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In J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, the history of the fictional universe of Eä began when the Ainur entered Arda, following the creation events in the Ainulindalë and long ages of labour throughout Eä, the universe. Time from that point was measured using Valian Years, though the subsequent history of Arda was divided into three time periods using different years, known as the Years of the Lamps, the Years of the Trees and the Years of the Sun. A separate, overlapping chronology divides the history into 'Ages of the Children of Ilúvatar'. The first such Age began with the Awakening of the Elves during the Years of the Trees and continued for the first six centuries of the Years of the Sun. All the subsequent Ages took place during the Years of the Sun. Most Middle-earth stories take place in the first three Ages of the Children of Ilúvatar.
Music of the Ainur
The supreme deity of Tolkien's universe is called Eru Ilúvatar. In the beginning, Ilúvatar created spirits named the Ainur from his thoughts, and some were considered brothers or sisters. Ilúvatar made divine music with them. Melkor, who was then the most powerful of the Ainur, broke the harmony of the music, until Ilúvatar began first a second theme, and then a third theme, which the Ainur could not comprehend since they were not the source of it. The essence of their song symbolized the history of the whole universe and the Children of Ilúvatar that were to dwell in it—the Men and the Elves.
Then Ilúvatar created Eä, which means "to be," the universe itself, and formed within it Arda, the Earth, "globed within the void": the world together with the three airs is set apart from Avakúma, the "void" without. The first 15 of the Ainur that descended to Arda, and the most powerful ones, were called Valar, and the Ainur of lesser might that came with them were called Maiar.
In the fictional works of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Valian Years are used to measure the passage of time after the arrival of the Ainur in Arda. This definition of a year, named for the Valar, continued to be used during periods that used different definitions of a year, such as the Years of the Lamps, the Years of the Trees, and the Years of the Sun. The Valian years continued to be measured in Aman after the first sunrise, but Tolkien provided no dates for events in Aman after that point. The account in Valian years is generally not used when describing the events of Beleriand and Middle-earth.
In the 1930s and 40s Tolkien used a figure which fluctuated slightly around ten before settling on 9.582 solar years in each Valian year. However, in the 1950s Tolkien decided to use a much greater value of 144 solar years per Valian year, and included this figure in The Lord of the Rings appendices as the length of the elven year (the yen).
This new figure elongates the established timeline: The Flight of the Noldor took 5 Valian Years (~50 of our years); with the new figure this would be 'translated' into ~700 of our years. Some commenters suggest that these new figures would be too long if applied directly to the existing dates and therefore the new definition is a wholly different measure than the one used in the timeline and cannot be applied directly. In contrast, Tolkien described time as having flowed more slowly in Aman, such that a Valian year there would 'feel' like the passage of a single solar year in Middle-earth despite being much longer.
Years of the Lamps
When the Valar entered Arda, it was still lifeless and had no distinct geographical features. The initial shape of Arda, chosen by the Valar, was much more symmetrical, including the central continent of Middle-earth. Middle-earth was also originally very much larger, and was lit by the Two Lamps, Illuin and Ormal, made out of the misty light that veiled the barren ground. The Valar concentrated this light in two large lamps, Illuin and Ormal. The Vala Aulë forged two great pillar-like mountains, Helcar in the north and Ringil in the south. Illuin was set upon Helcar and Ormal upon Ringil. In the middle, where the light of the lamps mingled, the Valar dwelt at the island of Almaren upon the Great Lake.
This period, known as the Spring of Arda, was a time when the Valar had ordered the World as they wished and rested upon Almaren, and Melkor lurked beyond the Walls of Night. During this time animals first appeared, and forests started to grow.
The Spring of Arda was interrupted when Melkor returned to Arda, and ended completely when he assaulted and destroyed the Lamps of the Valar.
Arda was again darkened, and the fall of the great Lamps spoiled the symmetry of Arda's surface. New continents were created: Aman in the West, Middle-earth proper in the middle, the uninhabited lands (later called the Land of the Sun) in the East. At the site of the northern lamp was later the inland Sea of Helcar, of which Cuiviénen was a bay. At the site of the southern lamp was later the Sea of Ringil. After the destruction of the Two Lamps the Years of the Lamps ended and the Years of the Trees began.
Years of the Trees
Shortly after the destruction of the Two Lamps and the kingdom of Almaren, the Valar abandoned Middle-earth and moved to the continent of Aman. There they built their Second Kingdom, Valinor. Yavanna made the Two Trees, named Telperion (the silver tree) and Laurelin (the golden tree) in the land of Valinor. The Trees illuminated Valinor, leaving Middle-earth in darkness lit only by stars. The Years of the Trees were contemporary with Middle-earth's Sleep of Yavanna.
The Years of the Trees were divided into two epochs in Valinor. The first ten Ages, known as the Years of Bliss, saw peace and prosperity in Valinor. The Eagles, the Ents and the Dwarves were conceived by Manwë, Yavanna, and Aulë respectively, but placed into slumber until after the awakening of the Elves. The next ten Ages, called the Noontide of the Blessed, saw Varda rekindling the stars above Middle-earth. This was the first time after the Years of the Lamps that Middle-earth was illuminated. The first Elves awoke in Cuiviénen in the middle of Middle-earth, marking the start of the First Age of the Children of Ilúvatar, and were soon approached by the Enemy Melkor who hoped to enslave them. Learning of this, the Valar and the Maiar came into Middle-earth and, in the War of the Powers (also called the Battle of the Powers), defeated Melkor and brought him captive to Valinor. This began the period of the Peace of Arda.
After the War of the Powers, Oromë of the Valar summoned the Elves to come to Aman. Many of the Elves were persuaded to go with Oromë on the Great Journey westwards towards Aman. Along the journey several groups of Elves tarried, notably the Nandor and the Sindar. The three clans that arrived at Aman were the Vanyar, Noldor and the Teleri. They made their home in Eldamar. After Melkor appeared to repent and was released after his servitude of three Ages, he sowed great discord among the Elves, and stirred up rivalry between the Noldorin King Finwë's two sons Fëanor and Fingolfin. With the help of Ungoliant, he slew Finwë and stole the Silmarils, three gems crafted by Fëanor that contained light of the Two Trees, from his vault, and destroyed the Trees of the Valar. The world was then dark, save for the faint starlight.
Bitter at the Valar's inactivity, Fëanor and his house left to pursue Melkor, cursing him with the name "Morgoth". While his brother Finarfin chose to stay in Valinor, a larger host led by Fingolfin followed Fëanor. They reached Alqualondë, the port-city of the Teleri, who forbade them from taking their ships for the journey to Middle-earth. The first Kinslaying thus ensued, and a curse was put on the house of the Noldor forever. Fëanor's host sailed on the boats, leaving Fingolfin's host behind—who crossed over to Middle-earth on the Helcaraxë or Grinding Ice in the far north, losing many. The War of the Great Jewels followed, and lasted until the end of the First Age. Meanwhile, the Valar took the last living fruit of Laurelin and the last living flower of Telperion and used them to create the Moon and Sun, which remained a part of Arda, but were separate from Ambar (the world). The first rising of the sun over Ambar heralded the end of the Years of the Trees, and the start of the Years of the Sun, which last to the present day.
Years of the Sun
In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Years of the Sun were the last of the three great time-periods of Arda, together with the Years of the Lamps and the Years of the Trees. They began with the first sunrise in conjunction with the return of the Noldor to Middle-earth, and last until the present day. The Years of the Sun began towards the end of the First Age of the Children of Ilúvatar and continued through the Second, Third, and part of the Fourth in Tolkien's stories. Tolkien estimated that modern times would correspond to the sixth or seventh age.
Ages of the Children of Ilúvatar
The First Age of the Children of Ilúvatar, or Eruhíni, began during the Years of the Trees when the Elves awoke in Cuiviénen in the middle-east of Middle-earth. This marked the start of the years when the Children of Ilúvatar were active in Middle-earth. Later in the First Age the second kindred, humans, also awake.
In some texts Tolkien referred to the 'First Age of Middle-earth' or the 'First Age of the World' rather than the 'First Age of the Children of Ilúvatar'. These variations had earlier starting points, extending the First Age back to the creation of Arda, but consistently ended with Morgoth's defeat in Beleriand.
Tolkien wrote that the later Ages lasted about 3,000 years, though this duration was not fixed and he felt that the Ages 'sped up' over time. Each ended following the completion of some major event in the history of the Children of Ilúvatar.
The terms 'First Age of the Sun' and 'Ages of the Sun' are commonly used by many fans, but do not appear anywhere in Tolkien's writings. The 'First Age of the Sun' in this conception is held to begin with the first rising of the Sun and continue until Morgoth's defeat nearly 600 years later. While this is at odds with Tolkien's statements that the First Age was the longest by far it is a common misapprehension because the subsequent ages all took place entirely during the Years of the Sun.
The First Age of the Children of Ilúvatar began during the Years of the Trees when the Elves awoke at Cuiviénen, and hence the events mentioned above under Years of the Trees overlap with the beginning of the First Age.
Having crossed into Middle-earth, Fëanor was soon lost in an attack on Morgoth's Balrogs—but his sons survived, and founded realms, as did the followers of Fingolfin, who reached Beleriand after Fëanor's death.
The Noldor for a time besieged Morgoth's stronghold of Angband, resulting in the Long Peace. This Peace lasted hundreds of years; during which time Men arrived over the Blue Mountains. But the peace was not to last; and one by one the kingdoms—even the hidden ones of Gondolin and Doriath—fell. The initial battle that allowed Morgoth's forces to break free of the Siege of Angband was aptly named Dagor Bragollach, or The Battle of Sudden Flame. Morgoth issued flames and lava from Angband which enveloped the surrounding area. A mighty force was then sent forth to break their centuries long siege.
At the end of the age, all that remained of free Elves and Men in Beleriand was a settlement at the mouth of the River Sirion and another settlement on the isle of Balar. Eärendil had possession of a Silmaril, which his wife Elwing's ancestors Beren and Lúthien had taken from Morgoth. But the Fëanorians had a claim on the Silmaril still and so there was another Kinslaying. Eärendil and Elwing took the Silmaril across the Great Sea, to beg the Valar for aid against Morgoth.
The Second Age lasted for 3441 years, and ended with the downfall of Sauron, when he was defeated by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men following the downfall of Númenor. This age was characterized by the rise of Númenor, the rise of Sauron in Middle-earth (which saw the creation of the Ringwraiths), and the early wars of the Rings between Sauron and the Elves.
The 3441 years of the Second Age are, for the most part, unchronicled. Besides the hints about the Second Age found in The Lord of the Rings, several shorter writings fill in some of the gap between the downfall of Morgoth at the end of the First Age and the first downfall of Sauron which marked the beginning of the Third Age.
"The Tale of Years" in Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings outlines the major events of the Second Age, especially as they relate to the Rings of Power and the events and characters of The Lord of the Rings. Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings contains genealogies of the royal house of Númenor. Appendix D of The Lord of the Rings gives details of the Númenórean calendar, including special intercalation in the years 1000, 2000 and 3000, and notes on how this system of intercalation was disrupted by the designation of S.A. 3442 the first year of the Third Age. In addition, several sections of Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth deal extensively with Númenor and several of its kings. Also, at the end of The Silmarillion, "Akallabêth", or 'the falling of a star,' recounts the fall of Númenor and its kings, and also the rise of Gondor and Arnor.
The Men who had remained faithful were given the island of Númenor, in the middle of the Great Sea, and there they established a great Kingdom; and the White Tree of Númenor was planted in the King's city of Armenelos; and it was said that while that tree stood in the King's courtyard, the reign of Númenor would yet last. The Elves were granted pardon for the sins of Fëanor, and were allowed to return home to the Undying Lands.
The Númenóreans became great seafarers, and were learned and wise beyond all other men; and they were granted a lifespan three times that of other mortal men; and at first, they held to the Ban of the Valar, never sailing into the Undying Lands. And so they travelled east, and coming to Middle-earth they helped teach the lesser men valuable skills. After a time, they became jealous of the Elves for their immortality. Meanwhile, in Middle-earth it became apparent that Sauron, Morgoth's chief servant, was still active. He worked with Elven smiths, especially Celebrimbor, the grandson of Fëanor in Eregion on the craft of rings, and secretly forged the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom to dominate them all. But as soon as Sauron put on the One Ring, The Elves were aware of him and removed theirs. Sauron then made war on the elves, and nearly destroyed them utterly; but when it seemed defeat was imminent, the Númenóreans, led by Tar-Minastir, joined the battle and completely crushed the forces of Sauron, thus saving Gil-galad and the elves of Middle-earth from obliteration. Sauron never forgot the ruin brought to his armies by the Númenóreans, and made it his goal to destroy them by whatever means necessary.
Towards the end of the age, the Númenóreans were growing increasingly proud. Now rather than helping the lesser Men of Middle-earth, they sought to dominate them and establish kingdoms abroad. Ar-Pharazôn, the last and most powerful of the Kings of Númenor, humbled even Sauron and brought him to Númenor as a hostage, although this was Sauron's goal. At this time still beautiful in appearance, Sauron quickly worked his way into Ar-Pharazôn's court and became high priest in the cult of Melkor. At this time, the Faithful (who still worshipped Eru Ilúvatar), were persecuted openly by those called the King's Men, and were sacrificed in the name of Melkor. Eventually, with the help of the power of the One Ring, Sauron even convinced Ar-Pharazôn to attempt to invade Aman, promising that immortality would result.
Amandil, chief of the Faithful, sailed westward to warn the Valar of this. His son Elendil and grandsons Isildur and Anárion prepared to flee eastwards, taking with them a seedling of the White Tree of Númenor before Sauron destroyed it, and the palantíri, gifts of the elves. When the King's men had landed on Aman, the Valar lay down their guardianship of the world and called for Ilúvatar to intervene.
The world was changed into a sphere, and the straight road from Middle-earth to Aman was broken. Númenor was utterly destroyed, as was the fair body of Sauron; however his spirit drifted back to Mordor, where he again took up the One Ring and gathered his strength once more. Elendil and his sons were spared, and together with the remainder of the Faithful, they found safe passage to Middle-earth, where they founded the realms in exile of Gondor and Arnor.
Sauron arose again and challenged them. The Elves allied with Men to form the Last Alliance. For seven years, the Alliance laid siege to Barad-dûr, until at last Sauron himself joined the battle field. And there he slew Elendil, High King of Gondor and Arnor, as well as Gil-galad, King of the Elves of Middle-earth. But when it seemed all was lost, Isildur took up the hilt of Narsil, his father's now shattered sword, and cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand. And Sauron was defeated, but not utterly destroyed. For Isildur ignored the counsel of Elrond, and rather than destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, he kept it for himself. But the Ring betrayed him, as it slipped from his finger as he was escaping from an Orc ambush at the Gladden Fields. Isildur was slain, and the Ring fell into the Anduin River, where it was lost for a time.
The Third Age lasted for 3021 years, beginning with the first downfall of Sauron, when he was defeated by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men following the downfall of Númenor and ending with the War of the Ring final defeat of Sauron, the events narrated in The Lord of the Rings.
The Third Age saw the rise in power of the realms of Arnor and Gondor, and their fall. Arnor was divided into three petty Kingdoms, which fell one by one, whilst Gondor fell victim to Kin-strife, plague, Wainriders, and Corsairs. In this time, the line of the Kings of Gondor ends, with the House of the Stewards ruling in their stead. Meanwhile, the heirs of Isildur from the fallen kingdom of Arnor wander Middle-earth, aided only by Elrond in Rivendell; but the line of rightful heirs remains unbroken throughout the age.
This age was characterized by the waning of the Elves. In the beginning of the Third Age, many Elves left for Valinor because they were disturbed by the recent war. However, Elven kingdoms still survived in Lindon, Lothlórien, and Mirkwood. Rivendell also became a prominent haven for the Elves and other races. Throughout the Age, they chose not to mingle much in the matters of other lands, and only came to the aid of other races in time of war. The Elves chose to devote themselves to artistic pleasures, and tended to the lands which they occupied. The gradual decline of Elven populations occurred throughout the Age as the rise of Sauron came to dominate Middle-earth. By the end of the Third Age, only mere fragments of the once-grand Elven civilization survived in Middle-earth.
The Wizards arrive during this period to aid the Free Peoples, most importantly Gandalf and Saruman. The One Ring was found by Sméagol but, under the power of the Ring and ignorant of its true nature, he retreated with the Ring to a secret life in mountain caves.
The so-called Watchful Peace began in 2063 T.A., when Gandalf went to Dol Guldur and the evil dwelling there (later known to be Sauron) fled to the far east. It lasted until 2460 T.A., when Sauron returned with new strength. During this period Gondor strengthened its borders, keeping a watchful eye on the east, as Minas Morgul was still a threat on their flank and Mordor was still occupied with Orcs. But no major escalations occurred except for minor skirmishes with Umbar. In the north, Arnor was long gone, but the Hobbits of the Shire prospered, getting their first Took Thain, and colonizing Buckland. The Dwarves of Durin's folk under Thorin I abandoned Erebor, and left for the Grey Mountains, where most of their kin now gathered. Meanwhile, Sauron was not idle in the east: he created a strong alliance between the various tribes of Easterlings, so that when he returned he was more powerful and had many Men in his service.
By the time of The Lord of the Rings, Sauron had recovered again, and was seeking the One Ring. The events of the ensuing War of the Ring leading to the end of the Third Age is the subject of The Lord of the Rings, and summarized in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age (written c. 1948 and published in The Silmarillion). After the defeat of Sauron, Aragorn takes his place as King of the Reunited Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor, restoring the line of Kings from the Stewards of Gondor. Aragorn marries the daughter of Elrond, Arwen. And as the age ends, Gandalf and many of the remaining elves of Middle-earth leave in a ship which departs from the Grey Havens, and go to Aman.
The end of the Third Age marked the end of the involvement of the Elves in Human affairs, despite a short-lived revival of Elven presence in Gondor under Legolas. Most Elves that have lingered in Middle-earth leave for Valinor—those that remain behind "fade", and eventually diminish. A similar fate happens to the Dwarves: although Erebor becomes an ally of the Reunited Kingdom and there are indications Khazad-dûm is refounded, and a colony is established under Gimli in the White Mountains, they become ever more reclusive, and disappear from human history. Morgoth's creatures are almost wiped out and never recover. During the later Fourth Age the tales of the earlier Ages turn into legends, until they are eventually thought of as fantasies, as the heirs of the Númenóreans forget their heritage.
- Fall of Gondolin
- Nírnaeth Arnoediad
- The Tale of Beren and Lúthien
- Timeline of Arda
- Túrin Turambar
- Lalaith's Tolkien page Archived 2010-11-02 at the Wayback Machine
- Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #211 pg 283 footnote, ISBN 0-395-31555-7
- "After the Downfall in S.A. 3319, the system was maintained by the exiles, but it was much dislocated by the beginning of the Third Age with a new numeration: S.A. 3442 became T.A. 1. By making T.A. 4 a leap year instead of T.A. 3 (S.A. 3444) 1 more short year of only 365 days was intruded"