Friday, October 30, 2009


So, the impending return of Non-Daylight Non-Savings Time (i.e., real time) this weekend has reminded me of an unresolved point from several months back. In my discussions of the time frame of THE HOBBIT I had suggested that the shift of Durin's Day from the first moon of autumn to the last moon of autumn had the unforseen consequence of cramming all the events of the final chapter into a three- or four-week period. (e.g. RETURN TO BAG-END p. 481)

Given the strong emphasis on an astronomical event (Durin's Day), I assumed an astronomical, rather than a folk, usage of "autumn". This was challenged by Andreas Moehn 's review on TolkLang, which I only became aware of some two years after it was posted (see my post of August 24th), and in person by Christina Scull, both of whom disputed my literal reading of "midsummer".

Moehn wrote, regarding my comments on the dating of Durin's Day,

"Rateliff . . . blurs the issue by reading English manuscripts through American glasses . . . he critisizes [sic] Tolkien for calling the solar solstice "Midsummer's Eve" though in fact it was the beginning of summer - but actually, the only problem here is Rateliff's profoundly American ignorance"

For the record, I'm mystified as to why Moehn thought I was criticizing Tolkien when I cited the OED's definition of Midsummer and Midwinter. That was certainly never my intent. In any case, I responded

The point about the disjunction between astronomical autumn (Sept 21st to Dec 21st) and colloquial British usage (August, September, October), which Christina Scull had earlier suggested to me, is more complex and needs to be written up as a separate post.

So, this is my attempt to write up that separate post. There are three relevant pieces of information I know about:

First, here's the OED definition of 'Midsummer' I was working from: "The middle of summer; the period of the summer solstice, about June 21st". This is the word's primary definition, and the OED cites authorities for this usage going all the way back to about 900 AD. It further cites such derivatives as Midsummer Day: "the 24th of June, one of the recognized 'quarter days' in England" and Midsummer Eve/Even: "the evening before Midsummer Day" [OED Compact Edition, Vol I page 1792]

Second, there's the OED definition of 'Autumn'; here's where things begin to get interesting: "The third season of the year, or that between summer and winter, reckoned astronomically from the descending equinox to the winter solstice; i.e. in the northern hemisphere, from September 21 to December 21. Popularly, it comprises, in Great Britain, August, September, and October (J)*; in North America, September, October, and November (Webster); in France, 'from the end of August to the first fortnight of November' (Littre) . . . The astronomical reckoning retains the Roman computation; the antiquity of the popular English usage is seen in the name Midsummer Day, given to the first day of the Astronomical Summer, and in the OE midsumormona[th]** 'June', midwinter 'winter-solstice, Christmas'. [OED Compact Edition Vol I page 144]

*by 'J' here, they mean Samuel Johnson's dictionary. 'Webster' is of course Noah Webster, and 'Littre' turns out to be Emile Littre's DICTIONNARIE DE LA LANGUE FRANCAISE [1863-1877]. I don't think Tolkien is likely to have adopted a French calendar, and in any case am rather surprised to find a French work using a term such as 'fortnight'. I have since done an informal poll among my English friends and so far have not found any who consider August to be part of autumn; whether this represents a shift from Dr. Johnson's time or not, the informal definition of autumn in both England and America now seems to be Sept-Oct-Nov, with August being considered part of summer and December winter.

**this [th] shd really be an edh, but I don't have that OE character on my qwerty keyboard.

In any case, as it turns out we have good evidence from Tolkien himself of his using 'autumn' in a looser sense. Consider the following passage from early on in THE LORD OF THE RINGS:

"in the fine weather [Frodo] forgot his troubles for a while.

The Shire had seldom seen so fair a summer, or so rich an autumn:

the trees were laden with apples, honey was dripping in the combs,

and the corn was tall and full.

"Autumn was well under way before Frodo began to worry

about Gandalf again. September was passing and there was still

no news of him. The Birthday [Sept 22nd], and the removal,

drew nearer, and still he did not come, or send word . . .

"On September 20th two covered carts went off laden

to Buckland . . . The next day Frodo became really anxious . . .

Still Gandalf did not appear."

[LotR Bk I Ch. III: "Three is Company"]

--thus, by this reckoning, autumn is already "well under way" by Sept 21st, the time of the equinox, when celestial autumn begins. This suggests that here at least Tolkien is considering 'autumn' to have begun around the beginning of September, comprising roughly the months of September/October/November rather than the celestial autumn running late September/October/November/most of December.

So, where does that leave us? We know from Chapter XI of THE HOBBIT that Durin's Day that year happened to occur one week before the beginning of winter. Abandoning astronomical fall/winter makes it possible that Tolkien could intended Durin's Day to fall as early as a week before the end of October (if we go with Johnson's definition, which I rather doubt) or a week before the end of November (if we go with the informal American/modern British usage). The latter still leaves the end-story rather crowded, with Durin's Day+the destruction of Lake Town+the mustering of Bard's and the Elvenking's armies+Thorin & Company's building the defensive wall+Dain's march+the goblin-army's muster and march+the Battle of Five Armies+its aftermath+Bilbo & Gandalf's journey back all the way to the far side of Mirkwood all occurring in a four-or-five week period. Better than the two-weeks astronomical autumn/winter would have left us with, but still . . . I find it somewhat hard to swallow that Tolkien would switch between the informal and astronomical usages of the word in the same chapter, particularly when the astronomical event of Durin's Day is so crucial to the plot.

So, I'm willing to be persuaded, and would be particularly interested in hearing from anyone familiar with the August/September/October definition of "autumn".



galadhorn said...

Hi, John. About "September" (in fact HALIMATH in Tolkien's "translation" of the original Hobbit dialect) 22nd. According to Appendix D this day should be considered as our Gregorian September 14th.

For many years I edit calendars like this one: There we compare the dates in four reckonings: Gregorian, of the Shire, of Imladris and of Reunited Kingdom.

Have a nice Blotmath 9th/Firith 33rd/Hithui 14th or simply October 31st.

Ian and Anke Collier said...

Hi John,
I'm somewhat bemused to find a review stooping to such personal terms but as a Brit my general idea of autumn is as you suggest S/O/N. Interesting artcle too and thank you for putting it up (I see it via LiveJournal RSS feed) for your general info using the standard QWERTY computer keyboard's Alt key, and the number pad you can enter various script characters. Thus:

0156 œ
0230 æ
0240 ð
0254 þ

0198 Æ
0208 Ð
0222 Þ

Ian Collier (using a shared gmail account)

Damien said...

Dear John,

Regarding Littré's definition, it runs like this:

« Astronomiquement, l'espace de temps du 20 septembre au 21 décembre. L'automne astronomique ne coïncide pas avec l'automne météorologique, qui est celui du langage vulgaire et qui s'étend de la fin d'août à la première quinzaine de novembre. »

Which can roughly be translated in this way:

“Astronomically, the amount of time from September 20th to December 21st. The astronomical Autumn does not correspond to the meteorological one, which is the same in colloquial speech and runs from the end of August to the first fortnight of November.”

Incidentally, a « quinzaine » means “about fifteen” and is very often used to number days, so that translating it by a “fortnight” in this context is absolutely right.

Best regards,

Nelson said...

This is a rather old post, but I was just reminded of my own comments (from 2012) about Durin's Day, and thought they should be linked up here. I originally posted them as part of a discussion of The Hobbit on the Lord of the Rings Plaza ( ), but I'll summarize the most relevant bits here for completeness's sake.

I’m not sure precisely which seasonal definition Tolkien was using in TH, but it must have been one that put the equinox roughly in the middle of the season. It’s clear that Tolkien had in mind some sort of formalized calendar, as shown by the ability to speak of it being precisely eight days until Winter (this makes no sense under a loose, weather-based definition, and assumes a specific, presumably astronomical calculation of some sort).

Pace Rateliff, I can't find any evidence for a common ancient tradition placing the first day of Winter on the solstice. He quotes the OED for the solstice start of Winter, which does say that Autumn can be 'reckoned astronomically from the descending equinox to the winter solstice; i.e. in the northern hemisphere from September 21 to December 21', and adds a note later that 'The astronomic reckoning retains the Roman computation'. As far as I can tell, this second part is just wrong: I don't know of any Roman computation to that effect.

Even if there were some such Roman computation, the usual ancient and medieval reckonings, while being ‘astronomical’, nonetheless placed the equinoxes and solstices mid-season. These are by far the most likely models for Tolkien to have followed. In particular, Bede wrote two important works on the reckoning of time, at least one of which (De Temporum Ratione) discusses, among much else, different ways of calculating the seasons. Bede mentions various ancient methods, all of which basically put the solstices/equinoxes in the middle of the seasons (Pliny's specifically starts winter based on the timing of the rising of the Pleiades, and his first day of the season is November 7th; the Christian St. Anatolius uses the equinox as the absolute midpoint of Autumn, which apparently was consistently September 24th under the Julian calendar, and has Winter start on November 9th or so).

This is important, since a solstice start is the only seasonal definition that seems to create any problems. Putting Durin's Day in late October/early November seems to be straightforward enough: something more than three weeks pass before the Battle of Five Armies (there is one stretch of unclear chronology here), putting Thorin's death near the end of November or beginning of December. That gives maybe another three to four weeks for the preparations and c. 200 mile trip to Beorn's. Maybe things are very slightly on the tight side, but it seems plausible to me.

So I think we can rule out the modern, regional dating of the first day of Winter to the solstice. It’s culturally unlikely to be what Tolkien had in mind, and yields impossibilities in the timeline. The Lake Men and the Elven host don't even set out for the Lonely Mountain until 11 days after Smaug's death, which is 13 after Durin's Day. If Durin's Day was 7 days before the solstice, then we're already 4 days past the solstice before the siege of the Mountain even starts. There are then at least 8 more days (probably more) before the Battle of Five Armies, at which point we would already be 12+ days past the solstice, and we'd have missed Yuletide by even the most generous definition of when that might occur.

John D. Rateliff said...

Thanks not just to N. but to all the commentators. The new information is much appreciated, even if it's taken me a long time to get around to saying so. Again, my thanks.

--John R.