By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
I’m definitely a fantasy genre lover. I always have been, going all the way back to when my dad first read The Hobbit to me when I was little. While I have broadened my reading horizons considerably, I still love to pick up a fantasy novel and slide into a world of warriors and dragons. As such, I have a special soft spot for the patron saints of fantasy literature; Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett, Jordan, Le Guin, White, and Rowling. These men and women carry on a tradition of storytelling that goes back to a time of oral history and fireside stories of fantastic heroes and the even more outlandish creatures that either aid them or seek to destroy them. It was very surprising to me, many years ago, to learn that two of these men, Lewis and Tolkien, not only knew one another, but were friends.
Clive Staples Lewis, known to his family as Jack, was born in northern Ireland. His nickname actually belonged to the family dog, Jacksie, which was killed when Lewis was four. He lost his mother to cancer at age nine, and was sent to boarding school after boarding school by his father. He abandoned the Christianity of his youth and escaped into stories of fantasy. He started with anthropomorphic animals like Peter Rabbit, and then developed a fascination with Scandinavian mythology and stories followed by the same for Greece and Ireland. When he first went to Oxford, he joined the officer cadet corps and quickly found himself a second lieutenant in the Somme. In early 1918 he was wounded by a British shell that fell well short of its target, and he spent the rest of the war in England.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had a similar childhood. His parents had moved to South Africa not long before his birth, but this quintessentially British author returned to England at age three on what was supposed to have been an extended family visit. It proved permanent when his father died in South Africa before he could join the family. Ronald, as his family referred to him, grew up in a series of homes in and around Birmingham. After his mother’s conversion to Catholicism and then death, he was raised by Father Francis Xavier Morton. After getting married and finishing his education, Tolkien found himself a second lieutenant and posted to France. By 1916 he had contracted Trench Fever, and split most of his time between infirmaries and light duty.
So we end up with two men, in the same department of a university, who experienced some of the worst the Great War had to offer, both of whom lost a parent while very young. So when these two men found themselves in Tolkien’s Coalbiters Club for people who enjoyed reading the Old Icelandic sagas, it was natural for them to gravitate towards each other, which led Tolkien to spend time with Lewis’s group, The Inklings. Opinions on how the dynamic between the two men worked varies between scholars. You find Lewis dominating The Inklings in some and Tolkien listening quietly and issuing sharp criticism in others. However, the one common theme is the interplay. These men helped each other grow as writers and world crafters. Their works went on to profoundly influence one another, to the point where Tolkien’s Numenor and a Saruman cognate ended up in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
This is not to say the two men never disagreed. Tolkien’s first proposal to Oxford was rejected and one of the votes that turned it away was Lewis’s. According to Humphrey Carter in his book, The Inklings, Lewis’s thoughts on Tolkien were, “No Harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” Lewis also felt that Tolkien was too mired in the ancient and neglected the renaissance authors and later writers. Tolkien had his own problems with Lewis, as well. Tolkien was an inveterate opponent of allegory and felt Lewis’ Narnia books were vastly too allegorical and that they were contrived and inconsistent. It was at this time that their friendship began to cool.
Without this meeting of two eventual literary giants, we would not have those same literary giants. It was Lewis who suggested that Tolkien turn his children’s story about diminutive people fighting a dragon into what we now know as The Hobbit. Conversely, Tolkien was among the people who convinced Lewis to return to the fold of Christianity. How lucky the world is that the happy accident of their meeting came to pass and we have some of the greatest works of modern English Literature.
Sources and Suggested Reading:
- R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: A Legendary Friendship
- Tolkien’s ‘No’ to Narnia
- The Inklings by Humphrey Carter (823.9CAR)
- The Chronicles of Narnia: Beyond the Wardrobe by E. J. Kirk (823.912 KIR)
- R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons (823.912 PAR)
- Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth (828.91209 GAR)
- Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Every year on the Twenty-fifth of March the Tolkien Society holds a Tolkien Read Day. This is the day that marks the climactic moment in Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. If you know enough to argue the vagaries of converting the Gondorion calendar or the Shire Reckoning into modern Gregorian calendars then you know enough about this already. The focus for this year for the Tolkien Society is “Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction”. Although, this is a very interesting topic for many students and fans of Tolkien’s work, I think it lacks appeal to the general reader. You can get too focused on the minutia of the true devotee’s passion and miss a chance to spread something you love to other readers, young and old alike.
My own journey through Middle Earth started when I was five and my dad started reading me The Hobbit. He really had no idea what he was starting. I’ve spread my love of these books to friends and family over the years. They’ve given me an appreciation for Tolkien’s work as well as many of the things that inspired him. Now it’s my turn to share with all of you the great experience of the depths of Tolkiana but I’m going to break it down for each type of reader.
For those of you who loved the books since the start of the fourth age and now want to pass along your passion to the hobbit girls and elflings in your life as well as those of you who have just refused to grow up, there are some great options. The best is a small beautifully illustrated book of Bilbo’s Last Song. It is a separate work and fairly spoiler free. You may also be interested in the books based on stories that Tolkien wrote for his children. Roverandom and Mr. Bliss are delightful stories that a creative father used to amuse and comfort his children and Tolkien’s collected Letters from Father Christmas are a great seasonal treat. If your children are interested in more of the author himself, there is the Tolkien volume of the classic Who Was… series. In my opinion, however, nothing can beat just sitting down and reading The Hobbit. It’s a great read for later elementary or middle school readers and also a great story for parents to read to (or with) their kids. Not much of a reading family? Take the unabridged audio on your next car trip. It’s fun, exciting and completely lacking in content that will make you grab at the volume knob.
So you liked the movies:
The movies, while they have their detractors, were good. You’re the person who went to see them because of the hype, but never read the books. The best suggestion for you is to read the books. Yeah, you think you know what happens, and you do have a good amount of general plot, but there is so much more you missed. There are iconic scenes, wonderful characters, and exposition you’ve never even heard of (unless it’s from hearing one of the true believers complaining). Many people, who’ve read the books, read them again and enjoy them just the same as the first time so please give them a try. If however you’re one of those headstrong trailblazers who won’t walk the same path twice there are hundreds of imitators. Many fall utterly short, but there are a few standouts. For younger readers there are the works of Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander. Older readers may appreciate Terry Brooks Shannara series, Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar Saga novels, Juliet Marillier’s Seven Waters trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive series.
“I’ve read The Lord of the Rings”:
Tolkien fans are quick to discriminate between what they consider themselves to be and fans of The Lord of the Rings. Liking The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and Return of the King is not fan boy or fan girl territory, not anymore. Neither is enjoying more of Tolkien’s writing. In the last several years the Tolkien Estate has released many of the Professor’s previously unavailable or unpublished works. It began with The Silmarillion in 1977. This is the history of Bilbo, Gandalf and Aragorn’s world. It’s almost like a Middle Earth Iliad/Bible, and it reads like it. The stories are great, but the language and phraseology can put some readers off. If you like it, Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle Earth will please you as well. The same can be said for The Children of Hurin and the forthcoming Beren and Luthien, although I have found The Children of Hurin to be easier to read than some of the others. Conversely, you could look at the professor’s more scholarly works like his attempts at interpreting King Arthur and the Nibelung with The Fall of Arthur and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. There are a few other titles like these that are more obscure, but this should keep you happy for a while.
The Tolkien Fanatic:
This isn’t for the people who memorized the Cirth runes or have a grammatically correct tattoo in Tengwar. It’s for the people who were in the last category and want to make the jump into true fandom. There are two camps here, the purists and the omnivores. For the purists we start with Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle Earth. For visually oriented fans this is a must. It has maps, paths, climatology and floor plans. It’s mostly conjecture, but well researched conjecture. Then we have the art books like Realms of Tolkien and Tolkien’s World which feature great artists’ rendition of scenes from Tolkien’s work, or better still The Art of the Lord of the Rings, which features Tolkien’s own drawings and water colors.
For the less discerning, or the more voracious, there are countless encyclopedias and guides, like J.E.A. Tyler’s Tolkien Companion, or books that interpret Tolkien and his works through any number of disciplines like politics with The Hobbit Party.
The must read for everybody here is The History of Middle Earth series. This is a twelve volume set of notes, back story, commentary and alternative takes on the stories you’ve come to love so far. These are not for the faint of heart; they are interesting, but the narrative repeats and is broken up.
The Tolkien Scholar:
This is the post doc of the Tolkien realm. These books are for people who hit fandom and come out the other side truly intellectually curious. You want to know where these books came from, who was the author and where are the roots of Middle Earth. The Story of Kulervo is the most recent item on the list and a work of Tolkien himself, but it is a fragment of a greater work, The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Much of Tolkien’s early inspiration came from here. Tolkien also did his own translation of Beowulf and wrote a commentary, The Monster and his Critics. Both are interesting and enlightening but the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is interesting as well. The Prose and Poetic Eddas are fascinating and full of names you will recognize, from Thorin to Gandalf. For more on Tolkien the man you can see any of the wonderful biographies, but I especially recommend Tolkien and the Great War. The Inklings can give you a wonderful look into the friendship and collaboration of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and others.
Tolkien wrote, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The same is true for delving into Tolkien’s writing. You may just nip round the corner or you may start a journey that lasts a lifetime.
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.