The First Age app (on the App Store here) is a maps application for Middle-earth. It shows a zoomable satellite view of Middle-earth as it would have appeared in The First Age.
If you’re unfamiliar with Tolkien’s work here’s a potted history. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes creation and the way the world changes over many years. During most of this time activity is largely in Valinor which is in the west of the world, but at the start of the First Age, the action switches to Beleriand which is a large area in the west of Middle-earth. At the end of the First Age, Beleriand is ruined and most of it is plunged beneath the sea. By the time of The Lord of the Rings we are in the Third Age of the world and Beleriand is long-gone.
Having been a fan of Tolkien’s works for over 40 years I have a very good appreciation of the importance of canon, i.e. the representation of Tolkien’s work in the way that he originally intended, and not with the abandon typified by Peter Jackson’s cinematic version of LOTR and reckless abandon of The Hobbit.
In creating The First Age app I attempted to stay as close to the canonically accepted elements of Tolkien’s legendarium as I could.
There are two definitive map sources for Middle-earth; the original map (and its revisions) drawn by Christopher Tolkien for his father’s The Lord of the Rings which depicts Middle-earth in the Third Age of the world and a second map (and its revisions) drawn by Christopher Tolkien that shows the far west of Middle-earth in the First Age which was published in The Silmarillion.
Those two published books along with the History of Middle-earth series by Christopher Tolkien and a number of other writings are the basis for Tolkien canon.
In the LOTR map, there were several features off the west coast of Middle-earth that translated to the remains of highland regions of Beleriand before it was flooded. In particular, the island of Himling is actually the remains of the Hill of Himring. Similarly, Tol Fuin is the remains of the highland region of Taur-Nu-Fuin. Only by aligning these features between the two maps could a consistent scale be achieved.
That still left the problem of how to deal with the areas that were not shown in either map, e.g. the extreme north and south of Beleriand and the far east where the Sea of Helcar is situated.
There have been several attempts to map these areas, e.g. in JRR Tolkien’s early sketches or in Karen Wynn Fonstad’s “The Atlas of Middle Earth” published in 1981, but there’s not enough there that could definitely be canonical, certainly at the level of detail I was working at. As a result, I treated these regions with originality with no claim to them being canon.
The First Age app also allows users to tap on the maps and determine the distance between two locations. That presented another series of challenges.
At the beginning of the First Age, the world is flat. Only after the fall of Numenor does the world become spherical. For the app I have chosen to treat the world as spherical, so each of the locations has a latitude and longitude as if it were in a real place on Earth and distances are calculated using the great circle method.
Those distances are heavily dependent on where on earth you choose to place the locations. JRR Tolkien was known to have compared the location of Hobbiton to Oxford, so the locations in the app are based on that requirement. Although Hobbiton is not shown (it didn’t exist in the First Age) its position would be at the exact latitude and longitude that Oxford occupies in real life. He also compared the latitude of Minas Tirith to that of Florence in Italy, so the scale is largely established on that basis.
The final elements that are difficult to resolve canonically are the Blue Mountains which appear on both maps and the position of the dwarf cities among them. In attempts that I have previously seen to merge the two original Tolkien maps, there is often insufficient attention to relative scales, but even when applying the correction, the mountains in one map don’t align exactly with the mountains in the other. However, given that there is a great deal of upheaval in that region at the end of the First Age, I don’t see this as a major problem. I just tend to accept the differences in position as being the result of the ruin of Beleriand.
Image Sources and Editing
Everything shown in the maps originated as a high-resolution satellite image from the USGS Landsat 8 survey. I carefully selected locations based on specific requirements, e.g. I would select mountains based on a specific need, or grassland where there was a minimum of human development (which is way more difficult than you may think).
I downloaded around 400 images from EarthExplorer and used the raw data to create balanced color images. I then combined elements of them to create a master file in Photoshop of 32,768 x 20,400 pixels (that’s over 600 MP). The file was so large when I was editing it that I needed to buy a specific Mac Pro with 32G of memory just to handle it.
I then created 5 different resolutions to match 5 different levels of zoom that the app supports. At the maximum zoom level, its the 600 MP image.
When the app opens you’re typically at the top level. As you pinch to zoom in, one layer disappears to be replaced by another. Each layer is 4x the resolution of the one before and has different text overlays.