A Tolkien Calendar: Part 1

Joe Bartram, also known as Gandalf, our President since 2014, here presents the first in his monumental four-part series on the calendars of Middle-Earth, in which he establishes a calendar for the Society.

As I write these words, it is by my own reckoning, Mersday the 19th of Afteryule, in the year 8077 of the Shire Calendar. Now, I don’t expect you to take my word for it, but with any luck I have piqued a spark of attention with this uncharacteristically bold statement. If not, then I pray you bear with me for a little longer, and it is my hope that I will be able to engage your interest with what follows.

For those not familiar with the terminology, that was my estimate of today’s date using the old Hobbit calendar system commonly in use at the end of the 3rd Age, at the time of the War of the Ring. In the established and current form, that date would be the 9th of January in the year 2015CE of the Gregorian calendar. Those of you that are still fully awake will have noticed that the presence of a year in that date indicates something rather more than an alternative calendar system, but also a calculation for the amount of time elapsed since the events described in Tolkien’s Legendarium.

This perhaps requires a little explanation. At some point in the famous mists of time – but most likely at a Taruithorn meeting sometime last year – I idly speculated how long ago the events of the War of the Ring took place. To my utmost surprise the spark took, and the ensuing conversation conflagrated beyond all expectation into an argument of the sort where minutiae are argued to the hilt, and baseless conjectures defended as if they were the defendant’s firstborn. After much back and forth, something like a consensus was brokered, and replete with the ideas of an assembled fandom, I returned home and stared scribbling timelines. The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least, obscure fan blog.

For those not in the know, Tolkien considered that Arda (the physical world that includes Middle Earth) was not a realm in another place (as most fantasy worlds are), but rather a realm in another time. Specifically, he considered the events he described to have taken place during an imaginary period at some point in the Earth’s distant past. We can thus interpret the world that Tolkien invented as an alternative history, which might be seamlessly integrated into our own past. For the Pratchett fans among us, think of this as the famous trousers of time in reverse – a synapsis of histories, blending seamlessly from imagination into history.

Given this consideration, we might decide to play a kind of detective game, using the clues left scattered within the Professor’s Legendarium to connect the imaginary world of Middle Earth to our own tangible history. We could then take the Professor at his word, and accept the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as dramatized translations of documents he found in the Red Book of Westmarch, the last remnant of that forgotten time. The Silmarillion then, is Christopher Tolkien’s attempt to unify his father’s disparate notes on other documents contained therein, the original Red Book by this time being lost, or otherwise unavailable to him. Tempting as it might be, I fear that suspending all disbelief would merely increase our confusion. In order to really analyse the Legendarium for any purpose, we must accept it as a work of the imagination that evolved over many decades, and of which we have only fragmentary records available to us, none of which form a complete picture of the world at the fullness of its development.

Still, perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Before we discuss the messy details of dating the events contained in the Legendarium, it would be wise to first establish a little context. In that interest, let’s talk about those peculiar day and month names, and of Tolkien’s calendars. If you’ve ever delved into the appendices to the Lord of the Rings (or indeed any of the ancillary literature), you’ll know that Tolkien’s genius for obscenely indulgent duplication of effort extended beyond his languages and into other realms – the names of characters, maps, and family trees apparently composed of clonally-reproducing men. Of all of these however, the Professor’s calendar systems really takes the biscuit.


Figure 1: The evolution and divergence of calendar systems in Middle Earth. Dates primarily refer to the founding or fall of states, e.g. of Númenor in SA32 and SA3319 respectively. The exceptions are FA310, TA2060 and TA2160. FA310 is the approximate date of first contact between the Edain and the Eldar, and reflects the earliest date at which men might have adopted an elven reckoning. TA2060 reflects the adoption of the Steward’s reckoning, after Mardil the Steward’s two-day adjustment of the millennial calendar deficit in the previous year. Finally, in TA2160 Hador the Steward made a further one-day adjustment of the calendar to compensate for the remaining 8-hour millennial deficit.

Tolkien invented at least four calendars that have been recorded, each of which seems to have existed in several permutations, and which were used by diverse peoples at different times in the history of Middle Earth. In the most general terms, these represent gradual evolution from the elven system, which was founded upon a deep connection to the seasonal rhythms of the Earth, to a more human (or indeed, Hobbitish) affair drawn from agricultural and lunar cycles. Thus we see a transition from the Rivendell calendar (which, it must be said, likely represents a highly derived state of affairs, even among the Eldar) with a few long seasons, to a Shire calendar of twelve short months that a modern reader would be able to relate to.

It must be said that most of the evolution of calendars that occurred among the Dúnedain (in Númenor and then in Gondor) was mere housekeeping, minor changes according to use and to deal with the deficit produced to carry over changes when new reckonings began. As such, I’m not going to waste space on such minutiae here. Even taking this into consideration, the sheer repeated effort and depth of consideration that went into the effort is quite remarkable. For context, have a look at the chart documenting the evolution and use of calendar systems in Middle Earth.

So of all these calendar systems, why did I pick a Shire Calendar for the use of the society? Firstly, of course it would be remiss of me in my duties as Society Hobbit to choose any alternative. On a more rational note, the Shire Calendar is simply the closest to our own Gregorian system, and hence the easiest to work with. Unlike some of the other systems on offer, the Shire Reckoning had the same number of days to a year (365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds), with the difference being carried over in an identical leap-year system (an extra day every fourth year, except the last in a century). It is also tidy – the twelve months were all of the same length (thirty days), with the difference being made up by five special days – three around midsummer, and two at midwinter. In the Shire calendar, the first (Yule 2) and last (Yule 1) days of the year, as well as midsummer’s day and two days either side (the Lithe days) belonged to no month, while in leap years, the extra day came directly after midsummer, and was called the Overlithe. Furthermore, the Hobbits, being the right-minded people they were, found that the shifting of week day names with respect to dates of the month unsightly, and introduced the “Shire Reform” to compensate. Under the reform, midsummer’s day (and, in leap years, the Overlithe) had no weekday name, and so the hobbit year always began on the first day of the week (Sterday) and ended on the last (Highday). This was a most useful innovation for an easily-confused people – as an easily confused person myself, I naturally approve.

The Hobbit week of seven days can readily be reconciled with our own, running from start to finish as Sterday, Sunday, Monday, Trewsday, Hevensday, Mersday and Highday. But there is more here than might immediately meet the eye. That the Hobbit week days match closely our own is obvious, but Tolkien – ever the conscientious philologist – never settled for mere approximation. Instead, the week names (and their archaic cognates) are intended as alternative etymologies for our own Germanic week names.

For example, Tuesday comes from the Old English Tīwesdæg or “Tiw’s day”, in reference to the Germanic god Tiw or Tyr. However, the archaic Hobbitish name given by Tolkien is the clearly-divergent Trewesdei, suggesting an alternate etymology. As it happens, the Professor provides the etymology for us, being a translation of the Quenya Aldëa, tree-day (Sindarin Orgaladh). The stem in this case is alda, Quenya for tree (Sindarin galadh). The same philological attention to detail can be found in the hobbit month names. Having assigned Old English as the translation of the language used by the ancestors of the Rohirrim, it was logical the early Hobbits would have shared these names when they lived in the same region of the world. However, once the Hobbits migrated west over the misty Mountains, their language diverged, eventually becoming the Common Tongue, represented by modern English. Consequently, the month names are Tolkien’s extrapolation of how the Old English months might have evolved with the language into modern English, had they not been replaced by Latinate names. Thus, Sol-mōnaþ (sol month) becomes Solmath.

Table 1: the Hobbit calendar

Calendar Duration in days
Yule 2 1
Afteryule 30
Solmath 30
Rethe 30
Astron 30
Thrimidge 30
Forelithe 30
1 Lithe 1
Midsummer’s day 1
Overlithe 1 (leap years only)
2 Lithe 1
Afterlithe 30
Wedmath 30
Halimath 30
Winterfilth 30
Blotmath 30
Foreyule 30
Yule 1 1

This process is called “back-formation”, in which a novel word is generated by removing a suffix or prefix from an existing one. In English, an example is the formation of the relatively recent verb “resurrect” from the much older Latinate noun “resurrection”. Taken more broadly, Tolkien included many of these retro-engineered items of linguistic fluff in his Legendarium. Thus, “The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late”, the song disastrously performed by Frodo at the Prancing Pony, is intended to represent an older (and more complete version) of the modern children’s song “Hey Diddle Diddle”, more commonly known as “The Cow Jumped over the Moon”. Similarly, the idiom “make hay while the sun shines” is a worn-down version of Goldberry’s injunction to the Hobbits to “make haste while the sun shines” in the Fellowship.

This can readily be reconciled with Tolkien’s idea of Middle Earth as an imaginary part of our own history. In all these examples, Tolkien’s supposed roots act as alternative histories for the phrases or poems alluded to, which are thus worn-down fragments of the originals in his alternative, imaginary history. From Númenor as Atlantis, to the goblin king Golfimbul and the sport of golf, these bind Middle Earth ever more firmly to our own history. Back formation may even be more widespread than is typically appreciated. In The Road to Middle Earth, Tom Shippey suggests that many of the poems and passages Tolkien created within his Legendarium represent the Professor’s attempt to write imaginary roots for passages he found in Old Norse or Old English texts, especially in Beowulf.

Returning to the calendar systems, I have perhaps thus far failed to communicate the richness of imagination that went into generating the full range of cultures in the Legendarium. Consider the Hobbit week, for example. In the Appendices, Tolkien states that the Hobbits likely acquired their weekday names from the “Men in the North”, which were in turn translations of those used by the Dúnedain. It is not entirely clear from the context whether “men in the north” refers to the peovple of Rhovanion, where the Hobbits dwelt before their great westward migration, or to the people of Eriador on the other side of the Misty Mountains. However, Tolkien also states that this likely occurred “two thousand years or more before the end of the Third Age”, or before about Third Age (TA) 1000. According to Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle Earth the westward migration didn’t begin until TA1050, so it seems likely that the Hobbits adopted their weekdays when they yet dwelt in the upper vales of the River Anduin. I have found Fonstad’s sources to be impeccable in all other matters, so I am willing to trust her on this matter.

If this is the case, then the Hobbit weekday names would have originated in Gondor, while the rest of their calendar represents an adaptation of that used in the fragmented princedoms of Arnor in the north. This is somewhat surprising, as Tolkien states in the same passage (Appendix D) that in their wandering days the Hobbits had no week, suggesting memory of the names were retained over the centuries of wandering. However, I have likely devoted enough space here to the subject, and will leave it up to the reader to devise a solution to that particular enigma.

Now, having reached this point in the thought process, it would be almost trivially easy using the information available to us to calibrate a Shire calendar for this year to our own Gregorian one. However, having come this far it, it would be criminally negligent of me not to take the line of inquiry to its logical conclusion, and assign a year as well as a date. All of which brings me back to the question discussed at the beginning of this article – how long ago were the events of the War of the Ring (and, by extension, the entire history of Middle Earth)? This is the question that I’ll be addressing over the course of the next three articles.

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