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.

One thought on “A Tolkien Calendar – Part 2: The system of Ages

  1. James Strom says:

    “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)

    The usual way to interpret this quote is to suppose, like Michael Martinez did, is suppose Tolkien meant that it happened 6,000 years before some time around that of the writing of the letter. But what if there is a different way to read it? Maybe he meant that it occurred 6,459 years, the length of the Second and Third Ages together if the Third ended with the fall of Barad-dûr, TA3019, before the present time. 1958 AD-6,459 years is 4502 BC. This could be pretty convenient for calendrical purposes as the Fourth Age would begin in 4500 BC. In the proleptic Gregorian calendar the next century years in which the leap year is skipped are 4301 BC, 4201 BC, etc (not 4300, 4200 etc as there was no 0 BC). These would be equivalent to the years 200, 300, etc in the New Reckoning.
    4502 BC is also one of the very rare years around this time in which the phases of the Moon , the solstices, and Venus in the evening sky match up with what was written in the books.
    Now if we suppose that Martinez was right about the length of the Fourth Age, 2500 years, then the Fifth would begin in 2000 BC. This would be perfect for aligning the Shire calendar with the Gregorian. Not only that, it is right about the time in the Ussher chronology that Noah died and Abram was born (some sites claim that it is the exact year).
    Just a few thoughts.

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