The Nature of Middle-Earth by J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. by Carl F. Hostetter

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Love and Friendship. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!

Nature of Middle-Earth


Goodreads: The Nature of Middle-earth
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Source: Library
Published: 2021


Discover Tolkien’s writings on everything from the Elvish population growth to which characters he imagined as having beards to the flora and fauna of Númenor.

Star Divider


The Nature of Middle-Earth is not for the casual Tolkien fan, but rather for the reader who wants to know literally everything about Tolkien’s work, his process, and his musings. This collection is indeed more scholarly than otherwise, presenting multiple drafts of Tolkien working out his thoughts along with copious end notes, as well as a description of what each manuscript looks like–what kind of paper it was written on, with what kind of pen, in what kind of handwriting. The beginning of the book may likely bore many readers to tears. However, there are other selections that are more readable and perhaps of more interest to fans. A must-read for the Tolkien scholar or hardcore fan–but not for readers who are looking for a good story.

The Nature of Middle-Earth begins with copious drafts of Tolkien trying to work out the population growth of Elves–and that is a shame, because many readers might give up before they get to more readable fare. While this is the kind of attention to detail that makes Tolkien’s stories feel so immersive, it is also the kind of background information that provides an easy joke for reviewers. Do you really want to know the gestational period of Elves? Read this book! Jokes, aside, however, Tolkien’s commitment to working out the math, making charts, and then repeatedly trying to change his timelines to make it all fit is impressive. It’s just not what one would call a bit of light reading.

Other parts of the book are arguably more interesting, however, and many readers might find this work more enjoyable if they just skip around to the parts that seem intriguing to them. For instance, I enjoyed learning about which characters Tolkien envisioned as having beards (Elves & Númenoreans do not–so Faramir and Aragorn do not), the geography and wildlife of Númenor (Yes, Tolkien did consider what kinds of tools they used and what their agriculture might look like), and odd tidbits such as the Maia being detectable by their scent (which seems to be inspired by Tolkien’s Catholicism). But the thing that really drew me in? Tolkien’s preoccupation with trying to make Elvish reincarnation work.

That Elves can be reincarnated is well-known among Tolkien fans, though the fact never really seems to be brought up in the stories. So it was fascinating to see Tolkien work through the idea. First, he has Manwe ask Eru about the possibility because the killed and “houseless” Elves are not happy without their bodies (an interesting indication that the Children of Ilúvatar are meant to be a unity of body and soul). Then Manwe receives permission for the Valar to create a new house. But, first, Tolkien has to explore all the philosophical implications. Is this new body the same or different? What do same or different mean? And then he has to consider the practicalities. Does the reincarnated Elf remember their former life? Will they be given to new parents to raise? Is this fair to the parents or to the child? And what about marriage? Because Elves are monogamous and cannot remarry while another spouse lives. So . . . what if one’s spouse comes back to life? One begins to suspect that Tolkien did not have a parade of reincarnated Elves walking around Middle-earth because, ultimately, it raised too many questions that were too hard to answer.

Reading The Nature of Middle-Earth was a fun experience for me, one that gave me new trivia facts to share with my Tolkien-loving friends. I have to confess, however, that the book is not really a must-read except for the most hardcore fans, the ones who would devour every work from Tolkien’s pen, no matter how intricate, insignificant, or dull.

4 stars

8 thoughts on “The Nature of Middle-Earth by J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. by Carl F. Hostetter

  1. Michael J. Miller says:

    I say this with 100% absolute honesty, I never thought of or cared about knowinf the gestational period of Elves…UNTIL NOW. I am debating whether or not just to ask you here or see if I can, in fact, live without knowing. Because I really want to know now!

    Also, do they go into how his Catholicism was perhaps the inspiration for the the Maia/scent thing? All that I can think of off the top of my head now is the chrism oil used in anointing as its sweet smell was to remind the one being anointed of the sweetness of life in Christ and the Christian’s call to be a sweet presence in the world. But that, I mean other than incense, is the only tie I can come up with.


    • Krysta says:

      Well, the bad news is that the book contains several tables of Tolkien trying to work out the gestational periods/ageing process because he needed all the ages of the characters he’d already made up to correspond to each other so they’d be living around the same time/be in the right age range to marry. I’m not sure which one he settled on, if indeed he ever decided. And if he did, it’s possible he would have had to go back and revise the timelines of The Silmarilion and LotR.

      I actually read this awhile ago, so sadly I can’t remember the numbers he was working with. It gets more confusing because one Elf year is 144 human/sun years. But what I remember is that the gestational period was maybe sort of equivalent to human gestation, but the kids come out and develop really quickly so they are basically walking and talking immediately. It takes a toll on the woman, though, and I think she isn’t seen while pregnant, so if, say, the queen was pregnant when a human was around, they might never meet her at all because they’d be gone or dead before she emerged again, since Elven years are longer than human years.

      There’s also a lot about how there is a time for everything, so younger Elves basically feel the desire to fall in love and marry and have kids, and that takes something of their soul, basically. So it’s hard on the woman, particularly. But later on they move on to wanting to pursue wisdom and such instead of having their energy all funnel into family/romance/children. They love and desire children, but might decide to wait on it in times of war and such.

      And, yes, there is a note about the sweet scents of Maia and Tolkien’s Catholicism! I believe it references things like sweet smells being related to saints or visions? There’s an appendix of sorts at the end explaining some Catholic thought that readers might not be familiar with, and the scent is part of that section.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I appreciate you SO MUCH for giving me this! Thank you! I mean, I always appreciate you but I particularly love this. It’s an interesting coincidence (as Tolkien’s Catholicism influences his work I’ve never heard/read about him drawing from Hinduism at all) to see how the Elves evolution mirrors the soul’s journey in Hinduism. As we age through multiple lives in Hinduism, our soul matures. We grow from wanting sensual desires (sex, love, beauty) to worldly desires (power, influence, money) to altruistic desires (helping others, moral journeys, etc.) to seeking wisdom/Self/God. It’s neat how the long lives of the Elves give a similar model for that.

        And wow! I just did some googling after I read your reply and I found something called the “odour of sanctity” which is the belief that there’s a heavenly scent which comes from the bodies of saints and/or wounds of the stigmata (there’s more to it than that but that’s just the super quick, first Wikipedia line, summary). This is so cool! I’ve not heard of this before and now I want to know everything!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Ah, very cool! I didn’t make the connection between the Elves and Hinduism! And, yes, the odor of sanctity sounds right. I was too lazy to go search for the actual name of it!

          Liked by 2 people

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