Notes from Middle-Earth


There can be no doubt that Middle-Earth is a very European fantasy land. It’s based primarily on European mythology, particularly Norse and Teutonic as viewed through the lens of old England. The name “Middle-Earth” comes from Midgard, the world of humans from Norse cosmology. The Shire, home of the Hobbits, is particularly English in its geography and the customs of its people. And the cast is pretty white, without even a Tolkien black character. (See what I did there?) My main objective in this post, however, is to look at how much Middle-Earth actually matches up with Europe.

Tolkien himself was known to say that the world in which his imaginings occurred was a version of our own world in a fictional time. While he claimed that the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were supposed to take place about 6000 years before his own time, he was also clear that the geography and history did not quite match up with reality. Which makes sense, because if the Shire is the equivalent of England, does that mean Britain wouldn’t have been an island back in 4000 BC? Still, Tolkien did match up the latitudes of his imaginary places with those of real ones. If Hobbiton was at the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith would be around Florence, and Mordor somewhere in the vicinity of Asia Minor. The lost land of Númenor also has a European connection, as it is clearly Tolkien’s own version of Atlantis, said by Plato to be located just beyond the Pillars of Hercules. To the far west of Middle-Earth lies the continent of Aman, location of the Undying Lands.

This also links with European mythology, as the Islands of the Blessed in both Greek and Celtic mythology were said to be located in the western ocean (i.e., the Atlantic). As attested here, some of Tolkien’s writings also located the equivalents of Africa and Asia in lands adjacent to the European Middle-Earth.

One interesting page I came across while looking for information on this topic was this one, on which Professor Peter Bird combined maps of Middle-Earth and Europe, lining up England and the Shire. This project does indeed line up Gondor with Italy, but Mordor is actually in a location that might be considered more appropriate: Transylvania, legendary home of vampires. On this combined map, Rohan corresponds to Germany, but this post from Fabulous Realms provides what Tolkien might more likely have been thinking of in creating his land of riders. Many of the names used in this country are derived from Old English, and there are several allusions to Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxons, however, were known to prefer fighting on foot rather than on horseback, so perhaps the Rohirrim were what might have been had the Anglo-Saxon people had spread out into the steppes. It’s certainly interesting to think about.

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This entry was posted in Authors, British, Celtic, German, Greek Mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythology, Norse and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Notes from Middle-Earth

  1. Pre-movie, I actually always did picture Aragorn as black. I’m not sure why– because he was described as “dark,” maybe? But then one of my other friends was shocked by the movies because she always thought Tolkien’s elves were green, so I don’t feel as weird.

  2. Nathan says:

    Possibly because the Elves in the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit were green? Well, the Wood-Elves were, anyway; Elrond wasn’t.

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