Middle-Earth gets a Geological Makeover

As if J. R. R. Tolkien wasn’t brilliant enough with his creation of Middle-Earth, it appears that using his numerous maps and illustrations provided, supplemented by observations from within the texts themselves, a geological reconstruction can be achieved! I recently came across this old article from the Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, Oxford, England, 1992, and figured it was worth sharing.

The first attempt at a geological history of Middle-Earth was Margaret Howes in 1967 in a piece entitled “The Elder Ages and Later Glaciations off the Pleistocene Epoch”. Here, she endeavoured to recapitulate the successive geomorphologies from the time when Morgoth (the real bad guy in Middle-Earth) was overthrown to beyond the time when Aragorn adopted rule over Gondor. However, this work has been recognised as being too far adrift from Tolkien’s original creations, drawing in too much from Earth’s own recent geological history.

This work was truly over-shadowed by that of Robert Reynolds, who in 1974 wrote his “The geomorphology of Middle-Earth”. This actually incorporated the theory of plate tectonics to the entirety of Middle-Earth (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Reynold' tectonic reconstruction of Middle-Earth (click for larger image)

The extension of this by the authors of the article is presented in Figure 2. They revise the number of tectonic plates, as well as apply modern boundary terminology (e.g., strike-slip, triple-junction etc.). The result really is quite a nice read of the fusion of a modern day description of tectonics with a seminal creation that has inspired generations, and hopefully will inspire more to come. It’s great to come across Mount Doom being described as a “hotspot” – it really adds a slant to the old “volcano lair” for bad guys. It also helps to answer questions which I’m sure plagued geologists throughout the books and films, such as ‘where did the mythril come from?’, and ‘how did the mountains surrounding Mordor get such a weird shape?’. All in all, it’s an impressive article that successfully increases the dimensionality of a masterpiece.

Fig 2. Current interpretation of the principal tectonic features of Middle-Earth (click for larger image)

If anyone would like the complete original article, I’d be happy to send a scanned version – it really is quite a spectacular piece of Middle-Earth metadata.

Howes, M. M. (1967) The Elder Ages and the later glaciations of the Pleistocene Epoch, Tolkien Journal, 3(2), 3-15

Reynolds, R. C. (1974) The geomorphology of Middle-Earth, The Swansea Geographer, 11, 67-71

Sarjeant, W. A. S. (1992) The geology of Middle-Earth, Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference