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Apparently Tolkien wasn't so great at geology

Forum Admin / Moderator

Aug 8 2017, 9:32pm

Post #1 of 12 (1251 views)
Apparently Tolkien wasn't so great at geology Can't Post

An interesting analysis of why the topography of Middle-earth doesn't actually make sense! I confess I'd always just looked at the pretty map and liked it.

Storm clouds


Aug 9 2017, 2:25am

Post #2 of 12 (1206 views)
And we'll have fun, fun, fun, til your teacher takes the T-shaped mountain intersections away [In reply to] Can't Post

I love this piece, both because it generously concedes that we are, after all, talking about a landscape laid out for a fantasy novel before plate tectonics had made their dramatic debut, and because it calls out the large-scale problems that the much-praised map of Middle-earth has so long been given a pass on. I was frankly surprised that the writer didn't also note that mountains don't actually run in long linear chains, but rather show all kinds of 'highland-lowland', 'now wider now narrower', or 'it's just a mess from here on in' contours on a continental scale. On the other hand, I wait with bated breath for his explanation of why rivers don't run parallel with mountain chains. And I would dearly love to hear his reaction to the Silmarillion map (and the Numenor map).

Ultimately, for Tolkien mountains are barriers: giant versions of heavily dotted lines on a map. The map frames an adventure that requires the hero to overcome, to be deterred by, or (the preferred case) to go underneath in a netherworld journey, those barriers.

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Aug 9 2017, 8:42am

Post #3 of 12 (1179 views)
He's writing an "ancient manuscript", so his maps should be "ancient" too... [In reply to] Can't Post

... and ancient map-makers didn't care very much for geographic accuracy (which they didn't have the tools to establish anyway) but for some kind of moral or metaphorical accuracy. You only have to look at a medieval Mappa Mundi so see how Tolkien's maps are, by the standards of their "day", pretty darn good! Wink

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings

Forum Admin / Moderator

Aug 9 2017, 9:16am

Post #4 of 12 (1178 views)
The comments on the article are actually worth reading. [In reply to] Can't Post

Some good points are made, both about the catastrophic events of the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth, but also about some real-life examples of some of the features the author decries as unrealistic.

Personally, I don't require real-world levels of accuracy as long as there are sufficient in-world explanations. Fighting Valar explains quite a bit for me.


Roads go ever ever on
Under cloud and under star
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known.

Superuser / Moderator

Aug 9 2017, 9:51am

Post #5 of 12 (1175 views)
Isn't the answer about rivers [In reply to] Can't Post

due to water running down slopes rather than across them?

I admit that while the Mordor mountain ranges always bugged me as being unrealistic, I hadn't picked up on the problems with the other ranges. That's a fascinating article.

Celebrimbor: "Pretty rings..."
Dwarves: "Pretty rings..."
Men: "Pretty rings..."
Sauron: "Mine's better."

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauron’s master weapon led to its own destruction. Which just goes to show, kids - if you want two small and noble souls to succeed on a mission of dire importance... send an evil-minded beggar with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.

Ataahua's stories

Forum Admin / Moderator

Aug 9 2017, 10:17am

Post #6 of 12 (1171 views)
That's actually a very good point [In reply to] Can't Post

Although the ancient cartographers were generally working from limited information, and one could argue that Tolkien's view of Arda was omniscient ...

Storm clouds


Aug 9 2017, 10:51am

Post #7 of 12 (1170 views)
That's true. [In reply to] Can't Post

one could argue that Tolkien's view of Arda was omniscient ...

It would be hard to argue that Tolkien wasn't omniscient about Arda, since all of it came out of his own head... Cool

But he doesn't write his stories from an "omniscient" point of view - in LotR we generally see only through the eyes of the hobbits (with some exceptions, it's true, for which Tolkien reserves his get-out clause “supplemented by the accounts of their friends and the learning of the Wise”). It's a story of a lost, ancient world, told from the perspective of the people who lived in that world. And the Silmarillion comes across as a collection of their myths or beliefs, not as "history" is it's defined today - the standards of scientific evidence that modern history expects just don't apply. I think it's reasonable to assume that the maps too are meant to reflect this very different way of seeing the world, and that modern geology has no place in it, any more than modern genetics, psychology or physics do.

Although I recall reading that it was his son Christopher who made the maps, so maybe someone should ask him about this...


They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings

Grey Havens

Aug 9 2017, 11:34am

Post #8 of 12 (1166 views)
Interesting [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for the link

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Aug 9 2017, 1:25pm

Post #9 of 12 (1171 views)
One does wonder... [In reply to] Can't Post

...how many of the seeming geological anomalies can be easily explained by The Bending of the World.

I eagerly look forward to the good Mr. Acks' analysis of tectonic plate movement in a flat world.

The audacious proposal stirred his heart. And the stirring became a song, and it mingled with the songs of Gil-galad and Celebrian, and with those of Feanor and Fingon. The song-weaving created a larger song, and then another, until suddenly it was as if a long forgotten memory woke and for one breathtaking moment the Music of the Ainur revealed itself in all glory. He opened his lips to sing and share this song. Then he realized that the others would not understand. Not even Mithrandir given his current state of mind. So he smiled and simply said "A diversion.”

Eowyn of Penns Woods

Aug 10 2017, 1:26am

Post #10 of 12 (1105 views)
I remember the boxy mountain range thing coming up in the Reading Room [In reply to] Can't Post

and I still like the Mordor-ish old map that I posted over there.

The best I could come up with is this map from Johann Jakob Scheuchzer's 1723 Ouresiphoites Helveticus, sive Itinera Alpina per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis (1702-1711) volumes:


I know, Switzerland again. =)

If that's how some mountain ranges seemed to the map-makers of old, I'm okay with Tolkien's fictional Mountains of Mordor.


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Certified Curmudgeon
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NARF: NWtS Chapter Member since June 17,2011

Forum Admin / Moderator

Aug 10 2017, 1:37am

Post #11 of 12 (1099 views)
Fascinating! [In reply to] Can't Post

Take out the middle, turn it on its side, and it does resemble the mountains surrounding Mordor!

Personally, I've thought Mordor's outline looked like that of a bloated tick...Tongue


"I desired dragons with a profound desire"

Greenwood Hobbit
Grey Havens

Aug 10 2017, 10:04pm

Post #12 of 12 (1040 views)
Interesting and entertaining article [In reply to] Can't Post

with points well-argued, but much may be forgiven the man who created Middle Earth, even if the mountains and rivers don't obey what now appear to be the rules...


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