The Science of Middle-Earth

Henry Gee

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.

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 (see article on the comb and mirror symbol) or Minoan Linear A script, and we can only guess at the culture and religion that drove the building of Stonehenge. The records of early medieval Britain are few and fragmentary (see the 'Essays' section of this website for articles), 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.