“We make still by the law in which we’re made”: Sub-Creation and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

Table of Contents

Declaration Concerning Plagiarism

Note on Citation





Tolkien’s Successes and the Formula

Fantasy and Sub-creation

Fantasy worlds



1. Setting: Middle-earth

Languages and Conception

An Imagined Time


Languages, Translation and Nomenclature


2. The Shire

Place: The Shire

Culture: The English and the Hobbits

Character: Tolkien and Mr Baggins

Conclusion and Analysis


3. Rivendell

Rivendell in the Primary Reality

Rivendell in Middle-Earth

Rivendell: A Place of Reflection

Conclusion and Analysis



Works Cited

Declaration Concerning Plagiarism

I, Kevin du Plessis (21619379), have read the North-West University Potchefstroom Campus’ School of Languages’ policy concerning plagiarism and understand it. I know what plagiarism is and am aware of the consequences of committing plagiarism. I further declare

1. that the text and bibliography of this paper reflect the sources I have consulted, and

2. that sections with no source references are my own ideas, arguments and/or conclusions.

Note on Citation

I use the following works by JRR Tolkien:

–          The Hobbit (1st ed. 1937)

–          The Letters of JRR Tolkien (1st ed. 1981)

–          The Lord of the Rings (1st eds. 1954-5)

–          “Mythopoeia.” (1st ed. 1988)

–          “On Fairy-Stories.” (1st pub. 1964)

–          “A Secret Vice.” (1st pub. 1983)

–          The Silmarillion (1st ed. 1979)

In order to simplify in-text citation with regard to multiple works by JRR Tolkien I have referred to passages from The Lord of the Rings with, firstly, the book number in roman numerals (keeping in mind that there are six books in The Lord of the Rings), followed by the chapter number, and finally the page number from the single volume edition that I have used and which is listed in “Works Cited”. To illustrate, when seeing – (II, 3, 266) – I am referring to Book II, chapter 3, page 266 of The Lord of the Rings. If the format changes to something like – (F 1103) – this is meant to refer to Appendix F in The Lord of the Rings and the page number is the page number in my personal one-volume copy.   When citing anything that is either The Hobbit or The Silmarillion I have chosen to use the book title in italics in the parentheses, rather than the author’s name, and in the case of an essay by Tolkien the title is provided in quotation marks followed by the page number of the volume it is published in – (“On Fairy-Stories” 33). The Letters of JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, is referred to merely as Letters in italics within the parentheses.

When seeing the name “Tolkien” within parentheses, I am referring to Christopher Tolkien and when referring to Christopher within plain text I include his first name, whereas JRR Tolkien is referred to merely as “Tolkien”.

With regards the Appendices DVD’s that deals with the making of The Lord of the Rings films, I have merely provided the selection option on the DVD Menu as a title within parentheses with the name of the editor.



For Michele

For guiding and teaching me with such “sincerity”.




A poem Tolkien wrote on myth-making says, “We make still by the laws in which we’re made” (“Mythopoeia” 99). It is the insight into these laws of Middle-earth, and also of fantasy as a mode, that this study hopes to provide.

Titles such as “Father of Epic Fantasy” (Belz) and “Our Grandfather: Meditations on JRR Tolkien” (Feist) speak of Tolkien’s enormously important role in the development of fantasy fiction. Tolkien created the most realised and probably the best fantasy likely to exist; his notions on the subject are invaluable to any fantasy reader, researcher or writer. How well Tolkien’s Middle-earth and The Lord of the Rings is constructed has been discussed quite extensively, but how did he achieve such a feat? His work is deep, his Middle-earth is detailed independent of the plot and it is both sincere and convincing while being rooted in the primary reality of the real world. Tolkien did more than just write a story. He created a world by inventing languages and creating a place, peoples and history within which it could develop. But how did he do it? A question many fantasy writers after Tolkien ought to have asked, for many have inexcusably copied the format of his work without achieving what he did. I will be concentrating on Middle-earth as a “secondary reality”, as Tolkien deems it, by giving a short overview of the enormity of his imaginings, after which two more specific examples within the greater scheme of Middle-earth will be explored more closely. But before addressing such matters, it is important to firstly understand why Tolkien was so successful and also what Tolkien understood to be “fantasy”.

In this paper, when speaking of the “primary world”, what I mean to refer to is the real world with the correct natural order within which we live. The terms “fantasy world”, “secondary reality” and “secondary world” mean the same thing and is used to refer to the world within which a fantasy story is set, Middle-earth being Tolkien’s own. In the same way the words “imagination” or “imagined” and “invented” mean to say the same thing. When speaking of “truth”, or a “true” world, for example, I mean the sense of truth with regards to the believability of a secondary reality, as discussed below.

Tolkien’s Successes and the Formula

The idea of fantasy or “fairy-story” is one with a diverse and rich history; it only came to be a genre in publication, or more accurately a bookstore category on its own among other works of fiction, with the appearance of The Lord of the Rings. George RR Martin, fantasist and author, writes on the subject of fantasy that there was never a time in human history when there were not people who wondered about what might be beyond that which cannot be seen (2). He names Homer and Shakespeare as fantasists. He names Sir Thomas Malory, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, William Morris, and Lord Edward Dunsany as writers who experimented with the fantastic long before Tolkien. Yet, it was Tolkien’s efforts and his creation of “Middle-earth”, his imaginary setting, that brought fantasy to be loved and appreciated as a genre on its own (Belz; Gilbert). This would make Tolkien immensely popular for any readers or aspiring writers in the fantasy genre. In the preface to a collection of essays on Tolkien and Middle-earth, Karen Haber states that if you are interested in science fiction or fantasy, The Lord of the Rings is “unavoidable” (xi). She also admits that in the decades following the first publication of The Lord of the Rings there were great advances, or in her own words “some mighty fancy performances, some impressive riffs and solos”, and that Tolkien could be heard “in the pulsing heartbeat of fantasy literature” (xiv). Martin agrees. He explains that Middle-earth has by far had the greatest staying power in the genre and though he was not first, Tolkien made fantasy his own, and that changed the genre completely, and so also the writers thereof (3).

Fantasist Raymond E Feist explains how he has been “damned by reviewers for being both “too much like Tolkien” and “not being enough like Tolkien” (8). In resonance with what he is saying, many of the writers of fantasy after Tolkien seem to have adopted a specific formula for the construction of their fantasies, which appears to emulate the great success of Tolkien. Consequently, the sincerity and originality of fantasy works appearing after Tolkien does not always make the mark. This concern is what drives this investigation, but I will not be analysing piles of fantasy novels that came after Tolkien, for they have mostly been unsatisfactory in comparison to Tolkien as Diana Wynne Jones points out in her The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land. What I am concerned with, which will hopefully shed light on the problem, is what made Tolkien so great, what made his work sincere, and what did he understand fantasy to be?

Although Tolkien was not the first to write fantasy, his work is more detailed than anything that came before (and perhaps after); with The Lord of the Rings appearing in 1954-5 a new term came into being, namely “epic fantasy” (Belz). This term is one that came to be used after what Tolkien achieved in the genre with his impressive dedication to detail; George RR Martin rightly suggests that it should rather have been deemed “Tolkienesque fantasy” (3). Fantasy writers before this include, among others, Lord Dunsany (“The Gods of Pegāna” 1905), William Morris (The Wood Beyond the World 1894), ER Eddison (Mistress of Mistresses 1935), David Lindsay (The Haunted Woman 1922), Robert E Howard (Conan the Barbarian 1932), and Tolkien’s own work that was published in 1937, The Hobbit, must not be forgotten. Tolkien admits in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that fantasy has very ancient roots (9-70).  The Lord of the Rings, however, surpassed authors such as Howard in importance and influence (Louinet) and with its great depth and impact brought a new dimension to fantasy that boosted the emergence of a new genre. “If Tolkien was not there first, he created a more comprehensive and coherent fantasy world than any of his predecessors — or followers,” (Peck 3). According to Tolkien biographer Tom Shippey, it was “a one-item category” (xviii), books that led the fantasy revolution, if you will. According to Sir Rayner Unwin, Tolkien’s publisher, they had already increased their print number by the publication of book three of The Lord of the Rings, and were on their way to reprinting books one and two; it also became the twentieth century’s second most read book after the Bible (Gilbert, “JRR Tolkien: Creator of Middle-earth”).

What he had done was to create “a fully realized secondary universe, an entire world with its own geography and histories and legends” (Belz 2), which cannot be more accurately stated since depth is what Tolkien does best. Carpenter points out that Tolkien deeply felt that England lacked a mythology and that he wanted to fill this vacuum by creating his own English mythology (Carpenter 89). This urge and patriotic desire is most evident in the sheer depth and wealth of the world of Middle-earth. But, it is a well known fact that he first started creating languages, being a philologist: “I am personally most interested perhaps in word-form itself…[and] there are of course various other interests in the hobby. There is the purely philological…you may, for instance, construct a pseudo-historical background and deduce the form you have actually decided on…you can discover what sort of general tendencies of change produce a given character…” (“The Secret Vice” 211-2).  So it was languages first, and only then came the creation of other aspects which would lead to writing fantasy stories, such as a world, peoples and a history for these languages to exist in and develop from (as was related in part in The Silmarillion). One may regard this process, a genuine interest in languages, and his sincere desire for creating a mythology for England as some of the main reasons for his great success.

Another of his successes in the story of the ring and Middle-earth lies in what Tolkien calls “applicability” in his themes. In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings he clearly shows that his works are not in any way allegory, but that it was rather written with applicability in mind, the distinction between the two lying in the first being the intent of the author and the second, much preferred by Tolkien, in the reader’s own freedom of interpretation (I, Foreword, xviii). Allegory can be seen as a one-to-one interpretation, and that is exactly what Tolkien was trying to avoid. The fact that readers may apply many of the themes to their own lives in more ways than one is definitely a reason for the success and timelessness of the books (Gilbert, “JRR Tolkien: Creator of Middle-Earth”).

Though much more on the subject of what Tolkien did right can be said, the important fact is that there was an immensely positive reception of and response to The Lord of the Rings. Writers were affected broadly, and readers resonated with the works in such a strong way that you would see things such as “Frodo lives!” on subway walls in New York (Gilbert, “JRR Tolkien: Creator of Middle-Earth”). With such positive prospects for fantasy, it soon became clear that a new “genre” was about to enter the publishing world (Belz). Fans and followers of Tolkien have been so moved by his work, that they have created their own fantasies and secondary worlds. Although there are some worthy suitors according to Aaron Belz he calls others “scores of obvious, middling imitations” (2). In his article, “Father of Epic Fantasy”, Belz praises Tolkien’s influence on the developing genre, and perhaps without realising it he also touches upon the fact that The Lord of the Rings and Middle-earth is indeed being imitated in an unjustifiable fashion.

Peck, in a related argument, writes that The Lord of the Rings has become a standard form for fantasy, as writers seek to emulate Tolkien’s success (1-3); Shippey’s claim that fantasy is the predominant mode of fiction for the twentieth century with more and more occurring elements of the fantastic (vii), falls directly under this line of thought. The problem is that writers such as Raymond E Feist with his Riftwar saga, have blindly been basing their own secondary worlds on the standard form which Tolkien used in Middle-earth. Feist even admits to this being true, having included “a lot of ‘Tolkien stuff’” (14). To some extents the whole industry has become clichéd as can be seen in a simple example that is listed in Diana Wynne Jones’s parodic dealing with these problems, which in no way means to ascribe fault to Tolkien, but to those who have merely copied elements from The Lord of the Rings. “Actually very little to do with The Lord of the Rings,” it reads on the dust cover. She lists, for example, the “Dark Lord”, pointing out how there is always some overlord with minions bound to his service, out to ruin everything and take over the world (56). This can typically be seen in Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle (2002-11) where the dark lord is also guilty of the cliché that he has to be a presence that is felt rather than actually encountered and appears only once or twice, usually at the end of the whole journey. I could go on for pages expanding the stretches of this cliché and others, but in this simple example a clear similarity to Sauron of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings can be recognised.

It is unjustified for a string of fantasy writers to blindly imitate Tolkien when it is clear they neither understand nor recognise what sincere fantasy is. And now, what is an original fantasy and secondary world?

Fantasy and Sub-creation

To Tolkien the word “imagination” is not only the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality, nor only the ability of the mind to form pictures when there are none before it; it can be many things. Therefore, he chooses rather to use the word “fantasy” to describe that quality that is essential to a fairy-story, one that embraces both the sub-creative art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the expression, derived from the image. It is that notion that Tolkien uses to describe the act of creating a secondary world that is unlike the primary world we actually live in; unlike, but not wholly dissimilar (“On Fairy-Stories” 44).

“He spent, literally, decades constructing this world, making it consistent, giving it languages and poetry and history and art, making it so real we might believe that he had discovered it rather than invented it. He gave it characters of stature – metaphorical if not literal – people who fit the grandeur of the place. And he set in motion a story that we read again and again,” Lisa Goldstein says in her essay “The Mythmaker” (189). Tolkien himself also thought like this, he always felt as if The Lord of the Rings wrote itself (Letters 104).

In terms of this study, considering Tolkien as distinctively original in fantasy, it is essential to investigate his thoughts on how a fantasy secondary reality should be constructed. In “On Fairy-Stories”, Tolkien defines his notions of fantasy, its origins, and purpose and in so-doing also touches upon certain aspects of what a secondary reality is to the reader as well as to the author, or sub-creator (11-70). The first notable aspect that is mentioned towards a secondary reality is that it should be presented as “true”, specifically ruling out allegorical significance and dream visions. It should have an inherent truth similar to that which would occur in realism (in Tolkien’s terms of the word) as has already been touched on briefly in his preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings. “The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water” (“On Fairy-Stories” 24). This is part of Tolkien’s argument that a secondary reality holds truth just as all inventions and perceptions made possible by language is truthful and real to the human being. As Philip Sidney puts it in his An Apology for Poetry published in 1595 after his death:

“Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man’s wit with the efficacy of nature; but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker, who having made man to His own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature; which in nothing he showeth so much as in poetry; when, with the force of a divine breath, he bringeth things forth surpassing her doings, with no small arguments to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam; since our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it.  But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted; thus much I hope will be given me, that the Greeks, with some probability of reason, gave him the name above all names of learning.”

“He [the poet] bringeth things forth surpassing her [Nature’s] doings,” he says more than 400 years ago and which echoes Tolkien’s views of the power of sub-creation. This has special significance when it comes to creating an alternate world or situation that a reader is to believe in. To return to the question of “is it true?”, the simple answer is, yes; in terms of “literary belief” or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have put it, in terms of a “willing suspension of disbelief” as he wrote in his Biograhpia Literaria which was published in 1817, a secondary world is true if, and when, the artist’s creation has succeeded. One’s mind may enter this secondary world, and in there it is true according to the laws and convincingness in creation of that world.

Tolkien continues to explain, passing over the question of origins, that of the three parts of story (invention, inheritance, and diffusion), invention plays the strongest part when it comes to fantasy and the secondary reality (“On Fairy-Stories” 23). This power to create or invent a secondary world makes the author a sub-creator; one that is able to rearrange elements of existence from the neat and labelled place for everything in the primary reality of our daily lives, a philosophical problem dating back thousands of years. “We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm” (“On Fairy-Stories” 24). This is what happens when a secondary world is created. These stories and these settings have a “mythical” and “unanalysable” effect because they are truthful in the secondary world, yet posing a stark contrast to the laws and categories of our primary existence.

The effect that this contrast and reorganisation of the elements of nature has on the reader is a very prominent feature of fantasy. “That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent,” (“On Fairy-Stories” 45). Tolkien notes that many people do not like it when a writer meddles with the primary world, but, as can be seen in his words above, to him this mode is very effective in the sense that fantasy, though difficult to achieve, takes those things that have become so familiar to us and presents them from a new angle. In other words, those things in our lives that have become trite and which we have ceased to look at, fantasy may rearrange in a secondary reality and it then, in a sense, “opens your hoard and lets all the locked things fly away like cage-birds” (“On Fairy-Stories” 54). A typical example of this from The Lord of the Rings is the Ents; Tolkien gave to a tree the characteristics of a human being. He refreshes the idea that we as beholders have of a thing from our primary world and with that recreates the idea of trees and forests for the reader by evoking a sense of strangeness and wonder. “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine,” (“On Fairy-Stories” 55). The theme of nature is reflected in his depiction of trees and the Ents; in the same way Tolkien’s likes and dislikes, especially in his taste in languages (disliking French and preferring Spanish to Italian) and the fact that he was a Christian, are evident in his work when examined more closely (Letters 288). These are real-life concerns flowing from reality, into the secondary world, and effectively presenting certain ideas to the reader through his works and through sub-creation.

Fantasy Worlds

As a result of Tolkien there have come to be a lot of experimentation and theorising about imaginary worlds, which I will look at below, but what must be kept in mind is that Tolkien shows us that when an abortive secondary reality, that has no connection to the primary reality or a sure purpose, is created and it is observed from the outside, there will be no truth in it.

It is Goldstein’s view that the closest one can come to understanding how Tolkien made his own secondary world is to be found in his introduction to The Lord of the Rings (190). He was writing a story that would amuse and delight readers, hold their attention, and at times excite and move them. She explains that he went deep into his unconscious, to the part where the stories come from and came back to the everyday world with a new one. “That is why he was a genius,” (190). An epic story such as this should have a befitting voice which is both poetic and raised above the “babble and trivia of the everyday world”. She elaborates further by including that there should be a hint of the ancient world in this voice so that an understanding is met that there is being dealt with a heroic age and people that are, if not better, more than us. Tolkien was a philologist and a professor of languages. His understanding of an imaginary world was that it had to start with languages; and so Middle-earth was indeed created, as a habitation for the languages that he had constructed (Letters 214).

What must also be conveyed here is that Tolkien’s works of fantasy originate out of the primary world. “Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from reality, or are flowing into it,” (“On Fairy-Stories” 64). Essentially what he is saying, which is central to the argument of this paper, is that fantasy has definite purpose and that, with the recombination of reality in a totally real and truthful alternative world, joy is reached when a successful fantasy and secondary world can be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.

When Lin Carter discusses imaginary worlds she points out that fantasy writers face many difficulties that other writers do not, creating a fantasy world on paper being the largest and most serious of these; “it is a complex problem involving many different factors” and it is virtually unique to this genre (174).  Where other writers work with the familiar world that any basically educated person would understand and have an idea of most elements within it, the fantasy writer, and in some senses too the science fiction writer, must create an entirely new world, a new system of being. This without being able to count on the reader’s familiarity with what the writer is talking about (175), giving the fantasy novel longer descriptions than one would have for something like a romance novel set in Paris, France, for example. The fantasist must find a way to make all claims to things the reader knows to be absurdities temporarily credible; and apart from having to persuade the reader to believe in dragons and magicians, he must also “paint a convincing portrait of a world or land or age in which setting is, or should be, larger than just the scene” (176). There are different worlds that a fantasy writer may use, for example a distant age of our own world may at times serve as a fitting milieu for the retelling of a Siegfried epic (177). However, borrowing an already established world of myth poses its own problems, chief among them being the concern that if any new story is placed within this world it cannot violate any strictures of the original world picture the writer is using (178). Writers from William Morris to Joy Chant have generally preferred to create their own worlds with a design and configuration to fit their own special needs. Carter points to the fact that in this way you avoid any embarrassing anachronisms and historical inaccuracies. In her writings I have come across the most important part of what she is saying in terms of this particular study of Tolkien’s imaginative world: that there are, of course, different classifications and types of secondary realities. She defines four broad classifications.

The first option is to place your tale in our own world in a time before history began; this is where Tolkien’s Middle-earth fits in, alongside worlds such as Robert E Howard’s post-Atlantean world of the “Hyborian Age”. Secondly there are stories also within our world but in the distant inconceivable future, featuring world’s such as Carter’s own work The Giant of World’s End. Then some writers have chosen to set their stories in worlds similar to our own but separated from it along some alternate dimension while being similar to Earth in space and time; Andrew Norton’s Witch World novels would serve as an example. And for a final classification there are worlds that are definitely situated on another planet. Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom, and Carter’s Lost World of Time deserve mention here. Though these classifications do not encompass all of the different types of worlds available to the fantasy writer by far, it does start drawing the outline for what options are available.

This study will concentrate on Middle-earth which has now been placed within a broader classification of imaginary worlds; and though it can be separated in such a way, its composition of the different elements necessary to create a convincing broad setting and scene stretches across to many other types of worlds. So, to return to the focus of my study and to put Tolkien’s work into context of the earlier claim that many subsequent works of fantasy have been based on Middle-earth and that there is a lack of originality and derivative characters, this can be said: it is now evident, if one is to take Tolkien’s arguments seriously and as a reliable and centrally important world in terms of the trends in fantasy, that this study will capture, in some senses, what it is to create a sincere secondary world. Fantasy inevitably loses its potency when not sincerely created (or re-created) from the primary world in order to achieve that which one wishes to accomplish by using the mode of fantasy, when one considers Tolkien’s theories to be accurate in describing the aspects of fantasy and fairy-story. I will now look at how the most influential and original secondary world, Middle-earth, that has been constructed so that light may be shed on the actual problem.


The main questions guiding this investigation can be formulated as follows: What are the relations between the primary reality and Middle-earth and how does Tolkien recombine these elements in his secondary reality? To what purpose does he put the recombination of those elements? And, is his secondary reality “true” and “applicable” in the sense of it achieving what Tolkien describes as the purpose of fantasy? All of this in order to establish exactly how Tolkien made a sincere secondary reality.

I will argue that Tolkien’s Middle-earth in his fantasy books is an original and sincere secondary world in that it is made out of the primary world. Through recombining the neat categories within which humankind places every aspect of reality in that secondary world he achieves a “true” and “applicable” world in the sense of literary belief with a mythical and “unanalysable” effect on the reader that sets his work apart as a strong reference for examining an original and sincere work of fantasy.

This study seeks to trace the original ingredients that went into what Tolkien called the “Pot”, and to analyse some aspects of the savoury Story that he made. In a study of this scope I shall concentrate on a few specific examples, and extrapolate from those to the work as a whole.

When contemplating the choicest elements of the work of a detailed writer such as Tolkien, one is immediately faced with an endless expanse of options and approaches since Middle-earth is so much more than can just be seen in The Lord of the Rings. Each possibility would fill much larger studies than this one, for an example, I could look at one of Tolkien’s themes: Nature. Tolkien had great concerns in terms of England’s landscape being destroyed by roads. It was his opinion that the moving forest in Macbeth was disappointing after the realisation that it wasn’t really the trees themselves walking around (Carpenter 35), this and the idea of trees and the mysticism surrounding them, leads one to believe that this particular theme must have been close to Tolkien’s heart, looking at the great care he put into depictions of the Ents and trees in general.  Many instances of his work reflect the concern of the crimes humankind inflict upon nature for the sake of progress as can been seen in The Lord of the Rings when the wizard Saruman is corrupted. The once great wizard represents the corruption of power and is eventually thwarted by forces more in tune with nature. Saruman having once been good and in tune with nature, turns from the light in the desire for more power; power being another great theme in Tolkien. If I were to continue in this line much would be said about Treebeard and the Ents, presenting the wisdom and timelessness of nature. In this way I could study the origins of Isengard as a scene, I could examine the themes of nature versus Saruman’s corruption going from good to having “a mind of metal and wheels” clearly meant to represent technology (III, 4, 462). And so I can go on with every one of the seemingly endless scenes and characters and themes that Tolkien wove into every corner of Middle-earth and the history of his imagined time period on Earth.

However, for the sake of this mini-dissertation, I have chosen to scale down on the scope of the study by focussing firstly on Middle-earth and its conception in a much broader sense, in order to get a clearer picture of exactly how expansive and detailed Tolkien’s secondary reality got to be. This chapter, Setting: Middle-earth, will focus on Tolkien’s love of languages and how this influenced his work; how Middle-earth was created to serve as a habitation for his languages where there was not only a place for them to exist in but also speakers to speak them, histories and a cosmology to support them, and a geography complete with maps to place the peoples who grew from all of his sub-creations through the three Ages of Middle-earth that Tolkien’s writings inhabit. This will show sincerity, thoroughness and purpose in Middle-earth’s creation, being a place on its own independent of plot.

Following this wider investigation of setting I propose to study both The Shire and Rivendell as scenes, or places, in order to show in but two instances of peoples in but two of the places on Tolkien’s maps how clearly defined each and every detail of his work is. I have chosen these examples specifically because they occur in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and also in the hope that this will make for subjects with the most material to work from. Through these two places I will investigate the depth, applicability in Tolkien’s creation of character, culture, history, and theme.

This study, in summary, hopes to bring closer an understanding of how Tolkien achieved a sincere and original work of fantasy.



1. Setting: Middle-Earth

No study of Middle-earth can go without acknowledging that a great part of the fascination of Tolkien’s work lies in the vastness of the scope of history, geography and legend that The Lord of the Rings only alludes to.

Thereupon Elrond paused a while and sighed. ‘I remember well the splendour of their banners,’ he said. It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thangorodrim was broken, and the Elves deemed that evil was ended for ever, and it was not so.’

‘You remember?’ said Frodo, speaking his thought aloud in his astonishment. ‘But I thought,’ he stammered as Elrond turned to him, ‘I thought that the fall of Gil-galad was a long age ago.’

‘So it was indeed,’ answered Elrond gravely. ‘But my memory reaches back even to the Elder Days. Eärendil was my sire, who was born in Gondolin before its fall; and my mother was Elwing, daughter of Dior, son of Lúthien of Doriath. I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats, and many fruitless victories.’ (II, 2, 236-7)

This passage is from the chapter “The Council of Elrond” where Frodo, a mortal being, is astonished that an elf could have lived through three ages of the world. This passage is but one example where the books refer to the much greater work, started long before The Lord of the Rings, which makes up the world within which Tolkien’s fantasy works are set.

This world, with its histories and legends and the different ages all play a significant part in Tolkien’s fantasy. It is, in fact, a secondary reality, a term which is central in the understanding and study of the setting and landscape of Middle-earth.

Languages and Conception

Many scholars have written about where Tolkien’s foundations for the creation of Middle-earth lie. It is a well-known fact that it all started with languages, Tolkien wrote in “A Secret Vice” that “your language construction will breed mythology” (211); his unending love and fascination with the power of words is a widely discussed subject, yet I find it necessary to briefly run over it again to show that even in his beginnings, as is probable with most writers/creators/artists, his work stemmed from his experiences, interests, and affections.

Tolkien’s mother, having been his tutor, is the person that is supposed to have had the biggest effect on Tolkien’s love of languages and learning (Carpenter 31). From his biography it is at times very clear that his affection towards her, especially after her death when he was twelve years old, fuelled his interest in the subject of the word, languages, and philology (the study of languages in written historical sources). It became clear early on in his academic life as a boy that he “had an aptitude for languages” (33). It was not long before he developed an interest in the general principles of language; for him it was one thing to know Latin, Greek, French, and German, and another thing to understand why these languages are what they are. “Tolkien had started to look for the bones, the elements that were common to them all: he had begun, in fact, to study philology, the science of words,” (34). He studied Anglo-Saxon (or Old English), Middle English, Old Norse, he would at times break out in fluent Greek or Gothic (48); for Tolkien it was not an interest in the scientific principles of language, no, it was a deep love for the “look and sound of words, springing from the days when his mother had given him his first Latin lessons,” (35).

It was not long before the allure of inventing his own languages took over. Humphrey Carpenter writes that most children make up their own languages, something often shared in secret between friends (35). Tolkien’s first acquaintance with a made-up language was “Animalic” which was constructed out of animal names, a mere substitution language where one word is simply replaced by another unrelated word (“A Secret Vice”, 201). Tolkien was amused by this and as he reached adolescence a seed was planted in his mind to create his own; it would amuse him and allow him to put all his favourite sounds on paper (Carpenter 36). This may have been one of the first signs that Tolkien was in essence a creator of things, a sub-creator, if you will. Later in life he remarked that it is not uncommon for languages to be created; he described his linguistic inventions as similar to that which school children do. Languages and the invention thereof was therefore seen as a basic trait inherent in many human beings; but Tolkien felt more strongly about this than others, he loved learning and he felt especially close to languages because of the affection that he had for his mother. His own first language was called “Naffarin” which was modelled on Spanish, but with a different set of phonology and grammar (“A Secret Vice”, 208). He ultimately became a philologist, which is the point I am making. Tolkien’s foundation for Middle-earth was, indeed, his love of language.

Tolkien had found a calling to begin the great work that he had been meditating for some time during his journey through adolescence, “a grand and astonishing project with few parallels in the history of literature,” (Carpenter 89). He had discovered that if he were to follow these grand aspirations to any degree of complexity he must create a history in which his languages could develop. He had started on this history but was intent on recording it in full. “The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me the name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much ‘language’ has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers,” Tolkien wrote in 1955 (Letters 219). So, for Tolkien it was about languages, that is “what it is all about” for him. He explains carefully that Middle-earth is, in fact, about nothing more than itself. For him this is largely an essay in “linguistic aesthetic” (220).

The legendarium and stories were created to serve as background and function for Tolkien’s expressions of linguistic taste (Letters 214). He first tried to write a story when he was seven, and he only remembered a linguistic error that his mother had corrected; the story was about a green dragon (214). After this, he did not try and write stories for many years, being taken up by language. But eventually he realised, when he discovered an attraction to “the air” of the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala, that he wanted something of this for his own languages and therefore came the history, legends, stories, and peoples that were to make his languages real. Being absolutely devoted to accuracy and detail, not to mention his wishes to create a mythology of its own for England; this functional aspect of his inventions formed a whole secondary world and invented cosmology that would lead to the invention of epic fantasy and would inspire such worlds as have been seen in fantasy after The Lord of the Rings.

An Imagined Time

It is important to remember that Tolkien did not, in fact, want to become an author of fantasy from the start. As was mentioned earlier from his essay “A Secret Vice”, it was Tolkien’s belief that the invention of languages provides a way for mythology to develop.

The total scope of what can be described as the “cosmology”, or universe, of this secondary reality is an interesting, but very complex subject. There will not be time to describe in full detail such terms as “Eä”, one of Tolkien’s words to describe the universe, or “Arda”, what we would call the earth; for, that would be a study on its own and likely much more lengthy than this one. The aim of this study is not to get into the detail of texts, such as “Ainulindalë”, “Valaquenta”, and “Quenta Silmarillion” from The Silmarillion which would provide detailed descriptions of exactly how Middle-earth and the rest of Eä and Arda is made up, or the lenghty The History of Middle-Earth books that deal with how Tolkien created Middle-earth. Though, a necessary point to make in this regard is that Tolkien did not simply make up places, or peoples, or happenings; he depicts the formation of his whole cosmology in the beginnings of existence in The Silmarillion and other stories set in the First Age in the form of mythology, moving into the Second Age his stories take on forms that fall in line with what can be described as legend, and in his writings in the Third Age his work more moves towards what can be seen as the recording of history. Tolkien wanted to publish his works in historical order, but this was constantly denied by publishers and it did not happen. “But as much further history (backwards) as anyone could desire actually exists in The Silmarillion and related stories and poems, composing the History of the Eldar (Elves),” Tolkien wrote to a woman who had been reading page proofs of the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and had much to inquire upon (Letters 174). Though Tolkien had this whole rich and detailed world all planned out and created, much of the underlying wealth of his secondary reality came to publication only after The Lord of the Rings, and it is my view that though readers did not have everything available to them from the start, it certainly made the books’ success even greater in the suggestions of these stories in The Lord of the Rings. It is necessary to focus more closely on one or two examples and then extrapolate. Before moving on to those closer studies, however, it is necessary firstly to place Middle-earth, which is but part of Tolkien’s secondary reality, in terms of where he thought it was located in what is known and understood to be the universe today.

‘Many reviewers seem to assume Middle-earth is another planet!’ Tolkien wrote (Letters 283). It is, however, not like a science fiction story or text where a whole different universe or made-up planet serves as the setting, as was pointed out in the introduction of this paper. Middle-earth relates to our universe and the planet earth. Even though there is no denying that Middle-earth is an imaginative invention, Tolkien describes it as an expression in his own way, and according to him in the only way that he is able to, of some of his apprehensions of the world (Letters 283). He describes carefully that he is ‘historically minded’ (Letters 239); that Middle-earth is not an imaginary world, per se.

“‘Middle-earth’, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in. It is just a use of Middle English middel-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men ‘between the seas’” (Letters 153). Tolkien wrote this in a letter in 1995 to his American publishers. He carefully explains that he is merely referring to the “abiding place of Men” (239) and that he is working with the real world as the place and setting of his work, to him it is specifically opposed to imaginary worlds, such as something like Fairyland, or unseen worlds, like Heaven or Hell. It is essential not to confuse his meaning at this point. Tolkien does not mean this world in the sense that he is rewriting Earth’s history, he means to say that his work is set on the planet Earth as it is known today. What is made up or imaginary, for the lack of a better description, is the historical period. This is why his landscapes feel familiar. This is why he can draw such conclusions as having the Shire placed in a geographical location that one should more or less be able to visit today.

It would not be totally amiss to conclude from this fact that a person should be able to fit lands and events in Tolkien’s work into what is known of our world’s history today. Whether fortunately or unfortunately (that decision lies with the critic and the reader), Tolkien’s geographies and other such details in setting, culture, and so forth, do not match that of factual history of the land that we now know as Europe; though pre-glacial landscapes would differ significantly from those after an ice age. Tolkien admits that he could have ‘fitted things in with greater verisimilitude’ (Letters 283) if he had only thought of such a possibility before the story had got so far. However, he expressly doubted that any advantage would have been gained from such an idea. He simply states that he thinks, or rather hopes, that the undefined gap in time between the Fall of Barad-dûr and today would be sufficient for “literary credibility”, even for readers that are informed about what is now known of pre-history. The creation of an imaginary time is where fantasy plays its role here, and Middle-earth is on our “own mother-earth” for place, for Tolkien explains that however curious the contemporary mode is to use distant corners of the universe for a setting it is unknown and alien whereas earth is “loveable with the love of blood-kin” (Letters 283).

There are, however, some parts of Tolkien’s writings that connect Earth much more directly to this time past as described in the imaginary mythologies of Middle-earth. For instance, The Silmarillion speaks of Tintallë, “Queen of the Stars”, who laboured to arrange many ancient stars as signs in the heavens (55). In other words, she formed constellations. One of which is “Menelmacar with his shining belt” (also “Menelvagor” in Book I, chapter 3 of The Lord of the Rings) which is a direct reference to Orion’s Belt, as it is known today. Another constellation that is referenced is Ursa Major, more commonly known as The Great Bear or The Big Dipper. In The Silmarillion it is known as Valacirca, or the “Sickle of the Valar” (56). In this aspect, it would seem that Tolkien did not consider the fact that constellations change over the centuries, which one may see as a minor error.

For an estimation of exactly how far back this imagined time would be in a reckoning of years, Tolkien suggests that it would be about 6000 years back, that is, the current day would now be somewhere at the end of the Fifth Age if ages were about the same length of the ages of Middle-earth. “But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh,” (Letters, 283)

In the prologue to The Lord of the Rings Tolkien writes that the Third Age of Middle-earth is far back in the past and that the shape of all lands has been changed (I, “Prologue”, 2). Assuming many readers were acquainted with The Lord of the Rings before The Hobbit, this prologue may have been many Tolkien fans’, first acquaintance with the setting and time that has been discussed in this chapter so far. Tolkien from the start presents his work as part of our own world, the one we live in today, creating the distinct idea that the tales and the people in his books are simply part of the history of time in as much as any mythology that we have studied in any history books would be; again, a clear reflection of Tolkien’s attempts at creating a mythology of its own for England (see ‘The Shire’ below).

In order to understand and fully bring to light the setting of Tolkien’s fantasy, we must, once more, refer to the author’s views of what he was doing and thinking of when he wrote. James V Schall writes in his essay “The Reality of Fantasy” (68) that many critics and readers have misinterpreted what Tolkien’s fantasy attempts. Middle-earth is not a place intended to escape reality or the twentieth century. It is, in fact, not apart from reality. Schall suspects, rightly so, that Tolkien thought that what was going on in the twentieth century is just what was going on in his stories, though it was in the form of applicability (see introduction) and not allegory. To enforce this statement he presents a very suitable passage from The Hobbit:

“‘Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!’ said Bilbo.

‘Of course!’ said Gandalf. ‘And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’

‘Thank goodness’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.” (The Hobbit 351)

Gandalf’s teaching means to tell us that we are part of an order, a providence. I think this passage has a lot to say about Tolkien’s ideas on fantasy having to be ‘true’ and how escaping or being part of an adventure, whether actively playing a role as a character or as the creator or even the reader, does not mean that any person is the sole actor in their life; it does not mean that it cannot be true, or in the very least believed to be true. A point of view that resonates with what Tolkien himself outlines in “On Fairy-Stories” which describes his views and theories on fantasy and how a fantasy story should be made up.

Tolkien wrote: “It is often reported of fairies (truly or lyingly, I do not know) that they are workers of illusions, that they are cheaters of men by ‘fantasy’; but that is quite another matter. Such trickeries happen, at any rate, inside tales in which the fairies are not themselves illusions; behind the fantasy real wills and powers exist, independent of the minds and purposes of men,” (On Fairy-Stories 18).

Schall points out that though this is so, the reader must remember what Gandalf is telling Biblo: Independent of the minds and purposes of men, but not excluding them either. Tolkien clearly remarks that we should see the insides, the working mechanism of the secondary world or of the fairy story as true in its plot and order. If we break the spell of its story, we lose the message of what it is saying or attempting to say.

In this sense Middle-earth and the invented time period too is real in the mind of any reader, in the mind of the critic, and so it must remain for the spell not to be broken, for us not to lose what it stands for; which, in many ways, in Tolkien’s case is the reality of good and evil, that even though the world is created good it contains evil, and that there is a choice between the two. Small good deeds can have big influences on the end of an adventure, and small crimes may also have large repercussions. Think about how Gollum was kept alive by countless acts of mercy throughout The Lord of the Rings and what an important part he played in getting Frodo and Sam to Mount Doom.

Tolkien ensures that his setting is real in the sense of the great detail with which he created it. The reality and convincingness of his landscape is one of his greatest achievements. It is intricate beyond what can be expected in any novel, giving Tolkien’s creation a serious and true appearance. In fact, he admitted that he was a pedant devoted to accuracy, even to what may appear to others unimportant matters (Letters 372).



‘I feel that maps ought to be done properly,’ Tolkien wrote to Allen & Unwin in 1953 when an attempt had been made to reduce the maps for his books to black and white bareness (Letters 171). Tolkien clearly felt that maps were essential for his readers to make sense of and understand the depth and care that had been put into creating the landscape as can also clearly be drawn from an earlier letter written that same year when he described what maps he needed to include and which, according to him, could not be left out (Letters 168).

As far as maps drawn up for fantasy stories and then published with the texts are concerned, Tolkien, as far as I could find, was the very first to do so and to feel so strongly about them; it was a pioneering idea that shaped the necessity for most modern day fantasy writers to do the same, for as Raymond E Feist admits in his essay “Our Grandfather: Meditations on JRR Tolkien” (8), “he is considered by many to be the father of us all [authors of fantasy fiction]”. Thomas More is the only other fiction writer that I could find to have published a map with his Utopia in 1516. There were no maps in the works of Lord Dunsany or William Morris, Tolkien’s greatest influences for creating fantasy, and it would appear as if the maps of Middle-earth are the first maps to be published in a work of fantasy or to the same scale. Maps were of the utmost importance to Tolkien since he does not simply tell a story that is set in a simple landscape thought out for the sake of the story alone. In the first place, the world within which Middle-earth exists was created for a series of other purposes. In the second place, Middle-earth was already filled with a great many stories and histories (such as was published only later in The Silmarillion, for example) before The Lord of the Rings came along, therefore the landscape must have been formed to a certain extent long before even The Hobbit came to publication.

It was Tolkien’s view that it is impossible to create a map for a fantasy story. He was of the opinion that maps must first be created and the narrative should then be made to fit the map, and not the other way around (Letters 168). Jones’ parodic makes reference to the fact that most fantasy novels today have maps, and that you visit each and every place on that map during the story (2-3). This is completely against what Tolkien would have though appropriate, since such a map would have been hastily drawn up to fit the plot of a story, instead of the other, more realistic and truthful way around.

As a pedant devoted to accuracy and to detail, Tolkien’s idea was to have maps that are as real as any map, maps that would live up to the idea of a secondary reality which would strengthen the convincingness of his creation. Of course, it would not be easy to create a geography with nothing but his own thoughts and intuitions of what it should be like.

“The maps. I am stumped.  Indeed in a panic. They are essential; and urgent; but I just cannot get them done. I have spent an enormous amount of time on them without profitable result. Lack of skill combined with being harried,” Tolkien wrote in a letter to his publishers (Letters 171). Keeping up with what work had already been done and what writing he was busy with was a constant battle to maintain accuracy. Tolkien was greatly concerned to harmonise Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit with the geography of The Lord of the Rings, especially in respect to the distance and time taken to travel (Hammond and Scull 185). In contrast with The Lord of the Rings Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves took far too long crossing the river Hoarwell by the Last Bridge (185). Concerning revisions to The Lord of the Rings in 1965, Tolkien admitted that there were quite a few mistakes on some of the maps. The small map ‘Part of the Shire’ according to him was most at fault and needed additions. These faults ranged from things like the Bucklebury ferry, Brandy Hall and Crickhollow which accidentally shifted about three miles too far north, and woods that are described in the books which do not occur on the map (Letters 358). There are also inconsistencies in spelling on the maps and in the books; like Bindbole Wood, which Christopher Tolkien is certain is a real place-name in England, seems to spell Bindbale on a map and consequently inconsistencies have occurred within translations and secondary writings; also Brockenborings is spelled thus on the map, but is Brockenbores in the text (Hammond and Scull lvii). This being said, Richard Jefferey sees Tolkien as a writer who held human creative capacities, including his own, in awe. In practice he was a perfectionist who nearly always looked forward to more perfect versions of his work, whether fiction or non-fiction, and would always rather delay publishing to improve a thing further rather than publish as it was (142). Mistakes that were made here and there are to be forgiven given the vastness of Tolkien’s creation, or secondary reality, as well as with the alterations that were made in later editions. What must be appreciated is the great effort that Tolkien, sometimes combined with that of his son Christopher, took to ensure a landscape that correlates between the different stories from different ages in Middle-earth.

In John D Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit he explains that in the beginning of The Hobbit the reader is given the impression that Mr Baggins’ world is a totally different world from that of the legendary world of The Silmarillion. However, the maps from The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings do all correlate. He quickly explains that the impression of the worlds being different between these works is deceptive considering Tolkien’s treatment of the place and setting of all of his writings in Middle-earth as a mythic history of England. In the early stages of the mythology of Luthany, the lonely isle later known as Tol Eresëa, it is known to be England itself in a pre-historic time; Tavrobel is the village in Staffordshire where the Tolkiens lived in the early days of their marriage; Kortirion among the trees the city of Warwick (17).

Rateliff also reminds us that Christopher Tolkien warns readers in The Book of Lost Tales, a volume in The History of Middle-Earth, that just because an element drops out of later versions of his father’s stories, it does not mean that it was necessarily abandoned. Often it simply shifts into the background (17). Keeping this in mind, geographical locations in Middle-earth can be pinpointed to England and this planet Earth.

The action in The Lord of the Rings takes place in the north-west of Middle-earth that is equivalent to the latitude of the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. Tolkien explains that if Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken, as he intended, to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, which lies 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy. The north-west of Europe, correlating to the north-west of Middle-earth, had Tolkien’s affection since that is where he and most of his ancestors had lived. It was a home and Tolkien loved its atmosphere and knew more of its history and languages than any other part of the world (Letters 376).

As for a more specific example of this correlation, Jefferey attributes some of Tolkien’s early writings and Kortirion (documented in The Book of Lost Tales) to Warwick, calling it a ‘germ’ of some of his actual stories. Warwick is where he had sometimes visited his betrothed Edith Bratt after being separated from her by his guardian who did not approve of their young romance when he was 16 years old and Edith 19. It is a city perhaps smaller than Oxford with an ancient castle on the hill with many elms and other trees in and around it (Jefferey 146). The city of Kortirion is located on a great hill at the very centre of the island in the province/region of Alalminórë, the “Land of Elms”. Jefferey continues to explain the significance of the correlation between Tolkien’s work, Warwick and Middle-earth: “The enchantment spreading out from Edith and Warwick, surrounding Warwickshire is Alalminórë, the Land of the Elms, and the whole of Britain is the fading isle where lingers yet the lonely companies, the holy fairies and immortal elves, with Kortirion at its centre,” (Warwick is indeed somewhere near the centre of England and Wales, as well as of Warwickshire).

Languages, Translation and Nomenclature

When dealing with a secondary reality with a deeply realistic set of details such as this, places must have names. And Tolkien was not about to just think out a bunch of words that sounded old or foreign and award them to locations on his already intricate map of a world that kept on unfolding itself to him. No, this process, together with that of his developing languages had to make sense, and so it does.

In 1964 Tolkien expressed a wish to be able to copyright names as well as extracts. To him it was a form of invention not to be taken lightly and he took a great deal of trouble and pleasure in their invention, he mentions in the same letter that Rivendell was among the names which he had especially taken to (Letters 249).

It is important to once again understand that language was the foundation to the creation of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s pretence that his books are presented as translations into the English language is both complex and meticulously constructed. “The whole of the linguistic setting has been translated as far as possible into terms of our own times” for the people of today to read (F 1107). Everything in his books presented in English has been translated from Westron, or the Common Speech, which the hobbits also spoke. Only languages alien to this language were left in their original form, and these include mainly names of persons and places. What is also of significance is that differences in different varieties of Westron have to a lesser extent been represented as varieties in English to show how they differ. But differences between the Westron that the elves and high men of Gondor speak in contrast with that of the hobbits is indeed much greater than has been shown in The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s mind the hobbits speak a more rustic dialect, whereas peoples from Rohan spoke a more antique language and in Gondor a more formal dialect. Elves speak a language more antique than that of Gondor; dwarves too speak with skill, and they are readily adaptable (like hobbits) to the speech of those in their company. Orcs and Trolls spoke as they would, without love of words or things; “their language was actually more degraded and filthy than I have shown it,” (F 1108).

Upholding the idea that he is working with historical matter, and not simply with fiction, Tolkien explains that translations of this kind is usual in such cases, and that he has gone even further than others would have. Where English names are used in the texts they have been translated from Westron, indicating that these names were current at the time. Often those places would also have names in Sindarin, the ancient language of the elves which is younger than Quenya which is the first language in Middle-earth; he is therefore dealing with multiple sets of names for most places. This is yet another indication of the great affinity to languages and detail that Tolkien possessed. Some names differ in meaning from their translations, such as Mount Doom having been Orodruin “burning mountain”; and others yet are alterations from Elvish names such as Brandywine which is Baranduin. These methods are defended by Tolkien: he maintains that the Elvish name for Rivendell, Imladris, and the Westron translation Karningul are both left unchanged, but in reality to have used the name Imladris to refer to Rivendell would have been like referring to Winchester today as Camelot (F 1108). The name of the Shire, Sûza, and all other places of the hobbits have been “Englished”. As a final example of the detail in translation, language, and nomenclature in Middle-earth, I return to the name Brandywine. The hobbit name for this river is modelled on the Elvish Baranduin which is derived from baran “golden brown” and duin “(large) river”. Of course Baranduin flows naturally to Brandywine, but the actual hobbit name was Branda-nîn which means “border water” which would have been better represented with the name Marchbourn, but as a jest the river was usually called Bralda-hîm meaning “heady ale” once more referring, as was habit, to its colour (F 1112).

This subsection serves to show that there is quite a lot going on in the background of The Lord of the Rings (most of which is not represented at all, or in a very small way), and that the books’ richness can be attributed to the depth of that background. It is with passion that Tolkien wrote, he did not simply sit at his desk and think of names and events as he wrote simply for the sake of furthering plot. He did not force his languages unto his creations, they had to develop naturally.

Conclusion and Analysis

It is clear from the few examples and insights provided above that Tolkien was indeed devoted to accuracy. Middle-earth is not a simple place in the background of a story that merely focuses on the plot or characters, but a rich thriving land which is alive, even to Tolkien himself, being a writer whose experiences in writing and creation are at times as surprising to him as they are interesting to the reader. When he writes to his son Christopher he talks of Ithilien, where also Faramir spontaneously “came on the scene”, as if he himself was experiencing it for the first time when he wrote: “But at the moment they are in Ithilien (which is proving a lovely land),” (Letters 76). Middle-earth is a place that is wholly independent of the plot of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. Tolkien’s most ingenious trait is to have a world so rich with detail that his most popular stories could merely hint at the expansive backdrop from which they themselves were born. And it is these above mentioned factors, that lend to The Lord of the Rings magic of truthfulness and believability despite elements of the fantastic.

Having now provided a broad overview of some aspects of Middle-earth’s conception and its detailed elements it is necessary to start examining in more detail, smaller more specific parts of the secondary reality. And where better to start with than the place which was most central to Tolkien’s affections?


2. The Shire

“If you want to write a tale of this sort you must consult your roots,” (Letters 212). This is what Tolkien once wrote reflecting his deep sense of cultural and ethnic identity (Fairburn 76), coinciding with his claims that fantasy must flow from the primary reality in his lecture “On Fairy-Stories”, as discussed in the introduction.

This chapter will primarily consist of an in-depth examination of Tolkien’s approach to creating the Shire, its character and culture origins and accumulation with specific reference to the hobbits and the place itself in terms of England, Tolkien’s homeland. Hobbits and the Shire being a people of Middle-earth closest to his heart and country will serve as evidence and example of how the peoples of Middle-earth are indefinitely connected to our own and what role this plays in the reception, possible interpretations, and “applicability” of his narrative works that feed into his secondary reality. It is important to note Tolkien’s disapproval of discussing facts about himself since it is his opinion that such facts distract an author’s audience from the text itself (Letters 288), as well as his comments on allegory in the foreword to The Lord of the Rings; keep in mind, however, that this study is not attempting to prove that Middle-earth is a definite one-to-one representation of the primary reality, or in the case of this chapter, England, but that I am tracing the origins of Tolkien’s sub-creation and influences from the primary reality in order to establish his methods and process in inventing a secondary reality.

Place: The Shire

When looking at the appendices DVD’s of the process of adapting The Lord of the Rings into film, something Tolkien was in the very least uncomfortable with as can be seen in his letters surrounding the Zimmerman animation project of The Lord of the Rings (Letters 257, 261, 266-7), it is remarkable to see the extent to which director Peter Jackson and his team’s efforts go in trying to be as accurate to Tolkien’s vision as they possibly could in every aspect of the films. In nothing are these labours more prominent than in their design process, as this is where they believed the key to reflecting the depth and richness of this work primarily lay for the films (Gilbert, “Designing Middle-earth”). Concerning New Zealand as the location for the films it is interesting since this is a country that is geologically young and not worn down by ages past, lending to the film the landscape of our planet nearly 6000 or 7000 years ago. In Ian Brodie’s The Lord of the Rings Location Guidebook Peter Jackson writes in the foreword that the Waikato farming country, where Hobbiton was created, is like “a slice of ancient England” (6). Jackson explains that he knew Hobbiton had to be warm, comfortable and it needed to feel lived in. They let weeds grow through cracks, established hedges and let little gardens grow a whole year before filming. These images connect the Shire to England in many senses; it recreates the first introduction to the Shire in the first chapter of The Hobbit, starting with, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, as well as the more extensive explorations of hobbit culture and the Shire in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, where certainly one should be able to notice a clear connection between them and the hobbits. Rural England is depicted unmistakably. It is interesting to note in the light of this study how much the commentators and conceptual artists for the films, John Howe and Alan Lee, seem to feel the definite influence of the English countryside in Tolkien’s descriptions of the Shire, its architecture and general atmosphere.

From the start of The Lord of the Rings and also from The Hobbit it is clear that Tolkien felt that the Hobbits were central to these books, especially since (as will be seen below) the Shire and its people are supposed to represent a mythology of sorts for England. “This book is largely concerned with Hobbits, and from its pages a reader may discover much of their character and a little of their history,” (I, “Prologue”, 1). About the Shire there is a lot to say, such as its histories, landscape, their culture, and so forth; they are a well constructed people, though, hobbits were all in all a peaceful people there had been a war which was beyond living memory at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings which was called the Battle of Greenfields; there is also as a prime example of the Shire’s legacy in the matter of “pipe-weed”, where Tolkien cleverly frames the hobbits as the inventors of smoking (I, “Prologue”, 7); the Shire, of course, also has its own map printed with book I of The Lord of the Rings (18); and Appendix C even describes the family trees of important hobbits such as Baggins, Took, Brandybuck, and Gardner (1073-7).

It would, however, not be efficient to examine every one of these aspects and their origins in Tolkien’s mind. I have chosen to rather investigate the overall idea of the Shire representing England and the hobbits, the English. What exactly did he have in mind when he created the hobbits and the Shire?

Culture: The English and the Hobbits

Tolkien’s manner of going about the invention of his characters and cultures, and for that matter many other parts of his stories, is one that was rarely planned for or foreseen, as may be seen in the first occurrence of the hobbits being a scribbling made on a blank sheet of an exam script. This spontaneity in his invention is interesting and should be kept in mind throughout this paper, though what is even more important is how much work and detail is put into every character and culture after they have “come on the scene”, as Tolkien puts it. This can be seen in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings; the notion of flat characters and surface-detail was not one of Tolkien’s favourites. Where there was no place for extending the tales of a character or the details of a culture it was simply moved to an appendix, not left out. The very fact that whole languages were written, that there are histories for the hobbit tobacco industry, that the intrigues of different characters’ lives are all included, even if not directly in the story, shows something unique and absolutely realistic in Tolkien’s secondary reality.

One might say that hobbit culture is central to Tolkien’s narrative work set in Middle-earth, since the main characters of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are of this people. It is for this reason, and the fact that Tolkien deems himself to be something of a hobbit, that we must explore this culture and, in that, find concrete examples of what I am attempting to uncover of Tolkien’s process of creation.

“For I love England,” (Letters 65) Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher, and it is because of this great love for his country that, like Fairburn points out, he was doing more than just writing a book, he was trying to lay the foundations of a mythology for England (76), something that would be a majestic whole and might even leave scope for other “minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama” (Letters 145). In his youth, Tolkien read a paper on the Kalevala to a college society and this is in fact where he began to notice the importance of the type of mythology found in these Finnish poems, and he may have even already been thinking of writing something similar for England. “These  mythological ballads…are full of that very primitive undergrowth that the literature of Europe has on the whole been steadily cutting and reducing for many centuries with different and earlier completeness among different people…I would that we had more of it left – something of the same sort that belonged to the English,” (Carpenter 59). Later on in his life Tolkien elaborates on his passions for “fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history” (Letters 144), and again he emphasizes that there is not enough of that material of a “certain tone and air” (144) for the English. He comments that from his early days he was grieved at the impoverished state of his own country in that it has no stories of the quality which he sought (and found in legends of other lands) that is bound up with its tongue and soil; and at last he admits that he has had a mind to create something that more or less would be a legend, “ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story…which I could dedicate simply to: to England, my country,” (144).

Tolkien continues to describe that a work such as this would possess the tone and quality that he had desired and would be redolent of the “air” of the English and have a “fair elusive beauty…it should be ‘high’, purged of the gross,” (144). This is something that many would say he achieved in later years with the numerous publications of his works set in Middle-earth. Even though Tolkien described these aspirations as “absurd” (145), The Guardian reviewed his work as being that of a writer whose work of just over half a century became the creative equivalent of a people (Fairburn 77).  Fairburn being among these supporters, comments that Tolkien did exactly this by dedicating the epic mythos, The Silmarillion, to England and later the tales inspired from it, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and notes also Shippey’s comment in his own The Road to Middle-earth: “Tolkien’s grand design, or desire, was to give back to his own country the legends that had been taken from it in the Dark Ages after the Conquest”. However, it is still for the future to decide whether true myth was created by Tolkien, but the fact remains that the possibility of it lies in his Middle-earth which says a lot about Tolkien’s commitment to his work and ultimate goal. Given this evidence it would be appropriate to say that in the heart of his myth-making lies the English and, of course, projections of his homeland in Middle-earth.

The Shire, especially, is in itself a piece of land in the heart of Middle-earth hearkening back to an England in a “pre-mechanical age” (Carpenter 288), before Tolkien had to give up driving because he did not like what roads were doing to the English countryside. In order to investigate this claim further so as to show the relevance of this connection between the Shire itself and the English countryside, substantial evidence is essential, and a letter Tolkien wrote provides exactly that: “’The Shire is based on rural England and not any other country in the world – least perhaps of any in Europe on Holland, which is topographically wholly dissimilar,” (Letters 250). Tolkien wrote this to Rayner Unwin objecting to a Dutch translation of The Lord of the Rings. In this letter Tolkien admits that The Shire is based on the English countryside in everything from “local colour”, to nomenclature, to topography.

Tolkien explains that The Shire is in fact based on a Warwickshire village of about the period of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. He describes the village as “a straggle of houses north of old Oxford, which has not even a postal existence” (Letters 230). Tolkien claims that he also lived out his early years in one instance of the Shire, the village of Sarehole, a then Warwickshire village south of Birmingham (Fairburn 75).

An important aspect where this Englishness is particularly visible is in the nomenclature of The Shire, where most names “are in fact devised according to style, origins, and mode of formation of English (especially Midland) place-names” (Letters 360). The name The Shire, only instated with the publication of The Lord of the Rings and not yet so named in The Hobbit, seems to be derived from the English tradition of adding the suffix ‘–shire’ to a place name, referring to the word ‘shire’ that originates from Old English and was used to describe a region that had been divided into “shires”, which was then the official charge or administrative office of, for example, that of a steward, bishop or governor, (Oxford English Dictionary Online, “shire, n”). This evidence, along with Tolkien’s letter on the Dutch translation above-mentioned, points to a clear affiliation between the origins of the Shire and that of the English countryside; a clear flow of cultural influences from England to the Shire becomes discernible. One of the most interesting influences from Tolkien’s own life in the nomenclature of the Shire is in the name Bag End, the home of the character Bilbo Baggins, protagonist in The Hobbit and uncle to protagonist Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. Bag End is the local name for Bilbo’s hobbit hole or house, coinciding with the local name of Tolkien’s aunt Jane Neave’s farm in Worcestershire which was at the end of a lane leading to it and no further, just like Bilbo’s hobbit hole is at the end of a lane leading up the Hill, a high point in the village of Hobbiton (Hammond and Scull 51). Again, we have a definite relation between the Shire and the English countryside, but it is Tolkien’s personal similarities with the hobbits in this case that are most worthy of note.

Character: Tolkien and Mr Baggins

Tolkien once made the statement: “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” (Letters 288); he explains how he, as a particularly proud Englishman himself, likes gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands, how he smokes a pipe and likes good plain food and detests French cooking, and also how he likes and at times even dares to wear ornamental waistcoats, Tolkien was fond of mushrooms, had a very simple sense of humour, he even explains how he likes to go to bed late and get up late, and he did not travel much; all of this coinciding especially with Hobbit-culture. Tolkien had a deep feeling that his real home was in the West Midland countryside of England and this defined the nature of his scholarly work and these same motives created the character Mr. Bilbo Baggins, embodying everything he loved about the West Midlands (Carpenter 175). The personal element of Tolkien that we find in Bilbo is remarkable: in the story, Bilbo is the son of the lively Belladonna Took, herself one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, descended from the respectable and solid Bagginses, he is middle aged and adventurous, dresses sensibly and likes bright colours, and has a taste for plain food; and then we have John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the son of the enterprising Mabel Suffield, herself one of the three remarkable daughters of the old John Suffield (who lived to be nearly a hundred), descended also from the respectable and solid Tolkiens, was middle aged and inclined to pessimism, dressed sensibly but liked coloured waistcoats when he could afford them, and had a taste for plain food (175). I would not ascribe these similarities to mere coincidence; despite Tolkien’s creative process being very intuitive he must also have had creations, like Bilbo Baggins and the Shire, where he deliberately incorporated much of himself, or the primary world within which he lived, for whatever possible inclinations he may have had during the times he created and revisited these parts of his secondary world.

As Carpenter rightly states, the hobbits do not owe their origins merely to personal parallels (176). “The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination – not the small reach of their courage or latent power,” Tolkien once said to an interviewer (176). In other words the hobbits possess the combination of small imaginations with great courage which often leads to survival against all chances. This, it would seem, originates from the popular view of the ability of the inhabitants of the British Isles to ‘muddle through’ any difficulty or disaster, a romantic view but justified by their suffering and perseverance through two world wars (Hammond and Scull 27), as well as Tolkien’s personal experience in the trenches during the First World War; “I’ve always been impressed…that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds,” (176) Tolkien once said. He also revealed that the hobbit, Sam Gamgee, is a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen that he knew in the 1914 war, recognising them to be far superior to himself (81), and his portrayal of this heroic and loyal character certainly fits the bill. Another significant point in the role of the hobbits and how they are portrayed is that they are first and foremost specifically human (that is to say not of the elves or dwarves), and are referred to as ‘Little Folk’, being more in touch with nature and specifically free of the human trait of ambition and greed for wealth, unlike the race of men (being ‘Big Folk’); they are made small “partly to exhibit the pettiness of man, plain unimaginative parochial man – though not with either the smallness or the savageness of Swift, and mostly to show up, in creatures of very small physical power, the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch’” (Letters 158).

Conclusion and Analysis

In the case of the hobbits and the Shire as examples of what Tolkien does with character and culture in these pioneering works of fantasy, there are unmistakable influences from the primary reality flowing into Middle-earth as a secondary reality; its applicability, in Tolkien’s terms, is also very apt and therefore lends itself to sincerity. Firstly, the evidence has shown that, even though it might not have been his immediate concern throughout, Tolkien had a specific intent in his work: to create a realistic and believable mythology for his homeland. For, he viewed this kind of mythos, one with a befitting tone and air, to be a necessity to any culture. Being very patriotic towards England and the English people, he especially uses the Shire and the hobbits as a vehicle to portray the English countryside and the latent strength found in his people, who survived two world wars. Undoubtedly, he felt that his work was an attempt at filling a mythological gap in his own culture, and scholars today, like Fairburn, would say that he was successful in establishing, if not yet quite a mythology, the groundwork of something that might start filling that gap.

Furthermore, we find a lot of Tolkien himself (especially in Bilbo Baggins) and the English in the hobbits. There are personal parallels, embodiments of the English spirit, projections of the English landscape, and references to personal experiences reflected in the Shire. The fact that all of the representations of Bag-end, and especially its outside, in the conceptual art that was either done for printing or the films are so very similar makes for a very interesting piece of evidence that shows that Tolkien described it very well in terms of creating the English/hobbit atmosphere which he desired. Nothing in his work illustrates the rootedness or applicability quite better than does this specific example.

When considering Tolkien’s views on the purpose of a secondary reality presenting a fresh perspective on the primary reality, one could say that this incorporation of subjects especially important to him, his nationality and English pride, in the hobbits and the Shire is a way of bringing to his readers an experience that would strengthen the English identity and bring forth new appreciation for what it means to be English.


3. Rivendell

“Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House East of the Sea. The house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting around and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.” (II, 2, 219)

This passage from the chapter “Many Meetings” in Book II of The Lord of the Rings is a reflection of what Bilbo Baggins wrote in the Red Book, or as we know it The Hobbit (61), and in both instances it introduces Rivendell as a significant space in Middle-earth. It has a longer and more important history within Tolkien’s creation than the Shire, and will therefore provide this study with an example of a space and its people that alludes to the greater detail and thoroughness in atmosphere, history, appreciation of nature and rootedness in the primary reality that Tolkien achieved in Middle-earth.

I will provide an insight into the inspiration from the primary reality of Rivendell, after which a study of the historical significance of Rivendell within Middle-earth, and then do an examination of Rivendell and a selected number of its inhabitants as it is represented within The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.


Rivendell in the Primary Reality

 rivjrrt2  lauterbrunnen-switz

The illustration by Tolkien.

Lauterbrunnental in Switzerland.


“Rivendell” is formed by two English elements: “riven” and “dell” meaning split, cloven and valley respectively, which at last means “deep dale of the cleft” (Hammond and Scull 15). It is also referred to as the Last Homely House East of the Sea. As mentioned earlier it is at about the latitude of Tolkien’s hometown of Oxford, same as Hobbiton (Letters 376). It is commonly believed that Tolkien got the inspiration for Rivendell from the Lauterbrunnental in Switzerland as may be seen in the images shown above (Hammond and Scull 203). Tolkien explains that Rivendell was largely based on his adventures in 1911 (Letters 391). Hammond and Scull point out that Marie Barnfield linked Tolkien’s travels in Switzerland in 1911 to Rivendell and Lauterbunnental. Beyond the astonishing similarities between Lauterbrunnental and Tolkien’s own illustration of Rivendell, there are similarities in the names Tolkien used, and there is the belief that Tolkien had apparently come down into the valley by an unusual route which can be viewed as similar to the route that one must take to enter Rivendell. There is also the sound of “Lauterbrunnental” which is mirrored in the English and Elvish names for the Rivendell river: Loudwater and Bruinen (Hammond and Scull 203).

Tolkien’s appreciation of nature is clearly reflected in the elves and in Rivendell, and the fact that there is a sort of Rivendell in Switzerland shows how Tolkien roots his creations in personal experiences. But this place is deeply rooted within the histories of Middle-earth as well. Therefore, it is necessary now to show how Tolkien does not only invent a place for the sake of plot, but chooses significant existing places in his secondary world that suits the purposes of his stories. It is real and sincere in a way that makes his fantasy so much more believable.

Rivendell in Middle-Earth

Rivendell, which is “Imladris” in Sindarin and “Karningul” in Westron, has got a longer history than Bag-end, and so too does its inhabitants have longer histories than that of the Bagginses. This history which is summarised in Tolkien’s letters and various other places such as in The Silmarillion, of course, is merely alluded to in the books and makes for a thriving and extremely convincing backdrop in The Lord of the Rings which I hope to, in part, relate in order to show its complexity. See how Tolkien has much going on behind the scenes, and though it is never fully shown in The Lord of the Rings, it creates the idea of reality and gives depth that cannot be compared to any writers of fantasy today.

What makes Rivendell so important is that the long story of the histories and legends in Middle-earth all build up to the establishment of this refuge, which is the result of Eregion’s fall. It is part of the last lingering kingdom of the elves in the Second Age which is, more or less, the remnants of the old lands in The Silmarillion under Gil-galad, the last king of the Noldor (Elves of the Second Clan), (Letters 152). Middle-earth having been ruined and broken by the “First Enemy”, the elves were to leave Middle-earth and return to the west where they could once more be at peace (150). But not all were prepared to leave, so some of the elves lingered in the extreme north-west, which was at that time the major realm of the dwarves (which resulted in an alliance, the first and only of its kind, between the two peoples). It is within this Age that Sauron still had the ear of some of the elves; he was still fair in those early days and his motives seemed to go partly together with that of the elves: the healing of desolate lands. But Sauron found a weak point in them, a suggestion that together they could make western Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor (the realm of the Valar). Even though Gil-galad and Elrond both disapproved of this idea because they saw this incitement to make a separate paradise as a veiled attack on the gods, great work had already begun at Eregion. With Sauron’s aid they made “Rings of Power”.  The chief power of the rings was the “prevention or slowing of decay” (152) which is an elvish motive (the preservation of what is desired or loved). The rings also enhanced the natural powers of the possessor and this, in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, starts becoming magic, which is a motive easily corruptible into evil which is seen as “a lust for domination” (152). And so they had these powers that were directly derived from Sauron. The elves of Eregion made three rings that were directed to the preservation of beauty. But Sauron was dark and manipulative, and in secret he forged a “One Ring” that contained the powers of the others giving him the power to control them. The wearer of the One Ring could see the thoughts of the wearers of all the others, and in the end he would ultimately be able to enslave them. The flaw in this was that Sauron did not bring into reckoning the wisdom and subtle perceptions of the elves, and once he put on the One Ring, they knew about it and were afraid. They ultimately hid the rings and tried to destroy the others that had been made. A war resulted from this and Middle-earth was further ruined. Eregion was now captured and destroyed, and Sauron seized many Rings of Power, giving them out to the greedy that would still accept them.

Tolkien further explains that when Sauron now became almost supreme in Middle-earth, the elves held out in secret places; the last elf-kingdom of Gil-galad was maintained on the extreme western shores where also are the havens of ships that, even in The Lord of the Rings still, carry out the last of the elves in Middle-earth. He describes Rivendell as being an “enchanted sanctuary…on the extreme eastern margins of the western lands” (Letters 153). Rivendell together with Eregion (that had now been destroyed) and the havens all formed part of the last remainders of the once great elven kingdom in Middle-earth. In Appendix B in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien shows Eregion’s establishment at the year 750 of the Second Age and Rivendell is named to have been established by Elrond as a refuge in the year 1697 of the Second Age after Eregion is laid to waste (1058). Rivendell was established with the last of the Gwaith-i-Mídain (a group of Noldor that was living in Eregion in the Second Age) and most of the elves were Eldar, including the great lords Gildor and Glorfindel (Foster 332).  Rivendell’s history forms part of the elves’ last major battles in Middle-earth and against Sauron (Letters 152-3). It had now become a secret place of refuge for the elves and in the last alliance of elves and men, Sauron was overthrown at the battle of Barad-dûr; Rivendell survided the War of the Elves and Sauron and the wars against Angmar because of the great elven power there (Foster 333). After the War of the Ring Elrond and many of the elves of Rivendell went over the sea, but Elladan and Elohir remained there and was joined by Celeborn. There is no record of when Rivendell was finally deserted (333). But this is a part of the tale that I am no longer concerned with in this study. What remains important now is that Elrond founded Rivendell and remained master of it for quite a long time to come.

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and mighty among both Elves and Men. (II, 1, 221)

Elrond is a central figure throughout the ancient wisdom of Tolkien’s secondary reality and The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion provides a brief overview of his background (Hammond and Scull 204). The master of Rivendell is in fact half elven. His father, Eärendel, was the son of a man named Tuor and his mother was the elven princess Idril. Elrond’s mother was named Elwing, a descendant of Beren and Lúthien (whom have their own very significant story in Tolkien’s legendarium). Elrond is at once part mortal and part elven. When the elves return to the west in the Second Age, Elrond, of course, remains in Middle-earth. His elder brother Elros chose to become part of the race of men and became the first king of Númenor. Later Tolkien introduced a character also named Elrond in The Hobbit. “The passage in Ch. iii relating him [Elrond] to the Half-elven of the mythology was a fortunate accident…I gave him the name Elrond casually, but as this came from my mythology…I made him half-elven,” Tolkien wrote (Letters 346). It is only in The Lord of the Rings that he is identified as the son of Eärendel which makes him a great power and a ringbearer (having received an uncorrupted elven ring Vilya (air in Quenya) from Gil-galad).

It is important to note here that Elrond played a very minor role in “Quenta Silmarillion” and that there are no particular tales of his exploits in that book (Hammond and Scull 204). In The Hobbit he is described as an “elf-friend – one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginning of History,” (The Hobbit 60). It was only about the time when The Hobbit was accepted for publication that Tolkien began to write about the Second Age where Elrond would play a major role (Hammond and Scull 204). Though this is a happy accident on Tolkien’s part, it serves to once again show his impulsive creative process, which in the end gave Elrond the deep and thorough history that all major characters in The Lord of the Rings have.

There are also other important characters that reside in Rivendell. Among them are Elrond’s children who are described as “forgetting never their mother’s torment in the dens of the orcs” (II, 1, 221). Hammond and Scull points out that this refers to Appendix A where Tolkien describes that Elrond’s wife Celebrían was seized and carried off by orcs, she was pursued and rescued by her sons Elladan and Elrohir, but not before she had suffered great torment that made her lose all joy in Middle-earth, after which she went to the havens and passed over the sea (206). Arwen, their daughter, bears the likeness of Lúthien (her great-great grandmother whose fate she comes to share); she is called “the Evenstar of her people” (II, 1, 221) meaning perhaps that she was the last elf or high rank born in Middle-earth, where the time of the elves is now coming to an end (Hammond and Scull 205). Rivendell is also the place of refuge for the heirs of Elendil, including Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor whom Arwen later marries.

In terms of its historical importance in the Third Age, Rivendell is well known by avid Tolkien readers as the place where the Council of Elrond takes place, where the fate of the ring is decided. This is absolutely justifiable since a long history against darkness all culminates to Rivendell’s establishment, it is only appropriate that the final fate of the One Ring should be decided there. This is where Bilbo first passes through before he, through providence as is hinted by Gandalf, discovers the one ring which had been lost for thousands of years. In the same way, his nephew Frodo also passes through Rivendell where the final decision is made that the “halfling” would bear the burden of carrying the ring to Mordor to be destroyed where it was forged in the fires of Mount Doom.

Rivendell is not merely a place on the way of the main characters of a single tale, it has histories that go back very far indeed; it is a place that has a definite atmosphere and purpose that is so real that it seems to be historical fact in terms of its well established background and history which lends to it the truth that Tolkien so favoured in a secondary reality.

Rivendell: A Place of Reflection

Beyond the history and original inspiration for Rivendell I feel obligated to relate the place as it is represented in The Lord of the Rings to show its significance and atmosphere in the Third Age. “Elrond’s house represents lore – the preservation in reverent memory of all tradition concerning the good, wise, and beautiful,” (Letters 153). Rivendell is not a scene of action but of reflection. Tolkien explains that it is a place visited on the way to all deeds or adventures, as is proven in his most well-known adventures in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (153).

As the company of The Hobbit make their way down to the Last Homely House East of the Sea, Tolkien describes the pleasantness of nature, one of his personal favourite themes (especially with regards to the elves), enveloping them (57). He speaks of the air growing warmer the lower they move “down the zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell” as they start hearing merry singing of the elves amid the trees. The smell of pine-trees is strong at first, then the company’s spirits rise as the trees change from beech to oak, and the twilight brings even more comfort. From what may be the first description of Rivendell, it is clear that it is a sanctuary embedded with the elven culture.

In The Lord of the Rings Frodo asks whether Rivendell is safe from the troubles of Middle-earth (II, 1, 216). Gandalf answers that though elves may fear Sauron, there are still some of his chief foes to be found there; and he creates a sense of safety and sanctuary with his descriptions of the “Elven-wise” that live there, lords of the Eldar from beyond the furthest seas that have survived for ages. He assures Frodo that they do not fear the Ringwraiths (Frodo’s first encounter with the dark forces) for they have dwelt in the “Blessed Realm”, meaning the far western land where the Valar dwelt, called in Quenya, Aman meaning “blessed, free from evil” (Hammond and Scull 202). There is power in Rivendell that is able, at this time in the story still, to withstand Mordor (II, 1, 217); so too the river of the valley is under Elrond’s power (218), as can be witnessed when the flood washes away the Ringwraiths after their pursuit of Frodo and his company. Sam, in turn, also relays his awe with regards to Elrond’s house, showing its size and that it is filled with many things of the wisdom of Middle-earth and the elves (219). He speaks of its peace and the singing of the elves that are like “kings, terrible and splendid”. Pippin shows an important part of Rivendell, which is the fact that it seems impossible to feel gloomy or depressed there (220). At this point they are in the gardens and it is written that it is “as if summer still lingered in Erond’s gardens”. It is 24 October, well into autumn, but as we learn later on in the book, Elrond wears one of the elven rings, and he seems to be able to control the climate, similar to what the company later feels in Lothlórien, where Galadriel also wears a ring (Hammond and Scull 203). This would in my opinion also be part of the peacefulness and safety that Pippin feels among the elves of Rivendell, and the feeling of timelessness in both Rivendell and Lothlórien.

From this alone one can already start to feel the power of Rivendell and the reader knows exactly what Tolkien had in mind for it. In the design process of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations the conceptual artists do not have dissimilar ideas of what has to be done for the design of Rivendell. Tolkien’s descriptive skills and slightly vague references to his legendarium gave them a lot to work with, not to mention the information available outside of The Lord of the Rings. “How do you define a culture which could be eternal?” asks one of the artists in “Designing and Building Middle-earth” (Gilbert). And he answers himself simply, “You have to search for some form of simplicity which can allow you to stop evolving and find that perfect line”. In different, at times unidentified, voice-overs the artists John Howe and Allen Lee describe that they were looking at Celtic designs that were both intuitive and enigmatic, similar to nature; they comment that Rivendell should look like it had evolved around and with the trees. It is especially well executed with the, perhaps not practical, but very effective way with which the leaves from the trees manage to let their leaves fall right into different rooms in Elrond’s house. They describe how it must feel slightly melancholic and quiet, “I think I was trying to create a place I would want to retire in,” (as Bilbo indeed does); for them, it had to reflect the idea that it is a centre of learning and of healing.

Elrond is also a master of healing. He heals Frodo from the stab-wound that he had received from the Morgul blade before they arrived at Rivendell. Aragorn who had been able to ease his pain before their arrival had learnt his own skills in Rivendell and would achieve much more in the “Houses of Healing” after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (Hammond and Scull 200). “But even there he will say ‘Would that Elrond were here, for he is the eldest of all our race, and has the greater power’”.

Still bearing the burden that the ring had placed on him, Bilbo retires to Rivendell, taking comfort in its refuge in its peace and powers of healing before he is carried off to the Undying Lands together with Frodo to rid both of them from the remnants of the darkness brought upon them (Letters 329). Rivendell is the only place left in Middle-earth where Bilbo can find any measure of peace.

An example of the peace and comfort of Rivendell can be drawn from the Hall of Fire in the House of Elrond. “Here you will hear many songs and tales – if you can keep awake. But except on high days it usually stands empty and quiet, and people come here who wish for peace and thought,” Gandalf tells Frodo when he is introduced to this room (II, 1, 301). It is here that Frodo is reunited with Bilbo for the first time after his departure from the Shire on his 111th birthday. “I was sitting and thinking. I do a lot of that nowadays, and this is the best place to do it in, as a rule,” Bilbo replies upon inquiry of what he had been doing and why he had missed the feast that Elrond had held upon Frodo’s recovery (302). This passage reinforces Tolkien’s ideas on Rivendell being a place of reflection. “Time doesn’t seem to pass here: it just is. A remarkable place altogether,” Bilbo says (303). It is at this time that the elves start singing. The songs of the elves portrayed in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings serves as another source of the beauty and peace of Rivendell. “At first the beauty of the melodies and of the interwoven words in elven-tongues, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell,” Tolkien writes (306). Elvish song has an effect on Frodo that is similar to that of “Faërian Drama” described by Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories”: “Those plays which according to abundant records elves have often presented to men, can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism…If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think you are, bodily inside its Secondary World,” (48-9). Such was the peace and beauty that it did not take more than a day for Frodo to forget about the harrowing dangers that he had faced: “To Frodo his dangerous flight, and the rumours of the darkness growing in the world outside, already seemed only the memories of a troubled dream,” (314).

From the few pages on Rivendell that can be found in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings there is a lot to be learnt. It is a deeply embedded cultural place of extreme significance in Tolkien’s fantasy, and though it is not a place of action, it is created with great care and precision.

Conclusion and Analysis

Rivendell is a place of rest, advise and healing; a scene, not of action, but of reflection. This place is connected to much of the history of Ages past, and it is a very satisfying scene for one of the turning points in The Lord of the Rings. Once more, providence is shown to play a large role within Tolkien’s work, for the guests at the Council of Elrond are all within Rivendell which manifests itself upon them both physically and magically. They all arrive at exactly the right moment in time, as if summoned by destiny; Boromir comes because of a vision in a dream that he’d had, Legolas comes because Gollum had escaped, Gimli and his father Gloin are there to seek advice from Elrond, and so I can continue. But what is most important is to realise that it is a very well thought-out scene, as is clearly shown in the brilliant set design in Peter Jackson’s films.

The main goal of this chapter on Rivendell is to show not only that Tolkien wrote extremely well or that he is able to create an atmosphere that enchants the reader, but that it is also thought out to fit every exact detail of his secondary reality as a whole, that it is not simply a combination of interesting ideas, but ideas that reinforce his whole creation and the characters that dwell there. It is a place of significance throughout the history of the Third Age and it connects that most popular time period of his creation to the beginnings of his world, which in turn serves to create a feeling of reality and truth that cannot be equalled since Tolkien. Rivendell, and Middle-earth, exists independently of the plot of any of his stories, yet it remains relevant to the plot, is rooted within the primary reality and is applicable in terms of theme.




Tolkien is the father of what is understood under the word fantasy in publication as it is known today. With the publication of The Lord of the Rings he led in a movement of fantasy fiction which has become an immensely popular genre, or sub-genre. However, what came to be written after Tolkien in the name of fantasy is in many cases unjustifiable scores of imitations that seek to emulate Tolkien’s successes through derivative characters and setting. Many of these stories simply do not make the mark of epic fantasy. Very few seem to be able to write as well as Tolkien, and the reason for this is simply that no imitation of The Lord of the Rings could ever hope to achieve the depth and wealth of Middle-earth, resulting in shallow, insincere works of literature that completely miss the relevance that a good work of fantasy could achieve.

Tolkien made fantasy his own. He worked with what he loved and had definite purpose in his work, even though he never had a mind for becoming a fantasy author when he started out. Tolkien’s Middle-earth grew out of languages, to him the most important factor and driving force as I have shown in chapter 1. His secondary reality is independent of plot and exists of its own accord in a realised and detailed construction that lends to it “the inner consistency of reality”. Tolkien believes that the map comes first and the story second, that the world must lead the story and not the other way around, as was proven by the examinations of his creative process and dedication to being as detailed as possible. In chapter 2, “The Shire”, it is shown that his work is applicable and rooted in the primary world and has definite literary purpose. He worked towards the goal of creating a mythology for England, a feat many would say he achieved. Tolkien also recreates those things in the primary world that have become trite to the ordinary beholder, evoking a sense of strangeness and wonder in the reader as is shown especially with his themes on nature as was in part related throughout this paper. In chapter 3 it becomes clear, once again, that he does not merely write a story, but creates a world. His characters, places, languages and histories have more to them than is related in his books; they have all got a definite place in Middle-earth which makes them true and believable. Creating a secondary world requires dedication to detail in order to achieve truth, so that the work may have a mythical and “unanalysable” effect. Tolkien’s fantasy is sincere in the sense that it is not just there for the sake of a single narrative, it can fully exist within the mind of the reader and ultimately its power is all the greater.

Though not specifically addressed in this paper, one can certainly start to understand what it would be to look at a later fantasy secondary reality and ask: does it meet the requirements? Is it original, or is it an “obvious, middling imitation”, as Belz would say (2)?

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[1] By coincidence, John D Rateliff follows the same line of argument as I have in this section in his The History of the Hobbit.