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AFAIK, Edoras is about 300–350 miles away from Minas Tirith and it is a 3-day ride from one location to the other. So, how long did the beacon chain need from the moment it was lit to reach Edoras?

As I wasn't able to find an answer, I've tried to calculate an upper and lower bound:

Apparently, an endurance rider nowadays can do around 100 miles in about 15 hours. So, it would take a rider from Minas Tirith to Edoras around 2–2.5 days riding. As this answer clearly states, the beacon had fresh horses for messages to be transmitted between the two capitals, so they could ride day and night in order to transmit the message asap. In order for the beacons to be useful, they have to be faster and therefore, we have an upper bound.

As for the beacon, if we assume that there has to be a beacon every 10 miles. Again, according to the answer before, the beacons were on hilltops and we can therefore assume that it's far away but still within viewing distance of each other. So, that makes around 30–35 beacons. If we assume that a beacon takes around 5 minutes to burn (and I mean a fire you can see 10 miles away) and it takes the other person 5 minutes to see that the beacon is lit (they probably also have other duties than looking at the beacon 24 hours a day), we have around 300–350 minutes from Gondor to Edoras, therefore a lower bound.

The thing is, between 5 hours and 2.5 days is a rather big gap. So, has this ever been calculated more precisely or has Tolkien stated how long it took?

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  • 9
    Are you looking for a book or film based answer? AFAIK in the books there were 7 beacons, and the last (mentioned at least) was "the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan", far from Edoras.
    – fez
    May 12 at 17:10
  • 5
    There's going to be someone on easch beacon hill whose ONE JOB is to watch for a beacon to be lit on the next hill. So, it will take far less than 5 minutes to notice a lit beacon and light the next one.
    – Spencer
    May 12 at 17:28
  • 5
    @Spencer I somehow doubt that the person will, even if ordered to, watch the beacon straight during an 8 hour shift. It's not like they're lit regularely, people get compliant and will start being like "Nothing happened during the last few weeks, it wont happen now". They'll do other stuff and be it simply resting their eyes by looking at something else, getting something to eat or talking to another person present at the place and checking the beacon from time to time.
    – Shade
    May 12 at 23:06
  • 4
    @Valorum For the time period covered in the story, Rohan knew that Gondor was at war and therefore that the beacons might actually come into use. So we can be reasonably sure that they were indeed under active observation.
    – Psychonaut
    May 13 at 12:05
  • 3
    In the Peter Jackson movie version, the Minas Tirith beacon takes only about a minute to catch and crown out; we later see a distant shot of a beacon coming aflame, followed momentarily by the next beacon lighting up. Of course due to Rule of Audience Interest we don't see the beacons that didn't get noticed right away, the beacons that weren't primed to flare, or any other case where the response time would be longer than the audience would care to watch. May 13 at 13:17
36

While there is no definite answer, we can make some inferences from the text. Based on suggestions in the chapter we can set some upper bounds for particular events.

Firstly, the messengers from Halifirien had already set out by the evening of the 7th of March. This is clear as on the 9th of March Pippin and Gandalf reach Minas Tirith (Appendix B, Tale of Years), and after arriving in Minas Tirith Pippin says to Beregond:

‘When?’ said Pippin. ‘Have you a guess? For I saw the beacons two nights ago and the errand-riders; and Gandalf said that it was a sign that war had begun.’
Return of the King: Book V, Chapter 1: Minas Tirith

In the conversation, Beregond seems to suggest that the beacons were only lit on the evening of the 7th of March:

‘But why were the beacons lit two nights ago?’ [Pippin]
‘It is over-late to send for aid when you are already besieged,’ answered Beregond. ‘But I do not know the counsel of the Lord and his captains. [...] But if you would know what I think set the beacons ablaze, it was the news that came that eve out of Lebennin.’
ibid.

It is almost certain from Beregond's suggestion that the beacons had been lit sometime that evening (7th March). As such that sets an upper bound of the time between the evening of the 7th and the night of the 7th. Anywhere between 1 and 6+ hours.

So now we have an estimate for how long it took the Beacons to be lit and the riders to set out we can work backwards to find out how long it took Pippin and Gandalf from Isengard to meet the riders, and how long the riders may have had to get to Edoras.

From the "Tale of Years" and "Chapter 3: The Muster of Rohan" we can deduce that it took until the 9th of March for the errand-rider to reach Dunharrow, where Théoden was.

March 8 Aragorn takes the ‘Paths of the Dead’ at daybreak; he reaches Erech at midnight.
Appendix B: Tale of Years

‘I do not know,’ she answered. ‘He came at night, and rode away yestermorn, ere the Sun had climbed over the mountain-tops. He is gone.’
Return of the King: Book V, Chapter 3: The Muster of Rohan

‘A man is here, lord,’ he said, ‘an errand-rider of Gondor. He wishes to come before you at once.’ [...] ‘The Red Arrow has not been seen in the Mark in all my years! Has it indeed come to that?’ [...] ‘But I myself am new-come from battle and long journey, and I will now go to rest.’
ibid.

As such we can deduce that on the night of the 9th, the errand-rider had reached Théoden, and on the night of the 7th he had set out. On the evening of the 7th the Beacons had been lit. Therefore, we can guess that it took somewhere between 1 and 6 hours for the beacons to run their course, and around or just under 48 hours for the errand riders to reach Théoden and Dunharrow. It is possible this process may have taken longer than necessary as the errand-rider may first have gone to Edoras then been redirected to Dunharrow.

In conclusion, from the lighting of the beacons to Théoden receiving the message, there would've been about 48 hours of time, the majority of which was taken up by the errand-rider riding out from Halifirien to Rohan.


As for the number of beacons there were 7, in order from East to West: Amon Dîn, Eilenach, Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad and Halifirien. (Book V, Chapter 1: Minas Tirith)

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