A Tolkien calendar – Part 4: My own estimate

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.

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

FA 1-590

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

SA 1-3441

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 will be available on the web version - Editor] A partial reference calendar allowing direct comparison between dates in the Shire Reckoning, New Reckoning and Gregorian calendar.

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/

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.

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.

A Tolkien Calendar: Part 1

Joe Bartram, also known as Gandalf, our President since 2014, here presents the first in his monumental four-part series on the calendars of Middle-Earth, in which he establishes a calendar for the Society.

As I write these words, it is by my own reckoning, Mersday the 19th of Afteryule, in the year 8077 of the Shire Calendar. Now, I don’t expect you to take my word for it, but with any luck I have piqued a spark of attention with this uncharacteristically bold statement. If not, then I pray you bear with me for a little longer, and it is my hope that I will be able to engage your interest with what follows.

For those not familiar with the terminology, that was my estimate of today’s date using the old Hobbit calendar system commonly in use at the end of the 3rd Age, at the time of the War of the Ring. In the established and current form, that date would be the 9th of January in the year 2015CE of the Gregorian calendar. Those of you that are still fully awake will have noticed that the presence of a year in that date indicates something rather more than an alternative calendar system, but also a calculation for the amount of time elapsed since the events described in Tolkien’s Legendarium.

This perhaps requires a little explanation. At some point in the famous mists of time – but most likely at a Taruithorn meeting sometime last year – I idly speculated how long ago the events of the War of the Ring took place. To my utmost surprise the spark took, and the ensuing conversation conflagrated beyond all expectation into an argument of the sort where minutiae are argued to the hilt, and baseless conjectures defended as if they were the defendant’s firstborn. After much back and forth, something like a consensus was brokered, and replete with the ideas of an assembled fandom, I returned home and stared scribbling timelines. The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least, obscure fan blog.

For those not in the know, Tolkien considered that Arda (the physical world that includes Middle Earth) was not a realm in another place (as most fantasy worlds are), but rather a realm in another time. Specifically, he considered the events he described to have taken place during an imaginary period at some point in the Earth’s distant past. We can thus interpret the world that Tolkien invented as an alternative history, which might be seamlessly integrated into our own past. For the Pratchett fans among us, think of this as the famous trousers of time in reverse – a synapsis of histories, blending seamlessly from imagination into history.

Given this consideration, we might decide to play a kind of detective game, using the clues left scattered within the Professor’s Legendarium to connect the imaginary world of Middle Earth to our own tangible history. We could then take the Professor at his word, and accept the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as dramatized translations of documents he found in the Red Book of Westmarch, the last remnant of that forgotten time. The Silmarillion then, is Christopher Tolkien’s attempt to unify his father’s disparate notes on other documents contained therein, the original Red Book by this time being lost, or otherwise unavailable to him. Tempting as it might be, I fear that suspending all disbelief would merely increase our confusion. In order to really analyse the Legendarium for any purpose, we must accept it as a work of the imagination that evolved over many decades, and of which we have only fragmentary records available to us, none of which form a complete picture of the world at the fullness of its development.

Still, perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Before we discuss the messy details of dating the events contained in the Legendarium, it would be wise to first establish a little context. In that interest, let’s talk about those peculiar day and month names, and of Tolkien’s calendars. If you’ve ever delved into the appendices to the Lord of the Rings (or indeed any of the ancillary literature), you’ll know that Tolkien’s genius for obscenely indulgent duplication of effort extended beyond his languages and into other realms – the names of characters, maps, and family trees apparently composed of clonally-reproducing men. Of all of these however, the Professor’s calendar systems really takes the biscuit.


Figure 1: The evolution and divergence of calendar systems in Middle Earth. Dates primarily refer to the founding or fall of states, e.g. of Númenor in SA32 and SA3319 respectively. The exceptions are FA310, TA2060 and TA2160. FA310 is the approximate date of first contact between the Edain and the Eldar, and reflects the earliest date at which men might have adopted an elven reckoning. TA2060 reflects the adoption of the Steward’s reckoning, after Mardil the Steward’s two-day adjustment of the millennial calendar deficit in the previous year. Finally, in TA2160 Hador the Steward made a further one-day adjustment of the calendar to compensate for the remaining 8-hour millennial deficit.

Tolkien invented at least four calendars that have been recorded, each of which seems to have existed in several permutations, and which were used by diverse peoples at different times in the history of Middle Earth. In the most general terms, these represent gradual evolution from the elven system, which was founded upon a deep connection to the seasonal rhythms of the Earth, to a more human (or indeed, Hobbitish) affair drawn from agricultural and lunar cycles. Thus we see a transition from the Rivendell calendar (which, it must be said, likely represents a highly derived state of affairs, even among the Eldar) with a few long seasons, to a Shire calendar of twelve short months that a modern reader would be able to relate to.

It must be said that most of the evolution of calendars that occurred among the Dúnedain (in Númenor and then in Gondor) was mere housekeeping, minor changes according to use and to deal with the deficit produced to carry over changes when new reckonings began. As such, I’m not going to waste space on such minutiae here. Even taking this into consideration, the sheer repeated effort and depth of consideration that went into the effort is quite remarkable. For context, have a look at the chart documenting the evolution and use of calendar systems in Middle Earth.

So of all these calendar systems, why did I pick a Shire Calendar for the use of the society? Firstly, of course it would be remiss of me in my duties as Society Hobbit to choose any alternative. On a more rational note, the Shire Calendar is simply the closest to our own Gregorian system, and hence the easiest to work with. Unlike some of the other systems on offer, the Shire Reckoning had the same number of days to a year (365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds), with the difference being carried over in an identical leap-year system (an extra day every fourth year, except the last in a century). It is also tidy – the twelve months were all of the same length (thirty days), with the difference being made up by five special days – three around midsummer, and two at midwinter. In the Shire calendar, the first (Yule 2) and last (Yule 1) days of the year, as well as midsummer’s day and two days either side (the Lithe days) belonged to no month, while in leap years, the extra day came directly after midsummer, and was called the Overlithe. Furthermore, the Hobbits, being the right-minded people they were, found that the shifting of week day names with respect to dates of the month unsightly, and introduced the “Shire Reform” to compensate. Under the reform, midsummer’s day (and, in leap years, the Overlithe) had no weekday name, and so the hobbit year always began on the first day of the week (Sterday) and ended on the last (Highday). This was a most useful innovation for an easily-confused people – as an easily confused person myself, I naturally approve.

The Hobbit week of seven days can readily be reconciled with our own, running from start to finish as Sterday, Sunday, Monday, Trewsday, Hevensday, Mersday and Highday. But there is more here than might immediately meet the eye. That the Hobbit week days match closely our own is obvious, but Tolkien – ever the conscientious philologist – never settled for mere approximation. Instead, the week names (and their archaic cognates) are intended as alternative etymologies for our own Germanic week names.

For example, Tuesday comes from the Old English Tīwesdæg or “Tiw’s day”, in reference to the Germanic god Tiw or Tyr. However, the archaic Hobbitish name given by Tolkien is the clearly-divergent Trewesdei, suggesting an alternate etymology. As it happens, the Professor provides the etymology for us, being a translation of the Quenya Aldëa, tree-day (Sindarin Orgaladh). The stem in this case is alda, Quenya for tree (Sindarin galadh). The same philological attention to detail can be found in the hobbit month names. Having assigned Old English as the translation of the language used by the ancestors of the Rohirrim, it was logical the early Hobbits would have shared these names when they lived in the same region of the world. However, once the Hobbits migrated west over the misty Mountains, their language diverged, eventually becoming the Common Tongue, represented by modern English. Consequently, the month names are Tolkien’s extrapolation of how the Old English months might have evolved with the language into modern English, had they not been replaced by Latinate names. Thus, Sol-mōnaþ (sol month) becomes Solmath.

Table 1: the Hobbit calendar

Calendar Duration in days
Yule 2 1
Afteryule 30
Solmath 30
Rethe 30
Astron 30
Thrimidge 30
Forelithe 30
1 Lithe 1
Midsummer’s day 1
Overlithe 1 (leap years only)
2 Lithe 1
Afterlithe 30
Wedmath 30
Halimath 30
Winterfilth 30
Blotmath 30
Foreyule 30
Yule 1 1

This process is called “back-formation”, in which a novel word is generated by removing a suffix or prefix from an existing one. In English, an example is the formation of the relatively recent verb “resurrect” from the much older Latinate noun “resurrection”. Taken more broadly, Tolkien included many of these retro-engineered items of linguistic fluff in his Legendarium. Thus, “The Man in the Moon Stayed up Too Late”, the song disastrously performed by Frodo at the Prancing Pony, is intended to represent an older (and more complete version) of the modern children’s song “Hey Diddle Diddle”, more commonly known as “The Cow Jumped over the Moon”. Similarly, the idiom “make hay while the sun shines” is a worn-down version of Goldberry’s injunction to the Hobbits to “make haste while the sun shines” in the Fellowship.

This can readily be reconciled with Tolkien’s idea of Middle Earth as an imaginary part of our own history. In all these examples, Tolkien’s supposed roots act as alternative histories for the phrases or poems alluded to, which are thus worn-down fragments of the originals in his alternative, imaginary history. From Númenor as Atlantis, to the goblin king Golfimbul and the sport of golf, these bind Middle Earth ever more firmly to our own history. Back formation may even be more widespread than is typically appreciated. In The Road to Middle Earth, Tom Shippey suggests that many of the poems and passages Tolkien created within his Legendarium represent the Professor’s attempt to write imaginary roots for passages he found in Old Norse or Old English texts, especially in Beowulf.

Returning to the calendar systems, I have perhaps thus far failed to communicate the richness of imagination that went into generating the full range of cultures in the Legendarium. Consider the Hobbit week, for example. In the Appendices, Tolkien states that the Hobbits likely acquired their weekday names from the “Men in the North”, which were in turn translations of those used by the Dúnedain. It is not entirely clear from the context whether “men in the north” refers to the peovple of Rhovanion, where the Hobbits dwelt before their great westward migration, or to the people of Eriador on the other side of the Misty Mountains. However, Tolkien also states that this likely occurred “two thousand years or more before the end of the Third Age”, or before about Third Age (TA) 1000. According to Karen Wynn Fonstad’s The Atlas of Middle Earth the westward migration didn’t begin until TA1050, so it seems likely that the Hobbits adopted their weekdays when they yet dwelt in the upper vales of the River Anduin. I have found Fonstad’s sources to be impeccable in all other matters, so I am willing to trust her on this matter.

If this is the case, then the Hobbit weekday names would have originated in Gondor, while the rest of their calendar represents an adaptation of that used in the fragmented princedoms of Arnor in the north. This is somewhat surprising, as Tolkien states in the same passage (Appendix D) that in their wandering days the Hobbits had no week, suggesting memory of the names were retained over the centuries of wandering. However, I have likely devoted enough space here to the subject, and will leave it up to the reader to devise a solution to that particular enigma.

Now, having reached this point in the thought process, it would be almost trivially easy using the information available to us to calibrate a Shire calendar for this year to our own Gregorian one. However, having come this far it, it would be criminally negligent of me not to take the line of inquiry to its logical conclusion, and assign a year as well as a date. All of which brings me back to the question discussed at the beginning of this article – how long ago were the events of the War of the Ring (and, by extension, the entire history of Middle Earth)? This is the question that I’ll be addressing over the course of the next three articles.