Taking a Walk With Tolkien

Thursday, 13. February 2014

by Daniel Davis Wood

Most of us here at the Ecole are very fond of taking a walk through the local woods to enjoy our spectacular mountain surroundings. But how do we connect the scenery on our doorstep with the content taught in our classrooms? Our ecoliteracy and biology classes make good use of the environmental features of the Hasliberg, and our art classes often head outside for inspiration, but students in one of our English classes found another way of doing it this morning.

As part of an intensive reading and writing class led by their teacher, Alex Cosh, American Program students Mats, Charon, Yannick, and Bob are currently reading the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with a focus on his scholarly studies of folklore and the ways in which these studies influenced his fiction. What many people don’t know about Tolkien, however, is that he paid a visit to our part of Switzerland when he was a nineteen-year-old student, and his memories of this visit later inspired the creation of key locations in his fantasy world, Middle-Earth. In fact, as the students in Alex’s class now know, the third and fourth chapters of Tolkien’s The Hobbit are set in the picturesque retreat of Rivendell, which was based on the features of the landscape on the other side of the Haslital and directly opposite the Ecole d’Humanité.

“They came on unexpected valleys, narrow with steep sides, that opened suddenly at their feet,” Tolkien writes of the pint-sized travelers in The Hobbit, “and they looked down surprised to see trees below them and running water at the bottom. There were gullies that they could almost leap over, but very deep with waterfalls in them. There were dark ravines that one could neither jump over nor climb into.” “From Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains,” Tolkien later recalled in a letter to his son, “the journey... including the [travelers’] glissade down the slithering stones into the pine woods... is based on my adventures in Switzerland in 1911.” When Alex’s students stepped outside today, they were able to connect their classroom text to the world around them in a unique environment that gave them a vivid glimpse of the truth of the author’s recollections.