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Tolkien at UVM - 2012 summer - week 2

The Shire

Jul 11 2012, 12:46am

Post #1 of 6 (344 views)
Tolkien at UVM - 2012 summer - week 2 Can't Post

Note (of Contrition): I had thought I was supposed to be a responder in week 1 and, consequently, didn't post questions. I'm making up for it this week, posting questions and responding to classmates' questions.

QUESTION: Frodo and his companions travel across vast stretches of unpopulated land. Between the Shire and Rivendell, there is only Bree (if we exclude some wraith-haunted ruins on Weathertop). Between Rivendell and Isengard lie the ruins of Hollin, and between those ruins and Lothlorien, the mines of Moria. (OK, Moria has a population, but its inhabitants aren't the sort of gentle folk we encounter in Hobbiton, or even Minas Tirith.) As Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli race across Rohan, hunting the orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin, they come upon no settlements and remark on how even the herdsmen are missing. Why, in your opinion, has Tolkien created a Middle-earth with so few people in it, and what effect do these unpopulated expanses have on the narrative, his characters, and our reading?

Registered User

Jul 11 2012, 1:05am

Post #2 of 6 (132 views)
My Best Guess [In reply to] Can't Post

I believe that Tolkien had so few popluated areas in his story for a couple of reasons. First he seems to love nature and the way the world was before a lot of human settlement in example making one of the more evil actions in the book be, basically, clear cutting. Also Tolkien wanted readers to see that the heroes are saving what is becoming a dying world for many of the older people. The elves are leaving and the Shire was burned. To many large settlements would have made it seem that everything was perfectly ok to have the land sparcely populated it is ominous like the final push to wipe everything out could come soon. That is why in my opinion Tolkien created such a unpopulated Middle Earth.

Superuser / Moderator

Jul 11 2012, 1:30am

Post #3 of 6 (134 views)
I'd go for depopulated rather than unpopulated. [In reply to] Can't Post

We know from the histories Tolkien created that there were Kingdoms and communities in the North a very long time ago, but through wars much of the population disappeared - either relocating to safer areas or were killed. (It's the rise and fall of nation states, which we know about from our own histories going back millennia.) Tolkien references this back-story through ruins in the landscape - but also, by having the characters expectating to see people in this land and coming up empty, we know that the bad events aren't confined to the distant past.

The lack of people in a large, seemingly fertile area makes this part of the book dead spooky. What happened here? What *will* happen here to our heroes?

Once again, Tolkien uses the landscape (in this case, its emptiness) to indicate history and danger, and to ratchet up the tension for readers. The big meanie.

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

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauronís 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 b*****d with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.

Ataahua's stories

(This post was edited by Ataahua on Jul 11 2012, 2:42am)


Jul 11 2012, 3:14pm

Post #4 of 6 (126 views)
Don't discount the non-human population. [In reply to] Can't Post

The Old Forest and Barrow-downs are populated, apparently, but not by hobbits or people. The Troll-fells are populated by trolls. Orcs and Eagles and perhaps Storm Giants (from The Hobbit) populate the Misty Mountains, and there are also Beornings and Woodsmen and Wargs on the east side. And the very land is alive, as we see with Bombadil and Goldberry, personifications of the elements, and with Caradhras, a mountain that is alive and malevolent. Hollin is normally populated by animals, and Aragorn finds it odd that they have gone into hiding, then discovers there are reasons for that. There are apparently many traveling companies of rangers and elves who have no cities but nevertheless inhabit the land, there are human bandits in the countryside, and IIRC, there are even hints that there may be wandering hobbits around Bree.

That being said, the human and elven populations are in steep decline, according to the history Tolkien created. Presumably that's because it is a dangerous world, although the hobbits somehow seem to have avoided the danger. Apparently the humans acted as a buffer for the hobbits, who escaped the notice of Sauron and his servant in the North, the Witch-king. But the humans paid a heavy price, and the elves have been leaving Middle-earth faster than they have been repopulating.

Furthermore there were never as many humans in the North as in the South. Most of the refugees from Numenor settled in the South. There were more elves in the North, and fewer humans. Clearly that trend will be reversed under King Elessar, as the last of the elves either sail or fade away, and the age of humans begins.

Why did Tolkien do it this way? I'm not sure. After all, there are many humans in the South, and much of the adventure in LotR takes place in Rohan and Gondor. There are many hobbits in the Shire. There is Bree. Why couldn't the Fellowship have had more adventures among humans? I suppose it adds variety to do it the way he did. It also allows the quest to cover ground without having an adventure every day along the way. The trip between Bree and Rivendell is exciting, but passes fairly quickly, and the trip between Rivendell and Moria is almost completely uneventful. It creates some distance between the Shire and Mordor, which is important for explaining why the hobbits have escaped Sauron's notice.

It also evokes the age of legend in northern Europe, when the North was sparsely populated and the South consisted of the remnants of the Roman Empire. In some versions of the legend of King Arthur, he conquers Gaul and is preparing to march on Rome itself when Mordred betrays him, forcing him to return home. The restoration of a fallen Roman empire is part of the legends of England, and Tolkien incorporates that element into his story of a quasi-England.


Jul 11 2012, 4:52pm

Post #5 of 6 (97 views)
Excellent!// [In reply to] Can't Post


The Shire

Jul 11 2012, 6:27pm

Post #6 of 6 (168 views)
Practicality? [In reply to] Can't Post

I think something needs to be said for the impracticality of a highly populated middle earth. Each community that the travellers encounter forms some kind of obstacle. If there were endless civilizations to pass through, the journey would have take a lot longer and been a lot harder. Furthermore, the peoples that are encountered, by the fellowship and its members in later groupings, each mean something. Were there a greater population, the significance of individual communities would be lessened. If there were more elf kingdoms for them to pass through, Lothlorien would have a lesser impact. If there were still great civilizations of men near the Shire, the Hobbits wouldn't be as untouched by the outside world as they are and wouldn't have had to travel very far to find sanctuary.

Practicalities aside, if Middle Earth is to be viewed as some kind of mythology, it is representative of a much older earth. It seems to me that if there were countless civilizations present at this time, more great Dwarf mines and more Elven woods it would not fit so well with the idea of a time which has vanished. It would, as has already been pointed out, seem strange to think of MIddle Earth as a world that could easily vanish if it were so much more alive.


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