A Year with J.R.R. Tolkein

Autumn has arrived, bright and blustery. It is a season of change, and a time to make plans for the months ahead. I love books that have the capacity to evoke and celebrate the seasons, and it is often forgotten in the rush of the grand narrative that as much as anything Lord of the Rings is a book about nature and travel, and celebrates the beauty and joy of the natural world.

He wanted to savour as much as he could of his last summer in the Shire. When autumn came, he knew that part at least of his heart would think more kindly of journeying, as it always did at that season.

And I think Tolkien reflects an ancient tradition that Autumn is a time of journeys. In the ancient world it was the last chance to travel before the winter set in. The ‘Mare Clausum’ between November and March was the closed season for sea journeys. So if there are places we need to travel to Autumn is the last chance.

He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.

It is easy to miss the fact the books are set to a specific dates over the course of the year and and they give an amazing sense of the changing seasons tied into the darkening narrative. In fact Tolkien, who was a Catholic, set the books to fit the Christian year, and without giving too much away, the most momentous event (spoiler alert) occurs on the traditional date for Good Friday. And so I thought this year it would be interesting to read Lord of the Rings according to its own calendar though the changing seasons. And as it turns out I’m not the first to have that thought. Thomas Wharton has laid out a very impressive reading schedule to allow you to read the chapters according to the date they happen, and fit the story to the seasons as they change over the course of the year. So it is with great pleasure that I am setting out again on this great Odyssey. I’m planning to make it part of my journey through the changing seasons as we look forward to spring again.

[Update] I am enjoining this very much. Tolkien is a very fine writer, and it is lovely to have a book to lose myself in at the end of the day. However after getting a bit behind at first I am now well ahead of this schedule, not least because at Rivendell there are two months where nearly nothing happens. So I’ll see how it goes. Maybe I will take a break and let the story catch up, or just plough on and see where I end up.

So here is Thomas’s suggested reading plan

Reading The Lord of the Rings by “The Tale of Years”

A suggested itinerary for a year-long reading, by T. Wharton

Sept 20: The Prologue

Sept 21: “A Long-Expected Party” up to “That very month was September….”

Sept 22: “A Long-Expected Party” continued to end.

Sept 23: “The Shadow of the Past” and “Three’s Company”

Sept 24: “A Short Cut to Mushrooms”

Sept 25: “A Conspiracy Unmasked”

Sept 26: “The Old Forest”

Sept 27: “In the House of Tom Bombadil”

Sept 28: “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”

Sept 29: “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony” and “Strider”

Sept 30: “A Knife in the Dark” up to “Whether because of Strider’s skill….”

Oct 1 – 5: Continuing “A Knife in the Dark” up to “It was already mid-day….”

Oct 6: The rest of “A Knife in the Dark” to end.

Oct 7 – 12: “Flight to the Ford” up to “At once they went on again….”

Oct 13 – 19: “Flight to the Ford” continued, to the meeting with Glorfindel and “The         hobbits were still weary….”

Oct 20: “Flight to the Ford”, final scene of escape across the Ford of Bruinen.

Oct 24: “Many Meetings”

Oct 25: “The Council of Elrond”

Oct 26 – Dec 24: “The Ring Goes South” up to “The hobbits had been nearly two months           in the house of Elrond….”

Dec 25: “The Ring Goes South” up to “They had been a fortnight on the way….”

Jan 8 – 12: “The Ring Goes South” continued to end.

Jan 13: “A Journey in the Dark” up to “Gimli now walked ahead….”

Jan 14: “A Journey in the Dark” continued to end.

Jan 15: “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”

Jan 16 – 17: “Lothlorien” and “The Mirror of Galadriel” up to “They remained some        days in Lothlorien, so far as they could tell….”

Feb 14: “The Mirror of Galadriel” continued to end.

Feb 16: “Farewell to Lorien”

Feb 17 – 23: “The Great River” up to “The night passed silently….”

Feb 25: “The Great River” continued to end.

Feb 26: “The Breaking of the Fellowship” and “The Departure of Boromir”

Feb 27: “The Riders of Rohan” up to “So the third day of their pursuit began” and “The Uruk-Hai” up to “Neither Merry nor Pippin remembered”

Feb 28: “The Riders of Rohan” and “The Uruk-Hai” to the end.

[Tolkien’s Middle-Earth calendar gives every month 30 days, including February. Chapters that take place on Feb 29 & 30th (“The Taming of Smeagol” and “Treebeard”) could be read on either Feb 28 or Mar 1]

Mar 1: “The White Rider”

Mar 2: “The Passage of the Marshes” and “The King of the Golden Hall”

Mar 3: “Helm’s Deep”

Mar 4 – 5: “The Road to Isengard”, “The Black Gate is Closed”, “Flotsam and Jetsam”,   “The Voice of Saruman”

Mar 6: “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”

Mar 7: “The Window on the West”, “The Palantir”, “The Forbidden Pool”

Mar 8: “The Passing of the Grey Company”

Mar 9: “The Journey to the Cross-Roads” and “Minas Tirith”

Mar 10 – 11: “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol” and “The Muster of Rohan”

Mar 12 – 13: “The Choices of Master Samwise”, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”, “The Seige             of Gondor”

Mar 14: “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”

Mar 15: “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” and “The Pyre of Denethor”

Mar 16: “The Houses of Healing”

Mar 18: “The Last Debate” and “The Land of Shadow”

Mar 19 – 20: “The Black Gate Opens” up to “So time and the hopeless journey wore       away….”; “Mount Doom” up to “The last stage of their journey to Orodruin     came….”

Mar 24: “The Steward and the King” up to “the days that followed were golden….”; “The            Black Gate Opens” continued to end.

Mar 25: “Mount Doom” continued to end.

April 8: “The Field of Cormallen”

May 1: “The Steward and the King” continued up to “In the days that followed his          crowning….”

May 2 – Jun 16: “The Steward and the King” continued to end.

June 17 – July 1: “Many Partings” (This is where the reading itinerary departs from         the chronology)

July 2 – Aug 1: “Homeward Bound”

Aug 15 – Sept 1: “The Scouring of the Shire”

Sept 2 – Sept 22: “The Grey Havens” and the Appendices.

Note: Reading the last few chapters by the dating of events would extend the reading to two full years (three years if you wait as long as events take to happen from Bilbo’s party to Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens). The shorter alternative above allows you to finish on Bilbo’s birthday one year after you began. Alternatively, one could forgo Tolkien’s chronology altogether after the fall of Sauron on Mar 25th, and finish the remaining chapters at one’s own chosen pace; e.g., finishing on some pre-selected, significant date such as May 1st, when Aragorn is crowned king.


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