27 March, 2009

The Science of Middle Earth, by Henry Gee. Book review

Souvenir Press, 2005, ISBN 0-285-63723-1. 219 pages (237 pages including the end notes).

Yes, I know. At first sight the title appears to be one of those joke book titles, like Tolkien’s Women, or The Wit and Wisdom of [insert vapid celebrity or unpopular politician of choice]. How could there possibly be anything to say about science in a world created by that arch-romantic and anti-industrialist JRR Tolkien?

Author Henry Gee tackles this question first, and makes a reasonably convincing case that Tolkien’s famous distaste for industrialisation reflects a rejection of the use of technology for domination and destruction rather than a rejection of science and technology as such. Having established this premise, the book then proceeds to explore potential real-world mechanisms and parallels for some of the apparently fantastical aspects of Tolkien’s world. A series of loosely connected essays cover such topics as dragons, the biology and culture of Orcs, drowned continents, Elvish longevity, mithril, giant elephants and giant spiders.

Committed Tolkien geeks (like me) will find much to enjoy here – and no doubt much to argue over! But even readers with only a passing interest in Middle Earth can marvel at the astonishing variety of the real world, much of which seems hardly less exotic than Tolkien’s fantasy counterpart. Did you know that Rockall, an isolated rock (and I mean a rock, not an island) in the North Atlantic about equally distant from the Outer Hebrides, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, is actually the very tip of the highest mountain on a submerged plateau? That’s remarkable in its own right, even without wondering if it parallels Tolkien’s Meneltarma and the drowned island of Numenor. Exotic materials such as yttrium silver (a metallic compound that manages to be both ductile and strong at the same time) and lithium niobate (which does all manner of weird things to light) are fascinating regardless of whether they might be some sort of real-world equivalents of mithril or the palantirs.

I found the biology generally more compelling than the physics, which may reflect my own background in the biological sciences. Could ether explain how dragons can breathe fire and hypnotise their victims? Why don’t vertebrates (except dragons) have more than two pairs of limbs, and is there a genetic mechanism that might explain how dragons managed to acquire an extra pair? How big can a giant spider realistically get before it collapses under its own weight? Did Orcs reproduce by parthenogenesis, organising their societies like social insects? I hadn’t thought of this before, but it does explain a great deal about their observed behaviour in Tolkien’s world. (It would also mean that almost all Orcs are in fact female, thereby giving a whole new dimension to the modified Fabulous Blog Award logo. If every Orc harbours hopeless aspirations to be a chic Parisienne, it could explain a lot about their bad temper….).

The writing style is clear and engaging, explaining complex concepts (quantum entanglement, anyone?) without ever taking itself too seriously. How could I fail to warm to a book with chapter titles like “Six Wheels on My Dragon” and “O For the Wings of a Balrog”?

The chapter I found most striking was the one entitled “The Gates of Minas Tirith”, which explores the theme of loss in Tolkien’s work. I agree with the author that loss is one of the most striking features of Middle Earth. Wonderful creatures like Ents, Elves, Dwarves and even the dear old bucolic Hobbits, not to mention giant elephants and the pterodactyl-like flying reptiles ridden by the Nazgul, are dwindling in numbers and about to become extinct. Marvellous technologies, like the secret of making palantirs (or Rings, for that matter), have been lost. Myths and legends have been forgotten or worn down to fragments of verse no longer fully understood. In the real world, the mega-fauna of the last Ice Age have all gone, along with the various species of humans that existed alongside Homo sapiens until about 30,000 years ago, and we may well be in the middle of a mass extinction event. We have lost the knowledge required to read Pictish symbol stones or Minoan Linear A script, and we can only guess at the culture and religion that drove the building of Stonehenge. As regular readers of this blog will know (!) we have little idea of historical events in early medieval Britain, and the stories and tales from that period can only be glimpsed from a handful of surviving remnants such as Beowulf or Y Gododdin. Tolkien may have set out to recreate the lost cultural landscape of Beowulf in fiction, but the sad truth is that we can never get it back. It is lost to us for ever as surely as the woolly mammoth.

Eclectic, erudite and engaging canter through some of the more exotic pastures of science and technology, drawing parallels with some of the (apparently) fantastical aspects of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Has anyone else read it?


Rick said...

I'm reminded of the discussion we once had of Gandalf's fireworks show. In overall technology the Shire at least seems 'high' preindustrial, like 18th century England, but that may be because of the social flavor as well.

Numenor AKA Westernesse, surely a riff on Lyonesse and a whole northern European sunken-lands tradition that seems to have originated completely independently of Plato and Atlantis. Given how shallow the North Sea is, and events like the Zuyder Zee in historical times, there could be something to it.

I love the idea of orcs being structured like social insects. But couldn't the 'workers' just as easily be sterile males? (Do I recall that worker termites can be both?) It is hard to wrap my mind around any sort of female orcs, but I can just barely imagine nasty drone-princesses who do each other in till the survivor becomes a grossly distended queen. Yuck!

Gabriele Campbell said...

That sounds like a fun read.

Carla said...

Rick - I was reminded of our discussion too. There's a chapter in the book called "Indistinguishable from Magic" which covers much the same ground as we did, although it refers mainly to Elvish technology rather than fireworks. The Shire seems 18th century to me, too, although rather more socially egalitarian than 18th-century England was!

It sometimes seems that practically everywhere in Europe has a sunken kingdom legend, and they can't (surely) all be copying Atlantis. There's a sunken kingdom story set in Cardigan Bay in Wales, for example, and there's supposed to be a sunken city in Bala Lake/Llyn Tegid, not counting Lyonesse. The flooding of the North Sea Plain and other areas of continental shelf after the last Ice Age could easily have originated such stories, that then got modified and passed down from age to age. Recent events of coastal erosion, like the storm that washed most of Dunwich into the North Sea in the Middle Ages or the gradual coastal erosion that's claimed part or all of some of the Saxon Shore Forts around the East Anglian coasts, probably helped to reinforce and further modify any such tales. It hasn't stopped, either. Anyone living in certain parts of Yorkshire or East Anglia today is all too well aware that sunken lands remain a real possibility!

Good point, worker termites can indeed be male. I'd forgotten that. I was thinking along the lines of soldier ants, which are as militarised and aggressive as you like despite being female, but it's perhaps easier to get our (anthropomorphic) minds around the idea of Orcs being sterile males. I was quite taken with the idea of Orcs as social insects. Someone must have explored it in fiction, surely. And I do like your idea of vicious drone-princesses slugging it out to be Queen - fascinating, for sufficiently revolting values of fascinating :-)

Gabriele - It is, well worth looking out for.

Gabriele Campbell said...

The sunken city in Cardigan Bay is Cantre'r Gwaelod, and there's another one near Conwy: Llys Helig. Then we have the Kêr Ys / Lyonesse legend and Vineta, a sunken city in the Baltic Sea, as well as Tartessos near the Guadalquivir river in Spain(mentioned in Ancient sources, so it may have existed), and I wonder where Avalon come into this - I think a sunken island is more fun than Glastonbury. :)

I do the same as Tolkien in my Fantasy NiP and steal ... erm, reinvent those myths.

Carla said...

Gabriele - exactly, there seem to be sunken city legends just about everywhere. Tolkien started writing a version of the Atlantis story as a full length novel (The Notion Club Papers), and referred to it in his notes and letters as "the Atlantis story" so he was well aware that he'd nicked (sorry, recreated) it. It got bogged down in academic nitpickery and parts of it later turned into Akallabeth. You're in good company borrowing the legends! Indeed, what else are legends for?

Rick said...

There don't seem to be many sunken-land stories of Mediterranean origin - Atlantis is a standalone, probably invented out of whole cloth by Plato. The northern stories seem more like a shared echo, not necessarily of a single event but a fairly widespread pattern of coastal submergence.

I had no idea that Tolkien ever planned an Atlantis novel - my mental picture of Atlantis is much more (pseudo-) classical than I associate with Tolkien!

Alexander Field said...

I've not read this book yet, but thanks for throwing some light on a very fascinating topic and calling attention to this book. And I had no idea that Tolkien had worked on an Atlantis project at one time - what a book that would have been! Fantastic review. Thanks for posting.

Kailana said...

Wow, very cool. Somehow I missed this book! I will have to remedy that in the not-too-distant future!

Carla said...

Rick - Could Plato have heard it from a north European source, do you, think, rather than made it up completely? Given that he places Atlantis 'beyond the pillars of Hercules' it could perhaps refer to a drowned continental shelf anywhere up the west coast of Europe, maybe even the traditional location of Lyonesse. There's been trade in tin between Cornwall and the Mediterranean since the year dot, and stories could travel too. Doesn't the Epic of Gilgamesh refer to a catastrophic flood?

It's a while since I read The Notion Club Papers, but if I remember rightly it got more concerned with languages than with the actual cultures concerned, and ran out of steam. It struck me as a predecessor of Tolkien's conception of Numenor, rather than trying to recreate Atlantis as such - perhaps Tolkie was drawing on all the drowned-kingdom legends of Northern Europe, rather than on Plato's Atlantis as such, although he referred to it as "the Atlantis story" in his notes so he clearly had Atlantis in mind. Although, does Plato say much about Atlantis - do we know it was thought of as a (pseudo)classical civilisation?

Alexander - Hello and welcome. I'm glad you found the review interesting. Tolkien's abortive draft of his Atlantis story can be found in 'Sauron Defeated', also called 'History of Middle Earth Volume 9', edited and published by Christopher Tolkein. But, as I say, it appears to have got bogged down in linguistic academe, so while Tolkien perhaps could have made a great story out of it, he didn't. In its present form it's one for the confirmed Tolkien geeks among us :-)

Carla said...

Kailana - I think it may be from a fairly small publisher or something, because I came across it by pure chance. Anyway, it's well worth a read!

Kathryn Warner said...

I'd never heard of this before, but it sounds fascinating!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think the Gilgamesh and Bible versions of the flood go back to the time the level of the Black Sea rose when the Bosporus barrier broke. There are some geological traces that point at such an event a few thousand years BC.

Carla said...

Alianore - I only came across it by chance, and yes, it is fascinating.

Gabriele - Yes, I've seen the Black Sea suggestion for Gilgamesh too. I'm no expert, but I remember thinking it sounded plausible.

Rick said...

Mediterranean region flood stories, including Gilgamesh, are more the biblical flood - the whole world is flooded temporarily, not one land submerged permanently.

Plato's account is in two dialogues, Timeaus and Kritias, and it is basically a dramatization of Plato's political theories. So Atlantis as such is a framing gimmick, an 'old manuscript.' Plato might have picked up some hint of northern accounts, but no one else in classical antiquity seems to have.

There's a whole separate line of speculation that Plato's Atlantis is an echo of Minoan Crete, or especially of Thera, which seems to have been an important maritime center abandoned not long before it blew up c. 1600 BC. Again the problem is that no independent classical source has anything similar.

So, my guess is that Atlantis is a bit like Middle Earth itself - a fictional place invented by an expert, filled with echoes of the real world, but not something you can reverse engineer to uncover authentic traditions. Plato has the Atlanteans sacrificing bulls to Poseidon, and it sounds Minoan, but it also sounds like what any Greek would expect ancient heroic people to do.

Constance Brewer said...

Carla - Hadn't stumbled across this book. Have to look for it. I like this kind of stuff. I have Tolkien in the Land of Heroes, and Following Gandalf, both half-read at this point. Gives one good ideas for their own half-baked world. :)

Carla said...

Rick - Good point. I'm not that familiar with the various flood stories. I rather like the idea of Plato's Atlantis as similar to Middle Earth :-) I've come across the Minoan Crete/Thera suggestion, and if I remember correctly there is some archaeology on Crete that would be consistent with a spectacular earthquake and tsunami. Odd that no-one else mentions it, even by another name; unless the event was so traumatic (or there were so few survivors) that there was some sort of conscious attempt not to remember it.

Constance - I like this sort of thing too. Great fun.