What is Middle Earth?

wiseGEEK Writer

Middle Earth (middle-earth, Middle-earth or Middleearth) is the term used by author J.R.R. Tolkien to describe the lands of men, sometimes called the “mortal lands” in the books The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The term should not be used or thought of as a separate planet, and it does not encompass the whole planet but merely the lands in which men dwell. Tolkien uses the term Arda to describe the whole Earth, and Middle Earth has some noted exclusions. The undying lands, or the lands from which the elves come, and to where they return when they choose to leave Middle Earth is called Aman. Few mortals are allowed to enter Aman, until Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo, as former bearers of the enemy’s ring, are permitted to travel with the elves to Aman and immortality at the end of the The Lord of the Rings.

Wizards are featured in Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Wizards are featured in Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Middle Earth as a name is not Tolkien’s invention. He encountered the term in Anglo-Saxon writings of Cynewulf, and the word is also used in the Anglo-Saxon work Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxon term is middangeard. In Middle English the word becomes midden-erde or middel-erde. The early word middangeard more accurately translates to middle enclosure. However, most language historians do translate the term to Middle Earth, and Tolkien as a specialist in linguistics, did the same. Moreover, the land Tolkien creates is essentially enclosed by the other lands like Aman.

The ancient Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf contains references to Middle Earth.
The ancient Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf contains references to Middle Earth.

Tolkien was attempting to create a mythology for England in his books, and it is made very clear that the world of Middle Earth is one that existed on this Earth about 6000 years ago. Even some of the geography, particularly the Shire, is associated with England. Tolkien separates this ancient world into ages, with most of his most popular work Hobbit and Rings occurring during the Third Age. The Silmarillion primarily takes place during the First Age, and the indices of the Rings allude to some of the Second Age’s rulers and kingdoms.

Hobbits are a small race of people who live in underground hideaways that are built into the side of a grassy knoll.
Hobbits are a small race of people who live in underground hideaways that are built into the side of a grassy knoll.

Numerous fantasy creatures populate Tolkien’s land. The elves, though long established there, are visitors only. When they tire of the mortal world, they leave for Aman. Dwarves, men, and hobbits are described as having “arrived” in the land, suggesting the “middle enclosure” which is surrounded by other lands. Elves were the first to arrive, and begin the First Age, creating people like the Ents, treelike giants who shepherd the trees, which the Elves “taught to talk.”

Dragons exist in Middle Earth, as do other fearsome beasts like orcs, goblins and trolls, which were created by the enemies of the elves. Tolkien suggests that these were created as bad imitations of elves, dwarves and Ents. Other creatures with intelligence include the eagles, giant spiders, and the wargs, wolf-like creatures that often fight with the goblins.

The population distribution in Tolkien’s land changed from Age to Age. In the Third Age, the elves held three kingdoms, protected in part by Elvish rings. These are Lothlorien, Rivendell, and the Wood Elves’ kingdom in Mirkwood. Hobbits live mainly in the Shire, and also in Breeland. In the village of Bree, hobbits and men live together, which Tolkien calls an “excellent arrangement.” Shire inhabitants are much less used to visitors from the outside, with the exception of the occasional wizard or dwarf.

Dwarves, after The Hobbit, live in several mountainous regions, including the Lonely Mountain, which they reclaimed from Smaug the dragon. Men occupy many different places in the land. The two largest kingdoms of men opposing the evil wizard Sauron are Rohan and Gondor. There is also reference to Harad, a country far east that has been held sway by Sauron, and fights against Rohan and Gondor in the last battle against Sauron.

There’s a certain sadness to Tolkien’s land, particularly as described in Rings. The Elves were dominant during the Second Age, but many have left or are leaving Middle Earth for good by the Third Age, the age of Men. Wizards are leaving too, and in a sense, the world of men is beginning while the wonderful magic of elves, wizards, and creatures like the Ents is beginning to leave forever. Middle Earth has been tainted by the presence of the enemy, Sauron, and even after his defeat, the power of the elves is diminished forever. Few remain to keep alive the wonder of the earlier ages and the world leans toward the more traditional one of men only. However Tolkien insinuates that hobbits still exist, though big folk are usually too stupid to see them, or so noisy they scare them away.

Dragons live in Middle Earth; Smaug the dragon is a prominent figure in "The Hobbit".
Dragons live in Middle Earth; Smaug the dragon is a prominent figure in "The Hobbit".

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Discussion Comments



Not only that, but Middle Earth also became the inspiration for many other epic lands, such as Warcraft and World of Warcraft, which features many species which are common to Lord of the Rings, and subtly mimics the genius of Tolkien.


Tolkien was a brilliant student of folklore and languages, and used his deep understanding of legend and societal zeitgeist to construct a beautiful world of imagination over the years. While fighting in World War I, he had a lot of time to develop his ideal world and explore it for himself, writing down his thoughts as he progressed. When it was fully developed, this world had become a beautiful ideal, originally intended for personal purposes, but released to the general public. Exploring Middle Earth is like exploring the rich mind of JRR Tolkien.


that was a great description! tolkien is definitely a master at creating worlds and people rich in detail! i'm looking forward to peter jackson's interpretation of The Hobbit.

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