As far as “Gondor” goes the facts (of which I am aware) are these: 1) I do not recollect ever having heard the name “Gondar” (in Ethiopia) before your letter; 2) “Gondor” is (a) a name fitted to the style and phonetics of “Sindarin,” and (b) has the sense “Stoneland” … one’s mind is, of course, stored with a ‘leaf-mould’ of memories (submerged) of names, and these rise up to the surface at times, and may provide with modification the basis of ‘invented’ names. Owing to the prominence of Ethiopia in the Italian war “Gondar” may have been one such element. But no more than say “Gondwana-land” (that rare venture of geology into poetry)…

— Letter 324, “The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien” (June 4-5, 1971)

Actually, the tale of how an ancient supercontinent was christened Gondawana-land (now shortened to Gondwana) is less about poetry and more to do with people being observant and curious.


The real Gondwana is a region in northern India. Its name comes from Sanskrit vana ‘forest’ + Gonda, the Dravidian tribe who lives in the area.

The word Gonda reportedly means “fleshy navel, outie belly-button” – once this aspect of Tolkien and geology is seen, it can never be unseen.

You’re welcome.

The Gondi language, by the way, is spoken by some 2 million people, but it’s seldom written down.

In 1928, the Gond Munshi Mangal Singh Masaram developed a script for his language, using linguistic principles, but it never really took hold. Gondi, then, is the opposite of Tolkien’s Quenya and Sindarin languages, which are only spoken today because he developed a script for them.

The Gondwana Rock Succession

In 1873, geologists gave the region’s name to a series of sedimentary rock layers found there, near the Himalayas.

The lowest (and oldest) bed of the Gondwana Rock Succession is a jumble of different rock fragments that overlie scratched stone surfaces that once were bedrock.

Glaciers still sculpture the land today.  (Ins 1122)

A beautiful glacial mess (click to enlarge). (Ins 1122)

Since glaciers can scratch rock, and “till” is the name for the gravelly mess they leave behind, the jumbled layer at the bottom of the Gondwana series is sometimes called a tillite.

Scientists who would rather not imply a particular origin will refer to it as diamictite.

Whatever you call it, this jumbled layer is intermixed with various layers of fossil-bearing sediments and coal that date the sequence to the late Permian/early Triassic period of Earth’s history. At the top of the sequence are igneous basaltic rocks that were emplaced there millions of years later.

That’s a lot of geology. The main thing to remember about the Gondwana rock succession is this:

  • It’s a unique geologic layer in northern India.
  • It shows scratch marks made by glaciers.
  • There are lots of marine and land fossils in it.

Dr. Suess

No, the name isn’t misspelled. Eduard Suess, a 19th century Austrian geologist, is the “poet” who came up with the name Gondwanaland.

Suess made a startling discovery – the same fossils (particularly Glossopteris) and glacial scratches that are found in India’s Gondwana sequence are also found in identical rock sequences on the modern Southern Hemisphere continents of Australia, Africa and South America.

Generally speaking, animals and events that are isolated on different continents develop in different ways. How, then, did the same animals, plants and geologic events happen in those four places?

Dr. Suess decided it could only have occurred if land bridges had once connected India, Africa, South America and Australia, forming a single continent that he called Gondwanaland. Then the ocean covered the bridges as Earth shrank due to cooling after the heat of its formation.

The Great Library

Well, he was wrong about the shrinking, but his discovery about a supercontinent laid the groundwork for later theories of continental drift and plate tectonics.

"Gondwana" is the southern supercontinent formed when Pangea broke apart.  (Wikipedia)

“Gondwana” is the southern supercontinent formed when Pangaea broke apart. (USGS)

So, in a way stones are indeed involved. However, there’s another reason why this is a little like a Tolkien tale.

Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learning their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did.

— “The Lord of the Rings,” Book III, Chapter 4

Earth can’t speak, but we wish to understand it and so have trained ourselves to understand a little of the language in which its events have been recorded in stone.

We do live in a giant library. New books are being opened and read by geoscientists every day.

Categories: Tolkien Tuesday

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