From the moment J.R.R. Tolkien first introduced readers to Middle-earth with The Hobbit, fans have been blown away by the scope of his fantasy world. With its detailed history, constructed languages and well-established geography, Middle-earth is arguably the most fully-realized imaginary environment in all of literature.
Indeed, the unmatched immersive quality of Tolkien’s life’s work has had such a profound effect on the genre that it’s spawned countless imitators over the years. Although some of these – like A Song of Ice and Fire – have made a worthwhile attempt at capturing a similar sense of reality to the one Tolkien was able to infuse into his own magical realm, none have so far surpassed the bar set by Middle-earth.
In recent years, more people than ever have become familiar with Tolkien’s world of Hobbits, Wizards and Orcs, thanks to the huge success of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, more casual fans – particularly those who haven’t read Tolkien’s wider body of work – probably don’t know as much about Middle-earth as they might think.
That’s why we’ve pulled together this list highlighting 15 Things You Never Knew About Middle-Earth, in order to bring you fully up to speed on the greatest place that never was!
15 There have been bigger battles than the War of the Ring
Much like our own world, Middle-earth has unfortunately played host to several major conflicts over the millennia. Of these, the most well-known is undoubtedly the War of the Ring – when the free peoples of Middle-earth came together to rid themselves of Sauron’s crazy-powerful bling and destroy the dark lord forever.
What might come as shock to some fans is that this campaign – as epic as it was – wasn’t even the biggest war to take place there. This dubious distinction goes to the War of Wrath, itself only the final hostility in what was known as the “War of the Jewels”. As related in The Silmarillion – which largely takes place during the First Age of Tolkien’s world – the War of Wrath didn’t just feature the typical armies of Men, Elves and Orcs.
No, this colossal scrap also saw hosts of Balrogs (fire demons like the one Gandalf fought in The Fellowship of the Ring), Dragons, and Maiar spirits (more on them later) take to the field, ending with much of the continent laid to waste and at least one region left permanently submerged under water!
14 It’s Only One Part Of A Much Larger World
For less well-versed fans, the name “Middle-earth” is interchangeable with “the world”, and is often used as short-hand when referring to Tolkien’s entire fictional reality. The truth is that Middle-earth is only the northern-most continent of a much bigger planet, although admittedly also the place where the majority of the action tends to take place.
The correct term when referring to the planet on which Tolkien’s stories are set is actually “Arda” – or, to be even more precise “Ambar” (which doesn’t include the sun, moon and stars, as well). Wider still, fans looking to refer to the entire made-up universe – and hey, why not cover all your bases? – is “Eä”, which covers just about everything within the physical realm.
Of course, if you’re just looking to describe the events of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, you can get by just fine throwing around the “Middle-earth” label – and you’ll probably have a better chance of being understood by other people, too!
13 It Has A God (And Other Celestial Figures)
Something that fans unfamiliar with The Silmarillion often fail to grasp is that not only do the inhabitants of Middle-earth have a god, but demi-gods, angels and demons as well. Sure, there are references to these beings scattered throughout The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and their film adaptations, but then, it’s not as though our characters have much opportunity to sit around praying!
Tolkien’s world does indeed have an all-powerful deity all its own – Eru Ilúvatar (often just called Ilúvatar). It was this cosmic force who created Eä, with the assistance of the angelic Ainur – the most powerful of whom are called the Valar, while the lesser beings are known as the Maiar (including Sauron, Gandalf, and Saruman).
Of course, nearly every religion needs a Devil, and – borrowing from Christian tradition – this role is filled by Morgoth, a fallen member of the Valar. Along with several other wayward spirits (including chief lieutenant Sauron), Morgoth tainted Arda during its creation, and would go on to cause the world no end of grief until his eventual defeat.
12 It Has At Least Eight Major Sentient Races
One of the most appealing aspects of Tolkien’s world are the many colourful species that populate it, including at least eight major sentient peoples. Of these, those most commonly aligned with the side of Good are the Elves, Men, and Dwarves, but there are also everyone’s favorite walking trees, the Ents, the Wizards / Istari (Maiar spirits in human form), and last, but certainly not least, Hobbits.
Over on the side of Evil, there are the Orcs (including the goblins and other super and sub-strains) and Trolls (who stretch the definition of “intelligent creature”, but still). Originally bred by Morgoth, these foul monsters are parodies of their counterparts on the (literal) side of the angels, as the erstwhile member of Team Valar lacks the creative spark reserved only for Ilúvatar.
Then there are the sapient animal species in Middle-Earth. Some of the better known examples include feathered deus ex machinas the Great Eagles, the Dragons, the wolf-like Wargs and the giant Spiders (whose origins are tantalizingly vague).
11 It Represents A Pre-History For Our Own World
A quick scan of even the most questionable history text book will turn up disappointingly few references to Hobbits, Dragons, or magic rings. Yet even so, Tolkien’s intention was always for the story of Middle-earth to represent a pre-history for our own world. Basically, “Arda” equals “Earth”.
Now, Tolkien wasn’t a lunatic – he didn’t actually consider Lord of the Rings and its related works as a true account of a time “before time”. The author himself acknowledged the geography of Middle-earth (and wider Arda) doesn’t align with that of the real world, which makes sense, considering his world was designed for the purpose of providing dramatic entertainment.
That said, Tolkien did broadly base his imaginary continent on the United Kingdom and Europe – the Shire was consciously meant to evoke England, for instance – and his desire was for this environment to feel like a concrete setting, not somewhere “make-believe”.
10 It Has Several Lands Only Hinted At In The Books And Films
Given how much we've seen of Middle-earth in books and movies, it’s hard to fathom that there might parts of it that we’ve barely seen. Of these, Harad – home of the mûmakil-riding Haradrim – and Rhûn – where the Sauron-worshipping Easterlings dwell – are probably the most notable.
A little bit of information relating to Harad is offered up by Tolkien – it is situated in the continent’s southern region, and boasts both desert and jungle terrain. We also know that the people there consisted of several tribes, all of which were rather fixated on war.
On the other hand, Tolkien was less forthcoming when it came to Rhûn, other than its position around (and beyond) the Sea of Rhûn to the east of Middle-earth. Much like the Haradrim, the Rhûn locals divided themselves up into numerous different tribes, and their surroundings consisted of expansive forests and plains.
These lands were considered uncharted by wider Middle-earth – for instance, the traditionally well-travelled Gandalf has never been there – and those, like Aragorn, who have toured the area have remained frustratingly tight-lipped about what they saw!
9 Its Inhabitants Speak At Least Seven Main Languages
Tolkien was a linguist (technically, a philologist) – and his entire Middle-earth-related legendarium was developed in part as an excuse to allow him to create new languages.
This unique combination of linguistic skill and commitment to detail has resulted in a fictional world blessed with at least seven main languages (and many more sub-dialects) all its own.
The most well-known of these are those spoken by the Elves, with its two main strands being Sindarin and Quenya. Then there is Westron, the tongue popularized by Men and which functions as the Common Speech of Middle-earth. Finally, rounding out the most recognizable languages is Khuzdul, the mostly-secret vocabulary of the Dwarves.
More dedicated fans will be aware of Black Speech, the vulgar language of Mordor invented by Sauron, as well as the hodge-podge of words cobbled together by the Orcs to create their own corrupted tongue, Orkish.
Casting an even wider net, some of you will remember Entish, the breathtakingly long-winded dialect of the tree shepherds.One language surely only the most hardcore of fans will be familiar with is Valarin, the speech of the Valar – and with good cause, given it likely hasn’t been heard in Middle-earth for centuries (if not millennia)!
8 After The War Of The Ring, Aragorn Brought Peace To The Wider Continent
If you’ve only ever watched the movies (or chose to ignore the book’s Appendices), you might be forgiven for thinking that The Lord of the Rings ends with the race of Men still in disarray. After all, in addition to taking up arms against the Orcs and Trolls of Mordor, Gondor and Rohan also allied against the Haradrim and the Easterlings.
However, Tolkien’s supporting text suggests that Aragorn ultimately unified all the different races of Men in peace during the Fourth Age – even if it meant yet more bloodshed in the short term.
Whilst the Appendices aren’t 100% clear on whether the forces of Gondor and Rohan merely wiped out any resistance left in the lands to the South and the East (and if so: yikes!), one school of thought is that those Men willing to renounce the ways of Sauron were brought back into the fold, at least.
Regardless, what is clear is that Aragorn used the newly pacified conditions to enact several benign courses of action. This included freeing slaves, and banning all humans from setting foot in the Shire, leaving his littlest subjects free to do their own thing, safe from interference.
7 It Started Out As Part Of A "Flat Earth"
If you take the “pre-history” element of the Middle-earth stories at face value, that would actually make its earliest inhabitants the first ever proponents of the “flat Earth” theory. The crucial difference being that here, science is on their side!
See, Ambar started life as a disc-like planet, with a whopping great ocean running around its circumference, known (fittingly enough) as the Encircling Sea. Later, after the Men of Númenor – egged on by Sauron – rebelled against the Valar in an ill-advised attempt to secure immortality for themselves, Ilúvatar responded in fairly… drastic fashion.
For starters, the island of Númenor was sent to the bottom of the ocean. Whilst that would probably be enough for most deities, Ilúvatar then set about doing a bit of global remodelling work. The most dramatic alteration was when he tore the continent where the Valar lived, Aman, from within Arda and set it within its own (largely inaccessible) plane of existence.
This had the side-effect of transforming the formerly flat planet into a spherical world, bringing it in-line with the Earth as we know it – and maintaining the “Middle-earth as proto-Earth” conceit.
6 It Has A Completely Submerged Subcontinent
It seems Tolkien had a bit of a thing for sunken landmasses – he was known to suffer from a recurring dream of a “Great Wave” bearing down on him. He believed this vision to be tied to a “racial memory” of the destruction of Atlantis, something most clearly translated onto the page via the aforementioned destruction of Númenor.
But that wasn’t the only location to end up taking a permanent scuba dive in Tolkien’s fantasy world. As touched upon earlier, during the climax of the War of Wrath, the vast subcontinent Beleriand in North-West Middle-Earth, ended up taking a plunge beneath the sea.
Whilst parts of the region remained above water – including several islands and the site of the Grey Havens, where Frodo would ultimately depart Middle-Earth forever – its drowning remains a reminder of the inevitably destructive consequences of war.
5 Its Name Wasn’t Created By Tolkien
Yes, you read that right: Tolkien did not devise the “Middle-earth” moniker. Nor did he claim to – as with much of his world-building, the good professor drew from existing linguistic and mythological sources for inspiration, in this case, Old English.
The term itself crops up in several ancient European texts, and in at least some cases, was meant to invoke the idea of a “middle world” – a physical place where mortals dwell, enclosed on either side by spiritual realms such as Heaven or Hell.
Interestingly, the name doesn’t appear at all in The Hobbit (Tolkien was still figuring things out at that point), although the setting of that adventure is unequivocally confirmed to be Middle-earth very early on in its sequel, The Lord of the Rings.
4 Its History Was Constantly Being Revised
The backstory and languages of Middle-earth were, in a very real sense, the work of a lifetime. For over 50 years, Tolkien tinkered away with his fictional world, adding and removing certain elements, and tweaking others.
Perhaps the most famous of these alterations were the retcons made to later editions of The Hobbit to explain away several major inconsistencies introduced in The Lord of the Rings – particularly where the One Ring is concerned.
But Tolkien also made fairly significant revisions to the ancient history of Middle-earth, which made the posthumous publication of The Silmarillion a mission almost as strenuous as the Quest to Mount Doom.
Indeed, when Tolkien’s son Christopher set out to compile his father’s decades of unpublished material into one (mostly) cohesive narrative – not to mention one that corroborated the existing, published canon – he was ultimately forced to make some further revisions of his own!
3 Not Everyone Who Dies There Goes To The Same Heaven
In our own world, it’s a matter of debate whether any of us go to any form of afterlife (let alone the same one), but for the residents of Middle-earth, it’s pretty clear cut – at least if you’re an Elf or a Man.
If you’re Elf unlucky to die of a mortal wound, heartbreak or profound exhaustion (the only things that can cause them to snuff it), you go first to Valinor, where the Valar dwell in Aman. From there, once you’re all rested up, you’re reincarnated into a brand spanking new body and allowed to either kick around Valinor or return to Middle-earth.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a Man, once you kick the bucket, you exit Eä entirely, headed for a celestial locale that even the Valar are ignorant of. While Men themselves tend to talk of going “to the halls of their fathers”, at least one source indicates that they return to Ilúvatar, similar to Christian tradition.
As to what happens to everyone else, that’s something of a mystery, although if you’re a servant of the Enemy, chances are you’re destined for the Void that surrounds Arda (which seems pretty lenient, really).
2 Its Geography Changed Drastically Prior To The First Age
By now it’s clear that Middle-Earth has undergone some pretty severe alterations between the First and Third Ages – but it underwent its very first big shake-up before recorded time itself! As with in earlier entries, the catalyst for these changes was divine intervention.
As the conflict between the angelic and demonic forces raged on, the Valar took several significant steps to impede Morgoth. One such move was to shunt Middle-Earth to the east of Arda, after which they whipped up five mountain ranges – all in the hope that this would make an attack on Aman less appealing.
For his part, Morgoth would follow suit sometime later by creating the Misty Mountains to slow down the efforts of the Valar to find and eradicate evil beasts under his control. This ongoing game of “mountain range one-upmanship” later evolved into encompass the development (intentional or otherwise) of a new gulf, several new bays and the widening of more than one sea!
1 It Was Created By Angelic Music
Seriously – Middle-earth (along with the rest of creation) is the end result of the Ainur getting their boogie on. With Ilúvatar taking on the role of both composer and conductor, the Valar and Maiar began singing a “great theme”, only for Morgoth – and those he led astray – to introduce his own disharmony into proceedings.
Ilúvatar quickly takes steps to counteract Morgoth’s disruptions to his original music, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become Eä, in all its imperfect glory. While the evil taint of Morgoth permanently altered the nature and destiny of Arda (and therefore Middle-earth, as well), Tolkien’s writings suggest that the situation isn’t completely hopeless.
Following the End of Days, Ilúvatar will oversee a second grand theme, and while the exact details aren’t known, it is clear that Arda will be remade, incorporating everything worthwhile about Arda as it is and as it was intended to be. It’s quite literally the best of all possible worlds, people!
What are some other lesser known facts about Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings? Let us know in the comments!