J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings": Real Places May Have Inspired Middle Earth

Tolkien himself wrote that "as for the shape of the world of the Third Age, I am afraid that was devised ‘dramatically’, rather than geologically, or paleontologically.”

Middle-earth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s invented mythology centered on an epic story of the struggle between Good and Evil, but it also included an elaborate backstory, a complex of languages, genealogies, cultures and peoples – and a map.


Created by Tolkien somewhere in the 1930s, the map shows the ‘mortal lands’ of Middle-earth, which according to Tolkien himself is part of our own Earth, but in a previous, mythical era. At the time of the events described in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Middle-earth is moving towards the end of its Third Age, about 6.000 years ago.

Tolkien didn’t create Middle-earth ex nihilo: ancient Germanic myths divide the Universe in nine worlds, inhabited by elves, dwarves, giants, etc. The world of men is the one in the middle, called Midgard, Middenheim or Middle-earth. That term doesn’t thus describe the entirety of the world Tolkien thought up. The correct term for the total world is Arda – probably derived from German Erde (‘Earth’) and only first mentioned posthumously in the Silmarillion (1977); and Eä (for the whole Universe).

The Hobbits are described as inhabiting ‘the North-West of the Old World, east of the Sea’, and therefore it’s tempting to associate their home with Tolkien’s own, England. Yet, Tolkien himself wrote that ‘as for the shape of the world of the Third Age, I am afraid that was devised ‘dramatically’, rather than geologically, or paleontologically.” Elsewhere, Tolkien does admit “The ‘Shire’ is based on rural England, and not any other country in the world.”

Tolkien at least compares his ‘Old World’ with Europe: “The action of the story takes place in the North-West of ‘Middle-earth’, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean (…) If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.”

But, as Tolkien states in the prologue to ‘The Lord of the Rings’, it would be fruitless to look for geographical correspondences, as “Those days, the Third Age of Middle-earth, are now long past, and the shape of all lands has been changed…” And yet, that’s exactly what Peter Bird attempts with the map here shown. Bird, a professor of Geophysics and Geology at UCLA, has overlapped the map of Middle-earth with one of Europe, which leads to following locations:

• The Shire is in the South-West of England, which further north is also home to the Old Forest (Yorkshire?), the Barrow Downs (north of England), the city of Bree (at or near Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and Amon Sul (Scottish Highlands).
• The Grey Havens are situated in Ireland.
• Eriador corresponds with Brittany.
• Helm’s Deep is near the Franco-German-Swiss border tripoint, close to the city of Basel.
• The mountain chain of Ered Nimrais is the Alps.
• Gondor corresponds with the northern Italian plains, extended towards the unsubmerged Adriatic Sea.
• Mordor is situated in Transylvania, with Mount Doom in Romania (probably), Minas Morgul in Hungary (approximately) and Minas Tirith in Austria (sort of).
• Rohan is in southern Germany, with Edoras at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. Also in Germany, but to the north, near present-day Hamburg, is Isengard. Close by is the forest of Fangorn.
• To the north is Mirkwood, further east are Rhovanion and the wastes of Rhûn, close to the Ural mountains.
• The Sea of Rhûn corresponds to the Black Sea.
• Khand is Turkey
• Haradwaith is the eastern part of North Africa, Umbar corresponds with the Maghreb, the western part of North Africa.
• The Bay of Belfalas is the western part of the Mediterranean.

This map taken here from professor Bird’s page at UCLA.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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