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The Elaborate and Curious Geographies of Frank Herbert and J. R. R. Tolkien

Submitted by on January 4, 2012 – 5:51 pm 24 Comments |  
Bird's Map of Middle-earth Transposed on Europe According to most sources, the best-selling science fiction novel of all time is Frank Herbert’s Dune. When it comes to fantasy literature, nothing compares with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Both works build intricate worlds, giving obsessive attention to detail. Such elaboration proves compelling to many readers, providing what seem to be fully realized alternatives to Earth. Yet in terms of their basic geography, Herbert’s Arrakis and Tolkien’s Middle-earth fail to cohere as real worlds.

Arrakis of Dune, like most Star Wars worlds, is a single-environment planet. It is entirely and absolutely desertic, experiencing no rainfall. Unlike the desert orbs of Star Wars, Arrakis is fleshed out as a complex ecological system. As a result, Herbert was lauded as planet-building pioneer and an ecological visionary. As the New York Times book review noted, “So completely did Mr. Herbert work out the interactions of man and beast and geography and climate that Dune became the standard for a new sub-genre of ‘ecological’ science fiction.” The Wikipedia article on the author goes to note that, “As popularity of Dune rose, Herbert embarked on a lecture tour of college campuses, explaining how the environmental concerns of Dune’s inhabitants were analogous to our own.”

In actuality, the “environmental concerns of Dune’s inhabitants” were nothing at all like our own, largely because the imagined ecology of their planet was impossible, violating the tenets of biology at every turn. Arrakis is supposed to support some of the same desert vegetation as Earth (date palms, saguaro cactus, and so on), yet it gets no rain and has no standing water. In earlier epochs, we learn, Arrakis had been a humid planet, but its oceans were sucked dry by an introduced species that “encysted” virtually all water in “living cisterns” deep below the surface. Other similarly wild eco-fantasies follow, but recounting them seems pointless. Suffice it to say that Herbert’s alternative world is carefully constructed, wildly imaginative, and largely illogical, typifying the romantic sensibilities of the 1960s counter-culture.

The counter-culture of the 1960s also embraced the work of Tolkien, although the Lord of the Rings derives from a different sensibility, that of anti-modernist Christianity. Like Herbert, Tolkien was an extraordinarily inventive, detail-obsessed author who created his own intricate alternative universe, only glimpses of which are revealed in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Yet in terms of its basic geography, Tolkien’s world-making endeavor was not adequate to the task.

It is perhaps unfair to take on Tolkien for the failure of his world-construction program. Tolkien’s imagination, after all, was mythological thwarting the development of realistic geography. He depicted his imagined world, for example, as having originally been a flat disc orbited by the sun, moon, and other celestial objects. Here mountains were raised not by gradual geological processes but by the precipitous actions of demiurges: “Melkor raised the Misty Mountains to impede the progress of the Vala Orome as he hunted Melkor’s beasts during the period of darkness prior to the awakening of the Elves.” Tolkien also gave short shrift to basic planetary description. Although his mytho-historical back-story covers eons of time and fills heavy volumes, he never bothered to “finalize the geography for the entire world associated with [his novels],” according specialized “Lord of the Rings Wiki.”

Assessing Tolkien’s depiction of an alternative world is further challenged by the fact that that it was not actually a different planet. His stories take place on Earth itself, as visualized in a different period of time—or more precisely, a different period of the imagination. All action plays out in northwestern “Middle-earth,” a continent that would eventually be transformed into Eurasia. In Tolkien’s elaborate para-cosmology, the intertwined planets of the solar system are deemed Arda, and Earth itself is called Ambar (or Imbar). Tolkien’s cosmology is pre-Copernican and non-scientific, embedding elements of ancient European mythology within a deeply Christian moral framework.

The general equation of Middle-earth with western Eurasia has led to the search for more specific correspondences. Tolkien always located the Shire in England, but otherwise remained vague on this score. A map by Peter Bird, however, depicts specific linkages. (Bird is a geology and geophysics professor at UCLA; his map was posted by Frank Jacobs on Strange Maps, and is reposted here.) According to Bird’s interpretation, the evil land of Mordor is located in Transylvania, yet again demonizing a perfectly normal place. (I prefer to think of Transylvania as the birthplace not of Dracula, but rather of Unitarianism.)

Considering his pre-modern, anti-scientific sensibility, Tolkien can hardly be expected to have constructed a rigorous geographical foundation for his para-world. But he certainly thought of Middle-earth as a physical place, inhabited by organic beings, including humans. Such beings have physical needs, and if the story is to have the ring of believability, such needs must be met. Yet repeatedly in Lord of the Rings, major agglomerations of various species of “people” live in areas where they could not possibly have provisioned themselves, given their economies. Consider the vast underground cities—indeed, kingdoms—of the “dwarves,” beings who produced no food, trading minerals and craft objects to humans to obtain sustenance. Although a small caste of specialized miners would have been perfectly reasonable, an entire species in the same niche and building gargantuan subterranean cities is precluded by basic demographic considerations.

Whenever I raise such objections with my children, their response is simple: “magic: the same reason why Legolas’s quiver is always full.” This reliance on magic (if that is indeed the case) to resolve such mundane contradictions strikes me as a cop-out. Tolkien, after all, devoted extraordinary effort to building the history, mythology, and languages of Middle-earth. Here, his obsessive scholarly attention gives his alter-world a level of complexity unsurpassed by any other, surely one of the major reasons for its unparalleled success. But Tolkien was a philologist, not a geographer or historian, and his attention wavered when it came to the more commonplace aspects of actual existence.

Academic criticisms of Tolkien have tended to focus on his racism, whether explicit or implicit. Evidence for and against such accusations is discussed at length in a Tolkien Gateway article, and thus needs no rehashing here; suffice it to say that although troublesome racial imagery pervades his work, Tolkien’s letters show that he was by no means a hard-core racist, at least by the standards of his time. But his basic worldview was profoundly paleoconservative. Such a stance is evident in his rejection of science in favor of mythos, his association of technological progress with evil*, his male-dominated and sexuality-shunning social depictions, and especially his celebration of the political legitimacy of bloodlines. The notion of a “true king,” whose rightful position of power derives from direct descent from a storied monarch of old, was reactionary long before Tolkien’s birth.

As a mythology creator, of Tolkien is unmatched. His characters are compelling, his stories are gripping, and his creation of languages is staggeringly impressive. His work proved powerful enough to essentially create a genre. Yet as much as I am drawn to Tolkien, I find his alter-world a grim and often repellent place that makes less sense the more it is scrutinized. It also strikes me as odd indeed that modern democracy-embracing audiences do not seem bothered by his retrograde depiction of an idealized human society.

*Rejection of technology has been generally associated with the far left since the 1960s, but it is historically associated much more with the far right, and is certainly highly “conservative” in the original sense of the term.


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  • Zgroza

    The dwarf dilemma is certainly well-played by Pratchett, who presrcibes for them diet of rat (with ketchup, traded) and mined treacle and fat.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Yes, it would make a lot more sense if they could mine treacle and fat!. I would never level such criticisms against Pratchett, as he always maintains a healthy sense of humor and never takes his creations too seriously. 

  • A charming post, though I have two quibbles.  First, Transylvania was hardly the birthplace of Unitarianism, though for all I know it may have been the birthplace of Sabbatarian Unitarianism.  Second, why would it be impossible for a species to have developed an extremely specialized economic niche.  I can’t imagine the dwarves being a very populous group, but I don’t see why they wouldn’t be able to trade for their food, just as Singaporeans do.  Middle Earth might not be able to support many Moreas, but Earth probably can’t support too many Singapores, either.  Of course, they probably grew food at some earlier stage of development, but like the remora, they have evolved to fill a very specific niche.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      I appreciate quibbles, as I make plenty of my own!  I should have said that Transylvania was one of the cradles of Unitarianism, rather than its birthplace. But the early success of the faith in the region is notable; in the late 1500s, the Transylvanian Unitarian Church had 525 parishes, according to the Wikipedia article on the subject. My complaint about the Dwarves is that they seem to have been vastly too numerous, based on the depiction of Moria. But perhaps I am basing that observation more on the film than on the book.  

  • Ryan_lord

    Interesting stuff. As a member of the generation who grew up with along side Harry Potter I’ve found a similar set of problems in those books. J K Rowling may have a fertile imagination, but any time her books are forced to discuss numbers then things start to come apart at the seams. The economy of the potterverse is profoundly broken, the number of wizards doesn’t add up, and the scoring system of Quidditch falls apart under the most basic scrutiny.

    As for British wizarding society as far as we can tell it’s profoundly anti-democratic, riddled with nepotism, and deeply racist.

    Of course it’s more or less geographically sound, other than the fact that every year they get a nice covering of snow, and hardly ever seems to rain.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks for the comments — I just read them to my 17-year old son, and he enthusiastically seconded your interpretatiosn (although he does not agree that the Potterverse is deeply racist). He tells me that in Quidditch only the seeker really counts, and that is only because Harry is the seeker.  Everything in the books, he claims, revolves around Harry. But he still loves the books and films.   

      • Ryan Lord

        Yes, Harry Potter strays dangerously close to being a Mary Sue* at times.

        As for racism in the Potterverse I used the wrong word really, I meant prejudice between humans and non-humans with mental abilities comparable to humans. Racism in the sense of the word found in the dictionary is conspicuously absent. Although it does make me laugh that given the tiny sample size that Hogwarts represents (probably less than 200 students total) the school is suspiciously close to a perfect reflection of the ethnic make up of the UK. Although that’s probably a good example of the way you can use fiction to represent a more important truth than the simple mathematical fact that such a small sample size would more than likely give a distorted reflection of the ethnic make up of the UK.


    • It should be noted that Rowling’s depiction of wizarding society doesn’t idealize it by any means, as Tolkein’s depiction of Middle Earth arguably does that realm. Racism, directed towards non-humans and towards “muggles” alike, is consistently portrayed as a major failing of wizarding society.

    • Saugatojas

      Rowling is hopeless at Geography. Catching a train from Paddington to get to a station in Surrey is just the start of it. While the books were coming out there was intense speculation as to where the real-world locations for the action could be. Hopeless. Her genius was in exploring moral themes not how to get from the West country to London (Not by taxi as she makes the Wesleys do one September morning).

  • I wouldn’t dare to compare Middle Earth to Europe as the map above does. Tolkien did say, for what I’ve read, that The Shire was in what is now England but otherwise everything is sloppy and barely cartographic. One can imagine that Gondor and Rohan are somewhat “French” or otherwise continental and the big river Anduin is a hybrid of the Danube, the Rhine and maybe even the Po (the two fortresses remind of the trenches or even the Maginot and Sigfrid fortified lines, we can’t ignore he fought in WWI and that the work was mostly written between wars).

    But one can’t really ask for geographic coherence to a linguist, I guess. Sure, maybe the mountains of Mordor are loosely inspired in the Carpathian mountains and Dinaric Alps, which surround what was then Hungary (not really Transylvania – the mountains drawn in the middle of Hungary and Yugoslavia do not exist in fact: whoever drew that map cheated quite a bit).

    The geography is sloppy and without proportion: the Gulf of Lhûn could well be the Bristol Channel and the Grey Havens could be Bristol itself but then it could also be inspired by something else like the English Channel or whatever. The shape of Gondor’s coast always remind me of South Wales in fact, regardless that Gondor might have been imagined as a continental land (maybe) – but then it could also have been inspired by Portugal, who knows!

    The overall notion is that of a temperate land with the ocean to the west and vast continental lands to the east and south/SE and in this sense it does correlate with Europe totally, as do most other Western “high fantasy” geographies like that of Conan for example (which also includes its huge doses of implicitly, maybe unconsciously, racist “orientalism”) but otherwise I would not dare to compare with real Europe but in a very sloppy sense. I’ve heard that East Asian fantasy worlds tend to have the ocean to the east, yet all retain the north-on-top convention – I’m still waiting for a good African such genre book, comic or whatever, maybe with the south-on-top for a change (or the east, as used to be common in ancient times, maybe implying that the sun “falls” from there somehow).

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Fascinating observations — it would be very interesting to compare fantasy geographies from different parts of the world!

  • I think it’s possible to be somewhat more understanding about Tolkien.
    In the case of his attitude to scientific progress:

    During his formative years he lived in both rural and urban environments separated only by a few miles in and around Birmingham. At that time, prior to legislation around clean air and before the transition of the economy of the city from industry and manufacturing to finance and services, the contrast between these two environments was extreme.

    Not forgetting his experiences on the battlefields of WW1, where he lost two close friends amidst the mechanized slaughter.

    A complete luddite would not have owned and driven a car for some years, which he finally gave up as an (arguably rational) response to the visible degradation of the environment caused by increased road building in the 1950s.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Thanks for the background information, which does help explain Tolkien’s positions. 

      • Tolkien was in no way anti-science: indeed, philology in his day was a hard science, the hardest of the social sciences (and still is, to the extent that it is still practiced).  He was certainly a social conservative (“tipping your hat to squire may be damned bad for squire, but it’s damned good for you”) and opposed to ecology-breaking technology.

  • Is it really so hard to explain how date palms and saguaro are still found on Dune? Little water is not no water. 

    You could just as easily use your great quibbling powers to explain how the worlds of Tolkien and Herbert make sense, and that would be far more entertaining and useful than a carping post that completely misses the point of why the world cartographies have enduring appeal.  With great power comes great responsibility …

    • Martin W. Lewis

      I don’t think so — rainless areas have no vegetation, unless they get fog drip or have groundwater close to the surface. Saguaro cactus actually requires quite a bit of rain; Phoenix, Arizona gets over 8 inches a year, which makes it a relatively wet desert. But perhaps I do carp too much!

  • Dlg

    Because Tolkien is so inconsistent, he can be criticized by “Revisionists” such as Kirill Eskov in his “the last ringbearer” (the pdf of an english translation is available online). It makes for a great read, especially the parts discussing the likely economics of Middle Earth. Of course, at only 250 or so pages, it cannot fully do justice to a world as complex as Tolkien’s, especially since it also has its own story to tell.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks — looks fascinating.  That people would spend so much energy responding to Tolkien does show the power of his work. 

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  • Damien S.

    Dwarf trade also runs into the fact that they existed well before humans.  They could have traded with elves, though this isn’t strongly suggested by the text.  How the elves lived is another matter; I have trouble emotionally with elven farmers.  Silviculturalists, maybe.  But an even bigger problem is that the first sunrise is a historical event, coincident with the awakening of humans, and elves, ents, orcs, and dwarves were somehow alive and active well before then.  Uhh….

    Oddly, Tolkien did give a nod to food production in Lord of the Rings, when Sam wonders how anyone lives in Mordor’s wasteland, then under the dark clouds of Mount Doom, and the narrative voice mentions the slave-tilled sun-kissed fields around Lake Nurnen to the south, growing the food for Sauron’s armies.

    The ‘true king’ narrative is problematized too.  Yeah, Aragorn seems to fit, but Gondor’s past is stained by an excessive concern for blood purity, and Tolkien’s abortive attempt at post-Aragorn Gondor has things regressing to suck.  Ar-Pharazon was a ‘true king’ by blood and you won’t find a larger screwup.  At best we’re in “necessary but not sufficient” land, but really, there are lots of other places that don’t fit the model at all.

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  • Mike Kardamakis

    The work of J.R.R. Tolkien remains brilliant, as well as original, even though it derives from actual historical, ethnological and linguistic data. There is no doubt that J.R.R. Tolkien was blessed with oceans of inspiration.

  • Steve F. R.

    The criticism of LOTR’s lack of economic realism goes back to Bored of The Rings (1969?) in which elves are described as lacking “visible means of support.” But who knows if this means Tolkien lacked deep knowledge of ecology+economy or was simply exercising the author’s right to spare his readers boring details. In the same way that the filmmaker guesses no viewers of his action movie wants to watch Robert Redford circling the block for 10 minutes looking for a parking place.

  • Steve F. R.

    Tolkien struggled with his desire to make clear that the elves knew the creation (of Arda and the universe) myths were in fact myths, not physical history. He did not figure out how to do this. It’s documented in a later volume of History of Middle Earth, edited by his son Christopher.

  • Lucas O.

    Apparently I’m super late to this, but somehow I stumbled upon this blog, and I felt like I had to comment.
    The problem with trying to apply realistic geographic, economic, and other restraints to Tolkien’s work is that it is designed to be “myth”. Tolkien himself explicitly stated that his Middle-Earth works were meant to represent a mythology for England on par with that of ancient Greece or Rome, or the Scandinavian countries. Myths of ancient peoples rarely factor in economic concerns or accurate geography. And as for racism, that’s what all the old mythologies are about: our people/culture is better than all the others.

    • We are glad you’ve stumbled upon our blog and thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lucas. We hope you’ll find more interesting stuff on our pages!