Adventures in Arda

Note: This was my summer 2022 project — but while I posted the associated project pages here at the time (Middle-earth and its sub-project pages concerning the people and peoples, timeline, geography, etc. of Arda and Middle-earth, see enumeration under the Boromir meme, below), I never got around to also copying this introductory post from the place where I had posted it first.  My recent reads of Michael J. Sullivan’s Legends of the Empire and Riyria series reminded me that I have some catching up to do with regard to Tolkien’s legendarium.   So now, with almost a year’s delay …

You may remember that back in May 2022, the last time I posted here with any sort of regularity (ouch), I had embarked on a not-so-minor Tolkien binge.  At some point shortly thereafter, it occurred to me that I might as well create a project page for the whole venture, the way I do for some of my other reading projects and recurring reads … you know, like my Halloween Bingo and Festive Tasks master posts, and this sort of thing:

Around the World in 80 Books, Mostly by Female AuthorsFreedom and Future LibraryOngoing SeriesThe Detection Club221B Baker StreetAppointment With Agatha: The Agatha Christie Centenary CelebrationAs My Wimsey Takes MeNarrativium: Where the Falling Angel Meets the Rising ApeBy a LadyMeasure for MeasureBeyond the 100th Meridian … etc.

Well, I guess should have known better.  In the words of Sean Bean’s most frequently-memified line from the movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring:

… at least one does not if one is me.

So, what started fairly standard for the way I’m doing these things, with a project master page appropriately named Middle-earth, over the course of three months blossomed into a series of (to date) seven sub-project pages, each containing a detailed look at one particular aspect of the world created by J.R.R. Tolkien:

(For those who don’t know, Arda is the physical ensemble of the world to which Middle-earth belongs; notably including, during the First and Second Ages of its existence, Valinor — the Undying Lands to which the Elves, Gandalf, and the Ring-bearers return at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and where the Valar, the immortal Powers reigning over all of Arda, reside — as well as, during the Second Age, Númenor, Arda’s version of Atlantis, from which Aragorn’s ancestors, the Dúnedain, escaped just prior to its drowning.  According to Tolkien’s legendarium, at the end of the Second Age the creator god, Eru Illúvatar, caused Arda to bend, turning it into the ball we know today instead of the flat surface it had been before; in the process drowning Númenor as a punishment for the corruption of its rulers and most of its people at the hands of (you guessed it) Sauron, and removing Valinor from the physical confines of Arda, thus making it inaccessible to anybody who doesn’t know the “straight way” there — read: everybody but the Elven mariners ferrying their kin there at the end of the Third Age / after the end of the War of the Ring / after Sauron’s destruction.)

My return visit to Tolkien’s world included material both familiar and new to me; notably at last also this beauty:

As before, what bowled me over was not merely the richness of Tolkien’s creation in both imagination and detail but also its verisimilitude, down to the most minute element:  It’s mind-blowing to begin with (to me, anyway) for an entire universe, and one as complex, diverse and enchanting as this one, to have sprung from a series of experiments in the creation of languages and of proto-Saxon/Germanic/Nordic legends, first undertaken by way of distraction from the very real horrors of WWI.  But what really distinguishes Tolkien’s legendarium from every single other fantasy world is that it is the only one actually coming close to creating a canvas as vast as that of our real world.  (OK, at some point he purposely decided to go that route and create a fictional “prehistory” for our world, but it was an undertaking of immense proportions, and it’s one thing to set out that way and another thing entirely to actually make it happen.)

Whereas most fantasy worlds consist of a territory covering only a fraction of that of our Earth, and even to the extent that they include such a thing as an internal history or prehistory, they tend to account for the details of only a select few past events relevant to the books’ actual “present-day” narrative, the prehistory / “creation of the world” phase of Tolkien’s legendarium alone (referred to within the legendarium as “the Deeps of Time”) comes down to an unmeasured amount of time that just may have lasted several millions, or possibly even billions of years; and when Arda finally gets populated by creatures other than the Valar and their subordinate immortals, the Maiar (to which latter incidentally belong the guys we will meet as the Wizards in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as do — or once did — Sauron and the Balrog(s)), what we’re looking at are three Ages, each lasting several thousands of years* (plus the beginning of a Fourth Age), all of them bestowed with an amount of detailed information that, all told, does not fall dramatically short of the historic detail we know about our world’s real past; especially going much further back than, say, the past two or three millennia … which would account for only one of the three first / main Ages of Middle-earth.  (For pure flavor, just have a look at the timelines for the individual Ages, but especially the Third Age, as rendered on the Tolkien Gateway wiki.)

Similarly, while the territory called Middle-earth, where most of the action of Tolkien’s books is set, is “only” roughly equivalent in size to Western and Central Europe (without the Iberian Peninsula), Arda as a whole — at least in its incarnation throughout the majority of its three main Ages — approximates the size and continental outlay of Europe, Asia and Africa, i.e. the land mass constituting the pre-Age-of-Discovery “old world” part of our world:

From Middle-earth to Our World (sources: here and here)
(Note: Tolkien said that the Shire was to be found in the area of today’s Oxfordshire.)

… again, perhaps not coincidentally so, as Tolkien had decided to set out and create a fictional prehistory for our world as such, but again, too, in such mind-blowing detail as to enable cartographers such as Pauline Baynes, Karen Wynn Fonstad and the folks at The Encyclopedia of Arda, not to mention the creators of online roleplaying websites, to create minutely-detailed mapsto scale — of everything from the various parts (countries, regions, plains, mountains, and other lands) of Middle-earth to city maps, building floor plans and elevation sketches, maps showing troop movements in major battles, the movements of individual characters, etc. … all based straight on Tolkien’s own words.  In fact, in creating my Middle-earth project’s topical sub-pages, especially the page dealing with the various wars and battles fought in and for Arda and Middle-earth, I found that even for the First and Second Ages, notwithstanding the supernatural nature of most of the characters (essentially, everybody besides Men), you can write up the whole thing pretty much exactly the way you would write up events from, or a chronology of, the history of our own world.  Moreover, even taking account the legendarium’s occasionally shifting ground — resulting from shifts in Tolkien’s view and the continuing development of the legendarium — there is an inherent consistency and an inconceivably deep scholarly understanding to his universe, which after all was the creation of his entire lifetime, that in and of itself lifts it sky-high above every other fantasy world: it is not surprising that Tolkien’s work not only inspired readers by the millions all over the world but also his own fellow scholars of literature and linguistics, as well as countless gifted artists who have made the creation of illustrations of his works their main creative focus.

Tolkien originally wanted The Lord of the Rings to be published with a work giving the public access to the full panoply and history of Arda and Middle-earth, of which the War of the Rings, such as described in LOTR, consists merely the absolute tail end: When Bilbo, during the Council of Elrond, refers to Elrond’s father Eärendil (him of the light captured in Galadriel’s phial), this is no mere throwaway line hinting at a history yet to be developed if and when needed, nor is the Lay of Beren and Lúthien recounted in part by Aragorn such a fragmented creation; and similarly, Treebeard’s reference to the woods of Dorthonion in which he was able to wander long ago is a very specific reference of both time and place.  To me personally, the most dazzling glimpse into things beyond the surface of The Lord of the Rings is Gandalf’s apparently casual remark to Faramir that he used to be called Olórin “in the West”, “when he was young”, later repeated equally carelessely by Faramir when speaking to Frodo and Sam and giving me goosebumps every single time: because Olórin is Gandalf’s real name, the name by which he is known only in Valinor, in his true incarnation as a Maia / immortal — i.e., it’s a revelation of Gandalf’s true identity, the single most closely-guarded piece of information about him (while he has solely been known as Gandalf the Wizard — “Wizard” as in “wise old man”, not “sorcerer” — in Middle-earth for no less than two thousand years at this point); arguably as great a secret as the fact that he is also a bearer of one of the Elven Rings of Power, Narya, the Ring of Fire.  Yet, Gandalf trusts Faramir with this bit of knowledge to which, besides him, only Elrond, Galadriel and Celeborn, Saruman, and Círdan the Shipwright (Lord of the Grey Havens) are privy.  That is some showing of confidence … and Faramir himself doesn’t even realize what Gandalf has told him — after all, how could he possibly?!

Due to a misunderstanding with the publisher’s reader and editing team, a comprehensive publication such as envisioned by Tolkien never became a reality during his lifetime; as a result, it would later fall to his son Christopher to sift the vast amounts of material left by his father and determine which parts of these to make available to the reading public.  Even though, until copyright limitations are lifted, that reading public will not be able to make up their own minds about the incisiveness of his editorial work, I am immensely glad that he essentially dedicated his entire remaining life to this doubtlessly Gargantuan undertaking, without which at least our generation of readers would likely never have discovered the vast, luxurious tapestry — occasionally frayed edges and all — against which the events in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set.  So, my Tolkien project, while in no way, shape or form intended to mimic or even compete with the plethora of outstanding resources already out there, is by way of a bit of personal hommage to the creator of Arda and Middle-earth, as well as in gratitude to his son for removing at least a sizeable part of the veil from the material threatening to remain hidden from the public eye as a result of a sorely regrettable misunderstanding between the author and his publisher.

As yet, the project includes two cop-outs that must be obvious to anybody even remotely familiar with Tolkien’s works: For one thing, I just can’t bring myself to try and summarize the splendid opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings (“Concerning Hobbits” and “On Pipe-weed“), so I’m afraid for the moment the write-up is more detailed for pretty much everybody else than it is for Bilbo, Frodo, and their fellow Halflings.  Secondly, the one sub-project page conspiciously still absent from the ensemble is a page dedicated to the languages of Arda and Middle-earth.  That page is due to come (as it necessarily must, for a legendarium that began with the creation of its languages in the first place); I just didn’t want to start working on it before I had laid my hands on Jim Allen’s Introduction to Elvish — which is OOP, prohibitively rare and almost impossible to acquire for prices in ranges of less than triple-digit figures, and which I’ve therefore only acquired fairly recently.  (By way of a side note, the page on Wars and Battles of Middle-earth has not yet been proofread; it was the last one that I finished and I wanted to get it out there before moving on to other things, so forgive any obvious snafus on that page). — I might also, in due time, create a sub-page for the “in-legendarium” chronicles and chroniclers of Middle-earth: there were, after all, many more of them than Bilbo and Frodo Baggins and the Red Book of West-march (i.e., The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings); and just as without the Tolkiens we would never have learned about the alternative prehistory of our planet in the first place, later denizens of Middle-earth would never have learned about the history of the First Age without Rúmil of Valinor, Pengolodh of Gondolin, and Dírhaval of the Havens, either — to name just a few of them.

One final thought that kept cropping up in my mind as I was going back and forth between the worlds of Arda and my own daily work reality, and which I’d encapsulate in brief like this:

* To the initiates: I know, I know — many timelines for the First Age begin with the Rising of the Moon and the Sun, which would seem to make the First Age last only a bit longer than half a millennium, but Tolkien expressly said that it began with the Awakening of the Elves, i.e. over four thousand solar years earlier, and he also expressly said that the First Age was the longest.


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