Middle earth and the other history of Middengeard


Ok so I got really excited about this map which attempts to show what I’ve been trying to work out for years, which is how Middle Earth by Tolkien aligns with Europe.

And yeah actually this is entirely possible as Tolkien wrote Middle Earth to be analogous to a pre-historic Europe. The references during LOTR to the beginning of the Age of Men is essentially an introduction to the European Bronze or Iron age (not to be confused with the dark ages which many of the cultures are based on).

Tolkien was born in South Africa to English parents, but moved to Britain  a young age and grew up chiefly around Edgbaston, close to the waterworks. Like many Victorians and Edwardians he was nostalgic for the older, rural England that had been buried  under the factories and waterworks that made up the industrial landscape; in particular that of central England. His works are filled with a form of romantised primitivism – think of how Saruman and his actions are described, the White Wizard has torn down the ancient forests and seems intent on turning the fields into mines and enslaving the native populations. In the final chapters of  The Return of the King we see how Saruman has indeed set up shop in The Shire with this very end in mind, though he is ousted by the returning Hobbits. I remember finding this part of the story unnecessary at the time although it’s one of the most ‘real’ aspects of the book, and heralds the most likely future for the Shire in the Age of Men. The obsession with dark towers with evil dwelling within may well be a reference to the factory chimneys that loomed over the new landscape.

When we are in The Shire, both in LOTR and The Hobbit, the landscape is of the most bucolic English landscape imaginable. It’s essentially the fantasy English village that never really existed, somewhere between feudalism and the agricultural revolution. What Tolkien was trying to do in writing this landscape, was to preserve what he saw as the best elements of a rural pre-industrial society. A Birmingham before the factories moved in; in throwing out Saruman and his industry Tolkien is achieving what centuries of dreamers and revolutionaries were never able to do. The Elves of Tolkien are another attempt at reviving the old magic. Elves pre-Shakespeare, were much like those of LOTR in the popular imagination. Tall, noble, unknowable.

Middle Earth as an analogy to Europe is also visible in the actual name of the place; which originates from the Saxon ‘Middengeard’ (Tolkien was also a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford) referring to the land between two bodies of water. Quite probably the continent we now call Europe. The Middle Earth landscape is packed with references to our own, aside from the Shire, the Misty Mountains sprang from childhood memories of Tolkien spending a family holiday in the Swiss Alps, and the forest which Bilbo encounters the spiders is parallel to the ancient Black Forest. One thing that strikes me about this map however is that Rohan is placed much further south than I would have expected, roughly overlaying the south of France. This is surprising as the Riders of Rohan are explicitly based on Anglo-Saxon culture; this is reinforced in the clothing and architecture we see in the films. The riders and their landscape also seem to be related to the ancient European steppe based nomadic pastoral/warrior cultures, who would have occupied the broad plain that stretches from Germany to Mongolia.

The total elephant in the room however is also the precedent setter for future fantasy writers; the placement of a dark or evil culture at the southern or eastern regions of the map. Essentially the edges of white Christendom. C S Lewis copied this convention in Narnia, but too many modern fantasy writers who should know better by now still seem intent on putting a non-white (read evil, read decadent, read any assortment of racist sterotypes you care to insert) civilisation at the edges of a heroic Christian one (Middle Earth cultures might not appear religious but LOTR is packed with more Catholic imagery than the Popes wardrobe).  As a WWI veteran Tolkien had fought a German and Turkish alliance, but he only fought in France yet still manages to portray the Germanic derived (ie Riders of Rohan) cultures in a favourable light. Tolkien in his later years was quick to reject racialised threories of nordicism and national socialism being projected onto his vision. Mordor though is well within the sphere of influence of the Ottoman Empire on this map. The few allusions made by Tolkien to lands further south also seem to be a slightly worrying mystery. The over-riding idea seems to be of a pure or noble west being subsumed by new threats (industrialisation and war) whilst the east languishes in ancient evil. In the modern world though the West has become the evil corrupt empire and modern Britain is a long way from the Shire. In discussing travel in his books Tolkien embraces long distance travel and hardship as a way of obtaining self-knowledge, a way of becoming both poet and warriour. His landscape provides his characters an arena to test their actual worth, with the greatest test coming in the most alien landscape of all.


2 thoughts on “Middle earth and the other history of Middengeard

  1. Nice points.

    However the total elephant of a racist Tolkien should be a beaten dead horse by now.

    How come people -rightfully- praising the complexity of certain aspects of Tolkien’s creation, haven’t yet considered (as far as I heard) the sheer simplicity that links ethnic groups (races ? Let’s go for races) to their territories ?

    I reckon it would have took decades and the mind of a genius to produce a coherent world with truely complex intelligent races co-existing together but still:
    – Hippy town aka The Shire give birth to happy little fellows that looks funny.
    – Luxurious and mysterious forests give birth to sophisticated and beautiful individuals, with a tendancy to be quiet and boring.
    – Middle Earth is an array of shades “simply” (I put quotes) based on real medieval times. Humans here, no need for invention.
    – Holes in harsh mountain gets you grumpy sturdy dwarves.
    – Finally, the black and red gas clouded volcano inferno is the cradle of violent and furious ugly beasts and donald trump.

    Every race is a simple depiction of their territory, or the other way around.

    Not implying territory has nothing to do with races/ethnic characteristics, on the contrary, it has everything to do with it. It is just transcripted here in a very simple manner for the sake of the story. So brownish/darkish characters are evil.

    With south=evil too then ? Mordor is Volcano park and an interpretation of hell. As you rightfully noticed Lotr is FULL of christian references without ever naming one. No silly artist or writer had yet gazzed their navel wondering if hell could be cold at that time.
    Hell was hot by mandatory law, flames being such a powerfull vector of fear and destruction in human history.

    No need for further digression then, Evil=Hot, Hot=South. Just because that’s where occidentals people thinks the hotness is.

    Go read Game of Thrones for a change 🙂


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