The world of The Lord of the Rings is an ancient version of our world, predating the birth of Jesus, Rome, Stonehenge, and the like. It is commonly held that Middle-earth is a world that Tolkien created, but as we learn from his letters, it is more accurate to say that Middle-earth is a land that God created in a historical period that Tolkien created. (It would perhaps be more accurate to say not that Tolkien created Middle-earth, but that he created the Third Age, the Fourth Age, et cetera.)
In creating the languages and cultures that exist in The Lord of the Rings (and to a lesser extent The Hobbit), Tolkien consciously linked, through names of people and places, different peoples with different linguistic and historical tropes. For example, Shippey notes that all of the interaction which precedes the Company’s ability to see Theoden, King of the Mark, mirrors almost exactly the rites and procedures that the author of Beowulf describes. In doing this, Tolkien is painting a multiethnic world wherein language (even sentence structure, as can be seen quite strikingly in the differences in dialogue between, for instance, Hobbits and Dwarves), custom and rite are deeply ingrained and, at least to the reader, it may seem genuine, “real”. The depth of the cultures and the thought and precision which went into the creation of linguistic relationships between names and places allow the reader to believe that these cultures might have formed organically, rather than as some interesting idea in some author’s head.
In doing this, he borrows from various cultures which did exist, whether it be the Saxons, the Danes, et cetera. This begs the question of historicity, a question which Tolkien was very aware of: how can you transmit a culture’s qualities back through time and graft them onto an ancient people? Tolkien is very certain that, at least from a technically correct historical picture, this cannot be done: while Hobbits may mirror the English, for instance, it is not clear that they are Englishmen of prehistory. To solve this historical problem, Tolkien added the conceit which comprises Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings: “On Translation”. The narrator here states that the stories come to him from the Red Book of Westmarch (primarily, but not wholly) and that it was written in the (fictional) language of Westron, and that in his function as a translator of Westron, he has taken certain liberties in translation which have allowed for the depth of allusiveness that Tolkien-as-author wished to include.
As has been mentioned before, Tolkien viewed the elements of fairy-story as being ingredients in a pot, a stew, and he believes that, for one reason or another, certain elements through history become parts of the soup, churning around in the consciousness as elements of fairy-storytelling. (I will point here to the example of “The Three Bears”, which was first published by Robert Southey, though it was a common fairy-story that people heard in childhood. Later, Joseph Cundall transformed the old woman who finds the three bears into a small child, Goldilocks, and the character of Goldilocks found herself in the stew, in the consciousness of the story which has taken on its own wings.) All of the elements, Tolkien states, came from somewhere, and he believes that a lot of them came from history: King Arthur was really a king, for instance, and the tales of King Arthur grew from there, into the soup, and combined with other elements to form a myth. But, as Tolkien writes in The Notion Club Papers (giving the words to his characters), Tolkien believes that there is more truth than commonly believed in the myths which find themselves in the stew.
The world of The Lord of the Rings closely parallels a generic “Middle Ages” or “Dark Ages” feel. The travels of the Company from Rivendell bring to my mind images of Holy Roman Emperors crossing the Alps to get to Rome, or other commonly treacherous journeys. But Frodo, Bilbo, and others are not living in the Middle Ages. Tolkien does, however, give us a character that does: Farmer Giles.
Just like our common perception of the the Middle Ages, which we in our popular imagination fail to realizes lasted centuries, several centuries are condensed (perhaps as a joke) in Farmer Giles’s very specific Little Kingdom. Tolkien situates the world clearly, making reference to several real towns and structures (such as the Rollright Stones) and “explains” the names of Thame (which should be Tame) and Worminghall, both places where Farmer Giles had the dragon (a worm, who was tame). Meanwhile, the King, who is roughly sixty miles away, is clearly a foreigner to the lands.
It is in Farmer Giles of Ham that Tolkien is capable of explicitly doing the work which he clearly enjoys, which is finding something that fascinates him and creating an explanation as to why it exists: things such as Worminghall and Thame, golf and “Hey Diddle Diddle”. In this task, he is creating protoforms, trying to understand what ingredients entered into the stew before they reacted with other ingredients or were burnt on the bottom of the pot (i.e. lost). Based on the amount Tolkien does this, he clearly enjoys it: Tolkien (like the rest of modern society) has the finished cake, and attempts to learn what goes into it.