A Refracted, Fractal World: Patterns of Repetition and Dimunition in Tolkien’s Legendarium

Paul R. Potts

These fragments require, I think, a bit of explanation. I taught an enrichment class for elementary school students on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and spent some time thinking about the various arcs and parallels in, not just those novels, but his wider Legendarium. These notes were originally written on my personal Wiki, long defunct due to security issues, in separate files. I present them here, assembled, as variations on a theme.


Tolkien’s world is fractal: self-similar patterns recurring on an accelerating, shrinking scale in time and space.

We fell from grace, and are still falling.

In Tolkien’s world, a concept is repeated throughout history and throughout space, multiple times, each time on a smaller scale and a shorter timeline.

This mirrors the way that we think about history: events pass from the legendary (big, heroic) to the historic (mid-sized, virtuous) to the current (small, petty, cynical).

As the present passes into the past, it becomes both dimmer and larger. We idealize the vague and legendary past and deprecate the concrete and prosaic present. Time itself is seen as the near-infinite vast expanses of the distant past, the smaller, bounded and measured historic time, and the present, which we perceive as being part of the “end times,” the rather tedious end-game that the faithful must wait out. The magic is leaching out of our world, not only figuratively, but literally.

To Look Upon Arda

  1. Throughout history the elves, and then men, have longed to regain sight of the blessed realm.

  2. The elves of the city of Tirion upon Túna were torn by the desire to see both the stars and the light of the two trees. The great pass of Calacirya was opened in the mounts (the defensive perimeter that guards Arda).

  3. The Isle of Tol Eressëa is home of the seafaring elves who did not want to enter Arda, but they wanted to see the light of the trees; from the tower Avallone the light of the trees streamed from the pass and could be seen.

  4. Upon the island of Númenor, upon the pillars of heaven on Meneltarma, it is possible to see the distant shores of Tol Eressëa.

  5. The island of Númenor is lost in the change of the world, but mariners still seek the pillar of heaven, in the belief that from the top of this sunken tower it may be possible to catch a glimpse of Eressëa.

  6. One palantír looks only out to the sea.

The Lights of Arda

  1. The original lights set forth in Arda were Illuin and Ormal, the great lamps set by the Valar to illuminate the world. Two lamps were made, not one; even the first light of the world was formed in duality (male/female, yin/yang). Melkor, the adversary, threw down these lamps and the world was plunged into darkness.

  2. After battles that shattered and reshaped the world itself, resulting in a split and separated world to succeed the monolithic world, the Vala Yavanna created in Aman, on the hill Ezollahar the two great trees, Telperion (the eldest) and Laurelin. (Again, two lights: one silver and one gold). They illuminated Aman only; not the whole world, as the great lamps did. The world could not be fundamentally remade; the lamps could not be re-lit; these great acts of creation could take place but once. In the conditional world the progress of time closes off opportunities as time flows from the possible to the actual.

  3. Varda (Elbereth) captured the light of the trees in great vats in Aman, and set new stars in the sky just prior to the awakening of the firstborn (the elves) in Cuiviénen. This sub-creation gave the elves their first sight upon awakening: the stars of Elbereth.

  4. Fëanor captured the light of the trees in the three Silmarils, great jewels and the greatest works of the Eldar. Morgoth, the adversary, with the aid of Ungoliant, the ancestor of Shelob, destroyed the two trees and sucked the light from the store of Arda. Yavanna believed that she can bring the trees back to life, but that this would require breaking the Silmarils. Fëanor cannot create the Silmarils anew: they can be created but once. He does not give them up. The dying trees put forth a gold fruit and silver flower.

  5. In a pale imitation of the light of the two trees, the Valar send Isil, the flower, and Anar, the fruit, into the sky, to become Rána and Vása, the moon and the sun. Two lights again — male and female — the lights we know. The elves that never see the lights of the two trees are known as the “Moriquendi” - the elves of the darkness. The stolen Silmarils wind up in the iron crown of Morgoth; Feanor’s uncharitable attitude and the oaths of the elves have made them the bane of any who would claim them.

  6. After much travail and many ages the mariner Eärendil is set to sail among the stars with a recovered Silmaril bound upon his brow; one of the three, and like the other two, forever out of reach.

  7. Endless ages later, the lady Galadriel of the Eldar captures the light of the star of Eärendil in a phial and gives it to Frodo: “a light for when all other lights fail.” The light of Arda has come to him throughout all time and space to rest in his hand as he fights the great-grandsire of Ungoliant, Shelob. When Frodo leaves Middle Earth, at the end of the third age, the phial cannot remain; he takes it with him into the timeless and inaccessible west along with the last of the Eldar. The light illuminates the “straight way” across the bent seas (the round world) to the true West, where, by the grace of the Valar, he is permitted to go. The light is gone; the only remnant is shining in the inaccessible stars. The light of Arda in the phial has had a long, strange trip: from the trees, to the Silmarils, to the star, to the phial, and ultimately back into the West, and into legend.

The Enemies of Arda

  1. The first adversary is Morgoth, a Valar, said to be as powerful as Manwe.

  2. Morgoth is eventually banished for all of time, but his lieutenant, Sauron, still lives and broods in Middle Earth.

  3. Sauron is killed in the destruction of Númenor, but he loses the ability to take on a pleasing physical form. He builds the fortress of Barad-Dûr and creates the ruling ring, into which he puts much of his own power and malice. At the end of the second age, the last alliance fights upon the battle plain before Mordor and Sauron’s ring is cut from his finger; his form is destroyed again, but the ring is not destroyed, and therefore Sauron is not entirely unmade.

  4. Sauron manifests as the Necromancer in Mirkwood (in the time of The Hobbit).

  5. Ousted from Mirkwood, in events not described in the books, he returns to reconstruct the tower of Barad-Dûr and rise again in Mordor.

  6. When the One Ring is destroyed, Sauron goes with it — this time, for good; but the power of the One Ring is bound to the others; they, too, will fade, as will much of the magic in Middle Earth.

  7. After the destruction of Sauron there remains only Saruman, corrupted by Sauron; but his staff is broken by Gandalf and he is deposed. Little of his power remains except for his ability to command and deceive with his voice.

  8. Corrupted by Saruman, Gríma Wormtongue ironically proves to be his master’s last undoing, before he himself is killed. He himself is not much of an adversary: a snivelling, completely unmade man, he can still wield a dagger.

The Trees of Arda

  1. Telperion and Laurelin were created upon Ezollahar.

  2. Yavanna made a tree in the image of Telperion: Galathilion. This was given to the elves who lived in Tirion-upon-Tuna. Telperion and Laurelin are destroyed by Melkor (named by Feanor Morgoth, the dark enemy of the world).

  3. The offspring of Galathilion, Celeborn, is set up on Tol Eressëa.

  4. The white tree of Nimloth, offspring of Celeborn, was set upon the island of Numenor.

  5. Isildur preserves a stolen fruit of the white tree; it is planted in Minas Ithil (the “tower of the moon.”) Later the tower is renamed to Minas Morgul, the “tower of dark sorcery.”

  6. The white tree of Minas Ithil is destroyed by Sauron (the lieutenant of Morgoth). Isildur takes a seedling. After the battle of the last alliance, the tree is planted in Minas Anor (Minas Tirith), the “tower of the guard.” In the third age, the white tree of the Eldar withers.

  7. After the destruction of the One Ring, Aragorn and Gandalf find a sapling of the white tree of Minas Tirith and it grows again.

The Dragons of Arda

  1. The dragons in the first age were powerful in the battle against Morgoth.

  2. Smaug, the last known dragon, is brought down by a single arrow loosed by the bowman Bard,

  3. In the time of The Fellowship of the Ring, Smaug is commemorated in the form of a giant firework created by Gandalf. It doesn’t do much but scare the easily-intimidated hobbits, and announce that it is time to eat (again).

The Adventures in Arda

  1. A mere 60 years after Bilbo’s adventure, Middle Earth is now no place for an enjoyable adventure. The joy has gone out of it; it is filled with biting flies, frozen wastes, cold bogs with grotesque ghostly lights, and black riders.

  2. Bilbo’s adventure, which at the time he perceived as miserable, has been burnished and brightened by time. Now, the times are “interesting.”

  3. In the end, the haver-of-a-much-darker-adventure Frodo is a pacifist, wearing his purple heart on his sleeve and crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder.

  4. “The idyllic village of Hobbiton is the ultimate place to experience Middle-earth magic at its best. Take a guided tour around all 44 Hobbit Holes that make up The Shire – with smoking chimneys and bluebell flowers, you’ll feel as if you have stumbled into Tolkien’s fantasy world. While you’re there, stop in at the Green Dragon Inn, where you can enjoy a light lunch and a handle of SobeRing Thought®* ale.”

  5. In 2022, SobeRing Thought® ale is no longer being produced. However, you may still be able to get your hands on a t-shirt advertising Green Dragon Lager from Bywater Brewery. Does this beer still exist? Who knows, but it’s downright legendary! Better grab one while you still can!


*Harrington’s SobeRing Thought® ale is low-alcohol stout originally produced for use on the sets of The Fellowship of the Ring. It is 1% alcohol by volume (ABV). According to Harrington’s Breweries, they wanted “authenticity, look, taste and smell of real beer to create the atmosphere for the actors, but without the alcohol content.”

Ann Arbor, Michigan
2002, 2016, and 2022

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