Allow your Editor now to present the final installment of of Joe Bartram‘s four-part article series on Middle-Earth’s calendars, in which he concludes his investigations and establishes a calendar for the Society. Joe, frequently known as Gandalf, has been the Society’s President since 2014.
Well, it’s been a long road since I first set out on this absurd enterprise, and while I like to think I’ve kept my feet, I never would have imagined the places I was swept off to in the course of it. Still, with few words spared in the pursuit of the enterprise, we can now finally begin to work out a chronology for the events after the end of the Third Age. Of course, if you’ve read my first article, you’ll know I’ve already come up with an answer to this particular question, making that statement null and void. Still, allow me the mercy of an indulgent rhetorical device.
Before we go further, lets recapitulate the canon information we’ve established to calibrate our dating. From various sources, we know that in the region of 6000 to 8000 years have elapsed since the end of the Third Age. We can further be reasonably certain that we have but recently entered the Seventh Age (circa 1958), and that the ages themselves have been “quickening”, since the Elder Days. Finally, thanks to the Prophecy of Eldarion, we know that the Fourth Age itself ought to have endured for a full 100 generations after the end of the reign of Eldarion, and so ought to have lasted about 2220, 2720 or 4220 years. I previously postponed a decision regarding a definitive duration for this age, however here I will go out on a limb and state that it should be 2720 years. Since we are dealing with prophesy here, I think traditional concept more likely than a biologically-realistic one, so I discount the 20 year value for a generation. As for the Hebrew value, I discount it as it leads to an age grossly larger than any of the preceding ages, which strikes my mind as untidy.
While in the previous post I rejected the conclusions reached by Tony Steele in his article, his basic methodology for dating the later ages has a lot going for it. Working within the approximate temporal framework given by Tolkien, Steele’s approach is to assign the remaining transitions to events of historic or symbolic significance. Martinez does something similar, dating the end of the 6th age to the end of World War Two, though he leaves the duration of the Fifth Age uncertain. When combined with the more extensive canonical information I have available, this becomes quite a powerful method for ascertaining the lengths of all of the latter ages, and I follow it here.
In the course of my research, I was kindly provided with a great many suggestions for dates to mark the transitions between the Ages by society members. A few I rejected out of hand, but most went into the stirring pot. At an early stage I assembled all of these that I had into a timeline, running from 2500BCE up until the present. Interestingly, when assembled on a to-scale chronology, I found that the proposed dates clustered into a few loose groups – about 2400-2100BCE, 1100BCE, 1CE, and 1500-2000CE. This might sound like quite a significant spread, but on paper the effect is marked. I (belatedly) tidied up my original sketch into something legible to the eye unaccustomed to my abysmal handwriting, and have included it here as figure 1. This done, I realised that there could only be a limited number of ways to fit four ages into this chronology, if I considered each cluster of events as a single approximate date. While exact dates would still have to be fitted, this let me consider a large (but manageable) number of hypothetical alternative timelines.
Laying all the alternative scenarios out like this allowed me to quantify the approximate length of each Age under all the alternative scenarios, and from that calculate the length of the Fourth Age, assuming that 6000 or 7000 years had elapsed since the end of the Third Age. This approach gave me two metrics to estimate the quality of a scenario. Firstly, how well did the calculated length of the Fourth Age match the prediction derived from Eldarion’s prophesy? Secondly, how well did the chronology exhibit the “quickening” described by Tolkien? This approach netted me a shortlist of timelines that fitted my requirements, a sampling of which are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Possible dates to mark the passage of the latter ages, on a to-scale timeline of the past 4500 years. Below are shown certain possible “average” timelines based on the event clusters.
Having narrowed down the possibilities this far, I realised that this approach would be as nought if the chosen events from each cluster didn’t make sense in context. Further to this, I went back to considering the suitability of the proposed events themselves. In the interests of this, let us go over those canon events known to have marked the passage of the earlier ages:
Unnamed years: Began when the Valar enter the as-yet unformed physical world, and ended with the illumination of the Lamps of the Valar
VY 1-1900, solar units 0-18,718
Years of the Lamps: Began as the Lamps of the Valar were illuminated, and ended with the first flowering of Telperion, significantly after the destruction of the Lamps
VY 1901-3500, solar years 18,718-34,482
Years of the Trees: Began with first flowering of Telperion, and ended with the first rise of the moon, significantly after the destruction of the Two Trees
VY 3501-5000 or solar years 34,482-47,910
First Age: Began with the arrival of the second contingent of Noldor in Middle-Earth, the awakening of Men and the first rising of the sun. It ended with casting of Morgoth into the void, significantly after the War of Wrath
Second Age: Began with the founding of the Grey Heavens in Lindon, and ended with first defeat of Sauron at the conclusion of the Battle of the Last Alliance, significantly after the foundering of Númenor
Third Age: Began with the taking of the One Ring, and ended when Elrond passed over the sea to the uttermost west, symbolising the start of the dominion of man, significantly after the final defeat of Sauron
TA 1-3021, 29th September or 25th March
We can draw out two key conclusions from this. Firstly, that the passage of ages is marked by events of great world significance. Secondly, that the end of an age generally occurs at some significant point after the associated event, as matters are concluded. The Years of the Lamps ended not with the destruction of said lamps, but with the first flowering of the Two Trees. The Year of the Trees themselves ended not with their destruction, but five (Valian) years later, as the moon first rose. The Second Age ended with the Battle of the Last Alliance, not with the Downfall of Númenor and the Changing of the World (though these were globally more significant events). You get the picture.
The key question is of course, what events might be considered of significance? The replacement of our Sun by the newest upgrade in planetary illumination solutions aside, we must ultimately look to the Professor as the arbiter of significance, difficult as it might be to put ourselves in such shoes. Consider the Battle of Camlann, a suggestion kindly put forward by Amrit. In many ways, this choice would seem to suit the Professor’s vision well. The Arthurian legends are one of the few pieces of fairytale (or mythology, pick a label that suits you) that could be considered to be truly British, and thus they mesh well with the Professor’s vision of his work acting as a body of British fairytale. Furthermore, while the Battle of Camlann is not strictly (or, to be honest, even loosely) historical, it occupies a rather nice turning point between myth and fact in the history of the isles, sitting as it does at the beginning of Saxon England. However, it seems to me that events that marking the turn of Ages would have more global significance, even if only at one degree of remove. Furthermore, Tolkien’s fancy of creating a body of British myth only really extended to Book of Lost Tales, and cannot be generalised to the Legendarium itself. Hopefully this example gives some idea of the difficulty of the task I had at hand.
This leads on to another notion that should be dispelled at this point. While the Book of Lost Tales is pagan in spirit, the Legendarium proper must be considered in the context of the Professor’s Catholic faith. I don’t want to become mired in theological discussion, and am certainly not here to discuss the Legendarium as Christian symbolism (having been adequately covered by far more qualified authorities). However, the importance of Tolkien’s faith cannot be denied. If you need evidence of this, you need look no further than the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth – “The dialogue of Finrod and Andreth”. This is an obscure work that was only published posthumously as part of volume 10 of the HoME series (Morgoth’s Ring). Set late during the First Age, the content is (predictably) a discourse between Finrod Felagund, a lord of the Noldor, and Andreth, a human wise woman of the house of Bëor. The discussion itself is somewhat prolonged, and covers a great many topics of discussion, including human mortality, the body-soul duality, and the relationship of both the kindreds to the firmament of Arda. Of especial significance are clear references to a moral Fall at some forgotten time in the history of men, and a prediction that the creator will physically enter the world in order to restore it. There is even a stab at the Trinity in there. As an introduction to Middle-Earth metaphysics, there is none finer, and it establishes beyond reasonable doubt that Tolkien intended his creation to be compatible within the Catholic worldview.
This extended aside probably gives away one of the events I consider paramount in this chronology, that being the life of the figure of Jesus. Within a Catholic context there can be no time more significant, and the direct prediction of the incarnation within the Athrabeth settles the matter, in my eyes. Since we are considering the religious rather than historical figure, I won’t quibble over historicity as I ordinarily might, and will be content with 1CE and 33CE as dates. Of these, I tend towards the Crucifixion, since it can be regarded as “wrapping up” that period of history. Some contributors have suggested the founding of the Catholic Church as an alternative, but this constitutes a somewhat messy part of history I am loathe to dive into, and furthermore seems to me to be a less important event within the paradigm.
Having anchored ourselves to one definite date to mark the passage of an Age, we are now able to return to the approximate timelines I generated earlier. Of the shortlist shown in figure 1, only A, B and C are compatible with an age ending in 33CE, and of these, only two (A and C) exhibit the smooth decline in the length of the Ages described by the Professor. I agonised over the decision of whether to put the crucifixion at the end of the Fourth or Fifth Age for some time, but in the end it was a foregone conclusion. While scenario C does exhibit a quickening of the Ages from the Fourth Age onward, I am uncomfortable bumping the length of the Fourth Age up to 4000 or 5000 years in duration, and it conflicts with our understanding of the prophesy of Eldarion. Conversely, scenario A puts the Fourth Age at between about 2000 and 3000 years, which can more readily be reconciled. Furthermore, according to the prophecy, some vestige of Middle-Earth civilisation would survive at least until the end of the Fourth Age, which would be a little close for comfort if we put the end of the Fourth Age at 33CE (a concern which the Professor himself raised in letter #211).
Thus, we have an approximate timeline, and a fixed date for the end of the Fifth Age at 33CE. All that remains at this point is to choose a date for the end of the Fourth and Sixth Ages, somewhere in the brackets of 2400-1700BCE and 1500-2000CE respectively. The matter of the Fourth Age was one of significant difficulty for me. There were very few “Tolkien-friendly” events suggested for the period 2500-1700BCE, partly because dates for this time become more a matter of conjecture and speculation than historical fact. I’ve agonised long and hard over the choice for this date, and finally decided to select the Abrahamic Covenant. I’m not going to claim that the Abrahamic covenant is remotely historical – there is no real reason to regard it as anything more than a religious fiction. However, Abraham is one of the most important figures in Christianity after that of Jesus, and the pairing of the Old and New Covenants is rather pleasing. Furthermore, I rather like the idea that as we go further back in time, the events described become progressively more imaginary and less historical. Thus we have the entirely imaginary world of the Legendarium, the figure of Abraham whose life – while mythological – can be related to real historical events, and the figure of Jesus, who very likely represents a real historical figure. Dating the covenant caused me some further concern, but I eventually settled on the date given in Bishop Ussher’s chronology, at 1921BCE. I had to visit creationist websites in order to track this information down, an experience I have no eagerness to repeat. Let us say I now have an uncontrollable desire to wash all over and leave it at that. Now, while I am aware that Ussher was a Church of Ireland Bishop rather than a Catholic one, and that Tolkien was far too sophisticated to accept a literal interpretation of the Bible, the Ussher date is the closest thing to a widely-accepted Biblical chronology, and will function well enough symbolically.
In the case of the end of the Sixth Age, I must bow to the popular opinion of the Society as a whole. Both 1918 (the end of the First World War) and 1946 (the end of the Nuremberg trials) were discussed favourably, but over the course of numerous discussions, the single date which came closest to representing a consensus was that of the French Revolution of 1789. As such, this date will henceforth be regarded as official.
Thus, with oddly little ceremony we have reached the end of our road. By this calculation, 2015CE constitutes the 226th year of the Seventh Age, or the year 8077 in the Shire Reckoning. This is especially fortuitous (and, believe it or not, unplanned), since in most years (excluding the last of either century) Shire Reckoning leap years will synchronise with those of the Gregorian calendar. If you want to see how this compares to other estimates, have a look at figure 2 . My calculation throws the end of the Third Age to 4641BCE, rather further back in time than either Steele or Martinez would have reckoned, largely by value of construing a much longer Fifth Age.
Now, some of the more observant among you may have noticed that according to figure 2, we are in fact in the Eighth Age, not the Seventh. Having essentially finished writing this series of articles, it was brought to my attention that back in the depths of the Society’s history, the Society calendar was (or at least meetings of the White Council were) run according to a Shire calendar. I have been able to find rather little information on this calendar, but according to the society annals the Eighth Age began in association with the founding of Taruithorn. For honesty’s sake, I should mention that the details of this calendar seem to have been in some dispute, to the point that there was an article in the 1995 Michaelmas edition of Miruvor clarifying the matter. According to this document, the Eighth Age only began at the point when the White Council no longer contained in its ranks any of the founding members. According to records, this seems to have occurred at the 1992 Annual General Meeting, which took place on 28th Solmath, or the 28th of February in the Gregorian calendar. Note that this small conceit dovetails quite pleasingly with the idea of ages passing after the conclusion of great events of history. Thus, by this reckoning 2015CE is the 23rd year of the Eighth Age. I naturally approve of this self-important attitude to Society history (and, after all, who am I to break with hallowed tradition?), and as such I have adopted this convention in all my calendars1.
And so, we reach the conclusion of our efforts. As I close, I believe in an earlier article, I promised to produce a functional Shire calendar for the use of the society. Strangely, formulating a simple reference sheet to convert between four different calendar systems (New Reckoning, Shire Reckoning, Gregorian calendar and Oxford weeks) proved rather more difficult than I anticipated. However, after much agonising, the task was completed, and a sample for this year is here presented as figure 3 (a small part of the figure is included below). A fuller version covering a full cycle of leap years will be hosted on the society website, and as of Trinity term 2015CE society events will be advertised and in all four calendar systems. In addition, I’m currently preparing templates for a Shire Calendar of the wall-calendar, and depending on the level of interest (and society finances) I’m considering a print run of these, illustrated with artistic contributions from society members. For now, thanks you all for sticking with me through this, and I hope you have all learned as much as I did in the process.
Figure 3: [this is a small part of Joe’s Figure 3, a calendar for the whole of 2015, this part showing only the weeks around the Anniversary Party this year. The full version wouldn’t fit in this blog post; it is available here.] A partial reference calendar allowing direct comparison between dates in the Shire Reckoning, New Reckoning and Gregorian calendar.
Carpenter, H. (1977). JRR Tolkien: a Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin
Carpenter, H. (1979). The Inklings: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Carpenter, H. & C. Tolkien (1981). The Letters of JRR Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Duriez, C. & D. Porter (2001). The Inklings Handbook: The Lives, Thought and Writings of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and their Friends. Saint Lewis: Chalice Press
Garth, J. (2003). Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth. New York: HarperCollins
Lewis, C.S. (1945). That Hideous Strength. London: The Bodley Head
Michael Martinez (2013). When did the Third Age end in our Calendar? The Middle-Earth and JRR Tolkien Blog
Steele, T. (2004). The Chronology of Middle-Earth. Mallorn 42: 43-46
Tolkien, C. History of Middle-Earth. (series)
Tolkien, J.R.R. (1955). The Lord of the Rings. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Tolkien J.R.R. (1977). The Silmarillion. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Many thanks also to the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Archive (http://www.lotrplaza.com), the website of the Elendili (http://3rings.webs.com/) for hosting Tony Steele’s Mallorn article, the Middle-Earth & J.R.R. Tolkien Blog written by Michael Martinez (http://middle-earth.xenite.org/), the sci-fi and fantasy StackExchange (http://scifi.stackexchange.com/) and more generally to the Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Main_Page) for information used in this article series.
Timelines made using Aeon timeline, published by Scribblecode: http://www.scribblecode.com/