Does any other novel depend on maps as much as The Lord of the Rings does? The squinty stranger from the south. The shadow in the east. The western door of Moria. At least three major mountain ranges. At least four significant forests. At least five notable rivers. The reader needs every one of Tolkien’s maps to keep track of it all.
Understanding the geography of Middle Earth, though, doesn’t just help get us through the plot. The more we know the lay of the land, the more we become like Middle Earthers. The hobbits are the exception to the rule. Everyone else always knows where he is in relation to every road, hill, town, tower, cavern, tavern, and Fortress of Evil in the land. Legolas climbs a hill close to Edoras, and he can see the tower of Orthanc to the west and the tower of Barad Dur to the east – over 400 miles away!
It takes more than just elven eyesight to see an evil tower from a distance of 400 miles. Legolas has the clear air of pre-industrial fantasy, and Middle Earth is flat. On a flat world, no place hides beyond a curving horizon. So from the beginning of The Silmarillion to the last page of The Lord of the Rings, we’re meant to see all of Middle Earth in one glance. Every place is connected. As Bilbo says, there’s only one road, and it goes on and on and reaches every door. Among the many salutary lessons Tolkien offers us, this is one of the most important. Six degrees of separation is about four degrees too many.