Alternate Histories of Middle Earth:
Points of Divergence


The fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, like most adventure fiction, is full of exciting cliff-hangers in both its plot and its backplot. Battles, for instance, are almost lost before being turned around just as they looked hopeless.

But what if they weren't turned around? How would the history of Middle Earth have developed, if events had gone otherwise?

This is an attempt to do something arguably silly: to apply the techniques of alternate history to the history of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.

This will be a very broad brush handling of the subject, with one paragraph for each of about forty candidate points of divergence. The list is by no means complete and is biased toward the third age. In between the points of divergence are very brief descriptions in italics of what actually happened according to Tolkien. I'll assume you have a general recollection of the events of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so I won't bother with explaining events from those.

I've used a yellow background to highlight the most promising points of divergence. If you can't be bothered reading all the uninteresting scenarios then the ones I think most worth writing up are:

Anyone who gets interested in any particular point of divergence should feel free to write it up seriously, and, ideally, drop me a line.

Common Results

Many of these points of divergence lead to similar results. I'll try discussing those here, to save space below.

The Second Age

1697, The Eregion refugees: When Morgoth's armies overran Eregion the dwarves of Moria closed their doors, for no reason outsiders would recognise as good. This is a key element in the hatred elves subsequently felt for dwarves, which was reciprocated.

1697, The Eregion refugees allowed in: If the dwarves had saved the elves, would that have created a lasting friendship, comparable with that between elves and Numenorean men? If so, the impact would be too huge to calculate. One could argue that dwarves are just too insular in outlook, preferring to avoid any entangling alliances, but there had been previous alliances between elves and dwarves, in particular where the dwarves helped the elves fight against dragons.

3261, Ar-Pharazon's capture of Sauron: Ar-Pharazon the Golden sent an army to Middle Earth. Sauron's army took one look at the Numenorean army and deserted en masse. Ar-Pharazon captured Sauron and decided to take him home to Numenor.

3261, Ar-Pharazon kills Sauron and destroys the ring: Good triumphant.

3261, Ar-Pharazon kills Sauron and can't find the ring: Numenor remains a powerful state. Its mariners spread out and dominate the coastal regions of Middle Earth. Sauron will want to seduce Numenor, instead of targeting Arnor. But Nazgul aren't so good at seduction, and Sauron is incorporeal. Perhaps he can get something done through the Palantir network.

3261, Ar-Pharazon kills Sauron and takes the ring: King with the Ring. One of the faithful might figure out what's happening, and provoke an internal conflict, which probably ends with the faithful leaving Numenor to go to Middle Earth. They won't stop anywhere as close as Gondor or Arnor, unless they are willing to take a big risk on Numenor sending a fleet to extinguish them. They need to flee beyond the range of Numenorean surveillance, which means a long way indeed, and perhaps inland.

3319, Seduction of Numenor: Sauron then seduced the Numenorean rulers into an attack on Valinor, leading to the destruction of Numenor by Tolkien's creator-god.

3319, Ar-Pharazon isn't seduced: Sauron will still try to intrigue, but may eventually have to flee back to Mordor.

3319, Numenor isn't destroyed: The supreme being didn't have to destroy Numenor, there were many lesser punishments possible. An intact Numenor is discussed above.

3434-41, The Last Alliance: An army of elves and Numenorean exiles defeated Sauron to end the Second Age. It wasn't easy.

3434, The Last Alliance defeated: The last alliance's victory could easily have gone the other way. Evil triumphant.

3441, Elendil's death leaves Isildur king of Arnor and Gondor. He takes the ring from Sauron's finger as a trophy in compensation for his father's death. Elrond and Cirdan try and fail to persuade Isildur to destroy the ring. Isildur carries it home and is killed on the way, the ring is lost.

3441, The ring is destroyed: The victor over Sauron tosses the ring into the Crack of Doom. That might be a surviving Elendil, a surviving Gil-Galad, an Isildur that takes Elrond's advice or an Elrond who is simply last elf standing. Good triumphant.

3441, Isildur survives the trip home: Either the orc ambush never happens, or the Dunedain win, or Isildur manages to swim away. King with the Ring. The split of 861 third age won't happen because there is no succession to dispute. But Arnor will find the king's behaviour more than enough grounds for strife. The "Gandalf knocks some sense into Theoden" scene springs to mind, but it will be too late for that by the time the Istari turn up.

The Third Age

861, The partition of Arnor: Three sons argued about the succession and ended up dividing the kingdom between them. The three parts are picked off one by one over the next 1100 years, Arthedain being the last to fall.

861, No partition of Arnor: Arnor remains united, presumably under the rightful royal line. Historically (I think it's sort of valid to use that word) Arthedain itself, with intermittent support from Cardolan, crumpled only slowly under pressure from Angmar and Rhudaur. A united Arnor is going to be militarily unbeatable, at least by the sorts of resources Sauron seemed to have in the north. So the Witch-King will have to go back to intrigue and Arnor is likely to survive a lot longer than it did historically.

1432-1447, The kin-strife: A civil war in Gondor, prompted by the king's decision to take a non-Dunedain wife. Traditionalists viewed this as diluting the Numenorean bloodline. The rightful king was driven into exile but returned in triumph. The admixture of the queen's blood seemed to be, on the balance, a good thing for Gondor.

1432, No kin-strife in Gondor: Gondor will be greatly strengthened and will be able to support Arnor much better. Arthedain, at least, won't collapse anything like as soon, if ever.

1432, Dunedain "purity" maintained: No kin-strife, as above, but the Dunedain vitality may be sapped away.

1447, Castamir defeats the rightful king of Gondor: Gondor will become hostile to Arnor, and may soon be seduced by Sauron. If it isn't seduced it will remain hostile to Mordor but may have no trouble with Angmar.

1636, The Great Plague: A very serious disease affecting humans and hobbits. There's no evidence, as far as I know, of it affecting other peoples. Tolkien described hobbits as "a branch of our own race" or words to that effect, implying that humans and hobbits were closer relatives than, say, humans and dwarves. The plague caused Gondor to lose control of the fortresses around Mordor.

1432, No Great Plague: Strong Gondor.

1432, More serious Great Plague: Weak Gondor.

1432, Catastrophic Great Plague: Humans and hobbits become extinct or nearly so throughout Middle Earth.

1944, The wainrider invasions of Gondor: A very serious nomad threat from the east. The king is killed and a victorious general accepts the crown, despite the claim of the King of Arthedain.

1944, The waindriders defeat Gondor: Weak Gondor. Also, no new royal line in Gondor.

1944, Royal lines of Gondor and Arthedain reunited: Arthedain will get more support from Gondor and so quite likely survive, and Angmar be destroyed. Gondor itself might, perhaps, be weakened by the commitment of its strength to its northern ally.

1974, The king of Gondor misplaced his brain and went off to Minas Morgul to fight a duel of honour with the Lord of the Nazgul. Needless to say, he was never seen again. This extinguishes the royal line of Gondor.

1974, No duel: The royal line of Gondor persists. This is separate from and much younger than the Arnor-Arthedain line, so it won't lead to any special support for the northern Kingdom, which is in any case just collapsing. If anything this might weaken Gondor, since on the average the stewards seem to have done a better job of ruling than the kings they replaced. The Aragorn analogue will have no strong claim to the throne of Gondor, so he may show less interest in assisting Gondor, and Gondor, if victorious in the War of the Ring, may show less interest in resuscitating Arnor in the Fourth Age.

1974, The fall of Arthedain: Arthedain's principal enemy, Angmar, was smashed by an alliance of Gondor, Lindon and Rivendell. Unfortunately, just after Arthedain had been destroyed. The king of Arthedain escaped, but died in a shipwreck. This apparently extinguished the royal line of Arnor although in fact the line persisted through his son Aranarth and the chieftains of the northern Dunedain, to Aragorn.

1974, Arthedain survives: If the army had arrived just a little sooner it would have been able to save Arthedain and perhaps resuscitate Arnor. A healthy Arnor would have dominated Eriador, but it's unclear what effect that would have. They might have exercised more careful sovereignty over the Hobbits of the Shire. Presumably they would have lent Gondor support from time to time, creating a Strong Gondor result.

1974/5, Angmar survives: If Angmar had survived Gondor's counterstroke then it would have dominated Eriador. The hobbits would have found themselves under pressure and perhaps migrated south toward Rohan or Dunland, or west to areas under the protection of Lindon. In the latter case hobbits would be much more familiar with elves.

1974/5, Arthedain royal line visibly persists: Either a surviving Arvedui or a publicised Aranarth might claim the throne of Gondor from the stewards. The chieftains of the Dunedain seem to have been pretty competent on the whole, but then so were the stewards. The withdrawal of the rangers from Eriador will leave it vulnerable to penetration by forces of evil. That may force the emigration or militarisation of the hobbits.

1974, Arthedain royal line actually extinguished: Aranarth dies with his father, or in the sack of Fornost. There's nobody left with a decent claim to the throne of Arnor, which lapses. The Dunedain of the north are scattered or make their way to Gondor where they are absorbed. The comments above about the withdrawal of the Dunedain apply, and no participation by an Aragorn analogue in the War of the Ring.

1980, Moria destroyed by Balrog: The Balrog was a survivor of the Valar's destruction of Morgoth, and had hidden under the Misty Mountains. The dwarves went tunneling for mithril, woke it up, and were driven out of Moria .

1980, Moria not destroyed by Balrog: This could come about in several ways. Perhaps the Balrog never comes to Moria, or is never uncovered. Another possibility is that it doesn't bother killing the dwarves, after all it came to Moria to hide, not to kill anyone. Perhaps it runs off to another hiding place, on the way trashing a few surface features (I can't think of any important targets in the vicinity but I could be wrong). Or perhaps it just lashes out, kills a few dwarves, stalks the lower levels of Moria for a while and goes back to sleep. The dwarves seal up all the entrances and give up searching for mithril. The existence of a strong dwarvish community in the area will prevent the rise of the orcs of the Misty Mountains, and make transmontane communications much easier for anyone the dwarves will let come through Moria – which largely means other dwarves. Another possibility is that the dwarves never discover mithril and so aren't delving nearly as deep beneath Moria. If so, Moria will survive but as a much more modest centre of dwarvish culture.

2063, Gandalf's reconnaisance of Dol Goldur: He finds Thrain with a map of Erebor needed for the killing of Smaug, but not the evidence needed to prove to Saruman's satisfaction that Sauron is there.

2063, Gandalf's expedition to Dol Goldur uncovers evidence of Sauron's presence: If Gandalf has really good evidence then Saruman may be forced to act. Dol Goldur will be stormed earlier, reducing the concentration of evil in Mirkwood. Gandalf will have a lot longer to prepare the free peoples, warning them before Sauron has built up his strength.

About 2450, The ring discovered: A quasi- or proto-hobbit named Deagol found the ring, and was murdered by Smeagol for it. Smeagol is affected by the ring, becomes Gollum and carries it off to an orc cave in the Misty Mountains. (Can anyone give a more accurate, or even precise, date?)

About 2450, The ring remains lost: With the ring taken out of the picture the War of the Ring becomes a purely military contest. Sauron is the likely long-term winner: a battle like Pelennor Fields is a serious setback for Sauron if he loses, but the end of the war if he wins. Evil triumphant?

About 2450, Gollum takes the ring to Sauron: Evil triumphant.

About or after 2450, The ring is recognised by the forces of good, who decide to destroy it: Gandalf or Saruman is most likely to recognise the ring for what it is. The attempt to destroy it will probably be led by Saruman at first and then by Gandalf after revelation of Saruman's ethical unreliability. Deagol, or another quasi-hobbit, might play the part of Frodo, trying to deliver the ring to the Crack of Doom. Smeagol is a sort of malignant substitute for Sam Gamgee, who joins the fellowship hoping to steal the ring. The chieftain of the northern Dunedain is Arahad I, about whom I unfortunately know nothing, but perhaps he would fill the shoes of Aragorn. Saruman has been seduced by lust for power to some extent, and will probably eventually try to seize the ring. But he hasn't been turned entirely evil, the way he was in the War of the Ring, and his desperate struggle to hold onto his ethics in the face of immense temptation could be a central theme of the story. Sauron is probably already preparing a horde of Balchoth to attack Gondor and may be able to move his timetable forward enough to use them in an earlier War of the Ring, he also has the orcs of the Misty Mountains, not yet destroyed by the dwarves. Gondor is larger and more powerful and still controls Orthanc, it is more likely to fight in the field than stand siege in Minas Tirith. The steward of Gondor is Cirion, who ruled a long time and seems to have been particularly competent. His successor Hallas (who may have been heir for a long time, and getting irritated about it) could be a member of the company the way Boromir was. There's no Rohan as such, but their ancestors, the horsemen of the Eotheod, helped Gondor against the Easterlings and so will probably help in this war, as may the men of Rhovanion. Sauron is weaker at this time, but Mordor is still a tough fortress to penetrate.

2510, Balchoth invasion of Gondor: Another invsion of Easterlings, somewhat similar to the Wainriders. Defeated, barely, with the assistance of the horsemen of the Eotheod (proto-Rohirrim) who were granted Rohan in gratitude.

2510, Gondor defeated: Weak Gondor The riders will have to evacuate west. Rohan will become Balchoth territory.

2510, Gondor ungrateful: Gondor might consider Rohan ("Calenardhon") to still be a part of its empire, and try to keep the Rohirrim as vassals, or kick them out. This could create a bitter Rohan, ripe for seduction by Sauron. Weak Gondor.

2793-9, War of the Dwarves and the Orcs: A hard fought victory for the dwarves that killed most of the orcs in the Misty Mountains, at great cost.

2799, Orcs defeat dwarves: A powerful orcish presence in the Misty Mountains would probably become a factor in the War of the Ring, against Rohan, Eriador, Rivendell or Lorien.

The Hobbit

2941, Bilbo accompanies Thorin Oakenshield to Erebor. The party is nearly killed several times, and Bilbo finds the ring after a riddle contest with Gollum.

2941, Bilbo loses the riddle game, the ring isn't found: Bilbo is presumably eaten. The expedition to Erebor will probably fail, perhaps Thorin et al will be permanently imprisoned by elves or eaten by spiders. The ring remains unfound, leading to a purely military War of the Ring. It may be a long time before Gollum is seduced by the ring, or loses it, or Sauron finds where it is and takes it. The long run result, though, is probably Evil triumphant.

2941, Gandalf killed by wargs and goblins: If he dies, will he be sent back? If he isn't then it's a catastrophe. Gandalf's return in Tolkien's story involved a promotion, which might not be appropriate here since Saruman has yet to forfeit his commission as chief amongst the Istari.

2941, Istari eject Sauron from Dol Goldur: The attack wasn't a surprise and Sauron withdrew to Mordor.

2941, Sauron trapped at Dol Goldur: Assuming the Istari can kill Sauron, Good Trimuphant.

2941, Smaug killed by Bard and three quarters of all northern goblin warriors killed at Battle of the Five Armies: These events greatly weakened the northern forces of evil and established a dwarvish presence at Erebor to provide a bulwark against evil penetration of the north. Hard to say what Sauron might have done with these armies but Gandalf seems to have believed he intended something.

2941, Orcs and wargs win Battle of the Five Armies: Gandalf may sneak away, if he doesn't he may get sent back. Bilbo may get away using the ring, if he doesn't then the ring may fall into evil hands Evil triumphant, or it may end up in the river leading to the long lake, and then down the Anduin past Mordor to the sea.

Lord of the Rings

2989-2994, Dwarves led by Balin reoccupy Moria. After five years of precarious residence the dwarves are massacred by orcs, trolls and perhaps a Balrog.

2989, No attempt: Some dwarves live who would have died, but nobody really cares but their mothers. If dwarves have mothers.

2989, Successful attempt: No battle with the Balrog, so Gandalf lives and isn't returned.

2989, They instead occupy the goblin tunnels found by the Erebor expedition: Balin was there, he could decide that Moria is too hard for now, or that he needs a jumping-off point to gather his strength. It provides an access path for the Fellowship, so no Balrog battle.

2989, ... and they capture Gollum: The ring becomes part of a gold hoard. The seven dwarven rings were basically a failed project from Sauron's point of view, they may have had a very modest effect on increasing a wearer's greed but that's about all. So this is an odd version of king with the ring where very little happens. Of course the ring will draw orcs and other evil creatures to it, which the dwarves will assume are just trying to retake the tunnels.

2989, ... and Gollum flees: He'll go somewhere else dark, probably nearby, conceivably Moria. What if the Balrog ends up with the ring? It's strong enough to be a Sauron-level threat, and definitely independent of him, but does it have the kind of psychology needed to become a dark lord?

Nasty dwarveses ... gollum, gollum

3018?, Denethor sends Boromir to Rivendell, while Faramir conducts guerilla operations in Ithilien. [*]

3018?, Denethor sends Faramir to Rivendell, while Boromir conducts guerilla operations in Ithilien: On paper this seems like a smart move, since Faramir is better suited to brain work like solving riddles while Boromir is well-suited to killing orcs nearer to home. Faramir got along with Aragorn a lot better than Boromir did, and had a stronger will generally -- he could hardly have got along worse, Boromir saw Aragorn as a pretender who would usurp his throne -- so Faramir wouldn't be as tempted by the ring as Boromir was. We'll assume for the sake of argument that the subsitution of Faramir for Boromir has no effect until the fellowship reaches the Anduin. Faramir doesn't try anything, Frodo doesn't get frightened, and the fellowship will stay intact for longer. But as it nears Mordor, someone is going to show the signs of ring lust. The most likely person is Aragorn, who thinks of himself as heir of Isildur, but it could be almost anyone.

... The ring is seized and taken to Sauron: Evil Triumphant.

... The ring is seized and not taken to Sauron: Not all that likely, because this will happen close to Mordor and Sauron will draw it strongly. But in any case it probably leads to a military victory for Sauron. Evil Triumphant.

... The ring is not seized: Frodo will probably push on with just hobbits as companions. There's no reason the historical course shouldn't be followed, unless:

... the hobbits meet Gondor's guerillas under Boromir, and Boromir seizes the ring: This assumes the fellowship breaks up before leaving Ithilien. Even then it isn't certain: Boromir's heart hasn't been poisoned by meeting someone who claims to be the king of Gondor. The ring doesn't look like much, so he may just let them go on. But if he doesn't, see Boromir with the ring.

3018?, Denethor sends nobody to Rivendell: He thinks Sauron is going to win anyway, why waste time listening to people who think it can be stopped? This is a bit like having Faramir along, except that they miss out on one extra warrior. That might matter in Moria, or on the Anduin.

3019, Gandalf the Grey is killed in Moria, but returns as Gandalf the White. [*]

3019, Gandalf survives Moria: The fellowship has the enormous benefit of Gandalf's presence. At least some of the time, anyway: Gandalf may duck off to deal with side issues like Grima Wormtongue, just like he ducked off to deal with Dol Goldur in The Hobbit. While he is around he makes a big difference: Boromir wouldn't do anything stupid on the Anduin, for instance. But without the rank conferred by his colour change he may not have the authority to face down Saruman as effectively as he did. Who knows, he may be less capable in other ways as well.

3019, Gandalf dies permanently in Moria: Rohan and Gondor will fall without him, and there won't be the great distraction of the Gondorian expedition to the gates of Mordor, that helps the hobbits get through. But the ring may still be destroyed. This could be a Pelennor defeat or an Evil triumphant.

3019, Gandalf gets the ring: Wizard with the ring. In the short run, Sauron will be defeated. In the long run Gandalf will be consumed by the ring and turn into something a lot like Sauron. He doesn't have an immediate power base, so he'll have to build one and that will take time. Perhaps the corrupt Gandalf and the corrupt Saruman can struggle over the ring, with uncorrupted forces on the sidelines. They probably won't fight to mutual destruction, since the ring will make Gandalf much stronger and in an analogous case (Sauron versus Saruman) Gandalf said the victor would emerge stronger.

3019, Galadriel gets the ring: Elf with the ring. A lot of smart people are going to suspect what she's done from the beginning. It's just not clear they can do much about it.

3019, Boromir gets the ring: He takes it to Minas Tirith, and probably keeps it himself. This is a short term version of king with the ring, with Sauron launching an immediate attack to try to seize the ring. The attack will presumably fail, as it did in Tolkien. In the medium term, Boromir isn't all that strong-willed so it looks bad.

3019, Denethor gets the ring: Mostly likely because Boromir gives it to him, or Denethor takes it from Boromir. Probably similar to Boromir having the ring, except that Denethor is stronger willed and less ring naive (so he may just be able to use it effectively) but also more influenced by Sauron (toward despair).

3019, Sauron gets the ring: This might happen when a Nazgul kills Frodo, when Frodo becomes a ring wraith, when Frodo is seduced at the Crack of Doom. Evil triumphant.

3019, Saruman gets the ring: Wizard with the ring. Gandalf said that Saruman couldn't stand against Sauron, unless he had the ring. Saruman probably defeats Sauron with help from Gondor et al. Then declares himself king of the world, and mutates into something a lot like Sauron. Relative to Gandalf or Galadriel he has a big head start.

3019, Rohan defeated at the Hornburg: Much of the civilian population of Rohan is massacred. Eomer and his army may survive, and will probably want revenge on Saruman, so he will participate in the Entish siege of Orthanc to the best of his ability. He may even decide to aid Gondor because he has nothing else to do and killing orcs in large numbers sounds as good a way to die as any, but unless Gandalf can talk him into passing up Orthanc Eomer will be tardy, which means Pelennor Fields will probably be a defeat. There's a strong influence on the Fourth Age, even if Pelennor Fields is still won.

3019, Gondor defeated at the Pelennor Fields: Once Minas Tirith falls there's probably nothing in Gondor capable of stopping the orcs from overrunning it. Fortresses like Dol Amroth will hold out a while, and their people will evacuate to somewhere still friendly, though their choice is limited. This is basically the end for the Numenorean realms in exile. It looks like Evil triumphant when suddenly the ring-bearers destroy the ring. (Sauron's attention will be focused west, on exploiting his victory and moving on to other targets, so I think it makes sense this will still happen.) The War of the Ring has been "won" but the Dunedain states won't be there to see it, unless they stage an astonishing comeback during the short term disruption caused by Sauron's end. Most likely result is orcs pillaging through all of Gondor, Rohan and Ithilien, initially under the command of a Nazgul. When Sauron dies the Nazgul all follow, and surviving subordinates like Gothmog (if he isn't a Nazgul, I'm not clear on this) and the Mouth of Sauron (also not a Nazgul?) carve Sauron's empire into successor states the way the diadochi carved up the empire of Alexander the Great. It won't be as geographical, though, because orcs are nomadic rather than civilised. There'll be vast hordes roaming the countryside: colliding, fusing and dividing, with fuzzy boundaries between them and plenty of freedom of manoeuvre. If one leader is very successful he or she may succeed in becoming a successor to Sauron, the way Sauron was the successor to Morgoth. Surviving humans are enslaved. The destruction of Gondor on the eve of the destruction of its bitterest enemy mirrors the fate of Arnor which is kind of cute.

3021, Hobbits defeated by Saruman at Bywater: Obvious impact, zero. The Shire will be eliminated from fourth age history, and the hobbits scattered. If you believe that the Shire is a modern culture in a much older kind of setting then that should matter, but it's hard to put one's finger on how.

?, The idea I forgot: Why not tell me about it? And/or write it up yourself.

Scenarios marked [*] were suggested by Xanous, they are a mixture of his and my analysis and wording.

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