A Tolkien calendar – Part 3: Previous attempts to date the War of the Ring

Here is the third of Joe Bartram‘s, monumental four-part essay series on the calendars of Middle-Earth, with the objective of establishing a calendar for the Society. Joe, frequently known as Gandalf, has been the Society’s President since 2014.

Since the publication of the Lord of the Rings, many different authors have speculated about the timing of the events concerned, of which I am only the most recent.  Having examined as many of these as I could find, I’ve seen many different methods employed, most of which can be discarded without consideration, truth be told.  Still, a few are sufficiently interesting that they bear mention, before I move on to my own analysis, and those will be the focus of this article.

A few authors have attempted to calibrate the timing of the events described in the Lord of the Rings using the detailed information provided on the positions of the stars and moon.  I believe that such an analysis was actually published in Mensa at one point (which placed the War of the Ring TA3018-3019 in 1935-36CE), though I have been unable to track the original down (if anyone feels like doing so, the article is Donald O’Brien – A Chronological Study of the Phases of the Moon in LOTR in Beyond Bree – Newsletter of American Mensa Tolkien Special Interest Group December 1988).  However, whatever analyses one might apply, it seems Tolkien’s vision did not extend that far, for he had the following to say on the subject:

          “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 XII: Part 1, Chapter VIII)

This excerpt itself provides a clue of course, but we have already discussed in in the previous article, so I won’t give it any more attention here.  As far as I am aware, there have been only a couple of other serious attempt at dating the events of the War of the Ring with respect to the current Gregorian calendar.  One is a brief but well-researched blog post by Michael Martinez, which uses the brief sop thrown us by Tolkien (the 6000 years estimate from letter #211) to put the end of the Third Age at 4042BCE, and makes use of the prophesy of Eldarion to calculate the duration of the Fourth.  I’d recommend reading the original for a full justification, but that is the gist of it.

Another more long-winded attempt was made by Tony Steele and published in the 42nd edition of Mallorn (August 2004), the Tolkien Society’s annual scholarly journal (thanks to Amrit Sidhu-Brar for sending me this, among others).  Steele’s central thesis is that Tolkien was inspired by a system of occult “philosophy” known as theosophy.  While more-or-less extinct since its heyday in the late 1800s, theosophy was a major influence for “New Age” philosophies.  It drew principally from various forms of eastern mysticism, but honestly it picked up odd bits of conceptual rubbish like flypaper.  Think ancient wisdom of the Tibetan masters, astral bells, hollow Earth theories and a slightly worrying preoccupation with dolphins.  Not the sort of thing we might expect the good Professor – a committed Roman Catholic – to take an interest in.  I honestly can’t find any evidence for Steele’s assertion that Tolkien had an interest in Theosophy or the occult – there is no mention of Theosophy in any of the Letters, in the History of Middle-Earth series, in the Unfinished Tales, nowhere in authorised biography of the Professor (Humphrey Carpenter’s J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography), in John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, or in either of the major works on the Inklings (Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings or Colin Duriez’s The Inklings Handbook).

Still, the argument Steele puts forth is worth considering in itself.  Steele’s major piece of evidence for his assertion is that that is an interesting congruence between certain known dates in the Middle-Earth chronology and our own.  Specifically, the interval between the destruction of Beleriand at the end of the First age is separated from the beginning of the Fourth Age by a period of 6462 years [sic].  Intriguingly, in the Theosophic tradition the sinking of Atlantis occurred the same 6462 years before the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the fourth age in the Vedic Yuga cycle.  Steele thus assigns the dates of the latter two “real world” events to the former two events in the Middle-Earth chronology – specifically 9654BCE and 3102BCE respectively.

The numerical coincidence, and the fact that in both cases the earlier event was the sinking of a continent and the later the beginning of a “fourth age” is quite convincing, at first glance.  However, I find some issues with interpretation.  Firstly, the estimate of the amount of time elapsed between these events is simply off.  Steele puts the destruction of Beleriand at the very end of the First Age, or YS590 (as given in The War of The Jewels, in HoME XI).  However, the destruction of Beleriand was definitively dated as at or before YS587, which throws Steele’s estimate off by three or more years.  If one also factors in Steele’s iffy-ness regarding the length of the Third Age – disregarding several months – the congruence in duration increasingly starts to look like wishful thinking.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that Steele has plucked these two dates in Theosophic tradition somewhat at random, as they have no special association even within the bizarre system that is Theosophy.  Indeed, the two concepts come from completely different sources; Atlantis being derived from the writings of Plato and the Kali Yuga from the Indian Scriptures.   Thus, he commits the cardinal sin of cherry-picking evidence.  Of course, Atlantis was an important source for Tolkien, and he did indeed write it into the world of Arda – but his metaphorical Atlantis was not Beleriand but Númenor, which foundered at the end of the Second Age, not the first1.  In short, I find Steele’s assumptions to be deeply flawed, and am loath to trust all that follows.

That said, it is worth discussing the methodology used by Steele, as it will become relevant later.  In essence, having calibrated the beginning of the fourth age and hence total time elapsed, Steele assigns the dates for the end of the later Ages to events he judges to be significant.  This is based on an entirely valid observation that the slow turn of Ages in Middle-Earth tended to be marked by events of great significance.  While I accept the principle of this approach (as I’ll discuss in my final article), the main problem I have with Steele’s conclusions is his rather haphazard selection criteria, which lack all rhyme and reason.  So we have the start of the Fourth Age calibrated by Theosophic superstition, the Fifth Age matching Hesiod’s Iron Age, the Sixth starting at an outdated estimate for the date of an obscure Roman Battle., and the Seventh matching the year of publication of the first two volumes of the LoTR.  Here follows a summary of both chronologies.

Tony Steele’s estimate:

  • First Age (Years of the Sun only): 10,153-9563 BC, 590 Sun Years
  • Second Age: 9563–6122 BC, 3441 Sun Years
  • Third Age: 6122–3102 BC, 3020 Sun Years
  • Fourth Age: 3102–1103 BC, 1999 Sun Years (Start of Kali Yuga, according to some sources)
  • Fifth Age: 1103 BC–445 AD, 1547 Sun (start of the Iron Age according to St. Jerome and also colonization of Britain by Brutus of Troy according to Geoffrey of Monmouth)
  • Sixth Age: 445–1954 AD, 1509 Sun Years (sometime about the Battle of Catalaunian Plains)
  • Seventh Age: 1954–? (post-WW2, publishing of Fellowship/Two Towers)

Michael Martinez’s estimate:

  • First Age: 11,094 BCE – 10,504 BCE, 590 Sun years
  • Second Age: 10,504 BCE – 7,063 BCE, 3441 Sun Years
  • Third Age: 7,063 BCE – 4,042 BCE, 3021 Sun Years
  • Fourth Age: 4,042 BCE – 1,542 BCE, 3000 Sun Years (duration based on prophesy of Eldarion)
  • Fifth Age: 1,542 BCE – ?
  • Sixth Age: ? – 1945 CE
  • Seventh Age: 1945–? (end of WW2)

I should also say that if you haven’t heard of all of these events you are to be forgiven – especially in the case of Steele’s chronology, I had to look up most of the events myself (readers of history are exempt from this forgiveness).  Unfortunately, I confess I haven’t been able to find major issue with any of the dates given by Steele for the latter Ages, aside from the fact of course that two are entirely ahistorical.  Having made it this far, I feel the amount of time spent wading through ahistorical ramblings warrants presenting my predecessors’ conclusions properly.  So, for you my dear readers I present a visual comparison of the Ages as calculated by both Martinez and Steele. [unfortunately this figure could not be included in this printed edition of this article, but due to the digital glory of the Miruvor blog, it is here! – Editor]

It’s interesting that both chronologies, despite using quite different information and methodologies have converged on quite similar results.  Whether or not this is significant I cannot say – it may simply be an artefact imposed by using similar estimates for the total time elapsed, and an assumption of ages of comparable length.  Of the two, I much prefer the tentative and more canon-dependent chronology generated by Martinez, despite the lack of information for some dates.  In the article itself (which I still recommend) he exhibits what I might call a more appropriate attitude – he accepts that this is (ultimately) a futile endeavour, and is most likely contrary to the intent of the legendarium as a piece of work, but that it makes an interesting intellectual exercise.  Steele’s by contrast seems a little too certain of itself.

That then concludes my extended rant on previous chronologies for the years after the Third Age of Middle-Earth.  Hopefully, by this point a picture is beginning to emerge of my views on the matter.  I’m hoping to wrap all of that up in my final article, which will essentially run as a long (and admittedly overdue) justification for why I have adopted the calendar I outlined in my first article, and why I’ve attempted to foist it on Taruithorn.

Links to articles:

The blog of Michael Martinez: http://middle-earth.xenite.org/2013/09/23/when-did-the-third-age-end-in-our-calendar/

3 Rings, the website of the Elendili, which hosts a copy of Tony Steele’s article: http://3rings.webs.com/chronology

(1) As accounted in the Akallabêth, after the foundering of Westernesse the surviving Dunedain no longer referred to their lost homeland by the old Quenya name, and instead called it the Downfallen, or Akallabêth in Adûnaic.  If one translates Akallabêth to Quenya, it becomes Atalantë.

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