Middle-earth and the Great Plague
#1
I decided not to write any new articles for the Middle-earth blog in March. I haven't decided whether to write any in April. But people continue to submit questions.

The Covid-19 crisis made me realize that I've rarely if ever been asked questions about the Great Plague (or why Middle-earth doesn't seem to have a lot of plagues, as is normal throughout history).

J.R.R. Tolkien would have been well aware of the 1918-20 influenza epidemic. I sometimes wonder why he didn't write about something like that. A "plague" is a type of disease that induces high fever. It may also cause buboes to erupt on the skin. Influenza may cause high fever but you don't hear as much about it causing delirium like the plague.

I don't know if Tolkien's generation would have felt the influenza epidemic was "a plague" but I don't think he would have used the word in such a broad, generic sense.

The Great Plague was an act of bio-warfare by Sauron. The idea was not new in Tolkien's generation. The Mongols are known to have tossed infected meat over city walls to start plague outbreaks. I've never heard of anyone trying to use a flu epidemic as a weapon (although the Covid-19 conspiracy theory about it being a bio-engineered virus still seems to be circulating).

It's conceivable that Tolkien felt an influenza would not be severe enough to be weaponized. Historically the Black Death is thought to have killed from 1/4 to 1/3 of Europeans during the worst outbreaks.

What do you all think?
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#2
It's interesting that this plague came on 'winds out of the east' at a time when neither Sauron nor the Nazgul (certainly not the Witch-king, who was at his height in Angmar) were present in Mordor.
"Never ask an Elf for advice, for he will say both 'Yes' and 'No'." - Frodo Baggins to Gildor Inglorion
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#3
True, but Sauron was still to the east of the lands that were affected. I think Tolkien wrote somewhere that it started east of Mordor. It had to pass through Mordor to weaken the garrisons there.
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#4
I wonder how the plague affected other races, such as the Elves and the Dwarves. Elves presumably were immune to the plague itself, but as we're seeing today, the impact of such a wide-spread sickness can have many indirect impacts. Did Men seek out Rivendell for refuge from the disease, or even a cure? Did Elves go forth to Gondor and other plague-ridden lands to serve as doctors and nurses? Did the dwarves close the doors of Moria and 'shelter-in-place'? Or were dwarves immune to a plague of Men, due to their different origins?
"Never ask an Elf for advice, for he will say both 'Yes' and 'No'." - Frodo Baggins to Gildor Inglorion
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#5
I've pointed out before that the two instances of great plagues in the Arda Cycle (the other one being in the First Age between the Bragollach and the Nirneath, which took the life of Turin's little sister Urwen Lalaith and interestingly was called the Black Breath plague) seemed to be closely associated with mass invasions of Men out of the East (at the summons of the incumbent Enemy, whose worshipers many of them were). Was that deliberate on JRRT's part, a reflection of how these things typically worked in Primary World history, or coincidence?

In the Primary World, "plagues" were indeed often associated with pathogens brought great distances to populations who lacked resistance to them, and seemed to be more likely to originate among peoples who herded and kept a lot of domestic mammals. (Cf. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond for a pretty good discourse on how and why this worked) The Antonine Plague in which the Roman physician Galen became famous is often thought to have been an early entry of smallpox into Europe. That disease found its way to susceptible populations from Japan to Iberia by medieval times. Early sailing explorers introduced it to various hitherto unexposed populations such as southern Africans, Australians, Pacific Islanders, and native Americans, the latter experiencing up to 90% mortality as a result, killing off the nascent chalcolithic civilization of the Missisippian "mound builders" whose struggling remnants were visited and observed by de Soto some 50 yrs after Columbus arrived.  It also facilitated the conquests of the Aztec and Inca empires as the disease ravaged those peoples far ahead of actual Europeans arriving there.
Many Defeats & Many Fruitless Victories Memoirs Gateway
For I was talking aloud to myself...the old...choose the wisest person present to speak to...
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#6
(April 2nd, 2020, 11:18 AM)Michael Wrote: I decided not to write any new articles for the Middle-earth blog in March. I haven't decided whether to write any in April. But people continue to submit questions.

The Covid-19 crisis made me realize that I've rarely if ever been asked questions about the Great Plague (or why Middle-earth doesn't seem to have a lot of plagues, as is normal throughout history).

J.R.R. Tolkien would have been well aware of the 1918-20 influenza epidemic. I sometimes wonder why he didn't write about something like that. A "plague" is a type of disease that induces high fever. It may also cause buboes to erupt on the skin. Influenza may cause high fever but you don't hear as much about it causing delirium like the plague.

I don't know if Tolkien's generation would have felt the influenza epidemic was "a plague" but I don't think he would have used the word in such a broad, generic sense.

The Great Plague was an act of bio-warfare by Sauron. The idea was not new in Tolkien's generation. The Mongols are known to have tossed infected meat over city walls to start plague outbreaks. I've never heard of anyone trying to use a flu epidemic as a weapon (although the Covid-19 conspiracy theory about it being a bio-engineered virus still seems to be circulating).

It's conceivable that Tolkien felt an influenza would not be severe enough to be weaponized. Historically the Black Death is thought to have killed from 1/4 to 1/3 of Europeans during the worst outbreaks.

What do you all think?



Most plagues occur in conjunction with other catastrophes or events that foster the migration of populaces.  For example the Influenza Pandemic of 100 ago was preceded by the Great War.  The not only placed millions of men in adverse conditions in trenches but blockades and submarine warfare put tens of millions at risk of starvation, thereby weakening their immune systems.

The Black Death that ravaged Europe was preceded not only by war going back to the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century but also the Hundred Years War as well as various smaller wars in Italy and the Balkans.  Also a series of famines cause by the climate shift that started the Little Ice Age had also weakened the general population and their resistance to disease.


I find it interesting that when the Great Plague struck Gondor and the West there were no ongoing wars or famines.  I tried to find a historical parallel for this and only thing that fits would be the Plague of Justinian that ravaged the Byzantine Empire from 541-542 AD.  I think this fits because Tolkien envisioned Gondor as the Eastern Roman Empire and especially Minas Tirith as the walled city of Constantinople.  When Tolkien wrote LOTR the exact cause of the Plague of Justinian was unknown.  It was literally referred to as having come on "winds of the East".   The exact cause- determined by DNA analysis- was a strain of the same bacterium that caused the Black Death was announced just a few years ago.
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#7
(April 5th, 2020, 02:39 PM)Travis Stephens Wrote:
(April 2nd, 2020, 11:18 AM)Michael Wrote: ... I've rarely if ever been asked questions about the Great Plague (or why Middle-earth doesn't seem to have a lot of plagues, as is normal throughout history).

...
The Great Plague was an act of bio-warfare by Sauron. The idea was not new in Tolkien's generation....



Most plagues occur in conjunction with other catastrophes or events that foster the migration of populaces. ...

I find it interesting that when the Great Plague struck Gondor and the West there were no ongoing wars or famines. ...

Actually I wrote a bit too hastily earlier; the Great Plague of TA 1636 took place 2 yrs after an attack by the Corsairs, who would have been in contact with the Haradrim. There had not been a war with Easterlings for centuries as of that period; the wars with the Wainriders were over a century & a half in the future. So it could be that in this case the vector was via Southrons, although if so the onset was slow. Of course Sauron could introduce weaponized pathogens pretty much whenever and however he pleased if it was a deliberate attack on his part.

I had the impression the Roman and medieval plagues were associated also with the opening of trade routes between Europe/Syria/Egypt and China by the Parthians and then the Mongols (who ruled China and most of Asia when Marc Polo visited). Otherwise thru history, not only was the distance and rough parched terrain challenging, the anarchic Central Asian lands were full of petty warlords and bandits who made the trip prohibitively expensive and dangerous. The classical Greeks were ignorant of China and the other far Eastern civilizations, and to Alexander the Great's lament after conquering all of the Indian subcontinent we can only say, "Dude!" I was given to understand that when long-distance trade opened, the exchange of strange pathogens between the ends of the Earth commenced with it.
Many Defeats & Many Fruitless Victories Memoirs Gateway
For I was talking aloud to myself...the old...choose the wisest person present to speak to...
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#8
It's hard to say how much Tolkien thought through the mechanics of launching a plague into enemy territory. But as a WW I veteran and Spanish Flu survivor (don't know if he had it but it certainly hit the United Kingdom) he would have seen how illness spreads through large groups of people.

Regardless of when they occur, disease outbreaks require a lot of human interaction for them to become massive problems. I think it's reasonable to infer Tolkien meant readers to understand that there was a LOT of human activity in western Middle-earth right up to 1636. And then everything changed.

Eriador never fully recovered.
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#9
It was caused by rodents because they were considered allies to good instead of cats.
Don't insult the precious, my precious!:book:
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