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Thursday 27 October 2022

The Cosmology of Middle Earth (V) : Cosmos and Conclusions

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.

5) 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 : 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.

Artwork by "bostonflows" from DeviantArt.

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.

In The Beginning Was The Song

AI-generated art, from here.

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 which Ilúvatar 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; Decoherency is 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.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

The Cosmology of Middle Earth (IV) : World Enough and Time

Welcome back to another exciting instalment in the "I like Tolkien just a bit too much" series. If you've just wandered in, part one was an introduction with a quick look at the Rings and the sword Narsil, part two looked at a selection of characters, and part three began to look at the landscapes on rather larger scales.

So far we've seen something of how Middle Earth operates. At its heart it's driven not by physics but by mind. While the hobbits are skilled enough at ordinary farming, the most powerful characters create life in their very footsteps, or burn it away even while rotting in their graves. The greatest of all can move mountains or sink entire continents.

We've already seen some global processes at work but there are a few more that should be mentioned before we reach further out to truly cosmic scales. In this fourth part, I'll look at bit more at the symbolism of the powers Tolkien depicts, both in terms of what they represent in the story itself, and what they represent morally.

4) World


Note that this map, while having some strong similarities to those of the Third Age, also has some massive differences. 

At last we begin to approach the largest realm of all. If the powers of the Valar diminish or withdraw from the world over time (though they were never, I think limitless), then we have to go back to the earliest eras to see them at their greatest. The destruction of Númenór is far from the only example of continent-scale changes brought about by the wars between good and evil.

For so great was the fury of those adversaries that the northern regions of the western world were rent asunder, and the sea roared in through many chasms, and there was confusion and great noise; and rivers perished or found new paths, and the valleys were upheaved and the hills trod down; and Sirion was no more.

In the Great Battle and the tumults of the fall of Thangorodrim there were mighty convulsions in the earth, and Beleriand was broken and laid waste; and northward and westward many lands sank beneath the waters of the Great Sea. In the east, in Ossiriand, the walls of Ered Luin were broken, and a great gap was made in them towards the south, and a gulf of the sea flowed in. 

New lands and islands are raised after the fall of Númenór, while in the First Age the Valar use an island as a ferry from Valinor :

Now Ulmo, by the counsel of the Valar, came to the shores of Middle-earth and spoke with the Eldar who waited there, gazing on the dark waves; and because of his words and the music which he made for them on his horns of shell their fear of the sea was turned rather to desire. Therefore Ulmo uprooted an island which long had stood alone amid the sea, far from either shore, since the tumults of the fall of Illuin; and with the aid of his servants he moved it, as it were a mighty ship, and anchored it in the Bay of Balar, into which Sirion poured his water. Then the Vanyar and the Noldor embarked upon that isle, and were drawn over the sea.

Once again we see the world being shaped according to the moral intentions of its Powers. In the description of the Great Battle Tolkien presents further ambiguities as to how exactly things are destroyed. The combatants are described in relatively ordinary terms : orcs, dragons, Balrogs, elves, horses*, men and all the rest, with the Valar themselves described much like a conventional pseudo-medieval army. But the effects are much more deeply felt. Is this further evidence that the geography of Middle Earth should be interpreted more figuratively and less literally ? Perhaps. Certainly Tolkien was very explicit about this for the Valar themselves :

* Presumably also some fell ponies.

Their shape comes of their knowledge of the visible World, rather than of the World itself; and they need it not, save only as we use raiment. Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female. But the shapes wherein the Great Ones array themselves are not at all times like to the shapes of the kings and queens of the Children of Ilúvatar; for at times they may clothe themselves in their own thought, made visible in forms of majesty and dread.

Which needs us neatly on to a continent that needs its own section, because there geography is the most mysterious of all. If there's anywhere that's surely intended as more symbolic than literal, it's the land of heaven itself.


Geography of the First Age from The Atlas of Middle Earth. Note how drastically different this is from even the the Second Age, let alone the Third.

The Blessed Realm, the Undying lands, part of the continent of Aman. In the First Age, Valinor is very much a real, physical place, or at least it's described in ordinary physical terms. You can sail back and forth across the sea between Valinor and Middle Earth no trouble, and the Elves seem to make the trip much as we would get on a plane for a summer holiday : you wouldn't want to do it too often, but you wouldn't find it much of an imposition either.

As time goes on this becomes more and more difficult. In some ways this reverses the general tendency in the narrative to become more and more materialistic : the Powers interfere less and less, but travel to Valinor by "the straight road" becomes more symbolic, more magical. This reminds us that the mythical aspects of the First Age are still very much present, that while things have developed and changed, at its core the fundamentals remain the same. 

Travelling to Valinor in latter days seems to become less a matter of navigational skill and more a matter of purpose : it becomes somewhere you can find only if you are meant to find it, if you are worthy and the fates allow. What appeared as normal and routine in earlier ages is revealed as mythical symbolism only by its comparison to later, more literal events. And once again, thinking in purely physical terms – something as mundane as "which direction do you need to go to get to Valinor ?", or even "what would the journey look like ?" is a mistake, because that's just not how Middle Earth operates. At its heart, the reality of Arda is not driven by physical laws at all.

Which is one of many reasons why this answer on Quora is just wrong-headed. Depicting Valinor as a formless shining light even before the fall of Númenór is a perfectly valid artistic choice.

Valinor presents probably the most explicit example of the people influencing the land. Sending messages to the over-mighty men who would seek immortality by a jaunt across the sea, the Valar say :

‘And were you so to voyage that escaping all deceits and snares you came indeed to Aman, the Blessed Realm, little would it profit you. For it is not the land of Manwë that makes its people deathless, but the Deathless that dwell therein have hallowed the land; and there you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast.’

While it's been remarked that this means Frodo and Bilbo and the others who are permitted to Valinor in latter days simply go there to die, I find this difficult to swallow. It's very clear that the trip is a reward, and while all creatures in Middle Earth have an immortal soul (though it's not known where they all go in the afterlife), there seems absolutely no point at all in sending senile, decrepit old Bilbo on a dangerous sea voyage when he's about to die anyway. Not even the High Elves are that much of a bag of dicks. 

More probable to me is that those permitted to Valinor in latter days are indeed granted immortality, but this is done by the Valar themselves, not because the land is magical. Bilbo is not so much going to Valinor as he is going to see the Valar. And we know the Valar do occasionally intervene in the cases of individual mortals, such as Beren and Lúthien, and also Eärendil as we'll see in the next post. Otherwise the journey serves no purpose at all – it's not as though Tolkien has some aversion to killing major characters. He might not do it for pure shock value like George R. R. Martin does, but when he wants there to be tragedy and death, then tragedy and death come forth in abundance. So I find it exceedingly unlikely that Tolkien would be trying to shield us from the emotional impact of Frodo's death.

In writing a creation myth Tolkien inevitably touches on issues which are outright theological. Why do the Valar invoke Eru rather than destroying Númenór themselves ? It seems they are forbidden not from using their own powers, but from using them in order to be worshipped, a very interesting answer that may solve a lot of problems with other fantasy and sci-fi creatures of great power that stand idly by while the world falls into ruin. But then we have to wonder why, regardless of who does it, they destroy not just the invasion fleet but Númenór itself. This response certainly seems like massive overkill as not every Númenórean was a Valar-hating servant of Sauron, but there's more complexity to it : the Númenóreans were both warned beforehand and given an chance to escape. Of course, this doesn't address why Eru allows his children to harm each other apparently with impunity.

This all raises the question as to whether we're supposed to read Valinor as being literally heaven. The answer seems to be yes. Not only is Valinor later removed from Arda (see next post), but it's also home to the Halls of Mandos, where the spirits of the dead reside. Tolkien also describes it using the very word "heaven" on more than one occasion, as well as describing Angband as its counterpart : hell. But the latter seems to be firmly metaphorical, as no spirits of the dead end up there. Still, heaven is in the early ages somewhere readily accessible, while later on it becomes ever-harder to find, with an obvious parallel to the Garden of Eden. More on that in the concluding part.

What actually befalls the spirits in the Halls is, however, never made clear except for some unhelpful exceptions. Tolkien does not state whether denizens of Middle Earth can expect eternal bliss or damnation, or whether that correlates with their behaviour before death. Inevitably, at times Tolkien seems to be wrestling with the archetypal theological question : why do bad things happen to good people ? 

I think at least two answers can be discerned in The Silmarillion. The first is implicit and not stated directly, which is simply that this is utterly beyond the ken of mortal men. As in this piece on Thomas Aquinas, the issues which a divine creator has to deal with are by their very nature unfathomable : not very difficult, but actually unknowable. God asks to Job :

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades ? Can you loosen Orion’s belt ? Can you bring forth the constellations in their season or lead out the Bear with its cubs ? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth ?” 

And for all that the answer to all of this is "no, I wouldn't know where to start", it's still deeply unsatisfying. We may not know everything, but we know that some things are wrong and unjust and unnecessary but they happen anyway (a more Middle Earthian examination of the nature of Eru is given here). Tolkien's second answer is arguably more satisfying, but let's finish this section off first.

The Two Trees

The ambiguities grow ever deeper as we reach the truly cosmological in scale. Originally the Valar create two mighty "lamps" that illuminate the whole of Arda, set upon "high pillars more lofty far than are any mountains of the latter days". Here the overtones of Christian mythology become unmistakable, with Yavanna bringing forth plants under the light of the new lamps. Even more symbolic, Melkor – who is already a creature of hate – hides his designs in shadow, "for he was grown dark as the Night of the Void". 

This is why I suggest that Tolkien does indeed reach true myth. He not only uses light and dark as symbolic of hope and fear, but provides an explanation as to why they induce those feelings : we are afraid of the dark because that is the domain and symbol of Melkor  there is indeed something sinister lurking in the night. Conversely, we desire the light because this is a defence against his evil machinations. Likewise, Melkor himself desires darkness and fears the light :

But Melkor came forth suddenly to war, and struck the first blow, ere the Valar were prepared; and he assailed the lights of Illuin and Ormal, and cast down their pillars and broke their lamps. In the overthrow of the mighty pillars lands were broken and seas arose in tumult; and when the lamps were spilled destroying flame was poured out over the Earth. And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of its waters and its lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar were never after restored.

Only after this do the Valar establish Valinor for themselves. Yavanna then creates the Two Trees, but these illuminate only Valinor and not Middle Earth as did the lamps. The development of life in Middle Earth is thus paused for a time. But Valinor enters a state of bliss, with the elves creating the Silmarils – the finest jewels ever created – to preserve their exquisite light. 

The symbolism of the beauty of nature runs deeper. Melkor begins to corrupt the elves by telling them highly political lies, that the one is plotting to overthrow the other. When he approaches and departs from Valinor his evil manifests itself physically :

Then it seemed to the people of Valinor that the light of the Trees was dimmed, and the shadows of all standing things grew longer and darker in that time... Thus Melkor departed from Valinor, and for a while the Two Trees shone again unshadowed, and the land was filled with light.

If Darth Vader is so menacing he has his own theme tune play every time he enters a room, Melkor takes this a whole lot further : at his approach the very lights of heaven are darkened, his lies and corruption flowing from his very being just as goodness flows from Lúthien. The beauty of the Trees is incomparable, and their eventual destruction by Melkor one of the most tragic acts of the The Silmarillion. If nature is all beauty and light and truth, then Melkor is corruption, darkness and deceit. These attributes in Middle Earth invariably go hand in hand, and are not easily separated. For Tolkien, the evil thing lurking in the dread night is not so much a monster but a liar.

We're almost at the final stages now, and we can begin to see how the consistency of Tolkien's moral cosmos manifests itself on all scales. Light brings forth truth, darkness brings despair. Lies and deceit are at the heart of all evil; monsters are scary because of their big nasty pointy teeth, but only evil because they tell lies, not because they wish to inflict harm but because their malevolence is wilful. They know there are alternatives but, like Liz Truss, make the wrong choice anyway.

It's important to understand that Tolkien wasn't writing mere fiction, but true myth. The challenge for hard sci-fi is in exploring the effects of known physical laws in a rigorously, quantitatively correct way, or in developing new laws which are fully self-consistent. Tolkien faced no less formidable a challenge but of a theological rather than physical nature. He had to develop an entire cosmos based on moral beliefs that had to be no less self-consistent, even if that meant  ironically – frequently abandoning physical self-consistency entirely. He had to wrestle with deep moral, theological questions that are interesting regardless of one's religious beliefs, which are far some reason rendered more palatable by cunningly disguising them in tales about dwarves and dragons rather than Jesus and Moses.

I've heard it claimed that the history of Middle Earth is one of continual decline and fall, e.g. the lamps becoming the trees becoming the Sun and Moon. I do not agree. It's one of transformation, certainly, but I do not see it as one of decay. Things become ever-more materialistic, to the point that lifespans and physical stature diminish, but the morality of its protagonists seems if anything to do the opposite. Aragorn doesn't have the power to shout down mountains with song, but he faces the armies of Mordor nonetheless. Let alone little Frodo, who goes into the very heart of the domain of supernatural evil armed with nothing more than a pair of great hairy feet and his gardener.   

True, the magic diminishes. But in the Third Age we find ordinary mortals, even the smallest and most helpless, pitting themselves against powers ancient and dread of terrifying scope. Surely that gives them claim to greater virtue than any of their forebears, not less; any sense of "decline" is only in the most superficial sense of the "physics" of the world.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Having gone from rings to wizards to mountains and continents, it's time to bring this journey through the moral cosmology of Tolkien to an end. Not in the fiery pits of a volcano, but in the cold and beautiful darkness amidst the stars. See you in part five.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

The Cosmology of Middle Earth (III) : Land, Sea, and Sky

We now return to our scheduled presentation on why Tolkien is just bloody brilliant. Part one introduced what my overall feelings toward Tolkien, both good and bad, and looked at a few of the magical objects and their symbolism. Part two moved up in scale just a notch to examine some of the major residents of Middle Earth.

So far we've seen how there's a lot more moral ambiguity in Tolkien than is commonly given credit for. Yes, there are strong streaks of black and white, but they're set on a backdrop of much greater complexity. Neither beauty nor decay are always symbols of virtue or malice  what really matters is moral intent. Narsil shines with the light of the Sun, but it doesn't need this power to slay Sauron. Lúthien brings forth flowers in her steps, but evil characters can use beauty as a cloak.

But there do seem to be a more fundamental sort of almost Platonic varieties of the beautiful and hideous at work in Middle Earth. Gandalf may bring forth darkness to intimidate Bilbo, but he will never blot our the Sun; Sauron might appear fair of face but no flowers will ever grow in his steps. 

Until now, though, we've been looking at very small-scale effects, and this is a severe handicap. To understand why Tolkien's creation inspires a deep emotional resonance, we need to see how the Powers work when the gloves are off, how the same forces that can make swords get slightly glowy can raise mountains and level continents. So in this third, midway part, I'll look at how the forces of mind and morality shape the very landscape that the characters inhabit.

3) Land, Sea, and Sky

The Forests : The Old Forest

Sauron's fortress of Dol Guldur in the forest of Mirkwood, by someone called McNealy.

Like beauty, Tolkien clearly has elements of nature = good, industry = bad, but again this is an enormous oversimplification. Rather, it's how they're used and applied that matters – they are not good or evil in and and of themselves. 

There's a curious mix of the magical and material in Tolkien's work. While everything, as we'll see, is ultimately down to the Powers, they do not seem to play a permanently active role in ordering the world. When they're not involved, a tree is just a tree and a rock is just a rock; the natural processes of weathering and sedimentation probably proceed just as they do in reality. But when they are, their grace or malice flow out into the land around them. And not all malice or beauty alike are direct results of the intervention of the Valar.

Take the Old Forest, which the hobbits encounter as they leave the Shire. Merry warns the company of the dangers they face ahead :
‘And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you. They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much. Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer. But at night things can be most alarming, or so I am told... They do say the trees do actually move, and can surround strangers and hem them in.’
As they progress they soon encounter increasing difficulties in going in the direction they prefer. With more subtle menace – at first – than actually attacking them, the forest makes things challenging :
Looking ahead they could see only tree-trunks of innumerable sizes and shapes: straight or bent, twisted, leaning, squat or slender, smooth or gnarled and branched; and all the stems were green or grey with moss and slimy, shaggy growths...  they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity. The feeling steadily grew, until they found themselves looking up quickly, or glancing back over their shoulders, as if they expected a sudden blow. There was not as yet any sign of a path, and the trees seemed constantly to bar their way.

After a while the air began to get hot and stuffy. The trees drew close again on either side, and they could no longer see far ahead. Now stronger than ever they felt again the ill will of the wood pressing on them... Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth, which somehow would not yield to the left, but only gave way when they turned to the right... Each time they clambered out, the trees seemed deeper and darker; and always to the left and upwards it was most difficult to find a way, and they were forced to the right and downwards.
That the trees show no signs of movement is part of what makes this sequence feel so threatening. There are much deeper forces at work than anything as simple as a walking tree. When the trees eventually do attack it's a culmination of mounting tension, with Tolkien unleashing a sense of horror and dread that, I have to say, I did not feel the movies always did especially well. This is understandable and forgivable, but the sense of foreboding in the books is something that the movies sometimes lack.

The Old Forest did not, so far as I'm aware, have anything much to do with Morgorth or Sauron. Rather the trees there, awakened in ages past by the Elves, seem to have fallen into malignity by themselves. This happens with many other characters too, with plenty an Elven king lost to their own selfish pride* rather than the machinations of Melkor. But the effects on the world are the same. The forest itself is imbued with malice and darkness, and this is rendered in the world in ways that cannot be described by physics. The land itself does not seem to change shape nor the trees to move, yet the way the hobbits would prefer is shut to them.

* This seems to have been Tolkien's keyword for "being a right little dick."

Similarly with Fangorn :

‘I do not think the wood feels evil, whatever tales may say,’ said Legolas. He stood under the eaves of the forest, stooping forward, as if he were listening, and peering with wide eyes into the shadows. ‘No, it is not evil; or what evil is in it is far away. I catch only the faintest echoes of dark places where the hearts of the trees are black. There is no malice near us; but there is watchfulness, and anger.’

The emotion of the trees is reflected in their dreadful countenance. It is not that there is some particular evil at work upon the land, or that there is any sort of curse at work. Rather this appears to be a fundamental principle of how Middle Earth operates : mind influences matter, or perhaps rather matter is receptive to the effects of mind. It isn't that the trees are telekinetic, they don't deliberately control anything. Instead the land and the environment are almost inevitably subject to the emotions and morality of their inhabitants, at least if those are sufficiently strong and long-lasting. Pathetic fallacy is essentially the equivalent of a physical law.

Interjection : The Oath of the Noldor

The Elves crossing the grinding ice because yet another king was a bloody stroppy jumped-up little twat.

This is as good a moment as any for a short diversion on an important plot point that doesn't really fit into any particular category as I've arranged things. But the Oath sworn by the Elves to retrieve the Silmarils has similar effects to the subtle changes in the Old Forest that molests the hapless hobbits, so this provides further evidence for how the forces that govern Middle Earth operate.

The Oath does not act in any direct sort of way. It doesn't undo stone or bring forth flowers in their steps; the Noldor can't blame it for any particularly inclement weather or unexpected fires. But its effects are no less profound. It acts more like fate, bending reality around them. The Oath-Curse is like loading the dice : it won't make them float away or explode, or even make them roll a six every time without fail, but it stacks the odds against them. Wherever chance is at work, the probability is skewed towards making it worse for the Noldor. This manifests itself primarily through the actions of the characters rather than the physical world, twisting them more towards ill purpose than they would otherwise be inclined.

It is plain that Thingol desires your death; but it seems that this doom goes beyond his purpose, and that the Oath of Fëanor is again at work. For the Silmarils are cursed with an oath of hatred, and he that even names them in desire moves a great power from slumber; and the sons of Fëanor would lay all the Elf-kingdoms in ruin rather than suffer any other than themselves to win or possess a Silmaril, for the Oath drives them. 

Be he friend or foe, whether demon of Morgoth, or Elf, or child of Men, or any other living thing in Arda, neither law, nor love, nor league of hell, nor might of the Valar, nor any power of wizardry, shall defend him from the pursuing hate of Fëanor’s sons, if he take or find a Silmaril and keep it. For the Silmarils we alone claim, until the world ends.

This mad desire for the Silmarils becomes an all-consuming passion of the Noldor. If the beauty of the Silmarils inspires them in the first place, it's this unkeepable, Brexit-like Oath that seals their doom. Words have power, manifested not just by persuasion and rhetoric, but actually in shaping destiny. In its way, the Oath is even more forceful than the spells of Lúthien. 

And honestly... the Oath of the Noldor is a lot like Brexit. It's something utterly unachievable that brings them naught but ruin and woe but they stick their stupid fat fucking fingers in their ears and won't bloody listen. I could go on, but I won't.

The Forests : Mirkwood and Lothlórien

Lothlorien. Image source here.

Let's return to today's main topic. Mirkwood, on the other hand, definitely did fall into decay because of the will of Sauron. Prior to Sauron it was known as Greenwood the Great, which, so far as I know, was a perfectly normal forest. Only when the power of Sauron began to work its will did it become the haunted forest of fear, and when Sauron was destroyed it returned to its former self. This is a very clear example of the will of evil altering the world around it. Sauron doesn't have to order his orc legions to molest the trees, the change from pleasant leafy woods to sinister abode of nightmares happens by itself.

In Lothlórien the opposite is true. As the heart of Elevndom on Earth, the forest here is of surpassing loveliness. The cool waters of its rivers heal Legolas' weary feet, its trees are of silver trunks and golden leaves, and it's just all-round... nice. And as a pertinent counter to Mirkwood's ruin by Sauron, Lothlórien is enriched by the power of Galadriel and her magic Ring. Once again, the land is governed by its inhabitants. 

Compare this to, say, Dune, in which the hardiness of the Fremen is a direct result of their extreme harsh environment. In Middle Earth things do work both ways, but there is a strong effect from the characters on the land, and much less the other way around : where the land itself has been corrupted by evil, that does not spread to anyone happening upon it.

The Lands of Shadow : Thangorodrim and Mordor 

The hobbits cross the Black Lands without falling into shadow, just as in earlier ages armies assault Angband and Thangorodrim without turning to evil.

The innermost realms of Morgoth and Sauron are distinctly similar : dark, bleak and blasted wastelands* of either freezing cold or unbearable heat, with naught to tell but bare rock. Both feature towering volcanoes. In the case of the three-peaked Thangorodrim, this is a mountain piled up from the slag created when Morgoth and his servants dug the fortress of Angband. Since piling up a bunch of rocks will not normally create a volcano all of its own accord, and since Morgoth caused the eruption at the Battle of Sudden Flame, the volcanic nature of the mountain seems to be entirely due to Morgoth's influence. Morgoth, as the mightiest servant of Eru, is able (to a considerable but not unlimited extent) to control the forces of nature directly. 

* Not entirely so in the case of Mordor, which does have slave farms in its outer regions to provide food for the armies.

In the case of Mordor, I'd argue that the case is ambiguous as to whether Orodruin (Mt Doom) is a natural feature or also due to dark powers. Online sources cite The History of Middle Earth in support of the former, but The Silmarillion might suggest the latter :

..and there was a fiery mountain in that land that the Elves named Orod-ruin. Indeed for that reason Sauron had set there his dwelling long before, for he used the fire that welled there from the heart of the earth in his sorceries and in his forging; and in the midst of the Land of Mordor he had fashioned the Ruling Ring.

This doesn't really sound like the volcano was the result of evil influences, but one that was there anyway and Sauron utilised. As with the story of the forging of the Rings, Mordor itself feels a bit of an afterthought to the main events in The Silmarillion. And again, it's not that it's a bad bit of storytelling, just that it feels a little bit roughly inserted after the main tale was developed. 

So I would say that the Orodruin is a natural feature that Sauron exploits and manipulates, but once again, the elemental power at work is part of what gives the story emotional resonance. The protagonists are fighting not some guy with a big pointy sword, but the forces of nature itself. All of us are aware, at a deep, primal level, of how difficult this is : you have only to think of that moment of panic if you lean back too far on your chair to be aware of that.

Morgoth and Sauron both exploit more than fire. Morgoth uses fumes to shroud his fortress from the light :

With shadows he hid himself and his servants from Arien, the glance of whose eyes they could not long endure; and the lands near his dwelling were shrouded in fumes and great clouds.

Likewise Sauron sends forth "a broil of fume ahead of his host" in the movie, or in the novel,

"This is no weather of the world. This is some device of his malice; some broil of fume from the Mountain of Fire that he sends to darken hearts and counsel."

The elemental power of darkness is something I'll return to in much more detail. But again, as Tolkien seeks to give our emotions physical form with the world being moulded by the minds of its inhabitants, so he also seeks an emotive response by the opposite approach. In Middle Earth, Tolkien chooses evil to cause darkness because darkness itself causes fear. But to reach for the status of true myth, perhaps, requires a more fundamental explanation of why that fear arises. And Tolkien, I think, does have an answer to this.

But first, a final point about Mordor. At its border with Gondor lies Minas Morgul, originally Minas Ithil (the Tower of the Moon) as built by the Númenóreans. Only when Sauron occupied Mordor did it become Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sourcery, a fearful place indeed.

All was dark about it, earth and sky, but it was lit with light... wavering and blowing like a noisome exhalation of decay, a corpse-light, a light that illuminated nothing. In the walls and tower windows showed, like countless black holes looking inward into emptiness; but the topmost course of the tower revolved slowly, first one way and then another, a huge ghostly head leering into the night... the city’s gate: a black mouth opening in the outer circle of the northward walls. Wide flats lay on either bank, shadowy meads filled with pale white flowers. Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they gave forth a faint sickening charnel-smell; an odour of rottenness filled the air...all corrupt and loathsome.

Sauron's evil debases not just the land and elements but also the works of man. Morality, through magic, pervades the whole of reality of Middle Earth, and is not limited to the natural world or industry. Though it's not stated so clearly as in the forest, the effect feels similar : as well as the differences in architecture, something ineffable about the city has changed. An extremely appropriate analogy might be how the background music in a movie can make all the difference in the world between a scene of joy and of fear (but we'll return to that in part five).

On a related point, while the Elves generally live in harmony with nature, they don't shun metallurgy or craftsmanship. They value the things they themselves create (most dramatically in the case of the Silmarils). They live harmoniously, enriching the natural world they reside in, through their own inner goodness. Conversely, Sauron and Morgoth bring forth ruin and decay not because they encourage industry per se, but because their own inherent evil causes them to do so in a way that damages and destroys everything in their path. While Tolkien definitely does see inherent value in the natural world, he also recognises the value of art. Both nature and artifice can be turned to good or evil, depending on who interacts with them and how - a harmonious synthesis between the two is the ultimate achievement, not separation. This is exemplified by Gimli's cultivation of stone in the Glittering Caves :

‘No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the springtime for firewood ? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap – a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day – so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.’ 

Tolkien finds beauty and horror everywhere : compare the trees of Lothlórien with those of Mirkwood; the crafted jewels of the Elves with the hewn spears of the orcs; the frozen wastes of Angband as opposed to the majesty of the Glittering Caves. What gives these places their quality is not their intrinsic nature, not whether the various races choose to interact with or avoid them, but the intention, the music of the minds at work upon them. Mordor is laid waste by the mantle of Sauron just as the Glittering Caves benefit from the gentle gardening of Gimli. In all cases the emotional resonance, whether for joy or fear, is due in no small part to those connections with fundamental, primal beliefs about how the world should work, how our feelings should influence it.

Sea and Sky

As we begin to reach for larger scales we must also reach back through time. Despite everything, the Third Age is much the most materialistic and least mythical of the stories of Middle Earth. Basic physics applies consistently most of the time. Violations are subtle or brief, or so minor they could be taken for poetic license or metaphor. And this helps the story, with the rarity of the magic aiding believability and adding to its potency. So while the War of the Ring does revolve around mythic elements, the unreality of Middle Earth is far more apparent in earlier ages.

Now there are some weaker, more routine uses of the weather by the Valar. Snows and storms are sent forth from Angband and perhaps even from Valinor against the orcs. But it's high time to up the ante - the scope of the Powers that order the world can act in far more profound and unmistakable ways than a bit of ice or a flaming sword.

The destruction of Númenór is one of the most spectacular sequences of the whole of The Silmarillion. At this point (the end of the Second Age) Valinor, the Blessed Realm, remains an actual physical place one can visit : you can literally sail to heaven. The pride of the Númenóreans, deceived and corrupted by Sauron, leads them to raise a mighty fleet to assail the Valar themselves, jealous as they are of the immortals. 

Spoiler : assaulting heaven does not go well. While the Valar have at this point largely withdrawn from Middle Earth, they are still present in the realm of Arda, and we witness their full elemental fury.

The sky itself was darkened, and there were storms of rain and hail in those days, and violent winds... And out of the west there would come at times a great cloud in the evening, shaped as it were an eagle, with pinions spread to the north and the south; and slowly it would loom up, blotting out the sunset, and then uttermost night would fall upon Númenor. And some of the eagles bore lightning beneath their wings, and thunder echoed between sea and cloud.

Now the lightnings increased and slew men upon the hills, and in the fields, and in the streets of the city; and a fiery bolt smote the dome of the Temple and shore it asunder, and it was wreathed in flame... When therefore the last portent came they heeded it little. For the land shook under them, and a groaning as of thunder underground was mingled with the roaring of the sea, and smoke issued from the peak of the Meneltarma. 

In latter days the degree to which the physical world is affected by the emotions of its inhabitants is comparatively slight : woods become fairer or fouler, cities more majestic or imposing. In the Third Age the minds and powers at work are relatively weak, those of Elves, dwarves and men, and their effects are unintentional. We only see hints of stronger possibilities when we have greater forces at work : Sauron and his Ring and volcanoes, Saruman and his own dark tower. This connects the otherwise ordinary adventure story to the mythic grandeur at the heart of Middle Earth, but in the destruction of Númenór this is exposed in full.

Then the Eagles of the Lords of the West came up out of the dayfall, and they were arrayed as for battle, advancing in a line the end of which diminished beyond sight; and as they came their wings spread ever wider, grasping the sky.

The Númenórians are fighting nothing less than the elements themselves. They're given ample warning, but they ignore all of them. The Valar's power is literally what gives order to the world, and this time their wrath against the hubris of Númenór is not some side-effect of their emotions spilling over into the physical realm : it is directed and done with absolute control.

Andor, the Land of Gift, Númenor of the Kings, Elenna of the Star of Eärendil, was utterly destroyed. For it was nigh to the east of the great rift, and its foundations were overturned, and it fell and went down into darkness, and is no more. And there is not now upon Earth any place abiding where the memory of a time without evil is preserved. 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.

Then suddenly fire burst from the Meneltarma, and there came a mighty wind and a tumult of the earth, and the sky reeled, and the hills slid, and Númenor went down into the sea, with all its children and its wives and its maidens and its ladies proud; and all its gardens and its halls and its towers, its tombs and its riches, and its jewels and its webs and its things painted and carven, and its laughter and its mirth and its music, its wisdom and its lore: they vanished for ever.

This is what Tolkien hints at again and again in The Lord of the Rings but unleashes fully in The Silmarillion : the world itself is ordered, at least in part, by intelligence. When we tread fearfully through a dark and tangled wood, we fear not accidents but malevolence. Something lurks in the dark that wishes us harm. When we see a glorious sunrise or the warmth of a fine day, we may feel the world approves of us in some way. Emotion and intent underpin every aspect of the seemingly materialistic cosmos around us. And woe betide those who should anger such powers : their influence may usually be mild, but this is through choice, not weakness.

Moving Mountains 

In the destruction of Númenór new lands are raised as well as destroyed. As we go back into the First Age, we see the Valar shaping the land in more defensive ways, both by Melkor and those loyal to Ilúvatar.  A few examples will suffice.

But the east shores of Aman were the uttermost end of Belegaer, the Great Sea of the West; and since Melkor was returned to Middle-earth and they could not yet overcome him, the Valar fortified their dwelling, and upon the shores of the sea they raised the Pelóri, the Mountains of Aman, highest upon Earth.

The mountains were the Hithaeglir, the Towers of Mist upon the borders of Eriador; yet they were taller and more terrible in those days, and were reared by Melkor to hinder the riding of Oromë.

The Valar were in doubt, fearing what the malice and cunning of Morgoth might yet contrive against them. Therefore at that time they fortified their land anew, and they raised up the mountain-walls of the Pelóri to sheer and dreadful heights, east, north, and south. Their outer sides were dark and smooth, without foothold or ledge, and they fell in great precipices with faces hard as glass, and rose up to towers with crowns of white ice. A sleepless watch was set upon them, and no pass led through them save only at the Calacirya: but that pass the Valar did not close, because of the Eldar that were faithful. 

With important exceptions, the power of the Valar seems to diminish as time progresses. Sometimes Tolkien is quite unambiguous about this, saying that the creation of the Trees (see part four) is an achievement so great that Yavanna is drained to the extent that she can never repeat it. Sauron is weakened by the destruction of Númenór such that he is locked into a single physical form. Certainly it seems the powers even of the Valar are not unlimited and they cannot fully escape the confines of the beings they become while in Arda – only Eru can do that. 

But at other times the reasons and mechanisms are less clear what's going on : why should a mountain range be any barrier against a fellow being capable of raising mountains themselves ?

What I suspect is happening is that the more they embed themselves in Middle Earth, the more they become bound to its laws. The spirit of the Valar is utterly indestructible, but their corporeal bodies (which they wear like "raiments" as Tolkien puts it) are certainly not – they can be injured, even destroyed altogether. And the more Morgoth interacts with the world, the less and less supernatural he seems, becoming more and more confined to his own fortress-prison. Something similar befalls Sauron.

Alternatively, but perhaps not entirely mutually exclusively, the "mountains" are nothing of the sort. The Valar's "bodies" are explicitly intended themselves as metaphor, as something the audience can grasp that is merely representative of their true, unfathomable selves. In that case the mountains should be understood only as barriers of some kind, not literally tall pointy rocky things. 

Or, perhaps most likely, they may be a mixture of both : mountains raised in latter days are indeed great big rocks, whereas those back in the mists of time are not the same at all.

For the purposes of mythmaking, the ambiguity here is part of the appeal. Compare this very amusing analysis (and also this one) of the geography of Middle Earth from a rational, scientific perspective :

Tectonic plates don’t tend to collide at neat right angles, let alone in some configuration as to create a nearly perfect box of mountains in the middle of a continent. I’ve heard the reasoning before that suggests Sauron has made those mountains somehow, and I suppose right angles are a metaphor for the evil march of progress, but I don’t recall that being in the books I read. And ultimately, this feels a lot like defending the cake in the song MacArthur Park as a metaphor  okay fine, maybe it’s a metaphor…but it’s a silly metaphor that makes my geologist heart cry tears of hematite.

This is firmly tongue-in-cheek, but to take it unfairly seriously, honestly... no, it's not a silly metaphor. It's an essential, indispensable part of Tolkienian cosmology. The whole point is that the world is ordered and directed by conflicting intelligences – that's what lends it mythical credentials. Of course, it has nothing to do with "the march of progress", which is a highly complex and utterly non-linear (hah, so no right-angles then !) process in the history of Middle Earth. It's about saying that the seemingly inert, eternal, vast landscapes beyond human engineering capabilities are the work of higher beings. That's what gives it mythical status : to explain the inexplicable in terms comprehensible to our own mortal and intuitive reasoning.

I emphasise "intuitive" because of course continental drift is perfectly simple to understand. But if you were raised outside the sphere of influence of centuries upon centuries of university education and sophisticated technological developments, the idea that whole continents could move around by themselves just would not occur to you, any more than it would to suppose that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Far simpler to suppose some higher intelligence was at work instead. 

And furthermore, the ambiguity in whether Tolkien intends us to read "mountains" literally is reinforced with his omission as to how the mountains are actually raised. Does Morgoth sing a song ? Does he actually physically lay stone upon stone with his hands ? Answering this would be scientific, which is the very thing we should strive to avoid here, because the question cannot be scientifically answered in Tolkien's creation. Science by its very nature precludes ambiguity, whereas myths, like poetry, thrives on it. A myth that says, "Morgoth gathered six hundred and fifty billion stones each weighing between 100 and 500 kg, heated them in a big furnace to 1200°C and melted them together to make a mountain" is just not a myth at all.

We've seen how Tolkien creates such a damned appealing story by mixing a materialistic, basically believable narrative with aspects of true myth. Most of the time little Frodo doesn't have to worry about the rocks and trees being out to get him, but sometimes he does. Words have real power and even the landscape itself is symbolic of the infinitely greater forces at work.

The power of The Lord of the Rings is that these moments hearken back to the earlier eras when the world was driven by conflicting intelligences, a mythology that is not just thrown in for dramatic effect, but fully developed. The consistency of this matters. Even as the physics is replaced with an entirely different set of rules, this older system feels plausible (most readers will never be consciously aware of this) because it behaves in its own consistent way. It may not have scientific, physical laws as we know them but it does have its own rules by which it functions. 

Ironically, we've also seen how these mythic elements also rely on ambiguity and uncertainty. By refusing to spell out in minute detail (or even any detail at all) exactly how the Valar operate, Tolkien demands the reader fills in the gap by themselves, inevitably drawing on their own emotions. He's not asking us how we think the Valar made the world, he's asking us how we feel it was done. As we've seen, in earlier times this was done on the grandest of scales, empowering the story with a strong sense of awe. But we're not done yet. In part four, we'll move on the the global-scale processes : the shaping of continents and the light of heaven.