The Hobbit and Science

The Hobbit, the movie, opens tomorrow in a theater near you. This is based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, which chronicles the adventure of Bilbo Baggins. To many, this constitutes a prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which many read (or saw in movie form) before finding out about The Hobbit; this prequel-esque aspect of The Hobbit is reified in the production of the movie following the distribution of the Lord of the Rings movie. Notably, however, The Hobbit was written first, and The Lord of the Rings is a proper sequel. (Interestingly, the Hobbit was revised to accommodate The Lord of the Rings.)

This entire story takes place in Middle Earth, a richly described fantasy universe that has become the interest, sometimes obsession, of many minds since Tolkien. If you find Middle Earth interesting (and you should) then there is a book you absolutely must read about it. I’m talking about Henry Gee’s “The Science of Middle Earth: Explaining the science behind the greatest fantasy epic ever told.” Henry Gee wrote this book a few years back and you may have read it then, perhaps like me you have a dog eared paperback version of it on the shelf next to your copies of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. But Henry has produced a second edition of the book, available for the Kindle, and at present, sold in the Amazon UK store (at the link provided above).

Gee covers what you would expect. Elf magic, Orc reproductive biology, Dragon pyrophysiology, Middle Earth social networking and communications technology (such as seeing-stones) and so on. But Gee takes also takes a broader view of “Science” than one might find in a typical “Science of some book or movie” treatment. For example, he interrogates Tolkien’s linguistics very closely, and carries out what amount to Anthropological and Ethnographic studies of Middle Earth Culture.

Here’s a sampling of some silmarillion science:

Elvish science reached its peak in the First Age with Fëanor, universally regarded as the brightest and most powerful of all the Elves…who created the Silmarils, the great jewels over which the first wars against Morgoth were fought. The … Seeing Stones were givts from the Elves to the Faithful of Numenor, having been made long before in Valinor …. It was Celebrimbor of Holin, a descendant of Fëanor, who forged the Three Rings of Power…

The Lord of the Rings contains many passing references to the relative hardness of materials, but this hardness has a mythic quality in that it directly correlates with technological sophistication of the smiths associated with that substance. For example, the Ents easilyidetroy the country rock that forms the outbuildings and walls of Isengard, but they are unable to ake a dent in Orthanc, a tower built by th elong-vanished Numenoreans, a tower with Gandalf says cannot be destroyed from without… But when Wormtongue tosses the palantir of Orthanc from an upstairs window, it makes a distinct chip in the Numenorean step on wich it falls — a step against which the rage of Treebeard has had no effect at all.

Gee addresses the idea that Tolkien had an anti-science bent, and turns that idea on its head, or at least, its pointy ear, and grounds that discussion in both scientific and literary context. Relating this question to Orc reproductive physiology:

In terms of science, these various grades of Orc-human mixture can be read as a savage critique on evolution itself – or, at least, the view of evolution as ‘progressive’, leading to inexorable improvement in form and function. This is the view of evolution that would have been current in the first half of the 20th century, and most especially between 1900 and the end of the Second World War, encompassing Tolkien’s most productive years as a writer. I have shown elsewhere that this view of life is profoundly antithetical to what we now understand of the Darwinian model of evolution by natural selection, and has indeed been exposed as illogical by theorists working from the 1950s onwards…

And here is a sample of Henry’s linguistic and anthropological treatment:

When technical papers on incontinence, authored by a Dr. Splatt and a Dr. Weedon, were drawn to the attention of New Scientist magazine, its readers were invited to send in other examples of what became known as ‘nominative determinism’.   This Jungian phenomenon illustrates how satisfying it can be when a name is more than a label, but illustrates some property of the thing named. Nominative determinism is amusing because it points up a distinction we usually take for granted. That is, that the name and the thing named are actually different things; that the effort of connecting the two is greater than we might imagine; and so it is satisfying when a person has a memorable name that records some distinctive property of the thing named, making it more than an arbitrary combination of sounds. Tolkien was as sensitive to this distinction as anyone: even in the first few pages of The Hobbit, Gandalf castigates Bilbo for remembering the name ‘Gandalf’, while forgetting that he, the wizard, ‘belonged’ to it.

There is a branch of science in which correct nomenclature is everything, and on which the whole of natural history is based. That discipline is taxonomy. The job of taxonomists is to provide names for species of living creatures. In ages past, the lack of any standard nomenclature made it hard for scientists to get the measure of the natural world. When the same creatures were known by host of names in different languages, it was impossible to know whether the same creature was being referred to in each case: as Elrond offers several names for Bombadil, Gandalf offers several names for himself, giving the origin of each. Gandalf is his name only among Men of the North, but he is called ‘Incanús’ in the South, ‘Tharkûn’ by the dwarves, ‘Olórin’ in the ancient West, and so on…. We know that all these names refer to the same person only because Gandalf tells us that this is so, not by some external reference. Were we to meet a southerner who mentioned having met Incanús, for example, we should only discover that we were talking of Gandalf by comparison of his attributes: both Gandalf and Incanús would have a staff, bristling eyebrows, a pointy hat and a silver scarf, suggesting (but not proving) that we were talking of one and the same person. But if Gandalf were known by the same name everywhere, this confusion should never arise, preferably by a name that reflected one or other of his attributes. As an aside, Tolkien got the name Gandalf from the Icelandic Völuspá —the same source for all the Dwarf names in The Hobbit. The name Gandalfr, however, seemed to stand apart, as an argument could be made for its meaning ‘Wand-Elf’ —in other words, a Wizard, rather than a Dwarf

This new edition of The Science of Middle Earth is not heavily revised from the first edition, but there are corrections and minor changes throughout. Most notably, it is the eBook edition (there is no eBook form of the earlier edition). Also notably, and thank you Henry for this, it is quite inexpensive.

Henry Gee is a member of the Tolkien Society and editor of it’s journal, Mallorn. He also works for another journal you may have heard of (“Nature”) where among other things he edits the regular science fiction feature “Futures.” Most recently, he authored the highly acclaimed science fiction work: The Sigil Trilogy.

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