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J.R.R. Tolkien is acknowledged as a master of fantasy world-building, and I'd hardly argue with the assessment. There's a huge depth to the mythology and history he created for Middle Earth, not to mention the skill he has in evoking the various landscapes his characters encounter. And I'll admit to now and then getting out The Fellowship of the Ring just to stare at the map. It's part of what got me interested in geography.

But reading the Silmarillion last month, there was one thing that nagged at me about the world Tolkien created. It was almost all mythology and history. The lanscape was a backdrop for kings and heroes and great adventures, not a land where people lived from day to day. Aside from a few spots, such as the Shire and Beorn's house, there isn't a clear sense of the land as supporting its population. Where are the people hoeing their farms and hawking their wares? The dwarves are almost a mockery of my point -- a whole race devoted to one occupation, pursued for the sake of artisanry rather than sustenance.

Much of the land can be excused as wilderness. But in cities like Lothlorien and Minas Tirith, where people are congregated, you get no sense of what they do all day. They exist as agglomerations of subjects around the great halls and castles, not hubs on trade networks and sites of manufacture. Where are the fields and pastures that must support the elves of Lorien? Sam and Frodo ran into Faramir's patrol, but no Gondorian farmers awaiting the spring flood of the Anduin. The wolf riders burned the trees to flush out the Dwarves, but not to open up the forest for game or planting.

The population map in the Atlas of Middle Earth is telling. The only place where the land seems filled, where there is a full society rather than just dabs of people at the places that the mythic perspective takes notice of, are in Harad and Dorwinon -- lands far from the course of action in any of Tolkien's stories.


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