A year or so ago, I taught an author study course on J.R.R. Tolkien. For their final project, the students had to create an almanac for The Lord of the Rings, and I decided to write the introduction, a primer of sorts on where all the races of people and creatures came from. This turned out to be much harder than I anticipated, but the final product is a fair summary of the world Tolkien created, or at least I like to think so. My sources included The Silmarillion, The Books of Lost Tales, Unfinished Tales, and of course, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
A Brief History of Eä, the World
of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit
by Garrett Calcaterra
In the Beginning...
Illúvatar is the god and creator of Eä. He first created the Ainur, the Holy Ones, and together they created a song in which they imagined Eä, the world of trees, Elves, and Men. Once the world was imagined in song, Illúvatar created the world amidst the void and sent those of the Ainur who were willing to go make the world as they had imagined it in song. These Ainur who went to Eä were thenceforth known as the Valar and Maiar. The Valar were the more powerful of the two groups, and chief amongst them were Manwë, Aulë, Ulmo, Yavanna, Oromë, and Melkor.
Melkor alone amongst the Valar had greed in his heart and he desired for Eä to be his own. However, Illúvatar had appointed Manwe to be King of Eä, and together with the other Valar and the Maiar, he denied Melkor lordship over the world. Still, as they sought to create the world as they had envisioned in song, Melkor worked to ruin and pervert what they created and there were countless ages of war with Melkor. Among the Maiar, Melkor was able to seduce many allies into his servitude, including the Balrogs and Sauron.
Eventually, Melkor was banished from Arda: the land created for Elves and Men, which would come to be known as Middle-earth. Melkor hid in the deep, dark places of the world and bid his time. Meanwhile, the Valar created two great lamps, taller than mountains, to give light to Middle-earth and Yavanna planted seeds which became plants and trees. Beasts and animals were created, and when all was prepared for the Elves to be born, the Valar held a great feast. While they feasted, Melkor crept back into the northern reaches of Middle-earth and with his servants created a stronghold named Angband beneath the mountains. Then, Melkor attacked. The great lamps were destroyed, sending the world into darkness, and Middle-earth was marred immeasurably. The Valar were able to again repel Melkor, but he retreated to his underground fortress and they themselves left Arda and traveled to the far western lands known as Aman, or the Undying Lands, where they created a safe haven called Valinor.
The Valar made Valinor beautiful and Yavanna created the Two Trees of Valinor, which emanated a warm light to illuminate Valinor. Meanwhile, Middle-earth remained dark, with only the stars to illuminate the lands, and Melkor continued his plotting.
The Elves and Dwarves
Illúvatar had not yet deemed it time for Elves or Men—the Children of Illúvatar—to inhabit the world, but Aulë grew impatient and so created his own race of creatures, the Dwarves. Illúvatar allowed the Dwarves to live, but put them into a deep sleep until such time that Elves were born, and he foretold that there would be much strife between Dwarves and the Children of Illúvatar because the Dwarves had not been part of the original song of the Ainur.
Yavanna, realizing that Elves, Men, and Dwarves would have dominion over all the plants and trees, became concerned and consulted with Manwë. Manwë called out to Illúvatar, and the song of the Ainur was renewed in his mind and he foretold that Ents would be born to be Shepherds of the Trees before the Elves were awoken.
Realizing that the time had come for Elves to be born, many of the Valar wanted to attack Melkor, but Manwë bid them to stay their hand and instead urged Varda to create new stars to better illuminate Middle-earth. As Varda did so, the Elves were born unbeknownst to the Valar in the far eastern reaches of Middle-earth, in a place called Cuiviénen. This began the First Age. Over time, the Elves developed speech and spread out over the land. Melkor was the first to discover them and he sent his agents to haunt and attack them so that they would fear the Valar. He also captured many of these first elves, and in the dark reaches of his fortress he perverted and transformed them, and thus the race of Orcs was formed. Like the Elves, they could not become ill nor die of old age, but rather could only be killed by injury. (Elves could in extreme instances also die of grief).
Oromë, in his travels, was first of the Valar to discover the Elves and he returned to Valinor to tell Manwë of their coming. Despairing over the fate of the Elves in Melkor's hands, Manwë led the other Valar to Angband, and after many years, captured and chained Melkor to be imprisoned far in the west. Many of Melkor's dark agents escaped and hid, however, including Sauron.
With Melkor safely imprisoned, the Valar met in council to discuss the fate of the Elves. Some argued that the Elves should be left to live in Middle-earth as was foretold in their original song, but many of the Valar feared for the Elves because Middle-earth had been so badly damaged, and they insisted that the Elves come to the west where they could live beneath the light of the Two Trees of Valinor. Many of the Elves were still afraid of the Valar, however, and remained in Middle-earth. Those Elves who went west with the Valar to Valinor were thenceforth called the Eldar, and there were three groups of them, the Vanyar, the Noldor, and the Teleri. The Elves who remained in the east near Cuiviénen were known as the Avari, and those who traveled west but were waylaid and never left Middle-earth were known as the Sindar—the most famous of whom was Thingol.
Melkor's Release and the Silmarils
After three ages of captivity, Melkor was brought before Manwë and he repented and begged forgiveness. Manwë, not fully comprehending Melkor's evilness, freed Melkor and bid him to stay in Valinor. There, Melkor taught the Noldor many things, but Fëanor, mightiest of the Noldor, despised Melkor and he kept to his own devices. Fëanor was a masterful craftsman and he labored many years in secret to fashion three jewels that would preserve the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, and these were called the Silmarils. When Melkor beheld the Silmarils, he lusted to have them for his own and his plotting began anew. He whispered lies to those Noldor who would listen to him and planted the seeds of distrust towards the Valar. Then Melkor spread lies to Fëanor that Fingolfin, his brother, desired to steal the Silmarils. Thus, great jealousy sprung between the brothers, and Melkor taught them to fashion weapons.
The Valar eventually learned of this treachery. Melkor fled back to Middle-earth, and Fëanor was chastised for threatening his brother Fingolfin. Fingolfin, hoping to mend the rift, swore allegiance to Fëanor.
Back in Middle-earth, Melkor sought the help of Ungoliant, a dark spirit clad in the form of a giant spider. Ungoliant spun a web or darkness so she and Melkor could sneak back into Valinor, and together they destroyed the Two Trees of Valinor and all was cast in darkness.
The three Silmarils were all that remained of the light of the trees. The Valar asked Fëanor to give up the jewels, so the Trees could be healed by Yavanna, but he refused them, and even as he did so, Melkor snuck into Fëanor's home, killed his father, Finwë, and stole the Silmarils. Learning of this news, Fëanor cursed Melkor before the Valar and renamed him Morgoth.
Safely back in Middle-earth, Ungoliant bid Morgoth to give her the Silmarils so that she might eat them, but he refused her and she ensnared him in a web. He cried out in pain, and the Balrogs, hearing his cry, came to his aid and chased Ungoliant away to hide in the Mountains of Terror where she spawned many evil spiders. Morgoth then returned to Angband and placed the Silmarils in an iron crown.
In Valinor, Fëanor summoned the Noldor and declared war on Morgoth. Fëanor and his seven sons made an oath to Illúvatar, swearing they would not rest until Morgoth was dead and the Silmarils returned to the house of Fëanor. This oath became the curse of the Noldor. Fingolfin and his kin did not take the oaths, but because of Fingolfin's prior oath of fealty, they were compelled to follow Fëanor.
The Noldor followed Morgoth's trail and soon realized he had crossed the great ocean to return to Middle-earth. Needing ships to follow the trail, Fëanor tried to persuade the sea-faring Teleri Elves to aid them. When the Teleri refused, Fëanor took their ships by force and for the first time, Elves fought and killed each other, adding to the curse of the Noldor.
Fëanor led the Noldor north and east, and as they passed from the Undying Lands beyond Valinor, a herald of the Valar decreed the Doom of the Noldor, but Fëanor pushed the Noldor onward, some by ship and some by land across the narrow straight at the northern rim of the world, for there were too few ships to transport all the Noldor. Eventually, they reached the Helcaraxë, a seemingly impassible mountain of ice, and Fëanor snuck away with the ships to Middle-earth with those most loyal to him, leaving behind Fingolfin and his people. Safely in Middle-earth, Fëanor burned the ships rather than going back to rescue his kinsmen. Fingolfin led his people alone across the perilous Helcaraxë, suffering many losses, but at length his people, too, reached Middle-earth, among them Galadriel, who much later took part in the War of the Ring. The people of Fingolfin from that point forward had much grievance and hatred for the kin of Fëanor.
And there in Middle-earth, the fractured Noldor came to co-exist with the Elves who never left Middle-earth and the Dwarves. Morgoth dwelt in Middle-earth as well, rebuilding his fortress, Angband, and increasing his powers by breeding orcs, dragons, and other fell creatures.
The Sun, the Moon, and the Birth of Men
In Valinor, the Valar unsuccessfully tried to heal the Two Trees, but before completely dying and leaving the world, the Trees produced one golden fruit and one silver flower, which became the Sun and the Moon, respectively. The Valar placed the Sun and Moon in the heavens to light the entirety of Eä, and as they did so, Men were born in the eastern reaches of Middle-earth. The Valar were unaware of the coming of men, and fearing that Morgoth might again attack their home, they created great mountains to hide Valinor and the Undying Lands.
Unlike Elves, Men were born mortal. They were prone to illness and would eventually die of old age, and unlike the Elves, whose spirits went to dwell in the hall of Mandos in Valinor when their bodies died, the fate of the spirits of men is not known to any but Illúvatar himself. The majority of men fell under the dominion of Morgoth, but three houses of men fled westward to resist Morgoth. These houses of men were to become know as the Edain.
The Hopeless War Against Morgoth
For some 500 years, Elves, Men, and Dwarves fought across Middle-earth, sometimes against each other, sometimes jointly against Morgoth's minions. Many great heroes rose and fell. Fëanor was slain by Gothmog, lord of the Balrogs. Fingolfin was killed by Morgoth himself in single combat. Ecthelion and Gothmog fought each other to the death during the fall of Gondolin. Turin, perhaps mightiest of all men, fought Glaurung, father of dragons, to the death. Huan, the mightiest wolfhound to ever walk Eä, killed Draugluin, father of werewolves; defeated Sauron in wolf form; and fought Carcharoth, Morgoth's mightiest werewolf, to the death.
Ever, the curse of the Noldor brought ruin to those who tried to defeat Morgoth. Eventually, however, a series of events unfolded to lift the curse of the Noldor and bring the downfall of Morgoth. Thingol, who was of the Sindar (King of the Grey Elves), came to marry Melian, a Maiar who had taken Elven form, and together they had a daughter named Lúthien. Lúthien came to love Beren, a human male of the Edain, but Thingol, not wanting his daughter to marry a human, granted Beren his daughter's hand only if Beren could retrieve one of the Silmaril's from Morgoth's crown. Lúthien joined Beren on his seemingly impossible quest, and with the help of Huan and many others, they did indeed take one of the Silmarils from Morgoth. This caused enmity between the Sindar and the Noldor, however, because the Noldor still believed the Silmarils belonged to them.
Thingol, bid the Dwarves of Nogrod to place the Silmaril in a necklace for him to wear, but seeing the Silmaril, the Dwarves coveted it for themselves, and when Thingol denied it to them, they killed him and fled with it. This led to war between the Grey Elves and the Nogrod Dwarves, and the Ents played a part in killing the Nogrod and reclaiming the Silmaril, which was passed on to Elwing, grandaughter of Beren and Lúthien. Elwing was of three races: the Maiar, the Noldor, and the Edain.
Another joining of Elves and Men came about with the marriage of Tuor and Idril in Gondolin. Together they had a son, Eärendil, and when Gondolin fell to Morgoth's minions and all seemed lost, Eärendil and Elwing were brought together in the Havens of the Sirion, in the far western corner of Middle-earth. There they had two sons, Elrond and Elros.
Still bound by their oath and curse, the sons of Fëanor attacked Elwing's people and tried to recapture the Silmaril. Elrond and Elros were captured, but Elwing threw herself into the sea with the Silmaril, and Ulmo, lord of waters transformed her into a great white bird and she took the Silmaril to Eärendil and together they sailed to the Undying Lands. Only by the power of the Silmaril were they able to find the Undying Lands, and there Eärendil told the Valar of all that had happened in Middle-earth and he begged for forgiveness, both for Elves and Men.
Meanwhile, Morgoth's power spread across Middle-earth, and his dominion was near complete thanks to the fighting amongst Elves, Men, and Dwarves.
The War of Wrath and the reshaping of Eä
Hearing Eärendil's words, the Valar traveled with their host across the sea to battle Morgoth. The war was devastating, for Morgoth brought the entirety of his might against the Valar. The western portion of Middle-earth, known as Beleriand, was ruined and sent beneath the sea. In the end, though, the power of Morgoth could not withstand the Valar. All but a few of the Balrogs were destroyed; Eärendil and the Eagles of Manwë, led by Thorondor, destroyed most of Morgoth's dragons; Angband was destroyed; and Morgoth was taken captive to forever wear the chain of Angainor and be held captive away from Middle-earth. This began the Second Age.
Against the will of the Valar, Maglor and Maedhros, the last two sons of Fëanor, stole away the two Silmarils from Morgoth's crown. The jewels burned them, however, and unable to bare them long, Maedhros cast his jewel into a chasm of fire and Maglor threw his into the sea. The third Silmaril, the one Eärendil and Elwing had bore, was put into the heavens, and so the three Silmarils were forever gone from the hands of Valar, Mair, Elves, Men, and Dwarves.
As a reward for fighting against Morgoth, the Edain were given the gift of long life and their own island to rule near the Undying Lands, known as Númenor. And as a reward to the kindred of Eärendil and Elwing, Elrond and Elros, half-Elven, were given the choice to be either Elves or Men. Elrond chose to be Elvenkind and Elros chose to become human and he was the first King of the Númenóreans.
The Rise of Sauron and the Fall of Númenor
During Morgoth's reign over Middle-earth, Morgoth had put much of his power into his minions, so much so that his own power had waned to the point that he never stepped foot out of Angband again after fighting Fingolfin in single combat. His minions, however, took upon much of his power, and strongest of his agents was Sauron. Sauron fled from the Valar after the War of Wrath and hid in Middle-earth. After a time, he grew brave again, and began seducing the Elves, Men, and Dwarves of Middle-earth. He gave them many gifts, and taught them to be master craftsmen.
The remnants of the Noldor Elves were most receptive to his tutelage, and under his guidance they created the Rings of Power. Unbeknown to them, however, he forged a master ring, the One Ring to control anyone who wore the Rings of Power. When Sauron wore his ring, though, the Elves could in turn sense him and they took their rings off so as not to be held under his power. Sauron grew angry and stole all but three of the rings, and of the rings he stole, he bestowed them as gifts to Men and Dwarves and slowly took dominion over Middle-earth.
Away from Middle-earth, the heirs of Elros ruled Númenor and became the most learned and powerful men to ever walk Eä. They conquered the seas and came to take dominion over men on the western shores of Middle-earth. They grew greedy, however, and discontent with their mortality. They began to distrust the Valar and Elves, and Ar-Pharazôn, the 25th King of Númenor, grew so powerful that he went to Middle-earth and captured Sauron himself. Sauron had learned well from Morgoth, however, and with whispers and lies he sowed further discord between the Númenóreans and the Valar and Elves.
The Númenóreans were barred from ever setting foot on the Undying Lands, like all humans, but Sauron assured Ar-Pharazôn that the Valar were merely afraid of the Númenóreans. At Sauron's prompting, Ar-Pharazôn led the Númenóreans to attack the Undying Lands. Only a small contingent of Númenóreans defected, and these were the line of Elendil. With him, his sons Isildur and Anárion fled Númenor with a fruit from the White Tree of Númenor and the seven Palantíri, or seeing stones. From this line of Númenóreans, or Dúnedain, the realms of Gondor and Rohan were established in Middle-earth.
The rest of the Númenóreans were killed and the wrath of Manwë and the Valar was so great that Númenor itself was sunk beneath the sea. To Men, the earth became round and the Undying Lands became unreachable. Sauron himself could not escape the storm of the Valar, and he lost his body. His spirit fled back to Middle-earth and never again could he don an attractive and beguiling form.
The Istari, the White Council, and the War of the Ring
Sauron gave seven Rings of Power to Dwarve kings, but Aulë had created the Dwarves to be hearty and stubborn, and they were hard to rule. Of those seven rings, some were lost, and the others Sauron recovered.
Nine rings were given to men, and these men became mighty warriors, kings, and wizards, but they all succumbed to Sauron's power, and these nine men became Nazgûl, Sauron's most powerful servants.
Of the three Elven rings, Sauron knew not their whereabouts, and after returning from Númenor he gathered his Orcs in Mordor and attacked all those who opposed him. Gil-Galad, the last High-Elven King in Middle-earth, and Elendil gathered together the Last Alliance. Elves, the Men of Gondor, and the Dwarves of Moria joined forces, and together they defeated Sauron. Gil-Galad and Elendil were killed, but Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand and again Sauron's spirit was cast from his body. Elrond urged Isildur to throw the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, for Sauron's spirit was bound to the ring, but like the Silmarils of the prior age, the One Ring proved to be irresistible. Isildur kept the One Ring, and so Sauron's spirit survived. This marked the beginning of the Third Age.
Isildur was soon after killed by Orcs and the One Ring was lost. Isildur's line lived on, but the Dúnedain slowly faded from prominence and men came to forget Sauron and the One Ring.
Of the three remaining Elven rings of power, Elrond kept one hidden and he built Rivendell as a stronghold against Sauron's eventual return. Galadriel, oldest and mightiest of Elves still to remain in Middle-earth, kept hidden another of the rings and she enchanted the land of Lórien to keep it hidden. The third ring was held for time in secret by Círdan the ship builder in the Gray Havens at the western edge of Middle-earth. With the One Ring lost, Elrond and Galadriel were able to use their rings without fear, and they made their lands both beautiful and powerful.
Sauron was not gone forever, though. The Nazgûl prepared for his return and eventually Sauron's spirit emerged in Mirkwood. In this incarnation he was known as the Necromancer. At this same time, an order of Wizards arrived in Middle-earth and these were the Istari, Maiar chosen by the Valar to help combat Sauron. They were allowed to council Elves, Men, and Dwarves, but were inhibited by their human forms. Most well known of the Istari were Saruman and Gandalf. Saruman was their leader, but Gandalf was the most vigilant and it is he who learned of Sauron's presence in Mirkwood.
Thus the White Council was formed, comprised of Saruman, Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Cirdan, amongst others. Their purpose was to prevent the rise of Sauron, but Saruman bid against taking action because he secretly desired to find the One Ring and rule Middle-earth himself. When Sauron's power in Mirkwood became too strong to ignore, though, the White Council moved against him, and he fled to Mordor where the Nazgûl had been preparing for him.
Unbeknownst to all, the One Ring had already been found by Sméagol, or Gollum as he was later called, and hidden away in the Misty Mountains. Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, errantly found and stole the ring from Gollum while on a quest with the Dwarve kin of Durin to kill the last dragon in Middle-earth, Smaug, as told in The Hobbit. Bilbo many years later passed the ring on to his nephew Frodo Baggins. Meanwhile, Sauron continued to grow stronger, Saruman left the White Council to continue his search for the One Ring, and Isildur's heir, Aragorn, roamed the wilds as a ranger. Gandalf, whom Cirdan had given the third Elven ring, discovered that Frodo was indeed in possession of the One Ring, and so the stage was set for the War of the Rings, as told in The Lord of the Rings.
When the One Ring was cast into the fires of Mount Doom at the end of the war, Sauron's spirit was destroyed along with the ring. This ended the Third Age and began the Age of Men. The power in the three Elven Rings faded and all Elves who remained in Middle-earth began their voyage westward to the Gray Havens and across the sea to the Undying Lands, which were still open to them. Gandalf, too, went to the Undying Lands, and also the Ring Bearers Bilbo and Frodo. Elrond's daughter, Arwen, chose to become human and stayed in Middle-earth to marry Aragorn, now King of Gondor.
And while Sauron was destroyed, and much of the Orc host with him, there was still evil in the world. Many agents of evil survived the War of the Ring; in the far east, the whereabouts of the two Blue Istari were unknown and some suspected magic cults had sprung up to worship them; most importantly, men through the ages had shown a great capacity for evil, both in following Melkor and Sauron, and of their own devices...