Middle-Earth gets a Geological Makeover

As if J. R. R. Tolkien wasn’t brilliant enough with his creation of Middle-Earth, it appears that using his numerous maps and illustrations provided, supplemented by observations from within the texts themselves, a geological reconstruction can be achieved! I recently came across this old article from the Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, Oxford, England, 1992, and figured it was worth sharing.

The first attempt at a geological history of Middle-Earth was Margaret Howes in 1967 in a piece entitled “The Elder Ages and Later Glaciations off the Pleistocene Epoch”. Here, she endeavoured to recapitulate the successive geomorphologies from the time when Morgoth (the real bad guy in Middle-Earth) was overthrown to beyond the time when Aragorn adopted rule over Gondor. However, this work has been recognised as being too far adrift from Tolkien’s original creations, drawing in too much from Earth’s own recent geological history.

This work was truly over-shadowed by that of Robert Reynolds, who in 1974 wrote his “The geomorphology of Middle-Earth”. This actually incorporated the theory of plate tectonics to the entirety of Middle-Earth (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Reynold' tectonic reconstruction of Middle-Earth (click for larger image)

The extension of this by the authors of the article is presented in Figure 2. They revise the number of tectonic plates, as well as apply modern boundary terminology (e.g., strike-slip, triple-junction etc.). The result really is quite a nice read of the fusion of a modern day description of tectonics with a seminal creation that has inspired generations, and hopefully will inspire more to come. It’s great to come across Mount Doom being described as a “hotspot” – it really adds a slant to the old “volcano lair” for bad guys. It also helps to answer questions which I’m sure plagued geologists throughout the books and films, such as ‘where did the mythril come from?’, and ‘how did the mountains surrounding Mordor get such a weird shape?’. All in all, it’s an impressive article that successfully increases the dimensionality of a masterpiece.

Fig 2. Current interpretation of the principal tectonic features of Middle-Earth (click for larger image)

If anyone would like the complete original article, I’d be happy to send a scanned version – it really is quite a spectacular piece of Middle-Earth metadata.

Howes, M. M. (1967) The Elder Ages and the later glaciations of the Pleistocene Epoch, Tolkien Journal, 3(2), 3-15

Reynolds, R. C. (1974) The geomorphology of Middle-Earth, The Swansea Geographer, 11, 67-71

Sarjeant, W. A. S. (1992) The geology of Middle-Earth, Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference

92 thoughts on “Middle-Earth gets a Geological Makeover

    1. Hehe entire paleontology of Middle-earth too :). The period known as Spring of Arda would be like one of the “earlier geological eras”, maybe carbon or jurassic period, (there were “grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods. As yet no flower had bloomed nor any bird had sung, for these things waited still their time in the bosom of Yavanna; but wealth there was of her imagining, and nowhere more rich than in the midmost parts of the Earth, where the light of both the Lamps met and blended.” so sounds quite prehistoric, imagining prehistoric fern trees, that was maybe the dinosaur age for Arda :), after all the fell beasts were ‘creature of an older world’:

      “A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil”

      “Pterodactyl. Yes and no. I did not intend the steed of the Witch-King to be what is now called a ‘pterodactyl’, and often is drawn (with rather less shadowy evidence than lies behind many monsters of the new and fascinating semi-scientific mythology of the ‘Prehistoric’). But obviously it is pterodactylic and owes much to the new mythology, and its description even provides a sort of way in which it could be a last survivor of older geological eras.”)

      This time period would be also the origin of coal, jet and amber deposits 🙂 (Dwarves in The Hobbit are mentioned “…go back to digging coal”, jet gems are used by Teleri elves to adorn their ships with “beaks of gold and eyes of gold and jet.”, amber is mentioned only in the Book of Lost Tales though :))

  1. I would really love a copy of the scanned article. And by any chance do you have the older ones? I have access to libraries, but mostly medical!

      1. Yup, but then it seems like they took on their own evolution. There are different “species” like the goblins in Moria vs the larger southern orc. Then of course you have all the cross-breeds like Goblin-men and Uruk-hai.

        1. Ehem (Puts on Computational & Systems Biologist hat).

          They would not be different “Species.” This would mean that they could not interbreed, which obviously they could.

          What you have are what we now call “Ethnicities” (prior word of usage was “Race” – but that, in Middle-earth would apply more to Humans, Elves, Hobbits, and Goblins/Orcs respectively, being able to interbreed, but having significantly different Phenotypical and Genotypical traits) of Goblins.

          Tolkien also, in “The History of Middle-earth, vol 12: The Peoples of Middle-earth” speculated in an essay to himself that the Orcs were a product probably of a perverted race of men, and that elves may have interbred with them to produce a longer lived type of Orc – called “Boldoeg” by Tolkien.

  2. I, too, would appreciate a scanned copy. I have been studying Tolkien for most of my adult life – and been involved in practically all translations of his works in Brasil. An addition to my library, please? 🙂

  3. This is so awesome. I’m a geology student and Tolkien’s beautiful Middle Earth is one of my inspirations to become a geologist! Could you email me the a copy of the article(s)?

  4. I too am studying geology & planetary science with the Open University – but I’ve read Tolkein since I was a little girl – I would love a scanned copy please. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. this article his truly interesting clearly Tolkiens world knows no bounds and continues to inspire people from all disciplines.
    could you please send me the copy of the full article thanks.

  6. I am certainly intrigued as a Geologist (well, student) and long term fan of tolklin and his works. Can I also request a scan of the original article(s)? Thanks!

  7. Please email me a copy while you’re at it :). I just finished my first year of Geology and would love to share this with some of my classmates.

  8. Like a lot of others, I’d be interested in a copy as well — perhaps uploading it to Dropbox or something would be better than individually sending it out to people? 🙂

  9. I’ve been looking something like this for a long time! i knew it existed!
    I would also like to request a copy please 😀

  10. I’d love a copy as well! my email address is jack AT pobox.com… Very interesting (if less than useful) stuff, hehe…

  11. Oh my gosh! I would love a copy of all three of the articles, if you have them. Never knew there were so many other Tolkien-fan geologists out there!

    Got here via EarthScope’s facebook page, and have bookmarked your new blog location! 🙂

  12. Very interesting and I love what they’ve done. I’ve always wondered why Mount Doom is there all alone in the middle of nothing and being a hotspot has crossed my mind before; and obviously I wasn’t the only one!

    i’d love to read the scanned article(s), if you still have them! Thanks.

  13. I would also love to get a copy of these articles. I study earth science at UC Santa Cruz, and think this is pretty awesome!
    kekepania875 AT yahoo DOT com

  14. Being a geology major myself, I’d love a scanned copy of the articles if you wouldn’t mind. This is absolutely fantastic.

  15. I’m a geology student and am trying to make my own geological interpretation of Middle Earth, and would love a copy of any of this article (and the other 2 mentioned, if you have them) for comparison. Thanks!

  16. Hello! could you send me the article? Much appreciated. stratfordj [at] gmail.com. I see a future where the maps are framed in the hallway of my future apartment much to the confusion of visitors..

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  18. I would love a scanned copy emailed to me as well if it isn’t much trouble!
    One does not simply come across an old article from the Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference.
    Thank you! This is amazing!
    hinagatamasami [at] yahoo.it

  19. Greetings! This is fashionably late, but I would love to have a copy of the article if it’s not too much trouble. I kind of suspected I was the only person who sat around making up (very amateurish) geophysical ideas about Middle-earth involving such terms as “Belegaer plate.” How great to be proven wrong.

  20. Hello, I am probably very late to the party, but I would be interested in a scanned copies of the articels too, my adress is littva [at] post.sk

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