Middle-earth, also known as Endor (S.Middle-land) was the largest continent on Ambar (the World) in Arda (the Realm of Manwë). It’s inhabitants were the Eruhini, the children and creations of Eru: the Elves (or Quendi), Men (or Hildor, including Halflings), Dwarves (Naugrim), and Ents (Onodrim); as well as the Melkorindi or Uvanimor: the Orcs (Yrch), Trolls (Tereg ), and Dragons (Loki). Middle-earth was also known to be the home of a number of lesser Ainur or Maiar and enigmatic peoples such as the Giants, and a countless number of lesser Olvar and Kelvar or Plants and Animals.
The best known part of Arda were the Westlands, roughly the northwestern part of the continent, with the icy Forodwaith in the north, the hot Haradwaith in the south, the Sea of Rhûn in the east, and the great ocean Belegaer in the west. It comprised the Lands of Lindon, Eriador (Including the lost Kingdom of Arnor and its successor realms as well as Enedwaith), Rohan (or Calenardhon), the Lands of Rhovanion, the southern Kingdom of Gondor, and the dark land of Mordor.
The Lands of Rhûn and Haradwaith were known quite well in the southern kingdom of Gondor since they once were provinces of it’s dominion. The Lands further to the east and south were known as the Wild Lands East and South, tribal areas often under the sway of the Dark Lord or inhabited by wild rebellious tribes loyal to none but themselves. The Númenóreans had built many colonies in the south along the western coast, many of which later became the homelands of the so-called Black Númenóreans.
- Hither Lands
- Middle Land
The Shape of Middle-earth in the Third Age
What did Middle-earth actually look like outside the Westlands? While Professor Tolkien gave us quite a good set of maps to imagine what he had in mind for the Westlands and Beleriand in the First and late Third Ages, he only gave vague evidence to the geography of the entire continent. His writings offer us some hints: the Orocarni are mentioned as a great mountain chain in the farthest east, he mentions wild woods in the east (around the Bay of Cuivienen), great pinewoods to the North (north of Helcar and Cuivienen), the Iron Forest in the world's center and the great forests of the south (south of Umbar or Far Harad), the great Inland Seas of Helcar and Ormal, vast grass plains in Palisor (implied to stretch between Cuivienen and the later Inland Sea of Rhûn), the Lake of Almaren in the center of the World, a mountain chain known as the Mountains of the Wind near to the Murmenalda in the Land of Hildorien (once implied to correspond with Mesopotamia), and another unnamed mountain chain (with the place of awakening of the fourth and fifth tribes of the Eastern Dwarves) implied to have been situated half way between the Orocarni and the Iron Hills, the great Iron Mountains and old Utumno in the far North, deserts (The Harad Desert and the Last Desert) in the east (implied to correspond with the deserts of China), and wooded coastal lands and former Black Númenórean colonies along the Cragged Coasts of Harad, and several island chains in the Belegaer. However aside from briefly mentioning these geographic features, we don't get map material to illustrate them or give us a better idea about Ambar outside the Northwest. Except for a few rough sketches and drawings.
Best known are his raw sketches published in The Shaping of Middle-earth which give us a clue how he imagined the entire continent (and indeed also Aman, Southernesse, and Easternesse, Ambar’s other three major landmasses) to look like. He drew a very quick sketch of Beleriand as the northwesternmost tip of a somewhat larger continent which strongly resembled Africa to the south, the Arabian peninsula at the centre, India or Thailand/Myanmar/Cambodia/Vietnam in the southeast, and China in the far east. Also his sketch gives us hints about the Great Mountain chains (Hithaeglir, Ered Engrin, Orocarni, Mountains of the Wind) and mentions two more: the Yellow Mountains and the Grey Mountains, gives us a better idea of the Inland Sea of Helcar and the Bay of Ormal, Hildorien, Cuivienen, Almaren, and the continent known as the Dark Lands or Southernesse, often compared by commentators to Australia, Antarctica, Oceania and Indonesia, as well as Easternesse and Aman, which were sometimes compared to the Americas, Lemuria, and Mu.
Two less known and less frequently acknowledged hints may be Tolkien’s early drawing of the "World Ship" and the World of Arda, published in the Book of Lost Tales, and a painting by Professor Tolkien entitled The Man in the Moon, showing the Moon with it's Towers, and far away, Planet Earth, with the continents North America, Eurasia, Africa, and possibly Atlantis and Mu or Lemuria.
While certainly an important source, these drawings are also often considered just rough drafts, early processing steps which just represent very early concepts Professor Tolkien never again revisited and never officially published in his lifetime. While many later interpretations tried to stay as close as possible to these sketches, others have argued that Tolkien certainly would have reworked and revisited his earliest sketches and would have altered them to avoid a too-strong resemblance to modern maps of our modern Earth's Landmasses. On the other hand, the close resemblance of the Professor's Shaping of Middle-earth maps to early illustrations of plate tectonics have inspired several artists to flesh out the obvious similarities between Ambar and Pangaea or Middle-Earth/Southernesse and Laurasia/Gondwanaland (in fact The Professor's sketches predated the modern maps and theories of plate tectonics).
Karen Wynn Fonstad's The Atlas of Middle-Earth stayed very close to Professor Tolkien's early Ambarkanta sketches, but added the Lord of the Rings maps as a link between the Beleriand map and the continental sketches. An Artist's Interpretation of Middle-earth, including the wild lands east, south and north by Pete Fenlon went the other way and, while still loosely based on Tolkien's Ambarkanta sketches, tried to alter the continent's shape with the attempt to create a continent that bore as little resemblence to Africa or Asia as the Westlands did to Europe (while Pete Fenlon still included some allusions to real-world geographical features).
Both maps (and many others inspired by them, such as the maps published by David Day in his Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia) were however often criticized as being too small in scale. Professor Tolkien offers a vague hint to the extent of Middle-earth through the words of Aragorn "...the far countries of Rhûn and Harad where the stars are strange..." indicating Middle-earth to have stretched quite a bit on the eastern and southern hemisphere. Scientifically speaking, the coasts of Middle-earth should correspond roughly with those of Pangaea (in the Elder Days) or Eurafrasia (in the Succeeding Ages).
Professor Tolkien's earliest sketches on the other hand seem to indicate a far smaller continent if the relation of Beleriand to the rest of the continent would be taken as literal and intentional, and indeed both Fonstadt and Fenlon drew maps of comparatively small continents whose southern coasts barely touched the equator and whose eastern coastlines barely went beyond the 80° or 110° degree of longitude.
In the absence of a truly accurate and reliable authorized map, so far all maps depicting Arda, Middle-earth, or Ambar's other continents, especially if set after the First Age, have to be seen as mere fanciful interpretations, as imprecise and speculative as antique or medieval maps of our own world before the 18th and 19th centuries.