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.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – The Lays of Beleriand; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.

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11 thoughts on “Winter the white.

  1. That’s a very good point. The only instance I can think of when severe cold is a good thing is when the seed of the White Tree is kept properly refrigerated for 150 years until Aragorn needs it. Explaining the significance of this should be left to someone who’s not such a smart-aleck as I am.
    The Rev. Winter suggested that it parallels the way Aragorn’s ancestors were kept in cold storage up North. (I typed his name that way to show why I don’t dare argue.)

  2. Again you have written a thoughtful and, especially in your final paragraph, a charming essay. Thank you for telling the story of discovering Tolkien in a snow covered landscape.
    I have thought a lot about the Inklings and the weather in the last few years. My first ever encounter with their writing was when my lovely teacher, Miss Maher, read it to us in our village school. I was eight years old and will never forget the moment when Lucy Pevensie entered Narnia through the wardrobe and the woods were covered in snow.
    As I read your reflection I began to wonder how our own experience of weather affects the way we read literature. Here in England with the effects both of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream our weather changes constantly. It is possible to experience all four seasons in just one day, especially in the mountains and walkers must be prepared for them all. And snow is always an event and we know it will not be there for very long. Children always welcome it. So even though Lewis told us that Narnia had experienced winter for 500 years I could not help loving the snow that was described. And the year that the snow stayed long enough for us to build a castle and to fight tremendous battles was wonderful. But not wonderful for my parents who had to get water from the well in our garden and to battle through the snowy roads to the nearest town on the farm tractor in order to buy food. Here in England we are never prepared for the snow because it might never come.
    I once read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” to a class of African students. They simply could not comprehend its description of the cold. And when I commented to Brenton Dickieson about being appreciative of all weathers he replied that the English do not know about weather that can kill you as Canadians do.
    I once heard Bridget Kendall, at one time the BBC correspondent in Moscow, say that Russians have a capacity of embracing the cold in a way that is almost unique in the world. Not even Canadians can do it like Russians. So does the Russian experience of climate and weather affect the way in which Tolkien is read? Or Lewis for that matter?

    1. Thank you, Stephen! It was a very special winter, and I still remember it very clearly, as if it were yesterday.
      Thank you for sharing this beautiful story with me! Discovering favourite writers and books is always memorable.
      The topic of weather has so many various aspects to it. When I was in the UK, I had a chance to see how changeable the weather is. The changes were not very dramatic — definitely nothing like four seasons in one day — but they were sudden enough to appreciate how unpredictable the UK weather can be.
      Here in Russia a lot depends on where you are. The size of this country offers great weather and climate varieties. There are regions here, like Yakutia, where temperatures can be as low as -50 C. Northern areas, such as Karelia, are very unpredictable weather-wise. It can be a sunny day, but suddenly dark clouds may appear out of nowhere and spoil a clear day with heavy rain and cold wind. But people here are quite okay with these changes and cold temperatures. We’ve been living in such conditions for a long time, so people are used to severe cold at the genetic level. It’s part of our climate and of who we are as a people.
      Concerning the way Tolkien is read here, I can only speak for myself. I think that knowing very well what a rather severe winter is, I realise full well all the difficulties that such weather can pose, especially on the road. I can totally understand how the Noldor could have felt while crossing the Helcaraxë and why it made them so much stronger. When you have to face severe weather alongside other challenges, it makes the task twice as difficult. That’s a few rough ideas off the top of my head. That’s a very interesting question I’d like to think more about.

      1. I think that the last point that you made is really important. Hardship is the only way in which we grow stronger. If it is accompanied by love then it enables us (as Martin Luther King once put it) to develop soft hearts and hard heads. A rare but rather wonderful combination.

  3. Such a talent you have, thank you for sharing.

    The best depiction of winter I have ever read was a novel by Louis L’amour in “Last of the Breed”. It tells the tale of a Native American US Air Force officer captured and imprisoned in a Soviet camp far into Siberia, whereupon he escapes and journeys alone through winter across Siberia with the intention of crossing the Bering Straits to Alaska. Winter becomes like a living character as he reverts back to his Native American heritage to survive.

  4. Tolkien was such an extraordinaty storyteller tha he could mix facts of real life with fantastical invention (the sentient nature, winter as a manifestation of Melkor’s will) and make it completely realistic both in as a real event and a fantasy event.

    Great post!

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