Merton Tolkien Symposium

Here is your humble Editor‘s contribution to the Anniversary issue: a report on Merton College’s symposium on Tolkien last year.

On Tuesday of 6th Week of Michaelmas Term, Merton held an all-day symposium of lectures entitled “Tolkien in Oxford” as part of its 750th anniversary celebrations. Unfortunately, most of us weren’t able to attend due to the Tuesday daytime slot, but I managed to avoid labs that day to attend the event. Speakers included John Garth and Stuart Lee, both of whom have recently spoken to Taruithorn.

Arriving in Merton’s lecture theatre in Rose Lane, I was pleasantly surprised to meet one of our newer members, and find that I wasn’t the entire Taruithorn presence. After standing around awkwardly for a few brief moments, attendees were invited to take our seats, and proceedings began. A brief safety talk by Merton’s Fellow-Librarian was followed by a welcome speech by Sir Martin Taylor, the Warden of Merton College. As one would expect, he made much of the link between Tolkien and Merton, even somewhat facetiously extending the Merton connection to include Tolkien’s childhood schools – King Edward’s because its current headmaster is a Mertonian, and the Birmingham Oratory because of its foundation by Cardinal Newman, an alumnus of an Oxford Hall later subsumed by Merton. He then shared with us tidbits from the King Edward’s archive, retrieved for him by the aforementioned headmaster, including that Tolkien once advocated the return of the stocks as a punishment in a school debate, stating that it would “benefit the greengrocers’ trade!”

Hwæt!” began the first speech of the day, just as Tolkien’s Beowulf lectures used to. This, along with the rest of the first eleven lines of Beowulf, were delivered from memory by Professor Andy Orchard, the current holder of the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship of Anglo-Saxon – Tolkien’s old post at Pembroke – who lectures in the English department on Old English literature and Medieval Latin. After completing his recital, and reading us Tolkien’s translation of the passage, he pointed us to the first few pages of our handouts, containing a formidable list of all the lecture series Tolkien gave during his twenty-year stint in that professorship – in some terms he did six lectures per week. We were also asked to notice the considerable number of Old Norse and Philology lectures that Tolkien gave – which weren’t his job to do!

The main body of Professor Orchard’s talk took us through Tolkien’s teaching while in Oxford, with illustrations from the segments of Tolkien’s library still present in various Oxford Libraries. We were shown the breadth of his personal linguistic reading – not only Old English and Norse, but also Faroese and Gothic, Welsh, Irish, Breton, Scottish Gaelic, and much more. He also drew our attention to some cryptic text Tolkien had written in the in the front of an Irish book that he acquired as an undergraduate: “AMDG” and “EMB”. AMDG, he told us, stands for ad maiorem Dei gloriam, the motto of the Jesuits – a reference to Father Francis Morgan, Tolkien’s guardian from the time of his mother’s death to his majority. In “EMB”, the ‘M’ was noticeably in the shape of a heart, the ‘M’ standing, of course, for the Mary in Edith Mary Bratt, Tolkien’s early love and future wife whom he was forbidden to contact at the time.

Professor Orchard finished his talk with a riddle: “What have I got in my pocket?” The answer was a personal treasure of his, a torn-off bit of paper that he found tucked inside an Old Norse book while an undergraduate at Exeter College in the eighties. On it was written some Old Norse saying, roughly, “All the Coalbiters should visit C. S. Lewis’s home Magdalen on Odin’s Day, November 20th, to read Helgakviða Hundingsbana I”. The note, which does seem to be in Lewis’s handwriting, appears to be an invitation by him to the Coalbiters, Tolkien’s little Norse sagas reading club. Looking for years in which the 20th of November fell on a Wednesday, Professor Orchard dated it to 1929, and found corroborating evidence in the form of a letter by Lewis referring to a Coalbiters meeting on that day. The Exeter Librarian of the time, he said, let him keep it because it was “written in foreign”. He then closed his lecture with a few lines of Old English from Beowulf’s funeral.

Now, I’ve been going to Professor Orchard’s Beowulf lectures this term, and I feel I should mention that in the lecture the next morning, when comparing characters in Beowulf to those in a Norse saga, he looked at me and said “just for my Tolkien friend in the audience,” this character was also described as a Kólbitr, and then proceeded to explain what the Coalbiters club was and why they were called that. I felt special…

The next lecture was by Dr Elizabeth Solopova of Brasenose, also a lecturer in the English department in mediaeval literature and the history of the book, an co-author with Stuart Lee of The Keys of Middle Earth, speaking on the subject “Tolkien and Names”. Now, I must confess that while the preceding section of this article was written a few days after the event, I then proceeded to foolishly forget about this article for about four months, and only remembered it now that the Miruvor submissions deadline approaches. I therefore apologise for any noticeable decline in the article’s quality hence noticeable, as I’m now working purely from my rather illegible and disjointed notes from the lectures…

Dr Solopova began her talk with a Tolkien quote: “To me a name comes first, the story later”, and with this launched into an examination of the roles of names in mythology and mediaeval literature.  Observing that in the Icelandic prose sagas, the place-names and personal names are usually given with great precision even for minor characters and locations, that these works will give names even when strictly unnecessary for plot or story. Specifically mentioning that editions of such works often include genealogies, indices of personal and place names, even maps, she drew the obvious link with Tolkien’s work. Dr Solopova presented that our evaluation of the role of these details depends on our interpretation of the identity of these works –  ancient literature and Tolkien’s work. She suggests that the extent to which mythological tales were seen as history as well as (or instead of) as fiction presents an explanation for the inclusion of such details –  they have intrinsic worth outside their contribution to the narrative since we’re learning about the world in that time and place, and this is what Tolkien was trying to carry out in his tales. In fact, she tells us that Tolkien once commented that some of his fans wrote to him as if his stories were real and he was misinterpreting them!

Later in her talk, Dr Solopova pointed out many interesting examples of etymologies of Tolkien place-names and people-names, especially those of the Rohirrim, which, being rendered in Anglo-Saxon, were close to her specialism. For example, she drew our attention to the names of the royal house of Rohan – Théoden, Thengel, Théodwyn &c. – which alliterate, as did the names of Anglo-Saxon royals.

I found that, as well as the talk itself, the questions from the audience after Dr Solopova’s talk raised many interesting points. One questioner, for example, pointed out the importance of nameless things in Tolkien’s work, giving the example of the Mouth of Sauron who has “forgotten his own name”, as well as the Ringwraiths –  for whom the loss of their names can be seen as showing how utterly they have given themselves up.
After Dr Solopova’s lecture (and a break for lunch), we heard briefly from Sir Rick Trainor, the Rector of Exeter College. He told us of an occasion when, as an undergraduate at Merton in the seventies, he once met Tolkien when invited into the SCR, but their only conversation was on the subject of the American elections at the time, on which the Rector gave predictions that turned out entirely false. The Rector (who is American) is thus a little disappointed that Tolkien’s only memory of him would be as the student who didn’t know the politics of his own country…

Sir Rick was followed by a brief introduction from Dr Catherine Parker, the Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian, from whom I would have liked to hear more. She introduced the third speaker of the day, John Garth, speaking on Tolkien’s inspirations in a lecture entitled “100 years on: how Tolkien came to the brink of Middle-Earth”. A specialist in Tolkien’s undergraduate years (he recently wrote a short volume entitled “Tolkien at Exeter College” to tie in with Exeter’s 700th Anniversary celebrations), Mr Garth took us chronologically through this phase of Tolkien’s life identifying particular inspirations and his creative process, while frequently diverting to show us interesting etymological links and short anecdotes. He began his talk by mentioning Crist II, the Anglo-Saxon poem which inspired Tolkien’s first identifiable published Middle-Earth work, the poem The Voyage of Eärendil the Evening Star, which notably contains a reference to the character earendel. He used Exeter College’s records of Tolkien’s library borrowings during his time as an undergraduate to illustrate his interests during this period – among interesting observations were that during the first year of his degree, Tolkien borrowed only one Classics book!

Mr Garth discussed the Notion Club Papers, Tolkien’s abandoned time-travel novel featuring a fictionalised version of the Inklings, in which Tolkien’s analogue, one Alwin Arundel Lowdham, presents to the other members of the club his extraordinarily detailed dreams about Atlantis, Middle-Earth’s Númenor. In the name of this character, Mr Garth showed us that Alwin is a modernisation of Ælfwine (Elendil in Quenya), “elf-friend”, that is the name of Tolkien’s Anglo-Saxon traveller to Eressëa through whom the Silmarillion tales are first recounted. Arundel meanwhile is an Anglicisation of Eärendil – here and in many other cases Mr Garth showed us the etymological references and links that Tolkien’s works contain, illustrating in many cases Tolkien’s wish to, through his narratives, create a world that might have given rise to the divergent literary traditions he studied. All these small insights were framed by the narrative of Tolkien’s undergraduate life – we were told the story of his coming up to Oxford, his discovery of Finnish, the switch to studying Classics and his winning back of Edith soon after his 21st birthday. Several biographical were present that were less familiar to me – for example we learned about an experience briefly before Tolkien’s Mods in Classics, when one of his neighbours on his staircase shot himself in his room.

After finishing relating the development of the character of Túrin drawing on those of Sigurd and Kullervo from Norse and Finnish traditions, Mr Garth ended his talk with Frodo’s words to activate Eärendil’s Light and the line from Cynewulf’s Crist II that started it all: Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima and eala earendel engla beorhtast – the one in Quenya, the other in Old English.

Speaking after Mr Garth was Edmund Weiner, the Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Fellow of Kellogg College, and professional philologist, co-author of the book The Ring of Words – J.R.R. Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Mr Weiner’s talk illustrated Tolkien’s contributions to the OED and his use of language in his published works, focussing on three words: wan, dim, and pale. Tolkien’s contributions to the OED focussed on the letter W, and Mr Weiner was able to use as a source (and show us as a scan) Tolkien’s handwritten dictionary card for the word wan.

Of Tolkien’s six meanings listed on the card, three were listed as extinct, and three in present use – the most recent as meaning faint, dull, pale, an older meaning pallid or sickly of a face, and one meaning dark or gloomy, specifically of the sea, this preserving a much older, more general Old English meaning. Mr Weiner identified the diminution of light as the common quantity linking the two seemingly contradictory meanings dark and pale – the development of the latter into the former would appear at first to be a reversal of meaning. We were shown that one of the examples Tolkien’s entry cites for the Old English meaning dark or gloomy, and which he identifies as usually used in an ominous sense, is from Grendel’s approach to Heorot in Beowulf, and yet Tolkien’s own recently-published Beowulf translation into modern English does not use wan here, nor in the four other places where it occurs in the Old English text.

Mr Weiner then investigated Tolkien’s use of these words in his fiction, giving us many fascinating example of their usage and occurrence. It seems that Tolkien used these three words almost twenty times as often as they commonly appeared  in English at the time. Mr Weiner noted to us that Tolkien frequently used wan in the Silmarillion, the Lay of Leithian, his translation of Pearl, and other works, while he preferred dim and pale in the Lord of the Rings. His analysis of the use of pale in the Lord of the Rings showed that it is used most commonly with light, sky, face, and eyes, and Mr Weiner here noted that Tolkien uses the word almost exclusively in ominous contexts – similar to the Old English meaning of wan, yet here the word is pale, corresponding to wan’s modern sense, not its older. However, an exception is in Lothlórien, where pale describes things that are good, including Galadriel. He analysed dim in the Book of Lost Tales, where notable instances include its use describing the magic of Valinor and the fading of the Elves – in both of these cases and in many others, the word is used with a sense of vanishing past lordliness, yet in the Lord of the Rings, dim is used almost exclusively to describe the gloom of Mordor, with other words, such as grey, being used to achieve this “distancing of Faerie”. The linking concept between the meanings of wan, of diminution of light, connects much of Tolkien’s use of these three words. After showing us many more such subtle links, Mr Weiner’s talk concluded, having demonstrated that Tolkien’s use of these three words illustrates his general concept of his world as removed from us in time, as historically distant.

Mr Weiner’s talk was the last lecture of the day, the rest of which was dedicated to the BBC’s 1968 Tolkien in Oxford documentary, recently restored, which was shown after a brief introduction by Dr Stuart Lee of Merton College and the English Faculty, Lecturer in Old English, co-author with Dr Solopova of The Keys of Middle Earth, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien.

The documentary itself (available online at is an extended interview with Tolkien in various locations around Oxford, on the subject of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, interspersed with sometimes-amusing short clips of students of the time giving their views on Tolkien’s works. The whole documentary is available on the internet, and I won’t summarise it here, except to say that it is extremely interesting as a source for Tolkien’s views on his own work. Here I give some of the more amusing quotes from it. One sixties student, on the hobbits’ lifestyle in the Shire, commented “I’ve never seen anything more bourgeois in my life!”. Another, after declaring that the Lord of the Rings is about the oppression of the proletarian masses, namely the Orcs, admits that he hasn’t actually read the book. Tolkien, commenting on his popularity, says “North America has always been more easily excited than England”. After reciting the One Ring poem in the Black Speech, Tolkien declares “I invented that in the bath, I remember”… “I got it right and thought ‘all right, that will do’ and jumped out”. We get a glimpse of an early OUSFG, one of whom comments “It’s always fun meeting another fan who gets your references. The obscurer the reference the better the pleasure”. Tolkien at one point notes that he’s always been fascinated by trees, and that he’d “like to make contact with a tree and see what it had to say”, before, on a less humorous note, declaring that the Lord of the Rings, like all stories, “is about death”.

After the film, Dr Lee interviewed Leslie Megahey, the documentary’s director, who was a radio and TV writer, director and producer at the BBC for decades, and Tolkien in Oxford was his first film (The interview has been put on the University’s website at One of Mr Megahey told us many interesting stories about the making of the documentary, including how Tolkien later said of him that he was a “very nice, very young man, equipped with some intelligent insight”, and that though his comment on the film itself was that he didn’t like it at all, he did invite the young Mr Megahey to come back to have a drink with him in Oxford sometime.

As well as coming for his interview, Mr Megahey had brought with him some previously unseen film footage, cut from the final version, as well as the typescripts of every take and interview with Tolkien – another previously unseen priceless resource which he entrusted to Dr Lee, who may publish them at some time in the future. The day ended with the showing of the extra segments of film, which included a great many interesting comments by Tolkien. Tolkien mentions that “everyone make errors in my mythology” – citing the Valar’s taking the elves to Valinor in the hope of protecting them as a critical error. In a less serious section, on the subject of the taste of bacon, he comments that it is as if “pigs had a divine destiny to be used as bacon”, such is the taste.

As the day came to a close, the last comment, from the Professor himself speaking through the years through yet more previously unseen footage, was on the subject of language itself. He notes that it is unfortunate how little people know of language, in that most consider it only verbal communication, when in fact, language is the passing of any information from human to human. He specifically mentions that lighting candles and genuflecting are both examples of language. Now, it seems to me that if not only words, but any gesture that transfers meaning is language, then stories most certainly are, and as vehicles of transferring so much meaning, indeed they are one of its highest forms. Then it is certain that Tolkien, not only through his academic work, but also through his fiction, has phenomenally contributed to our English language that was such a large part of his life.

It takes more than soil to mend the Shire

Morgan Feldman presents us with the last of the Anniversary issue’s three lovely Shire stories.

Sunsets were a sight to see in the Shire, especially in winter when the hills gleamed golden in the fading light. The streets grew quiet: not silent, for birds still chirped as they settled into their nests and field mice still scurried from hedge to hedge, but a hush stilled the world enough that a lone wanderer could indulge in some peaceful thinking quite uninterrupted. Or so Frodo Baggins thought to himself as he climbed the earthen stairs to the Cottons’ small burrow.

The steps were bathed in shadow, but he had walked them enough to know where to set his feet. It was not long before he arrived at the door and turned the pale knob.

The door didn’t budge. He tried once more before remembering the Cottons had taken to locking their door these days. With Saruman’s damage still being repaired and several Ruffians still unaccounted for, fear and tension was high in the Shire: too high, for Frodo’s comfort. It wasn’t natural for hobbits to be so on edge, so suspicious, and it pained him to see them so. If the former tranquility were ever to be restored to the Shire, they would have to put this fear and hostility behind them.

“Mr. Baggins!” came a shout from behind. Frodo turned to see Shiriff Robin Smallburrow running up the path, gasping for breath.

“Hullo, Robin!” He greeted the Shiriff with a tired frown. In the short time since Frodo had been appointed Deputy Mayor, he and Robin had spent a great many hours together, mostly when they ran into problems with a Sheriff overstepping his boundaries. When Robin came to him unexpected, the news was always bad. “What’s the matter?”

“Sorry to bother you so late and all, but there’s been some trouble at the Ivy Bush after you left. Hyacinth Bracegirdle is refusing to serve Ted Sandyman, you see, since he did her family nothing but ill when he was working for Lotho—or Sharkey, as it were.”

Frodo’s frown deepened. Every time things seemed to be mending, some feud tore them up again. He was beginning to think the work would never be finished. With a wistful glance towards a window that revealed the Cottons’ cosy sitting room, he let out a small sigh and turned his back to their door. Rest would have to wait: there was work to be done.

Frodo followed Robin down a winding road to the ivy-covered arch of the Ivy Bush Inn. Out front, a few wooden tables were scattered between old barrels sprouting flowers. Smoke bellowed from the chimney and footsteps clamoured within. It was difficult to believe that, mere weeks ago, the same building had been deserted save for scampering rats and fluttering insects. Now it was as loud and lively as Frodo remembered from his youth, though the usual laughter and cheer was replaced with vile shouts and belligerent hollers that pierced the night with wrath.

Robin grimaced. “What did I tell you? There’s trouble, alright.”

Frodo merely nodded and quickened his steps. Inside, the air warmed significantly. A long wooden bar stretched across the left wall. Behind it stood a young maiden he recognized as Hyacinth Bracegirdle (though it had been some years since they’d last met, and in that time she had nearly doubled in both height and width). She was leaning forward with her fist on the bar and a scowl on her face. Across from her Ted Sandyman stood, red-faced and vengeful, amidst a pile of overturned stools.
A crowd was gathered around them, scattered in several large misshapen clumps. The elders were muttering to themselves while the younger hobbits were shouting over one another, desperate to be heard.

“Come on, it’s just a drink!” someone shouted. “Let him have it!”

“Don’t you dare!” cried another. “He’s caused enough trouble, he ought to know better than to show his face ‘round here!”
A series of ‘aye’s and applause broke through the crowd. Miss Hyacinth Bracegirdle gave a smug smile and threw her rag down against the counter. But Ted Sandyman wasn’t about to give in that easily. He snatched it up and squeezed it between his fist. “Now listen here, you no good pig—”

“That’s enough, Sandyman.” Robin Smallburrow stepped forward and snatched the fuming hobbit’s arm.

“Take your hand off me, Cock-robin! If I don’t get served, you don’t either. How many people did you take to the Lockholes, eh? Don’t I remember you helping escort Lobelia? And what about that Grubb lad you kicked out in the street? Didn’t you steal his wines?”

“Under your orders, Sandyman!” Robin clenched his fist and raised it to strike, but Frodo stepped forward and gave a firm shake of his head. Robin let his hand fall to his side, scowling.

The others, having noticed Frodo’s presence, turned to him at once, their words tumbling over one another in a jumble. Some, it seemed, were happy to provide him with a full account of the confrontation compete with their own personal commentary, while others demanded to know just what he proposed to do about such “an awful fuss.”

The result was an ambush of words even the most attentive hobbit would buckle beneath. Frodo raised his hands up in a sign of surrender though he pressed forward through the crowd. Hobbits parted on either side of him, their shouts quieting to whispers until he could distinguish one from another.

“He’ll teach Sandyman a lesson alright,” someone muttered on his right, just as someone on his left remarked it was a shame Merry Brandybuck hadn’t come. Ignoring the comment, Frodo stepped further into the circle that had now cleared around the bar.

Sandyman’s face twisted into a look of anger and disgust. “Come to gloat have you? Tell me I told you so? Well, save your words, Baggins. I was just leaving.”

Frodo stepped between him and the exit. “I can’t say that it wouldn’t please me, Sandyman, to never see you again. But as Deputy Mayor I have an obligation to all Shire folk, including you. If you truly wish to stay, you have every right to remain in the Shire, as long as you follow the law. Last I heard, you were guilty of no more than perhaps a few crude words at my friends’ expense—” Here the crowd interrupted with wild objections.

Frodo waited patiently for them to die down while Sandyman seized the moment. “Guilty?” he spat. “It’s you whose guilty, lad! You and your odd friends who disappear when the going gets tough and ride back just in time to save the day. Where were you really, I wonder? How can we be sure this all wasn’t really some cockeyed plan of yours to take over the Shire?”

“Now hold it right there, Sandyman!” Mr. Cotton forced his way to the front of the circle, red-faced and livid. “You’re got no right going around making such outrageous accusations! There ain’t a soul in here who doubts Master Baggins’ loyalty, and just as few that trusts yours. Mr. Frodo here has done nothing but help, and you—you’ve done nothing but stir up trouble!”

The crowd was quick to agree with Mr. Cotton. Sandyman heard their cheers and taunts, and saw well that the vast majority’s allegiance lay with the Deputy Mayor and his friends. “Fine, take his side!” he cried. “You’ll see soon enough, when you lose your jobs and homes, and are left to fend for yourselves in the streets! See how well you survive without Sharkey looking after you!” He leaned over the bar and spat at Hyacinth’s feet.

A collective gasp ran through the room. Robin stepped up and reached for Sandyman’s shoulder. “Alright, Sandyman. You’ve had your fun! Say goodbye to the Ivy Bush—this is the last time you’ll be seeing her.”

“Wait.” Frodo’s words caused the Sheriff to frown, but he didn’t let go of Sandyman though Frodo continued, “I’m sorry you lost your mill, but you know as well as I that it was doing more damage than good. But you’re a strong hobbit, so it seems. If it’s work and a roof you want, there’s still work to be done and hobbits willing to shelter those who need it. The Cottons could use some assistance fixing Bagshot Row, if you’d like. I’ll see you’re paid as well as the others.”

Mr. Cotton gaped at Frodo. He seemed about to protest, then turned to Sandyman to access the scoundrel’s reaction. Sandyman’s eyes narrowed, alight with a blaze as he tried to find the fault in Frodo’s words. The last thing he wanted was to give into someone like Frodo, but he would be a fool not to take him up on such an offer. If indeed, the offer was genuine.

Frodo turned to Hyacinth with a polite smile. “What happened this past year was Sharkey’s fault,” he said, keeping his eyes on hers though he raised his voice so the crowd could hear. “Sharkey and his dreadful men. But they are gone now, and let us see that the last of our ill-will went with them.”

“They’re not all gone!” An old hobbit scoffed, pointing at Sandyman. “Not yet.”

Frodo turned to face the crowd, but otherwise ignored the interjection. A collective “hush” trickled through the crowd and it soon became so silent, Frodo could hear his words echo in the arched ceiling. “A war has been fought here. Never before have we faced something like this. I’d be lying if I told you I knew how to recover. But, I think, if we ever wish to see the Shire returned to what it once was, we have to stop fighting. Leave your grudges behind. Make amends where you can, and tolerance where that fails. Only then will the war truly be over.”

The hobbits shifted uncomfortably, fearing Frodo had picked up his uncle’s habit of making long speeches. They looked at one another, toying with the hope of hearing something magnificent and the fear of getting stuck listening to an hour of poetry. As such, they were both pleased and annoyed to see Frodo turn back to the bar where he met Hyacinth’s eyes with a smile and said, as merrily as if it were a night of celebration, “Three drinks, Hyacinth, if you would be so kind. One for me and my friends—” here he gestured to Sandyman and Mr. Cotton, “—so that we may drink to the end of this rift and cheer to the start of setting things right.”

Whether from guilt at her rash actions or the fact that every eye was on her, Hyacinth blushed. She stifled her embarrassment by sweeping her hair behind her shoulders and getting to work. Before long, she had three wooden mugs brimming with dark ale on the counter before her. Frodo handed the first to Sandyman. The hobbit scowled, clearly showing his disdain, but even he knew when to give in.

The second went to Mr. Cotton, who didn’t look the least bit pleased. He had never much cared for Sandyman, but after the cruel things the hobbit had done and said in previous months, he had begun to despise him. Nevertheless, if Sandyman was giving in, he certainly wasn’t going to be the one to protest. He raised the mug in a symbol of cheer and clashed it against Sandyman’s. They clashed so hard, Frodo feared the mugs would break, but they remained firm as the hobbits pulled them apart and drank from them.

Frodo gave them each a curt nod of approval. So there was hope for Sandyman yet. It pleased him to see so. He then ordered a round of ale for all present (to which he received such monumental shouts of gratitude, he wondered why he hadn’t thought of trying this in the first place). Within minutes, the rift seemed to mend. Sandyman was gathered amidst a group of loud and rather boisterous hobbits speaking of the “glory of the odd Bagginses’” which began with Bilbo’s remarkable party for his 111th birthday and continued here and there to all sorts of outlandish events, some of which were exaggerated or mistakenly accredited to Bilbo while others, Frodo concluded, were entirely fictional (such as Bilbo having attempted to hatch a dragon’s egg). Mr. Cotton returned to his friends in the corner having a quite chat and a peaceful smoke.

For nearly an hour, Frodo stood at the end of the bar, accepting various words of gratitude with the occasional nod or smile. Though he was the topic of much conversation, he hardly said a word himself, other than brief pleasantries and vague responses to prying questions. When he had stayed what seemed an appropriate amount of time, he set his drink on the counter, unfinished, and slipped outside.

The sun had gone. The moon lay hidden behind a cloud, but the sky was speckled with stars that lit his path in silver rays between patches of flickering lanterns. Frodo turned the corner and the clinks of mugs and reels of laughter faded beneath his footsteps.

There had been a time when Frodo enjoyed walking at night, when he had looked upon the shadowed trees with awe and the moonlit fields with delight. But all the trees in sight were felled with nothing but stumps or rotting wood and the fields were dry and limp. As he stared out at the darkened lands, he saw nothing more than a wavering scene that he could neither feel nor give meaning to, as distant as clouds in the sky.

A light rose behind Frodo, startling him from his thoughts. He turned and scuttered back, relaxing only when he saw Mr. Cotton.

“Sorry, Mr. Frodo, didn’t mean to startle you.” Mr. Cotton held up his lantern. “I didn’t see you there in the dark. What are you doing walking about without a light? It’s not safe, I tell you. Not safe at all. Then again, nothing seems to scare you warriors these days.”

“Except light.” Frodo smiled tiredly. “And if any of us is a warrior, it’s you. I saw the fighting you did here last month, and I must say you make a far greater opponent than I do.”

Mr. Cotton fidgeted at the compliment, trying hard to hide his smile. “Well, all I can say is, those Ruffians sure better not show their face around here or they’ll have the both of us to reckon with.”

Frodo pulled his eyes from the battlefield as Mr. Cotton clapped him on the back and led the way home. Perhaps, he thought, as the breeze picked up and pried the final clinging leaves from their branches, there was hope for the Shire after all.

A Tolkien Calendar – Part 2: The system of Ages

Allow me to present the second of Joe Bartram‘s,  monumental four-part series on the calendars of Middle-Earth, in which he establishes a calendar for the Society. Joe, also known as Gandalf, is the Society’s President since 2014.

In the previous article, I introduced the central question I wanted to address with this series of articles, and gave a quick introduction to the calendar systems that were in use in Middle-Earth. This time around, I’m going to introduce the different accounts of time used in Middle-Earth, giving a brief history of Middle-Earth as an aside to give a sense for the timescales events occurred upon in the Legendarium.

I’ve mentioned the Shire Reckoning already, but this calendar only makes sense within a larger historical context, which will require a little explanation. The hobbits, of course, didn’t recognise the Ages used by the “big people”, and instead measured the years according to the time elapsed since the founding of the Shire in the Third Age – the Shire Reckoning (SR). Events before the founding of the Shire were of no concern to that parochial folk, and so if we want to talk about the history of Middle-Earth in deep time, we’re going to have to go into the system of ages. Thankfully (from my point of view), the SR and Ages of the Sun can be reconciled quite easily. In the Third Age the SR date can be readily calculated by subtracting 1600 years from the TA date, since the Shire was founded in the following year of the Third Age, TA1601. Thus, the first year of the Fourth Age (barring the difference in when the year starts1) corresponds to SR1422. We will tackle how the SR related to the after ages later.

So, let’s take a look at the system of ages. All of the events Tolkien described in Middle-Earth took place in the first four ages of the world, which he numbered accordingly for convenience of use. For those who haven’t spent the last few months poring over the histories, I’ll here provide a quick commentary on this history, which will necessarily become less detailed as we reach more recent, and thus better-recorded history. Strictly speaking, the Ages we commonly speak of were the Ages of the Sun, and only began with the Sun’s first rising, with the awakening of men. However, there were long ages before that of a different counting. In chronological order these earliest times were the Unnamed Years (and I do indeed recognise the irony of that label), the Years of the Lamps, and the Years of the Trees. By some counts, these were all reckoned a part of the First Age of the Sun, but I disregard that notion, as it makes things untidy. I prefer the term “Elder Days” which, in the strict sense, refers to the First Age and all that came before.

Let us then give an accounting of the history of Arda. Time began when the Valar first descended into the firmament of Arda, and began it’s shaping. Of this dawn time before the illumination of the Lamps little is said, other than in that time the First War of the Valar took place, after which Melkor was driven from Arda. The measurement of time began with the illumination of the Lamps of the Valar, Illuin and Ormal. The Years of the Lamps ended when Melkor returned to Arda and cast down the Lamps, after which the Spring of Arda was marred. The Valar having retreated to Aman in the uttermost west, Yavanna ended the darkness of Middle-Earth by planting the two trees Telperion and Laurelin, whose illumination defined the period. According to some counts, the First Age began in this time, with the awakening of the Quendi at Cuiviénen. Thereafter we move into the great events of the Silmarillion, in which time the Eldar migrated towards Aman, Melkor was chained and released, the two trees were destroyed, and finally Feanor and his contingent of Noldor were exiled from Aman. Thus, the Years of the Trees ended with the first rising of the Moon, and the First Age of the Sun began as the sun first rose, and the Atani (the second kindred, Men) awoke in Middle-Earth. Thus the First Age of the Sun began. I’m not going to try to summarise the events of the Years of the Sun, however tempting it might be (Reduced Silmarillion, anyone?). Suffice to say the last years of the First Age ended with the destruction of Beleriand and the casting of Morgoth into the outer darkness (Kúma). The Elder Days of Middle-Earth were, as you might say, a busy time. Of the Second Age, most of the recoded events concerned the affairs of Númenor and its subsequent foundering, as well as the making of the rings of Power by the exiled Noldor in Eregion. The age ended with the Battle of the Last Alliance, and the first great defeat of the dark lord Sauron. Lastly, the recorded history of the Third Age mostly concerned the decline of the kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, and of course ended with the War of the Ring and the final defeat of Sauron.

Those are the ages of which the Professor wrote. It would probably be possible to write a shorter and more concise summary, but I believe beyond a certain threshold any history would naturally collapse into the singular phrase “everything gets worse”. Now that we have a vague sense of the chronology in our heads, let’s talk about the time periods over which these events occurred. For the Ages of the Sun, this is a simple matter, as our dear professor enumerated them nicely. However, it is rather more complicated for eras preceding the First Age of the Sun.

As you might have gathered already, the Elder Days were a somewhat complicated period. The main problem (or at least, one of the main problems) is that we are used to measuring time in solar years, according to a single orbit of the earth around the sun. However, within the Legendarium’s cosmogony, the sun was a late comer to the game – not the first and ultimate source of all light, but a substitute – indeed, a substitute of a substitute. Hence, before the first rise of the sun, time was not measured according to solar years, but with the much-longer Valian years – and indeed, in Aman time was ever measured thus, even after the ascent of the sun.

So how long is a Valian year? Unfortunately, this is likely a case where the sheer magnitude of Tolkien creation escaped him, for the exact duration of a Valian year was never fully resolved. In his early years of writing (principally in the 1930’s and 1940’s) our Professor used a varying figure of about 9-11 solar years to a Valian Year, eventually settling on a figure of 9.852 solar years, or 3500 days. However, by the 1950’s he had instead matched the Valian year to the elven long year or yén, which endured for a total of 144 solar years. While this was likely the final value he had in mind – it was the figure used in the appendices to the LOTR – Tolkien never updated his older works to be in agreement with this value, leading to a number of inconsistencies and errors. For example, it was said in the Silmarillion that the flight of the Noldor from Valinor to Middle-Earth took 5 valian years. If we use the value of 144, this would make their journey last more than 700 solar years, and I suspect the marching Noldor possessed more alacrity than that. As such, here I will follow the former value of 3500 days, as given in the Annals of Aman (HoME series), perhaps the definitive guide to the chronology of the Elder Days.

So, after that long preamble, we can now construct something of a timeline for the Elder Days of Middle-Earth. As far as I know, the Professor never actually drew up any sort of visual timeline for his creation, preferring to present his chronologies in a list format. While this allows more information, nothing evokes the scale of deep time quite like a good old timeline. Here I’ve drawn up two. The first is a to-scale timeline, purely intended to give a sense of the depth of time that lies behind the Professor’s creation. The second [which is here – Editor] actually gives an account of the major events, as I judge them – feel free to disagree with my choice of events! In order to keep this timeline manageable however, I’ve scaled down all of the Ages before the First Age by a factor of ten, such that the values are (approximately) correct for Valian years.

Joe Part 2 Fig 1

Figure 1: An (approximately) to-scale timeline of the known ages of Middle-Earth, showing both the duration of all of the Ages in Valian or solar years, and the absolute amount of time (in solar years) elapsed since the Valar entered the world.

Having dealt with the ages that Tolkien discussed, what over the ages that came after – this is, after all, what we’re here for. In my research, I’ve seen huge amounts of speculation concerning the events of the latter ages, and it’s remarkable how few of them actually base their conclusions on anything resembling canon. This is somewhat understandable I suppose – the Professor was decidedly unforthcoming on events occurring in the Fourth Age or later, and gave us very little to go on. To my certain knowledge, he only ever made three comments on the matter. Two can be found in the History of Middle-Earth / HoME series, and one in his Letters. Let’s go through these one by one.

“I imagine the gap [since the fall of Barad-dûr, TA3019] to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as 2nd Age and 3rd Age. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the 6th Age, or in the 7th”

(The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letter #211, 14th October 1958, Michaelmas term)

This is his most famous comment on the matter, and many consider this to be definitive. It is (approximately) corroborated by the following comment:

“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.”

(HoME VI: History of the Lord of the Rings)

I have thus far been unable to date this particular comment, and so I can’t decide whether to assign it precedence over the former. It is certainly a JRRT original, but coming as it does from the HoME series I have been unable to pin it down exactly. The third comment the Professor made on the matter of the latter ages is rather more circumspect, and comes from the Prophesy of Eldarion, heir of King Elessar. The Prophesy itself runs as follows:

“Of Eldarion son of Elessar it was foretold that he should rule a great realm, and that it should endure for a hundred generations of Men after him, that is until a new age brought in again new things”

(HoME XII: Part 1, Chapter VIII)

Compared to our previous two remarks upon the subject, this is a far more gnomic item, and needs a little more thought to decrypt. I suspect that “generations of men” refers is being used as a measurement of time elapsed, rather than referring to an actual dynasty of specific individuals. But if this is the case, how long did he mean a generation to be? In common parlance a generation is 25 years, the average age difference between parent and child in the modern day, though historically this would have been closer to 20. An alternative would be a generation as defined by the Abrahamic tradition, which is 40 years. As to which of these the good Professor might have intended, I cannot yet say. Personally, I suspect the former, and would tend towards a value of 25 years, meaning the Fourth Age would have endured for 2500 years after the death of Eldarion.

What about time elapsed before the end of Eldarion’s reign? This shouldn’t be an insignificant period of time, since in Eldarion would be restored the longevity of the Lords of the Dúnedain, some of whom lived for hundreds of years. Thanks to the appendices to the LoTR, we know that Eldarion assumed the throne upon the death of king Elessar in FA120. However, the Fourth Age timeline dries up at this point, and so we are forced to dig a little deeper. An answer presents itself in letter #338, in a discussion of The New Shadow. This was a short story intended as a sequel to the LoTR which Tolkien rapidly abandoned. Originally intended to take place early in Eldarion’s reign when the young men of Gondor have turned to dark rituals and orc-play, the story itself isn’t strictly relevant to the question at hand, but is laterally so. In a letter discussing the abandoned story (#388, dated 1972) we learn that Tolkien pictured Eldarion as reigning for 100 years. Thus, we can project the Fourth Age as enduring for 100 generations plus 220 years, or 2220, 2720 or 4220 years. Personally, I tend towards the former, but for the moment I will leave the argument as it stands, and return to it in a later article.

One last source – though strictly non-canonical – bears a brief mention, being the product of a fellow Inkling. In his novel That Hideous Strength, the last novel in the Cosmic Trilogy, C.S. Lewis made this allusion:

“[Discussing Merlin] ‘What we have here,’ said Frost pointing to the sleeper, ‘is not, you see, something from the fifth century. It is the last vestige, surviving into the fifth century, of something much more remote. Something that comes down from long before the Great Disaster, even before primitive druidism; something that takes us back to Numinor [sic], to pre-glacial periods.’”

This in itself is somewhat ambiguous as a timeline, since the earth’s recent history has been stuffed full of glacial periods (I’m sure an earth scientist could take me to town on this statement, but it will suffice for our purposes here). Consequently, this statement could refer to the last and most recent glacial period (starting ~110,000YA) or to the current glacial cycle, of which the last ice age was just the most recent. The current Quaternary glacial cycle began about 2.58 million years ago. Of course, it is unlikely that our understanding of the glacial timeline was very well-developed at the time of publishing (1945), so how much use such speculations are on an admittedly non-canonical source is up for debate, especially when they are so contradicted by Tolkien’s own statements on the matter. But it makes an interesting aside.

Having already quite exceeded the intended scope of this article, I feel I should close up at this point. Next time, I’ll be talking about some of the other notable attempts to date the events of the War of the Ring, and deconstructing the approaches used. In the final article, I’ll tie all of this together, and present my own calculation, justifying the calendar I introduced last time.
Addendum: Throughout this series of articles, when I have referred to the Ages of Middle-Earth I have been referring to the Ages of the Sun. I am reminded that there is another usage of “Age” in the works which seems to contradict that which I have used here. These are the “Ages of the Valar” referred to in the Silmarillion. When Melkor was chained in Valinor for three ages, it was Ages of the Valar. How long is an Age of the Valar? According to the Annals of Aman (HoME series: Morgoth’s Ring, part II), a Valian Age (Quenya randa) endured for 100 Valian years, or 985.2 solar years. Thus, Ages of the Sun and Ages of the Valar are two independent but compatible reckonings.