I just read this article about how "Middle Earth makes no geographic sense". The idea presented is that mountain creation is primarily caused by plate tectonics, and that plates generally aren't shaped in with right angles. He also points out that Mt Doom not in a “subduction or rifting zones.”

I get that it's fiction, but really enjoy the many middle earth questions here on SE:Sci-Fi. I'm asking the following question:

What is the in-universe explanation for the "unrealistic" geography of middle earth?

or, if that geologist is dead wrong, why?

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    'What is the in-universe explanation for the "unrealistic" geography of middle earth?' Eru made it that way?
    – JAB
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 4:14
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    Atlas of Middle-earth discussed a lot of these types of things.
    – ibid
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 4:26
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    One word: Melkor.
    – Voronwé
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 5:57
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    Plate tectonics was not a generally accepted theory when LotR was published. Plate tectonics was far from settled science in 1954. It would not have been taught at school. Tolkien probably didn't know anything about it (unless he had taken to hanging out with the geology department).
    – James K
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 12:41
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    Also I'm not sure if Middle Earth is old enough for plate tectonics to have taken effect even if it did exist. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/166924/… Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 15:54

2 Answers 2


The in-universe explanation is that much of the geography of Middle-earth is not the result of natural processes, but rather of mythological events, conflicts, etc.

Some quotes from the Silmarillion, various chapters:

And the Valar drew unto them many companions, some less, some well nigh as great as themselves, and they laboured together in the ordering of the Earth and the curbing of its tumults.

...and they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them...

In that time the Valar brought order to the seas and the lands and the mountains...

And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of its waters and its lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar were never after restored.

...the Valar fortified their dwelling, and upon the shores of the sea they raised the Pelri, the Mountains of Aman, highest upon Earth.

In the changes of the world the shapes of lands and of seas have been broken and remade; rivers have not kept their courses, neither have mountains remained steadfast...

Melkor met the onset of the Valar in the North-west of Middle-earth, and all that region was much broken.

In that time the shape of Middle-earth was changed, and the Great Sea that sundered it from Aman grew wide and deep; and it broke in upon the coasts and made a deep gulf to the southward.

But the mountains were the Hithaeglir, the Towers of Mist upon the borders of Eriador; yet they were taller and more terrible in those days, and were reared by Melkor to hinder the riding of Orome.

  • so basically, "because magic" ?
    – user13267
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 5:27
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    @user13267 Not really, magic was just a tool. The reason is "because somebody made it". It isn't a result of geological processes taking place over millions and billions of years, it was made this way.
    – Luaan
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 7:21

While it's popular for authors today to try their best to make their fantasy worlds "realistic" in the sense of actual physics, authors even 30 years ago (much less Tolkien nearly 70 years ago) generally gave no thought to such issues at all. The Atlas of Middle-Earth was published almost 10 years after Tolkien died. Wiki explains, "Discussion includes suggestions as to the geology that could explain various formations, and points that are contradictory between multiple accounts." Which is a polite way of saying, "Tolkien had nothing to do with this, so we invented something."

To be frank, there is no "in-universe" explanation as to how the mountain ranges were formed and the geologist from a "real world" perspective is completely right.

A really good example of this comes from Larry Niven's Ringworld, which fans picked apart — leading a bunch of geeks in the early 70's to walk up and down halls chanting "The Ringworld is Unstable!" (disclosure: I'm a geek.) Mr. Niven (a good author not to be deterred by people discovering reality-based weaknesses in his story) used this and other discoveries to improve his second book, The Ringworld Engineers. Often, authors are more interested in telling their stories than they are trying to base their stories on reality-based facts or to rationalize why they created the world the way they did.

Which leads to a personal note: sometimes we, the readers, spend a bit too much time trying to overanalyze really good stories.

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    I disagree. Tolkien was very careful to be accurate in terms of things like which phase of the moon certain events happened in (and ensured the timing would work). I think the more likely explanation is that he just didn't know about plate tectonics, which as @James K pointed out, was not an accepted theory at this time.
    – Muzer
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 12:46
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    Tectonic plate movement is irrelevant in Tolkien's world. It wasn't shaped like Earth, it was built by angels, from a specification shown to them by their god in visions.
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 13:14
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    If you're wondering how he eats or sleeps, and other science facts, Repeat to yourself: "Its just a show, and I really should relax" Commented Aug 10, 2017 at 15:23
  • I've heard an assertion that Tolkien twice had a waxing moon rising at night, which is impossible. (Not as bad, perhaps, as another author who put gibbous moons in the west shortly after sunset!) Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 7:37

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