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Middle-earth is the name used for the inhabitable parts of Arda (ancient Earth) where the (canonical) stories in Tolkien's legendarium take place. "Middle-earth" is a literal translation of the Old English term middangeard, referring to this world, the habitable lands of men. Tolkien translated 'Middle Earth' as Endor (or sometimes Endóre) and Ennor in the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin, respectively. Mythologically, the north of Endor became the Eurasian land-mass after the primitive Earth was transformed into the round world of today.
Middle-earth's setting is in a fictional period in Earth's own past. Tolkien insisted that Middle-earth is Earth in several of his letters, in one of them (no. 211) estimating the end of the Third Age to about 6,000 years before his own time. The action of the books is largely confined to the north-west of the Endor continent, implicitly corresponding to modern-day Europe. 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 world (Arda) was originally flat but was made round near the end of the Second Age by Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator.
Much of the 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.
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).
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.
in the Crist poem of Cynewulf. The name earendel (which may mean the 'morning-star' but in some contexts was a name for Christ) was the inspiration for Tolkien's mariner Eärendil.
Tolkien began to use the term "Middle-earth" in the early 1930s in place of the earlier terms "Great Lands", "Outer Lands", and "Hither Lands" to describe the same region in his stories. "Middle-earth" is specifically intended to describe the lands east of the Great Sea (Belegaer), thus excluding Aman, but including Harad and other mortal lands not visited in Tolkien's stories. Many people apply the name to the entirety of Tolkien's world or exclusively to the lands described in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
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 Bridge, extended from Middle-earth to Asgaard across the sea. An outer sea encircled the seven other worlds (Vanaheim, Asgaard, Alfheim, SvartAlfheim, Muspellheim, Nidavellir, and Jotunheim). In this conception, a "world" was more equivalent to a racial homeland than a physically separate world.
Main article: Arda
Tolkien stated that the geography of Middle Earth was intended to align with that of our real Earth in several particulars. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien #294) Expanding upon this idea some suggest that if the map of Middle Earth is projected on our real Earth, and some of the most obvious climatological, botanical, and zoological similarities are aligned, the Hobbits' Shire might lie in the temperate climate of England, Gondor might lie 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 Germany and the steppes of Western and Southern Russia, and the Ice Bay of Forochel in the fjords of Norway.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are presented as Tolkien's retelling of events depicted in the Red Book of Westmarch, which was written by Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, and other Hobbits, and corrected and annotated by one or more Gondorian scholars. 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 world, which provide back-story for these stories. Many of these writings 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 which includes Middle-earth. The Silmarillion is the primary source of information about Valinor, Númenor, and other lands. Also notable are Unfinished Tales and the multiple volumes of The History of Middle-earth, which includes many incomplete stories and essays as well as numerous drafts of Tolkien's Middle Earth mythology, from the earliest forms down through the last writings of his life.
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 for the world encompassing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were published as foldouts or illustrations in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Early conceptions of the maps provided in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings were included in several volumes, including "The First Silmarillion Map" in The Shaping of Middle-earth, "The First Map of the Lord of the Rings" in The Treason of Isengard, "The Second Map (West)" and "The Second Map (East)" in The War of the Ring, and "The Second Map of Middle-earth west of the Blue Mountains" (also known as "The Second Silmarillion Map") in The War of the Jewels.
None of these maps are consistent with the several "flat Earth" maps, and the extraordinary "flat Earth" concept only survived into the Middle-earth mythology (established in print by the 1950 and later editions of The Hobbit and all editions of The Lord of the Rings, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, The Road Goes Ever On, and The Silmarillion) as a narrative structure which was not illustrated in any capacity by either J.R.R. Tolkien.
Any discussion of the geography of Arda (prior to the changes which resulted in the enlargement of Arda to become what Tolkien identified as the Solar System) can only be speculative and fraught with conflicts and contradictions.
The Endor continent, which in the "flat Earth" phase of Middle-earth's mythological history was only one of several which were later either reshaped or taken away from the world (identified by Tolkien as "Ambar" in several texts, but also identified as "Imbar", the Habitation, in later post-LoTR texts), was originally conceived of (by Tolkien, in the earlier Silmarillion mythologies) as conforming to a largely symmetrical scheme which was marred by Melkor. The symmetry was defined by two large sub-continents, one in the north and one in the south, with each of them boasting two long chains of mountains in the eastward and westward regions. The mountain chains were given names based on colours (White Mountains, Blue Mountains, Grey Mountains, and Red Mountains).
The various conflicts with Melkor resulted in the shapes of the lands being distorted. Originally, there was a single inland body of water, in the midst of which was set the island of Almaren where the Valar lived. When Melkor destroyed the lamps of the Valar which gave light to the world, two vast seas were created, but Almaren and its lake were destroyed. The northern sea became the Sea of Helcar (Helkar). The lands west of the Blue Mountains became Beleriand (meaning, "the land of the Valar"). Melkor raised the Misty Mountains to impede the progress of the Vala Orome as he hunted Melkor's beasts during the period of darkness prior to the awakening of the Elves.
The violent struggles during the War of Wrath between the Host of the Valar and the armies of Melkor at the end of the First Age brought about the destruction of Beleriand. It is also possible that during this time the inland sea of Helcar was drained.
From the time of the destruction of the two lamps until the time of the Downfall of Númenor, Ambar was supposed to be a "flat world", in that its habitable land-masses were all arranged on one side of the world, the shape of which Tolkien did not specify. It is generally assumed that he envisioned a disk-like face for the world which looked up to the stars. A western continent, Aman, was the home of the Valar (and the Eldar). The middle lands, Endor, are generally identified with "Middle-earth". The eastern continent was not inhabited.
When Melkor poisoned the Two Trees of the Valar and fled from Aman back to Endor, the Valar created the Sun and the Moon, which were separate bodies (from Ambar) but still parts of Arda (the Realm of the Children of Iluvatar). The Middle-earth mythology presupposes that Arda became a system of separate bodies traversing the universe at that time. A few years after publishing The Lord of the Rings, in a note associated with the unique narrative story "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" (which is said to occur in Beleriand during the War of the Jewels), Tolkien equated Arda with the Solar System; because Arda by this point consisted of more than one heavenly body.
According to the accounts in both The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, when Ar-Pharazôn invaded Aman to seize immortality from the Valar, they laid down their guardianship of the world and Ilúvatar intervened, destroying Númenor, removing Aman "from the circles of the world", and reshaping Ambar into the round world of today. Akallabêth says that the Númenóreans who survived the Downfall sailed as far west as they could in search of their ancient home, but their travels only brought them around the world back to their starting points. Hence, before the end of the Second Age, the transition from "flat Earth" to "round Earth" had been completed.
The Endor continent became approximately equivalent to the Eurasian land-mass, but Tolkien had proceeded too far with his fictional geography to provide any realistic correlations between the narrative of The Lord of the Rings and Europe or near-by lands. It is therefore assumed that the reader understands the world underwent a subsequent undocumented transformation (which some people speculate Tolkien would have equated with the Biblical deluge) sometime after the end of the Third Age.