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I was just reading The Fellowship of the Ring, chapter 'The Ring Goes South' when I noticed this:

"...But your road and our road lie together for many hundreds of miles." - Aragorn

I don't know how may times this may have come up, it is possible I may have breezed through it several time while reading the book, but this was the first time I noticed it.

Now, I know Middle-earth uses the same calendar as normal life. Months are described as October, November etc. Even the seasons have the same names. But I know the year convention is not as the events till now take place in the year 3018 (I found this in the Appendix to The Return of the King, as I have a volume containing all three books.)

I don't know how the year convention works, but guessing by the way people speak and the way they interact and the whole setting of the story itself, I am guessing the events in this book took quite a long time before imperial units were even invented. I mean, this is a time when elves existed and there was a huge war against an evil cosmic creature, so even in-universe this must be pretty ancient.

What unit system does Middle-earth use? Was the miles reference just something Tolkien left in for readers to apprehend, or was it actually the imperial system that Middle-earth uses? I don't think the former is much plausible, because Tolkien was the person who created an entire universe with spectacular detail, right form languages to calendars. So, what unit system do people use in Middle-earth?

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    They often use the league to refer to distance, without explanation of it being three miles as it is nowadays. By the way in the real world the actual length of a mile changed from place to place and in different times. Aside from road markers as established by the Romans measurements of distances was often not precise until modern time. – Duncan Drake Jul 18 at 14:44
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    "A league is approximately 3 furlongs or only a knot short of a hectare". – LAK Jul 18 at 15:48
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    A "league" was actually defined as the distance that a man could walk in an hour. Since average walking speed is around 3mph it is generally quoted as being "3 miles". However this is misleading. It is more accurate to say it is 1 hours walk, including anything that slowed you down such as rough or hilly ground or meandering roads. To be told that one town is 10 leagues away from another does not mean that they were 30 miles apart as the crow flies. – Paul Johnson Jul 18 at 15:58
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    I live in Middle Earth, - most everything is metric, and since metrification happened in 1969, imperial units are only used for old cars, old fasteners, weights of newborn babies, and sometimes people's heights. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metrication_in_New_Zealand (humour) – Criggie Jul 19 at 10:08
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    "I know Middle-earth uses the same calendar as normal life" - it doesn't, only for starters the calendars of Gondor and the Shire are different. – OrangeDog Jul 19 at 13:30
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As far as I know, Tolkien never addressed this explicitly, but he did say that he treated the whole book as a 'translation' from the original languages and in the Appendix to LotR he discusses (much too long to quote!) some aspects of the translation (language, names, and the calendar) in some detail, making it clear that the original was different. Small difference in some cases (Middle-earth's days, seasons and years are the same length as ours), big differences in others (language, for instance).

It would be entirely consistent if he did the same for measures: The various peoples and societies of Middle-earth each had their ways of measuring distance (and weight and other things), but the translator converted them to units intelligible to us.

So the answer is that we just don't know.

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    @jamesqf: I often find the disparity in Tolken's levels of detail rather startling. This is a man who goes into incredibly specific detail about the history and development of Quenya and various other languages, but can't be bothered to decide whether Aragorn is wearing pants. – Kevin Jul 19 at 6:46
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    @Kevin: Is it a question of "decide", or simply that he leaves things he's not interested in, and which don't contribute to the story, to the reader's imagination? He doesn't discuss the monetary system, nor sanitation in Minas Tirith, nor a great number of other things. OTOH, I can think of another quite popular fantasy writer who often goes into extensive, irrelevant, and quite boring (to me) detail about clothes and fabrics... – jamesqf Jul 19 at 16:25
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    @PLL: One could reasonably assume that Aragorn wears pants, at least sometimes, because he rides horses. Riding in anything else is either uncomfortable or impractical, if not both: theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/… – jamesqf Jul 19 at 16:29
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    @jamesqf the point still stands though, what type of pants did he wear? Maybe he wore shorts, heck he could've worn jorts for all we know. – tox123 Jul 19 at 18:32
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    You're seriously underestimating Tolkien here - see next answer! – Mithoron Jul 19 at 21:04
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In the appendix titled "Númenórean Linear Measures" of the Disaster of the Gladden Fields chapter of Unfinished Tales, Tolkien goes into some detail about what a league is, and how he 'translates' the units from the fictional ancient writings (probably Translations from the Elvish, which were part of Bilbo's Red Book of Westmarch) he's supposed to be translating, into modern-day units.

Measures of distance are converted as nearly as possible into modern terms. [...] five thousand rangar (full paces) made a lár, which was very nearly three of our miles. [...] The Númenórean ranga was slightly longer than our yard, approximately thirty-eight inches, owing to their greater stature. Therefore five thousand rangar would be almost exactly the equivalent of 5280 yards, our 'league': 5277 yards.

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    This is the correct answer, and should be accepted. It tells us units were translated, it gives an example of an original unit in Middle-earth, and shows us it’s conversion into our units – Edlothiad Jul 19 at 5:21
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    I think the answer would be improved by elaborating on that point (e.g. adding a few sentences about Tolkien treating the book as a "translation"/conversion from the original languages/stories of the peoples of Middle-earth). – V2Blast Jul 20 at 7:38
  • @Edlothiad I would love to, but I think adding some more points on the facts that address the fact that Tolkien is translating the story would be more compact and self-contained for future reference and readers. – PNS Jul 22 at 2:37
  • @PNS I'll see what I can do! – LAK Jul 22 at 4:29
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    It's irrelevant, the accepted answer as is is wrong. 2 answers have provided evidence that units were used, in various systems depending on culture. We also have Elven calendars (amongst others) that describe how the time convention worked. There being an element of translation is entirely irrelevant given that evidence exists to answer the question. Although LAK has gotten more than enough reputation and jumped incredibly highly with one short answer. – Edlothiad Jul 22 at 6:23
57

Hobbits in Middle-earth use a unit system based on their physical properties, with units ranging from the length of their toe nails to the distance they can walk in a day.

The following comes from some notes Tolkien made on the back of a menu card for a faculty dinner he attended in the early 1950s (during the time period where he was working on The Lord of the Rings.) The card is currently in Marquette University Libraries, Milwaukee, MS. Tolkien MSS-4/2/19. It was reproduced two years ago in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, the tie-in publication to the Oxford exhibition of the same name.

Scan of Tolkien's notes from the back of the menu card quoted below; bold quoted text is in black on the image and the non-bold quoted text is in red or green

I haven't seen a transcription published anywhere, so I'll attempt one here myself:

Hobbit Long Measures

  • 1 nail. (length of toe-nail) - 1/4 inch
  • 6 nails = 1 toe - 1 1/2 inches [There seems to be a note changing this to (or perhaps adding a new measurement of) a big toe, making a nail 1/2 inch and making 1 toe 3 nails.]
  • 6 toes = 1 foot - 9 inches
  • [3 feet = 1 step or ell] - 2 feet 3 inches
  • 6 feet = 1 two-step, or long-gait or fathom - 4 feet 6 inches

Land and Walk measures

(based on an easy step toe to toe without effort in walking)

  • 1 pace or 'easy-step' - 2 feet
  • 2 paces = 1 gait or rod - 4 feet
  • 12 paces (or 6 gaits) = 1 stripe - 24 feet (8 yards)
  • 144 paces (72 gaits, 12 stripes) = 1 run - 96 yards
  • 2 runs = 1 sullony - 192 yards
  • 1728 paces (894 gaits, 6 sullony) = 1 (short) mile, or pace-mile - 1152 yards
  • 1728 gaits (2 pace-mile) = 1 longitude, or gaitmile or gateway - 2304 yards

ell and fathom are always used of rope or cloth.

The above is all about Hobbit units. Tolkien also discussed Numenorean units in a note associated with some late writings concerning Isildur's Death ("The Disaster of the Gladden Fields"). It has been published by Christopher Tolkien in Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth in 1980.) Note that unlike the information about Hobbit units, this wasn't written until some years after The Lord of the Rings had already been published.

In Númenórean reckoning (which was decimal) five thousand rangar (full paces) made a lár, which was very nearly three of our miles. Lár meant "pause," because except in forced marches a brief halt was usually made after this distance had been covered. The Númenórean ranga was slightly longer than our yard, approximately thirty-eight inches, owing to their great stature. Therefore five thousand rangar would be almost exactly the equivalent of 5280 yards, our "league:" 5277 yards, two feet and four inches, supposing the equivalence to be exact.

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  • "ell and fathom are always used of rope or cloth." -> The writing looks like "eli" here but "ell" is a unit of measurement. Did you just take liberties in changing it to "ell"? – TheLethalCarrot Jul 20 at 12:39
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    @TheLethalCarrot The handwriting is a bit faint. It looks sufficiently like the loop of an 'l' to me that I would assume it is one, given that it clearly says 'ell' earlier. – richardb Jul 21 at 6:28
  • @TheLethalCarrot - 1)The first time the word appears on the page it looks a lot more like an 'L'. 2)The context of "rope or cloth" and "fathom" brings to mind Sam's use in LotR (Thirty ells, or say, about eighteen fathoms). 3)Although, as I said, no full transcription was provided, Catherine McIlwaine's accompanying blurb made mention of ells in this manuscript (Each unit of measurement was given a name, some of which were based on archaic English words like such as 'ell' (45 inches)), and I'd defer to her expertise in reading Tolkien's handwriting since that's actually her full time job. – ibid Jul 21 at 10:16
  • @TheLethalCarrot - I took some liberties in guessing a lot of the rest of the transcription, but ell is one of the words I was pretty confident about. – ibid Jul 21 at 10:18
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    @Mithical - The alt text didn't convey anything not already explicitly stated in the text portion of the answer. Also I specifically had told the editor not to add it in an off-site chatroom. – ibid Jul 21 at 10:49
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As with my comment to an answer by @MarkOlsen to the question about where tea (i.e. the processed and dried leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant) comes from in the Shire:

Units of measure such as "miles" contemporary to Tolkien's writing, along with other Britishims present in his texts, might also be considered literary conceits akin to Tolkien's (explicitly noted) rendering of the Westron name 'Maura Labingi' as 'Frodo Baggins' for contemporary English language speakers. That is, perhaps Aragorn did not actually describe distances in units of miles, but had some other culturally-specific unit system for distance, and "miles" is just a free translation from Westron? (I.e. because many dozens, hundreds, or thousands of "smeþrû"1, or whatever, would be unintelligible to 20th century English readers.) So to speak directly to your question: Yes, (probably) "the miles reference [was] just something Tolkien left in for readers to apprehend."

(Aside: The use of free translation specific to Tolkien's narratives was hinted at by Vernor Vinge in A Deepness in the Sky I think...)



1 Completely made up gibberish syllables because I am not a philologist. :)

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    One "smeþrû" is the distance a shepherd can drive a herd of goats in one hour if he is in a hurry and if there are no fences. It is derived from the Westron "smeþ" = to strike or slap, and "arrû" = a goat's ass. – A. I. Breveleri Jul 19 at 3:34
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    @A. I. Breveleri: Shepherds drive sheep, goatherds drive goats. Specialization, you know :-) – jamesqf Jul 19 at 3:55
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    There is no standard term for the distance a goatherd can drive a herd of goats in one hour because no one has ever wanted to hang around with a goatherd for more than about ten minutes. The Midgaard Standards Committee got some shepherds to move some goats and called it close enough. – A. I. Breveleri Jul 19 at 4:12
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    Further - "smeþ" is descended from the PIE "sme-" = to pelt with mud or dung, and is cognate to OE "smit", "smitte" = to strike with intent. We get "smite" and "smith" from the same OE root. - "arrû" has no PIE ancestor, but is obviously onomatopoetic, from the sound one involuntarily makes if one gets too close behind a goat: "aww, rooh!" – A. I. Breveleri Jul 19 at 4:22
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    @A.I.Breveleri This is all delightful silliness. – Lexible Jul 19 at 4:36
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No one has mentioned yet that Samwise measures the length of the rope that the Elves of Lórien gave to him in "ells." This might be, like "league," the use of an antique and seldom-used English measurement for a Middle-earth equivalent. The ell used by Samwise is presumably the hobbit version of the Númenórean ranga in LAK's answer.

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    Could you edit in the relevant quote/s to back this up? – TheLethalCarrot Jul 19 at 15:46
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    The ell is usually taken to be an arm length, or half a yard. Since Sam was measuring against his arm, it would be a natural unit to use. – richardb Jul 19 at 16:56
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    @richardb - A Hobbit ell is 2 feet 3 inches (the length of three Hobbit feet). See my answer. – ibid Jul 19 at 23:07
  • @TheLethalCarrot Unfortunately, I cannot, because I don't have the book at hand. It would be, IIRC, in the first chapter of Book IV, "The Emyn Muil" after Frodo and Sam are stuck at the top of a cliff. Sam remembers he has a rope in his pack and calls himself a "ninnyhammer" for not remembering it sooner. Then he measures out the rope, IIRC again, "Ten, twenty, thirty ells... who would have guessed?" – Wastrel Jul 20 at 17:16
  • @ibid Your answer is excellent and I have never seen that text before. – Wastrel Jul 20 at 17:17

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