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I wonder if the location of Rivendell is a secret known only by the wise such as Gandalf, or is it public to almost everyone in Middle-earth?

As seen in The Hobbit movie, Gandalf leads Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves through a narrow tunnel to escape from orcs, and none of them recognized that they were on the way to Rivendell. Also we see that Rivendell has few immigrants and poor people seeking refuge (compared to the Medieval Europe in our world, the life in Rivendell should be rather attractive for most people, except the richest ones), but only a few Elves live a secluded life. Does this suggest that the location of Rivendell is a secret?

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    ""You are come to the very edge of the Wild, as some of you may know. Hidden somewhere ahead of us is the fair valley of Rivendell where Elrond lives in the Last Homely House. I sent a message by my friends, and we are expected."" - The Hobbit
    – Valorum
    Aug 29 '20 at 8:06
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    In English English at least "Hidden" as used there could simply mean "not currently visible", in a valley or behind a hill for instance.
    – Ian Bush
    Aug 29 '20 at 8:32
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    There is a wide range of alternatives between "known only to the wise such as Gandalf" and "known to everyone in Middle Earth." For example, one might presume that Elves generally know where Rivendell is, even if they do not live there.
    – Lexible
    Aug 29 '20 at 16:48
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    Re "As seen in the movie...", the movie is whatever (that person) thought would make good visual effects. There is no tunnel to Rivendell, and at that point (before the hobbits arrive at Rivendell) Gandalf is not with the hobbits. They are accompanied by Aragorn (who they know as Strider) and meet one of the Elves (Glorfindel?) as they approach, at the ford where the party is attacked by the Black Riders.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 29 '20 at 16:56
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    @jamesqf I believe Harry is talking about the movie version of The Hobbit, in which events played out exactly as described in the question. What you mentioned is from The Fellowship of the Ring. (Not that I'm suggesting either film is a reliable source about Middle-Earth as it exists in the books....)
    – David Z
    Aug 30 '20 at 5:03
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Note: this is a book answer; the film answer might be different.

Short answer

At the time of the Hobbit and LotR, Rivendell is hard to find because it is a small settlement located in a valley in a wilderness region that was depopulated by a war around 1000 years earlier (between Arnor/Arthedain and Angmar).

Longer answer

Under 'Roads' in the index to the Unfinished Tales, we find the following description of the East-West Road:

The Numenorean Road from the Grey Havens to* Rivendell, traversing the Shire

* My edition has 'of' here, but that's clearly a typo.

So, Rivendell is located on one of the only major roads in Middle-earth. However, the description in the Hobbit shows that the road had deteriorated (not surprising given its age and the aforementioned depopulation).

The only path was marked with white stones, some of which were small and others were covered with moss or heather.

Note that this comes after the party cross a major ford, presumably over the Bruinen.

Elves from other settlements clearly know the location of Rivendell, as we see from the Council of Elrond, which includes Legolas (from Mirkwood) and Galdor (from the Grey Havens). Also, according to Appendix A of LotR, the Elves of Lorien came to Elrond's aid in TA 1409, so they must have known where to find him. Some of the rangers must know the location of Rivendell, since their leader is fostered there. Dwarves who travel the East-West road might be aware of it; of course after the events of the Hobbit, the remaining members of Thorin's party certainly knew about it, having been shown the location by Gandalf.

After Boromir and Faramir experience the dream about the Sword that was broken, Denethor tells them that

... Imladris [Rivendell] was of old the name among the Elves of a far northern dale where Elrond the half-Elven dwelt, greatest of lore-masters.

Following this, Boromir set out across Rohan, crossed the Greyflood at Tharbad and headed into Eriador. At this point he clearly knew roughly where he was headed, but at the Council of Elrond, he remarks that he did not know the precise location.

... long have I wandered by roads forgotten, seeking the house of Elrond, of which many had heard, but few knew where it lay.

In conclusion: those who had been around for a long time (Elves, Istari) knew the location of Rivendell, and those who used the East-West road probably did as well. Others who lived or travelled nearby might well have heard of it, and might also have a vague idea of its location. Elsewhere, highly educated individuals such as Denethor would know of Rivendell's existence and its approximate location, but probably wouldn't know exactly where it was, unless they happened to have been there. A refugee from another part of Middle-earth would probably have no idea about it and would be unlikely to have the supplies to attempt a journey if they did.

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  • I’d be interested to know if there’s a better reference for how much the Rangers know, there’s reason to believe the Kings of Arnor had dealings with the Elves of Imladris before its fall, further more its likely more of them were hosted at Imladris other than Aragorn.
    – Edlothiad
    Aug 29 '20 at 13:26
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    @Edlothiad --- Not much to go on for this subject. All ranger cheiftains were fostered at Rivendell except Aranarth (the first cheiftain) [LotR appendix A(iii)]. There are various references to the sons of Elrond working with the Rangers (e.g. just after Frodo sees Arwen in Many Meetings). There is some evidence that the rangers had a settlement somewhere to the East of Bree, e.g. Butterbur's remark 'There's no accounting for East and West' in 'At the Sign of the Prancing Pony'. That's about it, as far as I know. Aug 29 '20 at 14:28
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    Great answer! One minor point: it’s not too surprising that the elves of Loth Lorien knew where Rivendell was in TA 1409, since Elrond married Galadriel’s daughter early in the Third Age. Galadriel seems to me to be the kind of person who would keep an eye on her son-in-law :-P.
    – Gaurav
    Aug 29 '20 at 15:29
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    It's worth remembering that this is a hidden house in an area which has been uninhabited for a millennium. Even without Elrond making a special effort to hide it, it will have long ago passed into legend among Men. Dwarves probably knew where it was -- Thorin and his group visited -- but given the antipathy between Elves and Dwarves, probably went there only at great need.
    – Mark Olson
    Aug 29 '20 at 15:33
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    @Gaurav --- fair point. One reason to single out 1409 is that it involves a significant number of elves from Lorien travelling to Rivendell, not just the boss's daughter. Aug 29 '20 at 18:00
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Adding to the already mentioned points,

Ian Thompson mentions:

highly educated individuals such as Denethor would know of Rivendell's existence and its approximate location

We can assume that there are old maps showing the location of Rivendell. That's probably how highly educated individuals with shorter lives would know how to find it.

Technology in the Middle-earth is sparse. Those maps are probably old, few and stored at libraries of centers of knowledge or certain important lords. Peasants won't have access to Google Maps, or have access to a satellite image to see if there is more than ruins there now (which would have been useful to detect much earlier what was happening in Mordor, too).

Traders don't seem to pass by Rivendell, which makes the place unknown to most humans. Plus, even if the above-mentioned maps were available to those immigrants and poor people seeking refuge, they wouldn't know if there were still a city at such place, and they wouldn't know if they would be well-received. You ask knowing Elrond's personality and the life Bilbo lived there. We don't know if Elrond would indeed happily welcome anyone who appeared uninvited at the doors. Probably not hundreds of immigrants. At least not without them earning their living in some way, I think.

I see a certain appeal in traveling to Rivendell "in order to see elves". But when it's not a weekend trip, but months of travel, to a city you don't know whether it still exists, where you might not be welcome at all, and led by people who aren't even human (yes, it is racist, but those poor immigrants would probably have heard some frightening stories about elves¹). It's much easier for those poor people to move to the next human town (if moving at all), and continue their lives in poverty, but in well-known places and without adventures.

¹ And no, don't expect they would know -or understand- Elrond's ancestry, much less consider him half-human.

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In addition to the points mentioned in @Ted Mittelstaedt's answer, you need to understand that, unlike our modern world, Middle-earth is not vastly over-populated. There are large areas that are empty of any human (or Elvish & Dwarven) population.

So what human populations do we have that are anywhere near Rivendell? There are the Men of Bree, a small population apparently quite happy and prosperous where they are. There are the Rangers (Aragorn's folk) who are wanderers in the rest of Eriador, and who do sometimes visit Rivendell.

On the other side of the Misty Mountains, there are the Beornings, who likewise seem to be quite safe & happy where they are. On the other side of Mirkwood (a perilous journey) there are the Men of Laketown, who apparently live happily in association with the Wood Elves and (now that Smaug is dead) with the Dwarves of Erebor, and have trade with Men and Dwarves of points east and south.

To the south and west, the land seems to be completely unpopulated until you get close to the south coast, some of which belongs to Gondor, some to various populations of Dunlendings. But Boromir doesn't seem to meet anyone on his journey north through those lands, nor does the Fellowship meet anyone until they go through Moria. And even on the other side, they only meet Orcs until they reach Lothlorien.

Which leaves Gondor itself. There were (presumably) refugees from Ithilien when it was overrun by Sauron's forces, but they were accommodated within the lands of Gondor west of the river. There was plenty of room: Gondor could allow the people of Rohan to settle in the western part of their land without (apparently) discommoding anyone.

So basically your refugee & immigrant situation simply doesn't exist. Unlike the modern world, there really aren't any great disparities in wealth between areas, so no one has motivation to travel great distances to seek better economic conditions. (And if they do, they probably go to Minas Tirith or Laketown.) If they're driven out by war, they don't have to go far to find empty lands in which to settle.

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The only indication I'm aware of that Rivendell's location is a secret is the following passage from The Hobbit:

...and into that valley came no evil thing.

However, that can be explained by having other effective forms of security.

There's no mention of it having Gondolin-level secrecy.

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  • I think it's not explicitly mentioned anywhere, but it's likely that Elrond used Vilya similarly to how Galadriel used Nenya (to "preserve" Lothlorien).
    – Annatar
    Sep 22 '20 at 9:01
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One thing that stands out in all of the books (and the movie, also) is that "the poor" in Middle-earth do not seem to ever have the "sense of entitlement" that they should get paid for merely existing - except at the very end of Return Of The King - and it's a sentiment that is expressed by Sharky's Men and by some squinty eyed almost half-orcs at the Prancing Pony, earlier in the book. Nowhere in the book is it mentioned that anyone begs for money - I think there's a few mentions of better off people helping poorer people - but the general notion is everyone pulls their weight. Look for example at the depiction of Samwise's father the Gaffer. The book says he ran the garden at Bag End until he got too old and was then setup in a small "efficiency hole" in Bagshot Row and then later New Row when Saruman had Bagshot Row dug out. There does not seem to be any mention of the Gaffer working, other than raising a few vegetables in his own little bit of garden. Yet he is able to hold forth at the local inn and drink a few pints.

The setup is almost identical to how older people in the village are handled in Downton Abbey. Later in the show when they are talking about raising the farms agricultural output they specifically state the need to build little efficiency cottages and move the farmers who are too old to work the farms to them. That happens to Mr. Carson as well. Clearly this must have been rather common in England at least in the small villages and farming communities - as farmers got old and unable to work they would be moved off to efficiency cottages in the village and given a small pension, and would perhaps buy a bit of meat of fish with it on occasion to supplement gardening output and I think Tolkien certainly intended the same model in Hobbiton. In Middle-earth, everyone worked, everyone was useful, from the old to the young, and those unfortunates who perhaps were victims of accidents or wars and were unable to work, were taken care of by their communities. Nobody is addicted to drugs, very few are mentally ill, and criminals existed as bandits in The Wild. The various jails and stockades were places to put young pups or others who might have gotten too drunk and rowdy at a party and torn up a garden, or stolen mushrooms, for a day or so to teach them not to do it again. There's no mention of mass murderers for example and theft is rare.

I'll also mention that while there is a LOT of mention of EATING in LoTR there's NO mention of...well...what happens to the digested food down the chain, you might say. Nobody goes to the bathroom, the cities do not appear to have pressurized running water. There are horses everywhere including running throughout the cities but no mention of horse piles in the street. Google up "The Horse-world of London By William John Gordon" a free ebook to see the realities of running a city dependent on draft animal labor.

In summary, this masses of refugees, immigrants and poor people simply NEVER exists in the Middle-earth universe. When mass migrations of people happen they bring huge amounts of "stuff" with them, and plunk down in a new area and setup shop as though nothing had happened. Every bit of Middle-earth's depictions of daily life living is HIGHLY idealized and not consistent with behaviors of real people in the real world. Boromir wanders long forgotten roads and meets many people but did he have a huge purse stuffed with gold coins to pay his way or did he camp out everywhere, spending days to hunt down deer and gather wild vegetables for his diet?

So the answer to your question is - it's moot. There are no masses of poor refugees who would get a better deal moving away from their communities. Men in Middle-earth do not act like humans - in the real world with humans if you give them an empty area they have large families until that area is built up - in Middle-earth you have have thousands of acres of tillable land that was once tilled by men, remain empty for a thousand years after a war. In the real world curiosity causes some men to seek out buried treasure, so the idea of a former city being abandoned stimulates floods of treasure-seekers to look for it, in Middle-earth when something as valuable and large as the Master Stone in Osgiliath is hidden and lost after a war, nobody seeks for it. Even after the War of the Ring is over, and Sauron is defeated, and it's safe to look into a Palantir, it does not seem to occur to the King to use his Palantir to seek out where the rest of them are and dig them back up - particularly to seek out the master stone in Osgiliath. In fact, long after the war is over Osgiliath remains abandoned even though it is the optimal location for a capital city due to it's position on Anduin. Moria is also never discussed in the later Appendixes even though the killing of the Balrog and destruction of the Orcs would have open it up for treasure hunting.

Elves and Dwarves do not act like people, that is acceptable as they are other species. But Middle-earth men do not act like men. If humans in Middle-earth were told about a famous Elf city named Rivendell it would have no hold on them they simply wouldn't care.

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    How many pages do you think Tolkien should have devoted to the Minas Tirith manure shovelling guild? Do you think it would improve the story? Aug 31 '20 at 14:57
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    @IanThompson: I think that Ted is (in a roundabout way) making the point that since Tolkien’s books are unrealistic in various ways, the assumptions about migration in the question cannot be considered compelling arguments. Of course there is room for a lot of discussion about the value of unrealistic works, but it is not relevant to this question (like a fair amount of this answer). I suspect such a discussion is also hard to fit into Stack Exchange, being by and large opinion-based.
    – PJTraill
    Aug 31 '20 at 21:24
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    @TedMittelstaedt: I think these are symptoms of Medieval Stasis (beware, tvtropes), in addition to artistic omission.
    – Edheldil
    Sep 1 '20 at 7:16
  • The David Eddings fantasy book series "The Belgariad" etc. DO happen to have mentions of "manure shoveling guilds" and other "earthy" such things and I personally think it does improve the story. They also have plenty of "magic" but nobody is using "magic" to dispose of waste in lieu of just dumping the stuff in the river... The main point I was making is that a lot of these questions basically like to make comparisons between "out of world" mores such as we have "in real life" and "in world" mores. Sep 1 '20 at 23:39

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