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The (Biblical) Beacons of Gondor ... Did Tolkien Know?

News from Bree

May 21 2013, 11:26pm

Post #1 of 8 (168 views)
The (Biblical) Beacons of Gondor ... Did Tolkien Know? Can't Post

In his second of many articles for our worldwide community, Tedoras, long-time audience participant on our TORn TUESDAY webcast brings us a fascinating idea: a lost connection to the Beacons of Gondor perhaps... Read on for a short but very interesting look at how an ancient Biblical account may have inspired Tolkien! Take it away, Tedoras....


The (Biblical) Beacons of Gondor
By Tedoras -- special to TheOneRing.net

This past April 28th happened to be the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer (the 33rd day of the Counting of the Sheaves, to be more precise). Now, you are probably wondering how this little-known holiday relates to The Lord of the Rings (and, if you're like me, you'd like to know what a "sheaf" is, too). It turns out a sheaf is a bundle for cereal plants--fortunately for us all, though, my story has nothing to do with Biblical agriculture. Rather, it begins with The Return of the King.

If you are like me, you love those amazing fly-by shots from The Lord of the Rings films. One of the most epic sequences of such shots is the lighting of the beacons in ROTK (refresh your memory here). Whether your first encounter with these mountaintop fires was in literature or film, you probably thought it was an ingenious mode of communication. Certainly, they are by far the best means for sending urgent messages across long distances (and I hope the Gondorian who urged their construction was handsomely rewarded). In order to see the connection between these beacons and the aforementioned holiday, it is important to know the story of Lag B'Omer.

In short, Lag B'Omer commemorates a revolt in the year 131 CE. The Israelites, under the leadership of Bar Kochba, rose up against the Romans, who ruled the land at that time. Years before the Romans came, the Israelites had built a series of m'durot, or bonfires, upon the surrounding mountains. So, when the revolt began, (you guessed it) Bar Kochba ordered a beacon lit. A soldier took a torch to the top of a mountain, lit one the beacons, and thus sent word around the land that war had begun.

Certainly, the use of the beacons of Gondor to call for Rohan's aid is reminiscent of this episode. Yet, was Tolkien inspired by this Biblical tale in his creation of the beacons? On the one hand, we know Tolkien was well-versed in the Bible; his contemporaneous English education saw to that. Furthermore, Tolkien was a lifelong scholar--thus, if not in school, it is likely he would have encountered this story on his own. Assuming Tolkien was acquainted with this tale, the unanswerable question here, of course, is whether or not he consciously recognized the Bible as their source.

However, on the other hand, a case can certainly be made that Tolkien knew not of the story of Bar Kochba's revolt. For a realm the size of Gondor, it would make sense to have a system for mass-communication in the event of any important occurrence. And, while these beacons also housed fresh horses on stand-by for couriers, it is clear that signal fires would be a much faster means. The independent invention of the beacons is not only possible in terms of the technology available to Gondor at the time, but it is also becoming of the prudence and wisdom of the Gondorian kings of Old.

This is one of many familiar situations to us Tolkien fans: is there a "right" answer here? Personally, I do not think it really matters; I intended only to present a surprising and uncanny resemblance upon which I happened to stumble. But, of course, such a topic is up for interpretation--so I will let you decide for yourself.

(This post was edited by Silverlode on May 22 2013, 4:47am)

Tol Eressea

May 22 2013, 11:57am

Post #2 of 8 (86 views)
Probably - [In reply to] Can't Post

- but I doubt whether Tolkien had this in mind when he wrote of the beacon-hills: like most English people of my age, I leant at school of the beacons which were lit in England to warn of the Spanish Armada in 1588. There are still many places in the UK which are known to have had beacons on them.

BTW - sorry to ask, but did you mean to write 'conteporaneous', or 'comprehensive'?


May 22 2013, 12:12pm

Post #3 of 8 (89 views)
Or even during the Napoleonic wars [In reply to] Can't Post

A pretty humourous description of a false alarm caused by the lighting of the beacons is in Thomas Hardy's The Trumpet-Major.

I doubt Tolkien knew much about Lag BaOmer - if nothing else, the custom of lighting bonfires on this day is pretty recent - it only became widespread in the early 20th century, when the Jews began returning to the Land of Israel!
A much better analogy would be the beacons lit upon the sighting of the New Moon (http://en.wikipedia.org/...ance_of_lunar_months).


May 22 2013, 1:48pm

Post #4 of 8 (74 views)
It has great interest as a "dating" tool [In reply to] Can't Post

even if not lifted from the actual event, it is a sort of anthropological reference point for where JRRT saw the technology of Middle Earth at the time of the War of the Ring. He wasn't a huge fan of the advancing machine of technology so I think he was tickled to have such an old-world method of kingdom to kingdom communication in place. I have always seen it as a tribute to loyalty, as those silent watchmen maintain the signals and wait (with medieval patience) for an event that may never come in their lifetime. With the corruption of Arda as an underlying theme, its a great tribute to the Men who keep such things in place.

Thanks for posting this! Angelic

Manwe, when asked a simple "Yes" or "No" question, contemplated, and responded "the middle one."


May 22 2013, 2:28pm

Post #5 of 8 (70 views)
Yes, in fact [In reply to] Can't Post

there are a lot of places in the UK called "Beacon Hill" even now, as well as the equivalents in Welsh, Scots Gaelic and Irish. Most of these are pretty ancient sites and some have been renewed in recent times for the Millenium, Queens Jubilee etc
I think that it is these ancient sites Tolkien would have had in mind.

"Beneath the roof of sleeping leaves the dreams of trees unfold"

Tol Eressea

May 22 2013, 3:17pm

Post #6 of 8 (70 views)
Something to be remembered [In reply to] Can't Post

is that there were beacon posts along the hills on the southern side of the White Mountains, too. And as others have said, there are horses kept there to speed the Steward's messengers. These posting stations would have been manned by soldiers of Gondor.


May 23 2013, 8:37am

Post #7 of 8 (51 views)
AS a scholar [In reply to] Can't Post

Of Old languages and by default history, I am sure he had come across the use of beacons somewhere and din't just think it up himself ...

Take this Brother May it Serve you Well
Vote for Pedro!

Registered User

Jun 1 2013, 4:10am

Post #8 of 8 (24 views)
Humm... [In reply to] Can't Post

I happen to know a bit Chinese history which shows how ancient the beacon warning system would be. The last king of Western Zhou Dynasty, King You who reigned from 781 to 771 BC, lost his kingdom because he abused the beacon warning system to fool his nobles (like the shepherd boy cried wolf story) so as to please his concubine.


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