In The Return of the King, a series of large wooden pyres—beacons—are lit, each in once the previous one in order appears to burn, and so in this way lead to a beacon visible from Meduseld. This beacon serves as a call for aid by Minas Tirith. (In the Peter Jackson film, Pippin Took, under the guidance of Gandalf, surreptitiously lights the first beacon on Amon Din.)

Was Tolkien's system of using waiting signal fires atop peaks—even if they were more hilltops, than Peter Jacksonesque Matterhorns—based on an existing or historical precedent? Or was this spun whole cloth by Tolkien?

Edit: I am not asking if there are historical systems of rapid communication between cities (because 'Duh!' of course there are! :). I am asking if there is a historic linked sequence of signal fires atop peaks which is known to have inspired Tolkien's fictional system.

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    The Brecon Beacons are well known to all Midlanders: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brecon_Beacons
    – m4r35n357
    Jun 13 at 8:15
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    @m4r35n357 that name refers to the hills. It's not clear that beacons were routinely used in the Beacons. That's part of the reasoning behind adopting the Welsh name (Bannau Brycheiniog) in English
    – Chris H
    Jun 13 at 9:55
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    This question shows a decide lack of research. The Wp article on beacons cites numerous historical examples, and a minimal amount of Google work will turn up a tradition of beacon chains celebrating coronations etc. which long predate Tolkien. Jun 13 at 9:57
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    We could add to the list of beacons the guard posts on the Great Wall of China. Not quite as spectacular singularly (they were like 5km apart), but the monument is very famous. I don't know if Tolkien knew of the detail, but he might have.
    – Gae. S.
    Jun 13 at 10:00
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    @Lexible And I specifically pointed out that there is a substantial history of using such things in localities with which he was doubtless familiar, as well as historical uses of which he was doubtless aware. Jun 13 at 20:25

8 Answers 8


There is historical basis for similar warning beacons that Tolkien would have been aware of

Tolkien has never spoken about his inspiration for the beacons of Gondor, but warning beacons have frequently been used in both history and literature that Tolkien was familiar with.

Tolkien scholars Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull in particular point to the alarm beacons that warned London of the Spanish Armada.

747 (III: 19). The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. - On reading this, almost every English man, woman, and child would immediately think of the beacons lit in 1588 to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Tolkien almost certainly knew Thomas Babington Macaulay’s poem The Armada, which recounts the event:

Till Belvoir’s lordly terraces the sign to Lincoln sent,
And Lincoln sped the message on o’er the wide vale of Trent;
Till Skiddaw saw the fire that burned on Gaunt’s embattled pile,
And the red glare on Skiddaw roused the burghers of Carlisle.

The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion - Book 5 Chapter 1

Lord Macaulay’s poem is from Lays of Ancient Rome, a book Tolkien is known to have read. (Tolkien parodies the style in his 1911 poem The Battle of the Eastern Field, and characters from the book are referenced in 1914 correspondence between Tolkien and Christopher Wiseman.)

Additionally, one of the surviving beacons was located in Lickey Hills, an area Tolkien spent some time in growing up.

Tolkien knew the country well, for it was close to Rednal, where his mother had spent the last months of her life, and to Barnt Green where his maternal cousins, the Incledons, lived. He had good times at their house, and stayed there often.
JRR Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator - "Early Work"

In 1913, Tolkien painted a landscape watercolor of the view from on top of Bilberry Hill, a hill that was adjacent to the one with the beacon.

enter image description here

King's Norton from Bilberry Hill
JRR Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator - figure 16

Hammond and Scull also note other places Beacons have been used, such as the Byzantine beacon system that warned Constantinople of a Saracen invasion, and the beacons mentioned in the Iliad.

Beacons have long been used to signal warnings and to call for aid. In the eighth and ninth centuries, for instance, the news of a Saracen invasion on the Cilician frontier was flashed to Constantinople by eight beacon fires. Even earlier, Homer wrote in the Iliad: ‘Thus, from some far-away beleaguered island, where all day long the men have fought a desperate battle from their city walls, the smoke goes up to heaven; but no sooner has the sun gone down than the light from the line of beacons blazes up and shoots into the sky to warn the neighbouring islanders and bring them to the rescue in their ships’

The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion - Book 5 Chapter 1

And as also can be demonstrated by the other answers and comments on this question, there are many additional places Tolkien would have been aware of that he could have drawn the beacons from. It may be difficult to prove that any one specific example is what Tolkien was basing his beacons on, more so than just a general amalgamation of the concept that would have been familiar to him.

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    Near where I was born in Cordes-sur-ciel (France) it is said that this system was used in the middle age. The city is on a hill surrounded by other hills and there was 3 specific villages on those hills that would lit a fire in case of armies invading, covering the main directions
    – Kaddath
    Jun 13 at 9:58
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    I'd add that in any area in the UK which has historically had optical signalling- beacons or otherwise- there are placenames noting the fact. As a specific example, there are several "Telegraph Hills" etc. stretching along the South Coast from London to Plymouth, and since Tolkien had been posted militarily to Southern England and was later a regular visitor to Bournemouth it is most unlikely that he was unaware of this. Jun 13 at 10:11
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    There is some historical evidence that chains of beacons, perhaps fire beacons, were used during the Viking era to warn of approaching danger. These would have been known to Tollkien from his study of that era. You can see one article here. Jun 13 at 10:51
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    It should also be noted that Macaulay mentions a beacon at Malvern (Worcestershire), specifically Worcestershire Beacon, and Tolkien had connections to Malvern and compared the Malvern Hills to the White Mountains.
    – ajd138
    Jun 13 at 22:35
  • I think I'll delete my answer now, since this one is so much better :)
    – Andrew
    Jun 14 at 0:56

Others have pointed out that signal beacons have certainly been used by many European cultures long before Tolkien, however none have explicitly mentioned what I believe is the closest thing to have been used within England to how the beacons function in LOTR.

During the mid-late part of the Anglo-Saxon period, under the reign of Alfred the Great and his descendents, in order to combat the constant Viking raids a series of burhs were constructed. The burhs were built in a network roughly 1 days march from each other with each burh connecting to at least 2 other burhs. In the event of a Viking raid the nearest burh would light a signal beacon. All connecting burhs who saw the beacon would light their own beacon then march to the burh which called for aid. Other burhs would follow the chain of beacons until eventually reaching the original burh.

Relevant article: Lighting Anglo-Saxon beacons.


The United Kingdom is riddled with beacons, and as such, quite a few places/landmarks have the word beacon contained within them.

From Beaconnect

The UK has a network of ancient fire beacons whose original purpose was to signal major events between what were then more isolated communities. They have been used since at least Roman and Anglo-Saxon times. They have also historically been used to mark Royal events but they are not being lit for the 2023 Coronation.

There are reputed to be some 4,000 of these beacons, with many having a fire basket on a pole or other feature, while others may simply be the site of a large bonfire used for this signalling.

From memory, they were last used for the Platinum Jubilee in 2022, and prior to that (probably) for the turn of the Millenium, and definitely for the Silver Jubilee in 1977. There is one opposite my house on Firle Beacon. In addition, when they are lit, it is not only possible to see the nearest beacon but at least two others in the far distance.

So, as for Tolkien's inspiration, you don't have to look terribly far, seeing as any (semi-rural) Englishman, such as Tolkien, would have grown up with them, and they aren't particularly seen to be out of the ordinary.


The Agamemnon of Aeschylus

The play starts with the watchman lamenting: his job is to watch from the roof of the palace each night, waiting to see the beacon that will announce the fall of Troy. There's a short clip here

The Agamemnon was the first part of The Oresteia, which won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BCE. Tolkien could read Greek, so it is not inconceivable that he would have read Aeschylus in the original while he was an undergraduate (we know he initially read Classics at Oxford before switching to English).

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    The Agamemnon was the first part of The Oresteia, which won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BCE. Tolkien could read Greek, so it is not inconceivable that he would have read Aeschylus in the original while he was an undergraduate (we know he initially read Classics at Oxford before switching to English). Assuming your question is serious, I think it is highly unlikely that he would have watched a video made in 2017, since he died in 1973. Jun 14 at 9:46
  • You should put that info in your answer.
    – ibid
    Jun 14 at 15:10

Lighting warning beacon fires isn't a purely UK or European idea. The Great Wall of China has them built into it as early as 202 CE. One section of the below article mentions a king around 800 BCE lighting fires to impress his concubine.


There's also texts describing lighting warning beacons in the mountains of modern-day Iraq dating back to 714 BCE. This article even compares it to the LOTR: Return of the King movie. It's plausible that Tolkien could have read about this incident while researching for the book.

Another section mentions fire beacons in modern-day Syria as ancient as 1800 BCE.


  • And while that's true, it doesn't answer the question of whether this is what Tolkien had in mind
    – Valorum
    Jun 14 at 20:48
  • @Valorum, none of the other answers actual specify what Tolkien used for reference, so did you DV them, too? I at least found a reference that makes it sound like Tolkien used a specific non-EU incident as the basis for the book. Maybe Tolkien used signal fires specifically because they were widely used across the ancient world, and not just because they we used in the EU. It's not like people actually know what he was thinking. Read Meldon Tarnaion's comment from: quora.com/… Jun 14 at 21:07
  • @Valorum, besides, I was answering the question of "Was Tolkien's system of using waiting signal fires atop peaks—even if they were more hilltops, than Peter Jacksonesque Matterhorns—based on an existing or historical precedent?" I definitely helped show there was "an existing or historical precedent". Jun 14 at 21:08

I know that Tolkien took inspiration from all over the place. It is likely that he based the Gondor Beacon System on a real world communication system. Beacon systems have been used for a long time throughout the world. A particularly obscure and not well known communication network that hasn't been mentioned by any user yet, is the communication networks of the Ancient Persians, specifically during the Achaemenid Period.

British historian Amelie Kuhrt, in her book, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources of the Achaemenid Period lists the different forms of communication, and amongst them, there are two in particular: mountain voice signals and island beacons.

Mountain Voice Signals:

Some of the Persians were at a distance of a thirty-day journey, yet they heard the summons the same day thanks to the ingenious arrangement of guard-posts - a matter that should not be omitted. Persis is traversed by narrow valleys and has many lookout posts that are high up and close together, on which those inhabitants with the loudest voices were stationed. As these places are separated from each other by the distance over which a voice can be heard, those receiving the message transmitted it in the same way to others, and these again to others, until it had been passed right up to the satrapal frontier.

Diodorus Siculus XIX, 17.6-7

This method of communication is already attested to, eg. La Gomera (Canary Islands: whistling); Switzerland (yodelling).

Island Beacons:

A great yearning had seized him (Mardonius) to take Athens a second time. Partly this was arrogance, partly he wanted to show the king in Sardis by beacons across the islands that he held Athens.

Herodotus IX, 3.1

If Tolkien was aware of these methods of communication, he could have taken aspects of both, i.e the mountaintops used for voice signals, and the beacons themselves as Herodotus suggests, and combined them into what we know as the Beacon system of Gondor.


In the northern mountains of Madrid, in Spain, there are still a series of watchtowers that used a system of beacons. They were built in the Xth century by the Moors from the Califate of Cordoba against the Christian kingdoms. They had beacons to signal of an attack, just like the beacons of the Lord of the Rings. But in this case the builders of the beacons lost the battle. In the Xth century, thanks to legendary knights, such as El Cid, the frontier line moved greatly from Burgos to south of Toledo, the Christians occupied one third of the peninsula and at the end of the century they occupied two thirds. Several Spanish knight orders were created to keep the new frontiers and the Templars were also very present. Contrary to the Templars, the members of the Spanish orders were not all monks, there were knights allowed to marry and women. These women were members of the order but were not knights, they took care of the community. But who knows if there were some Eowyn that was lost in the memory of time ☺️

  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. Can you clarify how much the system of beacons matches the one in LoTR? Were they high in the mountains? Were they large open fires?
    – DavidW
    Oct 28 at 20:44

As Chris H says in a comment on another answer, signal fires were used in England to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada.

Mainland England was also being prepared for the arrival of the invading forces with a system of signal beacons that had been erected along the English and Welsh coasts in order to warn London that the Armada was approaching.

Modern replicas of these beacons can be seen in many places along the south coast of the UK. (e.g https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/armada-beacon). They were erected in 1988 for the 400th anniversary of the Armada, but the history is well known and its probable that Tolkien was taught it at school.

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