Muggles, Meteoritic Armor, and Menelmacar: Using Fantasy Series in Astronomy Education and Outreach

Kristine Larsen and Marsha Bednarski

Central Connecticut State University, 1615 Stanley St., New Britain, CT 06050

Abstract. Due in part to recent (and ongoing) film adaptations, the fantasy series of C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), and J.R.R. Tolkien (The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings) are being introduced to a new audience of young (and not so young) readers. Many astronomers and astronomy educators are unaware of the wide variety of astronomical references contained in each series. The first portion of this workshop will introduce participants to these references, and highlight activities which educators, planetariums, and science centers have already developed to utilize these works in their education and outreach programs. In the second segment of the workshop, participants will develop ideas for activities and materials relevant to their individual circumstances, including standards-based education materials.

1. Fantasy Series and Astronomy

In his classic essay, "On Fairy-Stories," philologist and fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien argued that fantasy "does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of scientific verity. On the contrary, the keener and clearer the reason, the better the fantasy it will make" (Tolkien 1997, 144). Although literary critics and aficionados will argue for a distinction between fantasy and science fiction, with only the latter considered to be based on scientific principles, in the case of four specific "fantasy" series – those of C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), and J.R.R. Tolkien (The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings) the distinction is significantly blurred.

Considered the archetype of its literary class, J.R.R. Tolkien's sweeping fantasy series centered on Middle-earth, The Silmarillion (1977), The Hobbit (1937), and The Lord of the Rings (1955), draws heavily on Tolkien's academic interests in language, culture, mythology, and science. The works contain an impressive litany of astronomical knowledge (pertaining to such concepts as constellations, motions and phases of the moon, eclipses, and aurora), reflecting Tolkien's childhood interest in astronomy and other sciences (Tolkien 1997). The Lord of the Rings has consistently topped a number of readers' polls conducted in several countries over the past decade, and the movies based on the trilogy broke sales records around the world. Two movies based on The Hobbit are due to be released in 2010 and 2011.

One of Tolkien's closest friends was C.S. Lewis, and the pair belonged to a small literary/social circle known as The Inklings. Lewis was an amateur astronomer and used both his own small telescope and the Oxford University Observatory (Ward 2008). The Chronicles of Narnia series is comprised of seven books published between 1950-1956, and documents the parallel universe of Narnia from its creation to its destruction. Characters include stars who have retired from the sky and star-gazing dwarfs and centaurs, and topics such as constellations, the Evening Star, and the lifespans of stars find a place in the Narnian cosmology. The series has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and the second movie based on the series was released in 2008, with a third to follow in 2010.

Phillip Pullman describes science as a topic that he was "fascinated by at home and turned off by at school" (Gribbin & Gribbin 2005, xv). His Subtle Materials, a trilogy comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass (1995-2000), is filled with philosophical debates and an exploration of the tension between fundamentalist dogma and scientific process. Main character Lyra Belacqua travels between parallel universes, and in the process the reader learns much about aurora, dark matter, and evolution. The series has won several prestigious awards, and came in third behind The Lord of the Rings and Jane Austen in a 2003 BBC readers poll. The first book has already been made into a film (2007), and there has been preproduction work on adapting the second book.

No recent fantasy series has sold as many copies as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter universe. The seven novels have broken all sales records, and movies based on the first five books have opened to extremely large and enthusiastic crowds. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is due to open in theaters in November 2008, with two movies based on the final book due to open in 2010 and 2011 ( Rowling, now a billionaire and a runner-up for Time magazine's 2007 Person of the Year, downplays any science fiction aspect to her series, admitting "I don't think I'd be very good at science fiction; you need to know some science!" (Rowling 2004). Despite her self-deprecation, the fact remains that Rowling has interwoven a great deal of astronomy into her series. In book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the young protagonists study the moons of Jupiter in preparation for the astronomy portion of their Ordinary Wizardry Level (OWL) exam, which entails an observational astronomy practicum using a telescope. Numerous characters sport astronomical names, such as Sirius Black, Andromeda Tonks, and Merope Gaunt, further introducing Rowling's young readers to astronomical concepts and terminology. Therefore, just as numerous authors have successfully utilized works of science fiction in astronomy and physics education and outreach (e.g. Allday 2003, Barnett & Kafka 2007, Dubeck et al. 1994), these and other fantasy series can act as valuable resources in our astronomy EPO toolkits.

2. Examples of EPO Usage

Numerous authors and organizations have exploited these four series to help interest students and the general public in astronomy. Harry Potter themes have been successfully utilized in star parties by the Jodrell Banks Observatory Visitors Center and other organizations, especially when such events have been tied to the release of specific books in the series (e.g. The New Jersey Center for Education has developed a Harry Potter planetarium show, "The Skies Over Hogwarts," based on astronomical themes and characters in the series ( NASA used the OWLS astronomy exam as the basis for a feature article on the Galilean moons of Jupiter ( while several Astronomy Picture of the Day entries on Saturn have used the subtitle "The Lord of the Rings" (e.g. A Harry Potter astronomy quiz tests readers' recall of astronomical references in the series ( The classic and widely used planisphere known as "Uncle Al's Skywheel" ( can be turned into a Harry Potter Starfinder by simply labeling Alphard and Bellatrix, and including a family tree of the infamous Black family (such as the one found at

Strictly humorous connections between science and these series can also be used as interesting springboards for discussion, such as Tony Darnell's Astronomybuff blog entry on astronomy productivity and the rush to read the final book in the Harry Potter series (, or the Tolkien-based parody of scientific papers centering on the peculiar physical and optical properties of Tolkien's The One Ring (

More serious educational usages of the works of Tolkien have been developed by one of the authors and include lab exercises (Larsen 2004) as well as an entire course for freshman nonscience majors on The Science of Middle-earth ( The lesson from this representative list is that by creatively combining fantasy series with astronomical knowledge (and remembering to align educational and outreach activities with national, state, or local educational standards wherever possible), students and the public can easily be engaged in astronomical topics through the use of works with which they are already familiar.

The ASP workshop described in this paper was opened with a 2 minute brainstorming exercise where participants were given the prompt of a plush polar bear toy (Iorek Byrnison from His Subtle Materials). Working in groups, they suggested possible connections between polar bears and astronomy, including: Ursa Major and Minor, the sky as seen from North and South Poles, optical properties of polar bear hair (optical fibers), aurora, Polaris, global warming, extremophiles and astrobiology, dark skies, seasonal variations in length of daylight, observing in a cold observatory, and movie "stars". Afterwards they were told that in the case of Iorek and Pullman's series, the connections also include having a friend named Lyra, traveling to parallel universes, studying dark matter, and making armor out of iron meteorites.

3. Results of Working Groups

After completing the polar bear opener, and learning about the sample programs described above, the participants were given a selection of quotations from the four series and asked to develop specific activities utilizing the excerpts, taking care to align the activities to the National Science Education Standards developed by the National Research Council ( The remainder of this paper reports the results of this group activity.


    1. Meteorites

R. Robb (Univ. of Victoria) and J. Creighton (Univ. of Wisconsin) worked on various quotations from The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King, Bk. 5 Ch. 2; The Silmarillion, Ch. 21) The Chronicles of Narnia, (The Last Battle, Ch. 14) and His Subtle Materials (The Golden Compass, Chs. 6 & 11) which centered around meteors and meteorites. They devised activities for grades 9-12 based on the standards concerned with motions and force, conservation of energy, evolution of the earth system, natural hazards, and natural resources. The activity would open by showing students animations of meteorite impacts as well as video of the Peekskill meteorite fall and asking students to explain what was happening. The activity would also ask students to consider how meteorites could be made into armor, and what properties that armor might have as compared to other kinds of armor. The authors suggested it might be useful to connect this activity to mythological and real-world usage of meteorites in making weapons, especially connections between meteors and dragons (Larsen 2006; 2009).

3.2 "Twinkle Twinkle Little What?"

D. Hands (High Point Univ.), M. Brotherton (Univ. of Wyoming), S. Steel (Harvard-Smithsonian), and A. Fraknoi (Foothill College) considered quotations concerning Venus as the Morning/Evening Star from Tolkien (The Silmarillion, Ch. 24 & Akallabeth), Lewis (Prince Caspian, Ch. 11) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Krisciunas 2003). Major themes were misconceptions (Is it a star? Is it a planet? Does it twinkle?) and observations (including those of Galileo). It was suggested that students could use robotic telescopes such as Micro Observatory ( to observe the phases of Venus. Aligned standards included objects in the sky (grades K-4) and earth in the solar system (grades 5-8).
The planned activity centered around investigating the question "Is the evening star a star or a planet?" Students would use the following to explore the answer: telescopic observations (phases and planetary disks), twinkling (using a hot plate to demonstrate atmospheric turbulence), and kinesthetic models (demonstrating why Venus always appears near the sun in the sky). Students would also consider whether or not the morning star and evening star are the same object (and how they might test this).
Once students have determined that the morning/evening star is really a planet, further connections can be made with literature by having students ask what it would be like to travel to Venus. Students can write postcards from Venus with their thoughts, and read and write fantasy/science fiction stories about living on Venus. The authors make the point that the second reference cited from The Silmarillion includes one of Tolkien's very few astronomical gaffs, where Venus appears in the West at sunrise. A lab exercise based on Tolkien's Venusian myths can be found online (

    1. PAPA: Predictions of Astrological Planetary Alignments

      A. Chutter (Univ. of Victoria), K. Walker (Univ. of Toledo) and S. Guillot (McGill Univ.) were given a selection of references to astrology and planetary alignments from all four series (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Ch. 27 & 31; Prince Caspian, Ch. 4; The Last Battle, Ch. 2; The Golden Compass, Ch. 10; The Two Towers, Bk.4 Ch. 5). They aimed their activities at grades K-4 and addressed the following standards: position and motion of objects; objects in the sky; characteristics and changes in populations; and science as a human endeavor. The teacher will create flashcards with alignments and sketches of alignments of planets such as conjunctions. Each student takes a single card and develops a creative "horoscope" for that alignment (e.g. "you have to be careful today so you won't get hurt"). Students can compare and collaborate on this assignment. The teacher then reveals the single true alignment on that given day. The horoscope created for that alignment then becomes the official class horoscope for the day. Students can comment on the veracity of the class horoscope the next day. This assignment shows that horoscopes are not scientific but generated by humans using creativity not scientific laws.

      In an extension, students can learn more about the actual types of alignments, their frequency of occurrence, etc. If additional alignments occur during the school year, the horoscope cards can be reconsidered to generate the horoscope for that day. Through this exercise, students will learn the names of the planets and different potential alignments, as well as the arbitrary nature of astrological predictions. Students will also learn the order of the planets from the sun. A suggested extension from the authors is to have the students act out the alignments in order to incorporate kinesthetic intelligence.

    2. Harry Potter as the Skeptical Scientist

A. Zermeno (Univ. of Texas, Brownsville), M. Donahue (Michigan State Univ.), and T. Laguerre (STSI) focussed on three references to astrology and divination in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Chs. 27 & 31), especially Harry's dismissing the subject as "stupid." High school students are directed to pretend they are Harry Potter and ask how they would test whether or not divination is scientific and really works. This activity correlates to standards on the nature of scientific knowledge and process.

3.5. Calendars

A. Krishnamurthi (NASA-GSFC), S. Mitchell (NASA-GSFC), J. Moldenhauer (Univ. of Texas, Dallas) and M. Taylor (Univ. of Missouri) wrote their middle school activity around a series of quotes from various works of J.R.R. Tolkien which described the motion and appearance of the moon over time (The Silmarillion, Ch. 11; The Hobbit, Ch. 3; The Fellowship of the Ring, Bk.2 Ch. 4; The Treason of Isengard, Ch. 17). Students would read The Hobbit in their language arts class before discussing the motions of the moon in science class. As part of the activity, students observe and record the rising, setting, and phase of the moon on a blank calendar over 1-3 months. The calendar could be decorated with Tolkien-related designs, including runes and Elvish script. Upon completion, the lunar calendar would become the class's official calendar, and differences with the regular calendar would be discussed. The history of timekeeping and calenders would be further investigated, as would Tolkien's use of moon phases in his works.

As extensions, important seasonal dates such as the solstices could be explored, and tied in with Tolkien's "Durin's Day" celebration by the dwarves. Models of the sun-earth-moon system could be developed in class. Students can also investigate whether Middle-earth really is our earth based on the behavior of its moon. Students can also investigate how these activities would change if we lived on the other planets. These activities address standards concerned with the structure of the earth system, necessary abilities to do scientific inquiry, earth in the solar system, and the history of science.

3.6. Round or Flat?

K. Collier (Khabele School), S. Metlay (Fiske Planetarium), and I. Heyer (Joint Astronomy Centre, HI) developed three activities, around three different quotes concerning round vs. flat worlds. The first centered around a quote in The Fellowship of the Ring (Bk. 2 Ch. 2) where Aragorn mentions having travelled to distant lands "where the stars are strange." In the high school level activity, students will make shadowboxes of familiar constellations to see them from a three dimensional perspective. Northern vs. southern constellations could be discussed. Extrasolar planets can also be discussed, as well as the question of whether the constellations would look the same as seen from them. Celestial navigation can also be discussed in this context. The standards addressed include understanding scientific inquiry, objects in the sky, science as a human endeavor, science in society, and the history of science.
The second quotation was from Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Ch. 15) which considers round worlds as being the deviation from the norm (i.e. Aslan's flat Narnia). Concepts which could be discussed in this context are planetary formation, gravity, and why some objects are spherical in the solar system while others are not. High school standards addressed include structure of the earth system, origin and evolution of the earth, the history of science, and motions and forces.
The final quotation from Tolkien's The Silmarillion (Akallabeth) laments the change of the world from flat to round and the hiding of the Blessed Lands to all except those who know the secret "Straight Road." Lines of latitude and longitude on a globe as well as right ascension and declination on a celestial sphere could be explored in this context. Students could extend this to defining coordinates within their classroom. Spherical geometry could be explored, as well as escape velocity (as the "straight road" away from the spherical earth). Standards addressed include motions and forces, structure of the earth system, science as a human endeavor, the history of science, and the nature of scientific knowledge.

3.7. Constellations: Myths and Reality

W. Bhatti (JHU), J. Rogers (JHU), M. Garcia (Harvard-CfA), and B. Mattson (NASA-GSFC) based their activities on constellations seen in Middle-earth and Narnia. The standards addressed covered all grade levels, and included science as a human endeavor, the history of science, positions and motions of objects, and objects in the sky. Students would use a discussion of the constellations of these mythical worlds as a springboard for investigating constellation myths in our world. Students would create their own constellations and myths, and discuss how such myths come into being. Storytelling would be the emphasis in grades K-4, while higher grades would emphasize the research nature of the tasks.
Constellations could then be investigated in both two and three dimensions, especially in higher grades. Students would come to understand that they are chance alignments as seen from our perspective. Portable planetariums such as Starlab could be used to project the students' original constellations (as well as reasonable suggestions for the constellations of Narnia and Middle-earth). Students will be aided in these assignments by the used of starmaps without names or lines (so-called "blank" maps).

3.8. Bright Narnian Stars

Chapter 15 of Lewis's The Silver Chair makes the nonchalant observation that Narnian stars are "huge" because they are closer than our stars. In Tolkien's The Silmarillion (Ch. 3), newer, brighter stars stand in contrast to the dimmer original stars. D. Caputo (Univ. of Missouri), R. Morris (Columbia Public School), A. Smith (UM), and D. Arrant (UM) suggested exploring the brightnesses and distances of stars utilizing these quotations in order to dispel the common misconception that bright stars are always closer. Students are first asked to explain these quotations, and to think of any other factors besides distance which might affect the apparent brightness of a star. Students then experiment with three flashlights, one having a significantly higher luminosity than the others. Students would observe the three lights from varying distances and record the apparent brightness. Standards addressed include abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry.

3.9. The Aurora

Three excerpts from Pullman's The Golden Compass which vividly described aurora were used as the basis for this grade 5-8 activity, designed by R. Dreiser (Yerkes Obs.), G. Deming (Univ. of Maryland), and K. Wong (Univ. of Arizona). The motivating question is "Are there really cities in parallel universes seen in auroras?" Students are asked if they have ever seen an auroral display, and what preconceptions they may have about them. For example, students might think they are reflections from polar ice, that they can only been seen from the ground, and that earth is the only planet to have auroras. Students can investigate these misconceptions, as well as find the answers to other questions they might have, such as what are the possible sizes and colors of auroras, what causes the different colors, and are "northern lights" and "southern lights" different. Students will research the connections between solar activity and auroral displays, and what conditions need to be met for an aurora to be seen. Students can also investigate whether or not auroras make noise (as in Pullman's work) and how auroras influence human behavior. Standards addressed include the nature of science, science in society, structure of the earth system, and earth in the solar system.

4. Conclusion

Numerous authors have successfully utilized science fiction works such as Star Trek and novels by Isaac Asimov as tools in teaching science since the 1950s. Classic fantasy series, such as those by Tolkien, Pullman, Lewis, and Rowling, are just as useful for creatively introducing the general public (including school children) to astronomical concepts, as demonstrated by the examples developed in this workshop.

References and Resources:

Allday, J. 2003, Physics Education, 38(1), 27

Barnett, M., & Kafka, A. 2007, JCST 36(4), 31

Bradford, L.E. 2003, in Tolkien the Medievalist, ed. J. Chance (London: Routledge)

Dubeck, L.W., Mosher, S.E., & Boss, J.E. 1994, Fantastic Voyages: Learning Science Through Science Fiction Films (Woodbury, NY: AIP Press)

Duriez, C. 2004, A Field Guide to Narnia (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press)

Ford, P. F. 1980, Companion to Narnia (San Francisco: Harper and Row)

Gee, H. 2004, The Science of Middle-earth (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Press)

Gribbin, M., & Gribbin, J. 2007, The Science of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (New York: Laurel-Leaf)

Heckert, P. A. 2008, Astronomical Names in Harry Potter (

Highfield, R. 2002, The Science of Harry Potter (New York: Viking)

James, C. R. 2007, Mercury, 36(4), 20

Krisciunas, K. 2003, S&T, 106(6), 12

Larsen, K. 2002, The Astronomy of Middle-earth (

Larsen, K. 2004, in Cosmos in the Classroom 2004, eds. A. Fraknoi & W. Waller (San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific), 237

Larsen, K. 2005, Tolkien Studies, 2, 161

Larsen, K. 2005, Mallorn, 43, 49

Larsen, K. 2006, Swords and Sky Stones: Meteoric Iron in The Silmarillion, Mallorn 44, 22

Larsen, K. 2007, Tolkien Studies, 4, 223

Larsen, K. 2008, Amon Hen, 209, 17

Larsen, K. 2009, in The Mirror Crack'd: Fear and Horror in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and its Sources, ed. L. Forest-Hill (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing), to appear

Manning, J. 2003, Planetarian, Jan., 14

Pasachoff, J. M. 2003, S&T, 106(6), 12

Pullman, P. n.d., The Origin of the Universe (

Quiñonez, J., & Raggett, N. 1990, Vinyar Tengwar, 12, 5

Reese, K.M. 1978, C&EN, Mar 27, 52

Rowling, J.K. March 4, 2004, World Book Day Chat (

Tolkien, J.R.R. 1997, The Monsters and the Critics (London: Harper Collins)

Ward, M. 2008, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Weinstein, M. 2007, Astronomy in the Harry Potter Series (