Why is Tolkien's world Medieval?

Falterroy

New Member
Why do you think Middle Earth is set in a Medieval setting?

I dont mean why is it set in medieval times. It is set there for various reasons such as because Tolkien wanted it set there.

What I mean is, the third age is 3000 years, the second age is approximately that as well, and I cant recall how long the first age went for. So at least 6000 years of human existence, to be safe (I am not too familiar with the Silmarillion and timings).

Humanity seems to start its existence of in a medieval state of society and technology. Using bows, swords, armour, boats, castles, etc.
3000 or so years later Sauron is defeated in the Battle of the last alliance and they are still using the same tech. 3000 years later and they are STILL using the same tech.

In the real world, the medieval period didnt last that long. We had the ancient Kingdoms with Egypt Greece and Rome, and then the west had medieval Europe, which lasted less than 2000 years. And Middle earth societies should logically be compared to european and British medieval societies because those are what they are most closely based on. And one would think would follow something of a similar timeline.
But instead middle earth seems to keep repeating. Or regressing, as it is the ancient societies that were superior at craftwork and the latter areas have lost or are losing the learning. Such as Numenorean craft vs modern Gondor craft.

Other fantasy stories can get away with it I think. Harry Potter for instance, it makes sense that the wizarding world is stuck in a medieval setting because with Magic, wizards didnt need to keep inventing stuff. So they kept what they had and magic can solve the rest of their problems. Muggles, who dont have magic need to keep inventing things to accomplish their needs.

But while magic exist in middle earth it isnt doesnt serve the same purpose. The men in Gondor arent just whipping out their wands and turning lights on at night.

So what are your thoughts? The best i can come up with is that there is no China with Gunpowder to trade with (it is a very tiny world compared to ours) or that there was never any Thomas edison in Middle Earth, or that they natural resources that encourage invention.

It just seems to me to be an awful long time for human, elf and dwarf societies to be stuck in the same technological setting.
 
I like this question a lot and have thought about it a lot too. I think the shortest & most likely answer is that Tolkien himself was deeply skeptical of what was/is called "progress." In his published Letters there's the famous passage that "labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour ... So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom!" (Letter 75, 7 July 1944)

But that's not really satisfactory in terms of Middle-Earth itself. I can understand the Elves -- their minds were set on preservation rather than construction. They had tried twice to build new kingdoms in Middle-Earth and both times had met with disaster; their creativity seemed spent.

As for the mortal populations, maybe Tolkien showed his view of progress via a world where the right-thinking "Men of the West" curtailed "progress" and chose willingly to continue living by the sweat of their own brows. Re the evil lands, likely they felt no need to mechanize because large swaths of their populations were enslaved. (Compare, say, late Rome -- a rich, intelligent, fairly literate society that never went beyond pre-Industrial production, because it never had to. There was always cheap/free labor.)

Another point is that the overall population of Middle-Earth was soooo much smaller than our world at any time in its recorded history. Like ... Eriador is the size of half of Europe, and there were no large cities in it. The few that had once been there had been wiped out, either by plague or war or natural disaster. So there just weren't enough people, maybe, to come up with new advancements.

I do wonder why there was never an apparent "arms race." The history is one of frequent wars, and you *would* think that one side or the other would seek an advantage.
 

Jim Deutch

Well-Known Member
I do wonder why there was never an apparent "arms race." The history is one of frequent wars, and you *would* think that one side or the other would seek an advantage.
The "arms race" in middle-earth isn't inventing new weapons; it's searching out ancient and powerful ones. When you can find an Elvish sword in a Troll's hoard, knowing that none of your own smiths can even approach making a replica of it, why would you even try to? As long as these relics of past glory are available, nobody is motivated to any research & development programs. :)

I think this is an explanation of the lack of progress in general: humans are daunted by Elvish technology. Knowing they can't match it through Elvish methods, they don't start developing much in the way of Human technology during the first three Ages. Things change in the Fourth Age...and we wind up here.
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
I like this question a lot and have thought about it a lot too. I think the shortest & most likely answer is that Tolkien himself was deeply skeptical of what was/is called "progress." In his published Letters there's the famous passage that "labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour ... So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom!" (Letter 75, 7 July 1944)

But that's not really satisfactory in terms of Middle-Earth itself. I can understand the Elves -- their minds were set on preservation rather than construction. They had tried twice to build new kingdoms in Middle-Earth and both times had met with disaster; their creativity seemed spent.

As for the mortal populations, maybe Tolkien showed his view of progress via a world where the right-thinking "Men of the West" curtailed "progress" and chose willingly to continue living by the sweat of their own brows. Re the evil lands, likely they felt no need to mechanize because large swaths of their populations were enslaved. (Compare, say, late Rome -- a rich, intelligent, fairly literate society that never went beyond pre-Industrial production, because it never had to. There was always cheap/free labor.)

Another point is that the overall population of Middle-Earth was soooo much smaller than our world at any time in its recorded history. Like ... Eriador is the size of half of Europe, and there were no large cities in it. The few that had once been there had been wiped out, either by plague or war or natural disaster. So there just weren't enough people, maybe, to come up with new advancements.

I do wonder why there was never an apparent "arms race." The history is one of frequent wars, and you *would* think that one side or the other would seek an advantage.

So, we've been doing a lot of work on stuff like this for SilmFilm, especially in regards to weaponry. There are a couple of things that I have come up with.

1) The elves get to the level of medieval technology and stay there for thousands of years. Why? Well, they don't have a lot of the same problems we have, such as a scarcity of resources and time. They live forever for all intents and purposes, they don't seem have as much need for food and shelter as we do. They also have a connection to nature we do not possess, enabling them, for example, to bake small cakes that can feed an individual for days. They are able to domesticate animals comparatively easily. They come to an understanding of metallurgy that seems to be beyond us even now. Their "magic" helps them to remain aloof to the problems us mere mortals have.

2) When men arrive on the scene, they have not reached the same level of technology, but the Edain at least are quickly elevated through their contact with the elves, without having the requisite knowledge of _why_ things work the way they do. Remember that a lot of the things in medieval Europe weren't exactly new innovations. Mail, scale armor, and even some plate armor had existed since the classical period. Castles were more of a function of the political structure than technology, as stone fortresses had pre-existed medieval Europe by quite a long time. So technology really didn't change _that_ much until the arrival of gunpowder.

3) (Yes, I know I said a couple... whatever) There are a number of dark ages built into the structure of the Silmarillion, after which, much that should not have been forgotten was lost, no? The War of Wrath destroys a huge chunk of the continent, and that's after Morgoth has been annihilating the Elvish and human kingdoms for centuries. The few refugees eventually uplift the natives of what will be the map of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings, but this never comes close to the level of the kingdoms of Doriath and of the Noldor of Beleriand. Numenor bounces back, eventually, and even presents a number of technological advancements. I would say they are on the cusp of an industrial revolution before they fall. But the fall of Numenor casts another dark age over Middle Earth. The coastal areas fall into chaos as regional governors become warlords and what not. The advancement of technology comes to a screeching halt as most of the people driving that advancement are either drowned, or buried under the beaches of Valinor. The refugees of Numenor establish the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, but they never reach the heights of Numenor. Arnor doesn't even make it through the Third Age. The kingdom falls, casting the North into yet another dark age. Travel is difficult and perilous, and trade limited to the occasional dwarvish caravan. Even Gondor begins to stagnate, and then diminish. Not unlike Byzantium in its last days. Had Aragorn not re-established the throne, it is likely that the nation would have eventually crumbled under its own weight, Sauron or not.

One can then assume that following the death of Aragorn, or even his son, Eldarion, the former Numenorean kingdoms eventually collapsed anyway. The elves all left or went into hiding. The dwarves died/turned to stone/buried so deep they were never heard from again. The "West" fell into yet another dark age, with nothing left to uplift the remnants. It is then that we get the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Sumer, Greece, and Rome, and things progress as we know it.
 
Interesting topic! One simple explanation is that Tolkien was writing an epic fantasy story, not a carefully calculated alternate history of socio-economic evolution. Another is that the Middle Earth timeline is not that much longer than real-world civilization, which is roughly estimated at about 6 to 10 thousand years, depending on the definitions. Also there is at least some evidence of technological progress within LotR, as when Glôin tells Frodo about the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain surpassing their forefathers in mining and building.
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
Interesting topic! One simple explanation is that Tolkien was writing an epic fantasy story, not a carefully calculated alternate history of socio-economic evolution. Another is that the Middle Earth timeline is not that much longer than real-world civilization, which is roughly estimated at about 6 to 10 thousand years, depending on the definitions. Also there is at least some evidence of technological progress within LotR, as when Glôin tells Frodo about the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain surpassing their forefathers in mining and building.
The fact that I know full well that this is all made up didn't stop me from calculating the melting point and specific heat of the Ring, so this is nothing. :)
 

Halstein

Active Member
Part of the reason Tolkien chose a (pseudo-)Medieval setting, might be his interest in Medieval literature. And in Medieval and Ancient literature, it is quite common to view the world as regressing. One of the earliest examples I know, is Hesiod (active sometime between 750-650 BC) in his "Works and Days" describes how humanity regress from the Golden Age trough the age of Silver, Bronze, and Heroes, to his own Iron Age. The idea of progression seems to be rather modern, however it got something of a backlash due to WW1.

Up until the industrial revolution most technological progress were slow and gradual. And not always spectacular, though important, like the introduction of the three-field crop rotation system.
 

Falterroy

New Member
All really good answers.
In the hobbit, which I know was writ before the LOTR and some of the references may not be taken completely literally, but there is mention that many of the machines that menace mankind in the present were crafted by the orcs.
There could be a really fun sequel to LOTR that features an arms race between man and orc, with a theme of man trying to maintain their humanity.
Is there any mention of what became of the orcs after LOTR?
I was sure I read somewhere that Aragorn finished them off but I cannot find that reference anywhere. If the orcs did come up modern machinery then the technological advancement would take place sometime between the end of LOTR and the end of the orcs.

I know that Tolkien referred to some modern day people as orcs though, so I wonder if an interpretation is that the bad technology today came from modern day Orc/human hybrid descendants? :p
Not all machinery, and the passage refers to machinery that troubles us today, which makes me think not of torture devices but proper machines that cause damage in the present. The present being half a hundred years ago.
 
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