Significant Dates in LotR

One of Tolkien’s predominant characteristics was his minute attention to detail. From the Prologue to the Appendices, The Lord of the Rings is replete with scrupulous detail. Because he was so thorough in all of the particulars of his stories, a careful reader can learn a great deal of Tolkien’s mind and of his sub-creation.

In Appendix B, for instance, Tolkien provides “The Tale of Years,” a timeline of the Second and Third Ages of Middle-earth. It covers everything from births and deaths of important people to battles. Toward the end of the Third Age timeline, Tolkien delves into even more detail, reporting the dates of nearly all of the events of The Lord of the Rings. There are a couple of dates, in particular, that stand out to one who knows their significance.

The Beginning of the Fellowship

It was a cold grey day near the end of December. The East Wind was streaming through the bare branches of the trees, and seething in the dark pines on the hills. Ragged clouds were hurrying overhead, dark and low. As the cheerless shadows of the early evening began to fall the Company made ready to set out (FotR, 272).

The day the Fellowship set out from Rivendell is a significant day, both in the context of the story and in the history of Middle-earth. It is, in a sense, the beginning of the end of Sauron–and of the Third Age. The beginning of the end of the Elder Days and the pre-dawn before the Dominion of Men. Setting that event on a dreary day in late December seems an odd choice.

That is, until one learns the actual date of that day: December 25.

As a devout Catholic and a detail-oriented man, it’s safe to assume that this was not a coincidence. Without delving too deeply into the cultural and theological significance of celebrating the birth of Christ in December, there are a few things to note. Christ is the hope of the world, come to save mankind from their slavery to the darkness of sin. He comes into the world not in a blaze of light as a great warrior, as the ancient Jews expected, but rather as a helpless infant. He is born not to a king or a soldier, but to a humble carpenter. The Savior comes not in glory but in humility.

The parallels with the Fellowship are clear. They are the hoped-for saviors of Middle-earth, the ones who are trying to prevent the Free Peoples from becoming slaves to the Dark Lord. They set out on their quest, not with fanfare and cheers, but with quiet, sad good-byes. They are not a great army–few are even openly prepared for battle–but a small company. The most important of them all, the Ring-bearer, is a simple hobbit, not a royal man or an Elf. The saviors of Middle-earth set out not in glory but in humility.

The Ending of the Fellowship

While the departure of the Fellowship was an important day, the most important day in The Lord of the Rings–and probably in the Third Age–was the destruction of the One Ring on March 25.

This date also has great significance in Catholicism. In recent times, the Feast of the Annunciation occurs on March 25. In the ancient Church, Easter was celebrated on that day.

The Annunciation was when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she was to be the mother of the Lord. She humbly accepted the task with the words, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” It was then that Jesus became an incarnate being for it was at her words that He was conceived.

Easter is when the Church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from death. He has redeemed mankind from sin and triumphantly conquered death and corruption. Easter is the greatest celebration in the Church year, since it is the culmination of mankind’s salvation.

The parallel between the destruction of the Ring and the resurrection of Christ is fairly straight-forward. Good has triumphed over evil. The world is saved.

Comparing the destruction of the Ring to the Annunciation yields further insight. The Annunciation is the beginning of mankind’s salvation. God has stooped to become an incarnate being in order to save his creatures from their sin. On that day, the Infinite became finite–he became an embryo. As much of a miracle as that is, it is only the beginning. There is so much more for Jesus to do besides simply become incarnate. He must live His life and grow. He must preach to the people and save the lost sheep. He must be tortured and die on the cross. He must rise from the dead.

In the same way, the destruction of the One Ring is a miraculous event, a great achievement. But it is only the beginning. Aragorn must become king, if he survives the battle at the Black Gate. Middle-earth must be cleared of evil creatures. Men must forge alliances. There is so much more that the Free Peoples must achieve before their realize the hope of the Ring’s destruction.

Allegory?

All of this sounds like an allegorical reading of The Lord of the Rings, right? Tolkien wasn’t shy about his dislike of allegory. He said in one letter, “There is no ‘symbolism’ or conscious allegory in my story. Allegory…is wholly foreign to my way of thinking” (Letters, pg 262). this categorical statement must mean that pulling any meaning from the dates ascribed to events is to read the book in a manner its author never intended.

But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author. (Fellowship, XV).

Examining these dates is an example of applicability, not allegory. Tolkien certainly did not mean to claim that the act of the Fellowship setting out from Rivendell was representative or “the same as” Christ being born into the world. Nor did he intend to draw an equal sign between the destruction of the Ring and the resurrection of Jesus.

Rather, the knowledge of these events in the “real world” (outside of Middle-earth) can shed light on the events of the story.

Photo Credit: Dafne Cholet

  4 comments for “Significant Dates in LotR

  1. Ron
    May 25, 2015 at 3:18 am

    I think any answer to this question can only come from a true understanding of the author himself…in this case, a close read of “Leaf, by Niggle”…
    In “Leaf”, Tolkien gives an unoccluded window into the man who was sparked…nay, obsessed, with creating a most detailed painting of a forest, but in reality started with the vision of a single leaf….the forest was only painted to give the viewer context….
    ….so it was with much of his writing.
    The “Leaf” was a properly understood, British interpretation of Irish Fairy Stories, Germanic Folk allegories, and culturally-common myths. In a larger sense, the “Leaf” was the world’s foremost-budding philologists backwards-extrapolating the English language.
    Any understanding of Tolkien the writer has to come from an understanding of Tolkien the man…he started with a question: If “Word A” in Modern English came from “Word B” in Middle English, which came from “Word C” in Anglo Saxon, which came from “Word D” in Proto-German”‘ which is the same as “Word E” in the Caucasus Mtns….where did THAT word come from? …what were “Words F and G?”…
    If you understand that idea, then you understand that Quenya and Sindarin are his ideas of Pre-Danish (the roots of the Germanic Language), and Pre-Welsh (what was spoken in the British Isles before the Saxon Invasion. Perhaps this is what makes his stories so detailed and rich in backstory….it was based in a historical possibility (suspension of disbelief given, but hey, no farther out than modern religious beliefs).
    ….in other words, the “Elvish Language” is not like the “Klingon Language”…Klingon is made up and fake….”Elvish” is the result of the world’s greatest philologist working the English language backwards. …he was not a writer in the conventional sense…he was a linguist.

    Once we understand that, we can understand that, as a writer, JRR polked around with several common themes. One of these was a stone that shone of its own light. In his mind, these were the Simarrils, but in 1920, he was hardly setting out to establish the “cannon” that now exists… he liked the idea, “The Simmarrilion” was (in his mind) wasn’t marketable, and “The Hobbit” was…. so he made The Arkenstone instead. A way of expressing the (beautiful) idea of an important, self-illuminating stone.
    Keep in mind, this was a college professor who wrote stories to work out the roots of Proto-German, to entertain his kids, and to pay his bills. This was a guy who envisioned a seafaring Aelfwine sailing to Avelone and returning with a piece of history…this is NOT a man who took mushrooms or came back from the Catskill Mountains with “God’s Truth”.

    His defining “alternate history” is “The Simarrilion” – the most brilliant work ever compiled….yet his search for “internal validity” has Christopher Tolkien to thank for its assembly and publication

    Any discussion of Tolkien’s “inconsistencies” must be viewed in that light.

    • Emily
      May 30, 2015 at 10:58 pm

      Hm, that’s very interesting. I’ve never seen Niggle’s Leaf as British interpretation of fairy stories or allegories. I’ve always viewed it as a single story (possibly that of Beren and Lúthien, if you want to be specific). It does certainly give a different spin on the story–I’ll have to re-read it with that thought in mind.

      Was Quenya meant to be pre-Danish? I always thought it was based on the Finnish language. I will admit that language is certainly one of my weaknesses when it comes to Tolkien.

  2. Ron
    May 25, 2015 at 3:36 am

    I ended up here because I was looking for a reconciling of Tolkien’s events with modern dates (ie, did the 3rd Age end sometime around 4004BC?, did it end thousands of years before? If so, how does Elvish steel predate the Bronze Age (I get that it is a work of fiction, but the nerd in me hoped that someone had connected “Numenorians” to modern Humans..(…if not solidly, than at least in a way in which the Hill of Himring looks like Britain in overall context).
    In other words. the Numenorians had steel, roads and government…and the assumption is that this was at least 10,000 yrs ago.

    Tolkien took great pains (at least early on in his “cannon” days) to try and connect known history to his legendarium …so my real questions are: How much time passed between Frodo losing the Ring, and the establishment of Ur?? Why did mankind regress to “stone-and-flint cavemen”, and What happened to Gondor and the Numenorians?

    • Emily
      May 30, 2015 at 10:54 pm

      I’ve read a lot about Middle-earth as pre-history, but I’m not sure how far Tolkien really took the idea. It’s also very difficult to draw strong conclusions because things changed so much in Tolkien’s mind. His early days were very different, as you mentioned.

      One fascinating tidbit that I learned recently is that, towards the end of his life, Tolkien was contemplating a complete re-write of The Silmarillion. He said the tale of the Sun and the Moon were absurd (as they are, when taken literally as an explanation of our sun and mood) and that Elves would never have told such inaccurate stories. One has to wonder how much more would have changed–or become clearer–if he had accomplished his goal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *