J. R. R. Tolkien did a walking tour through Switzerland at the age of 19.
Walled castles are not unknown there, and with the idea that one of them may have inspired Tolkien, I have spent the afternoon on the Internet, looking for likely prospects along the path he and his company followed through Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Wengen, Grindelwald, Meiringen, Grimselpass and the Rhône Valley.
The aha! moment came at Sion, the capital of Valais Canton in the Rhône Valley.
Afterwards I learned that Tolkien had indeed been to Sion…maybe. Michael Drout says he did, but the only reference I can find in the letters, in 308, is “…we went on into Valais, and my memories are less clear….”
Subconscious impressions are never clear, but I’m not saying that Valère and Tourbillon castles in Sion did give the young writer an idea for Minas Tirith, only that they certainly remind me of that city.
The two castles
Châteaux Valère and Tourbillon actually sit on two separate hills, overlooking the fertile valley where the Sionne River flows into the mighty Rhône.
People have lived here for over 8000 years. Neolithic farmers, Bronze Age people, Celtic tribes and the Romans all called it home.
Christianity arrived in the 4th century, and things really started to pick up when Catholic bishops settled there from the 8th century onward.
According to Wikipedia, Valère – a fortified church – was built in the 12th-13th century and attained the rank of a minor basilica when Pope John Paul II visited it in 1984. This Google-translated website on Swiss castles has more information and some stunning pictures of the place.
Tourbillon Castle was built in the 14th century as the bishop’s residence, destroyed during a revolution in the 15 century, rebuilt, and then in 1788 ruined by a huge fire that began in the town of Sion below.
Sion and Minas Tirith
You have to look at it from different angles, as perhaps Tolkien did in 1911, to see how closely Sion resembles Minas Tirith.
Only four sets of walls, not seven, are seen in an image from 1572. Still, beyond the city’s walls you have fertile farmlands and outlying towns, just like the Pelennor of Minas Tirith, and a mighty river flows nearby. Many roads also converge in front of Sion’s main gate, too.
This place – the first site in our series that likely was visited by J. R. R. Tolkien – certainly meets the criteria set up in the first post:
- It’s vertical, with walls, and a place people call home.
- The Catholic Church brought the elite to Sion. As well, it provided a symbol of something intangible and good to all people.
- The castles blend with their respective hills while town and farms make use of the Sionne River’s alluvial plain – truly there is balance here between the works of man and nature.
Next week’s #1 is a beautiful place that practically screams “Minas Tirith!” at you the first time you see it – perhaps you can already guess its name? Well, see you then. Au revoir, and thank you very much for your interest.
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Categories: Tolkien Tuesday