Sunday, 18 March 2012

Populations of Middle Earth in the First Age - Part 1: The Elves

If you're already a paid up Tolkien enthusiast you can skip to below the Map, or at least the first two paragraphs.  That's where the calculations start. This first bit is an intro for non-hardcore geeks. I originally wrote this article assuming only a few facebook friends would read it. Hence the intro for non-geeks.

Some of you may know I'm a huge Tolkien geek.  Now when I say Tolkien, you probably thought "ahh, right, Lord of the Rings and all that stuff",  (and quite possibly, "oooh Viggo, he's so dreamy". Please stop it.  Cram your tongue back into your head.  Thank you.) But that is where we part company. Don't get me wrong. I love Lord of the Rings, book and films, but if that's your main thought then we're fishing in different ends of the pool. You see, this is what separates an ordinary fan from a Tolkien geek. A fan loves LotR or perhaps the Hobbit, but if when I say 'Tolkien' your first thought was Silmarillion, First Age, the Noldor against Morgoth, then you're a Tolkien geek. I'm a particularly bad Tolkien geek, up from your average Silmarillion waving nerd. I am the final level of evolution: Luke Skywalker crossed with Captain America, of the Middle Earth nerd world. I know LotR, the Hobbit, Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, and the Entire History of Middle Earth series backwards. I read the 'Lost Tales' for light bedtime reading. You have been warned.

Now, if after that you're still with me, let's get on. One of the other things I love doing is playing around with numbers. I was a mediocre mathematician, mainly due to abstract algebra, but I do love playing with actual numbers.  This brings these two together. Basically in this article I am going to look at all the evidence we're given in Tolkien's writings about the 1st Age, around 6500 years before the Lord of the Rings, to work out population estimates for Elves, Men and others in Beleriand, and Elves across Middle Earth.

One of the wonderful things about Tolkien's writings is the sheer range and depth of his description. Tolkien brought a scholar's precision and detail to creating his imaginary world but also a imaginative, creative mind and a romantic heart, to an extent that still captivates millions. Every scrap of his work is rich with detail on not only the races he invented but also the geography, the plant life, the landscape, languages, names, history, myth, legend, metaphysics: everything. In LotR all the references given to the size of the moon in the sky accurately match how the phases of the moon would in real life change over the time described as passing in the book.

But although he became famous from the LotR his true passion was for the story of the Elder Days of Middle Earth and the epic, doomed struggle between the Elves and Morgoth, the original Dark Lord. He worked on it for 50 years and never completed it but just kept re-writing and developing through a multitude of different perspectives, genres and styles. We're lucky that after he died his son, Christopher Tolkien, published the most developed parts as the Silmarillion we have today, and later all the other partial manuscripts and fragments in other books. As a historian I love this as well, because the vast collection of fragments and drafts and different thoughts and perspectives make up the closest, for an imaginary world, we could ever possibly get to the rich collection of different subjective views and partial records that as historians we use to piece together a picture of a real historical era.

One feature of Tolkien's writing is that he almost never gives any numbers for populations or armies or groups above a few people, e.g. the 9 riders or 7 sons of Feanor etc.  I think this was in keeping with the romantic, magical tone of Tolkien's works.  He wanted to paint a picture, to show rather than tell. Actual numbers bring a too sharp, bean-counting tone of realism and take you away from the individuals stories and their emotional impact. But he did give a couple of actual numbers and I use these sparse numbers as a window into his world. Although we have few actual numbers we do have more relative references, where one group are described as twice the size of another, or some such.  Also I use parallels to information about real-world historical populations and contextual information from the books themselves. For example, references to medieval styles armies: hosts and major battles won't refer to a few hundred people, or tens of millions. One final principle is that, as far as even vaguely possible, I will attempt to connect numbers given with other numbers given here, so I'm calculating all these numbers from at least something rather than just purely making up something that sounds plausible.


The 1st Age in Beleriand was predominately populated by the Elves, with Men, Dwarves, Ents and Morgoth's orcs and demons restricted to the far north until after the 4th and 5th Battles.  The Elves were divided between populations of Noldor out of the West, Sindar who had lived in Beleriand for millenia, and Nandor who had come over the mountains later in Ossirand, the land of 7 river and these Elves were divided into multiple Kingdoms as described on the map above, with Morgoth's power concentrated in the far north. To avoid the problem of dealing with dynamic population change I will attempt to give a snapshot estimate of populations shortly before the Dagor Bragollach, the End of the Siege of Angband, at the height of the Elvish Kingdoms.


Now, our window into the world of numbers we need is given by the one single, large scale figure we are given for Elves in the 1st Age.  That is the long-standing figure that "The army of Turgon issued forth from Gondolin, ten thousand strong", to the Battle of Un-numbered Tears. From this one figure we will now do a lot of magic and come up with Population Figures for all the Kingdoms and populations of the Eldar. The first thing is to estimate the population of Gondolin. What proportion did Turgon's 10,000 make of Gondolin's population, or in my jargon, what is the population multiplier (PM) to turn this figure into Gondolin's total population?

Firstly, I assume this 10,000 did not represent all Gondolin's possible soldiers. Unlike Hithlum, which seemed to send every last possible warrior to the Battle, and was left defenceless when they were all lost; Gondolin was not so committed to fighting the War or the Battle, and hence it seems reasonable to assume that Turgon would have left some soldiers behind. On the other hand, he knew how important this battle was, and hence presumably took most of his warriors. The very early text The Fall of Gondolin, which was both the first text on Middle earth Tolkien ever wrote back in 1917 and, strangely, the only full description of Gondolin or its fall he ever wrote, describes 12 companies of soldiers, of whom 8 went to the Nírnaeth Arnoediad. This would correspond to a figure of 12/8 x 10,000 = 15,000 troops in total. The 10,000 would form the core of the Army, whereas the 15,000 would form the total strength of Gondolin that could be mustered in great need i.e. when the city was being invaded.

From this figure we estimate Gondolin's population. Gondolin was effectively a city state, with the central city of perhaps five square miles surrounded by a developed area of intensive farmland of about 150 square miles. It had enough people to measure as a Kingdom by Elven standards but not endless hordes given the space constraint. It was also seemingly more peaceful and cultured and less dedicated to the military than the march Kingdoms of Hithlum or the Feanorians, which were seemingly almost solely devoted to the war. All this has made me settle on a PM of 8 on their total force of soldiers. That is Gondolin's total muster of soldiers constituted 12.5% of the population, or about 25% of the male population or about 33% of the adult male population. This gives a total population of 120,000 for Gondolin.

This figure seems about right: Compared to medieval European populations the Eldar would be both a lot less populous, and also much more urbanised, developed and specialised, with their magic providing the advantage that technology gives our modern society.  I think the best comparison is with the the Ancient Greek city states where a state such as Athens could field around 20,000 soldiers and sailors out of a population of around 250,000.  Urbanised and with a civilian army and navy that made up of a high proportion of the population compared to any modern or medieval society, but still a minority of the total male population. However this is just a best estimate, reasonable PM's of 6-10 or so give figures ranging between around 90-150 thousand, but I think around 120,000 is the most reasonable estimate.

The next trick is to go from this figure of 120,000 for Gondolin to a total figure for the Noldor population. This is possible because we are told that Gondolin's population was made up of "a third part of the Noldor of Fingolfin's following, and a yet greater host of the Sindar". Taking this in terms of 1/6ths of Fingolfin's people we have 2/6 of Noldor and "a greater host of Sindar".  I reckon this would be about 3/6 of Fingolfin's people. To me "and a greater host" sounds like more, but not 2 or 3 times as many.  If so Tolkien could have said, as he has elsewhere, also Gondolin was also imagined to have been one of the most predominately 'Noldorin' in culture of the mixed kingdoms in Beleriand, which would not fit if the Noldor were vastly outnumbered by the Sindar. Assuming then that the population of Gondolin was equivilent to 5/6 of Fingolfin's folk, 1/6 of Fingolfin's folk would be about 25,000 Elves and Fingolfin's folk would number 150,000.

From Fingolfin's folk we can now estimate the total of Noldor. They were divided between Fingolfin's folk, Feanor's and Finarfin's.  Fingolfin's people was the largest but Finarfin's was also large: Tolkien stated in more than one place that Nargothrond was the largest Elven Kingdom left after the Dagor Bragollach. Feanor's folk appeared to be relatively small in number, but containing a lot of the younger, brasher, more foolhardy Elves that would have been attracted to Feanor's assertive, aggressive style, and hence militarily able to punch more above its weight. I take as estimates that Fingolfin's folk constituted 12/ of the Noldor, and Finarfin and Feanor's sons 1/4 each. Certainly Fingolfin's folk must have been between 40-60%, given the fact they were the largest group, but also the two other groups were of similar size.  Taking 50% then that gives us a total Noldor population estimate of 300,000 Noldor, with 150,000 following Fingolfin, 75,000 Finarfin's sons and 75,000 Feanor's.

From this we can take a rough estimate of total Elvish population in Beleriand.  We just need to guess what the proportion of Noldor compared to Sindar were. This is pretty rough unfortunately.  Tolkien consistently maintained that the Sindar outnumbered the Noldor by some unspecified amount.  This conception changed at times from being roughly similar to some remarks that the Noldor were as Lords and Kings: a small aristocratic minority ruling over Kingdom's of overwhelmingly Sindar, more like the Norman minority among the Anglo-Saxon population in Medieval England.

The general sense of the texts to me though is that the Sindar considerably outnumbered the Noldor, but not by some vast factor. The references seem to indicate that Noldor and Sindar met on relatively equal terms, and when we look at the different Kingdoms and relatively large cultural impact of the Noldor they must have been a relatively large minority given that there was no military domination or educational apartheid to explain these differences as, say, in historical Norman England.  Given these factors I take a PM of about 3, possibly 4.  That gives a Sindar population of about 1 (0.9 to 1.2) million and a total Elvish population of 1.2-1.5 million depending.  Now I think you could make a reasonable argument for a figures anywhere between 1-2 million, but I think somewhere in the lower end of that range is most likely with all the evidence we are given.

I think we can do even better than that though in working out rough population figures for each Elvish Kingdom, starting with the Noldor. We've already done Gondolin with a population of around 120,000, made up of 50,000 Noldor and 70,000 Sindar (2/5 and 3/5 respectively).  The Kingdom of Hithlum had the other 2/3 of Fingolfin's folk and the rest of the Northern Sindar.  That means around 100,000 Noldor.  The Sindar population can only be guessed at. Hithlum was colder and less fertile than Nevrast, from where the Gondolin Sindar came, and would hence have had fewer people. Balancing that, many Sindar are said to have been attracted by the valour and nobility of the Noldor Kings and their cause. I think a fair estimate would be some 50,000-70,000 Sindar, the same as Gondolin, for a total population of around 150-170 thousand.

In the Kingdom of Nargothrond (including at this time Tol Sirion and the highlands of Dorthonion)  the Noldor population was the 75,000 following Finarfin's sons, particularly Finrond. We are told that Nargothrond was the largest Noldor Kingdom, at least after the Dagor Bragollach when Hithlum and Feanor's Sons took large losses. It was a large Kingdom mostly in Beleriand proper, warmer and more hospitable and hence could be expected to have a sizable population of native Sindar, especially since Finrond was part Teleri himself and hence closer to the Sindar than other Noldor princes. I assume a Sindar population roughly equivalent to that of Hithlum and Nevrast combined, some 120-150 thousand, giving a total population of possibly over 200,000. It is not higher because although it is described as the largest Kingdom, it is still described as a largely wild and empty country, without the dense rural or urban centres to account for what we would consider a sizeable population.

The other Noldorin Kingdom was that of Feanor's Sons in the East. These areas seemed to have been organised less as a formal Kingdom and more as a series of military districts or fiefs, each commanded by one or a pair of Feanor's sons with Maedhros having some kind of loose overlordship.  That said we also already have an estimate of the Noldor population of this Kingdom, the 75,000 following Feanor's sons. These would have been joined by various Sindar, but probably not that many. Although Feanor's sons controlled a large area, it was mostly uninhabited before they got there, and of all the Noldor they were least friendly with the Sindar.  That said quite a few Sindar are said to have joined with at least Maedhros at least, again in recognition of his outstanding valour and personal nobility. Hence looking relative to the other population figures we've taken I don't think we can do better than to assume a population of Sindar equal to the number of Sindar in Hithlum (an area of similar size, climate and circumstances). In other words, 60,000 Sindar for a total of roughly 130,000 Elves.