1-------- The (Nearly) Discarded Image: Tolkien’s Later Tinkerings with His Medieval Cosmology

Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State University

Presented at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, May 8, 2014.

[Note: this is a script keyed to a PowerPoint presentation and as such does not contain citations]

2------- In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis extols the aesthetics of the medieval geocentric cosmology, a cosmological viewpoint embraced by and central to Tolkien’s legendarium as published (in admittedly edited form) as The Silmarillion. Among the most beautiful of the stories contained within the legendarium is the creation of the Sun and Moon as the last fruit and flower of the Two Trees of Valinor. The death of the Trees is central in a long chain of events that directly leads to the later battles, kin slayings, and geological upheavals in Middle-earth, because Fëanor’s beloved hand-crafted crystals – the three legendary Silmarils – contain the last remaining vestiges of the light of the Two Trees. The detailed account of the generation of the dying Trees’ last fruit and flower, the vessels built to house them, the choice of the Maiar Tilion and Arien to bear them in the sky, and Varda’s plan to direct their motions in order to most effectively maximize the lighting of the natural world, is a logical and seamless continuation of the general creation myth, the Ainulindalë, which spells out the greater creation of the universe, earth, and stars.

3------ In typical Tolkien fashion, Varda’s good intentions are thwarted in the reality of Arda Marred, leading to a moon that is “wayward” in its motion, alternately coming closer to and farther from the sun, due to Tilion’s love for Arien, causing a cyclical darkening of the moon’s surface, and occasionally leading to “darkness amid the day.” Thus Tolkien’s tale “Of the Sun and Moon,” like countless ancient creation myths from around our primary world, gives us a poetic explanation for the phases of the moon and solar eclipses while simultaneously teaching important lessons in morality and ethics.

4------ However, as well as this tale fits within Tolkien’s general medieval, geocentric view of (an originally flat) Middle-earth, and the centrality of the tale of the Two Trees and the Silmarils to the greater Silmarillion, during the writing of the LOTR (and continuing into the later 1950s and perhaps 1960s), he began second-guessing himself, and became concerned with what he called “the astronomically absurd business of the making of the Sun and Moon.” As a well-read 20th century academic, he was also painfully cognizant that his tale was in direct opposition to modern scientific hypotheses concerning the formation of the moon itself. In response, he considered revising his history of the natural world such that the Sun was coeval with the Earth (and the Moon was either coeval or born soon after). But if the Sun and Moon truly were born with the Earth, what, then would this mean for the Two Trees? This was an immediate problem, because the elder of the Eldar were witness to the death of the Trees. In a statement dated by his son Christopher to 1958, Tolkien noted that the Sun and Moon must indeed be coeval with the Earth, that the Earth must not have ever been flat, and that the “High Eldar living and being tutored by the demiurgic beings must have known... the ‘truth’.” Therefore, these creation myths (including the tale of the Trees’ birth of the Sun and Moon) must be “traditions… handed on by Men” In his words, “Mythology must actually be a ‘Mannish’ affair.” This was certainly one way of “saving the phenomena” –retaining a cosmology that is known to be awkward, complicated, and/or illogical in its details (like the Ptolemaic model of geocentric cosmology) because it serves some purpose (for example the ability to calculate and predict the observed motions of the heavens). While dismissing tales of a geocentric cosmology as merely being human creation myths within the greater history of Middle-earth seemed a reasonable explanation on the surface, at what point does myth end and history begin? Tolkien understood the importance of this question, based on his notes to The Notion Club Papers and The Lost Road, his two aborted time travel tales. The result was an ongoing yet never completed revision of the entirety of his cosmology to better reflect the natural world as it truly is. Beginning with what he termed the “Round World Version” of the cosmology (or what Christopher Tolkien termed Ainulindalë C*), written circa 1948, and later extending in the mid and late 1950s to alternate cosmologies published in Morgoth’s Ring as the “Myths Transformed” essays, Tolkien sought to remove the whimsy from the formation of the Sun and Moon. Instead, he crafted alternative creation stories that were, as I have argued elsewhere, strikingly reminiscent of the pre-Apollo mission scientific hypotheses for our satellite’s formation (hypotheses well-known in the popular press at the time of Tolkien’s writings).

5------ In Ainulindalë C* the sun was coeval with earth, and the moon was formed when Melkor, in his hatred and hubris, declared that, since he could not claim the earth for his own domain, “I will rend the Earth asunder, and break it, and none shall possess it.” All he managed to do was tear off a piece of the earth, which became the moon. When the Valar cast Melkor out from the moon, the body endured “both blinding heat and cold intolerable,” and became “utterly barren; and nought liveth there, nor ever hath, nor shall.” While these are scientifically accurate descriptions of our natural satellite, they certainly lack the charm of the tale of the moon’s creation as the final flower of the silver tree Telperion, carefully placed into a vessel and set to sail among the stars with the love-struck Maia Tilion at the helm. This alternate cosmology replaces the warm glow of the silver flower of Telperion - a living entity - with a cold, dead rock ripped out of our planet’s very flesh. Christopher Tolkien notes that it “seems strange indeed that my father was prepared to conceive of the Moon – the Moon, that cherishes the memory of the Elves – as a dead and blasted survival of the hatred of Melkor, however beautiful its light.”

6------ One of the later “Myths Transformed” essays features a creation story for the moon that is also clearly ripped from the science textbooks of the times, with the moon either being created by the Valar out of earth material or sun material, or material clearly akin to the earth. The moon was (as in The Silmarillion) associated with a guide or driver named Tilion, but the story of the female sun spirit is here much changed. In The Silmarillion Melkor is openly afraid of Arien, fearing her “with a great fear, but dared not come nigh her, having no longer the power.” He therefore only attacks Tilion and the moon, causing lunar eclipses. In the “Myths Transformed” essays, Melkor’s power is greatly amplified, and he not only attacks the moon, but the sun and the female sun spirit, here called either Áren or Árië. Melkor desires her but she rebukes him, and after he “ravishes” her, her spirit departs from the world, leaving the Sun defiled. This is a rather grotesque twisting of the original tale of the infatuation Tilion has for Arien, an infatuation that was included to explain why Tilion wandered closer Arien at certain times, resulting in the lunar phases and solar eclipses.

7------ Indeed, the new version sounds more like an episode of Game of Thrones than a tale of Middle-earth, at least to my mind. Those among you who have read both volumes of the Book of Lost Tales might recall that in Tolkien’s outline of the unfinished chapters that Melkor does actually “attack” the sun maiden, there called Urwendi, but in this case he merely upsets the sun ship and she falls into the Sea, either to her death or to imprisonment in the caves of the dark spirit Móru (an early form of Ungoliant). She is not sexually assaulted, and at the end of time Melkor will be killed by Fiönwe, son of Manwë and Varda, due to his love for Urwendi. In this way her death and any loss of honor will eventually be avenged in a very dramatic way. By contrast, in the “Myths Transformed” essay, no one will come forward to avenge Áren. She is permanently sullied. Interestingly, while these revised tales are indeed mythological reinventions of actual scientific hypotheses, they actually do not work more naturally than the original as creation myths in describing the motions of the Moon, its phases, or eclipses, all important elements in “The Tale of the Sun and Moon” chapter of the published Silmarillion.

8------ But more importantly, the adoption of any of these “modern” myths would lead to what Christopher Tolkien termed “devastating” changes in the entire cosmology. Gone would be the catastrophic rounding of the world by Ilúvatar in response to the attack on Valinor by the Númenóreans, and the vain searches by humans for a way back to the Blessed Lands. This would, in turn, require a revision in the Eldar’s pre-Numenór journeys to Valinor, as the legendary “Straight Road” would have to have been in effect since the start (as no one could sail in a normal sense from Middle-earth to the Blessed Lands). Of course, this would have assumed that the Blessed Lands had always been removed from the world, another “devastating” change in the cosmology which would have had myriad effects on the mythology.

9------ In my mind the greatest chain reaction in the legendarium would clearly be in the connection between the world and the heavens – specifically the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets.  For example, if the Sun was coeval with the stars, then there was no need for the Two Lamps of the Valar. Melkor would never have destroyed them, and one of the great catastrophes that shaped the landscape of Middle-earth would never have happened. The role of the Two Trees would also be greatly diminished. If the Two Trees were reduced in importance, then their deaths were not nearly as catastrophic as in The Silmarillion, and, by association, the importance of the Silmarils would also be greatly diminished. The ripple effect leading from this change would literally lead to the wholesale destruction of much of the motivation behind The Silmarillion, including the oath of Fëanor, the death of Thingol, the tale of Beren and Lúthien, and so forth. But more importantly, such changes in the cosmology would also spill over into The Lord of the Rings, for if the Silmarils became nothing more than pretty baubles, how, then, as Christopher Tolkien noted, “can it be acceptable that the Evening Star is the Silmaril cut by Beren from Morgoth’s crown.” By extension, what power would the light of the Evening Star caught in Galadriel’s mirror hope to have against Shelob? Clearly the Two Trees are central to Tolkien’s mythology, so central that he was never able to remove them. However, if one traces the evolution of the tale of the trees and their connection to the sun and moon, one sees that over the decades he greatly diminished both the length and detail in this aspect of the mythology. In the later cosmological essays, Tolkien attempts to explain why the Two Trees (and hence the Silmarils) have any real importance by noting that they “were kindled and illuminated with the light of the Sun and Moon before these were tainted” by Melkor. However the price we must pay is the sexual assault of the female sun spirit by Melkor, a rather unsavory addition to the cosmology in my opinion.

10------ Such changes in the cosmology also threaten a number of other highly symbolic events in the legendarium, such as the awakening of the first humans- the Children of the Sun - at the first rising of the sun, the Battle-under-Stars between Fëanor and the host of Morgoth before the creation of the moon, and the arrival of Fingolfin and his host upon the shores of Middle-earth, blowing their trumpets “at the first rising of the Moon.” Perhaps the greatest loss of symbolism was one Tolkien admitted himself, a loss of the “dramatic impact” of “the first ‘incarnates’ walking in a starlit world” – the Eldar – the people of the stars – awakening on the shores of Cuivienen.

11------ Finally, as I explored in a 2008 article in Mallorn, the proposed cosmological shifts found in Morgoth’s Ring would also have had a diminishing effect on the relative importance and powers of one of the Valar in particular, Varda, the Queen of the Stars. For example, the second of the “Myths Transformed” essays notes that our solar system is set “in the void ‘amidst the innumerable stars’” and because of this Varda “cannot be said to have ‘kindled’ the stars, as an original subcreative act – not at least the stars in general.” Instead, she sets “certain stars” in the sky after the first battle with Melkor “as ominous signs for the dwellers of Arda to see.” The foundation of the Eldar’s special reverence for Varda – namely her creation of the bright stars in preparation for their awakening at Cuiviénen – would obviously be called into question. Tolkien himself wrestled with this problem, musing “how can, nonetheless, the Eldar be called the ‘Star-folk’?” He experimented with a rather convoluted revision of the Cuiviénen tale in which Melkor sends clouds to cover the sky and Manwë happens to send a gust of wind to blow back the clouds at the exact moment the elves awaken, enabling them to briefly see the stars before the clouds once more veil the sky, a decidedly less powerful version of the myth (and one which diminishes the power of Varda in favor of her husband). The appearances have certainly been saved, but at what cost? Here, we not only have Arda Marred, but perhaps, one could argue, Varda Marred as well. In the fourth of these essays, Tolkien further revises Varda’s role, noting that

In the ‘demiurgic period’, before the establishment of Arda… Varda was in Eldarin and Númenórean legends said to have designed and set in place most of the principal stars; but being (by destiny and desire) the future Queen of Arda, in which her ultimate function lay, especially as the lover and protectress of the Quendi, she was concerned not only with the great Stars in themselves, but also in their relations to Arda, and appearance therefrom.

She is therefore said to have designed the major constellations, notably including the Valacirca. But this text also describes Varda as the “most foresighted of all the Valar, possessing the clearest memory of the Music and Vision in which she had played only a small part as actor or player, but had listened most attentively.” Christopher Tolkien points out that a similar description is instead assigned to Nienna in the AAm* text of the Annals of Aman. In labeling her action in the primordial drama “a small part” and painting her in the passive role of attentive listener, Tolkien significantly curtails Varda’s potency relative to the “Silmarillion” texts of that era and LOTR. Thus, I maintain that the new cosmology was, in many ways, a rather misogynist one, even if unintentionally so. Of course, this parallels the rather misogynistic shift seen in real world science from the medieval worldview to Baconian experimentation and the Scientific Revolution, as I discussed in my paper here last year. It appears that we, like the unfortunate Númenoreans, have therefore sailed around the globe and returned to our starting point without finding the Blessed Lands.

12------ In a 1948 letter to Katherine Farrar introducing the standard Ainulindalë and “round earth” Ainulindalë C* that he had sent for her opinion, Tolkien noted “The Elvish myths are ‘Flat World’. A pity really but it is too integral to change it.” Farrar sagely wrote back that she liked “the Flat Earth versions best. The hope of Heaven is the only thing which makes modern astronomy tolerable.” In the end, Arda may have initially been marred by Melkor, but in the later years of tentative revisions to the legendarium, Tolkien himself nearly did irreparable damage to the mythology in an attempt to reconcile his decidedly medieval cosmology with modern science. He struggled with the idea that “you can make up stories” of a flat, geocentric cosmology when “you live among people who have the same general background of imagination, when the Sun ‘really’ rises in the East and goes down in the West, etc. When however (no matter how little most people know or think about astronomy) it is the general belief that we live upon a ‘spherical’ island in ‘Space’ you cannot do this any more.” Christopher Tolkien warns that these later cosmological essays are to be read “with a sense of intellectual and imaginative stress in the face of such a dismantling and reconstitution, believed to be an inescapable necessity, but never achieved.” In claiming that Middle-earth was, indeed, our earth, at an earlier time, and was subject to the same physical laws, Tolkien had painted himself into a corner that he was unable to find a self-consistent escape hatch from.

13------ Here we see why Lewis was able to successfully embrace a medieval cosmology in his tales of Narnia – Aslan’s world is not our own. Lewis had escaped the paradox by climbing out through the back of the wardrobe – quite literally.   

14------ In conclusion, biologist Thomas Huxley once explained that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact”; in the case of Middle-earth, the real pity is that we nearly had a particularly beautiful mythology murdered in much the same way.