Very often weather can play an important role in narratives and become a major player in certain episodes. Natural phenomena can either help or hinder characters in different stories and thus influence the course of events greatly.
In Tolkien’s works such an influence of weather is rather common as the Professor was well aware of how nature worked and how closely living beings were connected with it. Thus he made nature an active participant in different events. Winter is usually viewed in a negative light in Tolkien, presenting something to be feared, treated with caution or, at least, extra care. It is no wonder because, with cold being an extreme manifestation of weather, it was Melkor’s creation that took shape during Ainulindalë.
With this view in mind, it does not come as a complete surprise that the worsening of weather and, especially, winters, was in one way or another connected with the strengthening of dark powers. In the First Age it was believed by many that the more the power of Angband grew, the more bitter winters in Beleriand were becoming. The most severe manifestation of this interrelation was the Fell Winter, which happened towards the end of the Age, after the fall of Nargothrond. Snowfalls came earlier than usual and spring was late and cold. This winter was a serious trial for the dwellers of Beleriand, becoming a test of endurance for Túrin Turambar in his wanderings, as well as for Tuor and Voronwë on their way to Gondolin.
A similar trend can be noticed much later in the Third Age as with the ever-growing power of Sauron there came two especially bitter winters: the Long Winter, which affected Rohan, Eriador and Dunland, and the Fell Winter, touching Eriador and Wilderland. These bitter winters took place within a short time one from another in the third millennium of the Age when the War of the Ring was inevitably approaching. Both winters were characterised by extreme famine and, thus, numerous deaths of the inhabitants of Middle-earth.
Interestingly, the concept of an especially bitter winter preceding or happening around the time of some catastrophic events was present in the Norse mythology. According to the legends, when a severe winter lasted for several years without any summers, it was the harbinger of Ragnarök: the battle followed right after the winter ended. It was called Fimbulwinter, meaning “awful, great winter”.
Winter, even a common and not a particularly bad one, was not seen as a particularly good time to travel. In this case the weather could become an enemy and a traitor to travellers, hindering their way, revealing or hiding footprints and making the whole journey altogether more difficult and dangerous because of cold or snowfalls. This is the warning which Bilbo speaks in a short poem in Rivendell:
When winter first begins to bite
and stones crack in the frosty night,
when pools are black and trees are bare,
’tis evil in the Wild to fare.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 358)
Frodo tarried long on his setting out for the quest from the Shire, and thus the beginning of the Fellowship’s journey to Mordor from Rivendell fell for December. All the dangers of a winter start are depicted very clearly in this poem of Bilbo’s. More unpleasant aspects of winter weather are emphasised in Tolkien’s poem Winter Comes to Nargothrond:
With winding horns winter hunted
in the weeping woods, wild and ruthless;
sleet came slashing, and slanting hail
from glowering heaven grey and sunless,
whistling whiplash whirled by tempest.
(Lays of Beleriand, p. 129)
Indeed, winter can be a hard time for everyone, even those staying in the comfort of their homes: being a natural phenomenon, winter can be unpredictable, and those trying to fight against nature are usually on the losing side. However, despite all the bad aspects of winter, the dangers it poses and the problems it can bring, Tolkien showed us that this season can also be very beautiful. This is clear from the conversation in which Eru Ilúvatar tells Ulmo:
He [Melkor] hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost!
(Silmarillion, p. 8)
Even though cold and difficult, winter can indeed be breathtaking. The stillness of the world covered in white, the sleep of nature under its snowcovers, the intricate patterns of frost on glass — all of these are enough to create a long-lasting enchantment of this otherwise dark and cold season.
It was in winter that I first delved deep into Tolkien’s work. It was a particularly snowy winter, with the temperatures being just slightly below zero — cold enough to keep the snow from melting but at the same time cool enough to make this kind of weather very pleasant. Everything was under mountains of sparkling, fluffy snow — so light and delicate that it looked like the most exquisite work of the best artist in the world. The days were getting steadily longer, the hours of daylight were increasing which, together with the snow, created a very special clear, bright light in the room. I was reading page after page: The Hobbit first, then The Lord of the Rings, followed by The Silmarillion, which sealed the enchantment Tolkien’s works had already created. As the world outside was white and sparkling, I was walking the paths of Middle-earth, following the characters on their dangerous quests, joining them in battles, sharing both happy and sad moments with them. The magical winter outside matched the magic Tolkien’s books were creating. That is why when winter comes I always feel a special urge to re-read Tolkien, and that is what I usually do.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Lays of Beleriand; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
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