Tolkien’s Arda: An Introduction

Dimitra Fimi

This essay was originally published in The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds, ed. by Mark J.P. Wolf (New York: Routledge, 2016, pp. 46-66) and is reprinted here with permission.

Ambarkanta: The Shape of the World“, by Matěj Čadil, reproduced with kind permission

J. R. R. Tolkien’s extended mythology is chiefly known via his much-loved The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-5), both set during the Third Age of Middle-earth.  Both of those elements of a “traditional” setting (time and place) imply a much larger conception of a “secondary world” which unfolds in an immense depth of time and spans a vast geographical space.  This sense of depth is inherent in The Lord of the Rings and is apparent in scenes such as the Council of Elrond, during which Elrond himself reminisces about events that took place thousands of years previously.  What is more, it is not a literary device: Tolkien spent most of his lifetime inventing an extended mythology which detailed the history of his imaginary world over millennia, including a cosmogonic myth and a great number of interrelated legends and tales.  Alongside a complex web of “races” that populate his invented world, Tolkien also developed a number of other “secondary world infrastructures” (often to impressive detail), namely mythology, languages, cultures, philosophies, nature, genealogies, timelines, and maps.

Tolkien had started working on his invented mythology in the 1910s, just after he returned to England from the Great War, and continued elaborating, amending and enriching it until his death in 1973.  When The Hobbit was composed, the mythology of the First Age and Second Ages of Middle-earth had been evolving for over twenty years; while by the time The Lord of the Rings was published Tolkien had devoted forty years to his immense project of world-building.  Tolkien never finished his mythology to his satisfaction.  The Silmarillion (1977), the work most cited today as a compendium of Tolkien’s legendarium, was edited and published posthumously by his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, and (mostly) represents a selection of Tolkien’s latest thoughts on his created world.  However, Christopher Tolkien has also allowed readers and scholars access to Tolkien’s evolving conception of his secondary world, via Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (1980) and the 12-volume History of Middle-earth (1983-1996), which present drafts, fragments, and alternative versions of Tolkien’s legendarium and trace its development over sixty years.  Given this enormous scope, it is impossible to express adequately the breadth and richness of Tolkien’s invented world in a short essay without necessarily condensing its vision.  Bearing this limitation in mind, the remainder of this essay will attempt to explore some of the most important “secondary world infrastructures” Tolkien created for Arda.  It will also address Tolkien’s theorizing of his own world-building and will attempt to situate it in its cultural/intellectual context.

Although “Middle-earth” is commonly used to refer to Tolkien’s invented world, in reality this term only refers to a portion of that world.  While most readers did not find that out until the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion (1977), Tolkien had already explained in earlier letters that Middle-earth is only “the North-west of the world” (Tolkien, 1981: 148) he had created, and that the name of the entire “world or earth” of his mythology is “Arda” translated as “realm”, itself part of “Eä”, the Universe (Tolkien, 1981: 283, 284).  Arda underwent a number of transformations, both internal (in terms of the fictional history of Tolkien’s invented world) and external (related to Tolkien’s changing views about his imaginary universe).  In the earliest version of Tolkien’s mythology, The Book of Lost Tales, the land where most of the Elvish legends and tales are set is a mythical version of England, coinciding with Tolkien’s early nationalistic project “to restore to the English… a mythology of their own” (Tolkien, 1981: 230-1; see also below).  This relationship of Tolkien’s Arda with Primary World geography persisted, albeit in a more muted form, until his late writings.  The Prologue of The Lord of the Rings states that hobbits still live in “the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea” (Tolkien, 2004: 2), while Tolkien also claimed that Arda is “this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary” (Tolkien, 1981: 239).  If Arda is a version of the Primary World in its entirety, then Middle-earth coincides with Europe, thus justifying Tolkien’s creative re-use of the rich North-Western European mythological tradition in his legendarium.

Arda also went through some cataclysmic changes in terms of its internal geological history.  Tolkien seems to have begun thinking about it as a flat world, surrounded by an Outer Ocean, in a similar manner to perceptions of the world in medieval mythological texts (see Fimi, 2008: 124).  However, when Tolkien added to his mythology the Atlantean story of the Fall of Númenor during the Second Age of Arda, the idea of the World Made Round changed his secondary world drastically (Noad, 2000).  Arda was now conceived as a flat world at its beginning, until the great flood that sunk Númenor caused the world to become “bent”, rounded on itself, therefore turning into a globe.  Only the Elves can now find the “Straight Road” to the West, a route denied to Men.  These conceptual changes are also reflected in the maps Tolkien drew for his invented world.  One of the earliest maps, adhering to the flat world model, presents the world in the shape of a Viking Ship (see (Tolkien, 1983: 84-85), foregrounding the idea of a “mythological” time.  On the contrary, the later, widely-known map of Middle-earth, a core paratextual element of The Lord of the Rings, is realistically drawn, with an eye to scale and distances that (roughly) agree with the narrative of this novel, and signals that Tolkien’s world has now moved to a “historical” time (see Fimi, 2008: 5-6, 123-125).

Tolkien’s conception of time in Arda includes: the Years of the Trees, a primordial period lasting thousands of years during which the Count of Time has not yet started and the world is lit by the Two Trees, Telperion and Laurelin; and the Years of the Sun, during which the Sun and Moon replace the Trees as the main sources of light and with which real “time” (with its inexorability and connotations of decay) begins.  This latter period comprises the First Age (until the overthrow of Melkor/Morgoth, the original archvillain of the mythology), the Second Age (until the first defeat of Sauron by Elendil and Gil-galad, and the taking of the Ring of Power by Isildur), and the Third Age (which ends with the departure of Elrond, Galadriel and Gandalf, the keepers of the three Elven Rings, from Middle-earth).  This narrative of the different epochs of Arda, and its gradual disenchantment culminating in the departure of the Elves, chimes with some of the central theological and philosophical ideas that Tolkien weaved into his legendarium: the Fall as a major theme, as well as time as a process of decay.  Tolkien noted that one of the main differences between his mythology and most others is that “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the ‘light of the Sun’ (the world under the sun) become terms for a fallen world, and a dislocated imperfect vision” (Tolkien, 1981: 148).  Flieger’s landmark study, Splintered Light (2002), building upon the linguistic theories of Tolkien’s fellow-Inkling, Owen Barfield, has argued for the history of Tolkien’s Arda as a process of fragmentation, in which the gradual loss of the original light (from the Two Trees, to the Sun and the Moon, and then to the Silmarils, the jewels that captured some of the light of the Trees) serves as a powerful metaphor for the continuing sub-division and diminishing of the peoples and languages of Middle-earth.

Tolkien’s Arda is inhabited by a number of different beings and “races” who are often understood to exist in a hierarchical scale that is mainly religious/spiritual in its conception.  Arda itself is created by Eru Ilúvatar, the Godhead of Tolkien’s invented Universe.  Ilúvatar makes the Ainur, angelic powers, who are “the offspring of his thought” (Tolkien, 1977: 15), and proposes themes of music to them, which the Ainur develop, thus creating a vision of Arda, though apparently already marred by Melkor who desires power to rival Ilúvatar.  Ilúvatar brings the world to existence with one word (“Eä”) and those of the Ainur who descend upon the world in order to shape it become known as the Valar.  In this task they are aided by minor spirits, the Maiar.  This separation between Eru (as the Godhead who brings the world into existence) and the Valar (as the divine personas who actually fashion the physical world) allows Tolkien’s mythology a double spiritual vision.  First, a blending of Christian theology (one God) with the semblance of pagan religions (the Valar as a “pantheon” like the gods of Olympus or Asgard) (see Burns, 2004); and, second, a Neoplatonic perspective, in which Eru is the Prime Mover who inspires the vision of the world, while the Valar are the “demiurgic” powers that craft the actual, physical universe (see Flieger, 1986; Nagy, 2004).

Next come the beings who have a physical body, the “Children of Ilúvatar”, Elves and Men.  Their inner hierarchy is signalled by the order of their appearance in the invented world which gives them their alternative names: the Firstborn and the Followers.  The Elves do not age or die (though they can be killed) and can return to the world in new bodies.  They possess exceeding beauty and wisdom, and their intrinsic melancholy is associated with their prolonged lives and getting weary of the world, to which they are bound.  Men, on the other hand, are very much conceived as ordinary human beings, but their (relatively) short lives are regarded as the “gift” of Ilúvatar, while an afterlife “beyond the circles of the world” (Tolkien, 1981: 287) is implied.  The Dwarves are a separate creation of the Vala Aulë, in a naïve effort to imitate Ilúvatar’s demiurgic power, eventually blessed and accepted by the Godhead and inheriting their father’s gift of craftsmanship.

Other peoples that populate Tolkien’s Arda are not separate branches of creation, but rather sub-categories or corrupted versions of Elves and Men.  The hobbits, one of Tolkien’s most successful creations, are only a branch of the human race (see Tolkien, 2004: 2; Tolkien, 1981: 158).  They were not integral to Tolkien’s world from the beginning of its inception, but grew out of stories Tolkien made up for his children (see Anderson, 2002, for their origins), and gradually became “drawn into” (Tolkien, 1988: 7) the mythology.  Shippey (2005) has discussed the important narrative role of the hobbits, whose anachronistic, Victorian culture (complete with pocket-handkerchiefs and bourgeois manners) may jar with a world of dragons and warriors, but whose main function is to act as mediators between the modern reader and the pre-industrial (in its material culture) and medieval (in its heroic code) world of the Third Age in Middle-earth.  On the contrary, the Orcs (called “goblins” in The Hobbit) were part of Tolkien’s Arda from the earliest versions of the mythology.  Tolkien changed his view a few times about their origin (for an overview see Fimi, 2008: 154-157), but in most of his writings they are not created by Melkor/Morgoth (the “fallen” Valar who takes the place of Lucifer/Satan in Tolkien’s legendarium) but were originally Elves ensnared by Melkor and “by slow arts of cruelty… corrupted and enslaved” so that the race of Orcs was made “in envy and mockery of the Elves” (Tolkien, 1977: 50).

The peoples of Middle-earth, therefore, seem to exist in a taxonomy that resembles the medieval Great Chain of Being, rating as “higher” beings the more spirit and less matter they have, a classification that is also influenced by their allegiance to the forces of good or evil.  Recent scholarly work has been preoccupied with Tolkien’s representations of “race” and racial prejudice in his invented world, taking into account Tolkien’s medieval sources and contemporary cultural and intellectual history (see Sinex, 2010; Fimi, 2015).

The “illusion of historicity” (Tolkien, 1981: 143) that Arda maintains is also enhanced by Tolkien’s language invention.  Indeed, Tolkien saw language invention and myth-making as “coeval and congenital” (Tolkien, 2016: 24) activities.  The first drafts of his two most developed invented languages, Quenya and Sindarin, are contemporary with the earliest versions of his legendarium and underwent an equally complex series of amendments and conceptual changes in terms of internal and external history (see Hostetter, 2007; Fimi and Higgins, 2016).  Tolkien’s language invention was methodical and informed by his academic training as a philologist.  Every word of his invented languages, therefore, is built upon a system of base-roots, thus creating discernible relationships between names such as Gondor (“stone-land”), Argonath (“royal stones”), and Gondolin (“stone of song”), all of which incorporate the root GOND- (stone).  What is more, the various Elvish languages of Arda are interconnected, since they are envisioned as stemming from a “proto”-Elvish ur-language which developed into a number of distinct but related languages, modelled upon the Indo-European “Tree of Tongues” (see Tolkien, 1987: 196-197; see also the entry on Invented Languages in this volume for Tolkien’s theorizing of language invention).  Alongside invented languages, Tolkien also designed writing systems, including the Tengwar (the flowing script seen on the One Ring) and the Cirth (a Runic alphabet, though quite different to the Old Norse or Anglo-Saxon runes).  Both systems are not, strictly speaking, alphabets, but systems of signs that can be adapted to express the sounds of different languages (see Smith, 2014).  Both invented languages and scripts have allowed generations of readers to engage with Tolkien’s world by attempting to use his languages in translations and new compositions, as well as by deciphering the examples where Tolkien uses his writing systems and creating calligraphic examples of their own.

The languages of Arda do not just add verisimilitude to Tolkien’s world-building, but are also the vehicle of philosophical and political ideas.  The Elves are conceived as the creators of languages that are artistic, aesthetically pleasing, and capable of sound symbolism (see, for example, Tolkien, 1987: 223; Tolkien, 1994: 28).  On the contrary, upon uttering the Ring verse in the Black Speech of Mordor Gandalf’s voice becomes “menacing, powerful, harsh as stone” (Tolkien, 2004: 254).  Tolkien’s late essay “The Shibboleth of Fëanor” (1996: 331-336) is a masterful exploration of the ways in which language change can become politicized.  Tolkien gave some guidance on the pronunciation of his invented languages in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings, but his more systematic linguistic material (grammars, phonologies, lexica, etc.) were only published posthumously, mainly in two specialist journals, Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar, with a great number of his linguistic papers still in the process of being edited and prepared for publication.

Tolkien’s world-building process was also highly visual.  From the earliest drafts of his mythology Tolkien combined textual, linguistic and artistic vision, drawing not only maps, but also landscapes, architectural features, and —more rarely— characters.  A range of drawings from different periods of Tolkien’s life and writing career have been published in Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator (Hammond and Scull, 1995; see Tolkien, 2011 and 2015a), pointing to the complex, transmedial development of Arda.  It is important to note that Tolkien illustrated The Hobbit himself, thus sharing his visual representation of Middle-earth in the Third Age with his readers, and therefore “guiding” the way readers imagine Arda depicted.

Tolkien’s invented nature is also original and memorable, from sentient landscapes, such as the Old Forest and “cruel Caradhras” in The Lord of the Rings, to new flora and fauna, such as the golden mallorn-tree, “the yellow elanor, and the pale niphredil”, the healing athelas, as well as the elephant-like oliphaunts, and the terrifying Nazgûl.  Perhaps the most remarkable such creations, which also embody an important aspect of Tolkien’s environmental vision, are the tree-like Ents, who allow Tolkien to enact the fantasy of nature “fighting back” against industrial exploitation and the machine (for an overview, see Campbell, 2014).  Tolkien’s landscapes, however, also enhance the idea of thousands of years of Arda’s history, often presented as palimpsests of layers of history represented by ruins and material remains (e.g., Weathertop, Amon Hen), or —in the case of the eerie Dead Marshes or the Barrow-downs— the dead of the past themselves.  The Dead Marshes have been discussed extensively by scholars who see in their description a clear representation of the broken bodies and landscapes Tolkien experience in the Battle of the Somme (Garth, 2003; Croft, 2004).

Tolkien’s contribution to world-building is not limited to the construction of Arda in painstaking detail, but also includes his interest in theorizing the process of creating imaginary worlds.  His essay “On Fairy-Stories” has laid the foundations of the theoretical exploration of imaginary worlds, as well as much of the critical arsenal of fantasy literature scholarship.  Terms such as “subcreation” (the idea of world-building as a human activity, in imitation of God’s creation), as well as “Primary World” and “secondary world” (for our world and imaginary/alternative worlds, respectively) have become standard in scholarship transcending Tolkien’s own world-building.  Tolkien’s insistence on the “inner consistency of reality” (2008: 59), building on George MacDonald’s earlier argument for the need of coherence in imaginary worlds, has become the ultimate aspiration of many world-builders.  In Tolkien’s own words, the successful fantasy writer:

proves a successful “subcreator”.  He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter.  Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world.  You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside.  The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed.  You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.  (ibid.: 52)

Tolkien’s own dedication to coherence and consistency can be seen numerous times, especially in the posthumously published works that chronicle the alterations and amendments he effected on his legendarium to make it believable.  A prime example is his imposition of “retroactive continuity” (Wolf, 2012: 212-216) upon the text of The Hobbit, altering Chapter 5 (“Riddles in the Dark”) to make it fit with the enhanced narrative role of the One Ring and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (see Rateliff, 2007: 763-838).  Another example was ensuring that the correct phases of the moon appeared at appropriate times in The Lord of the Rings, for which he followed an (adjusted) calendar for 1941-1942 (Hammond and Scull, 2005: xlvii-l).

As mentioned briefly above, Tolkien originally conceived his mythology as specifically associated with England. Spurred by enthusiasm for the Finnish Kalevala, a collection of oral songs and poems that were shaped into an “epic” cycle of mythological texts and inspired national pride, he aspired to create “something of the same sort that belonged to the English” (Tolkien, 2015b: 105).  Tolkien’s early nationalistic project has been often discussed as a late reaction to several examples of Northern European “Romantic Nationalism” and “invented traditions” (see Shippey, 2000; Flieger, 2005).  But in the context of world-building, Tolkien’s early inspiration is also important in terms of establishing the degree of overlap between the Primary World and his secondary world of Arda.  The first drafts of the mythology, known as The Book of Lost Tales (see Tolkien, 1983 and 1984), use a framework to link the world of the reader to the imaginary world of the Elves and their stories.  The “mediator” is a man from our world, conceived as a historical character either from early Anglo-Saxon times (Eriol), or from around the time of the Norman Conquest (Ælfwine), who sails to the island of the Elves and hears their stories.  In that early conception, therefore, Tolkien adapts a popular genre that often introduced imaginary worlds in literary works of the early modern period, the traveller’s tale.  This link of his legendarium with a “lost” (and perhaps acceptable as “recovered”) English mythology, persisted for a while, until Tolkien experimented with a very different “framework”: that of time-travel and “genetic memory”. Flieger (2004) has shown that the introduction of the Atlantis-like drowning of Númenor to the mythology in the 1930s, led Tolkien to consider the idea of a series of fathers and a sons reliving old European myths and legends via shared ancestral memory, ultimately leading to Tolkien’s own Númenor.  This framework was never fully developed, but the fact that Tolkien contemplated it shows his continuous interest in linking his secondary world with the Primary one and the potential of transforming the genre expectations of his entire mythology, from fantasy to something closer to science or speculative fiction.  The Silmarillion was eventually published posthumously without any framework at all, though Christopher Tolkien later admitted that his father had left clues for a potential framework in Bilbo’s “Translations from the Elvish” preserved in the “Red Book of Westmarch” as mentioned in the Prologue and Appendices of LotR (see Tolkien, 1983: 5-6; Tolkien, 2004: 1, 7, 14, 987).  The fact that the mythology (in addition to the tales of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) could have been recorded in the Red Book of Westmarch, and presented as the tales Bilbo heard at Rivendell, eventually (supposedly) discovered by Tolkien and translated for his readers, still preserves a clear link between the secondary world with the Primary World (via the “found manuscript” topos, an established literary technique).  However, Tolkien had clearly by that point moved from a project to “recover” a national mythology to a “mythology of an entire world, rather than of a single country or people” (Donovan, 2014: 92).

Tolkien’s world-building has often been approached by scholarship via the lens of medievalism.  Commentators have been long interested in Tolkien’s medieval intertexts (e.g., Old and Middle English works such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and though such studies are not tackling world-building per se, they do establish a clear view of Arda as a world that engages with the heroic code, material culture, philosophical and theological concepts, as well as fantastical beings from the literature of the European Middle-Ages (see, for example, Shippey, 2005; Chance, 2003 and 2004; Fimi, 2006 and 2007; Fisher, 2011; Flieger, 2012).  Other studies examine Tolkien’s work in terms of its engagement with the cultural moment(s) it was created, spanning six decades of literary and cultural history, showing, for example, the legacy of Victorian fantasy on Tolkien’s work (Matthews, 2012); or the way contemporary intellectual history shaped Arda, its languages and peoples (Fimi, 2008).  Individual elements of Tolkien’s world-building have also been explored by scholars approaching Tolkien via eco-criticism, myth, religion, and philosophy (see relevant entries in Drout, 2007).


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