The Tolkienian War on Science*


When I was a little kid, I frequently snuck into my older brother's room and read his collection of science fiction books and pulp magazines (see previous post on SF&F books). My mother, who was (and is) a big fan of The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (a lovely book and recommended) thought I might benefit from reading some fantasy so she bought The Hobbit for me when I was 12 (6th grade; 1966, yes, I am that old) which I happily read. My brother, who was a college student at the time, then brought home The Lord of the Rings in 1968, and I devoured it. I re-read The Hobbit and the trilogy throughout high school, and when The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales were published, these were added to my Tolkien collection which, in addition to many other fantasy and sci-fi books, I read throughout grad school and into my post-doctoral years as wonderful escapism from the realities of thesis research and fellowship proposals.

A funny thing happened. Real Life, that is, children and a career intervened, and although I remained an avid reader, I rarely read science fiction and fantasy, and JRRT's works were among those that went by the wayside. I did, however, turn my kids on to Tolkien, and my son, in particular, became a fan.

My family and I dutifully went to the Harvard Square theater for three successive Decembers to see Peter Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien, and I have to say he did a decent job. But I still didn't pick up the books to re-read at the time, mostly because I knew this would be too much of a juxtaposition with the movies, and I didn't want to get all weird over orthodoxy. However, it turned out that it was easy for me to enjoy the Jackson-Walsh-Boyens "non-canon" vision.

After a hiatus of a number of years, I re-read The Silmarillion this past winter. What a difference life experience makes. When I first read the book, I was fresh out of undergrad and not really too aware of a lot of the politics surrounding science and technology. I just liked science and was eager to know more, so off I went to grad school and a post-doc. During that pleasantly naive time, I re-read The Silmarillion but not quite the way I did recently. So what has happened between then and and now? Well, I read it through the prism of my experience and the current climate surrounding science in our culture.

My screed won't make much sense to anyone who is not nerdsome enough to have read The Silmarillion and an even more extensive encyclopedic collection, The History of Middle Earth, but those of you who have "Kick Me" signs taped to your backs should be able to follow along.

By way of background, the meddlesome Valar, Tolkien's angelic beings/pagan god-critters, have dragged a number of Elves to their paradise in the West, Aman. This was in the Elves' "best interest" since Middle-earth was filled with badness and darkness, and just generally icky marred stuff, thanks to the bad Vala, Morgoth. Hence, the well-meaning Valar wanted to protect them. Of course, they left behind the Dark Elves, who were unwilling to leave Middle-earth, to deal with Morgoth's crap as best they could. There were three groups of Elves living in Aman in the West: the Vanyar, the pious faithful who were sycophants of the Valar, the Teleri who were the surfer-dudes who dug tunes, built ships and lived by the sea, and finally, the Noldor.

This time I recognized the Noldor. Tolkien called then "craftsmen and smiths." Read that in 21st century-speak and you know that these people are our people: scientists and engineers. Now science and engineering are amoral in and of themselves, but those who practice such crafts are only human, so are equally subject to good and bad influences, but Tolkien really, really did not like modernism and science/technology. Thus, there were plenty of morality lessons to be had among the crafty Elves. In his milieu, the most talented of sci-tech types among the Noldor were prideful and possessive, easily corrupted and therefore worthy of punishment.

Feanor, the master smith/scientist/engineer created three high tech artifacts, the Silmarils. Morgoth coveted the Silmarils, and worked to create divisions among the Noldor and tainted their work , not unlike the US administration pressured those scientists who studied global warming to withhold data or those in the FDA who stopped Plan B, in his effort to gain the jewels.

Morgoth turned out to be a nefarious intellectual property thief when he made off with Feanor's Silmarils. Feanor was justifiably pissed off, and pursued him. The Valar were not much better than Morgoth in that they subtly coveted the three jewels, and chastised Feanor for being so angry that his IP rights had been violated. Plus they just wrung their divine hands and generally were whiny and ineffectual.

OK, so maybe Feanor's hijacking the ships in Alqualonde and killing their Telerin owners were extreme reactions in his drive to recover the Silmarils, but figuratively speaking, the same thing happens in the contemporary and, er, real world of science and technology if someone gets in the way. Companies have been broken because of patent infringement, and in academia, major shittola hits the fan if there is a hint of unethical scooping between competing labs. Kinslaying abounds.

Feanor didn't think too highly of the Valar, and skeptical and fiercely independent scientist/technologist that he was, he was an outright agnostic when it came to worshipping them, in contrast to the Vanyar, the blond Elves who surely would have been comfortable at Liberty College. The Vanyar genuflected and sung hymns to these allegedly angelic beings, who interfered just as much with the Elves as the obnoxious Greek pantheon did with the residents of Troy and Athens, or the Christian Right does with, well, a lot of people. So Feanor's decidedly jaundiced view of the divine was yet another thing I recognized and with which I identified.

This time around, I could see where Feanor was coming from, and that he was roundly screwed on all sides by Morgoth and by the Valar. Even though I realized it before, and just didn't want to face it years ago, it was obvious that JRRT really did not think well of scientists and technologists. If we got too big for our britches, we should be punished. This sentiment rings out loud and clear in his books. I mean, the rebellious Noldor went through a lot of misery for millennia. Tolkien punished them all relentlessly.

Less sympathetic, but still recognizable as a sci-tech type, is the lesser of two Evils with a capital "E", i.e., Sauron. He's not quite as horrible as his big boss, Dick Cheney, er, I mean, Morgoth, although still pretty bad. Sort of like a CEO who loves to micromanage. In his original uncorrupted state, he did his grad work and post-doc with Aule, the Vala who was the patron of smiths and craftsmen, again, read, the scientists and engineers. Sauron seemed like a fairly creative sort, and Tolkien even states that he loved order. That's familiar: the desire to understand the order of the world. However, Sauron also wanted to force order on the world, sort of a control freak, really, but I know a few of those in the scientific arena. Don't we all? There are certain features of Sauron, well, maybe not so much the werewolf thing, which are apparent in scientists and engineers, and he has characteristics in common with Feanor from the science and technology angle.

As an esoteric aside, Tolkien also wrote a little piece on Elvish anthropology in Morgoth's Ring (History of Middle Earth, vol. 10) in which he briefly describes Elvish gender roles in "Laws and Customs of the Eldar." Given when it was written, it was relatively progressive, but still, the women avoid hard science. Oh, but the men cook, you say, Professor? Does that mitigate the fact that the women are relegated to embroidery, healing and the softer arts? Well, Manwe in Varda, I don't think so!

Yeah, I know, Tolkien's attitude should not come as a surprise to me, and really, it doesn't. I can still read all the books and enjoy them, even if they are drenched, quenched and incensed in Tolkien's Catholicism and his longing for a noble, pastoral world. After all, a number of the virtues that JRRT extols can be found aplenty in atheists and agnostics. But the punishment of scientists and technologists? Well, that is a little tough to stomach. My advice to Feanor: next time, get yourself a phalanx of good patent attorneys. Morgoth will wither in fear at the prospect of litigation.

*My apologies to Chris Mooney, but I couldn't resist.

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Nice post - I haven't read the Sil., though read and re-read Hobbit and the trilogy . . .

By ctenotrish (not verified) on 16 Mar 2007 #permalink

Less sympathetic, but still recognizable as a sci-tech type, is the lesser of two Evils with a capital "E", i.e., Sauron.

Yeah, when I read LotR as an adult, the "anti-technology" theme was pretty clear. And, I think Peter Jackson's movies did a good job of capturing this theme. (One could probably invoke irony, since the movies themselves were a technical achievement, but of course the fact that Jackson tried to maintain a theme of a story doesn't mean that he necessarily himself buys into that theme!)

Just look at Sarumon as depicted in the first movie. Isengard is pastoral happiness in the "before" state, and becomes a dystopia of Dickensian protoindustrial urban blight in the "after" state.

Have you read David Brin's screed on LotR?


I knew there was a reason I never wanted to read anything by Tolkien!

Unfortunately, this sort of theme is all too common in literature, even among the classics. People in the humanities, for some reason or other, like to portray technological progress and science as vile, cold, and evil. When I was working towards my degree in English, I constantly found myself arguing against the whole class on topics like this that were addressed in various novels.

Just look at Sarumon as depicted in the first movie. Isengard is pastoral happiness in the "before" state, and becomes a dystopia of Dickensian protoindustrial urban blight in the "after" state.

Have you read David Brin's screed on LotR?

Isengard "before" and "after" is a great example. Also, Saruman had been one of Aule's boys way back when, hence "bad."

Is Brin's screed on his site? If so, I will certainly scurry over to read it.

A belated welcome to Science Blogs, Rob. It's good to have you here!

Saint Gas!

Oh, I don't know. Even as a cold hard-assed rationalist, I really dig mythopoetic stuff, so Tolkien still appeals to me. The Silmarillion is a very different beast than the LotR, and it does not read as a complete story like the latter. But you come away with the feeling that the Noldor were fairly advanced technologically.

Tolkien sometimes veered into mild science-fiction. He wrote a fairly weird little tome concerning time travel which was part of a challenge with his pal, C.S. Lewis, who correspondingly penned something about space travel.

Edited to add: Camille Paglia, as a humanities type of intellectual, gives kudos to science, but I'm not sure how warm and fuzzy I feel about she of the zipless f*ck telling us that we are A-OK. You make a good point on a particular variety of those in the humanities, but fortunately, I've encountered plenty who have no problems with science and technology, and even embrace it.

To be fair, what Tolkien rejected was not science as the "disinterested pursuit of knowledge", but the technological applications when they are inspired by pride and lust for power. However, I agree that this is tied with a deeply conservative, if not reactionary, attitude toward most techonological changes.

The most anti-scientific passage in his ouvre is, to my mind, the exchange between Gandalf and Saruman in TFotR. Saruman says he has become Saruman the Multi-Coloured from Saruman the White because "white light can be broken into colours" and Gandalf answers something like: "And then it is not white any more; and he who breaks something to find what it is made of has abandoned the way of wisdom". When I first read it I saw as a direct jab against Newton and, by implication, the whole scientific-analytic attitude.

Alejandro, thanks, and that is an excellent observation on the Gandalf & Saruman exchange. Although I agree that in an absolute sense, science is the "disinterested pursuit of knowledge," I think the late Oxford don may have lacked an understanding of how scientists actually work. Many of us who pursue questions with research invest much of ourselves into it, and it's difficult not to feel personally attached to one's work, or to have pride in it. Personally, I would find it difficult to be wholly disinterested in my scientific pursuits. So, in Tolkien's view, many of us are as doomed as the long suffering Noldor.

Gothmog, bubeleh! Thanks for the link. Brin is a man after my own heart. I actually have his site bookmarked, but it's so dense with his natterings that I miss stuff when I drop by now and then. There were a number of quips in his essay which made me chuckle, but this one...

Was Mordor given a benign Marshall Plan?

...made me laugh out loud.

"...and he who breaks something to find what it is made of has abandoned the way of wisdom".

Ironically, that's how I feel about the English teachers who insist that I spoil perfectly good stories by over-analyzing them.

Not so sure about Aule being in any way related to scientists, beyond the rhetorical "smiths and craftsmen" connection. I always viewed Aule as a stand-in for Hephastus (sp?), the greek god of smithing, who really wasn't much of a scientist at all. Maaaaaybe he could be viewed as an engineer.

On the other hand, Aule marries the goddess/valar of the forest, if memory serves, and creates the dwarves from stone. In that sense, he really is kind of like a biotechnician, except that his wife creates the Ents to protect the forest and fight back against the dwarves. That doesn't usually happen.

Also, Christopher tolkien published and edited the Silmarillion, if I'm not mistaken, so there is the possibility that Tolkien the Younger could have an influence on the themes of the works.

Again, if memory serves, the Noldor get their #!%& rocked by Morgoth and his various servants and armies on successive and frequent occasions, and only get bailed out in the end by the Valar. So there could be other examples of the Noldor being either A) punished for their love of knowledge and science or B) acting immorally in pursuit of that love. I'm sure the case of Feanor isn't an isolated example in the book.

Interesting idea, though, in terms of the underlying narrative of the silmarillion and of middle earth in general...

Great idea, too bad it does not fit with Tolkien's actual works. He had problems with what machines have done to our world, not with science. You know what, lots of people who like science and agree with the principles of science have serious problems with what machines/technology have done to our world. As the saying goes, I do think that the mistake was not building the bomb or making a press, it was coming down from the trees.

pough - *cough* The Scarlet Letter *cough.* I am still traumatized by that,

MikeQ - Heh. I originally had a phrase in there stating that Aule was the Valarin equivalent of Hesphaestus, so yes, I'm with you there, and your view of him as biotechnologist sent me over the edge (smilie icon here). Morgoth indeed handed them their asses over and over hence my comment that Tolkien punished them relentlessly. The ineffectual and fickle Valar finally did something but only after much supplication and angst on the part of the long suffering folks in ME. You're absolutely right that Feanor is not the only example.

Matt - First, literature, unlike science, is wholly subjective, and my subjective opinion is that I've interpreted this reasonably well. With regard to JRRT's problems with machines, yep, you're correct, e.g. Saruman's "industry" and an obscure bit in the Fall of Gondolin where Morgoth sends in what sounds like tanks. However, I would hardly designate the Silmarils, or a number of Feanor's inventions, as "machines" but more like materials science. So I maintain that a distrust of science is still solidly in the equation.

In his letters, Tolkien also invokes "because that's how I wanted it" as justification for an aspect of his story that doesn't make sense (the biology of elf/man relations). Definitely someone in love with the god-behind-the-curtain view of the universe, which I personally find repulsive. On the other hand, his fictional world is vastly more rational that, e.g., Lewis'. I think that in areas where Tolkien could appreciate it, such as philology, he made sure that his world made sense.

Regarding machines etc., Tolkien states this explicitly. Unfortunately I don't remember which book this is in, but draws a parallel between Machines and Magic, in that they are both, as methods to gain Power, Evil. But the main point he was making was that the Eldar *do not* practice Magic, but that their Arts are of a different Nature -- since good elves do not seek Power (cf. Galadriel's comment to Sam in LOTR). Whereas Sauron and Saruman use Machines and Magic both.

By David McCabe (not verified) on 16 Mar 2007 #permalink

What a brilliant and witty interpetation.

I've always thought that Tolkien was giving the Elves a rather hard deal. The Valar seem more controlling than protecting, and their attitude towards Men appears to consist mainly of ignoring those lesser creatures.

Fëanor ends up caught between a rock and a very hard place ... and in the end he's toast.

I love your advice to Fëanor - get lawyers ... the ultimate evil!

we always have to remember that JRRT went throught WWI and his ideas were formed in the trenches. He and three best friends formed the literary circle he dubbed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society and later went to war, where two died.…

I think a hatred of machines may have come from there.

re Jacksons films, they were excellent except for 2 respects. The treatment of the ents and Treebeard was terrible and he twisted Farimir 180) from the book. Other than that wow. I have all three extended versions and have watched them numerous times.

David, thanks for the thoughtful reply here, and also in the reddit venue. I totally agree on the more thoroughly realized world of JRRT vs. Lewis. Frankly, I could not get past the first few chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It�'s actually cool by me if JRRT wanted to forego aspects of his story which might not make sense, because we, the readers, can thus provide our own interpretations.

Likewise, I cannot recall the exact reference for machines and magic, but yes, the arts of the Eldar are of a different nature. I am reminded of one of Arthur C. Clarke's three laws: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Thanks a million, Stephanie! You hone right in on my issues with the treatment of the Eldar and Men by the Valar. As far as Feanor goes, and I realize this is kind of a stretch, but in some ways, he reminds me of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Patent attorneys are incredibly handy folks. I like them even if my eyes cross and my brain drips out of my ears when dealing with their exacting details. I would never want to be on the wrong side of them either.
Kevin, thanks, and yes, I am very familiar with JRRT�'s history, and where the hatred of machines originates. This is actually less of my concern in the above screed, although it's easy enough to diverge into it.

My point is that I am happy to suspend belief and enjoy fantasy, as well as science fiction, but that reading The Silmarillion (not the Lord of the Rings) recently was colored by the devaluation of science education and the erosion of reason and enlightenment in the US, and thus my interpretation of Feanor et al., in 2006/2007 is quite different than it was when I first read the Quenta Silmarillion in 1977.

I view the Jackson films as some of the best fan art available for the Lord of the Rings, and fans do not necessarily follow text faithfully, and that's cool, too.

By the way, thanks much for the link to David Brin -- I have never heard of him, but spent all of yesterday evening reading his website.

By David McCabe (not verified) on 17 Mar 2007 #permalink

Great post! I agree wholly on the Feanor issue ... I've had my share of debates with the "Feanor is evil!" contingent of Tolkien's fans and I still maintain that the poor guy got screwed. I've always thought that an interesting detail in The Silmarillion was the fact that the Valar banned anyone from returning to Valinor from Middle-earth and killed those who tried. Until Earendil. But why Earendil, you ask? Because he had a Silmaril, of course!

On your point about Aule as a scientist, while the published Silmarillion may have made him sound like a version of Hesphaestus, I think that JRRT's original intentions were at least along the lines of what you're saying here. In "The Music of the Ainur," in The Lost Road 1, it is said of Aule, "Of him did the Noldoli, who were the sages of the Eldar and thirsted ever after new lore and fresh knowledge, learn uncounted wealth of crafts, and magics and sciences unfathomed." Aule's students have a terrible tendency to become corrupted: Sauron, Saruman, Feanor ... the Noldor as a whole. Offhand, I can't think of another Vala who had so much as one of his/her students take the wrong road.


Thanks, and I am relieved that a genuine First Age scholar showed up to comment. You're what, like 20,000 years old or something?

In "The Music of the Ainur," in The Lost Road 1, it is said of Aule, "Of him did the Noldoli, who were the sages of the Eldar and thirsted ever after new lore and fresh knowledge, learn uncounted wealth of crafts, and magics and sciences unfathomed." Aule's students have a terrible tendency to become corrupted: Sauron, Saruman, Feanor ... the Noldor as a whole. Offhand, I can't think of another Vala who had so much as one of his/her students take the wrong road.

Excellent! More confirmation for my thesis.

Poor Aule. Watching his students go to the dark side...sort of like my grad advisor and post-doctoral mentor when I announced I was eschewing the purity of academia and joining the evil legions of industry.

"Less sympathetic, but still recognizable as a sci-tech type, is the lesser of two Evils with a capital "E", i.e., Sauron. He's not quite as horrible as his big boss, Dick Cheney, er, I mean, Morgoth, although still pretty bad."

Does that make Ann Coulter the Ungoliant? Seems fitting.

Excellent treatise on the Silmarillion, which has generated a discussion that is just as interesting. Kudos Doc Bushwell, you've outdone yourself this time!

On a somewhat smaller scale perhaps, I could see Feanor as a renegade faculty, with the Valar as Dept. chairs and administrators. Throw in a few bad apples, some spacey students, and you have academia. (as a Ph.D in exile perhaps I'm a bit jaded though).

Does that make Ann Coulter the Ungoliant? Seems fitting.


Thanks for the compliments, Wilson, and given your experiences, I'd say Feanor as renegrade faculty sounds apt.

An intelligent and funny essay--I've nominated it for the Middle-Earth Fanfiction Awards. All Tolkien fans ought to read it. You are spot on. I'm an avid Tolkien reader, but always have to hold my nose for the anti-science aspect of his world.


I just love these examples! In my line of work I dealt with copyright and IP-issues and I couldn't agree more about your comparison on how F�anor must have reacted to both Morgoth and the Valar. It's like: if you want it, why don't you make some yourself. As for scientists or any of the more progressive characters, I do think the Numenoreans could be used as a same example as well. In they quest to become immortal and trying to prolong death by science, even they were punished.. Also i would like to compliment in how you wrote this essays (and others), they are simply a pleasure to read for everyone!