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Saturday 15 October 2022

The Cosmology of Middle Earth (I) : Rings and Things

Fantasy has a long history of being sneered at by the literatti elite. Stories about make-believe dwarves and monsters have been routinely dismissed as just useless escapism, in a way which even science fiction doesn't seem to suffer from. I remember reading a magazine article that once sweepingly dismissed all attempts to analyse The Lord Of The Rings as pointless because it was, "just a good story" but offered no real insights into anything much. I even had a sci-fi loving friend who lamented about "Tolkien apologists" and deridingly proclaimed that George R. R. Martin was clearly the better writer.

This of course is utter nonsense, which is easily disproved by the following rap battle :

And yet... Jonathan Swift's tale of teeny-tiny people and giants is considered a masterful piece of satire. Go back further and stories of King Arthur doing impossibly heroic deeds was considered high culture. Further still and we slip from legend to myth, of gods and demons that are every bit as vital to the founding of civilisation as roads and concrete. Nobody says Homer's Iliad is mere escapism because it's unrealistic. Nobody says The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not worth reading because of its surrealism (or bad spelling), or that Beowulf is just pulp fiction. 

Apparently today's silly tomfoolery undergoes some sort of divine ossification process through sheer time, turning from so much airy self-indulgence into the unbreakable bedrock of common culture.

Why ?

I don't know. But rather than tackle that strange process of change, I want to look at at one particular aspect of fantasy itself, of why, when at its very best, modern fantasy tales feel as powerful as any ancient myth. 

Now Game of Thrones unquestionably has more realistic characters, more believable cynicism, more of the impure grittiness of real life, even a better understanding of human psychology. And yet... Tolkien's writing transcends all that. It reaches something infinitely deeper within the psyche. How does he do it ? How does Tolkien's deliberately unrealistic world elicit so much more emotion than Martin ever even approaches ? What is it about this world of implausible heroics, simplified malevolence, and some truly god-awful poetry that sends shivers down my spine on every reading, of wanting to (very quietly) join in the cry of, "DEEAATTHH !!!" whenever I see Théoden lead his fatal charge on the field of Pelennor in the movie ? Jon Snow's frequent near-death experiences might have me on the edge of my seat, but nothing he does holds a candle to the Last March of the Ents.


I am going to argue that the answer, at least in part, is cosmology. I will try to show that by manifesting good and evil as physical forms, from the scale of flowers and trees to that of the very universe itself, Tolkien's world gives a literal embodiment to our deepest hopes and fears. It connects our small-scale inner worlds to the larger realities around us, giving them the vast, all-encompassing scale we think they really have. Rage and hate and love and fear and grief and triumph may in fact be nothing more than the smallest flows of electrons in the heads of some unremarkable apes on a minor rock orbiting an unimportant star, but this isn't how they feel. And it is precisely because of this choice to avoid reality, to tell a tale of how we think the world should be rather than how it is, of reflecting our emotions back into the environment, that the work achieves its power.

Middle Earth does not entirely escape the clutches of reality. But any allusions to geology, physics, or such mundane trivia as the cosmic microwave background radiation or nucleosynthesis, are entirely incidental and coincidental. I am not going to attempt anything like "the science of Middle Earth", which would be a contradiction in terms. Instead, I'm going to examine its cosmology on its own terms.

Warning : I enjoyed writing this a bit too much. I might even have got a bit carried away. So, I've split this into five parts (objects (this post), people, land, world, and cosmos) just to make them of a bearable length. Today, just the prologue and some very basic examples of magical objects.



Ironically, the germ of this idea began not with Middle Earth but Westeros. I was fascinated by the idea that something as fundamental as the seasons could be interpreted as so radically different from what we know them to actually be (of which more can be found in this marvellous little April Fool's paper). Of all the fields of human endeavour, fantasy is where imagination is given the most free reign. Outside of the arts, the only other arenas that come close are philosophy and the very forefront of scientific research – but that is strictly limited. Once, we could legitimately debate whether the Earth is flat or round, but no longer. Only fantasy allows us to do so again, to recapture our lost ignorance.

And credit where credit is due. Not only the Peter Jackson movies of Lord of the Rings, but HBO's Game of Thrones too deserves praise if nothing else than for making fantasy credible to the masses. Though its escape from derision is hardly complete, fantasy, like video games, has become well and truly mainstream.

But the story of Game of Thrones does not really revolve around cosmology in the way that Tolkien's tales do. The seasons of Westeros are important, but are rather superficial. In Middle Earth (or more accurately Arda*) the nature of the universe is absolutely integral. Cersei Lannister might get a bit chilly in winter, but she won't feel it as a terror of Morgoth sent from Angband. Arya Stark might sail west for the sake of exploration, but she won't literally sail into heaven. You could suck all the magic from Westeros** and still tell essentially the same story, but you couldn't do this for Tolkien (this is also part of how I define the difference between sci-fi and fantasy).

* I may sometimes use these terms interchangeably as the term "Arda" is just not nearly as rhetorically effective, since it just isn't used as much. I will try to use the terms accurately when that is strictly required, however. 
** Not that you should suck anything in Westeros.


It might be helpful to forewarn the reader of what I like and dislike about these series. I'm not a prolific reader of fiction. For me the Big Three in fantasy are Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and Discworld. This piece is not intended to be comparative, but sometimes it's helpful to set things in context.

Now I love Tolkien, and wouldn't be writing this if I didn't. But there are aspects of his work where I have to say that I think he was simply no good. His poetry was awful. His character names were hit-and-miss at best, with a long sequence of rhyming family names in The Silmarillion being downright silly, and place names were no better (Tirion upon Tuna ? The hell has a big fish got to do with anything ?). Worst of all was Huan Juan the Hound, a blatantly Spanish-speaking dog who travelled around Middle Earth having adventures that certainly eclipsed anything Lassie ever did, but with that bizarrely-Spanish choice* being an unnecessary distraction. And sorry, professor of English or no, pronouncing Smaug as "Smowg" is just a catastrophically daft choice, and the phrase, "the noontide of Valinor was drawing to its twilight" is one so ugly that it deserves the sort of award nobody wants to receive.

* Okay, Tolkien doesn't actually say he speaks Spanish. But his name... look, it's just bloody Spanish, and you won't persuade me otherwise.

Tolkien's narrative was hardly perfectly constructed either. I'm sorry, but the Scouring of the Shire really is just bad writing. You can defend it all you want, I care not. I can accept the importance of the role of fate in Gollum falling into Mt Doom (rather than being pushed)*, but to then have this protracted, incredibly awkward sequence in which Saruman turns up afterwards to mess with people's gardens is just bloody stupid. It's completely out of kilter with the whole epic tone that's developed with such care and perfection throughout the novel, much like having aliens in an Indiana Jones movie is such an obviously wrong choice that no sane person would ever conceive of it.

* Though when Frodo later claims that he himself destroyed the the Ring, he's just being a dick. You didn't do that Frodo !

"The hell am I supposed to do with this ?"

So yes, there are aspects of Tolkien I think are the sorts of tale that would inspire men to move mountains, but I don't hold him as above criticism. There are definitely parts where his frequent revisionism really shows. And... the less said about Tom Bombadil, the better.

From the ever-delightful Sheldon webcomic, of course.

And it's okay that things aren't perfect. But to say there's no value in Tolkien... that's deranged. Parts of both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion are easily on a par with anything to be found in Homer. They are epics on the grandest of scales and of the deepest of thoughts, and not one writer in ten thousand even comes close.

I must also mention probably my favourite author of all : Sir Terry Pratchett. I have a yearning to eventually write a post entitled The Philosophy of Discworld, but that will have to wait. If Thrones is a masterpiece in understanding the base and cynical nature of humankind, Discworld is awash with its wider qualities, from evil to inspired to heroic and everything in between. Pratchett was a master of the miniature epic, deftly producing a unique blend of insight and hilarity in equal measure. Less cynical than Martin but more real than Tolkien, the first twenty or thirty (!) Discworld books are pure gold.

But Pratchett too I do not hold faultless. Here and there, the best moments of Discworld are on a par with the best of Tolkien, but by and large the scale is altogether smaller. And Pratchett's anti-theism is something I find very hard to grapple with : everything in the books suggests someone who understood the magnitudes of baffling complexities of reality, but his view on religion seemed (at times) to have been about as sophisticated as that of a petulant child. For a fantasy writer to suggest, with intentional insult, that religious books also needed to go on the fantasy shelf, is a truly bitter irony.

So that's where I'm coming from. One other point : I'm partly inspired by this English Bachelor's thesis on the relationship between the landscape and the characters of the Discworld. Simplifying, on the Discworld, characters largely draw strength from the land. In Middle Earth, I shall show that it is usually the opposite : mind and emotion influence the land, the world, and indeed the very universe itself. This is a grand challenge, and to understand the cosmology of Middle Earth, it may be helpful to begin at the smallest of scales and work our way upwards.

I take for my source material primarily The Silmarillion, but also The Atlas of Tolkien's Middle Earth (Karen Wynn Fonstad), and bits here and there, when I can remember them, from The Lord Of The Rings. I do not have a copy of the The Hobbit or Tolkien's other works.

1) Objects

The Rings of Power

It's hardly that every magical item embodies something cosmological or even physical : Bilbo's little sword "Sting" can glow a bit, while the palantír are basically powerful telescopes. The Rings too don't directly represent anything particular about the universe. But they may be an exception that proves the rule. What they bring to the narrative is something that's insignificant to reality as a whole, but essential to human thinking : evil. Part of the emotive power of the Rings is to connect to that greater, mythical cosmology through an otherwise ordinary object.

So we'd better take a look at these. Besides, it'd just feel silly not to.

To be honest, on my recent re-listening of The Silmarillion, I found the story of the Rings tacked-on. It's certainly consistent with the style and tone of the storytelling, and it's a good tale in its own right even leaving aside the events of The Lord Of The Rings. But it squares awkwardly with the main narrative, not at all because it's a different or lesser story (it isn't), but more as though it had been poorly edited : only after Sauron is defeated do we learn that he had this super-awesome magical ring that had been giving everyone so much trouble.

Perhaps as such, the power of the Rings in terms of what they allow the wearer to do is not especially clear. Certainly the power of the One to corrupt the bearer can be read as a metaphor for power itself to corrupt, and we see this manifesting itself physically in Gollum's extended lifespan and the cost of his soul. We see it to an even greater extent in the Ringwraiths, who have faded to ghastly spectral forms utterly in the thrall of Sauron. And we see it to a much lesser degree in Bilbo, who gains long life but avoids becoming a living ghost. This duplicity and deception – with the One Ring itself betraying Isildur to find a new wearer – goes to the heart of Tolkien's morality, a theme we'll return to many times.

The Witch-King : immortal, but physically and morally corrupt.

But if the side-effects of the Rings are clear, their intentional effects (besides invisibility) are not. This is where the tacked-on nature of the Rings shows through. We're told that the main power of the One is mind control, allowing Sauron to control the other ring-wearers, so succeeding in corrupting the kings of men (though having no real success with the dwarves, who were too focused on mining). The problem is that this does not explain why Sauron is then suggested to become nigh-on all-powerful were he to have the One restored to him, with the Elves at the end of the Third Age being a substantially diminished power : controlling them wouldn't help all that much. Nor did his actually having the Ring in the Second Age, when the elves were a substantially greater force, prevent his downfall. 

So what is so amazing about this Ring ? Nobody seems to have a clear answer. What exactly the Ring lets Sauron do that's so worrisome to the free peoples of Middle Earth, and why it wasn't such a problem last time, is frustratingly vague. Some have argued the One Ring is an allegory for nuclear weapons. Perhaps that influence was at work on Tolkien, I don't know, but it doesn't seem to be anything nearly as direct as allegory or even analogy. 

More important to me is its corrupting, deceptive nature, evil manifesting itself as a physical object that the wearer may resist but cannot escape. In the end, how the Ring actually works does not matter nearly so much as the evil it represents, the desire for power, deception and lies. 

But this is quite different to the other aspects of Tolkien I want to examine. The Ring embodies very human frailties, whereas other elements represent more physical attributes of the universe. This, though, does – in Tolkien's tale at least – ultimately include evil itself, which the One Ring epitomises.


The Blade-That-Was-Broken was once the sword Narsil. Isildur uses the shards to cut the Ring from Sauron's hand, but when intact, Narsil proper was a formidable weapon in the Last Alliance :

The spear of Gil-Galad none could stand, and the sword of Elendil filled orcs and men with fear, for it shone with the light of the Sun and of the Moon, and it was named "Narsil".

The themes of light and dark are the blood and backbone of Tolkien myth. The appeal to something as world-altering as the Sun and the Moon are practically self-evident; whole religions have been devoted to Sun-worship. Narsil then connects, albeit in a small way, to something pivotal to human existence.

While Tolkien often uses literary devices like this purely and very simply to romanticise the story, he usually does mean that the descriptions should be taken literally : Narsil does actually glow, he's not just trying to emphasise how amazing it is. And the romantic aspect is often a good deal more complex than it may first appear. For example, the light of the Sun is incontestably a Good Thing in Middle Earth, which many lesser creatures of the Dark Lord shun at all costs. So Narsil fills them with fear, but this is not at all necessary for the blade's greatest moment : 

... And he [Sauron] wrestled with Gil-Galad and with Elendil, and they both were slain, and the sword of Elendil broke under him as he fell. But Sauron also was thrown down, and with the hilt-shard of Narsil, Isildur cut the Ruling Ring from the hand of Sauron and took it for his own.

The broken blade lacks its original divine light :

Thus Narsil came in due time to the hand of Valandil, Isildur's heir, in Imladris; but the blade was broken and its light extinguished, and it was not forged anew.

When (much later) reforged as Anduril, the Flame of the West, it regains a light, though now one of fire rather than of the Sun. But the beauty and power of Narsil is not necessary to overthrow the darkness of Sauron. And fire is used sometimes for far more sinister effects, such as the defence of Mordor or the Battle of Sudden Flame in the First Age.

There are other ambiguities regarding light and beauty. Sauron and Morgoth are both capable, of a time, for appearing as "fair", while the beauty of the Silmarils is incomparable yet leads the Noldor to ruin and woe. Indeed even the Ring of Power is a beautiful, captivating object, but its appearance is only skin-deep. For Tolkien, as we shall see later, beauty can be both a manifestation of goodness but also a tool of manipulation. Beauty is not itself truth, but there is a kind of "true" beauty, which has an altogether different quality to that of the false sort used by the dark powers. This former sort has the power to alter the world while the latter can only corrupt hearts and minds.

That seems like a good enough beginning. In part two, I'll move the scale up a notch to the characters and creatures that inhabit Middle Earth. We'll continue looking at how beauty affects the world and how goodness and evil have the power to alter both life and death. And we'll begin to look at how Tolkien gives some of his greatest characters mythical qualities by imbuing them with primal, elemental powers.

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