Middle Earth Isn’t Medieval: Part I

Fantasy and medieval settings go together like peanut butter and jelly, like wizards and towers. Consumers of fantasy are so used to seeing fantasy worlds set in medieval times that they often go in with that expectation. I think that’s why so many fans of J. R. R. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, assume that Tolkien’s world, Middle Earth, is also medieval. If you strip away your initial assumptions, however, and examine the world from a broader perspective, you’ll find that Middle Earth is anything but medieval.

 This is Part I of a two part series. Today, I’m going to discuss Middle Earth broadly, and show that the vast majority of the world has no real resemblance to medieval Europe. I’m going to save discussion of Rohan and Gondor, Tolkien’s most medieval settings, for Part II. 

First, a few disclaimers. When one talks about medieval Europe, one is referring to an entire continent over the course of a thousand years (c. 500-1500). Any time you talk about a subject that broad, you must take care. To avoid inconsistency, I’m going to talk about the broad trends in Europe during the period. If it helps, I’m sure that most fantasy authors (with the possible exception of Tolkien) were not terribly concerned with the nuances of medieval history. 

Middle Earth is also a fantastically broad topic. For the sake of convenience, I’m going to focus on Middle Earth during the time of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.  

Where is Everyone?

Middle Earth is an empty wilderness . Don’t believe me? Look at the map. Aside from a few areas like Rohan, Gondor, and the Shire, Middle Earth is essentially unpopulated. In the Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes the fellowship walking through empty lands, devoid of any habitation. Of the settlements the map does show, most are very small indeed. Take Rivendell, what Tolkien refers to as “the last homely house west of the mountains.” Rivendell is the only notable establishment within hundreds of miles, and yet, Tolkien makes it clear that Rivendell is not a city, or even a town.

The same is true for most of the other settlements on the map. I’m fairly confident that by the time of the Lord of the Rings, there is not a single city in the entirety of Eriador, a region larger than modern-day France. Middle earth (again, with the exception of the Shire, Rohan, and Gondor) is not a series of states pushing up against each other, as Europe was during the medieval period, but a series of islands, surrounded by sparsely populated wasteland. 

A still from The Fellowship of the Ring movie. Where is everyone?? In a way, the movie actually portrays the emptiness of Middle Earth in a more realistic way than the books. The movies were shot in New Zealand, which has many unpopulated regions because of its rugged landscape. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, most of the empty regions are not mountainous, and have sustained habitation in the past, yet for some reason no one has bothered to come back.

Tolkien may have drawn inspiration for his depopulated setting from the Middle Ages. His civilizations sit among the ruins of far greater empires. The great Kingdom of Arnor, for example, once held sway in the now largely empty region between the Blue Mountains and the Misty Mountains. In the same way, Europeans during the Middle Ages were aware that they were living in the shadow of the Roman Empire. However, representing that decline through depopulation is completely inaccurate. Europe was not depopulated during the Middle Ages. During the fall of the Roman Empire, populations briefly declined, but then rapidly increased for most of the rest of the Middle Ages. True, some of the technology and political unity of the Romans remained out of reach of the medieval world, but Europe during the time was still a busy and bustling place. 

Population of Europe during the Middle Ages. The rapid dip in the 1300s is due to the Black Plague. As you can see, populations grew at a dramatic pace, while the population of Middle Earth seems to be in decline.

In real life, it’s hard to imagine depopulation permanently emptying vast areas of the map. Once a civilization is settled and agrarian (as virtually all Middle Earth civilizations are), new land is a priceless commodity. More land means rapid population growth as agriculture expands. Where are the Rohirrim colonists setting out through the Gap of Rohan to farm the empty fields of Enedwaith? 

Western Europe during the Middle Ages, a land area about the same size as Middle Earth. Note that the vast majority of settlements on the Middle Earth map would be too small to appear on this map.

The Reason for Depopulation 

Why is Middle Earth so depopulated? Part of the reason may lie with the absurdly bloody, near-genocidal nature of war in Middle Earth. Most wars in Middle Earth appear to be wars of extermination. When Sauron’s armies attack Gondor, there doesn’t seem to be any expectation that he will spare any human living in the cities and lands he conquered. Similarly, when the forces of good go out to hunt down orcs in their lairs, I seriously doubt that they spared the poor baby orphan orcs. With so much inter-species conflict, there is no opportunity for large-scale intermarriage or integration, so Middle Earth’s inhabitants turn to mass slaughter.

Take the (tellingly named) War of the Dwarves and Orcs, which took place a few decades before The Hobbit. The war began when the dwarves, wanting to avenge the death of one of their leaders, launched a full-scale war of annihilation against the orcs.

Durin’s Folk gathered all their host, and they were joined by great forces sent from the Houses of other Fathers; for this dishonour to the heir of the Eldest of their race filled them with wrath. When all was ready they assailed and sacked one by one all the strongholds of the Orcs that they could find from Gundabad to the Gladden…. At last all the Orcs that fled before them were gathered in Moria, and the Dwarf-host in pursuit came to Azanulbizar…. So began the Battle of Azanulbizar (or Nanduhirion in the Elvish tongue), at the memory of which the Orcs still shudder and the Dwarves weep.

The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A

In the end the dwarves won the war, nearly wiping out the orcs in the Misty Mountains, but at immense cost.

No feast nor song was there that night; for their dead were beyond the count of grief. Barely half of their number, it is said, could still stand or had hope of healing.

The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A

Tolkien’s vision of apocalyptic wars that utterly destroyed both sides was informed by history, just not medieval history. Tolkien had fought in the trenches of World War One, and felt, like many of his contemporaries, that because of the war, the world had passed from an age of prosperity and order into an age of decline from which it might never recover. From that standpoint, Middle Earth is in many ways a more faithful depiction of Europe in the 1920s than in the medieval period. 

Now that we’ve discussed some of the broad characteristics that make Tolkien’s Middle Earth completely unlike medieval Europe, let’s discuss those areas we do know about (with the exception of Rohan and Gondor, more on them in Part II). A brief analysis reveals that none of them bear any real resemblance to medieval Europe. 

The Shire

Tolkien based his description of the Shire almost entirely on his upbringing in the English countryside. “‘The Shire’ is based on rural England and not any other country in the world,” wrote Tolkien to his publisher in 1956. Hobbits have waistcoats, brass buttons, silk handkerchiefs, doorknobs, and glass windows, all more or less unknown to medieval Europe. Later in the book, we see the Shire tainted by the mills of industrialization, also taken from Tolkien’s childhood. In short, there is simply nothing medieval about the Shire. 

Tolkien’s illustration of Hobbiton. Note the mill’s glass windows, an exceedingly rare commodity in medieval Europe.

Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs: The Food Problem

Tolkien’s other fantasy societies seem to function utterly unlike any human civilization. For example, we have no real idea what the Elvish social structure is like. Surely most elves spent their time growing food or otherwise providing for the feasts and revelry Tolkien writes about so frequently, but if that is the case, we never hear of any elf doing anything so mundane as farming. Maybe food shortages are the real reason so many elves leave Middle Earth for good. 

A drawing of Rivendell by Tolkien himself. Many of the earlier drawings of Middle Earth, including those by Tolkien himself, opt for a less rugged and medieval interpretation than that favored by more recent artists.

We see the same problem for the dwarves, although in a place like Erebor, one can imagine dwarves trading with the Lake Men for food and other non-minable necessities. In places like Khazad-Dum, however, deep in the Misty Mountains, the dwarves have no obvious source of food, particularly if most of their population spends their time mining and smithing. Maybe they eat rocks? 

The orcs also represent a conundrum. Tolkien makes it clear that the orcs are incredibly numerous, more so than any other race of Middle Earth, yet the orcs mostly live in the inhospitable mountains and the barren wasteland of Mordor (itself another allusion to Tolkien’s time in the trenches). Where are the huge fertile fields where Orcs grow the food they need to support their immense population?

 If you’re sensing a theme here, agriculture is an incredibly important part of most human societies, to the point where it was the main livelihood of most humans through history. The fundamental question that most societies have had to structure themselves around was “how do we feed ourselves?” Tolkien, however, has little interest in the subject, at least so far as elves, dwarves and orcs are concerned. Since food is somehow a non-issue for these races, it’s impossible to compare them to any real historical society. 

Middle Earth Technology

Tolkien was not particularly interested in describing the material culture of Middle Earth. As he wrote a fan in letter 211, “I do not know the detail of clothing. I visualize with great clarity and detail scenery and ‘natural’ objects, but not artefacts.” Tolkien tends to describe weapons, armor, buildings, and clothes in vague terms that prevent the reader from firmly setting them in any particular time period. Most of the technologies he names would fit just as well in Ancient Rome as in medieval Europe. During the siege of Minas Tirith, for example, Tolkien limits his description of siege weapons to “catapults” and “great engines for the casting of missiles”. Tolkien could easily have used more specific terms, but he likely preferred t keep his story unconstrained by history. The movies, lacking the flexibility of the written word, depicted war machines resembling medieval trebuchets, a very specific historical reference. 

There are occasional exceptions to the rule, however. Tolkien occasionally mentions stirrups (which came to Europe during the medieval period). But the casual mention of a fairly specific historical technology do not mean much, since Tolkien freely names technologies from entirely different periods (the Shire, as mentioned earlier, is a veritable smorgasbord of anachronism). 

The medieval misconception is hardly the only time people have read their pre-existing ideas into Tolkien. Here’s another example: Tolkien’s elves have pointy ears, right? Wrong! Nowhere, in any of his writings, does Tolkien ever mention the shape of an elf’s ears. Perhaps people have misread Tolkien’s historical influences in the same way.

At this point you might be thinking that perhaps Middle Earth as a whole isn’t medieval, but surely Rohan and Gondor are. The two regions are, unlike most of Middle Earth, fairly populated and have comprehensible social structures. In part two of this series, I’m going to examine the societies of Rohan and Gondor in detail, and see whether any part of Middle Earth deserves to be designated as medieval. 

I encourage anyone who wants to read more about this subject to check out this excellent article from 1999.

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