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I know that The Lord of the Rings is located in Middle-Earth and by the looks of clothes and props, we're looking at well before the 18th century.

What's the best guess at the time period that The Lord of the Rings was set in?

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This question doesn't make sense. Middle-earth is not Earth. It is another planet, called Arda, of which Middle-earth is simply a part. There are other parts, like Aman. –  DampeS8N Mar 3 '11 at 14:22
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@benhowdle89: :) yay knowledge! However, if you were wondering when in earth-history we had technology like that in LoTR. That's roughly the 1000-1500 range. Maybe most closely the 1300's in England. –  DampeS8N Mar 3 '11 at 14:30
    
@DampeS8N: subsequent comment exchanges moved to chat, starting here. If you'd like your messages deleted from the face of the web, flag them there. –  Gilles Mar 3 '11 at 22:26
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@DampeS8N But the wiki article says Middle-Earth was an imaginary part of Earth's past... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-earth –  ykombinator May 28 '11 at 8:43
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No it said that Arda is like earth and they call it earth, sorta like Earth Bending. Or when you say the Earth beneath your feet. –  user6486 May 23 '12 at 5:45
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7 Answers 7

up vote 57 down vote accepted

About 6000 years ago. But I don't think the exact details of when were at all important to Tolkien.

Tolkien had written multiple times that Middle-earth is located on our Earth. He has described it as an imaginary period in earth's past, not only in The Lord of the Rings (see Prologue and Appendices), but also in several correspondence letters, estimating the end of the Third Age to about 6,000 years before his own time, and in N.W. Europe (Hobbiton for example was set in same latitude as Oxford), though at times he would also describe elements of the stories as a kind of "...secondary or sub-creational reality" or "Secondary belief" in replies to letters.

From Middle-Earth on Wikipedia

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You can't really argue with the author now can you :-) –  Ivo Flipse Mar 3 '11 at 17:04
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Sure you can! Haven't you heard about Jacques Derrida and the Death of the Author? ;-) –  Martha F. Mar 3 '11 at 22:54
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Yes, it's been my impression that the Third Age was "prehistoric" and would have ended no later than the start of the Bronze age in our (modern, human) history. The fact that various myths that echo the Third Age are "dated" to or created much later than this doesn't really matter since they were mere echoes of prehistory. –  Wayne May 17 '11 at 17:36
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@MarthaF. That was Roland Barthes. But okay … if the author doesn’t matter … :) –  toscho Jul 7 '12 at 1:22
    
@toscho -- oops. Oh well. ;-) –  Martha F. Jul 8 '12 at 14:57
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I'm pretty sure that Tolkien intended his work to be a mythology of our ancient past. It has been speculated that if LOTR ends at the beginning of the 4th age, then we may currently be in the 7th age. That said, the length of an age is arbitrary and the events of the 3rd age do not fall anywhere in our own history. You could think of the 7th age as all of known human history. Anything older than that can only be considered myth.

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This is true, I believe an influence for Tolkien and C.S.Lewis was a disappointment that England did not really have a 'real' mythology so they toyed with the idea of creating one. This did get mixed in with wanting to create a story to entertain his son, but also he pulled in things like Numenor which I think is reasonable to associate with Atlantis and Atlantean myth. –  tonylo Mar 5 '11 at 2:44
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I never got the impression that "ages" were measured in years or had anything like a standard length, so much as descriptions of fundamentally different stages of existence. We're at least in the 4th age now; I'd be interested to hear your sources about this being the 7th, that sounds quite fascinating. –  Mark Beadles Jul 6 '12 at 14:35
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@MarkBeadles I wish I remembered where that idea came from. I get a lot of information from The Tolkien Professor. –  TGnat Jul 6 '12 at 15:16
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I figured the stories took place pre-Genesis (in the Gap-Theory gap) like Robert E. Howard's Conan- Hyborian Age.

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It was meant to be in this world, about 6,000 years ago. In Letter #211 Tolkien addressed this specifically (the asterisk is to the footnote, reproduced below):

I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap* in time between the Fall of Barad-dur and our Days is sufficient for 'litereary credibility', even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of 'pre-history'.

*I imagine the gap to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.

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Seeing how Lord of the Rings stems from Beowulf and the Nibelung saga as well as the Poetic Edda, 5th to 6th century would be a good guess.

The sword that was broken and remade, the cursed ring, invisibility, the dragon and his hoard, and the stolen goblet, and even many of the names (Gandalf, Balin, Durin, anyone?) stem from there.

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It's not "invisibility" –  jmfsg Mar 3 '11 at 16:04
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Well, the ring effectively makes the one who puts it on invisible to others, not much different than Gyges' ring (which incidentially was found in a cave and had a life of its own) or Alberich's invisibility cap (there's a cursed ring and a dragon hoard in the story with Alberich, too). I'm just saying that the key story elements are all there in the "stories of old". –  dm.skt Mar 3 '11 at 16:16
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These are real-world sources of inspiration, but Beowulf and other legends do not exist within the context of Tolkien's universe. –  Gilles Mar 3 '11 at 22:34
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5th adn 6th centuries are far too early for the plate armour, pole blocks, castles and agricultural machinary shown at the shire. –  Stefan Jul 6 '12 at 13:38
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Edit: please note that the question explicitly states the time frame from 'the real world' and makes references to film props etc. therefore what the author intended is not the question. The questions is purely concerned with where in the course of real history the films would be fit in.

If you wish to downvote, please feel free but could you also leave a comment so I know why?


Looking at the films Gondor is about 1450 and the shire is about 18c.

Please note this is based upon the full plate armour used by gondor's soldiers, orcs and elves (eg barbutes), the pole block tactics used by the orcs, the agricultural machines used in the shire and the crockery and cutlery used by hobbits etc.

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Tolkien was definitely aiming for earlier than that, and I don't think the movies missed the mark by that far. –  Gilles Jun 11 '12 at 16:42
    
It is not a judgement call, i am basing my comments on te ahown equipment.The armour used in gondor was full plate with maille which did not exist in that form until 15c. The machines and equipment in the shire came about in the industrial revolution in the 17 hundreds. Could you please point out where I am wrong? –  Stefan Jun 11 '12 at 18:38
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You are basing your answer as if the work took place during the normal course of European history. The author himself clearly stated that his works took place in a past history that was much earlier than 1450-1750 by a few thousand years. For example, orcs and elves did not exist in 1450, so it's not useful to claim that orcs and elves using plate armor puts it in 1450. –  Mark Beadles Jul 6 '12 at 14:33
    
The question references what the props and clothes looked like, not what the author envisaged. The question specifically mentions that we are looking 'way pre 18c' so it seems clear that the poster is asking which period in real history most closely matches the time period shown in the films, rather than which period in ME history. Hence my referencing the time period of the props shown in the film as did the poster. –  Stefan Jul 6 '12 at 15:49
    
Sorry, also I meant to say that the actual question specifies 'the real world' hence my answer directs towards that. –  Stefan Jul 6 '12 at 22:47
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According to the antagonists in C.S.Lewis' book That Hideous Strength, it would have been sometime before 110,000 years ago (before the beginning of the last glacial period).

In discussing Merlin, Frost states:

"What we have here," said Frost pointing to the sleeper, "is not, you see, something from the fifth century. It is the last vestige, surviving into the fifth century, of something much more remote. Something that comes down from long before the Great Disaster, even before primitive druidism; something that takes us back to Numinor, to pre-glacial periods."

Of course, these are the same folks that predicted that Merlin would join their side, and were subsequently devoured by their own future vivisection experiments; take what they say with a grain of salt. ;)

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