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Middle-earth is the name for the lands on J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional ancient Earth where most of the tales of his legendarium take place. "Middle-earth" is a literal translation of the Old Norse mythological term Midgard, referring to this world, the realm of humans. The term may be applied informally to the entire world depicted in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, or more properly in specific reference to its main continent (called Endor or Ennor in the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin, respectively).
Although Middle-earth's setting is often thought to be another world, it is actually a fictional period in our Earth's own past 6,000 to 7,000 years ago. Tolkien insisted that Middle-earth is our Earth in several of his letters. The action of the books is largely confined to the north-west of the continent, corresponding to modern-day Europe, and little is known about the lands in the east and south of Middle-earth.
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. Its world (Arda) was originally flat but was made round near the end of the Second Age by Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator.
Much of our knowledge of Middle-earth is based on writings that Tolkien did not finish for publication during his lifetime. In these cases, this article is based on the version of the Middle-earth legendarium that is considered canonical by most Tolkien fans, as discussed under Middle-earth canon.
The term "Middle-earth" was not invented by Tolkien, rather it existed in Old English as middanġeard, in Middle English as midden-erd or middel-erd; in Old Norse it was called Midgard. It is English for what the Greeks called the οικουμένη (oikoumenē) or "the abiding place of men", the physical world as opposed to the unseen worlds (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 151). The word Mediterranean comes from two Latin stems, medi, middle, and terra, earth.
Middangeard occurs half-a-dozen times in Beowulf, which Tolkien translated and on which he was arguably the world's foremost authority. (See also J. R. R. Tolkien for discussion of his inspirations and sources). See Midgard and Norse mythology for the older use.
Tolkien was also inspired by this fragment:
- Eala earendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended.
- Hail Earendel, brightest of angels / above the middle-earth sent unto men.
The term Middle-earth can be interpreted in several ways:
- as the oikoumenē,
- as the "middle" land between the unreachable Aman in the west and the unknown Sun-lands in the east,
- as in the "middle" area between Over-heaven (Aman) and hell (Angband, a geographic location in the same way Tartarus was), and
- as the fixed land above the seas of Vaiya, but below the upper skies where Sun, Moon, and stars reside.
Some hollow earth enthusiasts interpret the term their way, believing that Tolkien referred to the hollow earth theory, but nothing in Tolkien's writings or beliefs supports this.
The name "Middle-earth" is often spelled "Middle Earth" or "Middle-Earth" by the popular media.
Main article: Arda
Although 'Middle-earth' strictly refers to a specific continent (called Endor in the Elvish language Quenya and Ennor in Sindarin, both meaning "middle land"), representing what we would know as Eurasia and Africa, the term is often used to refer to this entire 'earth' (properly called Arda), or even to the entire universe (properly called Eä) in which the stories take place.
If the map of Middle-earth is projected on our real Earth (a rough approximation at best), and some of the most obvious climatological, botanical, and zoological similarities are aligned, we get the Hobbits' Shire in the temperate England, Gondor in the Mediterranean Italy and Greece, Mordor in the arid Turkey and Middle East, South Gondor and Near Harad in the deserts of Northern Africa, Rhovanion in the forests of Eastern Europe and the steppes of Western and Southern Russia, and the Ice Bay of Forochel in the fjords of Norway. According to Tolkien, the Shire is supposed to reside at the approximate location of England's Midlands area (specifically Warwickshire), whereas Minas Tirith in Gondor is comparable to Venice, and Pelargir with Byzantium (Constantinople) and Troy.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are presented as the life work of Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins and other Hobbits, and purport to be a translation of the Red Book of Westmarch. Like Shakespeare's King Lear or Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories, the tales occupy a historical period that could not have actually existed. 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. 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.
Tolkien wrote extensively about the linguistics, mythology and history of the land, which form the back-story for these stories. Most of these writings, 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 describes a larger cosmology which includes Middle-earth as well as Valinor, Númenor, and other lands. Also notable are Unfinished Tales and the multiple volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which include incomplete stories and essays as well as detailing the development of Tolkien's writings from early drafts through the last writings of his life.
Main article: Ainulindalë
The supreme deity of Tolkien's universe is called Eru Ilúvatar. In the beginning, Ilúvatar created spirits named the Ainur, and he led them in divine music. The Ainu Melkor, Tolkien's equivalent of Satan, broke the harmony, and in response Ilúvatar introduced new themes that enhanced the music beyond the comprehension of the Ainur. The essence of their song established the history of the as yet unmade universe and the people who were to dwell therein.
Then Ilúvatar created Eä, the universe itself, and the Ainur formed within it Arda, the Earth, "globed within the void": the world together with the airs is set apart from Kuma, the "void" without. The fifteen most powerful Ainur who came in the world first to shape and govern Arda are called the Valar, one of which was Melkor, the most powerful.
The earth before the second half of the Second Age was radically different than the world of the Third and later Ages: Arda was created as a flat world, represented as a ship or an island floating on the surrounding ocean (Vaiya), which forms water below Arda and air above. The Sun and Moon, as well as some stars (including the stars of the Big Dipper) followed paths within Vaiya, and as such are a part of Arda, set apart from the Void.
In the cosmic upheaval after the Downfall of Númenor late in the Second Age, the cosmology is radically changed, as Arda is turned into a globed world much like the actual Earth. The continent of Aman is removed from the world, and new lands are created "below" the old lands.
Main article: List of Middle-earth peoples
Middle-earth is home to several distinct intelligent species. First are the Ainur, angelic beings created by Ilúvatar. The Ainur helped Ilúvatar to create Arda in the cosmological myth called the "Ainulindalë", or "Music of the Ainur". Some of the Ainur later entered Arda, and the greatest of these are called the Valar. Melkor (later called "Morgoth"), the representation of evil in Middle-earth, was initially one of them.
The lesser Ainur who entered Arda are called the Maiar. In the First Age the chief example is Melian, wife of the Elven King Thingol; in the Third Age the Maiar are represented by the Istari (called Wizards by Men), including Gandalf and Saruman. There were also evil Maiar, including the Balrogs and the Dark Lord Sauron.
Later came the Children of Ilúvatar: Elves and Men, intelligent beings created by Ilúvatar alone. In The Silmarillion, set in the First Age and before, was told much of the Elves, the Elder children, although Men did appear towards the end.
The descendants of those Men who were faithful to the Eldar and the Three Houses of Edain were dealt in the tale of the Downfall of Númenor, set in the Second Age. Their children in the Third Age are the Men of Arnor and Gondor who appear in The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits are described as an offshoot of Men.
The Dwarves have a special position in the legendarium, in that they were not created by Ilúvatar, but rather by one of the Valar named Aulë. However, Aulë offers his creations to Ilúvatar, who adopts the Dwarves and gives them life and free will. The Ents, shepherds of the trees, are created by Ilúvatar at the Vala Yavanna's request to balance the Dwarves.
Orcs and Trolls are evil creatures bred by Morgoth; they are not original creations but rather "mockeries" of Elves and Ents. Their ultimate origin is uncertain, but at least some of them were bred from corrupted Elves and Men.
Seemingly sapient animals also appear, such as the Eagles, Huan the Great Hound from Valinor, and the Wargs. 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.
Main article: Languages of Middle-earth
Tolkien originally started writing the Silmarillion as a spin-off from his constructed language projects. He devised two main Elven languages, which would later become known to us as Quenya, spoken by the Noldor and some Teleri, and Sindarin, spoken by the Elves who stayed in Beleriand (see below). These languages were related, and a Common Eldarin form ancestral to them both is postulated.
Other languages of the world include
- Adűnaic - spoken by the Númenoreans
- Black Speech - devised by Sauron for his slaves to speak
- Khuzdűl - spoken by the Dwarves
- Rohirric - spoken by the Rohirrim - represented in the Lord of the Rings by Old English
- Westron - the 'Common Speech' - represented by English
- Valarin - The language of the Ainur.
History of Middle-earth
Main article: History of Arda
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 creation of Arda by the Valar. 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, at the island of Almaren. Melkor's destruction of the two Lamps marked the end of the Years of the Lamps.
Then, Yavanna made the Two Trees, named Telperion and Laurelin in the land of Aman. The Trees illuminated Aman, leaving Middle-earth in twilight. The Elves awoke beside Lake Cuiviénen in the east of Middle-earth, and were soon approached by the Valar. Many of the Elves were persuaded to go on the Great Journey westwards towards Aman, but not all of them completed the journey (see Sundering of the Elves). The Valar had captured Melkor but he appeared to repent and was released. 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 and his house left to pursue Melkor to Beleriand, cursing him with the name 'Morgoth' (Black Enemy). A larger host led by Fingolfin followed. They reached 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'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.
The First Age of the Years of the Sun began when the Valar made the Sun and the Moon out of the final fruit and flower of the dying Trees. After several great battles, the Long Peace lasted hundreds of years, during which time Men arrived over the Blue Mountains. But one by one the Elven kingdoms fell, even the hidden city of Gondolin. By the end of the age, all that remained of the free Elves and Men in Beleriand was a settlement at the mouth of the River Sirion. Among them was Eärendil, whose wife Elwing held a Silmaril that her grandparents Beren and Lúthien had recovered from Morgoth's crown. But the Fëanorians tried to press their claim to the Silmaril by force, leading to another Kinslaying. Eärendil and Elwing took the Silmaril across the Great Sea, to beg the Valar for pardon and aid. The Valar responded. Melkor was exiled into the Void and most of his works destroyed. This came at a terrible cost, as Beleriand itself was broken and began to sink under the sea.
Thus began the Second Age in Middle-earth. The Men who had remained faithful were given the island of Númenor toward the west of the Great Sea as their home, while the Elves were allowed to return to the West. The Númenoreans became great seafarers, but also increasingly jealous of the Elves for their immortality. Meanwhile, in Middle-earth it became apparent that Sauron, Morgoth's chief servant, was again active. He worked with Elven smiths in Eregion on the craft of rings, and forged the One Ring to dominate them all. The Elves were aware of him, and ceased using their own.
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 the Straight Road from Middle-earth to Aman was broken, impassable to all but the Elves. 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 escaped to Middle Earth 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, but not destroyed.
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, traveled 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 Sam Gamgee were hailed as heroes. Sauron was destroyed forever and his spirit dissipated.
The end of the Third Age marked the end of the time of the Firstborn and the beginning of the dominion of Men. As the Fourth Age began, most of the Elves who had lingered in Middle-earth left for Valinor, never to return; those few who remained behind would "fade" and diminish. The Dwarves eventually dwindled away as well. The creatures of the Enemy were all but destroyed, and 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.
Works by Tolkien
- 1937 The Hobbit
- 1954 The Fellowship of the Ring, part 1 of The Lord of the Rings
- 1954 The Two Towers, part 2 of The Lord of the Rings
- 1955 The Return of the King, part 3 of The Lord of the Rings
- 1962 The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book
- An assortment of poems, only loosely related to The Lord of the Rings
- 1967 The Road Goes Ever On
- 1977 The Silmarillion
- The history of the Elder Days, before the Lord of the Rings, including the Downfall of Númenor
- 1980 Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth
- Stories and essays left out of the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings because they were never completed.
The History of Middle-earth series:
- 1983 The Book of Lost Tales 1
- 1984 The Book of Lost Tales 2
- The original versions of the legendarium, introducing many ideas which were later heavily revised and rewritten
- 1985 The Lays of Beleriand
- 1986 The Shaping of Middle-earth
- The first steps towards the later Silmarillion
- 1987 The Lost Road and Other Writings
- The first appearance of Númenor and its downfall
- 1988 The Return of the Shadow (The History of The Lord of the Rings v.1)
- 1989 The Treason of Isengard (The History of The Lord of the Rings v.2)
- 1990 The War of the Ring (The History of The Lord of the Rings v.3)
- 1992 Sauron Defeated (The History of The Lord of the Rings v.4)
- The development of the Lord of the Rings, from 'The Hobbit 2' to what would become more a sequel for 'The Silmarillion'. Sauron Defeated also includes further development of the Númenor legend.
- 1993 Morgoth's Ring (The Later Silmarillion, part one)
- 1994 The War of the Jewels (The Later Silmarillion, part two)
- The rewriting of the Silmarillion after the Lord of the Rings was published. These include signs of an immense upheaval as the entire cosmological myth was questioned.
- 1996 The Peoples of Middle-earth
- Various late writings, providing detailed information on various peoples, as well as linguistic essays
Works by others
A small selection of the dozens of books about Tolkien and his worlds:
- 1978 The Complete Guide to Middle-earth (ISBN 0345449762, Robert Foster , generally recognised as an excellent reference book. This guide does not have information from Unfinished Tales or the History of Middle-earth series, which leads to some errors by our choice of "canon" above.)
- 1981 The Atlas of Middle-earth (Karen Wynn Fonstad - an atlas of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and The Unfinished Tales; revised 1991)
- 1981 Journeys of Frodo (Barbara Strachey - an atlas of The Lord of the Rings)
- 1983 The Road to Middle-earth (Tom Shippey - literary analysis of Tolkien's stories from the perspective of a fellow philologist; last revised 2003)
- 2002 The Complete Tolkien Companion (ISBN 0330411659, J. E. A. Tyler - a reference, covers The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales; substantially improved over the two earlier editions.)
In letter #202 to Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R. Tolkien set out his policy regarding film adaptions of his works: "Art or Cash". He sold the film rights for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to United Artists in 1969 after being faced with a sudden tax bill. They are currently in the hands of Tolkien Enterprises, which has no relation to the Tolkien Estate, which retains film rights to The Silmarillion and other works.
The following year (1978), a movie entitled The Lord of the Rings was released, produced and directed by Ralph Bakshi; it was an adaption of the first half of the story, using rotoscope animation. Although relatively faithful to the story, it was neither a commercial nor a critical success.
In 1980, Rankin-Bass produced a TV special covering roughly the last half of The Lord of the Rings, called The Return of the King. However, this did not follow on directly from the end of the Bakshi film.
- The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The films were a huge box office and critical success and together won seventeen Oscars (at least one in each applicable category for a fictional, English language, live-action feature film, except in the acting categories). However, in adapting the works to film, changes in the storyline and characters offended some fans of the books (for a detailed discussion of the changes, see the "Movie-Goer's Guides" at The Encyclopedia of Arda).
The works of Tolkien have been a major influence on role-playing games along with others such as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft, and Michael Moorcock. Although the most famous game to be inspired partially by the setting was Dungeons & Dragons, there have been two specifically Middle-earth based and licensed games. These are the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game from Decipher Inc. and the Middle Earth Role Play game (MERP) from Iron Crown Enterprises.
Simulations Publications created three war games based on Tolkien's work. War of the Ring covered most of the events in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gondor focused on the battle of Pelennor Fields, and Sauron covered the Second Age battle before the gates of Mordor. A war game based on the Lord of the Rings movies is currently being produced by Games Workshop.
The computer game Angband is a free roguelike D&D-style game that features many characters from Tolkien's works. The most complete list of Tolkien-inspired computer games can be found at http://www.lysator.liu.se/tolkien-games/
EA Games has released games for the gaming consoles and the PC platform. These include The Two Towers, The Return of the King, The Battle for Middle Earth, and The Third Age. Vivendi released The Fellowship of the Ring while Sierra created The War of the Ring, both games that proved highly unsuccessful.
Apart from this game, many commercial computer games have been released. Some of these derived their rights from the Estate, such as The Hobbit — others from the movie and merchandising rights.
- Encyclopedia of Arda - the best online source for the names and facts of Tolkien's imaginary history. It has been used as a source.
- Ardalambion - This is a great site for anyone who wants to delve into the languages of Middle-earth. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn Quenya.
- The Tolkien Meta-FAQ - Summaries of common discussions about Tolkien and Middle-earth, from basic questions to expert debates.
- The Tolkien Wiki - The first wikiweb dedicated to the literary works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Contains a compendium, book-descriptions, essays, FAQ, etc..
- The One Ring.net - A site with multiple examples of Tolkien Fanart, Fanwriting, and a little bit of facts.
- The Lord of the Rings official movie site - the official movie site. It contains information on the movie and the books.
- Ted Nasmith - Tolkien Illustrations - The website of Tolkien illustrator Ted Nasmith, which includes galleries of illustrations for several books.
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