09 August 2012

Tolkien's "Book of the Century"

In 1997, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was elected Book of the Century, beating Orwell and Joyce. I agree. What Tolkien managed to put together is simply gigantic. A thrilling story, involving humans and many other intelligent species, set in a framework spanning eons, with peoples, civilizations and languages rising and decaying. This whole universe conceived by Tolkien is consistent up to perfection. To grasp it, one should read all of Tolkien, not just stick to —impressive as it is— the Ring, as I did. The Ring's appendices give a glimpse of the all-embracing vision of Tolkien's, though. I also agree with Tolkien himself, who acknowledged the book's major defect: with its 600,000 words it is too short. [R xxiii]

My English edition was

[R] The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien, HarperCollinsPublishers 2007, based on the 50th Anniversary Edition published 2004. One volume, 1178 pages.

Also shown are the two beautiful additions 

[C] The Lord of the Rings. A reader’s companion. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. HarperCollinsPublishers 2005. 894 pages.

[J] Journeys of Frodo. An Atlas of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Barbara Strachey. HarperCollinsPublishers 1998. 

The latter contains 50 detailed maps in two colours, and the phases of the moon along the journey. This relates to my topic, which deals with a few astronomical issues I stumbled upon. Given the scholarly scrutiny devoted to LOTR, I can hardly imagine that they were not noted and dealt with before. If so, I will be happy to hear, but so far I haven't. 

It's very hard to find any inconsistencies in Tolkien, astronomical or other. In a way, it's utterly impossible, because strictly speaking Tolkien is not the author of LOTR, but merely the translator. The book itself, informally called the Red Book, is composed by Bilbo, Frodo and Samwise, and Tolkien poses as the interpreter translating it into English. Hence, errors may be due to the authors proper or to difficulties arising from mixing languages and civilizations (different calendars, for instance) of different eras. But there is no doubt that Tolkien the Oxford professor was very much aware of all astronomical matters involved in his work. 

An astronomical problem

 About mid-day they came to a hill. (...) All those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some there were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums. That view was somehow disquieting; so they turned from the sight and went down  into the hollow circle. In the midst of it there stood a single stone, standing tall under the sun above, and at this hour casting no shadow. (...) The sun was still at the fearless noon. (...)

They woke suddenly and uncomfortably from a sleep they had never meant to take. The standing stone was cold, and it cast a long  pale shadow that stretched eastward over them. [R 137]

So here we have a vertical stone casting no shadow at noon and a long shadow in late afternoon. We are on (translated) "28 September" of the Shire calendar [C 142]. As our January 1 "corresponds more or less to the Shire January 9" [R 1109] we are "more or less" on our September 20. (Backstage, Tolkien-the-author, keeping track of astronomy, identified "Shire September 28" with "22 September AD 1941" [C xlviii].) Anyway, we are very close to the equinox of autumn. If, on that day, the sun at noon is right above your head, you are on the equator. Yet, seasons in the Shire are those of the Northern hemisphere. On that particular day, for instance, morning had been "cool, bright, under a washed autumn sky" [R 135].

To solve this apparent inconsistency, easy science fiction solutions are unavailable because LOTR is no science fiction. "Middle Earth" is not a strange spot in some distant galaxy, but right here on planet Earth, and events happened in times "not very remote according to the memory of the Earth" [R 1107]. In particular, the very existence of seasons proves that the earth's axis was tilted as it still is, and the year had the same length as today, "365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds" as Tolkien specifies [R 1107].
A somewhat astronomical problem

Southward he looked, and below his very feet the Great River curled like a toppling wave and plunged over the falls of Rauros into a foaming pit; a glimmering rainbow played upon the fume. [R 400]

If you see a rainbow, the sun is in your back. Hence, if  Frodo sees a rainbow in the South, the sun must be in the North. Of course, this is impossible in the Northern hemisphere. But what Frodo experiences here is not a view of reality, but an imaginary vision of things to come, and an inversion of reality is quite compatible with a dreamlike state.

Oxford versus Shire astronomy

The Hunter's Moon waxed round in the night sky, and put to flight all the lesser stars. But low in the South one star shone red. Every night, as the Moon waned again, it shone brighter and brighter. [R 274] 

It has been established that Tolkien  regarded the full moon of  Shire November 11 as this Hunter's Moon [C 261]. Also, it is well known that the moon data in LOTR are those from he lunar calendar of AD 1941-1942, with a varying adjustment of some 5-6 days to make things consistent [C xlv]. In particular, this Hunter's Moon must have been the full moon of 4 November AD 1941. If, on that day, at 22:00, Tolkien had looked at the night sky above Oxford —which perhaps he did— this is what he saw (courtesy of Sky View Café):

  A full moon all right, and Mars shining in the South (though an altitude of some 40 degrees is not particularly low). Fine. But the following days, Oxford Mars was not becoming brighter, but fainter:

Recall that greater brightness is expressed in smaller magnitude numbers. The sun's magnitude, for instance, is around -27 and the full moon's -13. I wonder why Tolkien, if it's a deliberate choice, made his Shire Mars grow brighter. To convey a threat of violence to come? It's possible, but stooping to cheap symbolism is unlike Tolkien, who was (let me remind you) a great writer. 

Speaking of which: LOTR contains but very few literary weaknesses. Here is the only one that I found. 

And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder. [R.  972]

How does one see a fragrance? (And who is to blame? Frodo-the-author or Tolkien-the-translator? Frodo may be a little in love, hence more than a little confused.)

P.S. It is regrettable that Nobel Prizes are also given in non-quantifiable and highly subjective fields such as Literature and Peace. Many of the Writers Laureate are completely forgotten by now and some were already in their lifetime. Tolstoy, Joyce, Tolkien, Proust and Céline did not get it. Q.E.D.