New Middle-earth: exploring beyond the mountains
New Middle-earth is a secondary, sub-created world. To all intents and purposes it is identical to the primary world we all inhabit, with one important exception: within it the 'Middle-earth' related by the late Professor JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings is not fiction, but historically true.
The concept asserts Tolkien's self-professed role as editor of authentic texts originating in a remote (and previously unknown) period of world history. The consequences of this assertion provide the scope and inspiration for whatever intellectual and creative endeavours may be enacted within it.
New Middle-Earth has arisen out of the current debate concerning the validity - or otherwise - of seeking to explore beyond the boundaries of the published JRRT canon, which is limited to north-western Middle-earth in the first three Ages of the World. In some respects, the debate is not new at all. From its beginnings, fantasy role-play has been viewed by the mainstream of Tolkien fandom with suspicion, precisely because it dared venture beyond the canvas upon which Tolkien painted his masterpiece.
It must be said that not all the suspicion was ill-judged. It has been cogently argued, from both sides of the RPG 'fence', that early attempts at role-playing within Middle-earth paid little more than lip service to the creative legacy upon which it claimed to be based. That said, the literary dogmatism present (perhaps inevitably) within Tolkien organisations has tended to intellectual snobbery, rejecting anything that seems to challenge their 'Tolkien As Literature' stance.
In recent months, the 'heretical' label has also been applied to artwork and creative fiction, with the most scathing condemnations raised at anything suggesting that Tolkien might just have been telling the truth when he wrote in the Preface to The Lord of the Rings:
This account of the end of the Third Age is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch.
The Teller of Lost Tales
Note: for an updated account of this section see here.
The New Middle-earth scenario begs far-reaching questions concerning both Tolkien's role as translator of ancient texts, and the texts themselves from which he worked.
Where, when and by whom were they originally written? How and in what form did they come down to the present day? How and when did they pass into Tolkien's possession? How was he able to translate them? Aside from the published works, what else - if anything - did they contain? Where are they now?
This is a fascinating and uncertain area, and one in which much further research is needed. No portion of the original manuscripts from which Tolkien worked has ever been released. Their present location is unknown. Nevertheless, a preliminary identification can be attempted.
For convenience, the period between 1911 - the year Tolkien started at Oxford - and 1949, when he completed writing Lord of the Rings, has been divided into six 'phases'. Each phase is marked by a distinct change of emphasis within Tolkien's writings.
1911-1914: the 'Oxford MSS'
Before the close of 1912, whilst still an undergraduate at Oxford, Tolkien had begun working with an Elven language related to Quenya (Biography, p 67). This, the earliest mention of Elven language in relation to Tolkien, begs the question of origins. It seems probable that he came into the possession of one or more manuscripts containing fragments of legend in some Elven tongue, possibly one spoken by the ylfe (OE 'elves') of Anglo-Saxon England. At this stage it is unlikely that Tolkien understood fully either the content or significance of the material he was learning to translate. For convenience I refer to these putative documents as the 'Oxford MSS'.
1914-1917: the Cornish legends
In the summer of 1914 Tolkien spent a long vacation on the Lizard peninsula which affected him deeply. Shortly after leaving Cornwall he wrote a poem entitled 'The Voyage of Earendel the Evening Star' which, according to Carpenter, marked 'the beginning of Tolkien's own mythology' (Biography, p 79). I suggest that whilst exploring Cornwall Tolkien heard stories derived orally from what we may call the 'Eriol/Ælfwine tradition' (see below). These enabled him to begin making sense of the strange works he had been translating.
In 1915 he graduated from Oxford and took up a commission in the British army. Married in March 1916, by the end of June Tolkien was on the Somme, where he remained until forced to return in November with trench fever. The poems of this period may have been translated out of the Oxford MSS. However, the strong personal references in such pieces as 'The Wanderer's Allegiance' suggest that they were Tolkien's own work, albeit inspired by the Oxford MSS material and by his visit to Cornwall.
1917-1920: the 'Book of Lost Tales' / Eriol
For almost the whole of 1917 Tolkien was convalescing in England. The earliest 'Book of Lost Tales' appeared at this time, probably the first Elven lore rendered into English for nine hundred years. There seems little doubt that the Tales were translated out of the Oxford MSS: Tolkien's knowledge of Elven language was by now 'very sophisticated' (Biography, p 101).
The relative stability of the Tales themselves is to be contrasted with the many incomplete, changing and frequently contradictory versions that exist of the parenthetical 'Eriol Story' (see chapter VI of The Book of Lost Tales vol 2).
Eriol - the supposed narrator of the Tales - is a mariner from Heligoland (a small island off the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany) during the period 'preceding the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain' (Lost Tales vol 1, p 24). Sailing west, Eriol arrives on Tol Eressëa, the Elven island hidden from all but few mortals. Eriol learns much lore from the Elves of that isle, which he (or his son) records in a book.
Already exhibiting a certain mythic gloss, the 'Eriol Story' becomes historically untenable when Tol Eressëa is drawn across the sea, finally achieving the position (and identity) of England. I propose that the 'Eriol story' was an early attempt by Tolkien to draw aspects of Cornish legend, relating a bold mariner who learned the lore of the ylfe and journeyed into the West, around the corpus of the Tales proper.
1920-1925: the 'Leeds MSS' / Ælfwine of Warwick
During this period Tolkien was at Leeds University: first as Reader and subsequently (from 1924) as Professor in English Language. About this time his work on the 'Book of Lost Tales' - or specifically its narrative framework - underwent significant development, with the appearance of a new character: Ælfwine of Warwick.
Precise dating is uncertain. Christopher Tolkien considers one version of the Ælfwine story 'unlikely to be much later than 1920' (Lost Tales vol 2, p 322), while Carpenter dates the change in emphasis from Eriol to Ælfwine to Tolkien's return to Oxford in 1925 (Biography, p 172). Certainly, modern translations of texts credited to Ælfwine were not made until after Tolkien's return to Oxford. However, the Old English manuscripts from which these translations were made probably came into Tolkien's possession during his time in Leeds.
These 'Leeds MSS' contained Elven history and lore which Tolkien clearly considered more authoritative than his translations from the Oxford MSS. By 1926 he had abandoned the 'Book of Lost Tales' as originally conceived, and the later 'Silmarillion' texts (see below) all derive from Ælfwine. This is interesting, as the Oxford material was in an Elven tongue, and thus might be imagined the more accurate account. However, Tolkien (presumably) could not call upon the ylfe for assistance, as Ælfwine seems to have done.
Various accounts exist of the 'Ælfwine Story' (see Lost Tales vol 2, chapter VI), all more historically credible than the 'Eriol Story' (note that several of the Leeds texts equate the names 'Eriol' and 'Ælfwine'). The core of the 'Ælfwine Story' is further supported by the recently translated Tresco MS (see below).
Ælfwine was a man of the Anglo-Saxon period. His mother came from 'the lost land beyond Belerion whence the Elves at times set sail' (Lost Tales vol 2, p 313). The 'lost land' is not identified; the most likely candidate is Scilly, the group of islands lying 28 miles off Lands End (the ancient name of Lands End was Belerium). Ælfwine was taken prisoner by Vikings after they sacked Warwick. Some years later he escaped, and made his way south and west, seeking the lands of his mother's birth. Sailing west, after many adventures Ælfwine came at last in sight of Tol Eressëa.
In one version, unable to land, Ælfwine returns east with his companions. This would imply that references to Tol Eressëa, present in the Leeds MSS texts, were 'elaborations' added either by the author or by later hands. According to another tradition Ælfwine cast himself overboard and was never seen again by his companions: he is presumed to have reached Eressëa. The 'Eressëan' references are in this scenario explained, but not how Ælfwine's writings were returned to England.
1925-1930: the Silmarillion
Tolkien returned to Oxford in 1925 as Professor of Anglo-Saxon. In the next year the 'Sketch of the Mythology' was written: 'a new starting point in the history of 'The Silmarillion'' (The Shaping of Middle-earth, Hbk p 12).
The Sketch was intended by Tolkien as a summary document for later reference: 'the entire narrative framework of the Lost Tales has disappeared' (op cit). In this period Tolkien wrote a large body of material, including the Quenta Noldorinwa ('History of the Noldor', the first part of which was later reworked as the Valaquenta 'Account of the Valar'); Ambarkanta ('The Shape of the World') and the Annals of Valinor and of Beleriand. All of these works are explicitly translations out of Ælfwine.
1930-1949: translations from the Red Book
Professor Tolkien's achievement in translating from the Westron 'Red Book MSS' was unprecedented in modern times, and its significance cannot be overestimated. Something of the early provenance of these texts is known (see especially 'Note On The Shire Records', Prologue to The Lord of the Rings), although the circumstances in which they passed into Tolkien's hands can only be conjecture. Begun around 1930, his version of volume Ia, 'There and Back Again', was completed by 1936 and published a year later, as The Hobbit.
By this time, Tolkien was professing doubts over his earlier translations, and further work on the 'Quenta Silmarillion' was interrupted. Instead, he continued with the Red Book, translating volume Ib, Frodo's account of the War of the Ring, between 1937 and 1949. The Lord of the Rings was not published until 1954-55: in the interim Tolkien undertook a major reappraisal of his earlier work.
A revision of the 'Lay of Leithian' was begun (but not completed). The 'Annals of Aman' were begun - a 'major new work' (Shaping of Middle-earth, Hbk p 262) which retold Ælfwine's 'Annals of Valinor'. The 'Annals of Beleriand' were similarly revisited as the 'Grey Annals'. These - and the many subsequent - revisions arose from Tolkien's attempts to integrate volumes II-IV of the Red Book MSS, Bilbo's 'Translations From the Elvish', into the existing opus.
Despite his son's valuable, indeed valiant, reconstructions, it must remain our regret that Tolkien's perfectionism ultimately doomed his vision: to achieve a full English translation of the only authenticated Middle-earth texts extant in the modern world.
Retelling the Tales
How, then, is our understanding of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion affected by the realisation that these are not fantasy fiction, but are actually translations by Tolkien of much more ancient texts?
Perhaps inevitably, albeit wrongly, within Tolkien circles the primary works have come to assume something of the status of Holy Writ. Exorbitant effort has at times been expended to circumnavigate apparent contention or contradiction between the accounts, or between the accounts and our Primary world. Bernie Roessler expressed this eloquently in his essay The Streets of Minas Tirith:
If we do not choose to ignore those inconsistencies
then the role of translator of The Red Book of Redmarch, which Tolkien assumed, allows us two other choices: 1) we can say that the chronicler of The Red Book has erred, or 2) we can engage in further subcreation to somehow explain the inconsistency.
Whilst the results of such 'further subcreation' are frequently fascinating, we should be wary of ignoring the first choice: to say, heretical though it may seem to some, that here and there, someone got it wrong. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are not the ineffable words of Eru. Their authors were neither all-knowing nor infallible. Neither, for that matter, was Tolkien. Within New Middle-earth, this point is far from moot. The first, and perhaps the most important point is to appreciate that the works differ widely in style, purpose and authorship.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have frequently been compared: the former generally having been seen as a preliminary draft for the greater work to follow. To take the differences first, it is undoubtedly true that Tolkien's narrative skill and style developed with time. It is also clear that he regretted targeting The Hobbit so obviously for children. In this light, Tolkien may deliberately have 'written up' to his audience with The Lord of the Rings. However, the fundamental point, which seems to have eluded every commentator to date, is that the two tales were actually written by different people.
Although the texts of The Hobbit (There And Back Again) and The Lord of the Rings received subsequent annotation in Gondor, there is no reason to doubt that each represents the work of one author, respectively Bilbo and Frodo Baggins of the Shire. Both texts are strongly autobiographical. When reading them, we should look less for historical veracity than the honest attempts of simple folk to record their own parts in the unfolding of momentous events.
In the absence of the source manuscripts we cannot be certain, but just possibly - and heretical though it may sound to some - Frodo was simply a better writer than Bilbo. Less learned, perhaps, but since when has erudition guaranteed effective communication skills?
As to similarities, there certainly are many structural parallels between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In part this may be explained by both having passed through Tolkien's hands in his role as translator and compiler. That said, many of the similarities can also be traced back to the original authors.
Bilbo and Frodo were of the same, Halfling, race. Until the events related in their accounts neither had experienced much of the world beyond the cosy confines of the Shire. More significantly, Frodo was 'taught his letters' by Bilbo, and was familiar with both his adventures and story-telling style. Bilbo's writings, the original 'Red Book', were indeed entrusted into the care of Frodo after their completion (and before Frodo wrote the bulk of his own story). Given all this, it would be remarkable if there were not a degree of similarity between the two accounts.
In contrast, The Silmarillion is explicitly a compilation of works. Certain of the texts, most notably the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta, are distinctly mythic in style, albeit presented historically - indeed, as firsthand accounts of the earliest periods of Creation. Elsewhere, in the Quenta Noldorinwa, the Annals of Beleriand and the Akallabeth, we find detailed political histories of the peoples of Valinor, Beleriand and Númenor throughout the First and Second Ages of the World.
The differences in style, compared to the earlier-published works, is unmistakeable. In this regard, we need to appreciate the convoluted provenance of the material. As shown in the accompanying figure, The Silmarillion as published is the distillation of material from three distinct sources. We need also to acknowledge the editorial hand of CJR Tolkien (see The Book of Lost Tales, volume 1).
The Tresco MS
At least one other body of material purporting to originate in Fourth Age Middle-earth has come down to the present day. This is the so-called 'Tresco MS', named for the island of Tresco upon which it was found in or around VI 1835.
This remarkable document, entitled by its author Boc þaera Hehsighðana ('The Book of Visions'), comprises a revised English translation of the 'ancient book of Finan'. Although the original work is lost - as also are the intermediate Old English translations - it seems certain that Finan's Book was written, in Westron, sometime after IV 1485.
The Tresco MS is the work of one Hundred Elf-friend (Ælfwine) of Warwick. The Preface to the manuscript leaves little doubt that in Hundred we have the historical Eriol/Ælfwine, the author/compiler of the 'Leeds MSS', and thus also the progenitor of the entire 'Silmarillion' tradition.
The Boc itself provides much valuable information concerning the historical and political development of the Reunited Kingdom, over the first fifteen centuries of the Fourth Age (see timeline), as seen through the eyes of the Man Aerlinn, of the House of the Wise of Dol Amroth. The remainder of the work describes in detail the workings of various Mannish divinatory and wisdom traditions over this period, including the concerns and practices of the Wise.
The New Middle-earth timescape
The primary source must be Appendix B in The Lord of the Rings, also The Silmarillion. Iron Crown Enterprises' MERP modules provide a wealth of additional information covering the Second and Third Ages of the World. A partial Sixth Age timeline is provided here.
However, with a few exceptions, almost nothing is known of any other period in the history of New Middle-earth from the end of the Third Age. It follows from the above discussion that the New Middle-earth timescape, up to and including the 'present day' (ie late C20, Sixth Age), differs little from what is known of primary world history.
Note, however, the use of the word 'known'. Discoveries coming to light may - indeed, inevitably will - shatter theories and assumptions hitherto cherished by Sixth Age historians, scientists, Tolkienists and the general populace.
Exploring New Middle-earth
Exploration within New Middle-earth is limited only by the imaginations of those wishing to explore. Think about it for a moment. Some 6,500 years link the world described by Tolkien to the present day, a period spanning almost the whole of human history from the close of the New Stone Age onwards. Yet in terms of its relevance to Middle-earth (and Middle-earth's relevance to it) almost nothing of this period has been explored. Tolkien's The Lost Road and The Notion Club Papers offer almost the only foray into this arena. There is much work to be done here - 6,500 years should provide enough scope for anyone!
The late ninth to early tenth centuries of the Sixth Age are particularly interesting: this is the period in which Hundred/Ælfwine lived and worked. According to the evidence (the 'Ælfwine Story' contained in Lost Tales volume 2, and Hundred's Preface to the Tresco MS), this was a pivotal moment in the history of men and Elves. Britain was under attack and occupation by the 'Viking' Norse and Danes. Up until this time, it would seem that the ylfe had occupied a number of sites throughout Britain, in at least some cases living alongside men. However, in face of the Northron invasion, they abandoned many of their former habitations, moving ever south and west.
This disengagement led to resentment on the part of the English, who the ylfe considered little better than invaders themselves: their natural sympathies lying much more with the British. Only west of the river Tamar, in modern day Cornwall, did (British) men and ylfe continue to live together in mutual understanding and peace. From there, the ylfe mostly seem to have sailed west to Súli (the Isles of Scilly), probably their last major habitation in the north west of Middle-earth, and thence set sail into the West.
Those interested might pursue their investigations in the primary realm, visiting and exploring locations significant to the developing New Middle-earth timescape. At present, the majority of these are in the UK and western Europe, but who knows where the Quest may lead. Where, in the modern world, would you look for evidence? Another possibility exists for those interested in guided meditations, or Pathworking. Consider exploring some corner of the New Middle-earth worldscape, and see where your investigations lead you.
As examples (only), the following scenarios might be undertaken by either individuals or groups to explore and enhance the New Middle-earth Realm. The first concerns the exciting archaeological findings at Sørøya in northern Norway. Note that the primary site is 450 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle!
You are part of the original archaeological team from the Tromsø Museum. As the excavations progress, artefacts and remains are found which convince you of the objective truth of Tolkien's Middle-earth. Dating the finds is difficult: some seem to span the Third Age, with others more likely dating from the early Fourth Age. Conflicts arise over your deductions, both within the group and back at the museum. What are the artefacts, and how do you proceed / report your findings to the world? Then, reports come through of a large 'unidentified creature', buried in the ice north of the Sørøya site ...
You are part of an independent Psychic Questing group, investigating some aspect of the New Middle-earth timescape. Perhaps you are trying to locate a 'missing' manuscript or artefact. If this sounds at all dull read anything by Andrew Collins. Your quest may lead you into the supernatural realm of dreams, magic, mediums and visitations. You may find yourself beset by sinister forces. You may receive messages or apports (physical materialisation of items valuable to your quest). At present, items 'known to be missing' include the manuscripts from which Tolkien worked; the three Old English books from which Hundred compiled the Tresco MS; also the MS's original Westron source text, last reported hidden in the ninth century VI upon the island of Lindisfarne.
A psychiatrist is found by walkers, almost dead from exposure, beside a huge weathered boulder on the Yorkshire moors. He recovers physically, but seems to have suffered a total breakdown and is now acutely psychotic, reporting visual and auditory hallucinations. His condition almost precisely echoes that of one of his former patients, Eric Stone, who has just been discharged from hospital following a sudden and total recovery. As you read the tortured daily journal kept by Eric during his period of hospitalization, you begin to feel uneasy.
Out of the western sky, I am as I was made. A line of kings walked faithful to the gods across the sea. But kings forgot their gods and the seas were changed. Those who survived held me as a token of the world made round, and mapped their new lands upon me. Set me high in the hills. New kings laid hand upon me, vows of allegiance wrought in awe and in fear ...
Just who - or what - is 'Eric Stone', and what on earth happened out there on the moors?
In this article I have endeavoured to describe something of the riches to be found within the realm of New Middle-earth. Exploring within New Middle-earth can shed valuable light, not only upon Tolkien's Middle-earth per se, but also upon our own, primary world.
Whatever interests and skills you bring to bear, the important thing is to share your findings and ideas with others. New Middle-earth is not fixed. It unfolds, as news, developments and experiences are circulated and become available to others. Those who contribute have the satisfaction of taking part in the sub-creation of a unique realm.
Whilst people are free to explore New Middle-earth in whatever ways they wish, some light 'historical mediation' may prove necessary to avoid blatant contradictions between the findings of different explorers. One important aspect is that the realm can only be explored in 'real time'. That is, explorations can shed light on the past or present of New Middle-earth (ie up to and including year VI 1996), but the future remains a matter for conjecture, as and until it unfolds. All that said, as in the Primary world, absolute consistency is neither necessary nor desirable. There is and must always be room for 'the Unexplained'.
Unless otherwise stated, page references in the text are to paperback editions.