How long ago were the events of The Lord of the Rings?

As I discussed in my previous post, Tolkien set out to create a mythology for the English in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), the Silmarillion and related writings on Middle-earth. He presented himself not as the author of LOTR, but as the translator of various histories written by Bilbo, Frodo and others in the Third and Fourth Age of Middle-earth. This makes Tolkien quite unusual among modern writers of fantasy in presenting it as set in the real worlc albeit in an imagined prehistory. What happened in that period before the Earth’s actual recorded history is otherwise remembered down through the generations as folk myths and legends, especially among the Old English. Tolkien’s life work was an attempt to reconstruct our prehistory, and more specifically the prehistory of the English. Critics Lee and Solopova commented that “Only by understanding this can we fully realize the true scale of his project and comprehend how enormous his achievement was” [1].

Tolkien described the region in which the Hobbits lived as “the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea” in LOTR, ie. essentially Europe (including Britain). However, as he noted in a letter [2], the geographies do not match, and he did not consciously make them match when he was writing. In another letter [3] he became much more specific, saying “If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.” In the Prologue to LOTR, Tolkien also notes that “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…”

Fascinated by the detailed chronologies and calendars set out in the Appendices to LOTR and elsewhere, I have naturally wondered how long ago from now the events of LOTR took place. About 15 years ago, I came across an article in the Journal of the Tolkien Society [4¡ which deduced that the Fourth Age began on Wednesday 18 March 3,102 BCE.  The events of LOTR took place during the preceding year.  Despite the bizarre exactness of this, I was quite impressed by the argument, which I summarize here briefly.

The history of Middle Earth is marked by two cataclysmic restructuring events: the sinkingof Beleriand which marks the end of the First Age, and the catastrophic transition from a flat to a spherical world and the sinking of the island of Numenor which marks the end of the Second Age. One or both of these are clearly intended to be the event still remembered by the legend of Atlantis.

The Downfall of Númenor and the Changing of the World. Ian Alexander. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle-earth#Correspondence_with_the_geography_of_Earth

The Fall of Numenor (Darrell Sweet)

Steele discovered that according to the Theosophists, Atlantis sank beneath the waves in 9,564 BCE [5] and that much later the Kali Yuga (or Fourth Age of the present world) began in 3,102 BCE [6]. So these events are separated by 6,462 years. He then pointed out that the sinking of Beleriand (not Númenor) is separated from the beginning of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth by precisely the same time span, 6462 years. The maths is simple. According to Tolkien’s chronology, the Second Age lasted 3,441 years and the Third Age lasted 3,021 years and 3,441 + 3,021 = 6,462. Steele concludes that “The chances of Tolkien hitting on this number by accident are astronomical, especially when in both the Middle-earth mythology and Theosophical doctrine this period is opened by the submergence of a huge landmass, and is closed by the beginning of something called the ‘Fourth Age’.” So we can immediately calculate that the Fourth Age began in 3,102 BCE or 5,122 years ago.

In writing this post, I checked the sources for the Theosophical dates and indeed their date for Atlantis sinking is only a slightly more accurate date than that given by Plato, who described it as sinking into the ocean around 9,600 BCE. For more information on Theosophy see my earlier post here. The durations for the Ages of Middle.earth are also correct, I checked them with a number of websites that have compiled full chronologies of Middle Earth [7-11]. One or two of these have durations that differ by 1 year, probably because of assuming that the first year of an Age was labelled Year 0 rather than the actual practice of calling it Year 1 [12].

So did the events of LOTR occur 5,122 years ago at a time when the Early Dynastic (Archaic) period started in Ancient Egypt and the first stages of Stonehenge were being constructed?  And coincidentally, the time when the oldest currently living organism, a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, was undergoing germination? In a letter written in 1958, Tolkien places the beginning of the Fourth Age some 6,000 years in the past [13]. However, in the History of Middle Earth [14], Tolkien also said “The moons and suns are worked out according to what they were in this part of the world [i.e. England or thereabouts] in 1942 actually…. I mean I’m not a good enough mathematician or astronomer to work out where they might have been 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, but as long as they correspond to some real configuration I thought that was good enough.”

So I think we can conclude that Tolkien did not have a specific length of time between the events of LOTR and today, but that it was of the order of 6 to 8 thousand years ago. While Steele may be correct in seeing a link with Theosophist dates as far as the duration of the Ages is concerned, his actual date BCE for the end of the Third Age is thus not accurate. If we push the LOTR date back to somewhat over 8,000 years ago, not only do we avoid clashes with the beginnings of documented history, but it allows for the flooding of Doggerland and the cutting off of Britain and The Shire from the rest of Europe that occurred 8,500 to 8,200 years ago. I have described the flooding of Doggerland and the massive tidal wave of 8,150 years ago in a previous post.

Returning to the astonishing coincidence of Middle Earth chronology with Theosophist chronology, is there any evidence that Tolkien, a devout Catholic, had an interest in Theosophy?  Curiously enough, there is. Tolkien was a member of the Inklings, a group of Oxford scholars who met regularly to discuss Christianity and mythology in the early 1900s [15]. While the central three were C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Tolkien, the Inklings also included Lewis’s close friend Owen Barfield. Barfield embraced Theosophy as a young man. Although he became a Christian in late middle age, he retained Anthroposophic beliefs and a belief in reincarnation. He influenced C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams in particular, but some critics have also claimed to see Theosophist ideas in Tolkien’s mythical world, particularly that of “ascended masters” who are sent back into the world to guide receptive humans [16].

From left: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

C.S. Lewis borrowed Tolkien’s concept of “Numenor and the True West” which appears as “Numinor” in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, published in 1945 before LOTR. Lewis actually provides a footnote that says those who wish to know more about Numinor must await the publication of Professor Tolkien’s forthcoming book. I think I have read somewhere that Tolkien was somewhat annoyed at this appropriation. That Hideous Strength [17] is the third novel in a trilogy set on Mars, Venus and the Earth successively.

The novel is set in post-war England and draws on the intensely British myth of King Arthur. Logres (the Arthurian ideal) fighting Britain (secular reality) symbolizes the war between good and evil. The hero of the novel, Dr Ransom, is the Fisher King, and it is filled with Arthurian literary discussions. Merlin re-awakens later and his magic is described as “a last survival of something older and different – something brought to Western Europe after the fall of Numinor and going back to an era in which the relations between mind and matter on this planet had been other than those we know.” Merlin comes back as Merlin of the fifth century, but he brings back the last vestiges of Atlantean magic which long pre-dated the druids.

Pan paperback cover

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis combined his own cosmic mythology with Theosophical elements, Grecian planetary deities, the Fisher-King of the Grail legend, and Merlin and the Pendragon of the Arthurian legend. He was also heavily influenced by Charles Williams and his conception of Logres. I thoroughly enjoyed C. S. Lewis’s planetary trilogy when I was younger, and also read Charles Williams’ novels, and did not really notice the Atlantean-Theosophical aspects.

In conclusion, I think its quite likely the Inklings discussed Atlantis and Theosophical ideas of Ages and Tolkien may have been influenced by dates for these events picked up from Owen Barfield.

References

[1] Lee SD, Solopova E (2005). The Keys of Middle-earth: Discovering Medieval Literature Through the Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. Palgrave. pp. 256–257.

[2] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #169 to Hugh Brogan, 11 September 1955

[3] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #294 to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February 1967

[4] Steele, Tony. The Chronology of Middle-earth. Mallorn (the Journal of the Tolkien Society), Issue 42, August 2004. Text available at https://3rings.webs.com/chronology

[5] Arthur E. Powell, The Solar System: A Complete Outline of the Theosophical Scheme of Evolution. London: The Theosophical Publishing House (1930). Chapter 50, The fourth Aryan sub.race: The Keltic pp. 308-316.

[6] Wikipedia contributors. “Root race.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Jan. 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_race (accessed 27 Jan. 2021).

[7] Krishna S. ‘Lord of the Rings’ Timeline Explained: Middle-earth from ‘The Silmarillion’ to ‘The Hobbit’ & Beyond. Dec 31 2020. Available at https://collider.com/lord-of-the-rings-timeline-explained/

[8] LOTR Project. Timeline of the History of Middle-earth. http://lotrproject.com/timeline/#zoom=2&lat=-1485&lon=1500&layers=B

[9] A chronology of Middle-earth. http://www.timelineuniverse.net/MiddleEarth/MiddleEarthChronology.htm

[10] The LOTR Wiki. Timeline of Arda. https://lotr.fandom.com/wiki/Timeline_of_Arda

[11] Wikipedia contributors. “History of Arda.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Jan. 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Arda (accessed 27 Jan. 2021).

[12] When I first read Steele’s article, I calculated the duration of the Ages myself from the information in the LOTR Appendices and got an answer that differed by 2 years. At the time, I thought this might be sufficient grounds to dismiss Steele’s argument, but I now realize I was counting Year 1 as Year 0 in each Age.

[13] Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #211 to Rhona Beare, 14 October 1958, last footnote.

[14] Tolkien, Christopher (ed.) The History of Middle Earth. A 12-volume series of books published between 1983 and 1996 of Tolkien’s evolving writings on Middle-earth.

[15] Carpenter, Humphrey (1978). The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[16] The Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Barfield explore Theosophy and Reincarnation. https://www.crossroad.to/Quotes/spirituality/tolkien-lewis.htm (accessed 27 Jan 2021)

[17] Lewis CS. That Hideous Strength: That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups. UK: The Bodley Head, December 1945.

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