Michael Tolkien, 1967-1968
‘The hobbit’s (Bilbo’s) journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods, is based on my adventures in 1911’.
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. The hobbit’s (Bilbo’s) journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains, including the glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods, is based on my adventures in 1911*: the annus mirabilis of sunshine in which there was virtually no rain between April and the end of October, except on the eve and morning of George V’s coronation. (Adfuit Omen!)**
Our wanderings mainly on foot in a party of 12 are not now clear in sequence, but leave many vivid pictures as clear as yesterday (that is as clear as an old man’s remoter memories become). We went on foot carrying great packs practically all the way from Interlaken, mainly by mountain paths, to Lauterbrunnen and so to Mürren and eventually to the head of the Lauterbrunnenthal in a wilderness of morains. We slept rough — the men-folk — often in hayloft or cowbyre, since we were walking by map and avoided roads and never booked, and after a meagre breakfast fed ourselves in the open: cooking utensils and quantities of ‘spridvin’ (as the one uneducated French-speaking member of the party both called and wrote it, for ‘methylated spirit’). We must then have gone eastward over the two Scheidegge to Grindelwald, with Eiger and Mönch on our right, and eventually reached Meiringen. 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. We later crossed the Grimsell Pass down on to the dusty highway, beside the Rhône, on which horse ‘diligences’ still plied: but not for us. We reached Brig on foot, a mere memory of noise: then a network of trams that screeched on their rails for it seemed at least 20 hrs of the day. After a night of that we climbed up some thousands of feet to a village at the foot of the Aletsch glacier, and there spent some nights in a châlet inn under a roof and in beds (or rather under them: the bett being a shapeless bag under which you snuggled). I can remember several incidents there! One was going to confession in Latin; others less exemplary were the invention of a method of dealing with your friends the harvestmen spiders, by dropping hot wax from a candle onto their fat bodies (this was not approved of by the servants); also the practice of the beaver-game which had always fascinated me. A wonderful place for the game, plenty of water at that altitude coming down in rills, abundant damming material in loose stones, heather, grass and mud. We soon had a beautiful little ‘pond’ (containing I guess at least 200 gallons). Then the pangs of hunger smote us, and one of the hobbits of the party (he is still alive) shouted ‘lunch’ and wrecked the dam with his alpenstock. The water soared down the hill-side, and we then observed that we had dammed a rill that ran down to feed the tanks and butts behind the inn. At that moment an old dame trotted out with a bucket to fetch some water, and was greeted by a mass of foaming water. She dropped the bucket and fled calling on the saints. We lay more doggo than ‘men of the moss-hags’ for some time, and eventually wound our way round to present ourselves grubby (but we were usually so on that trip) and sweetly innocent at ‘lunch’. One day we went on a long march with guides up the Aletsch glacier — when I came near to perishing. We had guides, but either the effects of the hot summer were beyond their experience, or they did not much care, or we were late in starting. Any way at noon we were strung out in file along a narrow track with a snow-slope on the right going up to the horizon, and on the left a plunge down into a ravine. The summer of that year had melted away much snow, and stones and boulders were exposed that (I suppose) were normally covered. The heat of the day continued the melting and we were alarmed to see many of them starting to roll down the slope at gathering speed: anything from the size of oranges to large footballs, and a few much larger. They were whizzing across our path and plunging into the ravine. ‘Hard pounding, ladies and gentlemen.’ They started slowly, and then usually held a straight line of descent, but the path was rough and one had also to keep an eye on one’s feet. I remember the member of the party just in front of me (an elderly schoolmistress) gave a sudden squeak and jumped forward as a large lump of rock shot between us. About a foot at most before my unmanly knees. After this we went on into Valais, and my memories are less clear; though I remember our arrival, bedraggled, one evening in Zermatt and the lorgnette stares of the French bourgeoises dames. We climbed with guides up to [a] high hut of the Alpine Club, roped (or I should have fallen into a snow-crevasse), and I remember the dazzling whiteness of the tumbled snow-desert between us and the black horn of the Matterhorn some miles away.
* Though the episode of the ‘wargs’ (I believe) is in part derived from a scene in S.R. Crockett’s The Black Douglas, probably his best romance and anyway one that deeply impressed me in school-days, though I have never looked at it again. It includes Gil de Rez as a Satanist.
** Which I remember, since (omen again) the OTCs of that day were specially privileged and I was one of 12 sent down from K[ing] E[dward’s] S[chool] to help ‘line the route’. We were camped for a wettish night in Lambeth Palace and marched to our stations early on a dull morning that soon cleared up. I was actually standing outside Buck. Palace great gates to the right, facing the palace. We had a good view of the cavalcades, and I have always remembered one little scene (unnoticed by my companions): as the coach containing the royal children swept in on return the P[rince] of W[ales] (a pretty boy) poked his head out and knocked his coronet askew. He was jerked back and smartly rebuked by his sister.