The lore surrounding The Lord of the Rings is so expansive that it can sometimes be difficult to keep up with. The world Tolkien created is so detailed that there are many places that the story never even visits, but they are still important to the world at large. The lore goes deep enough that there is a whole mythology surrounding the creation of the world and the extended history of Middle-earth, and because it is secondary to the story, often only the most die-hard fans even know about it.
One of the more confusing elements is differentiating between the different names for the lands in Tolkien’s work, and how the world as a whole is established. Middle-earth, Arda, and Beleriand are all terms that are used when referring to the world Tolkien created, but they all mean different things and may be dependent on what time period is being discussed. So what are the differences between these places, and how are they important to Tolkien’s world?
The term Arda simply refers to the world as a whole, the way that we call the planet we inhabit “Earth”. Arda was created using the Music of the Ainur, as a way to create a home for the Children of Ilúvatar (the races of Elves and Men). The Valar came up with the geography of Arda and gave it form, until Melkor decided he wanted Arda for himself and tried to fight them for it. This resulted in the First War, which marred Arda and changed the plan for its layout.
Originally, Arda was flat, and the continents were surrounded by Ekkaia, the Encircling Sea. Aman was the biggest continent, and it lay in the West, and Middle-earth was to the East. Middle-earth was joined to Aman in the Northwest by the Helcaraxë, a cold, icy region. During the war, the Valar broke and reshaped much of the world, with some of it falling into the sea and other land masses being split. One of the most notable was the sinking of Númenor, during which the world was stretched into a spherical shape. Aman became inaccessible except by the Straight Way, which is the path the Elves take from the Grey Havens into the West (and also where Frodo was allowed to travel at the end of his journey).
As previously mentioned, Middle-earth was one of the lands that made up the world of Arda. It is the the area where the stories of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit take place, and it is the location that fans are generally the most familiar with. Some of the most dominant features of Middle-earth are the mountain ranges, which separate the land into its different regions, and also separate Middle-earth from Beleriand. In the early days of its existence, Middle-earth was covered by a giant forest from the western shores to beyond the Misty Mountains, however it started to dwindle over time and now exists only in the forms of the Old Forest, Fangorn Forest, Lothlórien, and Eryn Vorn.
Middle-earth was home to various kinds of people all throughout its history, beginning with the Ainur and Maiar. There were good Maiar – the five wizards – as well as evil ones, which were Balrogs and Sauron himself. Then, eventually, the children of Ilúvatar arrived when they were created and awoken by Ilúvatar, and Dwarves were made by the Vala Aulë. Tolkien identified that Hobbits were an offshoot of the race of Men, and though the exact origins and history are unclear, they first settled in the Vales of Anduin in the early part of the Third Age before migrating over the Misty Mountains and settling in the Shire.
Beleriand was a region in the Northwest of Middle-earth during the First Age. The area was surrounded by the Belegaer Sea to the West and South, and the Blue Mountains were to the East (and are the only part of the region that remain by the Third Age). During the War of Wrath, which was Morgoth’s attack on the land of Beleriand during his quest for power, he enslaved many of the Elves and Men of Beleriand in the pits of Angband. Though Morgoth was eventually defeated and the slaves were freed, the land had essentially been destroyed by the war.
The landscape had changed, with rivers being created and destroyed and even the very hills themselves shifting. Eventually, most of this land sunk beneath the sea, with only a small area called Lindon remaining. A few other areas remained and became known as the Western Isles, including Tol Fuin, Tol Morwen, and the Hill of Himring, which simply became the island of Himling. Galadriel, when speaking to Treebeard at Isengard, does hint that after the final battles of the end times (known as Dagor Dagorath), Beleriand will be recovered from the sea once again.