Mirkwood is a large forest to the east of the Misty Mountains. At the beginning of the Third Age, its name was changed from Greenwood the Great to Mirkwood to reflect its dark, sinister nature. This was caused by the building of the evil fortress Dol Guldur (‘Hill of Sorcery’) by a mysterious necromancer. This evil power was driven out once, fleeing eastwards, but returned to Dol Guldur approximately four hundred years later. Gandalf investigated and found that the necromancer was none other than Sauron, gathering his power again after his defeat at the end of the Second Age. The White Council, a gathering of the wizards and the Chief Eldar, met to discuss the threat and eventually agreed to drive Sauron out. By now, however, it was too late, and Sauron only fled as far as Mordor to begin gathering his armies again.
Tolkien created a rich history and mythology of Middle-earth that spans many ages. There are numerous references to these events and stories throughout the book, and a collection of more detailed accounts in a large appendix at the end of The Return of the King, which can sometimes be a little overwhelming. More about Middle-earth can also be found in The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle-earth, all edited and published after Tolkien’s death by his son, Christopher Tolkien.
In order to make sense of all this information and background, there are many unofficial companion books and encyclopaedias written for The Lord of the Rings, with entries on all the people, places and battles mentioned. These can be very useful for those interested in delving deeper into Middle-earth’s past as they read the story. Alternatively, plenty of information can be found online (Warning: these links include Spoilers!):
Tolkien reading an extract from the text, including The Ring verse.
Tolkien was a scholar of philology and deeply loved language and mythology, considering the two inseparable. He specialised in Old Norse at university, worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, became a Reader in English Language at the University of Leeds, and became a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford University. He learned Latin, French, German, Middle English, Old English, Greek, Finnish, Italian and Welsh, and was familiar with many more languages. His particular interest was Germanic languages, and he developed a great love for Finnish.
When creating the different cultures of Middle-earth, Tolkien constructed a rich mythology and language for each. His main Elvish languages are Quenya and Sindarin, with Quenya being mainly a ceremonial language by the Third Age, equivalent to Latin today (Tolkien sometimes referred to Quenya as ‘Elven-Latin.’) Quenya was influenced mainly by Finnish, which Tolkien had been so impressed by, but also has elements of Latin and Greek. Sindarin, the more commonly spoken Elvish language by the time of The Lord of the Rings, is influenced primarily by Welsh. The Black Speech, found on the Ring, was created by Sauron and is spoken in Mordor, designed by Tolkien to be an unpleasant, ugly language. Another language of Middle-earth is the Dwarvish language Khuzdûl, influenced by Hebrew.
Tolkien also invented scripts for his languages, which are sometimes shown in the book. Tengwar is the beautiful flowing script written on the Ring (though the actual language is the Black Speech). This is the script that Elvish is usually written in.
A National Geographic article suggested that a deep sadness over the loss of languages and cultures from our world is reflected in The Lord of the Rings, with the passing of the elves and the loss of their culture and knowledge. The article states that there are now only 6,000 languages left in our world from a possible 10,000, and that this number could easily fall as low as 3,000 in the next hundred years. Read the full article here.
Elendil was one of the faithful Númenorians who founded the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor after Númenor (also called Westernesse) was sunk beneath the sea (see bookmark for page 316). Elendil was High King of both kingdoms, choosing to rule from Arnor while his sons Isildur and Anárion ruled Gondor.
Together, Gil-galad and Elendil formed the Last Alliance of Men and Elves in order to destroy Sauron and put an end to his evil. The vast army they amassed consisted of elves from several realms including Elrond of Rivendell, men of Arnor and Gondor, and some dwarves. During the battle, both Gil-galad and Elendil were slain, but Isildur picked up the hilt-shard of his father’s sword Narsil and cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand. Sauron’s physical form was destroyed and the battle was won. The Kingship passed to Isildur, who was killed by orcs soon after. The Ring fell into the Gladden River and was lost (eventually making its way to Sméagol/Gollum).
Tolkien revealed that The Princess and the Goblin (1872) by George MacDonald was his main influence in creating the Orcs. On the use of the word ‘orc’ Tolkien said; “Orc I derived from Anglo-Saxon, a word meaning demon”. Goblins can be found in real Germanic and British folklore as mischievous, sometimes evil little creatures that inhabit caves and woodlands. They might possess minor magical abilities and in some stories they eat human flesh.
Could this be a reference to a higher power, or God, leading Frodo along the right path? Tolkien’s created world, Arda, of which Middle-earth is just one continent, does indeed have a God. Ilúvatar, sometimes called Eru or The One, is the creator of all existence. Beneath this divine figure are the Ainur, spirits who helped Ilúvatar to shape Arda. After the creation of the world, the Ainur were given the choice of whether to go into Arda or not. The ones who did became known as the Valar (Powers), and the less powerful Maiar. Both Elbereth and Morgoth (The Great Enemy), occasionally mentioned in The Lord of the Rings, are Valar. Sauron, a servant of Morgoth, is one of the Maiar. These powers watch over and sometimes intervene in the mortal world.
Gandalf himself, along with four other wizards (the Istari), were sent to Middle-earth by the Valar in order to guide its inhabitants in the coming fight against Sauron. They were given strict instructions only to aid, not to claim power for themselves, a rule that we will soon see one of the wizards has broken.
The Lord of the Rings can be read as a religious or spiritual book, with a battle of good against evil and a strong message about the corruptive nature of power as well as the evils of giving in to temptation (see next bookmark, p75). Tolkien was a Roman Catholic with strong religious beliefs that he has admitted influenced the novel, though he has strongly argued against all allegorical readings, stating that he prefers applicability to allegory. Temptation, lust for power, faith, humility, redemption, and good vs evil are all themes found in The Lord of the Rings.