The Encyclopedia of Arda - an interactive guide to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien
Location
A huge continent or continents1 lying to the east of the Great Sea
Maker
Meaning
Debatable, but probably 'Earth in the Middle of the encircling seas3'
Other names

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  • Updated 8 March 2008
  • Updates planned: 50

Middle-earth

The Mortal Lands of Arda

Map of Middle-earth
Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring

The great continent on which much of the Silmarillion, and the adventures of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are set. Little is known of the east or south of Middle-earth, or of the far north, but the geography and history of its Western lands are chronicled in great detail.

Ancient Times

The foundations of Middle-earth were laid by Aulë in times ancient beyond reckoning, and the Valar lit the new lands with two great Lamps, Illuin in the north and Ormal in the south. From fear of Tulkas, Melkor had fled beyond the Walls of the World, and Middle-earth was a place of peace and beauty. The Valar themselves dwelt in its central regions, on the green island of Almaren. This was the time known as the Spring of Arda.

Unknown to the Valar, though, Melkor secretly returned, and delved his first great fortress of Utumno in the mountains of the far distant north. When he judged the time was right, he assailed Almaren and, surprising the Valar, destroyed their habitation in Middle-earth. Fleeing back to Utumno, he saved himself from the wrath of Tulkas. This is one of the great disasters of Middle-earth's history: the Valar departed forever, and left Middle-earth under the sole control of Melkor, who claimed it as his own.

Though the Valar made a new home for themselves in Aman, and lit their new land of Valinor with the light of the Two Trees, Middle-earth was now left in darkness for many Ages. The Valar did not completely forget their ancient home, though, and Yavanna and Oromë, especially, came there from time to time to try and mend the hurts of Melkor if they could.

It was at this time, too, that Aulë returned, and secretly fashioned a hall beneath the mountains of Middle-earth4. It was there that he wrought the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves, who were given life by Ilúvatar, but set to sleep until the awakening of the Firstborn.

Despite these brief visits from the Valar, though, Middle-earth was effectively controlled by Melkor, who was free to act as he would. Slowly, his polluted realm spread southwards over Middle-earth.

The Coming of the Elves

The Awakening of the Elves at Cuiviénen brought about profound changes in Middle-earth. At first they lived in darkness, prey to the creatures of Melkor, but Oromë found them, and the Valar decided to act: they went to war against Melkor.

There followed the Battle of the Powers in the north and west of Middle-earth. That war rent and twisted the lands, giving them the shape they were to keep until the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age. Dorthonion and the highlands north of Beleriand were raised up at that time, and many bays, including the Bay of Balar, were created.

Melkor was ultimately defeated, and taken as a prisoner back to Valinor. After much debate, the Valar also offered the Elves a home in Aman, and many accepted. Led by Oromë, the Vanyar, Noldor and Teleri made the Great Journey westward across Middle-earth from the far east where they had awakened.

Many of these departed Middle-earth across the Sea, but some remained, of which the major groups were the Sindar of Beleriand and the Nandor of the Anduin valley. Other groups, mainly of Telerin origin, had also left the Journey: these were the people who were to become known as the Silvan Elves. Also, in the far east, remained the Elves who had refused the summons of the Valar, the Avari. All these kinds together are known as the Moriquendi, the Dark Elves, for they did not go to Valinor or see the light of the Two Trees.


Where and when was Middle-earth?

Merely from the story of The Lord of the Rings, it's perhaps not entirely clear where and when the events take place. That's especially true for those who have come to Tolkien's work through the movie version, and so don't have access to the background details in the Prologue and the Appendices. Actually, the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings has some fairly explicit comments to make on the topic:

'Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed...'
The Lord of the Rings Prologue, 1 Concerning Hobbits

There's another reference in Appendix D that confirms this idea:

'...long ago as those times are now reckoned in years and lives of men, they were not very remote according to the memory of the Earth.'
The Lord of the Rings Appendix D, Calendars

These comments (and many others, as we'll see) make it clear that Middle-earth is actually no more or less than our own Earth, and the story belongs to a time that was certainly long ago, but not unimaginably remote in time.

Where?

Despite the change in the shape of the continents, it isn't hard to locate the action of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien makes this particular clear in a comment in the Prologue to that book:

'...the regions in which Hobbits then lived were doubtless the same as those in which they still linger: the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea.'
The Lord of the Rings Prologue, 1 Concerning Hobbits

In other words, the Shire and the lands around lay in the same region of the world as modern Europe. As the characters travel south from the northerly latitudes of the Shire, the climate becomes warmer and drier, just as it would for a traveller journeying from (say) Britain to the southern parts of Europe.

Beyond the lands visited by the Hobbits are others, less familiar, to the south and east. It doesn't take much imagination to identify the mysterious eastern lands of Rhûn with part of Asia, or the hot southern lands of Harad as being part of Africa.

The Americas are a little more difficult to place in Tolkien's world. Until the Downfall of Númenor at the end of the Second Age, their approximate place in the World was taken up by Aman in the Uttermost West. After the Downfall, though, Aman was taken away from the mortal world, and there are hints about the new geography of the world among the closing lines of Akallabêth:

'Ilúvatar cast back the Great Seas west of Middle-earth, and the Empty Lands east of it, and new lands and new seas were made...'
The Silmarillion: Akallabêth

The new lands to the west must surely be the Americas. Those in the east are less easy to identify - perhaps these words refer to the emergence of, say, Australia or Japan, though it's much harder to be sure of Tolkien's intentions in this area.

When?

Though we can't fix the dates of Tolkien's tales to the precise year, it's clear that he had in mind a time-scheme placing them just a few thousand years ago. The most specific comment he made on the topic comes from Tolkien's letters:

'I imagine the gap [between the Fall of Barad-dûr and modern times] to be about 6000 years...'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien No 211, dated 1958

This is less definitive than it might appear, because other references hint at slightly longer time-scales, up to about 8,000 years. So, we can't say exactly how long ago Frodo made his journey into Mordor, but it's clearly somewhere between about 6,000 and 8,000 years ago.

From Middle-earth to Our Earth

The dating of Tolkien's world places it just on the fringes of our own prehistory. Historically, 6,000 to 8,000 years ago most of the world was still in the Stone Age, and the shapes of the continents and their shorelines were basically in their modern form - quite different from those shown in Tolkien's maps.

So, what happened? Such drastic change seems to imply that some great catastrophe overtook the civilizations of Middle-earth before our own era began, but if that was Tolkien's intention, he does no more than hint at the possibility.

Whatever the cause, at least something of the old world survived into modern times. For instance, it seems clear that Tolkien imagined both Hobbits and Dragons surviving into historical times, and even to modern days (for instance, see the quote above from the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, where he speaks of Hobbits still lingering in the North-West of the Old World. It seems some of the Elves still remain, too, but in quite changed form - for instance, the Third Age is described as the time of:

'the last of the lingering dominion of visible fully incarnate Elves'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien No 131, provisionally dated 1951

By our time the fading of the last Elves east of the Sea is all but complete, but a few still remain, as whispers or echoes of their ancient selves. One race that definitely survived, of course, was Men. The Third Age of the World was also the establishment of the Dominion of Men, and that's the ultimate bridge between Tolkien's world and our own.

Notes

1

Middle-earth is conventionally treated as a single continent, but in fact may have consisted of more than one landmass. Tolkien's writings on this topic, and especially his Letters, suggest that Middle-earth is defined as that part of the world inhabited by mortal beings (that is, all the lands of Arda except Aman and, apparently, the Empty Lands). It might therefore easily have consisted of more than one continent.

2

The Silmarillion specifically states that Aulë was individually responsible for making Middle-earth: he "wrought two mighty lamps for the lighting of the Middle-earth which he had built amid the encircling seas". (The Silmarillion, 1 Of the Beginning of Days).

3

This interpretation is supported by Tolkien in his letters, and also by the quote above (note 2). In fact, the name is from an Old English word: Middangeard (probably more familiar in the form Midgard - see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 165).

4

We are given no clue as to where this hall might have been. It's tempting to imagine a connection with Khazad-dûm, and this would certainly help to explain the 'sign' that Durin saw in the lake of Kheled-zâram, but Tolkien doesn't hint at any such connection.

See also...

Accursed Years, Agathurush, Aiwendil, Akallabêth, Alatáriel, Aldarion, Almaren, Almiel, Aman, Amanyar, Amarië, Amrod, Anardil, Anárion, Anarya, [See the full list...]

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