Middle-earth might very well be the richest fantasy setting in history. JRR Tolkien spent decades constructing his world, and the Lord of the Rings is only one part of it - not the most important part, at that. This wealth of detail brings a sense of depth and vitality that's one of the most fascinating parts of the work. Peter Jackson's movie trilogy transfers this feel to the silver screen admirably, but the inherent simplification leaves some matters vague or simply inexplicable.

Here, I aim to give some background and shed light on things that the movies leave unclear, while sticking to relevant issues and avoiding the far too common "Grand Tour Tolkien" mode. Logically I'll start with the part that has the least to do with the movies.


Powers
All but the smallest of these are far too large to fit in the Lord of the Rings,
though they're referred to on some occasions, but most other things are built on them.


Eru Ilúvatar: The One, He Who Is Alone, the basis of everything. In the Timeless Halls he fashioned spirits from his thoughts and had them make a Great Music. This song he gave being, creating the world. Many came to love the world and stepped down to build and nurture it. When they're done and the world ended, Eru will begin the Second Music.

Valar: Fourteen of the greatest spirits are Eru's regents, often themselves worshipped, roughly comparable in stature to the Olympians though without the faults. Each embodies a concept or domain, such as plants, the waters or compassion. With the world now made and the greatest threat gone, they've retreated to their realm of Valinor far from the continent of Middle-earth, also known by such names as the Blessed Realm and the Undying Lands, where they continue to watch over the world.

Morgoth: The greatest of the Valar and second only to Eru was Melkor. Yet he grew proud of his power and wanted to create and rule things of his own, no longer content to serve as an instrument of Ilúvatar. With the Great Music he rebelled and descended into the world to claim it as his own as Morgoth, the Enemy. There are some suggestions that his works will ultimately serve to enrich creation, but he remains evil and is not counted among the fourteen. He perverted the Orcs, he crafted the trolls as a mockery of Ents, and he threatened everything until at the end of the First Age the combined armies of the Valar overthrew him and drove his greatest servants all but extinct. Morgoth himself was cast into the darkness outside the world, and not coincidentally will only return at the end of the world.

Maiar: Lesser servant spirits each attached to one of the Valar. Unfortunately many of them were seduced or corrupted by Morgoth and fell into his hatred and lust for domination. These were his deadliest assets, and included the fire-spirits, Balrogs, and Morgoth's lieteunant and second-in-command Sauron, who would come to follow in his master's footsteps. The untainted are largely with the Valar, save for the five Istari, or wizards, who were sent to Middle-earth cloaked in flesh in the early Third Age to help its people against Sauron's eventual second rise. It might be illuminating to note that Gandalf was nominated by Manwë the Eagle-lord while Saruman was affiliated with Aulë the Smith and Artificer.

Beings
Elves: Elves only die of violence and grief, grow only fairer with time, will never serve evil willingly, are the most "in touch" with the world and peerless in many crafts. If this was biblical, they'd be Unfallen. Unfortunately, their glory also makes them fundamentally static and unchanging, less and less suited to the changing world which is losing or has lost most of the splendor of past times. By the end of the Third Age - the time of the movies - only a fraction remain on Middle-earth, which they are leaving for Men.
To paraphrase Zarkonnen, it's important to note that the elves on their own are joyful and lovers of music and art, instead of just the Tragic Noble Elder Race. This doesn't really come across as they spend their screen time at war or on an exodus.

Men: At the end of the Third Age Men are the ascendant race, with the Elves fading and the other occupying their own small niches, but still largely tribal and essentially reeling from Morgoth and Sauron. The center of human high civilization is Gondor, so the fall of it and Rohan would've destroyed most hope of organized resistance. Men are otherwise just as they are now, except for descendants of the lost realm of Númenor covered below, from which Gondor not coincidentally is a remnant.

Dwarves: Late additions to the plan, made by Aulë to survive in a Morgoth-rich enviroment. They build underground cities, are peerless in stone- and metalworking, live long though finite lives... there's no real depth to these folks that you wouldn't already know. Tolkien created the stereotype of the fantasy dwarf, and it's still accurate right down to the long-standing mutual mistrust with Elves. Ach!

Ents: The tree-shepherds and guardians of plants are much as they appear: slow, ponderous, content though now sorrowful over their lack of descendants. The bizarre pseudo-race of the Huorns, on the other hand, isn't. It's said that a shepherd and his flock will come to resemble each other, and when both are around for millenia and are made of similar stuff to begin with the effect is considerable. Much of Fangorn has various degrees of awareness. Trees have become Entish, or Ents have become treeish, or both. Whatever the case, Huorns are awake enough to move and to know how the trees and forests are being treated... which makes them angry. Treebeard, incidentally, is NOT senile - losing the entwives entailed going to their gardens and finding the land ravaged by Sauron. What became of them, no one knows.

Eagles: The eagles are a full-fledged sentient race, the most reclusive and withdrawn one on Middle-earth. They have eyries in the northern mountains. The eagles seldom interfere, but they are unparallered observers and virtuous beings, so they have been known to put their wing on the scales when it truly counts. They were designed for this role much as the Ents were for theirs, and there's a case to be made from Tolkien's later writings that they are in fact more disguised Maiar.
A note on timekeeping

The division of time into Ages is fairly simple. The First Age began with the wakening of the Elves, the first sentient beings. Each one ends with a pivotal event: The destruction of Morgoth, of Sauron, and of Sauron for keeps. By the end of the Third Age, all of the First and most of the Second Age is myth and legend.
Metafiction

The red-bound book seen on several occasions is indeed the Lord of the Rings. Central to Tolkien's fiction is that the tale was originally written by Bilbo, Frodo and Sam. It became the core of a body of works called the Red Book of Westmarch (inspired by the real Red Book of Hergest), which included such things as Bilbo's Translations from Elvish and Merry Brandybuck's Herblore of the Shire. Copies survived down the centuries until an editor and translator by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien got his hands on a copy.
Of the Rings of Power

When Morgoth was overthrown, Sauron hid. After lying low for some thousand years, he assumed a fair form and befriended elven-smiths to teach them ring-making. They made immensely powerful artifact rings for the peoples of Middle-earth.

Of course it was a trap. The nine rings of Men made their bearers legendary rulers and heroes, and gave them unending life - but not more life, so that what they had was stretched thinner and weaker until they faded into Nazgûl, the ringwraiths with no will but Sauron's. The seven rings of Dwarves gave their wearers great greed, but they were far too hardy to fall into thralldom. The three rings of the Elves were untainted by Sauron's hand and were never used when he had the One Ring, so they remained safe. They weren't weapons, but during the Third Age two of them were responsible for Rivendell's and Lorien's splendor - these realms were literal anachronisms from past times less faded. The Ring of Fire was given to Gandalf upon his arrival, to "rekindle" hearts and courage in the fight against Sauron.

Sauron made his One Ring alone in secret. It's a source of vast and throughoutly tainted power made to control and dominate others. It was bound to the other rings so that its lord could control both them and their owners, which also meant that the lesser rings would only endure as long as the One Ring did. Sauron was forced to place a vital amount of his own will - himself, in essence - into the ring to overcome the others. This meant that he couldn't be killed while the ring remained, but left him unable to survive its destruction. Frodo, Bilbo and Gollum were protected in part because they're small beings, too small to understand or use more than a smidgen of its powers. If Gandalf or Galadriel had gained the ring, they would've gained full control of it and overthrown Sauron, but its power was too great for even them to control and they would've been corrupted to usurpers.

The destruction of the One Ring was the end of the three and time rushed back into Rivendell and Lorien, giving the Elvish exodus a major boost.
The West

The ubiquitous West actually refers to two completely different things.

Valinor, the Undying Lands, is the Uttermost West. The realm is not perfect, but the presence of Valar and Maiar hallows it into the next best thing. Elves who grow weary of Middle-earth are allowed to journey here to gain rest and relief.

The Men that fought on the side of the Valar when Morgoth was overthrown were rewarded with greatly increased lifespans and the continent of Númenor, raised from the sea west of Middle-earth and east of Valinor. They thrived and built an unrivalled empire, but their great lives brought an even greater fear of death, in which they became proud and resentful of the Elves and the Valar for their immortality. Eventually they declared themselves lords of the mortal lands and attacked Sauron with overwhelming force. He promptly surrendered and was brought to Númenor, where his guile turned him from prisoner to advisor of and then controller of the king, and the land fell into darkness. Under Sauron's influence the Númenorians came to think they could invade the Undying Lands and take immortality by force. When they did came the "Breaking of the world": Númenor and its people were destroyed and the Undying Lands removed entirely from the world. A fraction of uncorrupted Númenorians escaped to Middle-earth, where they founded the kingdoms-in-exile, most notably Gondor. Sauron returned to Mordor to resume the subjugation of the lands, leading to the war of the Last Alliance (shown at the beginning of the movies) a short while after.
Gondorian royalty

Elendil is often mentioned and even Aragorn's battle cry, but never explained. He was the leader of the faithful Númenorians, the father of Isildur and the first king of Gondor. He's briefly seen fighting in the war of the Last Alliance, where he was slain by Sauron. His sword, Narsil, was the one that Isildur used to cut off Sauron's ring.
The Seeing Stones

The palantírs are ancient Elvish artifacts beyond any Third Age skills, including Sauron's. A person using a stone can communicate with any other users, and with great effort look into other places and times. They are benign in themselves as long as their users mind the strain, but in the conquests leading to the War of the Ring Sauron gained one and so could project his influence to others. Saruman, already too deep in Ring-lore, gazed into Mordor and was ensnared. Denethor had a little-known palantír in Minas Tirith. For all his pride he was fierce, and was not corrupted. However, Sauron could still control what he saw; Denethor would see a horrible fleet sailing towards the city, but not that his allies crewed it. The drain and one-sided visions hastened his madness. In the book, a more coherent but no less mad Denethor deliberately lays down on his pyre, clutching the palantír, and from that day on it takes great power to see anything in the stone but a pair of withered hands in flames.
Languages

Tolkien was a linguist by profession and by passion, and made it show. His son has speculated that Middle-earth began as a place for him to put his many tongues. The Elvish Quenya and Sindarin are genuine full-fledged languages, the most notable fictional ones after Klingon. The movie makes extensive use of these and less developed ones such as Khuzdul and Black Speech, though enthusiasts are quick to note that even the Elvish languages were expanded by other linguists as necessary.

The only significant untranslated bit is Aragorn's perplexing singing at his coronation, which was likely left unsubtitled as it would've been incomprehensible out of its context. He echoes the words of Elendil, Gondor's founder, keeping with the strong theme of renewal:

"Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien.
Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn' Ambar-metta!"

"Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come.
In this place I will abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world."

This leads us to the coolest detail ever: every one of the many non-English lines in the score is in a language of Middle-Earth, not only coherent but relevant. For instance, when the Fellowship explores Moria, the chorus recites dwarven lore:

Durin who is Deathless
Eldest of all Fathers
Who awoke
To darkness
Beneath the mountain

When the Nazgûl sweep down on Minas Tirith, it bellows:

Shreds of shadow
Torn from life
Borne aloft
By fell winds
The Nine have come
Death has taken wing


The rest is tangential. If the info-dump has made your head creak at the edges already, you might want to skip these while you process the rest.

Trivia
  • Aragorn's age of 87 makes him the fourth oldest of the Fellowship. He's several dozen times younger than his bride.
  • Gandalf was by far the most succesful of the wizards in avoiding the temptations and distractions of Middle-earth, but his regular pipe-weed habit still gave him a tobacco addiction. The Mines of Moria forced him into cold turkey. Saruman was also known to light up, which explains Isengard's stores.
  • "Gimli" is just the name the dwarf gives to others - they only use their true names among their own. "Legolas" translates as "Greenleaf", "Gandalf" and "Mithrandir" respectively as "Staff-elf" and "the Grey Pilgrim". "Sauron" is a word for "Abhorred".
  • Those who haven't read the book are likely to still have heard about two things that were cut entirely: Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire. Here's how they work. Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow. Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow. He meets the Hobbits on their shortcut to Bree, gives them hospitality for a while and rescues them from a Barrow-wight, Merry gains an enchanted blade that he later uses against the master Nazgul, plus there's a bit of Hobbit nudity. Tom himself is a complete enigma, wielding absolute power in his forest but never leaving it and apparently out-aging the Elves. The whole scene has very little to do with the rest of the plot and appears in none of the filmatizations. As for the Scouring, the four Hobbits originally returned to a ravaged Shire under thieving and scoundrel-y Men. They rallied and led the people in rebellion, though Frodo took up no arms, cornered Saruman the bandit leader and banished him. At this point an even more tattered Wormtongue was mistreated one time too many and slit his master's throat. With soil from Lórien, Galadriel's gift to Sam, the land was largely restored, re-forested and blissful in a year.

Griping

Of course the movies are wicked cool. But they could've been even cooler here and there.
  • When Pippin looked into the palantír, it branded Saruman a turncoat in Sauron's eye: He hadn't kept up his contact with Mordor, and now had at least one of the halflings and was apparently torturing it without informing Sauron. If he's going to be killed off, put some effort into it and have a short battle scene where Saruman tries to hold off the Nine at once, screaming "It is not here! I do not have It!"
  • I know it's unwieldy, but for all his posturing, the Witch-king should definitely have delivered his line: 'Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.'
  • In a similar fashion, here's something from the fall of Sauron: "And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell."

References:
  • Lord of the Rings (Finnish traditional hardback/brick edition)
  • The Silmarillion (English bookwarez)
  • A Tolkien Bestiary by David Day (Finnish edition, considered secondary in canon conflicts)
Something completely different:

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