Tolkien's Calendars and Dwarf Holidays

Although J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist by training, he had interests in astronomy, mythology, geology, weather, botany, and many other fields. In an attempt to make Middle-earth as consistent and "real" as possible, he developed languages, calendars, mythologies, and histories for the various cultures that inhabited his secondary world. You can read about the various calendars in Middle-earth in Appendix D of The Lord of the Rings. We will discuss two of these calendars here.

One of the confusing aspects of the Gregorian calendar is that holidays that fall on the same date every year will fall on a different day of the week each year. This can lead to issues of when the holiday is actually observed as a day off from work if it happens to fall on a weekend that year. A number of suggestions have been raised over the years to adopt a new "eternal" calendar that would keep holidays on the same day of the week every year. For example, the French metric calendar introduced in 1793 had 12 months of 30 days and 5 extra days (outside of the 7-day week) added to the end of each year. It never found public favor and was abandoned a decade later (Reese 52). The Hobbit calendar invented by Tolkien is also an eternal calendar, with 12 months of 30 days each, and special holidays inserted at various times of the year to make up the difference between 360 and 365 days. These special days had no weekday name. The year always began on a Saturday and ended on a Friday (being the first and last day of the Shire week), avoiding the "untidy" shifting of the days of the week relative to the dates of the year. In 1978 a short article in Chemical and Engineering News actually considered the Hobbit calendar for adoption (Reese 52).

Recently, the idea of adopting an eternal calendar was revisited by Johns Hopkins economics professor Steve Hanke and astrophysicist Richard Henry. The Hanke-Henry Permanent calendar garnered a lot of attention in the popular press with its suggestion that the calendar be changed to a pattern of two 30-day months followed by a single 31-day month and then repeating the cycle thrice more to complete the year. This 364 day year would also avoid adding single leap days. Instead, an entire week (called "Xtr") would be added at the end of December every 5 or 6 years. The calendar is technically less accurate than the Gregorian because the seasons would drift back and forth by several days with respect to the calendar, but Hanke and Henry argue that the benefits of having holidays fall on the same day of the week each year more than compensate (Pappas).


In The Hobbit we learn that the dwarves use a luni-solar calendar whose months begin with the new moon and whose year begins in autumn:

"The first day of the dwarves' New Year," said Thorin, "is as all should know the first day of the last moon of Autumn on the threshold of Winter."

But there is more information concerning the dwarves' New Year, and some rather interesting further astronomical connections. To understand the importance of this date to the plot of The Hobbit, we need to back up a few pages in the text. The dwarf lord Thorin Oakenshield possesses an heirloom map that holds the key (pun very much intended) to the dwarves' mission to reclaim The Lonely Mountain and its treasure from the dragon Smaug. In Rivendell, Elrond holds up the map and the moonlight exposes a previously hidden message written in moon-letters:

"'Moon-letters are rune letters, but you cannot see them,' said Elrond, 'not when you look straight at them. They can only be seen when the moon shines behind them, and what is more, with the more cunning sort it must be a moon of the same shape and season as the day when they were written."

This scene from the original cartoon version of The Hobbit


The same scene from the new film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Tolkien originally wanted a special map inserted in The Hobbit where the letters could be seen if you held the map up to a light, but it was deemed too expensive. Here is Tolkien's drawing of the map:

The secret message reads as follows:

"Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks," read Elrond, "and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole."

"Durin, Durin!" said Thorin. "He was the father of the fathers of the eldest race of Dwarves, the Longbeards, and my first ancestor: I am his heir."

"Then what is Durin's Day?" asked Elrond.

"The first day of the dwarves' New Year," said Thorin, "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."

Why is Thorin so distressed? Continue your journey here to find out.


Pappas, S. "Is it Time to Overhaul the Calendar? Profs Have a Plan."

Reese, K.M. "Hobbit Calendar Proposed for Serious Consideration." Chemical and Engineering News 56 no. 13 (1978): 52


Enclosed images belong to their respective owners and no copyright infringement intended. The text of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings belong to the Tolkien Estate and quotations are enclosed here for educational purposes only. Permission granted to use all original enclosed materials here for educational purposes. Original material written by Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University.