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As most Tolkien fans know, Arda (Tolkien's world) is supposed to be Earth in its past, and all its stories are supposed to have happened long ago on this very same planet. Of course, this is fiction, so this is not supposed to be actually true.

But, if one wanted to roll with it... how could it possibly make sense from a geographical standpoint? All maps of Middle Earth (before or after the destruction of Beleriand and Numenor) just don't match anything on Earth, even when considering continental drift.

Of course, one could simply say "the Valar reshaped it (again)", but not only this is a bit unsatisfactory, it also doesn't make much sense in context, as Valar are well known for not wanting to meddle with Arda unless absolutely needed, and even then, as little as possible.


Update:

Hey, please calm down, guys. Mine was not a rant at all. And I know perfectly well this is fiction (and I've stated it plainly). The sense of my question was: "If one wanted to follow this line of thought and assume Arda should be related to Earth as Tolkien said, then how could this relationship be explained?".

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You are aware that the shapes of the continents have changed over the many millions of years of our planet's history, are you not? –  John O Nov 14 '12 at 18:42
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@Massimo consider ice age Europe, with lower sea level and therefore more land exposed. google.com/… –  zipquincy Nov 14 '12 at 18:44
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For some reason I have high doubts that you have looked at all geographical locations on Earth at all possible times in order to be sure that they don't match anything. That being said, Middle Earth is a mythological representation of ancient Earth, it isn't meant to be grounded in reality. –  NominSim Nov 14 '12 at 18:56
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possible duplicate of Is Tolkien's Middle Earth in our Universe?, although I also think the current formulation of this question is in the non-constructive territory as being a rant disguised as a question. –  user366 Nov 14 '12 at 19:08
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"If one wanted to follow this line of thought and assume Arda should be related to Earth as Tolkien said, then how could this relationship be explained?" If you're asking for why Tolkien would have said they are related despite the lack of geographical concordance, my answer is why (although maybe someone will step up with a better canon answer, I seriously doubt it). If you're asking for someone to make up an explanation, this is not an appropriate question for the site. –  user1030 Nov 14 '12 at 20:17

8 Answers 8

First of all, Tolkien was trying to create a missing Anglo-Saxon (or, as some argued, Celtic), mythos. For details, see Q1 and Q2

If you recall your Norse mythology, which strongly influenced Tolkien (Midgard==Middle Earth), the geography of the Norse mythos' world bears very little resemblance to Earth (same goes to many ancient myth systems):

enter image description here


Secondly, Arda indeed completely does not make sense from a geologist's perspective (at least, one dealing with biology, ecology and paleontology).

This comes from an actual geologist and paleontologist (senior researcher at the Paleontological Institute of the Academy of Sciences of Russian Federation), Kirill Yeskov, who was so dis-satisfied with Arda's planetary issues, that he wrote an entire book - "The Last Ring-Bearer" - which was based entirely on a two premises: (1) "The way Arda should have been geologically to make LOTR scientifically plausible" and (2) "History is written by the winners, not those interested in truth".

Of course, just like LOTR arising from a language design by a linguist Tolkien, the Arda which arose out of paleontologist Yeskov turned out into a wonderful fantasy place, and a great book to read.

But now, to list the actual geographical musings of Yeskov, quoted from an article by him explaining the origins of his book.

Emphasis mine, and if you prefer not to read through the entire essay (translated from Russian, so the style is a bit heavy), the very last paragraph is the most critical.

Tolkien was a practicing scientist, too, but a linguist rather than a natural scientist like Yefremov1, so the foundation of professional knowledge he had used to erect Middle Earth was different. It is fairly obvious to me that the Game the Oxford professor decided to play with nature began, in essence, with the creation of imaginary languages, with their own alphabets and grammar. Then he created the epic tales to match those languages, then the peoples who wrote those tales, and only then the steppes, mountains, and forests for those people to pasture their herds, build citadels, and battle the “Dark from the East.” This, precisely, was the sequence: “In the beginning was the Word” – Ainur’s music, pure and simple. Truly an excellent model of the Act of Creation!

However, Tolkien the philologist had obviously had a very weak interest in this last, non-living component of Middle Earth – its physical geography – and created it only because he had to, with predictable results. It is a well-known fact that the Professor had painstakingly verified, to the day, the lunar phases during his heroes’ long quest. I believe that, but the problem is that he had overlooked some much more significant elements of the local natural history background.

The Middle Earth has several built-in physical defects, and there’s no getting away from that. In his well-known essay Must Fantasy Be Stupid? Pereslegin provides a detailed classification of errors commonly committed by fantasy authors. He uses Tolkien’s work as an example of one of them, an “irreversible professional error”: “It occurs in a geologically unstable world. Tolkien, being a professor of English Literature, knew nothing of plate tectonics, while the topography of Beleriand and Eriador are highly important to the story; therefore, it seems impossible to fix the author’s mistake.”

(To explain: if a planet has a single continent – Middle Earth – it means that the convection currents in the planet’s mantle form a single cell, meaning that the entire “light” part of the continental crust has gathered over the point where the mantle material sinks toward the core, like foam gathers over the bathtub drain. (This had happened on Earth at least twice, in mid-Proterozoic and late Paleozoic, which is when two super-continents of Megagea and Pangea formed.) When subcontinents collide, they bunch up into folds (e.g., the Himalayas that arose at the collision of the Indian subcontinent with the Eurasian plate). This means that there ought to be a huge mountain plateau like Tibet smack in the center of Middle Earth; where is it?

Pay attention, now – strictly speaking, such errors are trifles. In Pereslegin’s litany of sins an “irreversible professional error” is classified under tolerable errors, being one of the minor ones. It’s obvious that one person can’t be equally proficient in linguistics and geology (I suspect that Yefremov had committed no fewer errors creating Tormansian languages than Tolkien had in Middle Earth tectonics). So we can pardon the Professor – the infraction he had committed was not particularly dangerous to society; The Lord of the Rings can go free. This will acknowledge it to be a regular fantasy text – I mean, a real good one, easily in the top five…

Do you like this option? Me neither. Because The Lord of the Rings is not a good, or even the best, fantasy text. It is sui generis, the only one of its kind; therefore, we will not settle for anything less than a full exoneration.

We will assume that Middle Earth is as real as our world, so if some of the details do not fit our concepts, it’s our problem. On the other hand, we will adhere scrupulously to the laws of nature. As Tolkien himself wrote, it’s easy to imagine a green sun, but “To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” Well, the sun has its usual color in Middle Earth (and probably belongs to G-2 spectral class), its surface gravity and geochemistry do not seem different from ours, and even the lunar month is 28 days. Therefore we have to approach the task wielding Occam’s Razor (as is customary to the European intellectual tradition): we will appeal to magic and suchlike only when out of all other options.

It turns out that all the seeming contradictions of Middle Earth’s natural history can be resolved with a single assumption: that Tolkien is describing only the northwestern part of the local landmass, rather than the whole thing. Actually, it’s not even an assumption: Tolkien’s map is obviously intentionally cut off in the south and the east; why should we assume that his world ends there? There’s enough room there for the hypothetical central plateau or even other continents and archipelagos.


[1] Ivan Yefremov was one of the classics of Soviet Science Fiction, who happened to be a paleontologist by profession

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I wonder if the downvote was because of lack of hand-drawn circles. –  DVK Nov 15 '12 at 16:51

Plate tectonics doesn't have enough time to be significant - continental drift requires millions of years, not thousands.

On the other hand, here's one concept of what the coastlines of Europe looked like during the last glacial maximum:

LGM

As you can see, things are especially different in the north and north-west, which are precisely those regions Tolkien was most interested in.

Here's another interesting map:

Other interesting map

It's important to realise that Tolkien was wise enough to not state any exact time period in the past for his stories; he gave some hints and rough ideas, but never made any specific claims. These maps and the possibility of Middle-earth representing some time during or before the last glacial maximum have no basis in canon, but they do serve to illustrate how Tolkien's stories could fit into the known history of our world.

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What we know of Arda’s geography comes from the maps included in the Lord of the Rings, right?

If we’re going with the “Lord of the Rings = history” idea, then those maps were made by inhabitants of Middle Earth.

Who‘s to say they made maps that are accurate enough to compare modern-day Earth with Middle Earth? Maps from pre-Renaissance Europe aren’t super-accurate.

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I believe the answer is in the final section of The Book Of Lost Tales 2, The History Of Eriol. Christopher Tolkien did a fine job and gave a simpler explanation of how our earth today can be linked to Arda, describing how Great Britain & Ireland took their shapes with the help of the Vala (ie.Ulmo & Ossie).

Book of Lost Tales 2 will help you understand the mythology of the Norse. The average man who reads Tolkien will not understand the posting of Norse mythology ahead of this where the brainchild has put it up simply to have a laugh at your expense saying without saying: "Duhh, if you dont know what this picture means than you should go back & study history". But as I see it, that poster is someone that spends way to much time on the net. That poster needs to find a better hobby than trying to make himself feel smarter than a new Tolkien reader!

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Plate tectonics, the science which describes the motion of the continents over time, ranged from fringe science to likely theory to widely accepted model over the course of Tolkien's professional life.

While he was almost certainly aware of it there is no way it was a real consideration of his during his development of Arda, which began in the 1920s.

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How does stating that one possible answer is irrelevant actually answer the question? –  jwodder Nov 14 '12 at 20:12
    
If the question is "How is Arda supposed to be Earth given that it bears no geographical resemblance?", this is the answer. If the question is - as Mark Trapp speculates - "I want to whine and/or fanwank about the shape of Arda" then the question is a crap question. Either way, this is the answer. –  user1030 Nov 14 '12 at 20:16

As most Tolkien fans know, Arda (Tolkien's world) is supposed to be Earth in its past, and all its stories are supposed to have happened long ago on this very same planet. Of course, this is fiction, so this is not supposed to be actually true.

Because this question is frequently being linked to from other questions regarding whether or not Arda is literally our Earth or not, let's just affirm that this is correct with some quotations. Tolkien considered his writings to be a 'mythical history' of our world.

‘Middle-earth’, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in (like the Mercury of Eddison).4 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'. And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.

(Letters)

May I say that all this is ‘mythical’, and not any kind of new religion or vision. As far as I know it is merely an imaginative invention, to express, in the only way I can, some of my (dim) apprehensions of the world. All I can say is that, 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 (I p. 12).6 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; and I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap* in time between the Fall of Barad-dûr and our Days is sufficient for ‘literary credibility’, even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of 'pre-history'.

(Letters)

I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth tor place. I prefer that to the contemporary mode of seeking remote globes in ‘space’. However curious, they are alien, and not lovable with the love of blood-kin. Middle-earth is (by the way & if such a note is necessary) not my own invention. It is a modernization or alteration (N[ew] E[nglish] D[ictionary] ‘a perversion’) of an old word for the inhabited world of Men, the oikoumenē: middle because thought of vaguely as set amidst the encircling Seas and (in the northern-imagination) between ice of the North and the fire of the South. O.English middan-geard, mediæval E. midden-erd, middle-erd. Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-earth is another planet!

(Letters)

So, now that we have established that it is literally our Earth, we come to the problem you mention:

But, if one wanted to roll with it... how could it possibly make sense from a geographical standpoint? All maps of Middle Earth (before or after the destruction of Beleriand and Numenor) just don't match anything on Earth, even when considering continental drift.

You can't. Tolkien acknowledged this:

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.

(Letters)

So Middle-Earth is literally our Earth, in a 'mythical' time that eventually became our own 'historical' time. The Shire 'became' England, somehow or another. Tolkien unfortunately didn't come up with this idea until much of the geographical work was already done, and the theories of continental drift were new to him, so unfortunately he didn't get much work done toward making the part of Middle-Earth we are familiar with actually correspond with Europe geographically, even though it is Europe. In fact, we are living in the later days of this history:

I imagine the gap [between TA and now] 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.

(Letters)

Of course, one could simply say "the Valar reshaped it (again)", but not only this is a bit unsatisfactory, it also doesn't make much sense in context, as Valar are well known for not wanting to meddle with Arda unless absolutely needed, and even then, as little as possible.

Well, unfortunately, this is probably the best answer we have - there was some further action of the Ainur (or Eru) that reshaped the world in time, or some geological process which is not known in the actual world.

But there are indications, in some of his earlier writings, that this is exactly what happened. For example:

In (5) we meet the conception of the dragging of Tol Eressëa back eastwards across the Ocean to the geographical position of England - it becomes England (see I.26); that the part which was torn off by Ossë, the Isle of Íverin, is Ireland is explicitly stated in the Qenya dictionary. The promontory of Rôs is perhaps Brittany.

(The History of Eriol or Aelfwine)

Probably it is safest to assume the geography was largely modern after the sinking of Numenor, and then some event in the Fourth or Fifth Age corrected the remaining geography.

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The LotR wiki has a map showing an approximate alignment of Middle-earth with Europe, based in part on Tolkien's own hint that The Shire eventually became the British Isles (this hint occurs early in Fellowship of the Ring, and basically amounts to saying that the seas rose and eventually surrounded the Shire, turning it into islands).

enter image description here

However, trying to make sense of this issue in any detail is an exercise in futility. Tolkien's world is one of mythology and magic rather than history and science.

Tolkien Gateway adds a bit of insight here:

On Tolkien's maps, the Shire is located at about the same position as England is on modern European maps and has been cited as an example of Deep England ideology (though, of course, England is on an island while the Shire is inside the continent). Throughout the narrative, Tolkien also implies numerous points of similarity between the two, such as weather, agriculture and dialect. One can also see England as Tolkien's source of inspiration for the Shire in its very name.

According to Paula Marmor, the hobbit brothers Marcho and Blanco names are related to horses, parallel to Hengest and Horsa, legendary leaders who brought the Saxons to Britain. Hengest was the founder of Kent whose geography is similar to the Shire (North Downs above, hills to the west, water to the east and marshes to the southeast).

Another entry on the Gateway says:

As for the later legendarium, The Shire not only was conceptually based on rural England but also was expressly stated to be "in this region", "the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea". Concerning the Shire, Tolkien stated that he intended it to correspond about to the latitude of Oxford, which would result to other Middle-earth locations to correspond (but not necessarily equate with) real-life locations. For instance, Pelargir would fall to about the latitude of ancient Troy. This enabled Andreas Moehn to make more correspondences, and even project the Westlands on a real map of Europe.

On the other hand, Tolkien designed his maps to accommodate the mythology, and was conscious that they did not fit the ancient Earth, as understood by contemporary archaeology and historical geology.

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Obviously we are supposed to imagine that sometime after the end of Lord of the Rings there was another great cataclysm in which Eru reshaped the world for some reason which is as unexplained as the date of the event. After that catastrophe the world resembled our modern geography.

Since writing began in Mesopotamia about 3600 BC or about 5,615 years ago, and since Tolkien said in a letter written about 1960 that Lord of the Rings was about 6,000 years earlier, or about 4,040 BC, that gives about 440 years - give or take decades or centuries - for things to be fine after LOTR and then lead to the catastrophe and then for society to rebuild itself and start writing and start recording events and the dawn of recorded history.

The hundreds of different dates calculated for the creation of the world in Genesis mostly cluster in two different groups, one group in the centuries around the year 3761 BC, the first year of the Jewish calendar, and one group in the centuries around the year 5509 BC, the first year in the Byzantine calendar. Thus Lord of the Rings should happen within less than a millennium before or after the Biblical Creation of the world.

On one hand Tolkien was a believing Roman Catholic. On the other hand, he probably did not have a strong belief in the literal accuracy of Genesis and other early books of the Bible. On the third hand, he probably did not feel comfortable extending the game of pretending that LOTR was real history into a era when it would be competing with the Biblical accounts as history or as a story.

And that discomfort is probably why I have never read anything which indicates that Tolkien ever wrote even a few notes or even thought about the one single most obvious omission in his Middle-earth legendarium - how and why mountains fell into the sea and sea floors rose up as new lands and the shape of lands and seas was drastically altered in the comparatively few centuries between the time of LOTR and the dawn of recorded history!

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