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Middle Earth: where are all the women?

Posted by Stephen Heuser  November 28, 2012 09:29 PM

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Perhaps it was inevitable that two great geek preoccupations – data visualization and the Lord of the Rings – would collide with the nerd obsession du jour, demography. The result is the spectacular (and endearingly dorkmeistery) LOTRProject, an attempt by a Swedish chemical-engineering grad student named Emil Johansson to document every named character in the writings of JRR Tolkien, link them by genealogy, and boil it down into one great statistical portrait of Middle Earth. The result is a series of interactive charts showing the population by race and sex, average life span, and more.

Readers who have spent any time in Middle Earth know that Tolkien’s universe was exceptionally deeply imagined, with its own origin myth, distant history, original alphabets, and grammatically consistent elf languages. Transforming its people into data not only shows us not only a crisper portrait of that world, but also, as maps will do, a clear outline of what it’s missing.

The big gap? Let’s just say if there were a ladies’ night on Middle Earth, things would be pretty quiet. Men outnumber women about 4 to 1 overall, with the most spectacular gender imbalance (50-1!) occurring among the dwarves. And for a universe without modern medicine, there is surprisingly little child mortality: virtually nobody in Tolkien’s work dies before their 60s, and a vast number of individuals live beyond 100.

This is, of course, an artifact of what the man chose to write about, rather than the, er, reality of life there. “I think it is safe to draw the conclusion that there were children who died at a young age but we will never know how many they were,” wrote Johansson in an email, calling it “a very significant part of Middle-Earth that we do not know.”

And if you are wondering who, exactly, would build this kind of database, check out Johansson’s talk at TEDx Goteborg.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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