Our Own Dear John Ronald: Origin of Gandalf

Journeying dangerously on foot through the Alps in 1911 might well have generated the the creation of Misty Mountains and other prominent mountain ranges of Middle Earth.

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‘We went on foot carrying great packs practically all the way from Interlaken, mainly by mountain paths, to Lauterbrunnen, and so to Muerren 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 maps and avoided roads and never booked, and after a meager breakfast we fed ourselves in the open.  We must then have gone eastward over the two Schneidegge to Grindelwald, with Eiger and Muench on our right, and eventually reached Meiringen.  I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret, and the Silberhorn sharp against dark blue.  (…)

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.  Anyway at noon we were strung out in file along a narrow track with the 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.  (…)  I remember the party just in front of me (…) gave a sudden squeak and jumped forward as a large lump of rock shot between us.  At about a foot at most before my unmanly knees.  (…)

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.’

Before setting off on the return journey to England, Tolkien bought some picture postcards.  Among them was a reproduction of a painting by a German artist, J. Madelener.  It is called “Der Berggeist”, the mountain spirit, and it shows an old man sitting under a rock under a pine tree.  He has a white beard and wears a wide-brimmed round hat and a long cloak.  He is talking to a white fawn that is nuzzling his upturned hands, and he has a humorous but compassionate expression; there is a glimpse of rocky mountains in the distance.  Tolkien preserved this postcard carefully and long afterward he wrote unto the paper cover in which he kept it: “Origin of Gandalf”.

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography.  1977

There is little doubt that Tolkien possessed this postcard and that it was his “Origin for Gandalf”, also that in the world of his imagination, the postcard and his 1911 journey through the Alps belonged together, but he cannot very well have acquired the postcard in 1911 already because, according to the artist’s daughter, it was painting in the mid-1920s and printed on postcard in the  late 1920s.

Here’s the painting:

Der Berggeist

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