Astronomy in the Tolkien ‘Verse

This post was written for & originally published on adventuresinpoortaste.com, broken into two parts.

 


I like to consider myself a well-rounded nerd – the knowledge version of “jack of all trades, master of none”. There are some odd consequences to that. One is forgoing a graduate degree in astrophysics for “science communication”. Another is having read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion at least 5 times before I finished The Fellowship of the Ring. Actually, that’s not true. I listened to it on audiobook.

The Silmarillion, for any of you not in the know, is Tolkien’s ultimate prequel. The physical book is actually a collection of 5 ‘works’ spanning the creation of the Universe (called Eä) all the way to the destruction of that meddlesome One Ring. Here’s a summary:

  • Ainulindalë – The Universe is sung into existence by Eru Ilúvatar (big G God) and the Ainur (basically his angelic host). Kinda. It’s more complicated than that. A subset of Ainur choose to enter it; they find it completely empty, so they get to work makin’ shit and keeping Melkor1 from breakin’ shit.
  • Valaquenta – Not a story; it breaks down the Ainur who entered Eä into the Valar (little g gods) and the Maiar, describing what their schticks are and giving a stealth shout-out to Gandalf.
  • Quenta Silmarillion – The actual bulk of the book you bought. Main plot thread: One elf makes 3 really pretty rocks; Melkor steals them and kills his dad; elf and sons spend the rest of the story trying to get them back, killing and getting killed in the process.
  • Akallabêth – The descendants of Elrond’s mortal brother get too big for their britches and Eru wipes most of them out by making the world round.
  • Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age – It’s like watching PJ’s trilogy, except almost all of the content covers what the movies use in the backstory intro.

I normally spend my (productive) free time blogging about science in old Marvel comic books, but I’m easily distracted by fictional space stuff. Even Especially when that space stuff is buried inside some sort of myth. Which makes The Silmarillion a perfect target.

So, does astronomy in Tolkien’s literary world line up with ours? Or is it pure fantasy? Let’s look at four specific examples.

Arda

Long they laboured in the regions of Eä, which are cast beyond the thought of Elves and Men, until in the time appointed was made Arda, the Kingdom of Earth.” – Valaquenta

Arda is Quenya (the Latin of Elvish languages) for “the World”. For most of The Silmarillion, Arda is less the planet Earth and more a geocentric solar system, but you can usually conflate them without too much trouble.

The most obvious difference between the real Earth and (the earth part of) Arda is that Arda starts out as a flat disk, surrounded by an otherworldly sea called Ekkaia.2 But then a group of men try to conquer the Valar and take some of that immortality they’re ‘hoarding’, so Eru (who’s been a hands-off creator since he spoke Eä into existence) rips the Undying Lands off of Arda and reforms the latter into the planet we know today, which we can approximate as an oblate spheroid.

Ignoring the divine intervention that prevents that much mass from gravitationally collapsing into a sphere, one might pause to wonder how gravity acts on Arda’s inhabitants. The Elves living on the western continent (Aman) would weigh less than anyone living closer to the center of the disk. And they’d all be inclined (haha puns…) to stand leaning away from that center.

arda_gravity
On a perfectly spherical planet with an evenly/symmetrically distributed mass, the center of mass is at its exact center, so everyone is pulled in a direction directly beneath them. Earth’s center of mass isn’t in the exact center, and it actually moves as things like tectonic plates shift around, but it’s close enough. On a large disk, the center of mass will only be underneath the feet of everyone living directly above that part of the disk. The further away from the center of Arda you live, the more you’ll be pulled toward the center of mass at a non-downward angle, and the less gravity you’ll feel.

All that being said, there is one passage about Arda’s creation I did want to call out as being strangely correct:

And in this work the chief part was taken by Manwë and Aulë and Ulmo; but Melkor too was there from the first, and he meddled in all that was done, turning it if he might to his own desires and purposes; and he kindled great fires. When therefore Earth was yet young and full of flame Melkor coveted it, and he said to the other Valar: ‘This shall be my own kingdom; and I name it unto myself!’– Ainulindalë

The Earth was indeed full of flame when it was forming all those years ago, in that it was predominantly made of molten rock.3 Planets form by a bunch of smaller rocky bodies (“planetesimals”) smashing into one another, and these high-velocity collisions produce heat; even when the Earth was relatively ‘Earth-sized’, it was still constantly being bombarded by smaller space rocks, which released enough energy to keep things mostly melted. Heat was also released as the Earth gravitationally contracted into a (smaller) sphere, and radioactive elements with relatively short half-lives decayed.

The earliest interval of geologic time, and therefore the one that contains the Earth’s formation, is known as the Hadean [4.6 – 4 billion years ago], which references the hellish conditions anyone with a time machine would witness. You’d not only be at risk of death from meteoric impacts and the intense volcanism; you wouldn’t be able to breathe when the first atmosphere formed, because there wasn’t any oxygen.

It’s a good thing Eru waited a bit before popping his Children into existence…

Eleni

But as the ages drew on to the hour appointed by Ilúvatar for the coming of the Firstborn, Middle-earth lay in a twilight beneath the stars that Varda had wrought in the ages forgotten of her labours in Eä.” – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 1

99% of the time you see an Elvish word/name beginning with El-, it’s something to do with stars. Even the word for elves, Eldar, is in reference to the stars being the first thing they laid eyes upon after Eru brought them into existence.4 They love them some stars.

They also love them the stars’ creator. The first stars in Tolkien’s night sky were crafted soon after Varda descended into Eä, out in the cosmological boonies while her hubby and his buddies were busy with Arda.

These “innumerable” stars are “faint and far”, compared to Varda’s later work. But let’s not go there just yet. While it’s impossible to know just how many stars our Star-Kindler kindled, we can at least ask the question of how many stars are visible from Earth with the naked eye.

A star’s brightness is measured on a scale called “magnitude”. It’s based off of how much light the star emits (its “luminosity”) and how far away it is from Earth, but because numbers were originally assigned by the human eyeball we’re stuck with a now more-scientific scale with terrible numbers. A difference of 1 in magnitude corresponds to a change in brightness of the fifth root of 100.

Yep. A star with a magnitude of 1 is ~2.512 times brighter than a star with a magnitude of 2. [Right – I forgot to mention the scale also runs backwards…] Vega – the fifth brightest star in the night sky – was set as the reference star and defined to have a magnitude of 0.

The Sun, because it’s just so darn close, has an apparent magnitude of -26.74. This makes it ~400,000 times brighter than the next brightest object as seen from Earth – a full moon. The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius, with a magnitude of -1.46.

Originally, the dimmest stars were all binned into the “6” category, but nowadays, the ultimate viewing limit for the best human eyesight in the darkest of environments pushes against magnitude 8. Nearly 48,000 astronomical phenomena spread out over the entire sky have lower magnitudes, including things like clusters and galaxies. 

Elves, however, have canonically better vision than humans, so maybe they’d be able to see our Sun’s closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, which has an apparent magnitude of 11.13.

Admiring the Galazy (ESO)
The view from La Silla Observatory, in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Nowhere near the continent of Endor, which you know better as Middle-earth. Yes, George Lucas either intentionally or inadvertently named the moon of the Ewoks after Middle-earth. Credit: ESO/A. Fitzsimmons, CC BY 2.0

Varda’s second major work – the greatest ever performed after the Valar came into Arda – consisted of making a smaller set of brighter ‘stars’ from some kind of ‘liquid light’ produced by a magical tree (You’ll hear more of this later), and also rearranging several of her older stars into asterisms – a notable pattern/collection of stars (NB: A constellation is 1 of 88 asterisms defined by the International Astronomical Union).

The Silmarillion names several of these objects, but it can be a struggle to identify real-universe counterparts. We can assume that they do have counterparts, because Tolkien actually meant this all to be our own history (distorted through storytellers) a super duper long time ago.

The Valacirca (aka “the Sickle of the Valar”) is clearly Tolkien’s version of the Big Dipper, an asterism located within the constellation Ursa Major. It’s described as a “crown of seven mighty stars” set “high in the north”. If you live at a latitude of 41o N or higher,5 it will always be in the sky, but you might just not see it because, ya know, the Sun is out.

bigdipperlabels
There are actually way more than seven stars in this asterism. Dubhe is a binary star system. Mizar is a quadruple system – two sets of binaries. Its faint companion Alcor (which you can see just to the upper left of the star in the image above) is also a binary. So that makes either 11 or 13 stars, depending on if you count Alcor or not. Image Credit: Gh5046, Public Domain – cropped and annotated.

Menelmacar “with his shining belt” is Orion, who moves across the sky followed by “the blue fire of Helluin”, so we also have a name for Sirius.

But none of the rest of the names come with sufficient detail across any of Tolkien’s works to know for sure what they are. Tolkien’s son (and Silmarillion editor) Christopher suspects Wilwarin (Quenya for “butterfly”) is the constellation Cassiopeia. But Carnil (“red-star”), Luinil (“blue-star”), Nénar (“flame of adamant”), Lumbar (“shadow home”), Alcarinquë (“the glorious”), and Elemmírë (“star-jewel”) remain unassigned ‘stars’, and Telumendil (“lover of the heavens”), Soronúmë (“eagle”), and Anarríma (“sun edge”) are unassigned asterisms.

Eärendil

Now when first Vingilot was set to sail in the seas of heaven, it rose unlooked for, glittering and bright; and the people of Middle-earth…called it Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope.” – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 24

Tolkien provides no Elvish word for ‘planet’; they’re lumped in with the eleni. In fact, many of the unidentified names in the paragraph above are often assumed to be some of the planets. The non-Earth planets are notable objects in the night sky – not only fairly bright (well, at least 5 of them), but wandering across the sky when the rest of the stars’ positions relative to each other remain fixed.

The only planet for which we have a definite equivalent is Venus – the brightest object in the night sky, save the Moon during certain phases, and the ISS when the Sun hits it just right, and the occasional comet or supernova.6 

Now fair and marvellous was that vessel made…and Eärendil the Mariner sat at the helm…and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow. Far he journeyed in that ship, even into the starless voids; but most often was he seen at morning or at evening, glimmering in sunrise or sunset, as he came back to Valinor from voyages beyond the confines of the world.” – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 24

Venus is sometimes referred to as the “Morning” or “Evening Star” because, depending on where it is in its orbit, Venus is either the first star-like object you see as the Sun sets or the last star to remain visible as the Sun rises. So as the elves would tell it, Venus is not the work of Varda, but a dude with a really bright jewel on his forehead, sailing the heavens in a magical boat.

He also killed a dragon. Whether or not Venus could slay Ancalagon the Black with its lead-melting temperatures, surface air pressures nearly 100 times higher than Earth’s, basically oxygen-less atmosphere, and acid rain is a question we’ll have to hold onto.

v_mosaic_rgb2
Approximate true-color image of Venus at visible wavelengths. Image Credit: NASA (Mariner 10), processing by Ricardo Nunes

Tolkien does make one apparent mistake with Eärendil as Venus, stating “the star of Eärendil shone bright in the West as a token…and as a guide over the sea” for Men to follow to the island of Númenor. Venus above the western horizon itself isn’t an error, but it’s there at sunrise.

Venus is always relatively close to the Sun in the sky, because its orbit is inside of Earth’s, so you can’t have the Sun rising in the east and Venus simultaneously in the west.

Thing is, in Tolkien’s version of things, the Sun actually did rise in the west. For a bit, anyway, back when it was first made.

Anar and Isil

These vessels the Valar gave to Varda, that they might become lamps of heaven, outshining the ancient stars, being nearer to Arda; and she…set them to voyage upon appointed courses above the girdle of the Earth from the West unto the East and to return.” – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 11

The Sun and Moon were actually Attempt #3 at illuminating Arda with anything more than Varda’s starlight. First, there were two perpetually-lit lamps placed on mountain-sized towers – Illuin in the north and Ormal in the south. After Melkor and his minions destroyed those, there were the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin. Their silver and golden light, respectively, waxed and waned over a period of 7 hours, but alternated (with one hour of overlap) so that there was still perpetual ‘day’light (Though if you weren’t living in Valinor you didn’t get to see any of it).7

The Trees were killed by a giant spider lady spirit thing that eats everything, including light, but the Valar were able to save a single flower from Telperion and fruit from Laurelin, which they used to create Isil, the Moon, and Anar, the Sun. Each was held inside a lamp driven across the sky by one of the Maiar. Tolkien explains away the difference in brightness between the two by the one escorting Anar being a literal spirit of fire.

Too bright were the eyes of Arien for even the Eldar to look on, and leaving Valinor she forsook the form and raiment which like the Valar she had worn there, and she was a naked flame, terrible in the fullness of her splendour.” Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 11

Isil got full run of the sky for a whole week before Anar first rose (Unlike, you know, the Sun exiting before the Moon formed). And yes, they both rose in the west and set in the east. Arda was supposed to be perpetually lit (again), but Varda got complaints about there never being a night time, so orders got switched up where Anar would hang out in Ekkaia just off of Valinor, then get pulled underneath Arda to pop up in the east and then travel west. Rinse. Repeat. Isil was supposed to so the same, but Tilion’s terrible at following orders.

But Tilion went with uncertain pace, as yet he goes, and was still drawn towards Arien, as he shall ever be; so that often both may be seen above the Earth together, or at times it will chance that he comes so nigh that his shadow cuts off her brightness and there is a darkness amid the day.” Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 11

Thus, Tolkien explains the different rates and paths of travel the Sun and Moon take across our sky, as well as solar eclipses.

test_eclipse
August 21, 2017 Image Credit: Me

There’s also a quick passage where Tilion drove way too close and Anar’s flames scorched/”darkened” Isil, which Physics/Astronomy professor Dr. Kristine Larsen says is Tolkien’s origin of “the “dark side” of the moon”, but given that the dark side of the Moon’s always changing – it’s whatever half of the Moon isn’t facing the Sun – I would argue it describes the Moon’s maria, or ‘seas’, which are really made from long-cooled lava flows. They’re less reflective than the surrounding, older, rock because they have a different mineral composition.

moonmare
Why bathe in tranquility when you can bathe in crisis? Credit: Peter Freiman and Gregory H. Revera, CC BY-SA 3.0

That’s an important note to make between Isil and the Moon. Our Moon does not produce its own light; Tolkien’s does.

We never learn what happens to the Sun and Moon’s travel plans after the world becomes spherical. Did Eru rearrange the entire solar system, or are we still stuck in a geocentric solar system where the Earth doesn’t rotate?

That’s just one of the many questions I’d have for ol’ Ilúvatar after I leave the Halls of Mandos and go where the Eldar know not.

Feel free to contribute your own. I’ll make a list.

 


1.  Melkor – later known in the book as Morgoth – is Sauron’s bigger, badder boss and, as a fallen Ainur, clearly is the Tolkien version of Lucifer. He gets defeated at the end of the First Age and thrown into the Void. 
2. While described as a cold and dark ocean, Ekkaia is both a ‘sea’ underneath flat Arda and ‘air’ above it. The ‘air’ half is broken down into different levels: Ilmen, which the Moon travels through and Varda’s newer ‘stars’ are placed in, and Vista, which is the breathable part. Ekkaia was destroyed when the Earth was made round.
3. One of the reasons we know the Earth was mostly molten is because we have distinct layers differentiated by density. The densest elements (e.g. iron) were able to sink to the center and form the core, while the light (solid) elements (e.g. silicon) rose to the outer layer to form the crust. 
4. Elves first referred to themselves as the Quendi, which means “those who speak with voices”, because they were the only creatures they knew of capable of speech. One of the Valar found them and gave them the name Eldar, “people of the stars”. 
5. So, anywhere north of Istanbul, or Fort Wayne, Indiana.
6. The last one brighter than Venus’s minimum brightness (magnitude -3.8) happened in 1572. The last one brighter than Venus’s maximum brightness (magnitude -4.9)? 1054. 
7. As he expressed in a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, Tolkien saw the light of the Two Trees as “the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively…as beautiful”. It was inherently purer than any light that came after, and therefore “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the…world under the sun…a dislocated imperfect vision.”

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