April 9, 2021

M is for Middle-Earth

         (My A-Z Blog Challenge theme this year is Mythical and Imaginary Places.)
        Middle-earth is probably the most famous and influential fantasy world created by a modern author.  It practically defines high fantasy: humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, dragons…  brave warriors, powerful wizards, beautiful queens, charming thieves, Dark Lords intent on conquering the world…  The setting is inspired by a pre-industrial European culture, with swords and catapults rather than guns and tanks, kings and nobility rather than modern democracy, messengers on horseback rather than telephones and cars.  For many people, myself included, J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the key authors who enchanted us with fantasy, and Middle-earth was one of the magical places that inspired our dreams.
        Middle-earth is often thought of as a “secondary world,” meaning that it is not our world with magic.  However, that’s not accurate, because in Tolkien’s larger mythology, Middle-earth eventually turned into our modern world when its magic had faded away.  So Middle-earth does bear a lot of similarities to the continent of Europe: in the general shape of the 
landmass, in the climate and ecosystems, in the social structures, and so on.  The Shire where the Hobbits live is very much modelled on a pastoral vision of the British Midlands.  However, although Tolkien did not make many innovations for the physical world of Middle-earth, several of his sentient creatures have escaped Middle-earth to go on to inhabit many other fantasy worlds.  Tolkien invented Hobbits, also called Halflings.  He invented Ents, the tree-like tree-herds.  He turned goblins into Orcs, which have taken on a life of their own in many different fantasy settings, especially various role-playing games.  It is his versions of elves and dwarves that set the standard for modern fantasy.  For years this exerted an unhealthy influence on the development of the fantasy genre, with a lot of derivative copy-cat worlds.  Then the pendulum began to swing the other way, with authors bending over backwards to prove 
that they weren’t unduly influenced.  I’ve set my own high fantasy
Otherworld series in a very Tolkien-esque world, partly because that is the kind of magical world that made me fall in love with fantasy in the first place, but also partly because it’s the sort of world we all already think we know — and that means I can then play with those expectations.  Because the base is well-established, I can build on it and even sometimes subvert it.
        Middle-earth is also famous because Tolkien put so much work into behind-the-scenes world creation, particularly the history, mythology, and languages of all the different peoples and cultures of the area.  Although all this back-story and world-creation was eventually published by Tolkien’s estate, vast amounts of it never explicitly show up in Tolkien’s primary works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  For writers it’s a fabulous model of how, on the one hand, detailed world creation can enrich a story, but how at the same time, just because the author has invented something doesn’t mean they have to include it in the book.  World-building is one of my favorite parts of fantasy, and perhaps my two greatest influences in world-creation are Tolkien and LeGuin, creator of Gont.
        Probably for most people the best-known depictions of Middle-earth are those in the movies directed by Peter Jackson.  I will omit those in favor of illustrators, as there are more than enough of those to keep us busy today!  I begin with Tolkien himself, who illustrated many scenes of his own imagined world, including this view of the Shire in all its idyllic charm.  The map shown here is not the more famous version made by Tolkien’s son Christopher (which you can see here), but a version drawn by Pauline Baynes in consultation with Tolkien, with a few small illustrations adorning it.
        Next I have four paintings by Alan Lee, one of the most famous and popular Middle-earth illustrators.  I confess that his work tends to be a little too faded and washy for my taste, but there’s no denying its evocative dream-like quality.  I’ve selected “The King Under the Mountain” (dwarves of the Lonely Mountain), Laketown (humans), Edoras (the capitol of the human Rohirrim), and Fangorn (ancient forest inhabited by Ents) as a representative sampling of geographical vistas.
        Another very popular artist of Middle-earth is Ted Nasmith, and I have his view of the Valley of Rivendell, and of the border of Lothlorien (both homes of elves).  Then for comparison, I have scenes of Minas Tirith (capitol of the human kingdom of Gondor), by each of these two artists.  In this case I like Lee’s version better as a view of a wonderful, magical place, but Nasmith’s version shows more accurately the unique situation and architecture of the city as a whole.
        Of course we couldn’t show Middle-earth without including Mordor, so I have two views of the dark and blighted realm of Sauron.  The plain of Gorgoroth is once again by Nasmith, and the Dark Tower Barad-dûr, Sauron’s chief fortress, is depicted in a more expressionistic style by Roger Garland.  In some ways I really like all of these depictions of Middle-earth, but in another way, none of them quite captures how I imagine this world myself, so that you really can’t beat getting immersed in the reading and letting your own inner eye do the work.
        The MORAL of Middle-earth:  It’s good to have an epic stage on which to set epic deeds.
              OR:  It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door.  You step into the road and there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
        So, how much magic do you think still remains in our world from the time of Middle-earth?

[Pictures: The Hill: Hobbiton-across-the-Water, painting by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937 (Image from Museoteca);
Map of Middle-earth, drawn by Pauline Baynes, 1969 (Image from Middle-earth Blog);

The King Under the Mountain, Lake-town, Edoras, The Forest of Fangorn, all paintings by Alan Lee, can’t find dates (Images from Tolkien Gateway here and here);

The Valley of Rivendell, Leaving Lothlorien, paintings by Ted Nasmith, can’t find dates (Images from The One Ring);
Dawn at Minas Tirith, painting by Nasmith (Image from The One Ring);
Minas Tirith, painting by Lee (Image from Tolkien Gateway);
Across Gorgoroth, painting by Nasmith (Image from The One Ring);
Barad-dûr, painting by Roger Garland (Image from The One Ring).]


dara said...

How interesting that on the same day, you posted about Middle Earth and I did Hobbit Day! Great minds! Thanks for the great theme of Mythical and Imaginary Places, I am enjoying all of them so far!

Come have Elevenses with me! https://dararochlinbookdoctor.com/2021/04/09/2021-a-to-z-letter-h-weird-holidays/

JazzFeathers said...

I'm so happy you dedicated a post to Tolkien. I have no shame confessing I'm a Tolkien nerd, now more than ever (I wasn't this nerdy when I was younger - is that worrying, do you think?), but truly, he is such an incredible storyteller. There's really an entire world, and entire philosphy, I want to say an entire history in his Middle-earth. Reading his stories is such an enriching experience. Every single time.

I sometimes write about Tolkien on Medium, in case you want to have a look ;-)

Sue Bursztynski said...

My favourite secondary - well, sort of secondary - world! I confess I didn’t read either The Hobbit or LOTR till I was an adult. Because of that, I picked up stuff I wouldn’t have picked up as a child, but it doesn’t matter, because the stories are amazing.

I love Alan Lee and John Howe, also Ted Naismith, whose work I’ve seen in calendars, but I adore Michael Hague. Because of that, I have several different editions of The Hobbit, including Tolkien’s illustrations. The Hildebrandts were also amazing, but only did calendars.

Greek Myths: I Is For Iphigenia


Operation Awesome said...

Amazing how like the illustrations some of the landscapes in the films ended up being.

Olga Godim said...

I like Tolkien's ideas of elves and other magical creatures and I used them in my own stories from time to time. There is no reason making up my own version of elves when Tolkien's works so well. It is the story, the emotional journey, that make my story unique, not the definition of elves.

Beth Lapin said...

I love that you are AHEAD!! Who else can say that during this challenge!


Timothy S. Brannan said...

Now here is a place I know very, very well.

I have walked these lands in my dreams. I have to admit that the movie version of Mirkwood in the Hobbit didn't live up to my imaginings of it. One of the few times that the Peter Jackson movies fell short in my mind.

I poured over these maps as a kid, read them and reread them.

Tim Brannan, The Other Side: 2021: The A to Z of Monsters

Lisa said...

Unfortunately, I doubt much remains. Wouldn't it be fun! Exciting and dangerous.
The Lord of the Rings movie had some amazing scenes I think did justice to the book. When they are floating down the river and pass those huge towering figures is one scene that I was in awe watching.
Now, as someone mentioned The Hobbit. Garbage. They really let everyone, including themselves down with that one. How hard would it have been to have actual ponies?

A Tarkabarka Hölgy said...

It has been a running joke around here that it England is the Shire, then, geographically, Hungary is Mordor... :D

The Multicolored Diary

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I'm pleased (though not surprised!) to have all you Middle-earth fans pipe up! =)

JazzFeathers, wow, your writing on Tolkien is so impressive!

Operation Awesome, it's not a coincidence that the illustrations look so similar to the movies. Jackson had several artists, especially Alan Lee, consulting on the visual design of the movies.

Timothy and Lisa, I am totally with you in thinking Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" was pretty good but "The Hobbit" was a huge disappointment.

Zalka, uh oh, that can't be good for Hungary. Sounds like you need some brave hobbits to break the evil spell!

JadeLi said...

I remember how much I enjoyed reading the books and watching the movies. It does seem like a real world. I feel that way about Game of Thrones world also probably because of that cool animated opening sequence.

Have you seen any of the illustrations of the Brothers Hildebrandt of Middle Earth and the characters in it? Check it out if you haven't:

My "M" Jethro Tull song is here:

Ronel Janse van Vuuren said...

One of my favourite places to visit :-)

Ronel visiting for the A-Z Challenge with an A-Z of Faerie: The Raven Faery: Morrígan

Grace Robinson said...

Few fictional worlds are as rich as Middle-Earth! Love it!

Anne Higa said...

Yep, no list of fantasy world systems would be complete without the (debatable) father of modern fantasy. I say debatable because I tend to side with the base myths being the origin for modern fantasy. Thinking of some of the great fantasy authors coming out of Africa and Asia, with those cultural traditions behind them, the default may not look quite so Tolkien anymore for much longer! Either way, I will always love Middle Earth as my first. <3

Anne from annehiga.com

AJ Blythe said...

When I think of Middle Earth I immediately am transported to Tolkien's world.