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The Science of Middle-earth -- An Ongoing Series - Olog-hai

"Not a penny for Concorde!" scribbled across a cheque to the Inland Revenue, sums up J.R.R. Tolkien's well-known view of science and technology. Tolkien's attitude had been shaped by the despoliation of the rural haunts of his boyhood, the mechanized mass-murder of the trenches and, no doubt, the same mixture of ignorance, contempt and fear that many people feel about things they do not understand. But there is plenty of science in Middle-earth, provided that you do not delve too greedily, or too deep.

At first sight, Middle-earth is the last place you'd look for science. Hobbits -- with whom Tolkien strongly identified -- were rustic artisans who distrusted machinery more complicated than a forge-bellows, water-mill or hand-loom, and the Shire was brought to the brink of ruin by Ted Sandyman's dalliance with technology. On a grander compass, Tolkien's entire cosmogony was shaped by warnings of dire consequences for those who inquire too closely into the workings of nature. The depth may be literal, as in the dwarves' awakening of the Balrog at Moria: or it may be metaphorical, as in the repeated dalliances of the technologically-minded Noldor with evil, from Fëanor's jealous love for the Silmarils, to the forging of the Rings of Power. At the very start of The Silmarillion, the very first character we meet apart from The One is Melkor, wisest of the Ainur, who sought to deduce the workings of the One and refashion them more to his liking. In Tolkien's world, the quest to understand the hidden things of nature is not just simultaneous with evil, it is its origin.

Or perhaps I am being too harsh, or too unsubtle. It was not that Tolkien objected to technology per se -- he objected to its use for the quick and easy acquisition of power and domination. Tolkien's great powers are ambiguous: the forces of evil, large and small -- Gollum, Saruman, Sauron, even Melkor -- started off with good intentions, but in their quest to work out the minutiae, looking ever deeper into the Earth, rather than up at the stars, they lost sight of the bigger picture of harmonious nature. It is explicit that the One had a place for all these things, good and evil, in the world. I can, therefore, justify an examination of science in Middle-earth, if the Wise will so allow it.

I might start with something that seems the very antithesis of science -- magic. There is no magic in Tolkien's world, in the sense that the casting of runes might be used for arbitrary purposes. (There is, however, sorcery, which is explicitly associated with technology, and therefore does not quite have the connotation of black magic that you might expect from, say, H.P. Lovecraft: in this context, I always thought that the 'Necromancer' -- Gandalf's name for Sauron in The Hobbit -- was singularly odd.) Magic, however, is usually ascribed by hobbits to the Elves, who admit that they do not know what is meant by the word.

However, it is clear that the Elves have an uncanny and very easy command of the natural world, without resorting to engines, wheels or other obvious devices. This is perhaps only to be expected for beings that are tied to the fate of the Earth in a way that is not true of Men. As part of the Earth's fabric, the Elves use, understand and respect the Earth as easily as if it were part of their own bodies. And when they do resort to machinery, Bad Things always happen. On the other hand, Tolkien's world is full of reference to objects of Elvish manufacture that can only be described as magical -- food that never spoils, lanterns of artificial light, swords that glow in the dark, the Mirror of Galadriel and so on. Are these handy gadgets simply expressions of the bond that Elves have with the earth? Probably. But something else might be going on. Whenever the Elves deny that they have magic, recall the dictum of the well-known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke -- that to us, any sufficiently advanced technology will seem 'indistinguishable from magic'. Where hobbits see magic, the Elves see technology so advanced that its use is intuitive.

If this seems a strange concept, compare cheap products of technology with more expensive models. A cheap hi-fi is often very flashy, with lots of knobs, dials and colored lights, and enormous speakers. But the best sound comes from the more expensive units, unassuming black boxes with hardly any controls at all. With unobtrusive, flat speakers, infra-red connections and, who knows, voice activation, you'd hardly it was there at all. The owner comes home, says the word and the room is instantly filled with beautiful music. To an astonished guest not conversant with the latest technology, this will seem as magic as the spell that opens the doors of Moria -- speak 'friend' and enter. It's not that the Elves have no technology -- they have technology so advanced that we rude mechanicals cannot see it.

Elvish technology is based on harnessing what nature does very well already and using this knowledge sensitively, rather than by trying to imitate nature by other means and then competing with it by brute force. Scientists in certain fields are beginning to adopt this approach, and one that springs most readily to mind is materials research, in which engineers seek to design new materials that capture the properties of materials produced in nature. Rather than build bigger steel girders, engineers use nature as a model for composite materials based on the structures of bone and shell, to combine lightness with strength. Other new materials under development owe their structure to spider silk, a material which, weight for weight, is stronger than steel. Elven rope-makers have known this for millennia, of course. By the same token, lembas stays fresh if kept in its leaf wrappers, not by magic, but by an acute knowledge of the leaves which (one might imagine) secrete some kind of natural antimicrobial into the food. Elvish swords glow in the dark in the presence of Orcs because they contain some kind of biosensor, a material -- perhaps a plant dye or bacterial film -- that responds to Orcish exhalations. Elvish lanterns are, likewise, powered by luminescent microbes. It is much harder to explain the mirror of Galadriel except by positing some kind of hypnosis or autosuggestion. This, to my mind, is a cop-out -- but then Galadriel was the Last of the Noldor, and her technology was probably so highly pitched that it would have seemed magical to the regular sylvan Elves of Lothlórien. The same applies to objects such as the palanííri, but I'd argue that these, like the Two Trees, were products of the Far West and Middle-earth Rules do not apply. In general, however, Elvish technology is very strongly rooted in nature, as you might expect for Tolkien's good guys. You could go further and say that Elvish technology is the 'real' technology, against which the more obvious machinery of Sauron, Saruman and Morgoth are cheap knock-offs. If so, this is a cruel twist on the theme of 'sub-creation' with which Tolkien was himself so preoccupied.

Yes, you might argue, this is all very well, but is it not simpler to explain Elvish 'magic' as a reflection of the affinity of Elves with the Earth, without having to imagine technology as a kind of intermediate? Maybe, but support for my argument comes from another and quite different quarter -- the Dwarves, whose magic is explicitly technological and the product of expert craftsmanship, whether it is found in moon letters, invisible doors, Gandalf's fireworks or 'magical' toys of 'real dwarf make.'

At a deeper level, Elvish magic must be technological, because if it weren't, I'd argue, Tolkien's world would be less convincing as a coherent, cohesive entity. Magic in the sense we'd understand it from fairy tales, in which fairy godmothers turn up to transform pumpkins into golden carriages, is inevitably arbitrary -- a quality that is never associated with Middle-earth. Tolkien worked very hard to make his imagined world consistent in all its parts, and when he was asked to explain some discrepancy by a reader, he would go to great lengths to fill the hole or reconcile the problem. 'Magical' elements are often confined to stories within the story, such as the fabled Cats of Queen Berúthiel. The one instance when such a magical element occurs within the plane of the story is the whole incident with Tom Bombadil, an element that Tolkien did not even try to explain except by saying that Bombadil appeared in the story because he, the author, felt like having him there -- in other words, an admission of the arbitrary that is strikingly absent elsewhere in the story, in which Tolkien regards himself more as a reporter than an author. If Elvish magic is not arbitrary, it has to have some rational explanation, and that can only come from technology. There is plenty of technology in Middle-earth -- but we have not the wit to see it.

-- Olog-hai

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