Around the world and from ancient times, mountains have always play a part in humanity’s imagination and storytelling. So it only makes sense there are thousands of books about mountains!
Mountains are the place where Gods dwell. They embody the sublime, a feeling that cannot be expressed with words. They are frightening, and challenging, and they make us want to conquer them or avoid them or look at them. They are the stage for the greatest battles, and the treasure’s and dragon’s hiding place, and the place for our next holiday. They are silent and the place to meditate.
Here are some books about mountains to reflect on all of the meanings they have for us.
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‘The Hobbit’ by J.R.R. Tolkien
“Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick”.
All around the world, from Germanic to Native American mythology, we hear of magical creatures inhabiting mountains. Throughout many folklore tales, we find dwarves living inside of mountains, or evil dragons keeping a treasure there. And about a hero that must slay them to bring peace back. Tolkien continued this ancient legacy in his own mythology. Only, on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, the hero is unexpected. It is a hobbit.
Throughout the Middle Earth, Tolkien uses the mountains as a symbol for many things. They are the impassable barriers (the Misty Mountains), the abode of the supreme evil (Mount Doom) and of cursed wicked men (The ghosts of the mountains whom Aragorn recruits on ‘The Two Towers’). This makes ‘The hobbit’ one of our top books about mountains.
This conception of mountains as terrifying and home for dark dwellers is in tune with what many primitive societies thought and still think, for the mountains were nothing but dangerous places where no man would go for pleasure (this conception only changed in the Western World in the late 19th century with the rise of modern alpinism).
Did you know? The International Astronomical Union has named every mountain in Titan (Saturn’s satellite) after the mountains imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien. In Titan, there’s a Lonely Mountain.
‘Frankenstein‘ by Mary Shelley
This year marks the 200th anniversary since a group of English writers went on a holiday in the Alps that inspired wonderful literature. Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Polidori and Mary Shelley stayed in the Diodati Mansion next to Lake Geneva and, on a summer night, set up a challenge: to invent a horror story.
While Polidori created a modern version of a vampire that would later inspire ‘Dracula’, Mary Shelley had a nightmare that same night and conceived the story of Frankenstein : a scientist who, through occult science, tries to play god by putting together body parts and giving birth to a living but damned creature.
This is a classic horror story, beautifully written and showcasing elegance and style in the narrative.
In the book, the mountains serve both as a deeply inspiring scenery for Frankenstein and as a hiding place for his damned creation. One more for our list on books about mountains!
The romanticizing of the Alpine scenery through this and other books, later led many Victorians flow to Chamonix in the Alps, creating one of the first mass tourism phenomenon in history (more of this on the number five of this list).
‘Himalaya: encounters with eternity’ by Ashvin Mehta
On this very special work on this list of books about mountains we reach sacred territories. Many peaks at the Himalaya range are considered the dwelling of the gods, a belief shared by cultures all around the world, from ancient pagan Europeans to native Americans.
This belief is what kept sherpas from reaching the peaks on the first expedition to the Anapurna in 1950s: they believed it was inhabited by the goddess of crops and fertility.
This first successful expedition was guided by the legendary Maurice Herzog, who provides the words for Himalaya, encounters with eternity. Ashvin Mehta, in charge of the images, captures like a very vivid dream the atmosphere and feelings for this magical region of the world. Born in 1931 in India, his photography might as well be called poetry.
‘The Dharma Bums’ – Jack Kerouac
“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”
After finishing epic road trip that inspired ‘The Road’, Kerouac went on another trip of self-discovery that reflected on The Dharma bums. He was introduced to zen and buddhist philosophies by the poet Gary Snider and turned from the jazzy city lights to mountaineering and hiking.
The two main characters are disguises for the real Kerouac and Snyder. They search for enlightenment by climbing mountains. They also gather with like-minded writers and friends, and the book gives an account on the first time the ‘Howl’ poem was presented by Allen Ginsberg.
This book is an ode to the mountains and the outdoors as a temple for nature. And an exciting account of such trips by these restless humans told through a restless narrative and prose.
‘Victorians in the mountains’ – Professor Ann C. Coley
‘Victorians in the mountains’ discusses the Victorians craze for the Alps, traces its origins in literary works (like Frankenstein) and gives a comprehensive view of what writers and vacationers found on these magnificent mountains. The notion of the mountains as ‘sublime’ is a modern construct.
Before, the mountains were feared and revered, and avoided if possible. Reaching their peak could be either a sacrilege (for one would be bothering the gods) or a suicide mission that took too many lives already. Then, European poets and writers turned them into ‘sublime’ sceneries.
This book documents this process, illuminates the path of social constructs around mountains, and tells some curious anecdotes. For example: victorians who went on holiday to Chamonix, in the Alps, used to gather around a telescope to watch other Victorians get to the top of Mount Blanc. Isn’t that fantastic?
Bonus read: High life and towers of life – Mrs. Aubrey Le Blond
A pioneer female Irish mountaineer who lived at the end of the 19th century. A trailblazer, in every sense of the world, she was advised to live next to the mountains to get purer air as a cure for an illness (something rather common at the time).
Then she started climbing mountains. This was at a time when the British Alpine Club did not allow female members.
She was both a writer of travelogues and books and a photographer. Her writing, the last one in this books about mountains’ list, is now part of the public domain and can be read here.