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In the discussion of When did the Lord of the Rings take place, there are several suggestions that it might be placed into the equivalent of 1300s England, or 600-700s (based on similarity to "Beowulf and the Nibelung saga as well as the Poetic Edda").

I'll take it as a given that there might not be an exact equivalency between technological development in Middle Earth and that in our own history. However, looking at the movies of the saga, what is the earliest time in our history that technology such as was displayed there was available?

(I'm not talking about CGI, of course. Just things like the siege engines, and explosives, and weaponry. Even stirrups can be dated fairly accurately.)

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“I'll take it as a given that there might not be an exact equivalency between technological development in Middle Earth and that in our own history” — are you trying to suggest that LotR isn’t a superbly-researched historical novel?? –  Paul D. Waite Apr 8 '11 at 6:39
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Well, based on the presence of potatoes, it would have to be after 1500, so... no? –  Adele C May 7 '13 at 11:59
    
@AdeleC - good catch :) Make that an answer :) –  DVK May 7 '13 at 14:06
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4 Answers

up vote 31 down vote accepted

As an aside, please note that there may be differences between the books and the movies. Among the things I recall seeing in the movies and not the books, were the crossbows.

There are two areas of possible answers: (1) the science and technology deplicted as such. (2) The science that can be inferred if you Clarke-reverse-engineer the "magic" in LOTR (e.g. any magic is probably sufficiently advanced technology you can't, as per Clarke, distinguish from said magic).

From the first cohort, off the top of my head:

  • Gunpowder used to blow up the wall at Helm's Deep - the earliest invention is in China, 6th to 9th century. But it was not used for explosives back then IIRC - the first mention of the use of black powder for explosives I could find was Dicovery Channel's (un-cited) mention of 12th century in China. The first use of black powder as explosive (as opposed to projectile propellant) in Europe eludes me but it wasn't used for civilian purposes (mining explosives) till 17th century.

  • Siege tools/engines - some pretty advanced were known to ancient Romans and even before.

  • Weaponry - Mostly standard issue. They did have steel weapons, composite bows and crossbows as far as "advanced" weaponry, but that doesn't help "date" them any better than "later than 0AD" - most of these were actually known couple of centuries before.


As far as the second (magic), let me preface that there are two great references for ideas on the topic.

  • One is "The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!" by Henry Gee.

  • The other one an incredible "alterantive to Tolkien" "anti-LOTR-history" apocryphical book called "The Last Ring-bearer" ("Последний кольценосец") by Kirill Eskov. UPDATE: Thanks to fabikw's wonderful comment, there's now a great offical English translation of "The Last Ring-bearer" at, available for free.

  • As a side note, "The Last Ring-bearer"'s alt-hist premise stems from the author's desire (as a noted biologist and paleontologist) to make a geologically consistent picture of Arda, and deducing climatological and anthropological consequences that had to have arisen; combined with the premise that "since the history of Middle-Earth was written by the winners, it's probably as accurate as average history written by winners". In the book, Mordor is basically a fast-developing technological civilization, which is getting close to becoming unstoppable due to scietific advances. So the proponents of "magical" side decide to put a kibosh on the thing before it's too late.

Anyway, among the likely technologies needed for "magic" to work:

  • Palantirs: Basically, wireless video communicators. If you discount the power source issues, late 20th/early 21st century for HD sensors and high-speed wireless connectivity (think 2 iPhones on LTE network :) )

  • Gandalf's light shows. Cheap pyrotechnics (from Chinese gunpowder circal 1000 AD) and some powerful light sources (portable, so say 20th century so you have LEDs and electric lamp options).

  • Nazgul's "morale suppression" field. Possibly doable with late 20th century technology (infrasounds of cerrain frequencies).

  • One Ring. To account for full powers, must contain remote control to some massive nanotechnology and electronic controls built into a bunch of other stuff. Say, late 21st century. Plus, mind control effects - combination of mind altering chemicals and other stuff that is avialable now in crude form. Probably also late 21st century.

  • Galadriel's mirror. Future predictions require major scale AI. If you believe in Singularity, 21st century. If you don't, who knows.

  • Mithril armor. Depending on whether you require it to be actual metal, either advanced 20th/21st century composites (either weird steels, or Aluminium-Titanium), or some sort of nano-ceramics. Here's an example of actual recent developments by just one company: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advanced_Modular_Armor_Protection . For even more "magic", you get carbon nanotube based stuff (don't think anyone did that in practice yet but this is not too far off)

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"The last ring-bearer" by Krill has been translated to English. It can be found here –  fabikw Mar 4 '11 at 13:43
    
This was a fantastic answer, since the second part went far beyond what I envisioned when I asked the question. Well done! –  Martha F. Mar 5 '11 at 3:44
    
Infrasound has been demonstrated to have legitimate (predictable, repeatable) effects on human psychology? –  Nick T Jul 6 '11 at 2:02
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@Nick - See the experiment described here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . Feel free to make this into a Question to get more detailed answers. –  DVK Jul 6 '11 at 5:37
    
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Interesting question, but there's sort of a fundamental problem with it. The Lord of the Rings is a story of the transition of the world of myth to the "world of man", but in terms of technology Tolkien would often (in my opinion) veer towards to superiority of the ancient or myth. For example quality weaponry & armor would typically be ancient, for example Glamdring, Narsil and Bilbo's Mithril Shirt 'made long ago'

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This is a standard pattern, both in myth (archetypal "lost knowledge and wisdom of the ancients" and in practice (think of how long it took to reach the levels of the height of technology of Roman Empire in the West - well over 10 centuries). A different Q on this site mentioned that in Ancient Alexandria they had steam engines. –  DVK Mar 4 '11 at 4:10
    
Roland's sword Durandal was made by Wayland and previously owned by Hector of Troy, so that is in good tradition with "real facts". Note that this makes it a sword from the middle of bronze time (if Hector owned it, it was made before 1180 BC). A bronze sword cutting through La Brèche is amazing. As much as having embedded relics of people who lived in the 3rd and 5th century. Also, Wayland's apparent lifespan is amazing, seeing how he was in the service of several 6th/7th century personalities. But I guess, at some point, one must be a bit forgiving about timelines with myths. –  dm.skt Mar 4 '11 at 9:20
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In the film the Orcs at Helm's deep are kitted out and act very much 15c Western European bill blocks. The suicide bomber is a modern day version of the forlorn hope who would do this kind of thing (well, not with bombs but they would hit enemy lines first etc). They would have stacks of armour and be offered double pay if they survived etc.

When Gandalf is charging at them with cavalry, the orc line sergeant is shouting at them to keep position etc. This is exactly what you would do in that situation. They begin to shuffle back and then break when hit by cavalry - this is what would happen if you failed to keep a strong formation in front of a horse charge.

The Elf helmets are variation on a barbute. Which is quite a nice helmet as it allows a fair amount of ventiliation and visability. I cannot quite remember but I seem to recall the elves wearing full plate? If so that would be 15c too.

I think the Orcs were mainly wearing salets, 14-15c.

Overall the real world equivilant to the battle would probably be in Western Europe in about 1470.

The shire seems far more advanced and uses steam power etc. My wife thought they were pushing towards 1700s but lacked military technologies (which is the only historical field I have any knowledge of) so I could not comment but she usually knows her stuff.

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I think we can't answer that question properly, since

  • Middle-earth evolved very slowly(still using the same swords after 3 ages!)
  • It was a different world; things happened differently,
  • Technology was something 'bad', the Enemy's domain

That's my view, at least.

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