Middle-earth is certainly one of the most famous and most popular conworlds ever created, being the defining example of a high fantasy world which influenced countless other conworlds. For instance, the modern notions of Elves and Dwarves originate in Middle-earth.
Middle-earth is often misunderstood to be a foreign world, remote from us in space and time, but it has always been meant as a mythological past of our world.
- 1 Development of the world (extra-fictional)
- 2 History (fictional)
- 3 Criticism
- 4 Middle-earth conlangs
Development of the world (extra-fictional)
Tolkien developed his world in stages. The earliest version, as laid out in the Book of Lost Tales, took shape between 1915 and 1920. At this time, there was no "Second" or "Third Age"; the Book of Lost Tales, like the later Quenta Silmarillion, only covers the events from the creation of the world to the defeat of Melko (Morgoth) and the destruction of Beleriand. Also, the Book of Lost Tales featured a framework story involving an Anglo-Saxon mariner, Eriol, later called Ælfwine, who ventures on the Atlantic Ocean, finds the Elven island Tol Eressea, and gets the old tales told by the Elves. The Elves themselves are also different from later versions in that, while being a heroic and human-sized race in the Elder Days from which the tales tell, had dwindled and become tiny sprites as they are found in Victorian fairy tales. (Also, Tolkien used the words elf and fairy inconsistently to refer to the same race.) Also, the Dwarves were conceived as an evil race, while hobbits did not occur at all.
Tolkien later dropped both the framework story and the notion of dwindling elves. In the 1930s, he added two originally foreign matters to the legendarium, corresponding to the Second and Third Ages. The first was Númenor, an adaptation of the story of the fall of Atlantis. The second was the hobbits and the events concerning them. The children's book The Hobbit (published in 1937) was originally quite independent from the legendarium, though it mentioned a few elements from it, such as the Elves (including the character Elrond), a sword forged in the ancient Elven city of Gondolin, and the Great March of the Eldar. Only with The Lord of the Rings the story of The Hobbit was fully intertwined with the legendarium.
The history of Middle-earth begins with a creation myth according to which Eru Ilúvatar (God) created the Ainur (angels) and taught them a great music from which the world (Arda) was born. As in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the impersonation of evil is a fallen angel, Melkor, later known as Morgoth. The Valar (the greatest of the Ainur) set up their residence in Aman, a continent in the west of Arda, separated from Middle-earth proper by a wide ocean.
The Two Trees and the Awakening of the Elves
By this time, there is no sun and no moon, and Arda is lit only by stars. The Valar create two great, luminous trees in Aman as a source of light, and fortify Aman against Melkor. After a long time, the Elves awake at the shore of Cuiviénen, an inland sea in Middle-earth. The Valar invite them to come to Aman, but only a part of the Elves, the Eldar, accept and begin the Great March westward, while others, the Avari, refuse. The Eldar are divided into three groups, the Vanyar, the Noldor and the Teleri. Of these, the Vanyar and the Noldor all go to Aman, while the Teleri split: some reach Aman, while the Sindar stay behind in Beleriand, and the Nandor in the valley of the Anduin river.
Fëanor's Rebellion and the Death of the Trees
Peace and tranquility in Aman are disrupted by Melkor, who destroys the Two Trees and steals the Silmarilli, in which the Noldor prince Fëanor, the most gifted among the Noldor, had preserved the light of the Two Trees. Fëanor and his sons rebel against the Valar and swear an oath to retrieve the Silmarilli. Most of the Noldor follow Fëanor to Middle-earth, using ships bloodily conquered from the unwilling Teleri. In Middle-earth, the Noldor wage war against Melkor. Fëanor dies in battle.
The First Age of the Sun
Shortly thereafter, the Valar manage to obtain a last spark of life from the Two Trees, obtaining a single last fruit from each. These became the Sun and the Moon. At the same time, Men awake in the east of Middle-earth.
Melkor, now named Morgoth 'Dark Enemy', retreats into his fortress Angband in the northwest of Middle-earth, and is besieged by the Noldor and the Sindar. Men and Dwarves come to Beleriand, some allying with the Eldar, others with Morgoth. After about 500 year of war, the kingdoms of the Free Peoples fall one by one, until the Half-elven Eärendil manages to sail to Aman and procure the help of the Valar and the Vanyar. In a last battle, Morgoth is defeated, but Beleriand is broken apart and sinks beneath the Sea. This is the point where the Book of Lost Tales and the later Quenta Silmarillion end.
The Second Age
The Second Age begins with the repatriation of the Eldar and the Edain, their human allies. The Eldar are invited to move to Tol Eressëa off the coast of Aman, and many of them accept, though others set up new kingdoms in the remaining parts of Middle-earth. The Edain, being mortal, are not admitted to the Undying Lands, but are awarded with the island of Númenor, halfways between Middle-earth and Aman, the westernmost and most blissful of the mortal lands.
The Second Age is the age of the rise and fall of Númenor, and the ascendancy of Sauron, a servant of Morgoth who had escaped the turmoil of the wars of Beleriand. Sauron ensnares the Noldor of Eregion to forge the Rings of Power, with Sauron himself forging the One Ring 'to rule them all'. The Númenoreans become proud and arrogant and turn away from the Eldar, and fall under Sauron's shadow. In the end, the Númenoreans attempt to conquer Aman, for which they are punished with the desctruction of their island. The Undying Lands are removed from the World Made Round and can no longer be reached by mortals.
Only few Númenoreans manage escape to Middle-earth. The Faithful, who had remained friendly to the Elves and the Valar, found the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor in northwestern Middle-earth under the leadership of Elendil, and in an alliance with the Eldar, defeat Sauron. Elendil's son Isildur takes the One Ring, but dies in an ambush at the Anduin river, and the One Ring is lost.
The Third Age
The Third Age begins peacefully, but gradually, the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor decline, and eventually their royal dynasties die out; Gondor is repeatedly attacked from peoples from the south and east, but manages to maintain its independence. Meanwhile, Sauron slowly regains power. The Third Age is also the age when the hobbits enter the stage and found the Shire. The Valar send an order of angelic wizards, the Istari, to Middle-earth, the most important being Saruman, who later falls to evil, and Gandalf, who is not corrupted.
Eventually, the One Ring is found by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, as told in The Hobbit. This treads loose the event narrated in The Lord of the Rings. Elves, Dwarves, Men and Hobbits lead a war against Sauron, who is defeated by the destruction of the One Ring. The kingdoms of Men are renewed, and the Elves leave Middle-earth.
The Fourth Age and beyond
Little is known about the time after The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien estimated the War of the Ring to have happened about 6,000 years ago. There must have been another cataclysm after that, transforming the geography of Middle-earth to the one we know today (the Biblical Deluge?).
Middle-earth is generally considered one of the finest conworlds ever made, yet some points have attracted criticism.
A common criticism of Tolkien's legendarium is one of alleged racism. The Elves and the Dúnedain closely resemble "Nordic" racial stereotypes, and are presented as of "higher" ancestry than the "lesser" races of the south and east of Middle-earth. The latter occur in the narrative mainly as servants of evil, and follow African and Asian racial stereotypes.
However, Tolkien is known to have sharply disapproved of any kind of racism in the real world, so the racial stereotypes in The Lord of the Rings are best taken to represent the thinking of the characters rather than the author. Middle-earth is meant to represent a prehistoric (antediluvian?) Europe, which means that the peoples of the Northwest resemble those of Northwestern Europe, the people of Rhûn those of inner Eurasia, and the people of Harad those of North Africa. Also, the notion of the Orcs as an "evil race" was something Tolkien felt uneasy about, but he never found a satisfactory answer to this question.
The Shire is presented as a culture comparable to 19th-century rural England, with newspapers, clocks, umbrellas and various other comparatively modern trappings, while the rest of Middle-earth at the time of The Lord of the Rings is modelled after early Medieval cultures. This inconsistency is the result of the interweaving of The Hobbit, originally a story only loosely connected with the legendarium, with the legendarium proper. A solution would have been to advance the other cultures of Middle-earth as well (which would also have remedied the bloated timeline problem discussed in the following section), but that would have brought the whole world uncomfortably close to an industrial age.
A bloated timeline
In Middle-earth, kingdoms tend to last thousands of years, and the world (disregarding the anachronistic Shire) has only advanced from roughly the Late Bronze Age in The Silmarillion to the Early Middle Ages in The Lord of the Rings during more than 6,000 years (rather than the about 2,000 years this progress took in real Europe). Compared to real history, events in Middle-earth seem to progress at a much slower rate.