Starting with “The Silmarillion” — how well does Tolkien’s sky match our own?
I like to consider myself a well-rounded nerd – the knowledge version of “jack of all trades, master of none”. There are some odd consequences to that. One is forgoing a graduate degree in astrophysics for “science communication.” Another is having read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion at least five times before I finished The Fellowship of the Ring.
Actually, that’s not true. I listened to it on audiobook.
The Silmarillion, for any of you not in the know, is Tolkien’s ultimate prequel. The physical book is actually a collection of five “works” spanning the creation of the Universe (called Eä) all the way to the destruction of that meddlesome One Ring. Here’s a summary:
• Ainulindalë – The Universe is sung into existence by Eru Ilúvatar (big “G” God) and the Ainur (basically his angelic host). Kinda. It’s more complicated than that. A subset of Ainur choose to enter the universe, they find it completely empty, so they get to work makin’ shit and keeping Melkor1 from breakin’ shit.
• Valaquenta – Not a story; it breaks down the Ainur who entered Eä into the Valar (little “g” gods) and the Maiar, describing what their shticks are and giving a stealth shout-out to Gandalf.
• Quenta Silmarillion – The actual bulk of the book you bought. Main plot thread: One elf makes three really pretty rocks; Melkor steals them and kills his dad; elf and sons spend the rest of the story trying to get them back, killing and getting killed in the process.
• Akallabêth – The descendants of Elrond’s mortal brother get too big for their britches and Eru wipes most of them out by making the world round.
• Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age – It’s like watching Peter Jackson’s trilogy, except almost all of the content covers what the movies use in the backstory intro.
I normally spend my (productive) free time blogging about science in old Marvel comic books, but I’m easily distracted by fictional space stuff.
Even Especially when that space stuff is buried inside some sort of myth, which makes The Silmarillion a perfect target.
So, does astronomy in Tolkien’s literary world line up with ours? Or is it pure fantasy? Let’s look at a couple specific examples now, and then a couple more later this week.
Long they laboured in the regions of Eä, which are cast beyond the thought of Elves and Men, until in the time appointed was made Arda, the Kingdom of Earth. – Valaquenta
Arda is Quenya (the Latin of Elvish languages) for “the World”. For most of The Silmarillion, Arda is less the planet Earth and more a geocentric solar system, but you can usually conflate them without too much trouble.
The most obvious difference between the real Earth and (the earth part of) Arda is that Arda starts out as a flat disk, surrounded by an otherworldly sea called Ekkaia.2 But then a group of men try to conquer the Valar and take some of that immortality they’re “hoarding,” so Eru (who’s been a hands-off creator since he spoke Eä into existence) rips the Undying Lands off of Arda and reforms the latter into the planet we know today, which we can approximate as an oblate spheroid.
Ignoring the divine intervention that prevents that much mass from gravitationally collapsing into a sphere, one might pause to wonder how gravity acts on Arda’s inhabitants. The Elves living on the western continent (Aman) would weigh less than anyone living closer to the center of the disk. And they’d all be inclined (haha, puns) to stand leaning away from that center.
All that being said, there is one passage about Arda’s creation I did want to call out as being strangely correct:
And in this work the chief part was taken by Manwë and Aulë and Ulmo; but Melkor too was there from the first, and he meddled in all that was done, turning it if he might to his own desires and purposes; and he kindled great fires. When therefore Earth was yet young and full of flame Melkor coveted it, and he said to the other Valar: ‘This shall be my own kingdom; and I name it unto myself!’ – Ainulindalë
The Earth was indeed full of flame when it was forming all those years ago, in that it was predominantly made of molten rock.3 Planets form by a bunch of smaller rocky bodies (“planetesimals”) smashing into one another, and these high-velocity collisions produce heat; even when the Earth was relatively “Earth-sized,” it was still constantly being bombarded by smaller space rocks, which released enough energy to keep things mostly melted. Heat was also released as the Earth gravitationally contracted into a (smaller) sphere, and radioactive elements with relatively short half-lives decayed.
The earliest interval of geologic time, and therefore the one that contains the Earth’s formation, is known as the Hadean (4.6 – 4 billion years ago), which references the hellish conditions anyone with a time machine would witness. You’d not only be at risk of death from meteoric impacts and the intense volcanism, but you wouldn’t be able to breathe when the first atmosphere formed, because there wasn’t any oxygen.
It’s a good thing Eru waited a bit before popping his Children into existence…
But as the ages drew on to the hour appointed by Ilúvatar for the coming of the Firstborn, Middle-earth lay in a twilight beneath the stars that Varda had wrought in the ages forgotten of her labours in Eä. – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 1
About 99% of the time you see an Elvish word/name beginning with El-, it’s something to do with stars. Even the word for elves, Eldar, is in reference to the stars being the first thing they laid eyes upon after Eru brought them into existence.4 They love them some stars.
They also love them the stars’ creator. The first stars in Tolkien’s night sky were crafted soon after Varda descended into Eä, out in the cosmological boonies, while her hubby and his buddies were busy with Arda.
These “innumerable” stars are “faint and far”, compared to Varda’s later work. But let’s not go there just yet. While it’s impossible to know just how many stars our Star-Kindler kindled, we can at least ask the question of how many stars are visible from Earth with the naked eye.
A star’s brightness is measured on a scale called “magnitude”. It’s based off of how much light the star emits (its “luminosity”) and how far away it is from Earth, but because numbers were originally assigned by the human eyeball, we’re stuck with a now more-scientific scale with terrible numbers. A difference of 1 in magnitude corresponds to a change in brightness of the fifth root of 100.
Yep. A star with a magnitude of 1 is ~2.512 times brighter than a star with a magnitude of 2. (Right – I forgot to mention the scale also runs backwards). Vega – the fifth brightest star in the night sky – was set as the reference star and defined to have a magnitude of 0.
The Sun, because it’s just so darn close, has an apparent magnitude of -26.74. This makes it ~400,000 times brighter than the next brightest object as seen from Earth – a full moon. The brightest star in the night sky is Sirius, with a magnitude of -1.46.
Originally, the dimmest stars were all binned into the “6” category, but nowadays, the ultimate viewing limit for the best human eyesight in the darkest of environments pushes against magnitude 8. Nearly 48,000 astronomical phenomena spread out over the entire sky have lower magnitudes, including things like clusters and galaxies.
Elves, however, have canonically better vision than humans, so maybe they’d be able to see our Sun’s closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, which has an apparent magnitude of 11.13.
Varda’s second major work – the greatest ever performed after the Valar came into Arda – consisted of making a smaller set of brighter “stars” from some kind of “liquid light” produced by a magical tree (you’ll hear more of this later), and also rearranging several of her older stars into asterisms – a notable pattern/collection of stars (NB: A constellation is one of 88 asterisms defined by the International Astronomical Union).
The Silmarillion names several of these objects, but it can be a struggle to identify real-universe counterparts. We can assume that they do have counterparts, because Tolkien actually meant this all to be our own history (distorted through storytellers) a super duper long time ago.
The Valacirca (aka “the Sickle of the Valar”) is clearly Tolkien’s version of the Big Dipper, an asterism located within the constellation Ursa Major. It’s described as a “crown of seven mighty stars” set “high in the north”. If you live at a latitude of 41° N or higher,5 it will always be in the sky, but you might just not see it because, ya know, the Sun is out.
Menelmacar “with his shining belt” is Orion, who moves across the sky followed by “the blue fire of Helluin”, so we also have a name for Sirius.
But none of the rest of the names come with sufficient detail across any of Tolkien’s works to know for sure what they are. Tolkien’s son (and Silmarillion editor), Christopher, suspects Wilwarin (Quenya for “butterfly”) is the constellation Cassiopeia. But Carnil (“red-star”), Luinil (“blue-star”), Nénar (“flame of adamant”), Lumbar (“shadow home”), Alcarinquë (“the glorious”), and Elemmírë (“star-jewel”) remain unassigned “stars,” and Telumendil (“lover of the heavens”), Soronúmë (“eagle”), and Anarríma (“sun edge”) are unassigned asterisms.
Ready for Part 2? Here it is!
1:Melkor – later known in the book as Morgoth – is Sauron’s bigger, badder boss and, as a fallen Ainur, clearly is the Tolkien version of Lucifer. He gets defeated at the end of the First Age and thrown into the Void.
2:While described as a cold and dark ocean, Ekkaia is both a “sea” underneath flat Arda and “air” above it. The “air” half is broken down into different levels: Ilmen, which the Moon travels through and Varda’s newer “stars” are placed in, and Vista, which is the breathable part. Ekkaia was destroyed when the Earth was made round.
3:One of the reasons we know the Earth was mostly molten is that we have distinct layers differentiated by density. The densest elements (e.g. iron) were able to sink to the center and form the core, while the lighter (solid) elements (e.g. silicon) rose to the outer layer to form the crust.
4:Elves first referred to themselves as the Quendi, which means “those who speak with voices”, because they were the only creatures they knew of capable of speech. One of the Valar found them and gave them the name Eldar, “people of the stars”.
5:So, anywhere north of Istanbul, or Fort Wayne, Indiana.