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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.


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
@Massimo consider ice age Europe, with lower sea level and therefore more land exposed. google.com/… –  zipquincy Nov 14 '12 at 18:44
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
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
"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

5 Answers 5

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:


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

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