Confusticate and Bebother these Dates! – The Durin’s Day Dilemma
Having read a number of articles on Durin’s Day, including various attempts to assign a date to it within the story, and to predict it in our modern world, I feel compelled to write my own brief (ha!) essay. My approach to this is two-fold: First – take Excedrin for the headache this issue is causing. Second – quote John D. Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit until things begin to make sense.
Many Tolkien enthusiasts estimate Durin’s Day of 2941 (which Thorin Oakenshield said happens towards the end of autumn, but not necessarily the last day of autumn, as Gandalf stated in the film) to have occurred in October. You can see how they arrived at this conclusion in the following articles:
Other authors calculate that Durin’s Day in our world would happen in December, based on our own definition of Autumn:
The reason for the difference of approximately two months comes from the different interpretations of the term “autumn”. Astronomically speaking, the end of autumn is around December 21 (for those in the Northern Hemisphere). If you disregard the astronomical component of it, then you could argue autumn can mean different things to different cultures. It does in our world, so why not in Tolkien’s? Unfortunately Tolkien never created a calendar for the dwarves, and because he also says that the seasons of Middle-earth have no specific beginning or ending dates, it is possible the dwarves may view the beginning and ending of autumn as occurring on different dates than the hobbits, or elves, or men did. Unfortunately there is nothing I know of in the canon to confirm or deny this, but Tolkien did have this to say regarding the names of months used in The Lord of the Rings, “…the seasonal implications of our names are more or less the same, at any rate in the Shire. It appears, however, that Mid-year’s Day was intended to correspond as nearly as possible to the summer solstices. In that case the Shire dates were actually in advance of ours by some ten days, and our New Year’s Day corresponded more or less to the Shire January 9” (The Return of the King, Appendix D). This becomes important to our discussion further on, since Tolkien uses both the Shire calendar and the Gregorian calendar in his (unpublished) notes. We also know that, at least in The Lord of the Rings, events take place “‘in the Northern Hemisphere of this earth: miles are miles, days are days, and weather is weather'” (Rateliff 827).
The problems with Durin’s Day begin with the text itself, though you may not know it if you have a copy of The Hobbit printed after 1995. The first mention of Durin’s Day is the same in both early and later editions. While in Rivendell, Thorin declares:
“The first day of the dwarves’ New Year is, as all should know, the first day of the last moon of Autumn on the threshold of Winter. We still call it Durin’s Day when the last moon of Autumn and the sun are in the sky together. But this will not help us much, I fear, for it passes our skill in these days to guess when such a time will come again.”
Oddly enough, Tolkien appears to have been of two minds about when Durin’s Day should occur. The first typescript of the book had the dwarven New Year beginning on “the day of the first moon of autumn. And Durin’s day is that first day when the first moon of autumn and the sun are in the sky together” (Rateliff 123). Rateliff speculates this was likely inspired by the Jewish calendar, “which is also lunar in nature and begins its new year in late September or early October…” (123). And prior to 1995, the second mention of Durin’s Day in chapter III has always been:
“They had thought of coming to the secret door in the Lonely Mountain, perhaps that very next first moon of Autumn— ‘and perhaps it will be Durin’s Day’ they had said. Only Gandalf had shaken his head and said nothing.”
Little wonder Gandalf is shaking his head – the silly dwarves can’t even remember when their most important holiday is supposed to happen. The “mistake”, if that is truly what it was, has been corrected in later editions to read “that very next last moon of Autumn”.
The third indirect mention of Durin’s Day occurs while the dwarves and Bilbo are sitting around on the doorstep of the secret door. They don’t know it yet, but they are one day away from Durin’s Day:
“‘Tomorrow begins the last week of Autumn,’ said Thorin one day.”
As it turns out, Durin’s Day of that year occurred on the first day of the last week of Autumn, at least according to what Thorin said in the published book. In the original draft, where Tolkien set Durin’s Day at the start of autumn, Thorin said, “Autumn will be in tomorrow” on the day before the door was opened (Rateliff 475).
Of course it was Bilbo who actually caught the event happening, and alerted the dwarves before it was too late:
“Soon he saw the orange ball of the sun sinking towards the level of his eyes. He went to the opening and there pale and faint was a thin new moon above the rim of Earth.
At that very moment he heard a sharp crack behind him. There on the grey stone in the grass was an enormous thrush, nearly coal black, its pale yellow breast freckled with dark spots. Crack! It had caught a snail and was knocking it on the stone. Crack! Crack!….The sun sank lower and lower, and their hopes fell. It sank into a belt of reddened cloud and disappeared. The dwarves groaned, but still Bilbo stood almost without moving. The little moon was dipping to the horizon. Evening was coming on. Then suddenly when their hope was lowest a red ray of the sun escaped like a finger through a rent in the cloud. A gleam of light came straight through the opening into the bay and fell on the smooth rock-face. The old thrush, who had been watching from a high perch with beady eyes and head cocked on one side, gave a sudden trill. There was a loud crack. A flake of rock split from the wall and fell. A hole appeared suddenly about three feet from the ground….’The key!’ shouted Bilbo. ‘The key that went with the map! Try it now while there is still time!’
Then Thorin stepped up and drew the key on its chain from round his neck. He put it to the hole. It fitted and it turned! Snap! The gleam went out, the sun sank, the moon was gone, and evening sprang into the sky.”
The biggest problem with accepting a December date for Durin’s Day is that it leaves little time for the remaining tumultuous events after the opening of the door before Bilbo must be back at Beorn’s house to celebrate Yule-tide in chapter XVIII:
“Anyway, by mid-winter Gandalf and Bilbo had come all the way back, along both edges of the Forest, to the doors of Beorn’s house; and there for a while they both stayed. Yule-tide was warm and merry there; and men came from far and wide to feast at Beorn’s bidding.”
Tolkien had originally written Christmas instead of Yule-tide, but Yule has historically been celebrated at different times of the year and for different lengths by various cultures, which potentially allows more time for a December date for Durin’s Day. The Shire calendar states “Yuletide” was six days long, “including the last three and first three days of each year” (The Return of the King, Appendix D). But since Beorn is the one hosting the feast, it could be according to his own schedule, whatever that might be. The mention of “by mid-winter” is of less help in solving the issue than it appears since winter is no less relative a term than autumn. Notice it is mid-winter, which could mean middle of winter, not midwinter, a term which would most likely mean the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) which happens around December 21 in our time. In contrast, in chapter III Tolkien used “midsummer eve” (without a hyphen) when referring to the day they deciphered the map in Rivendell, or a date between June 21-25 in our time. It should be noted that Rateliff treats mid-winter as “midwinter” in his explanation of the text, and defines it as the day of the winter solstice, thus making it impossible for Durin’s Day to have occurred around December 14 (Rateliff 481).
Tolkien was not entirely happy with certain aspects of The Hobbit when compared to The Lord of the Rings, including the imprecision of geographic distances, and the inaccuracy of the moon phases. He had once boasted “‘I don’t think the moons rise or are in the wrong place at any point in [The Lord of the Rings]'” but this was only accomplished “…during the book’s revision by drawing up many-columned sheets listing where each character was on each day of the story. No such charts exist for The Hobbit…” (Rateliff 827).
Tolkien made an attempt to rewrite The Hobbit in the 1960’s. This was ultimately aborted, in part due to the impossible task of reconciling the timing of the journey with the phases of the moon (Rateliff 813). In this rewrite Tolkien tried to make the story of The Hobbit fit the Shire Calendar (which did not exist at the time of its original publication). A note by Tolkien, written at the top margin of his revisions, sums up the problem: “‘Hobbit Time table is not very clear'” (Rateliff 821).
In those notes he wrote out a few possible timelines which had the Company leaving Rivendell “’on Midsummer morning: say June 24’” (Rateliff 821). This date is given in the Gregorian calendar, rather than the Shire Calendar. His attempt to pin down the dates of the journey start out productively, but begin to fall apart after Rivendell. The decision to make Bilbo’s birthday occur on September 22 in The Fellowship of the Ring lock in part of the itinerary of The Hobbit, since Bilbo tells everyone at his 111th birthday that it is also the anniversary of the day he arrived in Esgaroth many years ago. Nowhere is this stated in the original Hobbit.
The relevant part of these revisions, in relation to the timing of Durin’s Day, begin with Tolkien working out the moon phases during the journey. With these dates he uses the Shire Calendar [my notes are in brackets]:
“’Company left Rivendell on Midsummer Day (=in SC [Shire Calendar]. June 30+2) The Moon on the previous day (Lithe: June 30+1) was a broad silver crescent: therefore 3 to 4 days old. NM [New Moon] must have been June 27/28.
NB This fits tolerably well with later narrative. For if NM occurred on June 28 it would occur next on July 23…since all months have 30 days [in the Shire calendar]: on Aug. 21, on Sept. 19, October 17th. There is probably time for the events after Bilbo’s Birthday (Sep 22) in Lake Town before the discovery of the Key-hole – Durin’s Day.’” (Rateliff 826)
In another note Tolkien gives the date of the new moons as occurring about June 26, and about October 19 of the Shire Calendar (Rateliff 830). He puts the departure from Lake Town around October 5th, and after two days of rowing it would be October 7, after which point “’their journey to the Mountain and the search for the Door could well take more than 12 days, but could be accomplished in that time.’”
Rateliff suggests “that Tolkien here is thinking of Durin’s Day as falling on the first new moon of autumn, as in the original manuscript, rather than on the last new moon before the start of winter as in the published book” (Rateliff 828). This would have solved the problem with events being crammed into the remainder of the year (however much remained of it before “mid-winter”). But it would also have necessitated “the re-writing of several descriptive passages vividly conveying the rapid onset of winter” which appear at various places in the published text of The Hobbit (Rateliff 828).
Unfortunately, there are no revisions to dates given after the mention of a new moon on October 19. We are given no precise dates at all, either published or unpublished, until May 1st, when Gandalf and Bilbo arrive back in Rivendell at the start of chapter XIX, after having left Beorn’s house in the spring.
Tolkien’s penciled note on the final piece of his tentative revisions signal a reluctant surrender after the battle to make everything fit to his satisfaction: “Time table of journey will not work out?” (Rateliff 835). It is here that Tolkien’s attempt to rewrite The Hobbit ends.
So where does this leave us as far as determining when Durin’s Day is supposed to happen? I personally feel there are too many contradictions to make any estimate 100% accurate. If Tolkien was having trouble with it years after publication, then I believe we can be forgiven for not resolving the matter ourselves. Instead I advise choosing your favorite theory from the authors listed above (they have all gone to great efforts to develop them), or come up with your own. But if you want to be on the safe side (and enjoy yourself, instead of pouring over these bothersome dates), pick a day in both October and December, look to the skies, and celebrate Durin’s Day like you just cracked open the Lonely Mountain yourself!
Rateliff, John D. The History of The Hobbit Part One: Mr. Baggins (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
Rateliff, John D. The History of The Hobbit Part Two: Return to Bag-end (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. (New York: Ballantine, 1978).