The Lord of the Rings timeline has calendar dates, and March is key
If you run a pleasantly pedantic Lord of the Rings-themed Twitter account that tweets the occasions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s dream legend on the calendar dates on which they happened — like I do — you will recognize that a huge portion of the story occurs in the month of March. The Fight of Helm’s Deep? Began around midnight on March 3. That’s canon.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings films’ 20th anniversary, and we could not envision checking out the trilogy in simply one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back once again, taking a look at how and why the movies have actually withstood as modern-day classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
The beginning of the year is an exciting time for Rings fans. You see, on Feb. 26, the Fellowship splits. On March 25, Gollum falls into the magma of Mount Doom, and the One Ring is destroyed. It’s a very busy month, and running a pedantic Lord of the Rings-themed Twitter account through the March-to-March cycle has been a part of my life for enough years now that it’s familiar, even anticipatory.
My pedantic Lord of the Rings-themed Twitter account is not the only one of its kind, but it’s mine, and it’s taught me a lot — both about the historical milestones of Middle-earth, and about how a big story, one that actually takes place during a specific stretch of time on our earthly calendar, can resonate with a lot of people in little ways. Especially in the last year, the strangest March-to-March cycle in living memory.
When the events of Lord of the Rings ‘take place’
The only reason we can accurately say when the events of The Lord of the Rings happened is because good ol’ John Ronald Reuel was incredibly pedantic himself. Professor Tolkien was a consummate perfectionist who once revised an entire portion of his epic because he realized he’d gotten the phases of the moon wrong.
Five years ago, I was looking at Appendix B of The Return of the King, “The Tale of Years (Chronology of the Westlands)” — which comes right before Appendix C, “Family Trees (Hobbits)” — and noticed that it contained a 3,000-year-plus timeline. The timeline included a lot of concrete dates for stuff that happens in The Lord of the Rings proper, but … it wasn’t detailed enough for me.
I had questions. When was the night that Frodo and his pals slept under Bilbo’s trolls? When did Pippin drop his Elven-brooch? How hard would it be to put all of this into a Google calendar? Wouldn’t it be kind of fun to do a close reading of The Lord of the Rings in order to fill in the gaps? Would anyone follow a Twitter account that notified them when things happened?
I learned a lot of things by closely rereading Tolkien’s texts and answering these questions. For example, everything in The Lord of the Rings happens much faster than you think.
Except for Gandalf’s fight with the Balrog. That lasted for 10 days.
And yes, the Breaking of the Fellowship (which is roughly the end of The Fellowship of the Ring) happened on Feb. 26. Frodo destroyed the One Ring on March 25. Half of the entire story takes place between those two points.
Right around midnight between March 3 and March 4, the battle begins at Helm’s Deep and lasts until about dawn. This is one of the story’s only complete timestamps (along with 10 a.m. on Oct. 24, the moment that Frodo wakes up in Rivendell).
A little less than a week later, on March 8, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields will (have) unfold(ed) in front of Minas Tirith, with the Oliphaunts and “I am no man!” and all that.
Meanwhile, as Helm’s Deep is besieged, Frodo and Sam have not even gotten to the part where Gollum talks to himself, which was why Peter Jackson et al. had to write a large plot detour into The Two Towers, with the side effect of throwing Faramir’s entire characterization under a bus so Frodo would have something to do. Adaptation!
Hobbits have a superior calendar system in many ways
Here’s one thing you should know about Tolkien timekeeping: In the Shire calendar, every month has 30 days. (This is only really a problem for the Twitter account in February, when really important things like the beginning of the Entmoot happen on Feb. 30). “So what do Hobbits do about their 5.24 leap days?” you ask. The answer is — as with everything else about Hobbits — they throw a party.
Hobbits celebrate two Yuledays at the new year and three midsummer days (or Lithedays) between the months of Forelithe (June) and Afterlithe (July). That is, the months of “Before holiday” and “After holiday,” which is a veritable mood. In leap years, a fourth day is added to Lithe, the absolutely perfectly named holiday of Overlithe.
Hobbits celebrate Yuledays and Lithedays by feasting — the Old Took would hold parties and invite Gandalf to do the fireworks — sleeping, and doing absolutely fuck-all. The days of Yuledays and Lithe do not belong to any month, and they are not numbered (there is no Lithe 1, Lithe 2, etc.). They also do not have any days of the week assigned to them. They are a perfect limbo of disregarding responsibilities, a time out of time reserved specifically for doing whatever you want.
The freedom of Lithedays from weekday designation makes for the second fantastic innovation of the Hobbit calendar: Every calendar date falls on the same weekday every year. Bilbo and Frodo’s Sept. 22 birthday is on a Thursday, and it is always on a Thursday.
Incidentally, the One Ring was destroyed on a Sunday.
These are the facts I’ve learned digging deep into the chronology of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But I admit: There are deeper takeaways to maintaining a pedantic Lord of the Rings-themed Twitter account.
How people interact with a historically specific Lord of the Rings Twitter account
After rereading The Lord of the Rings and taking a lot of notes, I made many a Google Calendar reminder, put together a well-organized collection of screencaps from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies (because tweets always get more engagement when they have gorgeous stills from a $300 million blockbuster trilogy), and started tweeting the events leading to the destruction of the Ring on the calendar dates on which they occured.
Here are the four worst — and yet, common — responses to the account’s content, ranked:
4. “This tweet is wrong, [X] actually happened,” where X is a change the movies made from the books. Forgivable.
3. “This tweet is wrong, [X] actually happened,” where X is actually just factually incorrect. I’m sorry, who here is running a fully researched Lord of the Rings Twitter account? It is me? Yes? Thank you.
2. “Hey, that’s a screencap of [analogous thing that appeared in the films], not [thing that did not appear in the films]!” Good heavens, thank you, Hero of Truth in Media, I’ll get you a film still of a character who never appeared in the films right away.
1. “This isn’t the image I would have chosen.”
That all said, most of the ways in which people interact with my Lord of the Rings Twitter account are delightful.
Every year, I watch people cry when Boromir dies, rejoice when Eowyn tears off her helmet, and jeer when Denethor bites the dust. They reply with “Fool of a Took!” when Pippin drops the stone in the well, and with “Fly, you fools!” when Gandalf falls. When I tweet that Frodo and Sam are leaving the road to travel overland in the final fever-dream stretch to Mount Doom, they tweet encouragement, or talk about how their thesis is nearly done, or just say, “Mood.”
But as I’ve learned over the last year, not all years are the same, even with a Lord of the Rings Twitter account. And the calendar events of the Lord of the Rings are still the same no matter how different the real world gets.
On March 25, 2020, at the end of a month in which life had seemed to grow more uncertain by the hour, the Ring was still destroyed. Followers replied, “So happy for some good news!” or, “I really wish someone would destroy the ring in real life.” People responded with GIFs like the memetic moment of Elijah Wood’s bedraggled Frodo gasping out, “It’s done!”
Things were, shall we say, not done. I knew that the Ring’s ending was falling on a beginning, but I can’t say I knew it would last to another Ring. By summer, I thought, when the Hobbits leave Minas Tirith to head back to the Shire by way of Rohan, Isengard, and Rivendell, things will be looking up. And surely we won’t still be worrying about how well we’ve washed our hands in October, when the Hobbits are simultaneously arriving home in The Return of the King and fleeing Black Riders in The Fellowship of the Ring. And surely, surely, by the holidays (the Fellowship leaves Rivendell on Christmas Day) things will definitely be normal once again.
But here I am, staring down the barrel of another March in The Lord of the Rings and another March in a global pandemic. Tolkien’s opus is a story of small individuals beset by massive occasions. And there’s something deeply appropriate in how the writer’s attention to detail — even to the level of inventing a whole calendar system — allows readers to maintain that connection between the epic occasions of his story and the events of their lives.
My pedantic Lord of the Rings-themed Twitter account began as a way to immerse myself in one of my favorite stories, and it evolved into a way that I immerse myself in other readers’ connections to one of my favorite stories. And that’s what will keep me tweeting the March-to-March cycle of The Lord of the Rings on the calendar dates on which they occurred for a long time to come.
Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.