Book Review: The Real Middle-earth

This post is dedicated to a book review – the first-ever on this blog.

I was privileged enough to be approached by author Michael Muhling and asked to do a review of his new book on Tolkien’s inspiration for Middle-earth. I jumped at the opportunity and after having read the work, I can now share my thoughts on it here.

The Real Middle-earth: Discovering the Origin of The Lord of the Rings, by Michael Muhling is an in-depth analysis into the history and central figures of Abyssinia (modern-day Michael-Muhling-coverEthiopia); reflecting on these aspects as being a possible source of inspiration for the major locations, cultures (and characters) in The Lord of the Rings.

At first glance, the topic may strike an unaware reader as odd or out of context. Indeed, after so many years of research and analyses on one of the most famous and important works of the 20th Century, a completely new insight might seem daunting to tackle at first – or even to accept.

We’ve already been exposed to a wealth of other works, going over in detail every nut and bolt of Tolkien’s massive narrative – but finally, something fresh and new emerges from the rest.

Once you delve into the book and begin to see striking connections and similarities, Mr.Muhling’s “Abyssinia Theory” will make its way to being amongst the other Tolkien-centric reflective works.

Mr. Muhling introduces his book by laying out all the known sources (confirmed or speculated) that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create his Secondary World.

You may all have read or heard about Tolkien’s encounter with a tarantula as being a possible influence for creating Shelob; or the strong impact of Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon world in bringing to life the culture of Rohan …

The Real Middle-earth explores all these sources of inspiration in its introduction, paving the way towards the primary goal of the book: how Abyissinia may have inspired Tolkien in writing The Lord of the Rings.

Readers are also introduced to some of the issues concerning news-reporting of the African Continent to Europe – during the first half of the 20th Century. Mr.Muhling cleverly places the central events surrounding Abyssinia during the 1930s, and how Tolkien (at that time already a professor at Oxford University), would easily have had access to the evolving situations of this country.

Obelisk at AxumAs it progresses, the main bulk of the book concentrates on some of the most important Middle-earth habitats: Númenor/Gondor, Rohan, Mordor, Isengard, Harad & Rhûn. Carefully dissecting each of these locations – their histories, way of life, conflicts – and examining the historical events (and major figures) of Abyssinia, Michael Muhling provides us with a fascinating journey into the striking similarities to be found between the real historical world of Ethiopia and the major elements that form the backbone of Tolkien’s novel.

But the author is quick to note, before embarking on his analyses, that nothing has been (or can be) confirmed as fact when it comes to Tolkien’s sources of inspiration.

Rather, he suggests that these influences may have been part of the author’s own unconscious – his recollections of the events happening at that time in Ethiopia, which may have “seeped through” and provided the basis for many important aspects in The Lord of the Rings.

That said, it would be good for a reader to give this book a broad-minded approach – not expecting to find every possible intricacy from Middle-earth to be an exact copy of Abyssinia’s past. Indeed, as much as Mr.Muhling’s arguments are remarkable in their close connection to Tolkien’s writings, certain aspects of these comparisons naturally pass as a ‘possible speculation’ – rather than a definitive argument.

Nevertheless, the contents of the book are as worthy as any other researched book – on par with other, more famous works written by renowned Tolkien scholars. The Real Middle-earth promises to become another piece of the puzzle in unlocking one of the primary mysteries for the author’s inspirations. The book taps into a source of knowledge yet to be fully embraced by the Tolkien fandom and accepted as another piece of accompanying literature to the novel itself.

Mr. Muhling also delves into the striking linguistic similarities between place names: Rohan/Roha, Gondor/Gondar, Harad/Harar – among others. Furthermore, readers are informed of the complex and detailed history of Abyssinia and its major historical figures which may have been an inspiration for primary characters in The Lord of the Rings, such as a possible figure for Gandalf or the Nine Saints of Abyssinia as the Five Istari Wizards.

The book goes so far in fleshing out the remarkable connections of the Númenórean/Gondorian lineage and its close associations to those of Abyssinia itself.Abyssinia Lalibela

Suffice to say, many of the connections and similarities are astonishing – making us wonder why no one has ever brought these ideas to light before (to which the author also dedicates the last chapter of his book in an attempt to answer this question: “Why Didn’t We Know About It?”).

The book is very easily accessible, flowing cohesively from one subject to the next; at the same time, Mr. Muhling provides, when required, the necessary background information on Abyssinia before tackling another comparison.

If, like me, you’re deeply interested in anything by and about Tolkien, I strongly recommend you read this book. Apart from exposing yourself to a new, fascinating theory on Middle-earth’s source of inspiration, you will also gain access to a country’s rich history – which has, as of yet, remained undiscovered by many people around the world.

More information can be found by visiting the book’s site:


12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Real Middle-earth

  1. Hi.

    Such an interesting review.

    Do you have any good reading list of some of the best books written on Tolkien’s work? As a french reader I’ve started to collect any french books that has been written on this subject (mainly of Michael Devaux and Vincent Ferré), but I would love to be given any hints on what to start from in the english literature.

    Maybe you already wrote a post about it (in case I missed it), or this would make a great new blog entry. 🙂

    Thanks anyway !

    1. Hey Tizzfitz thanks for your reply!

      Well, with regards to books about Tolkien, I found the following to be really informative and great reading:

      – ‘JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century’ by Tom Shippey
      – ‘Road to Middle-earth: How JRR Tolkien Created a New Mythology’ by Tom Shippey (this contains very similar elements found in the first book, but perhaps are more detailed and slightly more complicated. If you had to choose between the two, I’d go for the first one as it’s more “simplistic” in terms of language used and explanations provided).
      [The above are probably the best books on Tolkien’s work available – at least, in my opinion 🙂 They expand on Tolkien’s inspirations of his work and analyses how the novels were written.)

      – ‘JRR Tolkien: A Biography’ by Humphrey Carpenter
      – ‘The Inklings’ by Humphrey Carpenter

      These two books are more focused on the life of Tolkien, his surroundings and how he came about to writing his works – but nonetheless, they provide invaluable insight into the author’s life and inspirations.

      If you’d rather go into serious academic study, then I suggest the 12-volume ‘History of Middle-earth’ by Christopher Tolkien who goes into explaining the development and evolution of his father’s mythology, going over drafts, sketches and intricately analyzing every detail on how each of his three major Middle-earth works were published.

      But considering it’s a very tough read, I’d suggest you skip this for now and first tackle the other books first.

      Certainly there are other very well written books, though I’d say that Tom Shippey’s two works are one of the best out there. Shippey is capable of explaining intricate ideas in a very simple way.

      If I think of others, I’ll post once again. Hope I answered your question! 🙂

      1. Thank you very much for answering my humble question !

        Actually I already had Tom Shippey’s books in mind, but not so high on my priority list. Thanks to you, now they will be the next I’ll have my hands on. 🙂

        I have few others too I’d like to purchase, and maybe you have read them yourself :
        – The “Lord of the Rings”, a Reader’s Companion, by Wayne G. HAMMOND
        – Interrupted Music: The Making Of Tolkien’s Mythology, by Verlyn FLIEGER
        – News From The Shire And Beyond: Studies On Tolkien, by Peter BUCHS

        And of course, Letters from JRR Tolkien, and his essays on fairytales are must-have items.

        [I would also add the “Atlas of Middle-Earth” of Karen Winn FONSTAD, that any Tolkien fan should necessarily buy.]

        As for the History of Middle-Earth, of course I already have them, since getting everything Tolkien ever wrote is my priority since I found myself passionate about Tolkien. Sadly, not every one of thse books have been translated in French (actually only the first five have been translated so far), so I had to get the volumes from “The Return of the Shadow” to “The People of Middle-Earth” in English (which pleases me since I love english language so much).

        Thanks again for your reply. And I enjoy your blog, keep it going !

  2. Given the connections to Ancient Egypt that Tolkien himself pointed out, it would make a lot of sense for there to be connections with Ethiopia as well. The enmity between the Swertings and Gondor may be a reflection of that between the (equally dusky) Nubians & Pharaonic Egypt. Ethiopia gave Egypt a dynasty of Pharaohs – that is not a million miles from events in the history of Gondor.

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