Le Monde de Tolkein Tolkein's World

The geography and history of Middle-earth

Peter Jackson's film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings

Middle-earth is the name used for J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional ancient Earth where the stories in his legendarium take place. "Middle-earth" is a literal translation of the Old English term Middangeard, referring to this world; the habitable lands of men. Years after publication, Tolkien 'postulated' in a letter that the action of the books takes place roughly 6,000 years ago, though he was not certain. He also insisted that Middle-earth is our Earth. The action of the books is largely confined to the north-west of the Endor continent, corresponding to modern-day Europe, and little is known about the other regions of ancient Middle-earth.

The lands described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

The history of Middle-earth is divided into several Ages: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings deal exclusively with events towards the end of the Third Age and conclude at the dawn of the Fourth Age, while The Silmarillion deals mainly with the First Age.

The name

The term "Middle-earth" was not invented by Tolkien, rather it existed in Old English as middangeard, in Middle English as midden-erd; in Old Norse it was called Midgard. It represents the physical world as opposed to the unseen worlds (paradise and the underworld) common to many cultures. Middangeard occurs half-a-dozen times in Beowulf, the Old English heroic tale. Tolkien himself translated the text and was arguably the world's foremost authority on it.

The name was consciously used by Tolkien to place The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and related writings. Tolkien began to use the term "Middle-earth" after he abandoned his earlier mythological inventions in favour of creating a generic mythology for northern Europe which encompassed a whole world concept. "Middle-earth", when used by Tolkien, refers to the whole world and not to any specific part of it. Many people incorrectly apply the name to the lands described in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In ancient Germanic and Old Norse mythology, the universe was believed to consist of nine physical worlds joined together. The world of Men, the Middle-earth, lay in the centre of this universe. The lands of Elves, Gods, and Giants lay across an encircling sea. The land of the Dead lay beneath the Middle-earth. A rainbow bridge, Bifrost, extended from Middle-earth to Asgaard across the sea. A "world" was in fact more equivalent to a racial homeland than a physically separate world.

The world

Ambar before the end of the First Age

Some people speculate that if the map of Middle-earth was projected on our real Earth some of the most obvious climatological, botanical, and zoological similarities would match. The Hobbits' Shire might lie in England, Gondor in Mediterranean Italy and Greece and Mordor near Turkey. According to Tolkien however; there are no exact physical correlations between the countries of Middle-earth and modern-day regions.

J.R.R. Tolkien never defined the geography for the entire world associated with 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings'. In 'The Shaping of Middle-earth', volume IV of 'The History of Middle-earth', Christopher Tolkien published several remarkable maps of a "flat Earth" which his father had devised for the first Silmarillion mythology. These maps were cannibalized by Karen Wynn Fonstad to project possible compatible but entirely non-canonical "whole world maps" reflecting a world consistent with the historical ages depicted in 'The Silmarillion', 'The Hobbit', and 'The Lord of the Rings'. The only maps ever prepared by Christopher Tolkien and/or J.R.R. Tolkien were published as foldouts or illustrations in 'The Hobbit', 'The Lord of the Rings', and 'The Silmarillion'.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are presented as Tolkien's retelling of events depicted in the Red Book of Westmarch. This was written by Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, and other Hobbits, and corrected and annotated by one or more Gondorian scholars. Despite previously described similarities, the tales occupy a historical period that could not have actually existed. However dates for the length of the year and the phases of the moon, along with descriptions of constellations, firmly fix the world as Earth, no longer than several thousand years ago.

Tolkien wrote extensively about the linguistics, mythology and history of the world, which provide background for the stories. Many writings which preceded the Middle-earth mythology, but which served as sources and inspirations for the mythology, with the exception of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, were edited and published posthumously by his son Christopher. Notable among them is The Silmarillion, which provides a Bible-like creation story and description of the cosmology of Middle-earth. The Silmarillion is the primary source of information about Valinor, Númenor, and other lands.


As has been mentioned previously, Tolkien's own legend bore many similarities with traditional mythology. As such he had his own Creation Myth. The supreme deity of Tolkien's universe is called Eru Ilúvatar. In the beginning, Ilúvatar created spirits named the Ainur and he taught them to make music. After the Ainur had become proficient in their skills, Ilúvatar commanded them to make a great music based on a theme of his own design. The most powerful Ainu, Melkor, Tolkien's equivalent of Satan, disrupted the theme, and in response Ilúvatar introduced new themes that enhanced the music beyond the comprehension of the Ainur. The movements of their song laid the seeds of much of the history of the as yet unmade universe and the people who were to dwell there.

Ilúvatar stopped the music and revealed its meaning to the Ainur through a Vision. Moved by the Vision, many of the Ainur felt a compelling urge to experience its events directly. Ilúvatar therefore created Eä, the universe itself, and some of the Ainur went down into the universe to share in its experience. However upon arriving in Eä, the Ainur found it was shapeless because they had entered at the beginning of Time. The Ainur undertook great labours in these unnamed "ages of the stars", in which they shaped the universe and filled it with many things far beyond the reach of Men. In time, however, the Ainur formed Arda, the abiding place of the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men. The fifteen most powerful Ainur are called the Valar, including Melkor. They settled in Arda to watch over it and help prepare it for the awakening of the Children.

Arda began as a single flat world, which the Valar gave light to through two immense lamps. Melkor destroyed the lamps and brought darkness to the world. The Valar retreated to the extreme western regions of Arda, where they created the Two Trees to give light to their new homeland. After many ages, the Valar imprisoned Melkor to punish and rehabilitate him - and to protect the awakening Children. But when Melkor was released on parole he poisoned the Two Trees. The Valar took the last two living leaves of the Two Trees and used them to create the Moon and Sun, which remained a part of Arda but were separate from Ambar (the world).

Before the end of the Second Age, when the Men of Numenor rebelled against the Valar, Ilúvatar destroyed Numenor, separated Valinor from the rest of Arda, and formed new lands, making the world round. Only Endor remained of the original world, and Endor had now become Eurasia.


Middle-earth is home to several distinct intelligent species. First are the Ainur, angelic beings created by Ilúvatar. The Ainur sing for Ilúvatar, who creates Eä to give existence to their music. Some of the Ainur then enter Eä, and the greatest of these is called the Valar Melkor (later called "Morgoth"), the chief personification of evil in Eä.

The other Ainur who enter Eä are called the Maiar. In the First Age the most active Maia is Melian, wife of the Elven King Thingol; in the Third Age the Maiar are represented by the Istari (called Wizards or the Wise by Men) who include Gandalf and Saruman. There were also evil Maiar, called Umaiar, including the Balrogs and the second Dark Lord Sauron.

Sir Ian Mckellen as Gandalf in The Two Towers

Later come the Children of Ilúvatar: Elves and Men, intelligent beings created by Ilúvatar alone. The Silmarillion tells how Elves and Men awaken and spread through the world. The Dwarves are said to have been made by the Vala Aulë, who offered to destroy them when Ilúvatar confronted him. Ilúvatar forgives Aulë's transgression and adopts the Dwarves. Three tribes of Men who ally themselves with the Elves of Beleriand in the First Age are called the Edain.

As a reward for their loyalty and suffering in the Wars of Beleriand, the descendants of the Edain are given the island of Numenor to be their home. But after more than two thousand years of peace and prosperity, many of the Numenoreans become resentful of their mortality. Led by their kings, they rebel and seek to force the Valar to grant them immortality. A few Numenoreans who remained faithful survive the destruction of Numenor. Settling in the northern lands of Endor, they found the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. They are then known as the Dunedain, whereas other Numenorean survivors, still devoted to evil but living far to the south, become known as the Black Numenoreans.

Tolkien identified Hobbits as an offshoot of the race of Men. Although their origins and ancient history are not known, Tolkien implied that they settled in the Vales of Anduin early in the Third Age, but after a thousand years the Hobbits began migrating west over the Misty Mountains into Eriador. Eventually, many Hobbits settled in the Shire.

After they are granted true life by Ilúvatar, Aulë lays the Dwarves to sleep in hidden mountain locations. Ilúvatar awakens the Dwarves only after the Elves have awakened. The Dwarves spread throughout northern Endor and eventually found seven kingdoms. Two of these kingdoms, Nogrod and Belegost, befriend the Elves of Beleriand against Morgoth in the First Age. But the greatest Dwarf kingdom is Khazad-dum, later known as Moria.

The Ents, shepherds of the trees, are created by Ilúvatar at the Vala Yavanna's request to protect trees from the deprivations of Elves, Dwarves, and Men.

Orcs and Trolls are evil creatures bred by Morgoth; they are not original creations but rather "mockeries" of Elves and Ents. Within the deepest pits of Utamno, in the First Age of Stars, it is said Melkor committed his greatest blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons, and with hideous acts of torture he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a Goblin race of slaves who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate.

Seemingly sapient animals also appear, such as the Eagles, Huan the Great Hound from Valinor, and the Wargs, evil-natured wolves. The Eagles are created by Ilúvatar along with the Ents, but in general these animals' origins and nature are unclear. Some of them might be Maiar in animal form, or perhaps even the offspring of Maiar and normal animals.

History of Middle-earth

The history of Middle-earth is divided into three time periods, known as the Years of the Lamps, Years of the Trees and Years of the Sun. The Years of the Sun are further subdivided into Ages. Most Middle-earth stories take place in the first three Ages of the Sun.

The Years of the Lamps began shortly after the Valar finished their labours in shaping Arda. The Valar created two lamps to illuminate the world, and the Vala Aulë forged great towers, one in the furthest north, and another in the deepest south. The Valar lived in the middle, on the island of Almaren. Melkor's destruction of the two Lamps marked the end of the Years of the Lamps.

Aman during the Second Age

Then Yavanna made the Two Trees named Taxperson and Laurelin in the land of Aman., thus beginning the Years of the Trees. The Trees illuminated Aman, leaving the rest of Arda in darkness, with only the stars for light. The Elves awoke beside Lake Cuiviénen in the east of Endor, and were soon approached by the Valar. Many of the Elves were persuaded to undertake the Great Journey westwards towards Aman, but not all of them completed the journey. The Valar had imprisoned Melkor but he appeared to repent and was released on parole. He sowed great discord among the Elves and stirred up rivalry between the Elven princes Fëanor and Fingolfin. He then slew their father, king Finwë and stole the Silmarils, three gems crafted by Fëanor that contained light of the Two Trees, from his vault, and destroyed the Trees themselves.

Fëanor persuaded most of his people, the Noldor, to leave Aman in pursuit of Melkor to Beleriand, cursing him with the name 'Morgoth' (Black Enemy). Fëanor led the first of two groups of Noldor. The larger group was led by Fingolfin. The Noldor stopped at the Teleri's port-city, Alqualondë, but the Teleri refused to give them ships to get to Middle-earth. The first Kinslaying thus ensued; Fëanor and many of his followers attacked the Teleri and stole their ships. Fëanor's host sailed on the stolen ships, leaving Fingolfin's behind to cross over to Middle-earth through the deadly Helcaraxë (or Grinding Ice) in the far north. Subsequently Fëanor was slain, but most of his sons survived and founded realms, as did Fingolfin and his heirs.

Beleriand during the First Age

The First Age of the Years of the Sun began when the Valar made the Sun and it rose over the world, Imbar. After several great battles, a Long Peace ensued for four hundred years, during which time the first Men entered Beleriand by crossing over the Blue Mountains. When Morgoth broke the siege of Angband, one by one the Elven kingdoms fell, even the hidden city of Gondolin. The only measurable success achieved by Elves and Men came when Beren of the Edain and Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, retrieved a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. Afterward, Beren and Luthien died, and were restored to life by the Valar with the understanding that Luthien was to become mortal and Beren should never be seen by Men again.

Thus began the Second Age of the Sun. The Edain were given the island of Númenor toward the west of the Great Sea as their home, while many Elves were welcomed into the West. The Númenoreans became great seafarers, but also became increasingly jealous of the Elves for their immortality. But after a few centuries, Sauron, Morgoth's chief servant, began to organize evil creatures in the eastern lands. He persuaded Elven smiths in Eregion to create Rings of Power, and secretly forged the One Ring to control the other rings. But the Elves became aware of Sauron's plan as soon as he put the One Ring on his hand, and they removed their own Rings before he could master their wills.

Numenor during the Second Age

The last Númenorean king Ar-Pharazôn, by the strength of his army, humbled even Sauron and brought him to Númenor as a hostage. But with the help of the One Ring, Sauron deceived Ar-Pharazôn and convinced the king to invade Aman, promising immortality for all those who set foot on the Undying Lands. Amandil, chief of those still faithful to the Valar, tried to sail west to seek their aid. His son Elendil and grandsons Isildur and Anárion prepared to flee east to Middle-earth. When the King's forces landed on Aman, the Valar called for Ilúvatar to intervene. The world was changed, and Aman was removed from Imbar. From that time onward, Men could no longer find Aman, but Elves seeking passage in specially hallowed ships received the grace of using the Straight Road, which led from Middle-earth's seas to the seas of Aman. Númenor was utterly destroyed, and with it the fair body of Sauron, but his spirit endured and fled back to Middle-Earth. Elendil and his sons, including Elrond escaped to Endor and founded the realms of Gondor and Arnor. Sauron soon rose again, but the Elves allied with the Men to form the Last Alliance and defeated him. His One Ring was taken from him by Isildur, Aragorn's ancestor, but not destroyed. This story is related in the Silmarillion and recounted again at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.

A view of Gondor from The Return of the King

The Third Age saw the rise in power of the realms of Arnor and Gondor, and their decline. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron had recovered much of his former strength, and was seeking the One Ring. He discovered that it was in the possession of a Hobbit and sent out the nine Ringwraiths to retrieve it. The Ring-bearer, Frodo Baggins, travelled to Rivendell, where it was decided that the Ring had to be destroyed in the only way possible: casting it into the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo set out on the quest with eight companions-the Fellowship of the Ring. At the last moment he failed, but with the intervention of the creature Gollum-who was saved by the pity of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins-the Ring was nevertheless destroyed. Frodo with his companion Samwise Gamgee were hailed as heroes. Sauron was destroyed forever and his spirit dissipated.

Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers

The end of the Third Age marked the end of the dominion of the Elves and the beginning of the dominion of Men, with the return of Isildur's heir, Aragorn. As the Fourth Age began, many of the Elves who had lingered in Middle-earth left for Valinor, never to return; those who remained behind would "fade" and diminish. The Dwarves eventually dwindled away as well. Peace was restored between Gondor and the lands to the south and east. Eventually, the tales of the earlier Ages became legends, the truth behind them forgotten.

Adapted from Wikipedia