Despite Tolkien’s meticulous attention to dates and chronology as evidenced by the appendices to The Return of the King, at no time was he prepared to admit precisely how this chronology can be tied into our own. In other words, when did all his stories take place? On the few occasions that he was prepared to be drawn on the issue, Tolkien gave vague and contradictory answers, ranging from the Ice Age, to just a few thousand years ago. As we shall see, both statements are correct, because the First Age of Middle-earth did indeed coincide with the Ice Age, whereas the Fourth Age began just over five millennia ago.
One of the reasons, it may be speculated, that Tolkien was so unwilling to admit the true chronological setting of his stories is possibly because by doing so, he would have had to admit his interest in a system of occult philosophy known as Theosophy. Nevertheless, it is clear that he had studied it, or at the very least had taken an interest in some of its ideas.
According to Theosophical doctrine, the last vestige of the once mighty continent of Atlantis sank beneath the waves in 9564 BC . Much later, the Kali Yuga (or Fourth Age of the present World Cycle) began in 3102 BC . These two events, therefore, are separated by 6462 years. Now it turns out that the sinking of Beleriand (not Númenor) is separated from the beginning of the Fourth Age of Middle-earth by precisely the same time span, 6462 years. The maths is simple – Beleriand was destroyed in the final year of the First Age, the Second Age lasted 3441 years, and the Third Age lasted 3020 years (plus a couple of months or so). 1 + 3441 + 3020 = 6462. The chances of Tolkien hitting on this number by accident are astronomical, especially when in both the Middle-earth mythology and Theosophical doctrine this period is opened by the submergence of a huge landmass, and is closed by the beginning of something called the ‘Fourth Age’. We can now, without further ado, peg the first year of each age of Middle-earth as follows (the First Age will be dealt with later):
Second Age: 9563 BC Third Age: 6122 BC Fourth Age: 3102 BC
What about Númenor, which was destroyed in 3319 Second Age – surely that was Atlantis, rather than Beleriand? Well, yes it was. But the destruction of Beleriand was a much greater catastrophe, at least in terms of land area sunk (the Change of the World was another matter, of course). The ancient Sanskrit myths which were the basis of Theosophical doctrine may have remembered the greater catastrophe and forgotten the lesser, or at least confused the two events. On our chronology the sinking of Númenor occurred much later, in 6245 BC (3319 Second Age), which corresponds to the natural catastrophe known to archaeologists as the Storegga Slide of around 6100 BC.
Do these dates contradict what Tolkien himself has said on the issue? In Letters, #211, he says:
“... I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap(*) in time between the Fall of Barad-dûr and our Days is sufficient for 'literary credibility’, even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of 'pre-history’.
“(*) I imagine the gap to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think, quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh.”
Can approximately 5100 years be said to be ‘about 6000’? It really depends on the context, and perhaps Tolkien was trying to tell us that the events in question should not be pushed back millions or hundreds of thousands of years, as some readers were no doubt tempted to do. As an indication of his imprecision on the matter, compare the following quote from The History of the Lord of the Rings:
“The moons and suns are worked out according to what they were in this part of the world in 1942 actually... I mean I'm not a good enough mathematician or astronomer to work out where they might have been 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, but as long as they correspond to some real configuration I thought that was good enough.”
Here we have not 6000 years, but 7000 or 8000. It is clear that Tolkien himself had no intention of being more precise, and if he was prepared to be vague by as much as two millennia, then we should not be overly concerned that our own figure is apparently too recent by a mere few centuries. The rest of the evidence for our dates is so compelling as to render such considerations of little or no importance.
So far, using the Theosophical data, we have been able to determine the first year of each age of Middle-earth. Yet there is far more information to be gleaned from Tolkien’s writings, and incredibly, we are able to pinpoint all the events in The Lord of the Rings to the exact day. The astute reader may have already worked out how this is possible. The whole chronology of Middle-earth can be pinned down to the precise day by reference to one single astronomical event that occurred on the night of 8/9 Narvinyë 3019 Third Age (i.e. 8/9 Afteryule on the Shire Calendar), when Frodo and company left Hollin – namely, a full moon. Furthermore, it was a full moon that occurred roughly nine or ten days after the winter-solstice, because the solstice occurred at the start of the calendar year. Since we already know what year this must be (two years before the beginning of the Fourth Age), then the full moon in question can be none other than that which can be calculated to have occurred at 11:20 UTC (i.e. GMT)  on the following date:
Monday 31 December 3105 BC 
(In a break with historical convention all BC dates have been expressed according to the Gregorian Calendar, because it is more seasonally accurate than the Julian. The notes at the end give the Julian Calendar equivalent, and also the Julian day count, which is often employed by chronographers.) The fact that this particular full moon occurred about nine or ten days after the winter-solstice is further confirmation that we have found the correct year, and implies that Tolkien had consulted astronomical tables – despite his statement quoted above. Since the moon was at its most full during the middle of the day, then it follows that 31 December must be equal to either 8 or 9 Narvinyë. Can we choose between the two? As a matter of fact, yes we can.
But first of all, for the mathematically minded, I shall summarise what we know of each age. The Second Age is the simplest – it consists of exactly 3441 years. Leap-years occurred every fourth year, except at the end of a century. At the end of each millennium there was what we might call a double-leap-year, i.e. the year had 367 days in it. Tolkien doesn’t state this in so many words, but we know it must be true because he tells us that the millennial deficit of the calendar against the astronomical year was 4 hours, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds. Since, as can be calculated, one millennium on his calendar totalled 365,242 days (including the double-leap-year), and one thousand astronomical years add up to 365,242.2 days, that extra 0.2 of a day is very close indeed to Tolkien’s stated deficit. The upshot of all this is that the entire Second Age lasted for 1,256,797 days. The Third Age is slightly more complex, but not inordinately so. The basic rules were exactly the same, except that they were tampered with a number of times. Two extra days were arbitrarily added to the year 2059, making it a double-leap-year, and one extra day was added to 2360, which also therefore became a double-leap-year (it was already a leap-year of course). On the other hand, the year 3000 was not a double-leap-year (nor even an ordinary leap-year), because the authorities neglected to add the two extra days. The only other thing we have to take into account is that the Third Age was terminated, in Gondor, part of the way though the year 3021 – after just 85 days of it in fact, or just under three months. Although the official start of the Fourth Age was delayed in other parts of Middle-earth, we are following Gondor here, the seat of the kings. The complete total for the Third Age therefore turns out to be 1,103,117 days.
So let us return to choosing between the two dates mentioned above for the full moon of 31 December 3105 BC – either 8 or 9 Narvinyë 3019 Third Age. The answer lies in days of the week. The following analysis is rather complex, not to say somewhat speculative. But since its sole purpose is to choose between just one of only two days, even without it we have already determined a degree of accuracy that far exceeds that of the chronology of Ancient Egypt, for example. Now, as far as the Hobbits are concerned, weekdays are of no use, because they did not have a continuous week. But the other peoples of Middle-earth certainly did, and for them the week began on a Saturday (Elenya). Incidentally, Saturday is also the first day of the week as far as ancient astrologers were concerned, perhaps another indication of Tolkien's Theosophical research. We are told that the Númenoreans, who first devised this calendar, originally inherited the Eldar week of six days, but later (we are not told when) increased the number to seven. However, in actual fact, since Númenor was not colonised until the year 32 Second Age, both the seven-day week, and the calendar itself, were almost certainly proleptic (i.e. retrospective), at least for the first thirty-two years of their putative operation. It seems highly likely that the Númenoreans would have retrospectively made the first day of their newly-devised calendar a Saturday (on their newly-invented seven-day-week). It turns out that if Yestarë (New Year’s Day) of the first year of the Second Age fell on a Saturday, then 9 Narvinyë 3019 Third Age would be a Monday (as indeed was 31 December 3105 BC). The alternative would have the first day of the Second Age fall on a Friday, which is much less satisfactory. We can now, therefore, offer the following exact dates for the first day of each age:
Second Age: Saturday 26 December 9564 BC  Third Age: Tuesday 24 December 6123 BC  Fourth Age: Wednesday 18 March 3102 BC 
The first two of these dates, despite appearances, are almost exactly the winter-solstice – the Gregorian Calendar gets slightly out of synchronisation with the seasons when projected that far back. The last is a few days before the spring-equinox.
For the sake of completion, it would be nice if we could say something about the chronology of the First Age. As it happens, we can say quite a lot of things, but much of it is highly technical and based on certain assumptions. Chief amongst these assumptions is that we can use recently published material to supplement The Silmarillion. The consensus amongst researchers seems to be that we can indeed, as long as it does not contradict the ‘canonical’ writings, and that we must also take Tolkien’s latest word on any particular subject. We know that there were approximately six hundred years of the sun during the First Age, and this is confirmed by the now published figure of 590 years (The Grey Annals and The Tale of Years of the First Age). Tolkien tells us that these years, as reckoned by the Eldar, were counted from the spring-equinox. Yet the calendar of Númenor starts with the winter-solstice. In other words, the last year of the First Age was only three-quarters of a year long, at least for our purposes – though in fact the Elves continued their calendar without interruption. We are told that in 3021 Third Age the Elven New Year’s Day fell on 6 Astron in the Shire Calendar (5 Víressë Old Style, Gondor). Calculating backwards, and based on the Reckoning of Rivendell as described in The Return of the King, it turns out that the year 590 of the sun was truncated after 275 days, with day 276 becoming the first day of the Second Age. The total number of days for the years of the sun during the First Age was 215,404. In brief, the calendar rules for the Reckoning of Rivendell are as follows – leap-years occurred every twelfth year, and were always treble-leap-years (368 days). 144 years made a yén, and in the last year of every third yén the three extra days were omitted. We can therefore state with confidence that the first uprising of the sun occurred on the following date:
25 March 10,153 BC 
Which was either on or very close to the spring-equinox in that year. No earlier dates are possible on the Gregorian Calendar, because without the sun marking the days and the years, the calendar cannot function, and to project it backwards would be meaningless. Note also that the day of the week has not been given, because during the First Age the seven-day-week had not yet been invented (for the curious, if the weekdays are projected backwards, it happens to be a Saturday, but this has no bearing on our calculations). On the six-day Eldar week it was Elenya (Saturday). Tolkien tells us in The Silmarillion that the moon arose before the sun, and crossed the sky seven times before the sun first rose. Starting in the west, the moon travelled back and forth, and was in the east when the sun first arose, also in the west. The original intention was to have the moon and sun crossing each other in the sky each day, with at least one visible at all times. It would appear, therefore, that the moon arose 3½ days before the sun. It can be calculated that a new moon occurred nine days before the above mentioned date (at 16:32 UTC on 16 March) , but this assumes a moon whose course has not been altered. The current arrangement was put into place shortly after the sun first arose – possibly during its very first day – so as to leave a period for rest, illuminated only by the stars.
Prior to the uprising of the sun, we now know that there were 5000 ‘Valian Years’ (The Annals of Aman), and Tolkien’s latest thoughts on the matter were that each Valian Year was equal to 144 solar years. He had earlier reckoned them to be only 10 solar years, or just slightly under, but this concept was abandoned – hence the yén being set at 144 years in Middle-earth. To explain the massively drawn out chronology of events resulting from this, he stated that time flowed at a slower rate in the Undying Lands. Since the Gregorian Calendar is inoperative prior to the creation of the sun we cannot give a true equivalent date for any of these. To get a perspective on it, however, we can calculate that the first Valian Year – and therefore, according to the most expansive definition, the First Age itself – began at the spring equinox of:
In conclusion, it may come as a surprise to some that the Fourth Age of Middle-earth began around the same time as the founding of the kingdom of Egypt. And yet in Europe at this time we have archaeological remains of a large and sophisticated civilisation, the Megalithic Culture, which could so very easily correspond to Tolkien’s kingdoms and peoples of Middle-earth – with the English Midlands as the Shire. As for the fact that Britain is now an island, this simply indicates that the flooding of the North Sea occurred later than the events described in The Lord of the Rings.
 26 Dec 9564 BC Gregorian = 10 Mar 9563 BC Julian (–1771394.5 Julian day)  24 Dec 6123 BC Gregorian = 10 Feb 6122 BC Julian (–514597.5 Julian day)  18 Mar 3102 BC Gregorian = 13 Apr 3102 BC Julian (588519.5 Julian day)  25 Mar 10,153 BC Gregorian = 11 Jun 10,153 BC Julian (–1986798.5 Julian day)
The above article appeared in Issue 42 of Mallorn (August 2004), the journal of the Tolkien Society. (See Geography and History for more information on how Tolkien’s world relates to our own.)
It is known that the two decades either side of 2200 BC – some nine centuries after the events of The Lord of the Rings – saw a collapse of civilisations across the ancient world, which also fits the timeframe for the Biblical Flood as established in Genesis. When Comet Hale-Bopp passed by the earth in 1997, it was calculated that it had last done so in July 2215 BC, after suffering a near collision with Jupiter, which sent it hurtling into the inner solar system. If it came closer to the earth than it did in 1997, it may have caused natural disasters across the planet.
In his 16th century Bayerische Chronik, Johannes Aventinus published a list of kings of Germany stretching back to 2214 BC, starting immediately after the Flood, and the 19th century apocryphal Frisian history known as the Oera Linda Book places this same event in 2194/2193 BC. In Ancient Greek myth, the Flood of Ogyges corresponds to this same event, which according to Varro’s estimate, quoted by Censorinus, took place around 2137 BC (not to be confused with the Flood of Deucalion, which occurred later, around 1529/1528 BC, and probably corresponds to the eruption of Thera). We can be fairly certain, therefore, that the flooding of the North Sea and other related disasters took place around 2200 BC, and if, as seems likely, they were caused by Comet Hale-Bopp, specifically in 2215 BC and the years immediately following.
Tolkien tells us nothing definite about the length of the Fourth and subsequent ages, except that they have speeded up (i.e. got shorter) and that, in 1958, when he wrote the letter quoted above (Letters, #211), we were either at the end of the Sixth Age, or the beginning of the Seventh. What follows is highly speculative, but if we assume that each age is shorter that its predecessor – which is true of the First, Second and Third Ages – and that each ends with the culmination of a great war, as is also true of the first three, then we are left with the following possibilities:
Fourth Age: Lasts around 1900 years (ends with the Sack of Troy, circa 1200 BC) Fifth Age: Lasts around 1650 years (ends with the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, 451 AD) Sixth Age: Lasts around 1500 years (ends with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, 1945 AD)
The importance of the Trojan War in Western history cannot be overstated, though it is mostly known to us from legend and its causes obscured by myth. Many of the peoples of Western Europe claimed descent from Troy, including the Romans, Britons and Franks, and the Sack of Troy was universally regarded in ancient times as heralding a new age. Its actual date is not precisely known, and estimates given in the ancient sources vary by as much as a century or more. Most, however, cluster around 1200 BC, such as those given by Dicaearchus (1212 BC), the Parian Marble (1209/1208 BC), Timaeus (1193 BC), Eratosthenes (1184/1183 BC) and Sosibius (1172 BC).
Of all the battles of the Dark Ages, the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (Battle of Châlons) was surely the most crucial, for it was at this that the scattered armies of the dying Roman Empire in the West, under Aëtius, combined forces with their erstwhile enemies, the Visigoths, under Theodoric, to defeat the hordes of Attila the Hun, who was intent on conquering Europe and destroying its civilisation. Attila himself died two years later and the Huns were finally crushed in 454.
The importance of the Second World War, and its cataclysmic conclusion, hardly needs elaborating. Tolkien lived through this, and The Lord of the Rings largely took shape at this very time. It was a war in which the free peoples of the earth united to defeat a monstrous evil that threatened to engulf the whole world, destroying everything that is good and decent, repeating the cycle of ages set so long ago in the Elder Days.
We cannot know, since Tolkien is silent on the matter, if each succeeding age began immediately after the event in question, or – as with the transition from the Third to the Fourth Age – a number of years passed between the end of the war and the official beginning of the new age. We can, however, indulge in a little informed guesswork on the matter, as long as we remember that such guesses are not canonical. If we assign 1930 years to the Fourth Age, the Fifth Age begins in 1172 BC (Sosibius’s date for the Trojan War). If we then assign 1625 years to the Fifth Age, the Sixth Age begins in 454 AD, the year after Attila’s death, when the Huns were finally crushed. Finally, if we assign exactly 1500 years to the Sixth Age, the Seventh Age begins in 1954, when The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers were published. Putting this together we have the following:
First Age: 730,153 BC, 5590 years (the first 5000 were Valian Years, equal to 144 solar years) (Years of the Sun: 10,153 BC, 590 years – counted as the last part of the First Age) Second Age: 9563 BC, 3441 years Third Age: 6122 BC, 3020 years (in Gondor, in the Shire it lasted a year longer) Fourth Age: 3102 BC, 1930 years (estimate) Fifth Age: 1172 BC, 1625 years (estimate) Sixth Age: 454 AD, 1500 years (estimate) Seventh Age: 1954 AD
No attempt has been made to assign exact calendar dates to the three most recent ages, though it is most likely that the last two, at least, were fixed against the standard Julian Calendar, reformed in 1582 as the Gregorian Calendar (1752 in Britain and its colonies).