while ago.”
The Hobbit, ‘A Short Rest’
Clearly for the dwarves, the position of the moon is significant in everything to do with their calendar.
So what does this mean for Durin’s Day and the “threshold of Winter?” It means that the threshold of Winter is based on the position of sun and moon, not on weather. You or I might call it “Autumn” when the first chill hits the air, and we begin to notice the color of the fall leaves begin to rise amid the green. But not a dwarf. A dwarf calls it “Autumn” when the sun and moon say it is Autumn, and Winter when they say it is Winter. We must then go back to look at events like the Summer and Winter Solstices as our marking points. Using these as our guideposts, knowing that the dwarves would define these events as the midpoint of Summer and Winter, we see that the other seasons would be similarly defined. So, are there any solar and lunar events that mark Spring and Autumn? Yes—the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes.
The Equinoxes mark the days of the year in which day and night are exactly the same length—clearly an event of significance to dwarves when it comes to the light entering their caverns! The Autumnal Equinox occurs in mid-September, usually around Sept. 21st. Like the Winter Solstice, it marks not the beginning of Autumn, but rather the mid-point of it.
So, to the dwarves, if the Autumnal Equinox is the mid-point of Autumn, and the Winter Solstice is the mid-point of Winter, what then is the “threshold of Winter?” Why, it is naturally the point when the sun is mid-way between Autumn and Winter, occurring sometime in late October or early November. In fact, we celebrate this very point in time today—Halloween. In the original pagan cultures of Celtic and Germanic Europe, the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice marked the time when Winter rose to claim control over the world. It was also a time when the Underworld supposedly opened—an idea whose echoes we see when the last light of Durin’s Day reveals the secret passage into the depths of the Lonely Mountain! (Tolkien, who held the Chair of Medieval Literature at Oxford, knew his mythology.) So is Halloween Durin’s Day?
No. Because while Halloween might be “the threshold of Winter,” it is not necessarily the date when “the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together.” But it is the moon cycle that overlaps Halloween which points us to Durin’s Day. One therefore need only determine what cycle of the moon coincides with Halloween, and then look for the day on which that cycle is first visible in the evening sky—the first night of the new crescent moon, shining alongside the setting sun. This day is Durin’s Day.
And what does that mean for us? Well, according to The Farmer’s Almanac, in 2014, the first visible crescent moon* after the New Moon, with a cycle that overlaps Halloween (“the threshold of Winter,”) is listed by the U.S. Naval Observatory as occurring on October 25, with a moonrise time of 7:39 AM, CDST**, and a moonset time of 6:25 PM, CDST. Sunset occurs at 5:01 PM, CDST. Thus, our Durin’s Day this year is Saturday, October 25th.
So, on that evening, go out and look westward for the thin moon in the early evening sky. And as the sun sets, have your key ready– for a thrush may knock nearby, and the last light of Durin’s Day might reveal a passageway to dwarven gold.
*Although the New Moon is on October 23rd, the following evening of the 24th only 1% of the surface is technically illuminated, which is invisible to the naked eye—even a hobbit’s. On October 25th, the illumination rises to 4%, which is readily visible as a thin crescent, low in the western sky. Moon phase visibility data from Stardate.Org
Moonrise, moonset, sunrise and sunset data from the United States Naval Observatory. You can look up this information for any year using their online table creator.
** Central Daylight Saving Time
All text and illustration references: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again by. J.R.R. Tolkien, 70th Anniversary Edition with illustrations by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2007, Copyright 1995 by The J.R.R. Tolkien Trust Company.