What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?


  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.

Mental decolonisation

Menu page for Arda.ir, the website of the Persian Tolkien Society.

Where on earth was Middle-earth? Based on a few hints by Tolkien himself, we've always sort-of assumed that his stories of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were centered on Europe, but so long ago that the shape of the coasts and the land has changed.

But perhaps that's too easy, too euro-centric an assumption; perhaps, like so many other things these days, Tolkien's fantasy realm too is in dire need of mental decolonisation.

And here's an excellent occasion: an Iranian tolkienologist has found intriguing hints that the writer based some of Middle-earth's topography on mountains, rivers and islands located in and near present-day Pakistan.

As mentioned in a previous article – recently reposted on the Strange Maps Facebook page on the occasion of the death of Ian Holm – Tolkien admitted that "The Shire is based on rural England, and not on any other country in the world;" and that "the action of the story takes place in the North-West of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean."

Non-European topography

If you look at it like that, yes: that does resemble Mordor...

Extrapolating from the location of the Shire in Middle-earth and from other clues dropped by Tolkien, geophysics and geology professor Peter Bird matched the geography of Middle-earth with that of Europe (more about that in the aforementioned article).

However, seeing Middle-earth as a mere palimpsest for present-day Europe is to place an undue limit on the imagination of its creator. As Tolkien also said about the shape of his world: "(It) was devised 'dramatically' rather than geologically or paleontologically."

In other words, certain parts of Middle-earth may very well have been inspired by other places than European ones. It is telling that it took a non-European connoisseur of Tolkien's topography to find some examples.

"Seen that map before"

\u200bThe Indus river is a prominent geographical feature of Pakistan. Its course is similar to that of the Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth.

In an article published on Arda.ir, the web page for the Persian Tolkien Society, Mohammad Reza Kamali writes that during several years of cartographic study, "I found that maybe there are real lands (that) could have inspired Professor Tolkien, and some of them are not in Europe."

Around 2012, Mr Kamali's eye stopped when it came across a Google Map of Central Asia that showed the mountain chain of the Himalayas, the peaks of the Pamirs bunched together in an almost circular area, and the huge, flat oval of the Takla Makan desert, bounded to the north by the Tian-Shan mountains.

"I had seen that map before," he writes. "This is of course Mordor, the land of Sauron and the dark powers of Middle-earth, where Frodo and Sam destroy the One Ring."

In Tolkien's world, the Himalayas transform into Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow; and the Tian Shan into Ered Lithui, the Ash Mountains. And the circle-shaped Pamirs "are the same shape and in exactly the same corner as the Udûn of Mordor, where Frodo and Sam originally tried getting into Mordor, via the Black Gate."

Similar shapes

A U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter flies near the Tarbela Dam in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Aug. 27, 2010. Defense Department officials announced Aug. 30, 2010, the deployment of 18 helicopters to Pakistan from the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade, based at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Mulling over these similarities, Mr Kamali became convinced that Tolkien's map work was heavily inspired by Asia. Looking further, he found more evidence. Consider Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth, in whose waters the One Ring was lost for more than two thousand years.

On Tolkien's map, the Anduin bends toward the sea in a shape similar to that of another great river: the Indus, which runs the length of Pakistan. Like the Anduin, it flows to the west of a major mountain chain. A prominent feature of the Anduin is the river island of Cair Andros, just north of Osgiliath. Its name means 'Ship of Long Foam', a reference to its long and narrow shape, and the sharpness of its rocks, which split the waters of the Anduin like a prow.

Mr Kamali is not entirely sure, but proposes that Tolkien may have been inspired by a similar-shaped island in the Indus. Now integrated into the Tarbela Dam, which was inaugurated in 1976, it would still have been a separate island in the 1930s and 40s, when Tolkien dreamed up his map.

Kutch as Tolfalas Island

During the rainy season, the coastal region of Kutch, near the mouth of the Indus, turns into an island that resembles Tolfalas Island, near the mouth of the Anduin.

Turning our eyes to the mouth of the Anduin and Indus, we see another pair of islands, and Mr Kamali is more certain about the real one having inspired the fictional one. The fictional one is Tolfalas Island, the largest island in Belfalas Bay.

At first glance, it doesn't seem to have a real-life counterpart near where the Indus joins the Arabian Sea. But take a look at the coastal part of the Indian state of Gujarat. It is known as Kutch, a name which apparently refers to its alternately wet and dry states. In the rainy season, the shallow wetlands flood and Kutch becomes an island – the biggest island in the Gulf of Kutch, and not too dissimilar to Tolfalas Island.

General knowledge

British Indian Empire 1909 Imperial Gazetteer of India

But are these similarities really more than coincidences? Why would Tolkien, who was based in Cambridge and steeped in English lore and Germanic mythology, turn to the Indian subcontinent for topographical inspiration? Perhaps because cartographic knowledge of that part of the world was far more general in Britain then than it is now. Until the late 1940s, the countries we know today as India and Pakistan were part of the British Empire. Detailed maps of the region would have been standard fare for British atlases.

Mr Kamali is convinced that the topographical features on Tolkien's map of Middle-earth are not mere fantasy, but derive from actual places in our world, and were 'riddled' onto the map. In that case, we may look forward to more discoveries of Tolkien's real-world inspiration.

From Frodingham to Frodo

Image based on a photograph of J. R. R. Tolkien in army uniform (taken in 1916, when Tolkien was aged 24). This image is a digitally modified version with cut-out contours, added gradient "shadow" around the contours, and noise reduction.

Here's one example of tolkienography - if that's what we can call the effect of actual geography on this particular writer's imagination - which I gleaned myself, some years ago in East Yorkshire. A local historian told me that Tolkien had been stationed in the area during the First World War, and had apparently stored away some local place names for later use. The name Frodo, he said, derived from a town where he had attended a few dances – Frodingham, a village across the Humber in northern Lincolnshire, not far from Scunthorpe (Scunto? We dodged a bullet there).

Whether that story is entirely true or not is beside the point. As fantasy fans know, any grail quest is ultimately about the quest, not the grail. In fact, to quote Mr Kamali, the treasure is important only because it's well hidden, "by a clever professor who enjoys riddles."

Unless otherwise indicated, illustrations are from Mr Kamali's article on Arda.ir, reproduced with kind permission.

Strange Maps #1036

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

Do you prefer subs or dubs? Here’s a map for that.


  • The boom of international content is fueling the rise of dubbing, or 're-voicing' the movie or series in another language.
  • As old as the 'talkies', dubbing and subtitling won out over a competing technique known as 'multiple language versions'.
  • As this map shows, Europe is deeply divided between subbing and dubbing – and between different kinds of dubbing.

Which version of 'The Woods'?

How do you like your foreign-language movies and series: subbed or dubbed? International content is booming on streaming services. So even for English-speaking audiences, long used to their language ruling screens both silver and small, it's an increasingly relevant question.

And one without a definitive answer: both subtitling and dubbing (a.k.a. 're-voicing') have inherent drawbacks. Watching something 'in foreign' means the subtitles subtract from the work's visual integrity; but choose the version dubbed into your own lingo, and you may feel short-changed in the authenticity department.

Nevertheless, most people have a clear preference one way or the other. Like Harlan Coben, whose 2007 thriller "The Woods" was adapted into a Polish-language Netflix series – and then subbed and dubbed back into English. He recently tweeted: "Netflix gives you the choice to watch The Woods dubbed or subtitled. I urge you to use subtitles, (but) you do you. Rock on."

Coben later replied to a fan (who said they were watching the subtitled version): "Yes. This is the best way to watch a show or movie – original language setting with your language in subtitles (but) if you want to watch with English dubbing, hey, cool, I'm not in the judging business."

Coben's opinion chimes with that of the 'arthouse' audience, which prefers to sample foreign fare in the original language with subtitles, for authenticity's sake. They're vocal about their preference, but recent data suggests they're the minority. As many as 36 percent of Netflix subscribers in the U.S. watched Spanish smash hit "Money Heist" ("Casa de papel" in the original) in the dubbed version. Only a few percent watched it with subtitles.

Moreover, there is evidence that good dubs increase audience engagement, and that viewers – American ones at least – are more likely to finish the dubbed version of an episodic drama than the subbed one.

The arthouse crowd might be unable to support the loss of the near-immersive quality of subtitling, but the obvious reason for the popularity of dubbing is practical: it's easier to use as 'wallpaper'. Just try to do the ironing while keeping up with "The Woods" in Polish with subtitles.

Chaplin's "Easy Street" (1917) with live piano (2012)

One major argument for subtitles – besides the 'arthouse' one, that is: it's about 10 times cheaper than dubbing with a full voice cast, not to mention a lot faster. But that seems to be a consideration of the past. The aforementioned boom in international content is generating economies of scale that favor dubbing. Netflix alone works with 165 dubbing studios around the world.

The rise of dubbing is symptomatic of the internationalisation of global viewing culture, long dominated by Anglophone productions. What's happening is in fact a re-globalisation. The silent movie ecosystem, which held sway until the late 1920s, was remarkably cosmopolitan. Re-purposing a silent movie for another language market was easy: just translate the title cards, and hey presto – another audience served. By 1927, your typical Hollywood film had its intertitles translated into as many as 36 languages.

When the 'talkies' came in, the movie industry stumbled headlong into something it had not yet experienced: a language barrier the size of the Tower of Babel. A spoken movie could reach only one language group. How to reach all those others? Subtitling and dubbing were used from the beginning, but for a few years in the early 1930s, it seemed a third solution would win out: multiple language versions, or MLVs.

Here's how that went: A movie studio would hire foreign-language directors and actors to re-shoot the same film, taking turns scene by scene. In 1930, for example, William C. de Mille's movie "The Doctor's Secret," originally in English, was simultaneously shot in Spanish, French, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Czech, and Hungarian as well.

Dubbed in French, but with an American accent

Some stars were too famous to be replaced, and had to re-shoot the MLVs themselves, learning their lines in another language. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's own French-language efforts became so familiar to audiences in France, that when they were eventually replaced with French voice-over artists, these had to keep the American accents of the original actors.

MLVs were cumbersome and costly, and by the mid-1930s, they had turned out to be an evolutionary dead end. Dubbing and subtitling started to take over and the industry never looked back. MLVs were occasionally revived though, even as late as 1979, when Werner Herzog shot German and English versions of the same vampire movie, using the same cast: "Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht" and "Nosferatu the Vampyre," respectively.

In a world dominated by Hollywood, dubbing established itself as the preferred translation method in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. These are Europe's four biggest non-English-speaking markets, so dubbing – more labor-intensive and up to 10 times more expensive than subbing – made more economic sense there than in smaller markets.

Subtitling became the go-to solution for most of those smaller markets: Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Portugal, the Balkans.

Yet some other smaller markets, the Czech and Hungarian ones to name two, also preferred dubbing. That's because economy wasn't the only factor. Cultural pride also played a part. France had always considered its culture and language a bit above the vulgar English tongue, for example. Another factor: politics. Dubbing was an attractive way to censor foreign imports, especially for the fascist regimes in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

The Terminator, in German: "Ich komme wieder"

Once set, national preferences remained fairly stable after World War II, when the import of mainly English-language movies boomed across Western Europe. Today, Italy even has the Gran Premio Internazionale del Doppiagio, an annual Oscars-like ceremony for excellence in dubbing.

In bigger dubbing markets like Germany, voice actors became celebrities in their own right. Recently-retired German voice actor Thomas Danneberg dubbed around 1,500 movies into German, including Arnold Schwarzenegger's entire oeuvre (whose Austrian accent would have disqualified him from doing his own dubbing in High German).

Mr. Danneberg dubbed a great number of actors, which could be an issue when several appeared in the same movie. When Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone appeared together in "The Expendables" (2010), Danneberg made sure to say the lines of both at a slightly different pitch.

In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, another alternative gained prominence, called voice-over translation (VOT). Unlike with dubbing, where the original soundtrack is replaced, VOT adds the translated dialogue over the original, which remains audible. It's a technique familiar to Western audiences from documentaries or news reports, not for fiction.

Subbing and dubbing map of Europe

In Polish and Russian, 'lektors' are a cheap and culturally accepted way to translate foreign movies. In Russia, these are known as Gavrilov translations, after one of the three most prolific voice artists doing these single-voice translations. Each had their specialty. While Andrey Gavrilov went for action movies, Aleksey Mikhalyov gravitated towards comedy and drama, and Leonid Volodarsky is best remembered for his dubbing of "Star Wars." The tradition is continued by a new generation of Gavrllov translators.

But for how long? Because dubbing is improving at a terrific speed. In the near future, the technology behind 'deep fakes' will help produce dubs that perfectly synchronise the 'flaps' (dub-speak for mouth movements) with the words voiced over, while 'voice cloning' will be used to adjust the voice of the re-recording artist to that of the original actor.

It may convince the Eastern European markets to abandon VOT – which is the poor cousin of dubbing anyway. But it's less certain that it will dislodge subbing from markets where it's become ingrained, and frequently mentioned as a reason for relatively high levels of English proficiency. So it may be a while yet before the Terminator says "I'll be back" in Swedish.

Strange Maps #1035

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.