Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net
It's time for another post about my weird hobbies. Hooray !
Last year I want on a redecorating spree to turn my home office space from a soulless IKEA nightmare* to somewhere I would voluntarily choose to be. Naturally this included a lot of astronomical elements, one of which now deserves its own post.
* This is not to be confused with a John Lewis nightmare, which is only possible for very rich and stupid people.
As a present to myself for finishing a paper I bought an astrolabe. Why ? Mainly because when I was searching for suitable furnishings I stumbled on similar items, but these in particular caught my eye. I just think they look lovely :
I was also curious to learn how they worked, how astronomers in days of yore actually did things. Now I'd absolutely love a proper shiny brass version, but those tend to be offensive prices, or of a design style I just don't like, or worst of all... non–functional. Urrgh ! Which is a bit silly in this age of mass manufacturing, but I guess the bottom fell out of the astrolabe market even before Jacob Rees–Mogg was a thing.
Still, one day...
There being not enough hours in the day to get everything done, I figured out only the absolute basics before I got distracted by other projects. But now it's time to return to this medieval marvel and figure out what it's all about.
The version that I have is from Dreipunkt and is definitely nice to look at, wooden materials notwithstanding – though why their deluxe versions are so outrageously expensive is beyond me. Unfortunately the instructions that come with it are limited to a 4–page guide, including the assembly instructions (oh, and and a tiny quickstart card for some reason). So, this required quite a lot of Google searching on my part, because the astrolabe community is apparently an oxymoron. But I won't bore you with the narrative. Instead, let's get right down to business by describing how to actually use the bloody thing.
0) Convert calendar to Zodiacal date
All of the astrolabe's celestial calculations use a special measure of the date which corresponds to the Sun's angular position along the ecliptic, the path it traces across the sky. Since this is just a circle it spans 360 degrees, but of course the actual calendar year is either 365 or 366 days long. This means we need to do a conversion between these two dating systems. For this, we start on the back.
The information density here is quite high, but what we need to do is actually really easy. There are three circular scales towards the outer edge of the back piece. The outermost is for measuring the angle of a target above the horizon and we don't need this right now. We just need the other two.
All we do is align the alidade (the rotatable pointer) on the back with the innermost of the three scales shown, the calendar date scale – each of the segments is divided into the correct number of days for each month. From this we simply read off where the alidade is pointing on the zodiacal date scale, taking care not to confuse it with the altitude scale on the very outer edge. This will give a value in degrees within a constellation, e.g. 11th March is 21° in Pisces.
Here shifting things a wee bit just so the scales can be seen.
And that's all we have to do for step zero. But you're probably curious, I hope, about what this actually means, so I shall tell you. Yes, even if you don't want me to.
Supposedly it corresponds to the position of the Sun in the zodiac. With each constellation defined to span 30 degrees, the Sun should on 11th March be about 2/3rds of its journey through Pisces. Now obviously the constellations of the zodiac don't really span exactly 30 degrees each, but even so, there's quite a discrepancy, because on 11th March the Sun is actually in Aquarius. At least it's still a watery constellation, I suppose.
Pisces is only just above it but clearly the Sun is nothing like "2/3rds" of the way through it !
Why is this ? This is be due to the slow precession of the Earth's orbit, meaning that the Sun's position is never quite in the same place relative to the constellations each year. On human timescales (i.e. the time over which anyone would ever use an astrolabe) this is negligible, moving by about 1 degree every 72 years. But the conventions for setting where the constellations are defined for this purpose were devised about 2,000 years ago, long enough that there has been a considerable shift.
Finally a note on terminology. I've called it "zodiacal date" following this link, but there doesn't seem to be an agreed-upon convention. "Astronomical" or "astrological" date would also work, maybe even sidereal date. The guide included calls it "star sign date" which is for obvious reasons very hard to Google. Another document calls it the ecliptic longitude of the Sun, which is probably the correct term.
1) Calculating sunrise and sunset times
Here the official guide is really quite a muddle. It's a very small section, which is odd because sunrise and sunset times are probably the easiest values to look up to verify the results. It doesn't help that the images in the guide say they're using an astrolabe calibrated to a latitude of 50°N but actually aren't, because I couldn't reproduce their values despite setting everything exactly as shown in the images. So I pieced this together from the other parts of the guide and from Google searching.
But again it turns out to be easy. Having completed step zero, we turn to the front of the astrolabe. There's quite a bit of information to process here, but it's all very small steps. Here's the bits we'll need to use :
The "rete" is also known as the spider and can be turned. The circular ring in the rete, which has the zodiacal date marked on its edge, corresponds to the ecliptic. To find the sunrise time, we turn the rete so that the zodiacal date (using the value we calculated in part 0) on the ecliptic ring intersects the horizon line on the left side of the astrolabe. This can be quite fiddly, and some times of year are harder than others because of the higher density of markings on the date scale. But it's possible to be fairly accurate without that much effort.
Using the example of 11th March = 21° Pisces as before.
If we wanted to find sunset time, we'd turn the rete to intersect the horizon line on the right hand side of the astrolabe instead.
Next we turn the pointer to align with this point of intersection. We then use it to read off the time from the outermost scale on the astrolabe.
I guess maybe it's a German convention (?) but we have to take care with this particular model because it uses "IIII" instead of the standard Roman numeral "IV". Other than that it's simple enough, with each small tick marking off 5 minute intervals. So in the example of 11th March, we find that the time is somewhere between 6:15 and 6:20 am. The actual sunrise time for this date is 6:25 am, which is not too bad at all.
But this is misleading. Now I'm doing this write-up some time after my first experiments, but when I did them I was getting values which were rather less impressive. And this is where the guide has an important omission. Being curious as to what was going on, the only way to proceed was to redo the calculation for a whole bunch of different dates throughout the year. Lo and behold, it's usually wrong : considerably worse than the five minute precision should allow.
As you can probably guess, the major ticks mark the end of each month with the minor ticks marking each week. There's not really any obvious relation of the offset to the solstices or equinoxes. Also, the fact that I was able to calculate so many points is testament not so much as to my obsessive zeal as to how easy the instrument is to use with a bit of practise.
It's decent enough for about half the year, within about 5 minutes accuracy. Pretty good ! But the rest of the time it's nigh-on miserable, being up to 20 minutes out – and systematically so, not just because of random errors.
This led me on a merry dance to figure out why this should be. The graph shows quite a distinct trend in the offsets, something like a sinusoid but not exactly (I tried to make it fit but failed). Now coordinate systems are an area of geekdom I am resolutely uninterested in; this level of precision orbital mechanics gets a bit tediously maths-heavy for me. But this article led me on the right path :
Now this is solar time, of course, and by May, US Daylight Savings Time will be in effect, so I add one hour. Then there is the time zone issue: I have to compensate for the difference between Houston’s longitude, 95 degrees west, and that of the longitude to which its time zone is pegged, 90 degrees west. For every degree I need to add four minutes: a total of 20. Finally, I have to find the “equation of time chart” that compensates for arcane astronomical eccentricities, and it says that I have to add three more minutes for May 6.
The hour compensation for daylight savings is trivial and already included in the above graph. The correction for longitude is likely unimportant, though the guide doesn't say what this particular astrolabe is set to. I'd guess Berlin, which is at a very similar longitude to Prague so this makes not much difference. Playing around with online sunrise calculators, I couldn't find any longitude that would give be better values on one date without making them worse on another.
But the article also mentions a third correction for the "equation of time", which in their example happens to be a small difference. However this is just happenstance. This difference is the correction for the Earth's orbit not being a perfect circle, which means the Sun doesn't move across the sky at the same rate each day. And lo, the form of this correction from mean solar time (which effectively pretends that the Sun does move at a fixed rate across the sky) to actual solar time looks like this :
Very much like the offset from the astrolabe ! Exact values for any date can be found here. These do vary annually, but only slightly : the value any year in my lifetime is going to be good enough to use for every other year I'm likely to be alive, barring significant medical advancements.
In the end, all we have to do is to read off the time, add an hour if we're in daylight savings, subtract 4 minutes for longitude, and subtract the offset from the equation of time. And this gets a much better result. Now our results are typically accurate to within 5 minutes, below the precision of the scale ! For our 11th March example, the offset is -10 minutes, so our reading of ~6:17 am becomes 6:27 am (the offset is negative and we subtract it, i.e. add ten minutes), only two minutes away from the actual value of 6:25 am.
For the longitude correction I guessed the astrolabe was calibrated to Berlin. The difference from Prague is 1.0328° => 4.1312 minutes offset. Gaps are where the struts from the ecliptic ring to the rest of the rete make it impossible to get a reading.
It's interesting that there still appears to be a residual pseudo-sinusoid. Perhaps this is an error in the longitude correction, a problem with the accuracy in reading the scale, or with the accuracy of the device itself (e.g. with the rete not being exactly centred). However since we're already below the precision of the scale, there doesn't seem any point in worrying about this too much.
In summary, the steps are :
Convert the calendar to zodiacal date.
Align the zodiacal date on the rete to the horizon line.
Align the pointer with the zodiacal date and horizon line on the rete, read off the clock time.
If necessary, add one hour to account for daylight savings time.
Subtract the equation of time offset for the current date.
Correct for longitude. For every degree east of the astrolabe's calibration, subtract four minutes (for every degree west, add four minutes).
2) Finding the time from the Sun
Okay, if we know the date we can predict the sunrise or sunset time, wait for these and then we'll know the time. This is hardly any better than the proverbial stopped clock, but fortunately we can also convert the Sun's position at any time of day.
Calculating the sunrise time is equivalent to predicting the time the Sun will have an altitude of 0°. We can generalise this to finding the time the Sun will have any given altitude, but since the Sun being at 37° is of no particular significance to anyone, it's more useful to reverse the process : when the Sun is at 37°, what's the time ?
Well, let's make this easier on ourselves. First, we can measure the altitude of the Sun using the alidade, which has a hole on each end we can sight through. But... let's not do that. Instead, let's use the online tools to find some nice values, so we can verify this all works before getting our hands dirty.
The solar position calculator says that in Prague on 5th March 2023, at 1:50 pm the Sun is at an altitude of almost exactly 30°. The zodiacal date for 5th March is 15° Pisces. So what we do is align the rete's zodiacal date of 15° Pisces not with the horizon line, but with the 30° altitude line. As with sunrise and sunset, there's a degeneracy here since there are two positions at which this is possible, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So we need to take it as known that it's the afternoon value we want. This is easy enough because we could just take two altitude readings of the Sun a few minutes apart; if the altitude increases it's morning, if it decreases it's afternoon. Simples.
Here choosing the rete to intersect the line to the right of the XII marker on the top, since we want the afternoon time.
And once again we align the pointer and read off the time from the outer scale :
Which is a value of about 1:37 pm. Not great, but we need to apply the corrections : add 11.5 minutes because of the equation of time, then an additional 4.13 minutes because of longitude => 1:52 pm. Two minutes out ! Not too shabby at all. Well within range of 99% of everyday practical uses of knowing the time. Jeez, I could use this thing to set the clock on my VCR...
To summarise, the steps for this procedure are :
Convert the calendar to zodiacal date.
Use the alidade to measure altitude of the Sun, if necessary twice to see if it's before or after noon.
Align the zodiacal date on the rete to the corresponding altitude line.
Align the pointer with the zodiacal date and altitude line on the rete, read off the clock time.
If necessary, add one hour to account for daylight savings time.
Subtract the equation of time offset for the current date.
Correct for longitude. For every degree east of the astrolabe's calibration, subtract four minutes (for every degree west, add four minutes).
Of course a limitation here is that we only have altitude lines every 5° so this is going to limit our precision. As a second example, on 18th March (28° Pisces) at 3:05 pm the Sun's altitude is 27°. Guestimating the rete alignment as best I can (particularly difficult because 28° Pisces is near a strut, which gets in the way), the astrolabe time reading is 2:40 pm. Adding 8 minutes for equation of time and 4 minutes for longitude gives 2:52 pm, 13 minutes out. So there are definite limitations here, though there's no reason we couldn't have a finer altitude scale.
So far the astrolabe seems to be a sort of elaborate sundial. We can use it to estimate the current time to within a couple of minutes under optimum conditions, and also predict sunrise and sunset with about the same precision. Wonderful, but there are some obvious disadvantages to this at night.
That's where the star markers come in. The rete contains little pointers that mark the positions of various stars : mine has 17. This includes some in the most obvious constellations : Rigel and Betelgeuse in Orion; Alioth in the Plough. Even I can find those ones unaided, so this doesn't require any particularly esoteric knowledge of the night sky.
The method here is basically identical to the case of finding the time from the Sun. We use the alidade to find the altitude of a star (the position of major stars can be checked here), then align its marker with the corresponding altitude line. And again this gets us to within a couple of minutes of the correct time, under optimum conditions and applying the standard corrections.
4) Finding the stars
We can also reverse this. If we already know the time, which of course we can get from the stars anyway, we can use the astrolabe to find their position instead. We read off their elevation directly from the altitude lines. Again, we have to guestimate if a pointer doesn't lie neatly on a line, but I was able to get typically to within 2 degrees despite this.
The astrolabe encodes two dimensional information about the star's position, meaning we can also get its azimuth. This too is straightforward. We align the pointer with the star marker, then from this we read off using the scale just interior to the time on the outermost edge. The only slight complication is that the modern convention is to give the angle in degrees to the east from the line due north, whereas the astrolabe's values are in degrees to the west from the line pointing south. This conversion is trivial :
If the astrolabe's value is > 180°, subtract 180 to get the modern convention.
If the astrolabe's value is < 180°, add 180 to get the modern convention.
The azimuth scale has ticks every degree, though I was able to get agreement to typically within 5 degrees of the actual value. Which in terms of finding the stars by eye is way more than sufficient.
5) What else ?
It does ALL THE THINGS
This is looking pretty impressive now. We can calculate sunrise and sunset times, find the altitude and azimuth of the Sun at any time, or use the current elevation of the Sun to tell the time. We can locate the stars to within a few degrees and use them to tell the time to within a couple of minutes, all with just a bit of wood (and a correction table). I find this really ingenious, and I can't imagine the sort of mentality needed to come up with the idea for such a device in the first place.
There are a few other fairly obvious things we can do with this. Simply rotating the rete and watching the positions of the stars tells us which ones remain low on the horizon (and thus are potentially difficult to find) and which traverse higher altitudes. Similarly, we could calculate the time when any star would be at its highest altitude. We can also see at a glance which ones are below the horizon line.
But there are many other markings I don't know the meaning of. One guide I found suggests that the lines below the horizon line mark twilight (their are different conventions for how this is defined, hence multiple lines), so one could calculate the hours of true darkness. Some of the other circles might mark the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, which I think are used for calculating the exact dates of the solstices and equinoxes. The dashed lines and Roman numerals on the front are apparently something to do with mapping unequal hours when not on the equinox, and apparently the nested circles on the back serve the same function. Though exactly what one does with these, I really don't know.
The back also has a shadow square, a surveying instrument used for measuring the size of distant objects. I suppose if you're going to have a device for measuring altitude anyway, and you've got the space for this, why not ? But what the arc below this is, with its February-October scale, again I don't know. Nor do I understand the 0-60 scale on the alidade itself, or the irregular -20 -> +50 scale on the pointer. ChatGPT* suggests the former are for using the shadow square as an alternative way of estimating altitude, while the latter are degrees above and below the celestial equator and could be used as another way of aligning the rete. But its answer isn't clear enough to properly explain how to use them. Another document** suggests it might be a way to calculate the equation of time correction without needing to look this up elsewhere, or maybe involved in calculating the right ascension and declination of the stars. It's even possible to use the thing to estimate planetary orbits.
* This is something which thinks that Poland is a landlocked country and has strenuous moral objections to satirising The Lord of the Rings, so we shouldn't take it seriously... but on the other hand, a standard Google search is no help at all.
** This one is the most thorough guide I've found. I suspect from this that the markings on the pointer are to do with ecliptic longitude and used for finding the azimuth of the Sun; it can also be used for finding the declination of a star.
I'm not exactly sure what's going on here, but it pretty much sums up the perils of real world conditions.
Right, so the astrolabe is pretty bloody awesome. Under ideal conditions, given the accuracy of the device and the difficulties in taking a reading, we can use it to get the time to within a couple of minutes and the position of a star to within a couple of degrees. But how does this play out when conditions are not ideal, in the messy conditions of the real world ? In, say, an actual field ?
Badly. Very, very badly.
I am under no illusions about my quite shocking lack of any practical skills whatsoever. Even when experimenting in comfort, I could see exactly what would go wrong in practise and was quickly proven right. So at least I can't be accused of a lack of self-awareness in that respect.
The astrolabe is a veritable Swiss Army knife of medieval astronomical instrumentation. What makes it especially powerful is that it needs only a single direct connection between the astrolabe and reality, one primitive "sensor" if you will : the alidade. Once you've got your altitude measurement with this, everything else follows with deterministic precision, with no other free parameters to adjust. The problem is that while the device is undeniably very sophisticated, actually using it – even given its total simplicity – is bloody f*"#ing difficult.
The first problem is that it's very light. This makes it highly susceptible to even a light breeze, so trying to sight something through the holes is extremely difficult for this reason alone. And this is made much, much worse because of the friction of the alidade with the rest of the device. Every adjustment made necessarily moves the whole astrolabe, starting it swinging and thus making each adjustment nearly useless.
I started by trying to line it up with the Sun. Carefully guestimating an initial pointing, holding it up to quickly check by eye if the Sun was visible though the hole... didn't work. The Sun is just too damn bright. It's impossible to look through the hole towards the Sun (even quickly) because the rest of the solar disc is just feckin' blinding. And trying to look at the shadow, to see if the hole is especially bright when it's lined up correctly, just doesn't work either.
What about stars ? In principle, the holes on the alidade are such that measuring an angle to the 1° precision of the measurement scale shouldn't be a problem. Now, holding the astrolabe horizontally, I found I was indeed able to see a star quite clearly though both of the holes. This takes some care because in the dark it's surprisingly easy to not see the second hole at all, to see a star though just the one hole and think it's all fine. But it can be done.
... not while holding it vertically though. Even without any sort of breeze, it's nigh-on impossible to keep the azimuth of the astrolabe fixed; trying to hang it vertically on your finger high enough above your head to find a star is just so much nope. It really just doesn't work. Never mind two minutes precision, I couldn't take a reading at all. It sways, it's so dark it's hard to see the hole, you have to hold it at a very awkward angle... it's just bonkers to think that people really used to do this.
In principle I think a mounting system would be able to overcome these difficulties. You'd need something to keep it vertical, with the capability to adjust the height and smoothly rotate the azimuth. In that case I firmly believe you could take a reading and apply the corrections so quickly that your estimated time would still be accurate; once you've got the reading, the adjustments to the astrolabe are 30 seconds work. But those drawings of people holding them ? Naah. Not unless you're an actual magical ninja wizard.
It's just not going to happen people.
Even if it has all the practical advantages of the proverbial chocolate teapot, the astrolabe is still a ridonculously impressive piece of kit. Its versatility is crazy, matched only by its sheer maddening uselessness as a practical instrument.
My guide calls it a medieval computer, but this is not right. It doesn't do any computations in the modern sense; it can't take arbitrary input values, much less perform arbitrary operations on them. At most you could liken it to a specific computer program rather than a computer itself. When you need to do certain specific operations it's incredibly useful, and far, far simpler than doing the calculations by hand – and better by far than a gigantic lookup table. One can certainly see the glimmers of computational logic here, even though the device itself is a long way from a computer in the modern sense.
It's likely an exaggeration to say the astrolabe had over a thousand uses, unless you count every minor variation of every single task for every single star. But it's probably not crazy to say it had dozens. I certainly haven't figured them all out. I'd certainly like to continue investigating at some point, but only if I can figure out how to take attitude readings in a way that isn't likely to have me hurling it across the room (or field) in frustration.
It's time for another travel post. Once again we decided to grace the good citizens of Cardiff with the there-unknown Papillions, so this a repeat of the train-ferry-train expedition we did over the summer.
This being December, things were somewhat different. When we set off all of Europe was in the grip of an arctic blast : in Prague, then experiencing its third snowfall of the season, it was -13 C with a wind chill down to -18 C. All through the Czech Republic and large parts of Germany we saw plenty of snow on the ground.
The Netherlands was cold but devoid of snow, but had something even better for the dogs : a great big empty beach.
I shall skip over the ferry trip; the only differences from last time was that everything was now in darkness and the dogs weren't so freaked about about the whole thing.
The major change occurred in Harwich. Because the UK government has all the astute competence and concern for worker's welfare as an inebriated sloth, we couldn't go straight to the train to Cardiff this time. At the last minute the railways had all gone on strike on the very days (in both directions) we were planning to travel. Fortunately the timing wasn't as awful as it could have been, with the net result being we stayed in a hotel in Harwich for one night on both ends of our trip and thereby avoided the strikes, though we didn't entirely escape the knock-on effects of the disruption.
Overall, this small cloud had quite a large silver lining. Harwich turns out to be a lovely little seaside town which is well worth a visit. The morning of our arrival gave us a pleasant sunrise stroll to our hotel.
From the hotel, we watched our ferry sail back for the day trip back to the continent, accompanied by a breakfast featuring some of the best bacon I've ever had.
After this auspicious beginning we left our bags in the hotel, wandered through Harwich and gave the dogs another beach trip. Even here there was frost or snow in places.
Apart from the beach we also visited Beacon Hill coastal battery*, a Victorian defence which was in use through WWII. It doesn't look like much from the beach - you can see a lookout tower and that's about it. But looks are deceiving. The site, which is free to enter, turns out to be quite extensive, and is maintained by a group of enthusiasts who could have walked out of a Big Book of Stereotypically Lovely English People**, if such a thing existed. It's littered with the remains of the mounts for 10-inch retractable guns and their extensive underground armouries, all of which have enough laminated info panels to keep the most dedicated military historians salivating for days. These people are seriously dedicated to their cause and practically bursting with an infectious***, enthusiastic desire to tell you all about it.
* They call it a hill fort, but since it has absolutely nothing to do with hill forts in the traditional sense, I'm not going to call it that.
** I would have made a donation just on their sheer loveliness, had I remembered to swap my money around, but unfortunately all I could manage was to buy a cool bullet keychain.
*** Not in the covid sense - they're still enforcing social distancing.
At this point I should say that it's not just the military enthusiasts : the people of Harwich are without exception exceptionally friendly, which seems weirdly incongruous given that they all have the accent from EastEnders. If that show was about some friendly fishermen instead of angry, miserable Londoners, the world would probably be a happier place.
This was all pretty tiring, so from there it was back for a relaxing spell in the hotel. Again I must sing praises : the hotel was delightful, the meals excellent (though very expensive).
The next day we hit a snag. Disruption from the strikes meant our planned trains were cancelled so we had to adjust. But this was no more than a snag, arriving a few hours later in Cardiff than planned. Inconvenient but not problematic.
Then of course Christmas and all its usual Christmassy things happened. Happy dogs with woodland walks galore.
Gilly has taken to burying her food under a fox. No, we don't know why.
At this point the dreaded lurgy struck : not covid according to the tests, but some regular, unpleasant flu or flu-like infestation. That rather put a downer on things after Christmas, but staying in for new year's eve was probably a wise decision : the only reason I was awake at midnight was because the fireworks woke the dogs up.
By the day of the return the lurgy had at least slightly receded. So back on a (first class !) train to Harwich and a new, also very pleasant hotel. More strolling around. Another beach trip for the doggies, though with less clement conditions this time.
The seafront has what appears to be a Banksy, but to be honest I have absolutely no clue what the deal is with that. So far as I can tell his work is mediocre and boring. I'm at a loss as to why people go nuts for this, except in that it confirms my deeply profound and carefully-considered theory of psychology that people are stupid.
Sadly the weather took a turn for the worse, so we retreated back to the hotel for a bit and thence to the ferry terminal.
I suppose I should also say something about the strikes. I'm completely convinced that the NHS staff deserve to strike : working conditions are appalling and the government's monstrous inaction is rage-inducing to the point I might start breaking things, so I won't dwell on that. As to the train companies it's less clear to me what it is they're striking about. Some of their concerns seem... overblown ? On the other hand the rail network's response seems to have been borderline contemptuous, and Shirley's theory is that it may be more about respect than anything else.
Rather tellingly, it seems the railways are making substantial payouts to shareholders which the average workers just aren't seeing. Perhaps that, more than the absolute value of pay, is at the root of it ? Certainly I don't think train drivers deserve to earn £58,000 per year, that's stupid, but then, the rail bosses definitely don't need >£100,000 per year either, which is even dumber. But the government's lack of handling of the situation is worse still. It's entirely possible that both sides may be partially in the wrong, but one side seems decidedly more wrong than the other, so far as I can tell.
Anyway, the grim conditions meant we didn't get to see Harwich's lighthouses, museum, or huge Napoleonic fort - that and the fact that these are open only sparingly in winter. But those are things for the next visit. Still, it's a lovely little place, far nicer than I was expecting.
After another stopover in the Netherlands, a 13 hour train trip (with some more timetable jiggery-pokery because of railway incompetence - it's not just Britain that does things badly) saw us back in Prague. So now I guess there's nothing for it but to get back to work - that and read ALL THE BOOKS I hauled across Europe at a great physical cost to my puny arms. Meh. They suffer so my brain doesn't have to.
At last, it's time to finish this series on Tolkien by trying to answer the biggest questions of all. We've moved from the scales of individual objects, peoples, the landscape, and the very world itself. We've seen the influence of Tolkien's moral beliefs at work at every stage, a complex and astoundingly well-crafted use of symbolism and metaphor that embodies some very fundamental beliefs, giving physical shape to our fears and hopes. Now we must consider things on a truly global scale and beyond : Arda as a planet and its place in the cosmos.
World Enough : The Shape of Arda
I've heard that the changeable nature of the shape of the world is due to editorial changes by Christopher Tolkien, and that J. R. R. said later that it should always have been round. But no matter, I very much like the way this is depicted in the final published version of The Silmarillion : it is fully consistent with a story of the world becoming less mythical and more real.
Initially, Arda is flat. The geometry therefore seems simple enough : there are continents in an ocean, and you can literally sail to heaven and return. However, in The Atlas, Fonstad notes that Tolkien's maps even of the Third Age depict the world as though it was flat when it was clearly supposed to be round. She notes that in the phrase :
...it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it.
There is an apparent contradiction, which is resolved by Arda's ability to be both round and flat. A further dilemma is that Tolkien did not appear to take into account the projection effects of mapping a round world to a flat sheet, so that as a professional cartographer, she finds, "The only reasonable solution is to map his maps – treating the his round world as if it were flat. Then Middle Earth will appear to us as it did to Tolkien."
But this we can safely attribute to something as mundane as Tolkien not being concerned with geometric precision; whether the shortest path between Gondor and Hobbiton is a straight line or a curve makes no difference to the narrative. I also think that "globed" in the above quote just means "enclosed in" rather than "it was round and inside the void".
Much more interestingly, Fonstad also notes that Tolkien's use of "the encircling seas" and other boundaries of the world do not appear to reflect ordinary physical boundaries. When Melkor destroyed the Lamps, the Valar are forced to relocate :
Therefore they departed from Middle-earth and went to the Land of Aman, the westernmost of all lands upon the borders of the world; for its west shores looked upon the Outer Sea, that is called by the Elves Ekkaia, encircling the Kingdom of Arda. How wide is that sea none know but the Valar; and beyond it are the Walls of the Night.
Later the Númenóreans embark on long voyages :
...from the darkness of the North to the heats of the South, and beyond the South to the Nether Darkness; and they came even into the inner seas, and sailed about Middle-earth and glimpsed from their high prows the Gates of Morning in the East.
Fonstad notes that the "encircling seas" should not be taken literally. Her depiction of the state of affairs needs to be considered carefully :
There have been attempts to depict the Gates of Morning somewhat literally, but this is probably a mistake except as a very metaphorical representation. Here Tolkien is at his most ambiguous. Fonstad contends that :
Prior to the change, the usage of the phrase, "Circles of the World" referred not to a planetary spherical shape, but rather to the physical outer limits or "confines". The maps and diagrams in The Shaping of Middle Earth, "The Ambarkanta" all confirm this interpretation.
Which seems very reasonable to me. Large parts of the maps shown above are not referred to anywhere in The Silmarillion so I'm flying blind here. My interpretation of this earliest phase of the world is not that we should envisage a Discworld-like literal flatness, a great disc amidst the heavens which one could fall off if one was careless. Rather it seems that the different regions – Air, Sea, Light and Void – are different levels of reality. Middle* Earth and even Arda does have a structure, it's a place you can walk around in. But the further you go from the central regions, the weirder and less physical things become.
* As in Christian myth, this is not "middle" as in "of central importance", as is popularly supposed, but more as in mediocrity. Middle Earth is midway between heaven and hell, neither in the heights of grace nor the depths of shadow.
I know I said it was a mistake, but this does raise the question of what you'd experience if you tried to sail away from Middle Earth but avoided Valinor. Well, I don't know. I suspect you'd find the sea gradually giving way to something altogether less physical, something without form and ultimately beyond comprehension. The descriptions are likely intended to invoke the closest appropriate emotional feeling, not the sensory experience one would have in such unfathomable realms.
The removal of Valinor seems to support this. Its removal is not quite a discrete process, first becoming less and less clearly visible from Númenór before its final excision. Tolkien here piles myths atop myths :
For Ilúvatar cast back the Great Seas west of Middle-earth, and the Empty Lands east of it, and new lands and new seas were made; and the world was diminished, for Valinor and Eressëa were taken from it into the realm of hidden things.
Although I've seen the word "diminished" taken literally to mean the world becoming smaller, clearly this also means that Arda is reduced in quality, deprived of Valinor as if one lost something precious. Yet while the physical connection from Middle Earth to Valinor is severed, the path between the two is not wholly lost :
Thus in after days, what by the voyages of ships, what by lore and starcraft, the kings of Men knew that the world was indeed made round, and yet the Eldar were permitted still to depart and to come to the Ancient West and to Avallónë, if they would. Therefore the loremasters of Men said that a Straight Road must still be, for those that were permitted to find it.
I imagine such a voyage looking very much as depicted in Amazon's The Rings of Power : an ordinary sailing ship approaching some formless light. Travellers would not experience the sea changing beneath them until, perhaps, they ascended to Valinor itself. The notion of a Straight Road, which Fonstad draws as a simple arrow, is not to be taken as some sort of interstellar aqueduct, not a Rainbow Bridge as in the Thor movies.
It very specifically does not look like this.
Tolkien's own description I take as firmly as metaphorical :
And they taught that, while the new world fell away, the old road and the path of the memory of the West still went on, as it were a mighty bridge invisible that passed through the air of breath and of flight (which were bent now as the world was bent), and traversed Ilmen which flesh unaided cannot endure, until it came to Tol Eressëa, the Lonely Isle, and maybe even beyond, to Valinor, where the Valar still dwell and watch the unfolding of the story of the world.
I don't think distant observers would see the ship being drawn up into heaven nor there being some physical channel of water through which it would go. At some point the ship would no longer be visible, but what they'd see is probably best left to ambiguity. Often in The Silmarillion and elsewhere, Tolkien himself appears to be uncertain, or wishes the reader to be uncertain, because once again, a tale can't have a legendary quality if it's known with total clarity. And so it is with later voyages to Valinor long after its removal :
And tales and rumours arose along the shores of the sea concerning mariners and men forlorn upon the water who, by some fate or grace or favour of the Valar, had entered in upon the Straight Way and seen the face of the world sink below them, and so had come to the lamplit quays of Avallónë, or verily to the last beaches on the margin of Aman, and there had looked upon the White Mountain, dreadful and beautiful, before they died.
And Time : The Sun and Moon
Tilion and Arien, respectively guardians of the Moon and Sun, as depicted on DeviantArt.
The loss of Valinor again shows the world becoming less mythological and ever-more materialistic. The Straight Road persists until at least the Third Age, but as it is not a physical "Road", perhaps its existence continues indefinitely. With the mention of "Avalon" and Tolkien saying that Númenór becomes known in later days as Atlantis, both being myths recorded in actual history, it seems that Tolkien clearly sets his vision in reality. The Atlas quotes him from an interview :
"If you really want to know what Middle Earth is based on, it's my wonder and delight in the Earth as it is, particularly the natural earth."
And in Appendix D of The Lord of the Rings he is even more direct :
The year no doubt was of the same length, for long ago as those times are now reckoned in years and lives of men, they were not very remote according to the memory of the Earth.
So while I've also heard it said that Tolkien later decided Middle Earth was not to be a mythology of Europe, as is popularly supposed, I tend to discount this. Of course he doesn't mean to suggest these events actually happened (!), but the fiction is clearly set within our world. Whether this means we can really call it high fantasy or not I leave to extreme pedants - go on, knock yourselves out.
But how remote, how long ago exactly ? This is left unsaid. Thousands of years at least, tens or hundreds of thousands quite possibly, millions at the outset, but surely not more than a few million. It may be interesting to put Tolkien's publications in the context of the changing scientific estimates of the age of the Earth, from tens of millions of years at the beginning of the twentieth century to the modern value of 4.5 billion years by the time of the publication of The Lord of the Rings. How widespread these findings were in the general public, and whether or not Tolkien himself knew or cared, I don't know.
Fortunately Tolkienian cosmology is explicitly mythological and not intended as a literal description as with full-blown Creationism. In The Silmarillion, the Sun and Moon are created from the last blooms of the Two Trees :
The flower and the fruit Yavanna gave to Aulë, and Manwë hallowed them, and Aulë and his people made vessels to hold them and preserve their radiance: as is said in the Narsilion, the Song of the Sun and Moon. These vessels the Valar gave to Varda, that they might become lamps of heaven, outshining the ancient stars, being nearer to Arda; and she gave them power to traverse the lower regions of Ilmen, and set them to voyage upon appointed courses above the girdle of the Earth from the West unto the East and to return.
Isil the Sheen the Vanyar of old named the Moon, flower of Telperion in Valinor; and Anar the Fire-golden, fruit of Laurelin, they named the Sun. But the Noldor named them also Rána, the Wayward, and Vása, the Heart of Fire, that awakens and consumes; for the Sun was set as a sign for the awakening of Men and the waning of the Elves, but the Moon cherishes their memory.
These two "lamps of heaven" are attended on their "islands" by two sapient beings. As with other lights they fill Morgoth with fear, who assaults them but their blinding majesty is too powerful. Essentially in order to prevent the possibility of an intrasolar traffic-jam, they coordinate their movements together so that Middle Earth experiences the full range of conditions from true darkness to twilight to full daylight. Likewise their movements about the sky have both explicit purpose and intentional design. This is high myth. Furthermore, they provide evidence that even when Arda was "flat", we should not take this too literally, or at the least it isn't a thin disc :
Tilion tarried seldom in Valinor, but more often would pass swiftly over the western land, over Avathar, or Araman, or Valinor, and plunge in the chasm beyond the Outer Sea, pursuing his way alone amid the grots and caverns at the roots of Arda. There he would often wander long, and late would return.
Which continues to suggest something more symbolic to the whole structure of Eä than the literal flying turtles and elephants of the Discworld. For one thing a "chasm" beyond the sea doesn't make much sense. For another, how deep to the "grots and caverns at the roots" go ? As with sailing off into the sea, it seems unlikely to have a distinct edge. There exists in Eä a flat land of Arda which is normal and comprehensible, but it's set within a realm not based on any physics, or even geometry.
What does all this have to do with time ? Well, the lights of the Sun and Moon are obviously used for marking time, but they recall the earlier era of the Two Trees :
Each day of the Valar in Aman contained twelve hours, and ended with the second mingling of the lights, in which Laurelin was waning but Telperion was waxing. But the light that was spilled from the trees endured long, ere it was taken up into the airs or sank down into the earth; and the dews of Telperion and the rain that fell from Laurelin Varda hoarded in great vats like shining lakes, that were to all the land of the Valar as wells of water and of light. Thus began the Days of the Bliss of Valinor; and thus began also the Count of Time.
Time itself begins with the Trees and their waxing and waning. Or so it seems, because here things are bordering on incomprehensible, I think intentionally so. Battles have already been lost and won before the Trees, change is a part of Arda from its inception. How does this proceed without Time ?
Answer : it just does.
Tolkien does not attempt to answer this directly, as Pratchett does in Discworld : Death's domain is one in which there is no time, but some sort of "duration" that allows characters to move around, think, sleep, fry puddings and so on all without aging in the real world. Tolkien instead completely avoids the issue. Much is left unsaid of the creation of the world :
So began their great labours in wastes unmeasured and unexplored, and in ages uncounted and forgotten, until in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the vast halls of Eä there came to be that hour and that place where was made the habitation of the Children of Ilúvatar.
The Innumerable Stars
Varda, Queen of the Stars, described as "beautiful" by Tolkien which this artist has rightfully taken to mean, "having prominent cleavage and being all sparkly".
The nature of the stars over Middle Earth is even more poorly described than that of the Sun and Moon. At least we know those are lights guided by Valar aboard celestial vessels, and if their physics is non-existent, it is at least quite openly so. They are symbolic and mythological, with only the merest semblance of reality about then.
As to the stars, their symbolism is often clear but their physical nature is wholly undescribed. For an interesting and complementary essay on the astronomy of Middle Earth, see this (if you've made it this far I can't imagine why you wouldn't) piece by astronomy professor Kristine Larsen*. But while it may be possible to identify specific constellations in Tolkien with actual stars in the sky, and possibly planets, nothing whatever is said regarding what the stars themselves actually are. In the beginning :
* Note especially the many revisions described to Tolkien's texts and his unresolved inconsistencies, as well as the sheer pervasiveness of astronomical symbolism.
And amid all the splendours of the World, its vast halls and spaces, and its wheeling fires, Ilúvatar chose a place for their habitation in the Deeps of Time and in the midst of the innumerable stars. And this habitation might seem a little thing to those who consider only the majesty of the Ainur, and not their terrible sharpness;as who should take the whole field of Arda for the foundation of a pillar and so raise it until the cone of its summit were more bitter than a needle;or who consider only the immeasurable vastness of the World, which still the Ainur are shaping, and not the minute precision to which they shape all things therein.
I fade the colour of the text here because it seems to be the description gets vaguer and weirder as it goes on. If it even has a meaning at all, I have no idea what it is. I surmise that either old J. R. R. had been at some quite special pipe-weed a bit too much that evening, or we have more intentional ambiguities. Indeed The Silmarillion does not describe Varda's creation of the first stars except very briefly in later passing. But it does describe how she creates additional stars for the birth of the Elves :
Then Varda went forth from the council, and she looked out from the height of Taniquetil, and beheld the darkness of Middle-earth beneath the innumerable stars, faint and far. Then she began a great labour, greatest of all the works of the Valar since their coming into Arda. She took the silver dews from the vats of Telperion, and therewith she made new stars and brighter against the coming of the Firstborn. And high in the north as a challenge to Melkor she set the crown of seven mighty stars to swing, Valacirca, the Sickle of the Valar and sign of doom.
The Elves become known as the Children of the Stars.
By the starlit mere of Cuiviénen, Water of Awakening, they rose from the sleep of Ilúvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuiviénen their eyes beheld first of all things the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentári above all the Valar.
The importance of the beauty of the stars, indestructible and incorruptible, remains a fixed constant right through to the final journey of the Hobbits into Mordor :
Far above the Ephel Du´ath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
So when Gandalf describes how the line of kings in Gondor failed :
Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars.
We should not take this as meaning that Gondor fell from grace because of a pathological obsession with astronomy ! Indeed, Larsen describes in Unfinished Tales that there was at least one "good and wise" Númenórean king who was a competent astronomer. Given also the importance of starlight to the Elves, of moonlight to revealing dwarven letters, it would seem that "questions of the stars" only means "unanswerable and useless". Definitely not literally astronomy, then*.
* I know what you're thinking, and you can shut your ugly mouth.
Instead, the beauty of the stars is amongst the purest form of all in Tolkien's mythology. The "sickle" stars, presumably the Plough, prophesy Morgoth's ultimate downfall, but one particular "star" deserves special mention.
The Evening Star
When Morgoth has seemingly overrun all of Middle Earth, Eärendil, a mortal man, sails west with a Silmaril in a desperate attempt to seek the help of the Valar. And they answer him, which surprises Morgoth, who assumes he's already won :
For to him that is pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond reckoning.
All the same, the divine nature of the Valar remains inscrutable. Yet in this instance they answer Eärendil's prayers and then some, sending forth in the War of Wrath the greatest host ever assembled that obliterates Morgoth and (nearly) all his servants. But Eärendil has ventured into a realm that is forbidden to mortals. Recognising that without their assistance all is lost, yet beholden to the doom of men, the Valar... compromise. Eärendil and his wife are granted a choice, to become immortal Elves or remain as mortals. They choose the former.
But they took Vingilot, and hallowed it, and bore it away through Valinor to the uttermost rim of the world; and there it passed through the Door of Night and was lifted up even into the oceans of heaven. Now fair and marvellous was that vessel made, and it was filled with a wavering flame, pure and bright; and Eärendil the Mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, 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.
This is pretty obviously Venus. But whereas in Greco-Roman mythology Venus is a sexy oyster, Tolkien has something altogether more dramatic in mind. While "beauty" has strongly feminine connotations, this is not always the case. For the goodness of his deeds and his self-sacrifice, Eärendil too has this sort of true beauty which acts almost like a living force.
Or in other words, Tolkien has him fight a mountain-sized dragon.
Some fan art, like this one, is a lot better than others.
So sudden and ruinous was the onset of that dreadful fleet that the host of the Valar was driven back, for the coming of the dragons was with great thunder, and lightning, and a tempest of fire. But Eärendil came, shining with white flame, and about Vingilot were gathered all the great birds of heaven and Thorondor was their captain, and there was battle in the air all the day and through a dark night of doubt. Before the rising of the sun Eärendil slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragonhost, and cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin.
There is simply no way to resolve this with what we know of Venus. According to Larsen's essay, Tolkien was careful to pay attention to such details as getting the correct phase of the Moon when referring to characters who are well-separated but with events happening at the same time. Yet just as the actual Moon is only a lump of rock, Venus is the closest place to hell that we've ever discovered. Sometimes Tolkien was wont to get petty, irrelevant details right, and sometimes happy to throw them all to the wind and write something based purely on emotion. The lights of the Moon and Venus feel like something pure and beautiful so Tolkien grants them corresponding roles, shaping their characters accordingly.
If Eärendil and his Silmaril are so potent as to become a star in the sky, something of this is captured by the Elves in the Phial of Galadriel. Though it isn't mentioned much, the Phial has the power to counter even the corruption of the One Ring :
Cold and hard it seemed as his grip closed on it: the phial of Galadriel, so long treasured, and almost forgotten till that hour. As he touched it, for a while all thought of the Ring was banished from his mind.
Later of course its power against Shelob is revealed more directly :
For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo’s mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded from it, until it seemed to shine in the centre of a globe of airy crystal, and the hand that held it sparkled with white fire.
The effect of the Phial upon Shelob is very much like that of a cross to a vampire, warding off evil rather than actively injuring it. The Phial is of course only the faintest echo of a Silmaril, whose power was incomparably greater. Nevertheless, the power of the stars is as elsewhere in Tolkien the power of light against the dark. Evil flourishes in the darkness and is diminished by light and truth. While Eärendil with a full Silmaril can fight a vast and terrible dragon, Frodo's fight with a Shelob draws on the same principles : light against the dark, goodness against malevolence, the power of a star in miniature rendered against the horror of a creature from the darkest void. Tolkien sets the power of mythical, cosmological-scale symbolism into ordinary sized, seemingly everyday objects.
The Void : Ungoliant and Melkor
Of all the realms that can be described as in any sense "physical", the Void would seem to be much the largest. Beyond the Door of Night, beyond the Encircling Seas, lies the uttermost outer darkness. As a space it is little described. Arda is "sustained therein, but was not of it" which I take to mean something like how the world is suspended in (but not created from) space. It could also perhaps mean the Void has a wholly different nature to Arda, not just in its substance but in its emotional quality.
There is little information to draw on. References to the Void are few – all I can offer is a bad joke by Sabine Hossenfenlder, who notes that time is money, and money is the root of all evil. So I suppose the Void, being the abode of evil, must be subject to time at least... ahem.
Anyway, what few references to the Void are given are almost entirely related to demonic beings of terrible power. Of those, the uber-spider Ungoliant makes Shelob look like the sort of minor pest that even the most arachnophobic could safely escort outside in a jam jar. Her origin is kept mysterious but strongly hinted at :
Beneath the sheer walls of the mountains and the cold dark sea, the shadows were deepest and thickest in the world; and there in Avathar, secret and unknown, Ungoliant had made her abode. The Eldar knew not whence she came; but some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.
This mysterious origin makes Ungoliant is one of the most intriguing creatures of all. Does she exist prior to Middle Earth or even Arda itself ? If so, why does Ilúvatar create her ? Or is his power and domain not actually limitless ? Does Melkor actually create her in some way ? Again, there are no more than the most tentative of hints :
He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own, and it seemed to him that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness. Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.
Which seems to mean that the "imperishable flame" (the Secret Fire that Gandalf refers to in his fight with the Balrog) is the soul, the mind, which only Eru can bestow. Melkor would clearly like to create entities all of his own, but is only ever able to corrupt and never to create. That said, some sort of creatures may have existed in the Void through the Song (coming up next), so she may have been originally good or at least neutral. In that case the Void itself would not be evil. There is nothing intrinsically bad about darkness, after all, the elves love the stars and these cannot be seen in the bright light of day. But darkness quickly becomes the domain of all evil things.
Even so, in contradiction to the weight of evidence that it's mind and intention that shape their surroundings in Arda, on these larger scales things might just be different. As Melkor slips from mere discontent to outright evil, he is described as "grown dark as the Night of the Void". Ungoliant spins webs of darkness and an "Unlight", which is not merely darkness as the absence of light, but darkness as a thing in itself. Perhaps this sort of true darkness is analogous to the "true beauty" possessed by some of the Elves, a thing which is itself a force itself in the world, or at least flows forth from creatures pure in heart – or in this case purely evil at heart. But even so, this sort of darkness still doesn't seem to make people evil : it remains the case that the truly evil can make the darkness rather than the other way around.
Ungoliant presents other, more pragmatic challenges. While Morgoth is the source of ultimate malice, Ungoliant at one point outgrows her master's strength and power. Given Morgoth's nature as one of the Ainur, second only to Eru (God) himself, this seems an impossibility. What apparently happens (according to Google) is that Morgoth over-exerts himself on his mission to destroy the Trees, while Ungoliant gains the power of the Silmarils. So this state of affairs is likely temporary, and Ungoliant's demise is not described. She appears to succumb to entirely natural causes, Tolkien blending myth and materialism once again : Melkor diminishing to Morgoth, Ungoliant to an otherworldly but mortal spider lurking in the Valley of Dreadful Death. Even the most formidable darkness cannot endure forever.
Morgoth himself is eventually cast out :
Morgoth himself the Valar thrust through the Door of Night beyond the Walls of the World, into the Timeless Void; and a guard is set for ever on those walls, and Eärendil keeps watch upon the ramparts of the sky. Yet the lies that Melkor, the mighty and accursed, Morgoth Bauglir, the Power of Terror and of Hate, sowed in the hearts of Elves and Men are a seed that does not die and cannot be destroyed; and ever and anon it sprouts anew, and will bear dark fruit even unto the latest days.
Just as Tolkien has aspects of totally evil and totally good, but more often things are far less clear, so it is here with the fundamental nature of the creatures themselves. Ungoliant seems to have arisen in the void but, though at one point surpassing her master in strength, eventually dies in mortality. Morgoth, though he gradually diminishes from an elemental force to a "dark Lord, tall and terrible" who can even be injured by ordinary blades, never wholly loses his Secret Fire. He remains at his core a supernatural Valar.
Melkor in his elemental Valar form.
Curiously, Melkor's evolution appears to be circular. He begins as an elemental, primordial symbol of hate, fear, evil and lies, then degrades into Morgoth, a powerful yet very physical being, a Dark Lord atop a Dark Throne. At the end, his defeat transforms him back into something more closely resembling his earlier incarnation. While the ending of the Quenta Silmarillion (above quote) could be read to mean only that Morgoth's lies persist his own demise, later in The Silmarillion it appears quite clear that Morgoth's will can still directly influence the minds residing in Middle Earth :
Thus it was that a shadow fell upon them: in which maybe the will of Morgoth was at work that still moved in the world. And the Númenóreans began to murmur, at first in their hearts, and then in open words, against the doom of Men, and most of all against the Ban which forbade them to sail into the West.
So the fulfilment of the myth may result in Morgoth as being potentially the source of all evil. Prior to his defeat there are numerous other cases of villainy which appears to have little enough to do with him, Elven "pride" (read : obstinate, bloody-minded, pig-headed self-righteous stubornness and stupidity) being a frequent source of disarray and degeneration. What happens afterwards is harder to say, with Sauron still at large until the end of the Third Age, and exactly how Morogth's will is able to transcend the Void, and to what degree, is not stated. But certainly there is a very clear implication here that the whole tale is ultimately an explanation, or at least a metaphor, for why evil exists in the world.
We've seen already how songs and spells can shape the reality of Middle Earth : changing the seasons, overthrowing fortresses, bending the laws of chance, and contesting with the Dark Powers. In this final section we can see how such incantations can have much larger effects, back to the moment of Creation itself.
So at last we now turn to the final and most important example : the Song of Ilúvatar. Here at last is the answer to so many riddles, so many apparent contradictions. Tolkien, to his credit, did try to keep things self-consistent where necessary. This is a powerful aid to believability. But there are some aspects of Middle Earth which demand inconsistency and the utmost incompatibility with observable reality. Songs don't really bring down walls or bring forth flowers; words don't really affect the laws of chance... and of course the hell-planet Venus cannot really be a divine mariner who once brought down the greatest dragon in history.
The last is important. How can Tolkien be claim to writing a history of the world, even a mythological one, if it has such blatant untruths ? Only in part can this be explained through the myth giving way to the material. All the modern mountain ranges being formed by natural processes is not incompatible with the now-vanished ones of the distant past being created by other means. The problem is that the Sun and the Moon still exist, as of course do the stars, and we know what they are : it is not that we just can't see the divine pilots guiding them through the heavens, it's that observations are completely incompatible with Tolkien's explanations.
Okay, fine, we could say, "it's a metaphor". But that is super lame. We can do much better than that.
The Song provides the answer. The Silmarillion begins with an extended singing sequence in whichIlúvatar creates the Ainur as parts of himself :
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made... each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly.
Initially he teaches them only music and song, and for a while they have a lovely time all singing nicely together. But then Melkor decides that he's had it with all this music "like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs" and decides he wants to play guitar instead. Or some such. Anyway, he decides to make his own disharmonious music "utterly at variance", which is "loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes."
So Ilúvatar responds with new and mightier music. Back and forth goes the cosmic jamming until at last Ilúvatar gets bored and tells them all to shut the hell up, bloody kids, I don't like music anyway...
Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done... And he showed to them a vision, giving to them sight where before was only hearing; and they saw a new World made visible before them, and it was globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but was not of it. And as they looked and wondered this World began to unfold its history, and it seemed to them that it lived and grew. Ilúvatar said again: ‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added.’
Here is the crucial point. Arda is not made in response to the musical discord, it is the music from the very beginning. Eru and the Ainur (for that is their band name) made the world with song, but having only hearing, they know it only through sound. Everything that happens henceforth is only because the Ainur, who exist outside of time, are now bestowed with new senses with which to explore the fullness of their Creation.
The same is true of the Children of Ilúvatar. They are themselves part of the music. It is not that they have music or are moved by it, they are music.
Then again Ilúvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others. For it seemed at first soft and sweet, a mere rippling of gentle sounds in delicate melodies; but it could not be quenched, and it took to itself power and profundity.
For the Children of Ilúvatar were conceived by him alone; and they came with the third theme, and were not in the theme which Ilúvatar propounded at the beginning, and none of the Ainur had part in their making.
But Melkor spoke to them in secret of Mortal Men, seeing how the silence of the Valar might be twisted to evil. Little he knew yet concerning Men, for engrossed with his own thought in the Music he had paid small heed to the Third Theme of Ilúvatar.
Men, music, and ultimately the Ainur themselves – all are ultimately the thoughts of Ilúvatar. Likewise, when Aulë creates the dwarves, Ilúvatar chastises him :
‘Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle.’
This is idealism, the notion that all of physical reality is ultimately part of the mind of God. This is a complex point which necessitates a short philosophical digression.
In materialism, which is the common assumption nowadays, we take it that we perceive reality directly. If we see and touch a chair, we assume this tells us something about the base level of reality. But of course, observations can always be improved and extended. Materialism therefore has a problem not dissimilar to the "god of the gaps" argument, that in routinely filling in any and all unknowns with the label "god", certain sorts of theism are unconvincing because they're always shifting the goalposts. This is equally true for materialism : what's the base level ? Chairs ? Wood ? Molecules ? Atoms ? Electrons ? Strings ? Quantum foam ?
There's no easy answer. The original Greek notion of atoms as indivisible has long been refuted, and so far we have no evidence that anything truly indivisible and irreducible actually exists. This would make materialism no better than the sort of theism it claims to refute.
Idealism is an attempt to avoid this. It says that there is a base level of reality, however incomprehensible, and that it's God. The argument goes that explaining mind as the product of matter is nigh-on impossible, whereas it's obvious that we can all imagine matter at will. By extension, a sufficiently superior being could imagine an entire, self-consistent Universe.
This isn't the place to get into the merits of idealism, materialism, neutral monism and the like; Decoherencyis chock-full of such posts anyway. Rather the important point is that Tolkienian cosmology is clearly idealism. The Ainur are created as thoughts of Eru, who in turn have thoughts of their own. These are initially expressed as music and later revealed through the full suite of sensory apparatus. The dwarves may be moved directly by the will of Aulë, but this too is fundamentally a part of the mind of Eru.
The songs of Lúthien and the Oath of the Noldor link back to this cosmic-scale aspect of the process. They draw on the forces which shape reality itself, sometimes only in apparently small ways but nevertheless always part of this much greater whole. That's how the magic works, according to Tolkien. This is what's going on when Gandalf fights the Balrog : the very forces that shape the universe are condensed into one old man and a fiery monster. No wonder it's dramatic as hell.
And that's how Eärendil can be both a hellish planet and a divine dragon-fighting mariner. His song has changed, but it remains the same song, unified in Eru. Music too is only analogy, something easier for the reader to grasp. We can readily understand how a musical piece can change yet have some core identity that remains the same, even if defining that identity is something far more challenging. So Tolkienian cosmology is a Grand Unified Theory of an altogether different sort than in modern physics, but it's of the same scale of thinking. In idealism, all religions and all fictions and all science alike can be true.
Of course, this raises once more that ugly question : why does an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil things to happen, especially to good people ?
Under idealism, one interpretation is that he doesn't. There is no external reality to God, it's all his thoughts : the protagonists may seem distinct from each other but this is, in essence, a problem of coordinate systems. Eru doesn't prevent the fall of Númenór any more than we might prevent ourselves imagining its fall : from Eru's perspective Númenór is no more an external "thing" than it is, literally, to ourselves. We know it has no physical manifestation, it's all just make-believe, so we freely imagine any catastrophe occurring, no matter how bleak it would be if that were real.
So it is to Eru. He has precisely no more reason to stop the ascendancy of Sauron than we do.
Another way to look at it would be that it's all just music. Why would Eru prevent himself from creating a bad tune ? The reality of a bad tune and the wrath of Morgoth are equally valid from his point of view. He experiences all of it in his fullness, he knows the suffering occurring because it's also intrinsic to him. It's not that he creates everything, it's that he is everything. And if he wants to undo everything, he can. It takes no effort on his part at all.
The difficulty with this would be that Eru ought to know that his "Children" think themselves distinct and experience suffering and woe in a way that he himself does not. From their perspective they experience things differently than Eru himself. So alas, idealism does not wholly rescue this dilemma, and we have to fall back on the earlier argument that some things are just beyond our comprehension. Perhaps, for the story at least, leaving some mystery is essential.
Afterword : Conclusions and Comparisons
I rather like this depiction of Valinor as somewhere less structured, with only hints of ordinary objects here and there.
Well, that was fun. But what have we learned ?
Tolkien's work is utterly drenched in metaphor. He gets almost irate in in denying that The Lord of the Rings is allegorical, probably because it isn't. The entire work itself is metaphorical, reaching much deeper themes than merely retelling World War II but with Bar-dur as Hitler's fortress and orcs as Nazi soldiers. Rather it's an attempt at examining the nature of good and evil themselves, and if there are similarities – even symbolic ones – with actual events, this should only be because good and evil have distinct, recognisable tendencies and follow common patterns.
Not that things in Middle Earth are as black and white as they're sometimes made out to be. Far from it.
It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace – all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.
The tales aren't simple stories about some good people fighting some other, ugly-looking bad people. No. They're truly mythological in scope, pathetic fallacy applied to the grandest of scales, where mind and intent infuse the very substance of reality itself. From such petty details as the composition and size of the Fellowship* to the whole structure of the Universe, every aspect of Tolkien's creation is infused with this morality.
* I like the answer in the above link quite a lot. Help shall come from the weak indeed, with the Fellowship deliberately not being a military strike force... it's half-composed of people too small to even wield a full-size sword for a very good reason, because the story is a morality tale, a myth, not a realistic fiction merely set in a magical world but one fundamentally governed by different principles.
Only in part can we say that the appeal is due to the simplicity of good versus evil. There is that aspect to Tolkien, there are some characters who are virtue and evil incarnate, and this definitely plays its part. But there are also plenty of ambiguities, a richness of the spectrum filling everything in between the two extremes. Not every ill deed is evil, every dark thought the work of Melkor, nor is every good act rewarded or every injustice punished. Sometimes what seems like luck is really fate, but sometimes it's just pure happenstance. Being good or evil in Tolkien's world is not a guarantee or success or failure. True, evil ultimately fails. But along the way it has plenty of victories and countless innocents die in the process. The Lord of the Rings is a satisfying culmination of the tale but it is by no means representative of the whole history, much of which is altogether darker.
Tolkien goes much deeper than this popular but simplistic black-and-white depiction, examining the nature of good and evil and giving them physical embodiment. He casts his characters on a stage far bigger than themselves, giving them emotive effects on their surroundings, powers which affect reality in a way that reflect our own direct feelings of what it's like to experience emotions.
Years ago I wrote a piece about the anthropic principle based on part of The Science of Discworld. Pratchett and his co-authors did an outstanding job of describing why this is not the slightest bit mysterious. And in the Discworld series, Pratchett has his characters as largely a product of their environment, the very essence of understanding the anthropic principle : we are the way we are because the Universe is the way it is. There's no mystery in that it seems fine-tuned to allow us to exist, and indeed if that were the case we ought to expect a massively larger fraction of the Universe to be habitable, rather than being confined to the most miniscule slice of warm damp air on a tiny nondescript little rock.
I suggest here that Tolkien, as a Catholic, does the exact opposite to Pratchett. He has characters shape the world around them by virtue of their morality : goodness begets beauty (not the other way around), evil causes corruption, decay and loathsomeness. For Pratchett, mind is just something that happens to matter in certain configurations under certain conditions. For Tolkien, mind is the essence of the universe, and sufficiently powerful minds can access deeper layers of reality and gain direct control over it. And this is even true of their respective cosmologies. As such, the Discworld is a small mote of magic in an otherwise familiar universe of stars and galaxies, whereas for Tolkien, Arda is a kernel of normality in a universe based more on morality than on physics.
Tolkien's idealism may reconcile how his stories can be at times self-contradictory without needing to say that he made a simple error, but it does not solve every moral conundrum. Some level of ambiguity is essential for myth-making, but some questions are beyond human understanding. But he does present some moral teachings : the importance of helping the weak, the need to do the right thing no matter the risk and no matter the cost, the solace in the certainty of change, the need for mercy, pity, and compassion – things which are incomprehensibly alien to the evil.
And above all, the importance of lies. Morgoth wins battles only rarely, if ever, through sheer military might. Yes, the size of his armies and the physical strength of his soldiers does matter, but far more important is treachery. Morgoth's greatest strength by far, the weapon he invariable reaches for ahead of all others, is deceit. In battle after battle, Tolkien gives Morgoth, the ultimate source of evil, the victory only because he sows discord among his foes, corrupting some critical element to his cause at an opportune moment. Frank Herbert probably said it most concisely but this is surely something Tolkien endorsed :
Respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality.
Which is delightfully ironic when set in a world that is explicitly one of pure fiction and make-believe.
These people are what the story is about. You could transpose them into a realistic depiction of ancient Britain and only make minor changes to the plot to have all the key events still occurring without any magic or dragons.
As to Game of Thrones, nothing in the cosmology therein approaches the careful construction of Tolkien; so far as I can tell, it's just a bunch of cynical people who ride dragons and fuck each other repeatedly*. There's not much in the way of symbolism or deeper moral tales about the nature of good and evil, though there's plenty about the human condition.
* Though not, sadly, at the same time.
For this reason I'm of the opinion (rare on the internet !) that the ending to Thrones was absolutely fine. I realised recently that some people disagree not so much because they thought the ending was bad as because they thought the beginning was far superior to what it was, much as people dislike the Matrix sequels. "It was so deep !" they say, and I'm left thinking, "huh ?", because it wasn't. I mean, yeah, there are some hints of some deeper thoughts, what with the White Walkers and the coming of night, or the nature of reality if you jack yourself in, but honestly, they aren't much developed.
Which is why I wasn't at all surprised or disappointed by the franchises developing the way they did, because that's always how they were going to go. Sure, they've a smattering of insight, sometimes very interestingly so. But ultimately, Thrones especially, they're not about cosmology. It just doesn't matter to the story at all, which in Westeros is all about the people. For George R. R. Martin the background is only ever scenery; for Tolkien, it's every bit as essential as the characters themselves, a living, vital part of the story.
Don't misunderstand me here. When I say that Thrones is all about cynical people fucking, I also mean that it's masterpiece of that genre. Within its own framework, it's incredibly well-constructed. It's a complex tale with characters you genuinely hate to love (because they die horribly) and love to hate (because they're cunts). I will give Martin 10/10 on that score, and by no means do I underestimate the difficulty of this achievement. It's a genuinely magnificent mixture of genres, but a myth it ain't.
The greatness of true myth
The cosmic microwave background, a.k.a. the afterglow of Creation. Science wouldn't be science if it didn't try and explain things like this, and in a curiously similar way, the cosmology of Tolkien is more important to the story than the realism of his characters.
In the end, Westeros is fiction, not myth. Tolkien reaches higher. Myth provides not just mere description but also explanation, couched in symbolism and ambiguity. Tolkien's application of pathetic fallacy to the cosmological scales certainly achieves this, and that's a far, far more precious accomplishment than anything as mundane as "realism". His characters are complex in their own ways and for their own reasons, but precisely because of the mythological intentions, they are and should not be as realistic as those of of other, more grounded works.
I have tried to present things here roughly backwards to the order Tolkien gives them in. He tells a story of a world crystallising from song to substance, from mythic to material. On a first reading, the early parts especially are hard to fathom. By telling the tale backwards I have tried to resolve some of the grosser ambiguities, to show the "bones of the world" that Tolkien – according to The Atlas – asked us not to see. And so we shouldn't, if we want to preserve the mystery that is so essential for a good myth. But sometimes, the temptation to try to peek behind the curtain is just too great.
The final comparison I suppose I must make is modern cosmology. This, someone said, is "always on the edge of mysticism", which as an astronomer I cannot dispute. In terms of studying the evolution of the Universe and its general characteristics (the typical scale and structure of things, their ages, their likely future development) modern science is on very firm footing indeed. But when it comes back to the Creation event itself, there I think all our musings about creating particles from a vacuum, about whether physical laws are in some sense real things or merely descriptions of stuff that happens... all of that does stray into the mystical.
But perhaps not the mythical. Myth, I've said, has to provide an explanation, it has to apply at scale, it has to involve minds, and it has to contain ambiguity. Scientific cosmology really only does and can do the first two of these – if it started positing that the Universe was the result of intelligence or avoided quantitative rigour then it wouldn't be scientific at all. When we get back to the singularity, however (be that whether the Universe was at some point infinitely small or has existed forever, with both types of infinity being a sort of singularity), we find our capabilities collide head-on with reality. We meet something our language and perhaps our most basic mental capacities are unable to grasp, and so we reach inevitably for myth.
I said back in the introduction that Tolkien himself I do not hold faultless. And it must be said that he was somewhat hypocritical, in that his works were chock-full of revision after revision but he himself was an extreme purist when it came to adaptations changing even the most petty and irrelevant of details. But my analysis has been an attempt not to understand what Tolkien himself thought, but the effect his work had on me. That, I think, is the key part of the ambiguity of myth. It requires the reader to fill in part of the details with their own emotions, to take us to places that precise description cannot reach.
Pratchett said that human beings need fantasy to be human, that we need to believe things which aren't true. But perhaps more than needing to believe things in manifest contradiction to the observable facts, we need to believe things which no amount of observation can ever capture. We need fantasy to understand ourselves, to try and give shape to the unseen, feelings made flesh. And that is why, far from God being dead, in this modern scientific age of quantification and rationality, myth still, and will ever, continues to endure.