Thursday, 13 October 2011


The Oxford English Dictionary defines ''Middle-earth'' as ''the world regarded as a middle region between Heaven and Hell, or as occupying the centre of the Universe.'' As you know, it is no more an invention of Tolkien's than Dwarf, Elf or Gnome, and he certainly did not use the term to convey the idea of an imaginary world. In a letter to W.H Auden, he wrote:

''I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd>middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumené [from which, as you know, is derived ''ecumenical''], the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.'' (The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, no.183).

According to The Ring of Words by Gilliver, Marshall and Weiner, the compound has a long history and pre-history. It is a Germanic formation, found in the oldest Germanic language Gothic, raised to the eminence of liturgical use and of which Tolkien was enamoured, as early as the 4th century in the form midjun-gards, meaning, roughly, ''the middle enclosed region.'' The Old Norse equivalent was Miðgarðr or Midgard, referring to the world of Men between the encircling seas, accounted one of a number of separate regions, such as the more familiar Ásgarðr or Asgard, the dwelling place of the gods.

In Old English, between the 8th-12th centuries, the form was middangeard, which meant simply, as Tolkien says, ''the world in which we live.'' This form appears both in the Old English translation of St Bede's Ecclesiastical History (in Cædmon's hymn, which refers to the Creation of the World), and in the poem Crist of Cynewulf, even so:

Éala, Éarendel, engla beorhtast, ofer middangeard monnum sended. (Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth sent unto men). Compare Frodo's invocation in the Pass of Cirith Ungol, far from the living lands: Aiya Eärendil, elenion ancalima!

This verse of Christian poetry was the seed of Tolkien's legendarium. Tolkien attributed the name Earendel to St John the Baptist, who served to herald the advent of the Lord. I will not belabour the obvious parallel with Eärendil the Mariner, who was the herald of the Two Kindreds, but it is nevertheless, in my opinion, another example of Tolkien's genius, at once to so meaningfully connect the legends of Eä with Christianity, but more specifically, with Christianity of an English flavour. From the Voyage of Eärendil to the symbolism of the ennoblement of the simple in the character Samwise Gamgee, Tolkien's legendarium is at once thoroughly Catholic, and thoroughly English.

By the beginning of the 14th century, the form had changed, and in Middle English the form was ''Middle-earth.''

Tolkien did not use the term Middle-earth in the earliest writings of the Legendarium. In The Lost Tales, for example, Tolkien refers to what later became Middle-earth as the Great Lands, the Outer Lands, or the Hither Lands. Neither does Middle-earth appear in The Hobbit. It appears that Tolkien adopted the term in the mid-1930s; we can glean this from its occurrence in the Anglo-Saxon Annals of Valinor found in Volume IV of The History of Middle-earth. I like the form personally, it is fitting philologically and geographically, but I also use the terms Outer Lands or Great Lands - if only in mere comparison to the smaller, but pleasanter, land of Aman in the West. The term ''the Outer Lands'' has a rather negative connotation, quite deliberate I am sure, adopted by the Eldar of Tirion to denote the cold lands under the domination of the Dark Lord, who came from Outside.

St Edward the Confessor, pray for us.

Art: Ted Nasmith.


  1. Interesting post! What examples are there of the phrase's liturgical use? Is the term Terra Media ever used in the Office?

  2. Geek Boy, I regret to say that I have never encountered the term ''terra media'' in liturgical use. The closest I think you would come to that would be the term ''ecumenical'' council.

  3. A couple of years ago, Channel 4 presented a (rather good) television drama in two parts entitled “1066: the Battle for Middle Earth”, which covered the three monumental battles fought in England in that calamitous year.

    14th October is the Feast of St Harold II, Last Orthodox King of England, and those slain with him at Hastings. Of course, that is another thirteen days away, since today is 1st October in the True Kalendar—the Feast of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God. It is well for us to remember those English warriors who fell in the attempt to defend this realm from William the Bastard and his papist onslaught. Let us not forget that the bodies of thousands of those good men remained unburied on Senlac Hill for ten years.

    On another note, I should like to point out that the oikoumené referred to the ‘inhabited’ world of the Roman Empire, in contrast to what lay outside it. In one sense, the Œcumenical Councils were not (geographically) ‘universal’, but rather councils of the Church as established within the Empire.

  4. Patrick,
    last week upon three evenings following themselves, Dutch television showed send out Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings''. Never having read the work, but thinking of you, who so oft quote it's writer Tolkien, I gladly watched all eleven hours of it. Now I can better understand the many references which you make to sayings of personages from this work, and who have become alive to me, thanks to the film. I wonder, what you think of the film, if you have ever seen it... does it doe justice to Tolkien's book? Albertus

  5. Albertus, the films fall greatly short of Tolkien's legendarium. I first saw them 10 years ago and, while impressed in some respects (the choice of some actors/actresses, the special effects, the sets, etc), I was angered by most. I'm sure that, given Tolkien's thorough and rather harsh criticism of an early film attempt by a chap called Zimmerman in 1958, he'd have disapproved of the film ''trilogy'' also. The tampering with the plot, the stuff that was unfortunately missed out, what became exaggerated, the reassignment of certain speeches to different characters, etc would have hurt Tolkien most deeply.

    Apart from ballet, I don't think that Tolkien's work can be converted into any other ''medium,'' and even then, I'm not sure Tolkien would approve of a ballet.

  6. Patricii,
    thank you for the time you took to write an answer; I appreciate your insight, and shall one day try to read Tolkiens work itself, now that i know that the film is not particularly true to it.
    Best regards,