One of the defining characteristics of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is their insularity. They’re committed homebodies, and most of them barely venture even as far as Bree by the time of The Fellowship of the Ring. Other people in Middle-earth have all but forgotten about Halflings because they’ve never seen one; the Ring is safe for a while because Sauron and the Ringwraiths have to spend so long traversing Middle-earth asking where this “Shire” place even is.
Yet every time I reread The Fellowship of the Ring, I am struck by the fact that, actually, Hobbits are not the only ones who tend not to leave their own lands. When I’m not actually reading the book, I tend to imagine the other peoples of Middle-earth as worldly and knowledgeable — but it turns out that most of them don’t travel, either, and A LOT of areas of Middle-earth have passed into the stuff of legend for the people who don’t live there.
At the Council of Elrond
One of the first instances we see this is at the Council of Elrond, where a surprising number of representatives of various lands have serendipitously gathered to help decide the fate of the One Ring.
For example, Boromir notes that he travelled for 110 days after his brother Faramir had a dream speaking of “Imladris,” and Boromir set off to find this land that the lore masters of Gondor knew about but no one had visited for a long time:
‘. . . but since the way was full of doubt and danger, I took the journey upon myself. Loth was my father to give me leave, and long have I wandered by roads forgotten, seeking the house of Elrond, of which many had heard, but few knew where it lay.’Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring
Later at the Council, Boromir gives news of Gondor and the battles they are already having with the forces of Mordor, suggesting that no one there is aware of what the valor of his people is accomplishing. In this case, people know OF Gondor, but it’s clear much news hasn’t come from there recently.
News then trickles in from the other attendees, and readers get the shocking announcement that the Dwarf Balin and some followers went to check out the long-abandoned Moria THIRTY years ago, and no one has heard from them in quite awhile. No messengers to Moria, and no messengers from Moria in years. And apparently this is normal.
The sense readers begin to get is that there are some travelers in Middle-earth, and there are some messengers sent about to give and gather news, but characters like Gandalf and Aragorn who have been all over Middle-earth and familiar with many parts of it are clearly rare.
Issues of how isolated the peoples of Middle-earth are get highlighted again when the Fellowship exits Moria and comes to the eaves of Lothlórien. Like Moria, Lórien is a place of legend to most of the characters; Boromir in particular is wary of a dangerous woman he has heard dwells in the wood. Gimli is initially skeptical anyone lives in the forest at all, and Legolas — the prince of another Elven kingdom, who one assumes would be in regular communication with both Elrond and Galadriel — seems only vaguely certain Lothlórien is still inhabited:
‘If Elves indeed still dwell here in the darkening world,’ said Gimli.
‘It is long since any of my own folk journeyed hither back to the land whence we wandered in ages long ago,’ said Legolas, ‘but we heard that Lórien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power there that holds evil from the land. Nevertheless it’s folk are seldom seen, and maybe they dwell now deep in the woods and far from the norther border.’Gimli and Legolas, The Fellowship of the Ring
Once the Fellowship runs into some of the Elves of Lórien, readers learn that they do, in fact, rarely leave their own land. Haldir is one of the messengers occasionally sent out, but his command of the Common Speech seems uncertain, suggesting he doesn’t get to practice it that much.
‘Welcome!’ the Elf then said again the Common Language, speaking slowly. ‘We seldom use any tongue but our own; for we dwell now in the heart of the forest, and do not willingly have dealings with any other folk. Even our own kindred in the North are sundered from us. But there are some of us still who go abroad for the gathering of news and the watching of our enemies, and they speak the languages of other lands. I am one.’Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring
Furthermore, Haldir indicates that he, like Legolas, is not entirely certain where there are other Elves in Middle-earth; the fact that there are Elf Havens still inhabited near the Shire is news to him:
‘Even if we could come to the shores of the Sea, we should find no longer any shelter there. It is said that there are still havens of the High Elves, but the are far north and west, beyond the land of the Halflings. But where that may be, though the Lord and Lady may know, I do not.’Haldir, The Fellowship of the Ring
Finally, readers get some hints near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring that there are even more places that practically no one in Middle-earth ventures. There are, of course, the various ruins that the characters encounter, from Weathertop at the start of the novel to Amon Hen near the end.
And then Boromir tells readers directly that much of Middle-earth seems foreign to the people of Gondor:
‘Indeed we have heard of Fangorn in Minas Tirith,’ said Boromir. ‘But what I have heard seems to me for the most part old wives’ tales, such as we tell to our children. All that lies north of Rohan is now to us so far away that fancy can wander freely there. Of old Fangorn lay upon the borders of our realm; but it is now many lives of men since any of us visited it, to prove or disprove the legends that have come down from distant years.’Boromir, The Fellowship of the Ring
The statement is a fun foreshadowing of Fangorn, which readers may think is a bit of a throwaway comment about geography at this point, and not somewhere some of the characters will end up, but it also clarifies that anywhere in the surrounding areas, besides Rohan, is not much explored by Boromir’s people.
I don’t actually have a big conclusion about what any of this means at this point. It is perhaps a topic I will continue to ponder and eventually write a follow-up post on. But I am always intrigued while reading to realize that, in fact, many of the characters are as little familiar with the various lands of Middle-earth as the Hobbits are! Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin initially (perhaps always) feel out of their element when they leave the Shire, the only place they’ve ever known, but most of the other characters are not big travelers and have also seen relatively little of the world. They don’t even always know whether certain lands are still inhabited or not! They may be more familiar with stories and legends of these places, but they haven’t been there — and often no one they know has been there either. Middle-earth has a long and rich history, but it also apparently has a larger and wilder geography than I tend to keep in mind!