Middle Earth not so far away…
So here’s a little thesis that I’ve had rolling around in my head for some time but never actually put down.
It’s long been part of literature canon that J.R.R. Tolkein created Lord of the Rings as a fairy tale for England, which it has become over the ages. The stories and extra writings found in the Apendices of his great work are “found” items, as though once lost in time and rediscovered at the time of his writing, which, of course, is only a “translation.” Tolkien was first a linguist and then a storyteller, but he had the realization that, as it is often said, even the tales of King Arthur were written by the French. Britain needed a true British fairy tale. By extension from this, Middle-Earth, the wonderful setting of J.R.R. Tolkien’s pen, has been assumed to be a proto- Europe, which makes a great deal of sense, but geographically, it only sort of does. The timeline of Middle-Earth has several Ages, which alter the geography greatly, including an explanation- and a great linguistic pun- for the sinking of Atlantis. A broad plain is sunk into the ocean under a great wave, mountains rise and fall, and ice bridges allow for travel to places unheard of. Geography is, in short, unstable.
In the Third Age, in which the main events of The Lord of the Rings takes place, features a body of water that is vaguely where the Mediterranean could one day be, Easterlings who wear robes and come from afar that reek of future Turks and Arabs, a wasteland (Mordor) where the conflict of WWI originated, great mountains, rivers, and foggy ports in the North. The Shire where the hobbits live is quintessential English countryside. It could, one day, turn into Europe. My personal idea is that inspiration for the geography came, not from Europe, but from something further around the world: North America, specifically the West Coast and California. To be clear, this is not to say that Middle-Earth is North America, but that the geography of Middle-Earth is highly reflective of California and possibly was inspired by it. The similarities are astounding.
Tolkien had often compared past experiences to inspiration for parts of the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, such as hiking through the swiss mountains as a youth to Bilbo’s treks through the misty mountains. Other commentators point to influences from his research on Beowulf, Wagnerian epics, and both of the World Wars into his oevre of Middle-Earth, so I know it seems a far cry to think of something as distant and impersonal as California. Yet, at that time, we have the legacy and tales of John Muir and the preservation debates of California’s resources and national parks coming out during Tolkien’s youth, and the mystique of the West running through many British adventure stories and even Sherlock Holmes. At the same time, America was on the ascendant, and the “End of the time of Faerie and the Dominion of Man” could as much be a metaphor for the fading of European glory, hounded as the seat of world wars and depression, while America grows and, somehow, manages to turn into unlikely heros. The War of the Ring has often been compared to the World Wars.
Given this legacy, it is possible that there are other influences that we do not know about. Now, I can’t make a case for what went on in Tolkien’s mind when it came to drawing the little maps and thinking of how Middle-Earth is configured: I have no book of letters or notes that support any parts of my idea. What I have is a moment of revelation that has remarkable similarities that should be, at least if you do not agree, an amusing thought that makes one say, “What a coincidence!” but that I think is a little too much to be just a coincidence. This is what I saw.
One day, a few years back, I was rereading The Hobbit. I got to the part where Bilbo Baggins and his dwarven companions were being led down the trail into Imladris, Rivendell, the Last Homely Home, seat of Elrond the elf. Rivendell is a glacially carved valley, likely inspired by Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland. But, when I read this, I saw something more recent.
I had recently hiked a trail in Yosemite National Park called “The Four Mile Trail” (which is actually five miles long one way) up to Glacier Point, which has a beautiful view of Yosemite Valley below, several other valleys, a divine view of Half Dome and other Yosemite landmarks, and a gorgeous spot for lunch. I hiked it with my now fiance around Thanksgiving time. The leaves were turning and falling softly, the air at the top (7,214 ft) was chill. We had a late lunch and made our way down in the gloaming. Half way down we ended up being guides to a few weary hikers who had lost their flashlights and could not see the switchbacks down the 2,000 ft wall of the Valley. Still in the dark, we could see the lights below us of visitors and guests out to get their dinner at various places across the Valley, the glow from the Ahwahnee hotel, and as we got close, the happy sounds of late picnickers finishing their dinners and revels. Through it all ran the weaving ribbon of the Merced River. If it were spring, we would have heard the torrents of waterfalls as well. We dreamed of hot warm and alcoholic drinks around the fire in the Yosemite Lodge’s lounge, walking hand in hand by the river, or cozying up around the fire at our campsite (we were not lucky Ahwahnee guests!). Our musings kept the spirits of our lost and lightless new companions high down the harsh but quick descent through the pines to the meadows of the valley below.
Back to the Hobbit:
“Here it is at last!” he called and the others gathered round him and looked over the edge. They saw a valley far below. They could hear the voice of hurrying water in a rocky bed at the bottom; the scent of trees was in the air, and there was a light on the valley-side across the water.
Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dusk down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell. The air grew warmer as they got lower, and the smell of pine trees made him drowsy, so that every now and again he nodded and nearly fell off, or bumped his nose on the pony’s neck. Their spirits rose as they went down and down. The trees changed to beech and oak, and there was a comfortable feeling in the twilight. The last green had almost faded out of the grass, when they came at length to a glade not far above the banks of the stream.
“Hmmm! It smells like elves!” Thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars. They were burning bright and blue. Just then came a burst of song like laughter in the trees…”
Bilbo hears the elves sing of the river, food, cozy fires, and a good time, and they welcome Bilbo, the Grey Wizard, and the company of dwarves to the valley. I read this and said (possibly actually aloud) “Oh my god! It’s Yosemite! It’s Rivendell!”
Suddenly in my head, the rushing Merced became the “Running” Bruinen, the comforting fires and arbors of the lodging became the Last Homely House, and the thin lithe ranger who helped our companions at the bottom of the trail was a glad elf. The Sierras quickly turned over into the Misty Mountains, snowy and steep in winter, and the long drive in the car on Highways 4 and 120 seemed as much the Great East Road to get there from the Shire – after all, John Muir had walked the distance in a similar fashion when he first heard of the magical valley in the mountains. Then, the rest of the map unfurled in my mind and overlaid itself on the terrain I was familiar with here in California.
I am fortunately blessed with a copy of Karen Wynn Fonstad’s epic The Atlas of Middle-Earth” and could get a better visual that was annotated and explained. It is a very well done piece and I highly recommend it if either you really like maps or really like Lord of the Rings, or, as the case may be, need a visual larger than what is provided in the books. Some, of course, is conjecture for filling out the world, but it follows very closely what is written, and follows the “Middle-Earth as Europe” line as a default (largely from scholars Noel and Howes). We will leave that conjecture be for the part of the map we know well. My comparisons to morphology and geography are to Fonstad’s book.
Let’s start back with Rivendell, as it was my starting point from my moment of inspiration. Rivendell lies on the West side of a long mountain range, the Misty Mountains, which runs from a small East-West range called the Grey Mountains that lie on the East side of the northern terminus of the Misty Mountains, and runs some 900 miles South to Gondor and the White Mountains, another East-West range that runs to the coast on the West. The length is according to Epenshade and is significantly longer than any in Western Europe. (The Urals, considered the Eastern Edge of Europe, run 1,500 miles.) In comparison, the Sierra’s run some 400 miles, form a gap, and turn into the 700 mile long Cascade range. Northern California sees the East West running Klamath range in the north seperating the California Cascades from those in Oregon, and the Transverse Ranges (including the San Gabriel Mountains) in the South which run to the the sea at Point Conception. The White mountains of Middle Earth do this at the Cape of Andrast.
The White Mountains were so called for their cloud touching elevations as high as 12,000 feet, a height also achieved in the Sierra. Both ranges also experienced glacial formations and glacially carved valleys, tumbling foothills to the west, and mining establishments: notable ones include Moria in Middle-Earth, and the California Gold Rush and Nevada Silver boom. The soil in the Misty Mountains is often described as “red” possibly quartzite, while the upper mountains are grey. Both colors reflect metamorphic and igneous origins as does the mining of silver and gems below the surface.
This too is similar to the Sierra’s great grey granite peaks, forged in the hot magma with gold and silver lurking in the red dirt. Compare Tolkien’s “Redhorn” of Caradras, the tallest of the mountains of Moria, with The Red Slate Mountain just south of Mammoth Lakes in California. Both are, conveniently, south of our mutual Homely Houses. By and large, though, the mountain ranges are similar on scale, morphology, and have similar transverse ranges in the North and South.
Now out on the North of the misty Mountains lies Mount Gundabad, and out South of the Grey Mountains, lies Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, home of Smaug the Dragon from the Hobbit. Gundabad is in a similar position as California’s Mt. Shasta, and a comparison could be made for Erebor to Mt Lassen, which lies in the least visited National Park in the country. Mirkwood, the home of Thranduil and Legolas Greenleaf, could well be the Shasta and Latour Forests. The northern ranges in Middle Earth are noted to be “richly mineralized” but, plagued with evils, remailed the “Wilderland” for ages. I point to the town of Mineral, CA, just South of Lassen, and to the horrible antics in cities like Weed, which the train, when it came through California to Oregon, refused to stop at, even if a passenger had a ticket there.
Both Lassen and Erebor have similar roads leading to them over the hills and finger-like lakes to the south, In Middle Earth, the River Celduin runs to the Eastern Sea (Rhun). In California, a solid candidate is Honey Lake, a sink, though I believe it is part of a different watershed. Another candidate is Pyramid Lake just over the border in Nevada. Could not Lassen, with its volcanic heritage and lava caves be the home of Smaug the dragon and the creature Gollum, where Bilbo found the One RIng?
Now let’s turn south of Imladris, where we find Moria, Lorien to the East, Isengard and the gap of Rohan, and Gondor below the White Mountains. Gondor is in the same position of Los Angeles and Orange Counties, full of hilly country. They are seperated from San Diego by a similar set of hills as Gondor is from Harondor, or South Gondor, which has the mouth of the Great, mostly North-South River Anduin.
This part of California is a dranage to the sea, but it lacks such a great river on the east of the mountains, taking far more inspiration from the Rhine. Though, it might be noted, that California was once believed to be an island, and the body of water in between it and the mainland would be right where the Anduin would be. (Nothing real here, but, just sayin’!)
For the other mentions, Moria is a range including Caradras, it’s pass, and the Silvertine mountain below. If you follow the river out to the East, you hit Lorien. Do the same in the Sierra, and you hit the Mamoth Lakes area and the Inyo National Forest. The watershed drains into Bishop and the hills of the Wold and Brown Lands, and south to Rohan. In California, this region turns to a valley for Hwy 395 bordered by the Sierra on one side, and Death Valley National Park on the other. Its not the same amount of space, and is a little funky on the geography, so here my analogy breaks down. But, there is still more to the picture that keeps the comparison going.