Above: A map of Middle-Earth by Christopher Tolkien.
By Evan Dahm. Originally published on March 13 on evandahm.tumblr.com. The rest of the series is tagged.
What it is. I think we’re all pretty familiar with Middle-Earth, right? Even if you’ve only seen the Lord of the Rings movies, the substance of the setting is similar enough in them to the books, I think.
It’s a setting resembling medieval Europe, and with a number of different species and peoples, mostly drawn from various European mythologies and cultures. Elves are beautiful and live forever, and their influence and presence in Middle-Earth is waning throughout the story. Dwarves are aloof and live underground, and have a longstanding animosity towards elves. Men (humans) are mortal, industrious, and growing in importance and number in Middle-Earth. Hobbits are small, cheerful people who eat and drink a lot, are pretty much irrelevant in the scheme of things in Middle Earth, and live in a place based heavily upon rural England. They are (I think??) the only of the central peoples to be wholly Tolkien’s invention.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this book forms the foundation for the modern fantasy genre… though unfortunately what most writers who came after Tolkien owe to him seem to be details that miss the point: fantasy stories must focus on a Quest with Heroes, must have rigid notions of good and evil, must be set in a world that is a lot like medieval Europe, and must have elves and dwarves. The Lord of the Rings appears clichéd now, because its influence on what came after has been so ubiquitous.
Central to how the setting functions is its inherent sense of morality: there is Evil, and there is a central Evil guy (Sauron) and an Evil place (Mordor). We are pretty clear on the fact that the protagonists are doing something indisputably good. This is often cited as a failure of the book, but it’s never seemed so to me: there is plenty of complexity and intrigue here, but subtle questions of morality are simply not central to it. It’s meant to be a mythic, larger-than-life story, and simplistic notions of good and evil work with that.
There is an enormous amount of material, much of it unfinished, exterior to The Lord of the Rings that explains Middle-Earth at greater length. But I don’t think that stuff (nor the appendices to LOTR) enter into this discussion, as we’re focusing on how the setting is conveyed in this one story, and how it works with the story. It is unnecessary to have any understanding of all that extra stuff when you start reading LOTR; in fact I think it might almost be a detriment.
Putting up the second part tomorrow, focusing on how the setting is conveyed within the book.