Tuesday, 3 January 2012

A Century and a Score

James over at Grognardia already took the obvious path for a title (damn, wish I thought of that) but I figure Tolkien's twelvetieth birthday was a good time to post some musings I had over Middle-earth. I posted this on another forum, but I figure I'd share it here too, after having made some revisions.

A common complaint I've heard made about Middle-earth, and fantasy settings in general, is stagnation. They claim that there simply isn't enough progress: not enough scientific investigation, no new technological innovations, not even major social upheavals, like you see in "real" history. I never had a problem with Middle-earth's technological progression, personally.  It's extremely difficult to progress when, every few millenia (or even centuries), your entire world is torn to pieces in nothing less than cataclysmic events, where countless lives are lost and the very geography of a continent is altered.

Let's look at the First Age, for instance, from the Awakening of the Elves to the War of Wrath.  Now, Middle-earth timelines can be problematic due to the nature of the world's creation, not to mention Tolkien changing his mind on the length of a Valian year.  The best resource I can find for this is the redoubtable Encyclopedia of Arda, which gives us 4,902 (450 Valian years and 590 Solar years), which supports Tolkien's assertion of the First Age lasting the longest. Including the Years of the Trees complicates matters, as the EA calculates a further 14,325 years. Nonetheless, we can fairly easily say that the development of Elven technology from their awakening during the Years of the Trees (assuming that can be analogous to the dawn of civilization in our world) to the War of Wrath was pretty decent.

At the Elves' finest hour, they could construct gargantuan hidden citadels, forge synthetic jewels superior to natural gems, and flying battleships made of metal and glass. Early drafts of "The Fall of Gondolin" feature Morgoth's forces fielding armoured personnel carriers shaped like dragons. That's under 20,000 years after the equivalent of the Stone Age. However, the end of the First Age halted all that through the sinking of Beleriand.  Entire stretches of the north and west continent sank beneath the waves.  Everything north and west of Eriador went under. That's a disaster unseen in modern times, like the entirety of Europe sinking.  So with such a catastrophic event, it's easy to see civilization was held back a little bit.

 I'm not entirely satisfied with either map, but you get the idea.

So we can imagine the beginning of the Second Age to be pretty solidly post-apocalyptic.  You have the surviving Edain going west to start afresh in Numenor, the few elves who stayed after the mass exodus to Tol Eressëa founding new settlements, and the Dwarves leaving their destroyed kingdoms to establish Khazad-Dum.  The knowledge to craft flying ships and dragon machines was lost. It took Numenor 600 years to travel back to Middle-earth, and another 300 to establish new colonies.  Fast forward another thousand years, and Numenor has become the mightiest nation in Middle-earth, with pretty impressive technology: in addition to steel longbows, nigh-impregnable masonry and incomparable armour, an enigmatic mention of "darts" like "thunder" which "pass over leagues unerring" conjures visions of advanced artillery, or even self-propelled rockets. That's when Sauron strikes back.  He pretty much devastates half of Middle-earth in his war against the Elves, destroying several kingdoms and running roughshod over Eriador, in constant battling that lasts centuries.  A good 1,500 years later, and at its arguable height of power, Numenor sinks under the waves, Aman and Tol Eressëa are "removed" from the world, and the world is made round.  Which, again, caused massive geological upheaval.

Like the Second Age, the Third Age starts out post-apocalyptic, only to a far more significant degree.  The Elves are a dying breed, restricted to isolated communities deep in the forests; the Dwarves are ever retreating into their mountain homes; Men have been tearing each other apart in warfare.  Initially the remnants of Numenor do alright, founding the new kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor: the latter kingdom breaks up into three smaller realms a scant 800 years after its foundation, those realms themselves being destroyed when the Witch-King returns 500 years later.  Gondor is being invaded by Easterlings and Corsairs, devastating the population.  More disasters - great plagues, invasions, disasters, wars - follow.  The period known as "the watchful peace" - one of the only periods of peace Middle-earth has enjoyed - starts 2000 years into the Third Age.  It lasts 400 years.

Thus, the First Age: 4902 years. The Second Age: 3441 years. The Third Age: 3021 years. So, using the estimates above, around 11,364 years have elapsed since the Age of the Sun by the time of The Lord of the Rings.  Let's assume that the rising of the sun is the rough analogue to the beginning of civilization.  The earliest walled city yet known is Jericho, which has walls dating back to 6,800 BC.  Byblos was founded around 5,000 BC, Sidon 4,000 BC.  The spear has been the killing implement of choice in some form for 400,000 years, while recognizable bows have been around since 8,000 BC - though there's possible evidence of arrowheads from tens of thousands of years earlier. Taking into account the sheer amount of disasters which befell Arda and sent civilization back to the drawing board, combined with the obvious longevity of low tech, I don't think it's at all unreasonable for Middle-earth to still be using bows and arrows, especially considering the role of magic and long-lived Elves and Dwarves.

If I've made a particularly gratuitous error in my dating, I apologise: anyone more well-versed in Tolkien chronologies feel free to point out how badly I've snafud.


  1. I didn't like the plate armor of the movies, they gave the wrong impression of the cultures it was used for. Gondor becomes High Medieval with knights-errant. jousting and all that. They should all look like they dropped out of Beowulf.

  2. Indeed, that's an issue I had with the films. The Numenoreans should've looked mythic and magnificent in comparison to Gondor, to give the impression that things were greater and grander in the Old Days. Instead, Gondorian armour looked either identical (compare Isildur's garb to Aragorn's at the Black Gate) or actively superior (the presence of heavy plate armour).

    I read a lot of supplementary material for the films which claimed that the costumers were attempting to do something other than "Renaissance Faire fantasy," which surprised me, since that's exactly what Gondor came across as to me. Especially the citizens, who are actively modelled after Baroque paintings.

    It's amusing to me that the exact opposite happens with the Hyborian Age, where the armour and technology isn't advanced enough. Odd how that happens.

  3. I'm rather peeved by the turn the comments took on Grognardia. I really do think Wizardry & Wild Romance contains some of the worst literary criticism in any serious study of fantasy, and yet the damn thing continues to crop up over and over and over again.

    I never understood the "Middle Earth is static!" complaint, but it's mostly made by people who wish every work of literature was science fiction. "History-is-boring"-style technophiles.

  4. I think infamy has a lot to do with it, much like "Starship Stormtroopers" has meant the same misconceptions about Heinlein keep popping up (and no doubt the same stuff from Alpers). Weirdly, one of my other big problems with "Epic Pooh" is Moorcock's characterisation of Winnie the Pooh, which I consider as simplistic as his criticisms of LotR and others.

    I think the static complaint is also linked to the misconception that human history is definitively progressive, and that technological innovations are inevitable rather than the result of extraordinary circumstances. It's a nice idea to think of history as a ladder, but it's more like snakes & ladders than anything else.

  5. The rohirrim are already straight from Beowulf... you can't have two identical cultures!!! I think the aesthetics from the trilogy are great. John Howe and Alan Lee helped a lot. The land of Gondor seemed to be based on Byzantium, and the soldiers in plate armor looked awesome. Are some of the plot points of the movies what worries me... you know, like Faramir taking the hobbits to Osgilliath or Denethor running in flames. That kind of STUPID things.

    Anyways, I doubt you will consider seriously my opinions... I like the "aquiromans" too!!!

  6. The rohirrim are already straight from Beowulf... you can't have two identical cultures!

    My interpretation of Gondor was - are you ready for this? - Ancient Egypt. Now, Tolkien wasn't saying that Gondor should visually look like a carbon copy of Ancient Egypt, but I do think it would've been cool to take certain thematic ideas and give it a Norse/European twist. It's fiendishly difficult to imagine, I know, but I preferred it over the Medievalist style. Obviously others disagree, but there you go.

    I think the aesthetics from the trilogy are great. John Howe and Alan Lee helped a lot. The land of Gondor seemed to be based on Byzantium, and the soldiers in plate armor looked awesome.

    Howe & Lee were the chief concept artists, and I won't deny the visuals themselves are gorgeous. However, like Cobb's superlative work for the 1982 Conan, I don't think it gels with the source material.

    Hmm, wonder what would happen if you swap the costume design from Conan to LotR?

    Anyways, I doubt you will consider seriously my opinions... I like the "aquiromans" too!!!

    Hey now, don't be like that! I LOVE classical aesthetics, be it Roman, Greek, Persian or Celtic: it's just when it comes to fidelity to the source material that I take issue. Since Howard was fairly clear that Aquilonia was Medieval (as will be elucidated in upcoming posts) and Howard hate the Romans, it seems kind of disrespectful to recast the Aquilonians in the mould of an empire which represented the worst of civilized decadence.

    Case in point, I love beards. Beards are awesome. I have a beard myself. But I don't want to see Aragorn or Conan with a beard in an adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Tower of the Elephant" any more than I'd want to see a clean-shaven Gandalf or Trocero. When it comes to adaptations, I'm a stickler for fidelity to the source material, regardless of my personal feelings on the awesomeness of something.

  7. OK, you love beards... but, actually, I am talking about fidelity too. I think the aesthetics of the LOTR trilogy are not only "cool" but VERY faithful to the original.

    The rohirrim is the perfect examples: saxons with horses. The saxon never had horses. Tolkien loved saxons and hate the normans, so he created a saxon-like culture based on horses that would kick any norman ass. The easy way would be made the rohirrim look like "european mongols" and Meduseld an ACTUAL "golden castle". But the filmakers show much more respect towards the source material.

    I never liked the production design of the original "Conan" because everything looked like the stone age. But I love the style of Cary Nord in the Dark Horse comic books. For me, part of the interest of the Hyborian age is the "classical" feeling. The word "barbarian" is from greece and in the early 30s, when Howard were still alive, almost everyone thought that "Aquilonia" was roman-like. I think is a fair assumption. Of course it represent the worst of civilized decadence... that's why they need a celtic king!!

  8. "Of course it represent the worst of civilized decadence... that's why they need a celtic king!!"

    That's actually a remarkably insightful comment.

    And as for technological advancement in Arda, let's not forget Saruman and his "mind of metal and wheels", nor the implication in The Hobbit that goblins are the original inventors of some modern war machinery (at least, that's how I've always taken it).

  9. Now I know I've been following web-trails on Arda far too far. Time for home. These depths must remain undelved for my own personal safety, lest I awaken some long-slumbering, deep-dwelling Balrog of self-loathing. Thank you for helping me finally go to bed, you wonderful bizarre nerds.