Originally published on JRR Tolkien Examiner on 6/4/09.
Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.
If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.
In order to give meaningful background information for characters like Gandalf, Sauron, Galadriel and Elrond, I will have to refer to cosmological and cosmogenic ideas laid out in The Silmarillion, which tells the early history of Tolkien’s world.
This is neither a synopsis of The Silmarillion, nor a detailed explanation of the cosmology of Tolkien’s imagined universe – those will come later. It is just a few key concepts you might need, to understand the origins of certain important characters.
Before the world is created, Eru Ilúvatar (God) creates the race of Ainur (angels). Melkor and Sauron are amongst those Ainur who rebel against Eru.
Eru creates Eä (the universe) and Arda (the Earth). A group of Ainur enters into Arda to work the will of Eru. These Ainur become like the gods of Arda, although Eru occasionally interferes directly.
Everything in Arda is created according to the wishes of the Ainur, except for the races of Elves and Men. These races are called the Children of Ilúvatar, and are created by Eru alone. Elves do not grow old, and if killed their souls remain within Arda. The fate of Men after death is unknown, except that their souls leave Arda forever.
Originally Arda is a flat disk, with the firmament or sky a physical dome poised over it. The land of the gods, Valinor, is a physical (not spiritual) location on a continent called Aman, located in the Uttermost West. Endor, or Middle-earth, is a continent in the center of the disk. The northwest region of Middle-earth in this early era is called Beleriand, and most of the early history of Middle-earth occurs there.
(To be clear: most people misuse the term “Middle-earth,” thinking it means the world Tolkien created for his novels. “Arda” is the name of that world; Middle-earth is a continent. Arda = Earth, Middle-earth = Eurasia.)
The Ainur divide themselves into two groups. The leaders of the gods are called the Valar. One of these is Elbereth, who is mentioned several times in The Lord of the Rings. Another is Melkor, who is expelled by the Valar and wars against them in the First Age.
The lesser Ainur are called Maiar. Two of these are Olórin, who becomes the wizard Gandalf, and Curunír (probably not his Maia name), who becomes the traitorous wizard Saruman. A third, very important Maia is Sauron, Melkor’s chief lieutenant.
For a very long time, there is no sun or moon. Early on, the world is lighted by two enormous lamps. Melkor destroys these. Then two holy trees are created, which light the realm of Valinor but leave Middle-earth in darkness. Melkor destroys these too. Finally, the sun and moon are created from the last light of the trees.
At the end of the First Age, the Valar, Maiar, Elves and (some) Men go to war against Melkor, Sauron, and their followers. Melkor is defeated, and thrust out of the world – but Sauron escapes. The war is so violent that the land of Beleriand is broken and falls beneath the sea. The region to the east of Beleriand, called Eriador, is where The Lord of the Rings takes place.
The Men who aided the Valar in the war are rewarded by Eru, who creates a new island continent for them called Númenor. Much of the history of the Second Age involves the Númenóreans, and Sauron’s forging of the One Ring. Near the end of the Second Age, Sauron corrupts the Númenóreans, turning them to the worship of Melkor, and urging them to wage war on the Valar. Eru punishes the Númenóreans by destroying Númenor, which collapses beneath the waves a la Atlantis. A few faithful Númenóreans survive – these are Aragorn’s forbears, the Dúnedain.
In addition, Eru makes major cosmological changes to Arda. The flat world is made round, and new continents appear. Aman, the land of the Valar, is removed from the “Circles of the World,” and while still a physical place, can now only be reached via a supernatural path called the Straight Road. Mortal ships that attempt to sail west to Aman will simply travel around the spherical Earth until they reach Middle-earth again. Only Elves and Wizards can travel the Straight Road, with special exceptions made for Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Legolas Greenleaf and Gimli son of Glóin.