Was the northwest of Middle-earth meant to actually be Europe?
From: The Tolkien FAQ by William D.B. Loos
Yes, but a qualified yes. There is no question that Tolkien had northwestern Europe in mind
when he described the terrain, weather, flora, and landscapes of Middle-earth. This was no
doubt partially because NW Europe was his home and therefore most familiar to him and partially
because of his love for the "Northern tradition". As he said himself:
"The North-west of Europe,
where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man's home should. Love
its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other parts; ..."
(The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 376 (#294)).
Thus, the environment of Middle-earth will seem familiar to dwellers of that region of Europe
(was Middle-earth another planet?).
However, the geographies simply don't match. This was the result not so much of a deliberate
decision on Tolkien's part to have things so but rather a side-effect of the history of the
composition: the question did not occur to him until the story was too far advanced and the map
too fixed to allow much alteration:
... if it were 'history', it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or 'cultures') into
such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part
of what is now called Europe; though the Shire, for instance, is expressly stated to have been
in this region [The Fellowship of the Ring, 11]. I could have fitted things in with greater
versimilitude, if the story had not become too far developed, before the question ever occurred
to me. I doubt if there would have been much gain; ...
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 283 (#211)
... As for the shape of the world of the Third Age, I am afraid that was devised 'dramatically'
rather than geologically, or paleontologically. I do sometimes wish that I had made some sort
of agreement between the imaginations or theories of the geologists and my map a little more
possible. But that would only have made more trouble with human history.
The remark that there probably would not "have been much gain" is characteristic and perhaps
indicates Tolkien's own approach, which would seem to have been to focus on the environmental
familiarity at the "local" level (in the sense that any particular scene might have come from
somewhere in Europe) and to simply overlook the lack of "global" identity. On the other hand,
he made some attempt to address the difficulty in the quote from the Prologue (The Fellowship of
the Ring, 11), where it was said: "Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past,
and the shape of all lands has been changed...". The conclusion is that it is a matter for each
individual reader as to how important is the lack of geographical fit and where one comes down
on the continuum between "Middle-earth was northwestern Europe" and "Middle-earth might as well
have been northwestern Europe" (or, as Tolkien might have said, "Middle-earth 'imaginatively'
was northwestern Europe"). [Thus, recent attempts to force the M-e map to fit the map of the
Eurasian land mass, such as in Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia by David Day,
should be discounted.]
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 224 (#169)
In one letter he provided indications to help in visualizing the circumstances of various
locales, but this does not help in resolving the above matter, since again northwestern Europe
was used for comparison rather than equation:
The action of the story takes place in the North-west of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude
to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. ... If Hobbiton and
Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 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 Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 375-376 (#294)
- The Fellowship of the Ring, 11 (Prologue)
- The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 376 (#294), 239 (#183), 283 (#211), 224 (#169)
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