Forgive me. I’m going to channel Sally Field here by way of Shelob. I received an e-mail earlier this week notifying me that The Tolkienian War on Science (TWoS) placed second in the non-fiction category of the Middle-earth Fan Fiction Awards 2007 (MEFA). Here’s my bitchin’ plaque, courtesy of Rhapsody, a Tolkien aficionado who is also one of the regular readers and a commenter here at the Refuge (many thanks, R).
The backdrop of Minas Morgul is taken from Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. I figured the choice of this image is appropriate for the TWoS since science and technology (particularly the latter) are favored by the Dark Side. At this point, I am obliged to link David Brin’s We Hobbits are a Merry Folk: An Incautious and Heretical Reappraisal of J.R.R. Tolkien.
I wrote “The Tolkienian War on Science” shortly after the discussion of the Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last Fifty Years made the rounds here on Science Blogs. The book that inspired TWoS is on that list, and that book is The Silmarillion – the scary older brother* of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
The article must have resonated with a number of folks, given that it pegged the site meter. Long after the piece had sunk into the fetid swamp of the archives, it was resurrected when a Tolkien fan (1) nominated it as a candidate for an award in the MEFA competition. Now that really came as a surprise. As a consequence, in 2007 I discovered the wild and woolly world of Tolkien fan fiction and learned something about fan fiction in general – a fascinating subculture with rubric and lexicon of its own. It has been an interesting experience for me – an atheist, skeptic and scientist blundering around in Tolkien’s decidedly more spiritual milieu – and I thank those of similar mindset and also the rational faithful who have held my hand. I also continue to contemplate how science – and scientists – are perceived by fandom and interwoven throughout Tolkien’s legendarium.
Among my discoveries in 2007 were the writings of two scientists who are enthusiastic Tolkien fans: Kristine Larsen and Henry Gee.
Kristine Larsen is a professor of physics and astronomy at Central Connecticut State University. She is a fabulous communicator and educator. Check out the links in her website. Her draft that cautions educators on intelligent design, emergence theory and the anthropic principle is one of many worthwhile reads.
Among those links is The Astronomy of Middle-earth: Astronomical Motifs and Motivations in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien. Several articles reside there and are recommended reading for Tolkien fans. Larsen’s essays emphasize that Tolkien indeed harbored a keen interest in sciences (at least in their “pure” form).
Larsen writes in Scientific Motifs in Middle-earth: “Lost in Translation”?
It has been noted by numerous Tolkien scholars that an ecological theme runs through his work. Nature and the “natural” are portrayed as exemplars, while technology (especially when it engages in ecocide) can be the source of unadulterated evil. For example, in a 1972 letter to the editor of The Daily Telegraph, Tolkien lamented “the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetuated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing” (Carpenter 420). In another letter, he referred to the mysterious character of Tom Bombadil as “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside” he loved (Carpenter 26). One should not make the mistake of connecting Tolkien’s suspicion of technology to a general mistrust of science. On the contrary, Tom Bombadil was also “a particular embodying of pure (real) science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’… entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture” (Carpenter 192). As Goldberry, Bombadil’s wife, explained to Frodo in the text, “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves…” (LOTR 122). (2)
In addition to the material discussed in Larsen’s essays, Tolkien’s own writing, namely The Notion Club Papers (4) – a science fiction story with echos in its beginning of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, illustrates that he had a good understanding of astronomy as it was relayed to the learned among the public of his day. Botany also captured Tolkien’s attention. His knowledge in these fields added rich detail to his secondary world, and thus the reader can immerse him- or herself into “elvish drama” as Tolkien termed it (3). Similarly, a childhood interest in paleontology – a discipline that Tolkien as an adult called “semi-mythological” – may have influenced his writing. So, yes, I fully agree with Larsen that Tolkien was not wholly anti-science in its purest sense, yet she divorces an element from her critique: technology.
Henry Gee, in addition to his job as an editor of Nature, published a collection of essays “explaining” the science of Middle-earth in the appropriately titled The Science of Middle-earth (TSoMe). I put “explaining” in quotation marks a la Dr. Evil since the content of the essays is so much entertaining science-based speculation – the same stuff you’d see on a listserv of High Nerd-dom. TSoMe is in the same vein as Lawrence Krauss’ Physics of Star Trek, Roger Highfield’s Science of Harry Potter and Jennifer Ouellette’s The Physics of the Buffyverse (Jennifer and her little buddy Jen-Luc of Cocktail Party Physics are among my favorite bloggers so I’m happy to plug her book).
Gee’s an accomplished writer with an engaging style although some of the essays in TSoMe meander (not that I’m ever guilty of the same). Overall, the book is entertaining even if I – as both scientist and canon-informed Tolkien aficionado – did run screaming from the notion that orcs undergo parthenogenesis. As a card-carrying biochemist, I felt that his chapter on The Lives of the Elves fell short. The latter may prompt a thoroughly nerdsome treatise – “Negligible Senescence in Homo sapiens eldarensis” – here on a future edition of the Refuge if there’s sufficient interest in it. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? It’ll show up whether anyone is interested or not.
However, Gee is somewhat of an apologist for Tolkien as illustrated by comments made in this article: A Scientist in Middle Earth. He states that the overarching goal of his writings is “to refute the urban myth that Tolkien hated science.” To be fair, Gee accomplishes this by pointing out – as Larsen did – that Tolkien used his hobbyist’s knowledge of astronomy, botany, geology and paleontology to good effect in his writing and demonstrates that he did in fact appreciate science.
In castigating those of us who remark on Tolkien’s distaste for certain elements of science, Gee trots out the time-honored scene in which Gandalf takes Saruman to task for deconstructing his formerly white robes into many colors (shades of Keats!)
From The Fellowship of the Ring (5) as narrated by Gandalf when he describes his confrontation with Saruman when he seeks advice concerning the identity of the ring:
“For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring Maker, Saruman of Many Colours.”
I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
“I liked white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
Gee believes that skeptical readers and critics latch on to this last line as the damning evidence that Tolkien condemns all science. I agree with Gee that taking this sole scene to reflect overall condemnation of science is overstated. However, there are other indicators that his feelings toward science were ambivalent at best and that for technology, he harbored suspicion, disdain and despair.
Aside from the Saruman and His-Wizard-Coat-of-Many-Colours (The Musical!) reference, Tolkien’s distrust of technology in the Machines of Sauron and Saruman is glaringly obvious in The Lord of the Rings. More indicators can be found in The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth (HoMe). If The Silmarillion is the LoTR’s scary older brother, then the HoMe is the crazy aunt who lives in that huge dilapidated Victorian house by herself and collects sugar packets and cats.
Here we may look to languages – Tolkien’s forte. The Oxford don made a linguistic distinction between Science and Technology as can be seen in “The Shibboleth of Feanor” (6). Tolkien defines Science and Philosophy as nolwe; another word, kurwe (also spelled curwe), is distinct in its meaning: technical skill or invention. Tolkien writes of Feanor – the most accomplished of Elven craftsman:
…he thought himself not only the greatest master of Kurwe (which was true) but also of Nolme (which was not true, save in the matter of language)…
And as I noted in the TWoS, Feanor – that master of kurwe (technology) – his seven sons and all his followers were roundly screwed.
Gee says this about The Silmarillion:
Turning from The Lord of the Rings to the altogether terser Silmarillion – a summary, compiled after Tolkien’s death, of the immense myth-cycle that Tolkien had worked on all his adult life – it’s easy to see that the entire story turns on how the brightest and best, searching for ever greater and more refined knowledge, are corrupted by their own ambition, their refusal to use their knowledge for the greater good.
One might argue that Feanor was punished because of his refusal to share the light of the Silmarils – his creations – as the Valar requested/demanded after the Trees – the source of light in the Blessed Lands (Valinor or Aman – also where populations of Elves were sequestered Jesus Camp style) were destroyed by Morgoth and his hench-wench – a huge spider named Ungoliant. However, when the gods proposed that the Elven-smith fork over the jewels to rekindle the dead Trees, he responded:
For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest. It may be that I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain; first of all the Eldar in Aman. (7)
In the end, the gods wanted Feanor to share for the greater good and sacrifice his life in the process. Gee doesn’t mention that. In fact, Tolkien makes the arrogant Feanor much more sympathetic because of this. One can understand that sacrificing one’s technology at great price to oneself for the greater good is not such an easy matter. Feanor refused to hand over the Silmarils although that was a moot point. Morgoth had already stolen them, and the rest is imaginary history
Delving for deeper knowledge – and being punished for it – are one of several themes woven into The Silmarillion. The perils of too much knowledge are also noted in Morgoth’s Ring, vol X of The HoMe, in which Tolkien writes of a concept called “Arda Marred.” (Arda is the name for our solar system in the High Elven language). In a nutshell, the Ultimate Bad Guy – Morgoth – infused much of his power into almost all matter of the world (8). There is an implication that those who then seek to understand the world’s deepest mysteries then run the risk of corruption through the underlying “Morgoth ingredient:”
It was this Morgoth-element in matter, indeed, which was a prerequisite for such ‘magic’ and other evils as Sauron practiced with it and upon it.
One of Tolkien’s more curious works is The Lost Road (9), a time travel story he wrote as part of a challenge he and C.S. Lewis issued to one another. Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet, but Tolkien never completed The Lost Road. The story was intended to bridge the present day and the fall of Numenor, Tolkien’s answer to the Atlantis myth. In the case of Numenor, the men living there tried to invade the lands of the gods to wrest immortal life from the divine only to have the uber-sky father rip the flat earth apart to make it round, swallowing up Numenor and most of its inhabitants in the process.
Science and technology make appearances in The Lost Road. In the original outline of the legend, Tolkien wrote but later struck out:
Morgoth induces many to believe this is a natural cataclysm. (10).
OK, granted it was struck out and didn’t make it into the “final” version of the downfall of Numenor, but still, that’s a disturbing comment. The Ultimate Bad Guy (Morgoth) is so evil that he offers a “lie” – a rational explanation: the disaster was a natural phenomenon, and not an event of the supernatural. By this inference, Pat Robertson must have been right about Hurricane Katrina. Err, never mind.
Another evil guy in The Lost Road is Sauron who – just as he corrupted the Noldor (a technologically-inclined tribe of Elves) in the forging of the Rings of Power (11) – also corrupted the Numenoreans and gained power over them. Sauron had his own network of secret police (“spies”) and abetted and/or performed human sacrifice (no word on water boarding). In other words, he was characteristically reprehensible. But before he really went off the deep end with his power-tripping and domination, he worked his way into Numenorean society – just as he did with the Noldor – with…wait for it…technology! From The Lost Road:
At first (Sauron) revealed to us only secrets of craft, and taught us the making of many things powerful and wonderful; and they seemed good. Our ships now go without the wind, and many are made of metal that sheareth hidden rocks, and they sink not in calm or storm; but they are no longer fair to look upon. Our towers grow ever stronger and climb ever higher but beauty they leave behind upon earth. (12)
So the lesson here is that technology is an agent of corruption.
Let’s take a look again at what Tolkien wrote in that letter cited by Larsen:
…a particular (Bombadil) embodying of pure (real) science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’… entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge: Zoology and Botany not Cattle-breeding or Agriculture” (Carpenter 192).
My take on this – as well as the distinctions between nolwe and kurwe – is that pure science is perfectly fine with Tolkien but once it’s applied, then watch out. The doomed craftsmen – Feanor, Saruman (note that his original name was Curumo), Sauron, Eol, Maeglin, Curufin and Celebrimbor – all were practitioners of kurwe.
Maybe it’s easier for academicians like Larsen and Gee – closer to “pure” science – to rest easy in their arguments that Tolkien’s reputation for being anti-science is an urban myth. For an applied scientist such as myself who serves the dark side, i.e., science as part of a commercial venture and decidedly not “blue skies” research, the argument for urban myth is not as convincing. In science for profit, we horde our Silmarils or at least protect them with patents. Our applied science – which is arguably just as “real” as that cited in Tolkien’s comment – is inextricably linked with technology: nolwe and kurwe blend together in applied sciences. It is arrogant to splice them out, stand from the pinnacle that is “pure” science and inflict wholesale condemnation on applied sciences and technology.
Like Tolkien, I have a deep appreciation of pure science. When I attend conferences and listen to an academic speak of subtleties of protein dynamics or where an electron is flying during an enzyme catalyzed reaction, I’m in heaven. But these elegant concepts are just part of the equation. To make them useful for the greater good, technology must come into play.
Clay Burell of Beyond School writes this of scientists and by extension technologists in his recent (and recommended) article Truly Critical Thinking About Science, Religion and Goodness:
…scientists, through the “miracle” of human reason, have eradicated diseases for literally billions of people through medicine, created light and warmth in winter through electricity, bread for the hungry through improved agriculture, knowledge of “the heavens” through astronomy, knowledge of creation and generation through biology and genetics. They’ve literally given man the “miraculous” power to fly around the earth and to the stars; to speak face-to-face from opposite ends of the earth (and from the moon); they’re close to creating life itself, and have already created a doubled average lifespan for all of us in a mere century.
It’s not just pure science that made those possible. Applied science and technology contributed in a big way!
So, yes, Larsen, Gee and others rightly praise Tolkien’s intellect and the science he infused into his writings – which in turn cause scientist-fans like Larsen, Gee and myself to delve into his secondary world and examine it . But I remain to be convinced that he did not look upon at least some science with a jaundiced eye as he did technology.
One may interpret Tolkien’s exaltation of pure science to indicate that science is not “bad” in and of itself, but that once science falls into the hands of humans (men, elves or incarnated beings like wizards and necromancers), then all bets are off. The thing is, science and technology always are human endeavors whether in his imaginary history or in the real world. Science and technology invariably come at a price – sometimes a very heavy one – and it’s up to us to balance our needs with the stewardship of our world. And frankly, I’d rather drive a fuel-efficient car manufactured by Mordor Motor Company and get a vaccination from Saruman Biotech than be stuck in a bucolic little land with nothing “more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom.” (13)
Whoops! Looks like they’re ready to drag me off the stage.
Footnotes and References:
(1) I had the pleasure of meeting this fan and her friend – also a Tolkien enthusiast – last fall. They are both writers and former editors with degrees in English and literature from esteemed institutions (Harvard and UC-Berkeley). They are also scientifically literate, being fans of Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Jared Diamond among others. We tore through the Prehistoric Mammals exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and yammered over lunch. Through them – and my esteemed opponent (a biopsychology major as an undergrad) who took first place for her essay The Accidental King – I learned that fan fiction writers are not all cow-eyed teenage girls yearning for wish fulfillment (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but often are Real Writers who use the fan fiction genre to hone their skills for their original works – and respectfully do not seek any profit from fan fiction writings. I have these three and Rhapsody to thank for pointing out minutiae in The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth and for being
pernicious supportive influences.
2. Larsen’s references in this quoted text refer to The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, H. Carpenter, ed. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston. My copy was published in 1981, but the numbers Larsen uses refer to the letters themselves and thus may be readily found thusly in subsequent editions. The Goldberry quote is from The Fellowship of the Ring and again, Larsen’s references may be found on her site.
3. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Notion Club Papers” In The History of Middle-earth, vol IX, edited by C.R. Tolkien, 193. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
4. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Notion Club Papers” In The History of Middle-earth, vol IX, edited by C.R. Tolkien, 145-327. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
5. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Council of Elrond” In The Fellowship of the Ring, 272. Houghton Mifflin Boston, 1965.
6. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Shibboleth of Feanor.” In The History of Middle-earth, vol XII, edited by C.R. Tolkien, 344 and fn 30, 359-360. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
7. Tolkien, J.R.R. “Of the Flight of the Noldor.” In The SIlmarillion, 78. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1977.
8. Tolkien, J.R.R. “Myths Transformed” In The History of Middle-earth, vol XI, edited by C.R. Tolkien, 399-400. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
9. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Lost Road” In The History of Middle-earth, vol V, edited by C.R. Tolkien, 36-104. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
10. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Fall of Numenor” In The History of Middle-earth, vol V, edited by C.R. Tolkien, 12. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
11. Tolkien, J.R.R. “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age.” In The SIlmarillion, 285-290. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1977.
12. Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Lost Road” In The History of Middle-earth, vol V, edited by C. Tolkien, 67. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002.
13. Tolkien, J.R.R. “Prologue – Concerning Hobbits and Other Matters” In The Fellowship of the Ring, 10. Houghton Mifflin Boston, 1965.
* Co-opted from a noisome cesspit called Fandom Wank, I think. Perhaps one of the only redeeming features that passed from the yammering bungholes of those fannish mustelids was that phrase.