10 Things You Should Know about Middle-earth’s Politics and Warfare

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Pertaining to the aforementioned topic, it naturally brings up the question – why would a history website like ours cover a seemingly ‘fantasy’ scope? Well firstly Tolkien’s entire legendarium was meticulously crafted and inspired by real-world history. Some pertinent examples from The Lord of the Rings would include the allusion to the Anglo-Saxons when it comes to the Kingdom of Rohan, or the hint of the Roman Empire (and its Eastern and Western partition) in the divided realms of Gondor and Arnor. More importantly, the fantasy works concocted by J.R.R. Tolkien are historically relevant in the avenue of literature. And furthermore, his literary pieces make for a pretty interesting subject when discussed through the comparative lens of history and political systems. But before we begin the list, here is the foreword from the author of the article, Timothy R. Furnish, PhD –

Despite being a historian of Islam and the Middle East with three books published on those topics, I decided some time ago to write on Middle-earth—and the first of my two complementary Tolkien volumes, High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth, was recently published by Oloris. The follow-on work, Bright Swords and Glorious Warriors: A Military History of Middle-earth should be out early 2017. Following are some interesting political and military aspects of Tolkien’s world, gleaned from his many writings which I researched for these books.

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1) The Lord of the Rings [LotR] is the account of a great war in about 4000 BC that takes place in the western part of the Northern hemisphere.

Tolkien wrote that the events of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion took place in the ancient history of our world, and specifically that Sauron’s final defeat, which occurred in year 3019 of the Third Age, was about 6000 years before our time. Thus, Aragorn’s reign as King Elessar of the Reunited Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor until Fourth Age 120 would have fallen in the Late Neolithic/(very) early Bronze Age. But the Second Age lasted over 3,400 years and the First almost 600. In addition, before these “years of the Sun”, there were the more mythological “years of the Trees”—thousands of years of history that may or may not have corresponded to solar years. Thus, Middle-earth is, in effect, ancient Europe, with civilizations much older than the Greeks, Romans or even Minoans, and populated by races of sentient beings that have since died out or gone away (Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs).

2) The most powerful kingdoms in Middle-earth for most of its history were human ones.

Despite the Elves’ glorious hair and superhero-like abilities—as in the Peter Jackson movies—and the Dwarves’ reputation as the hardiest warriors, the greatest kingdoms ever created in Middle-earth were those of Men.  In the Second Age the Atlantis-like human kingdom of Númenor was the most powerful in the world in terms of both naval and land power.  The Númenóreans were 7-feet tall, built ships that plied all the seas of Middle-earth, wielded steel bows and so cowed the armies of Sauron that at one point they ran away, leading to the evil demi-god being taken captive.  Unfortunately for Númenor, its arrogant King Ar-Pharazôn was convinced by Sauron to invade the far western land of Valinor, where the immortal Elves were allowed to sail in order to dwell with the angelic Valar.  This resulted in Númenor’s complete and total destruction. But refugees from there, led by Elendil, escaped to Middle-earth and organized the extant Númenórean colonies into the Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor. By the middle part of the Third Age, almost all of Middle-earth was part of this benevolent empire—and although Arnor was eventually destroyed thanks to the machinations of the Witch-King, a diminished but potent Gondor survived and led the resistance coalition against Sauron for another 15 centuries—until its glory was restored and it was reunited with its northern cousin, Arnor, under Aragorn’s reign.

3) Many types of political systems existed in Middle-earth—not just monarchies.

Over seven millennia of recorded history, Tolkien’s world was home not just to monarchy, feudal  (Gondor and Arnor, Rohan) and otherwise (Erebor, Moria), but also despotism (Númenor under Ar-Pharazôn), aristocracy (Rivendell), oligarchy (Blue Mountain Dwarves), benevolent dictatorship (Lórien), representative democracy (the Shire’s mayoralty), nomadic chiefdoms (Easterlings), and theocracy (Sauron’s Mordor and the First Age dark empire of his mentor, the satanic Morgoth). In general, the good polities (men of Gondor and Rohan, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits) possessed not just functionality and rule of law but at least some measure of accountability to subjects, whereas the bad ones were usually simply utilitarian, whether narrowly and basely (Orcs) or somewhat less so (Easterlings, Haradrim).

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Gimli, Gandalf and Aragorn – three different ‘beings’ smoking together.

4) Middle-earth’s international relations were complex.

The IR paradigm of polarity applies quite readily to Middle-earth. The First Age was one in which the first Dark Lord, Morgoth, created a literal Hell on Arda (“earth”) and used that as a base from which to impose his direct unipolar rule, not just hegemony, over all Middle-earth. Despite the heroic efforts of the Elves and their allies of Men, he would have succeeded had not the Valar, the one god Eru’s angelic deputies, intervened with massive, cosmic power. The Second Age was one of bipolar, dueling hegemonies: in the west and coastlands of Middle-earth, Númenor held sway; in the east, Sauron was the dominant power. Twice in that era the Númenóreans swept Sauron’s forces aside like chaff, and while the first time they pulled back to their island kingdom, the second time—in the last century of the Second Age—they briefly ruled all of Middle-earth, except for some of the small Elven realms. The Third Age began with Sauron’s almost-total unipolar control, which was defeated by the Last Alliance of Men and Elves and replaced by the more benevolent hegemony of Arnor and Gondor. But after the northern kingdom was destroyed,  and after Gondor’s brief hegemonic moment in the 12th century of this Age, Middle-earth devolved into a multi-polar arrangement with several power blocs: even a reduced Gondor was primus inter pares but other powerful states existed, such as Mordor, Rohan, Rhovanion, Harad, Erebor, and the Elven realms such as Thranduil’s Woodland one.

The Reunited Kingdom of Elessar (Aragorn II), which to a rejuvenated Gondor added the old Arnor—think the Byzantine Empire successfully re-integrating the old Roman Western Empire—was approximately the same size as Gondor at the height of its power 1800 years earlier, but hegemonic, not imperial. This situation continued into the Fourth Age, as far as Tolkien’s history records.

5) Strategy, tactics, leadership and good militaries won wars—not magic.

Despite its reputation as a fantasy world, Middle-earth is very much one where, as Tolkien put it, “miles are miles, days are days, and weather is weather.” OK, there are exceptions to this: at one crucial point in the Third Age, the powerful Elf Galadriel sent a time-slowing fog to encompass the ancestors of the Rohirrim riding to help Gondor defeat a massive Easterling and Orc invasion.  And later, of course, Sauron is finally discorporealized by melting his One Ruling Ring. But in both cases, it was warfare that actually brought about victory (even if indirectly, in the War of the Ring). In almost all of the 24 most important conflicts across space and time in Middle-earth, a commander would have been better off having attended Minas Tirith Military Academy than, say, Saurman’s School for Wayward Wizards. Aragorn moved from a non-state asymmetric warrior (Ranger of the North) to commander of a state military (leading the combined Gondorian heavy infantry and Rohirrim heavy cavalry) and, then, to actual King. That reforged broken sword didn’t hurt, but it had no magical powers beyond the ability to inspire. The most important battle of the Third Age (if not the biggest), that of the Pelennor Fields, was won when Théoden King of Rohan broke the lines of Mordor by leading a cavalry charge—not by Gandalf besting the Witch-King in wizardry. And so on.

6) Hobbits were simply a smaller branch of Men—and Orcs were a debased one.

Despite being depicted in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies with pointed ears, Hobbits were not fairy- or Elf-like at all but were, in effect, simply diminutive men and women. They spoke the same language(s) as Men in Middle-earth, got along better with Men than Elves or Dwarves  (as in Bree, especially when drinking at The Prancing Pony), and had no magical powers.  And as a matter of fact, they were even shorter than shown in the movies, averaging 3 ½ feet in height—which was half that of the average Númenórean (or Arnorian or Gondorian, in the earlier Third Age) and the source of the term “Halfing” which was often applied to Hobbits. Being so small and physically ill-suited for warfare did not, of course, detract from their courage in other ways—such as transporting a certain powerful item long distances against overwhelming odds, or dispatching the second-most-powerful evil being in Middle-earth with a special Númenórean knife to the back of the knee (thus Merry actually killed the Witch-King, not Éowyn—sorry, fan-girls and -boys).  As for Orcs and Goblins: the theory as to their origins—“they were Elves once, taken by the Dark Powers, tortured and mutilated”—which Saruman advanced on-screen is but one of several which Tolkien himself considered in his writings.  He also mused that Orcs and Goblins had been some type of “upright beasts”, who were taught rudimentary organization, weapon-using and speech by Morgoth; or that they were Men who had been reduced in morality, stature and intelligence to that lower level.  Tolkien in his later writings leaned toward the latter explanation, and explicitly said that the “almost Man-high” Uruk-hai—which, unfortunately, are shown as large as Men and Elves in The Lord of the Rings movies, and made even bigger in The Hobbit films—were a cross-breeding of Men and Orcs (not gestated in some underground incubator), which meant either there were female Orcs, or some very unfortunate human women.

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Female Orcs.

7) Wizards were Middle-earth Special Forces.

After Middle-earth’s satanic majesty, Morgoth, was defeated and removed at the end of the First Age, his batman Sauron eventually took up his mantle and tried to conquer the world. In the Second and Third Ages, Men (humans) were coming into ascendance, and so Sauron was mainly their problem (as Morgoth had been for the Elves). After Númenor’s destruction, Sauron’s chances improved dramatically and so, about a millennium into the Third Age, the Valar sent five Wizards with explicit orders to organize the resistance to Sauron and not to confront him directly with power. The two Blue Wizards disappeared into “the East” and were never heard from again. Radagast the Brown remained good but turned into something of a animal-loving hippie and proved of little help. Saruman the original White did counsel Gondor and the Elves in combating Sauron, and even helped them at times push back the Nazgûl; but eventually he decided to create his own Middle-earth Prussia at Isengard and bid for dominion himself. Only Gandalf stayed within his mission parameters for some two millennia: advising Men, Elves and Dwarves on grand strategy; befriending and mentoring Middle-earth’s greatest warrior and leader, Aragorn; setting in motion the destruction of Smaug, whom Sauron might have used to terrible effect; and last but not least, assisting Bilbo and then Frodo on what to do with the One Ring. Gandalf exemplified being able to think like the enemy, and outwit him, whereas arrogant Sauron underestimated the Grey-then-White Wizard as only a cleverer version of Radagast—to his eternal regret.

8) Morgoth, Sauron and their minions were landlubbers all.

As Tolkien put it:  “at no time did Morgoth essay to build ships or make war by sea. Water all his servants shunned, and to the sea none would go willingly, save in dire need” (The Silmarillion, p. 120).  This, to put it mildly, would have been a major impediment to political and military strategy by either aspiring demi-god, or their subcommanders such as the Balrogs or Nazgûl. Think how much more effective Morgoth or Sauron would have been had they had naval forces to interdict, harass and attack, respectively, coastal Beleriand or Eriador. Sauron did have some de facto naval assets in the form of the Corsairs of Umbar, originally Men of Gondor who broke away with many ships during Gondor’s civil war in the 15th century of the Third Age. But he seems not to have used them against (or been able to persuade them to attack) Minas Tirith until very late in War of the Ring. Orcs of any stripe avoided not just the oceans but the coasts of Middle-earth. Being limited only to ground operations put Morgoth and Sauron at a severe tactical and strategic disadvantage vis-à-vis Númenor and, later, Gondor-Arnor.

9) Dwarves never rode horses. Or ponies. Or war pigs.

Peter Jackson put Gimli (by far the best Dwarf, in any Age) on a horse in The Two Towers. Then he upped the ante by putting all 13 Dwarves on ponies and jumped the shark, er, Watcher in the Water, in Battle of the Five Armies by having Dáin II and the Iron Hill Dwaves ride war pigs. (So why didn’t PJ just go whole hog and use the Black Sabbath song?) The canonical problem is that not only, according to Tolkien, would a Dwarf never ride a horse; but Dwarves alone of all Middle-earth’s peoples never domesticated any animals. They were too busy mining, smelting and fighting, it seems. It’s worth speculating  whether this total lack of any animal husbandry might have contributed to the eventual extinction of the Dwarves, since along with this there is no indication that Dwarves engaged in any agriculture at all but relied on trade (especially with Men) for their foodstuffs. In military terms, this meant that in Tolkienian reality the Dwarves fought solely as heavy infantry and had no cavalry, instead relying on allies among Men for such things.

10) Aragorn as King did not institute “peace in our time.”

It’s logical to assume that after the near-apocalyptic War of the Ring and Sauron’s final defeat that peace would have broken out all over—as Aragorn says after his coronation in The Return of the King: “let us together rebuild this world that we may share in the days of peace.”  The problem is that Gondor’s enemies—mostly Men—did not dissolve with Sauron, and according to Tolkien the combined army of Gondorian infantry and Rohirrim cavalry campaigned, for some years into the Fourth Age, northeast beyond the Sea of Rhûn (against nomadic Easterlings) and south into the deserts (to subdue recalcitrant Haradrim). But in the Reunited Kingdom, and in the lands behind, the Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Ents and Men did dwell in peace.

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Dwarves going to war on foot.

High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth is available in print from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and in both print and e-version direct from the publisher, Oloris (where it’s still on sale!).

Timothy R. Furnish, PhD, is an author, scholar, commentator and counter-terrorism analyst; with three decades of education and experience in the history, religion, culture, politics and geo-politics of the Islamic world from Casablanca to Jakarta. You can reach him here.

The featured image and the other images (except the Middle-earth map) used in the article are all taken from the cover and illustrations of High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth, with the author’s permission.

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  • Thomas Goss

    “9) Dwarves never rode horses. Or ponies. Or war pigs.” Has the author never read The Hobbit, or its chapter “Queer Lodgings?” The Dwarves ride ponies to get from Beorn’s house to the start of the Elven path through Mirkwood.

    • Yes, but then Tolkien goes on to say in “The Peoples of Middle-earth” that the (historical?) reality was quite different. I should have pointed out that discrepancy, granted.

      • Thomas Goss

        I dunno, Timothy, I think we can get far too geeky about this, and I say that as a geek. The stories are what matter more than the copious writings Tolkien did to work out his backstory or answer letters from fans. He might change his mind about where orcs came from, but it still clearly says in LOTR and the Silmarillion that they are twisted Elves. He might even say, “Well, all that stuff about riding ponies in the Hobbit was a bit of an exaggeration” in a book of cobbled-together notes left over from trying to get his mind straight about things. But what matters to 99% of readers is what’s in the main canon of fiction, not all the volumes of notes.

        • Perhaps. I just know that I read everything Tolkien wrote in order to research this. You clearly have not read “Peoples of Middle-earth” or “Morgoth’s Ring” or much of “Unfinished Tales,” Mr. Goss.

          • Thomas Goss

            It is easy to assume that those with which one disagrees have an inferior knowledge than oneself. Actually, I’ve owned Unfinished Tales since it was published (I still have my first edition copy), have read the other writings thoroughly. In addition, my spouse is one of the original Four Founders of TORn (and the chief writer of The People’s Guide to Middle Earth), and our early days were spent in many long conversations and analysis of Tolkien’s writings. So let’s dispense with the question of who knows more about Tolkien, Dr. Furnish. Rather, I would question whether you had read my reply in establishing that what is canonical is the writings of the stories, as they represent a fixed narrative in which things undeniably happen. Dwarves actually ride ponies. In fact, as I was reading “On the Doorstep” to my son last night, I noted once again that at least one dwarf is shown to be riding a pony. I will take TH, LOTR, and TS as canon, and include the writings where they agree with the established narrative, and exclude them where they don’t. Finally, I would end with the observation that nothing I’ve written above is to be taken as inimical to you personally, or to your scholarship, and only intended as perspective and clarification. I extend my friendship to you as someone who shares my passion, and regret if any tone was taken to be hostile.

          • All I can say is that I have a 12-pp. bibliography of works I read for this book–including everything Tolkien wrote on topic(s). Read the book!

          • Thomas Goss

            Nice try.

          • Which means what? For God’s sake, back off with the sarcasm. I’m answering you honestly. You just seem dedicate to arguing for some reason.

          • Thomas Goss

            Mr. Furnish. can you not see what our exchange looks like from the outside?
            1. I brought up a counter-argument to your thesis above.
            2. You quoted a different source.
            3. I reached out to you in a friendly way, telling you that I thought that looking for sources outside the stories could be taking things too far.
            4. You replied very coldly. establishing that we shouldn’t communicate on a casual internet first-name basis, and told me that I didn’t have the same level of information as yourself.
            5. I replied once again, reiterating my point, which you didn’t address, that treating writings and notes that contradict the fixed, established occurrences of stories isn’t acceptable. I also noted in passing your sudden change of tone, and my own knowledge of the subject, and yet reached out to you in friendship regardless of all that.
            6. Once again you didn’t acknowledge my point about contradicting the stories to establish a canon based on notes (which I still do not accept), didn’t acknowledge my reaching out to you despite our differences, and merely suggested I read your book. That is a “nice try.”

            Now let’s start over, shall we? You are a published author, and you’re stooping down into the comments section to fight out the opinions of digital passersby. You don’t need to do that. Nothing we say down here is going to affect your readership or your book sales. The only thing that could possibly be a negative to them is for you to get involved in big internet fights. Now I know that sounds hypocritical as your sparring partner, as it appears that I started one of these fights. But then again, I had absolutely no idea that the author of the book was also the author of the above post, and would be watching what was said here. Nor did I have any idea that said author would engage so passionately over points of minutiae. My advice is this: You’re above all this. I’m not saying that to shut down the argument, but to give a perspective. You’re a writer, you’ve contributed to the wealth of writing on the subject, and I know first-hand from seeing my wife’s efforts on writing her two books that it’s no mean feat. You don’t need to roll up your sleeves and engage like this.

            Once again, in friendship, I remain,
            Yours,
            Thomas Goss

  • Really? I consulted all of Tolkien’s extra-LOTR writings and copiously cited them in the book. Can you provide an example of something that is wrong, in your opinion?

    • Thomas Goss

      Can I offer a little friendly advice, Mr. Furnish, as one published author to another? Don’t engage personally or put your ego on the line when you get criticism. Just let it go. Clarify if necessary, but don’t take anything personally and don’t challenge your critic’s intelligence. It doesn’t look good. You’ve already proven yourself, and you’ve got nothing at stake down in the comment section.

      • Dattatreya Mandal

        I think we are getting confused about the role of a critic here. Constructive criticism is fine, but when a random reader says – “Most everything you wrote about here is wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m worried that the rest of the things on this site are as poorly researched”, without offering any explanation, it says more about the so-called ‘critic’ than the author who has spend much of his time and effort on any particular subject. In my humble opinion, the author is justified in getting a bit miffed, while the ‘critic’ seems like just another entitled troll – not of the LOTR variety, but of the internet kind.

        • OntheTrail

          I think if a person becomes “a bit miffed” by a random comment then they need to take a step back. A troll as you put it gets satisfaction from a response. By responding to the comment Timothy Furnish has fed the troll so to speak. Thomas Goss makes some very valid points in his comment.
          If a reader comes back with valid argument then all is great, the book has served its aims in getting people talking about the subject regardless of whether the reader agrees with said authors points.

          • I usually engage with trolls. Especially cave ones.

          • Thomas Goss

            Don’t. You’re too good for that.

          • More Aragorn, less Boromir, then. You have a point, Mr. Goss.

        • Thank you.

  • I have a 12-pp bibliography of works read for this book–including each and every of Tolkien’s writings. You might try reading it before condemning it as “poorly researched.”

  • Chase

    Enjoyed this. However, to whomever wrote the introduction, the proper phrase is “raises the question.” Begging the question is a form of propaganda related to circular reasoning.

  • MarsFKA

    “The most important battle of the Third Age (if not the biggest), that of the Pelennor Fields, was won when Théoden King of Rohan broke the lines of Mordor by leading a cavalry charge…”

    Umm…no. Neither in book nor film. In the book, which, I presume this article refers to, the charge of Rohan was initially successful, but ran out of momentum against the press of enemies that remained. Eomer, now leading the Rohirrim after the death of Theoden, set his standard on a hill, gathered his surviving forces around him and prepared for their last stand.

    They were saved by the arrival of Aragorn and the armies of southern Gondor, sailing up the river following the defeat of the invading corsairs by the Army of The Dead that Aragorn has summoned to fulfil their oath to Elendil.

    The arriving reinforcements were enough to tip the balance, so, if our article author really wants to chase the credit for victory to the source, the day belonged to Aragorn and his army of ghosts.

  • Bill Nichols

    Midgard(Middle Earth) is a mythological account of actual events taking place on the Pontic Steppes during the height of the ice age. civilization was forged when 10’s of thousands of groups of hunter gatherers would vie for the still hospitable environs of the Black Sea. coalescence would occur when the larger tribe from central Eurasia would intrude from the east after most of Northern & Western Europe was already tundra or covered in ice

  • Bill Nichols

    Hobbits may well have been a subspecies adapted to forests. their size and characteristics are certainly consistent with a species thriving in deep forests. perhaps later in the construction of large fortresses they were employed as watchmen & may be the prototype of the more familiar Gargoyles.

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