A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: squibs & crackers (Page 2 of 2)

Fun with Botany

In which, once again, Olga does all the work and I riff off of her creativity.

Olga’s post is about the lights that shone on Arda before the Sun and Moon. Light is where my branch of physics originated, so off we go. I’m primarily interested in the Lamps, and the paradox they seem to contain, which is where she starts.  Chapter 1 of The Silmarillion, “Of the Beginning of Days” is her text.

Varda filled the lamps and Manwe hallowed them, and the Valar set them upon high pillars, more lofty far than are any mountains of the later days… all was lit as it were in a changeless day.

Then the seeds that Yavanna had sown began swiftly to sprout and to burgeon, and there arose a multitude of growing things great and small, mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods.

Silmarillion, Ch. 1, “Of the Beginning of Days”

My quotation overlaps with Olga’s by the first sentence.  I continue to quote because that’s where it gets really interesting.  As I mentioned in my comment on that post, “changeless day” isn’t good for plant growth.  Plants store up energy during the sunlit hours, and then generate new tissue at night.  Mess with that diurnal cycle, and they don’t grow well at all. Prof. Tolkien knew this, of course. He spent lots of time on farms, and kept vegetable gardens.

Tolkien in his vegetable garden

Garden excerpt from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography via Google Books

Constant brilliant light creates a desert.  So where did that multitude of growing things come from? That’s the brilliant part:  Get those enormous trees going, and all the rest follows.  JRRT is describing a cloud forest. The only ones I’ve seen are on the sides of mountains – the most extraordinary was in Kohala, on the big island of Hawai’i. If you don’t have a mountain handy, but you do have a Vala, you just make the trees that high.  Then the moisture transpired from the leaves condenses into a cloud, the leaves of the trees would hold the clouds in place, and there would be a moist, shady area between the tree trunks where “mosses and grasses and great ferns grow.”

Ted Naismith’s painting is designed to look pleasing to European eyes, which it does very well. But a more accurate rendering of Tolkien’s vision might look like this.  Once you get out from under the trees, there’s always a rainbow up there, in case it matters.

I also wonder now if Treebeard, when he remembers the “great trees” of his youth, might not be thinking of these mountain-high specimens.


But enough serious discussion.  I have to point out a bunch of things now.

  1. The Valar live on an island far to the west.
  2. Valinor is a paradise that Men and Elves yearn for.
  3. Halfway to that island in the west (measuring from England), the Valar put a land of Men who had the most powerful navy ever seen. Masters of technology, rulers of the world, stupendous egotists, these guys.
  4. Before Melkor messed everything up, the island was a cloud forest.
  5. “When the lamps were spilled, destroying flame was poured out over the earth.” (ibid.)  Mauna Kea is an active volcano, from which destroying flame pours out daily.

Dear reader, the evidence is clear.  Valinor is Hawai’i.  Yavanna wears a lei and a grass skirt.  Aule and Tulkas, “clad in the raiment of the World”, are wearing loud tropical-print shirts. All you working on the Silmarillion “film” project, take note.


I can’t believe I just noticed this: Hobbits don’t like boats, right? The Shire is a fictional version of the West Midlands, right?

regions of England

Administrative Regions of England

Of the nine regions of England, eight are on the coast. I’d expect that from a country that’s (a) an island and (b) a maritime power. One of the regions doesn’t touch the sea. It’s only natural that, compared to the others, West Midlanders would get a reputation as incompetent mariners.

So is this the origin of the sidelong remarks in The Lord of the Rings about how incompetent hobbits are on the water? Even if it’s not, I’m perfectly happy to find another reason that the Brandybucks belong in the “liminal” category.

Next question – is this why mariners are exotic heroes from far away in LotR and The Silmarillion?

One More Forest

Tom Hillman points out an embarrassing omission in the post about forests:

Of course, I left out the Forest of Drúadan.  It’s unique in LotR, in that trees are the only species Tolkien mentions there.  (Not counting the grass in the Woses’ skirts.)  It’s just a place where things happen.  The other forests Olga and I talked about are much more than that.  They’re practically characters in the story. Drúadan seems more like the old-growth American forests that we saw in The Last of the Mohicans: Large trees, well spaced, with not much undergrowth.

So there’s another question for me to think about:  Is the Forest of Drúadan so bland because JRRT has a battle to get to, and has no time for dawdling?  Or is the forest really a tamed human habitation, between being used as a quarry by the Men of Gondor, and continuously inhabited by Woses?

Middle-Earth’s Forests

Olga has a nice essay at her blog entitled “In the shadows of dark forests”.  She’s all about the “dark, enchanted, haunted woods”: Mirkwood, Taur-nu-Fuin, and the Old Forest. Reading it, I was struck by two absences[1]:  Fangorn and Lothlórien.  Let’s see what their absence might imply.

Fangorn Forest looks at first like another of those magical places, but that changes quickly.  In two pages, the narrator slides his description from”dark and tangled” and “a queer stifling feeling” through “untidy” and “shabby and grey” to “gleam[ing] with rich browns, and with the smooth black-greys of bark like polished leather.” (LotR III,iv) The reader starts out expecting a traditional entry point to Faërie, but then is gradually pulled via domestic, human-centered terms into a comfortable feeling that Meriadoc and Peregrin share.

The Forest of Lothlórien doesn’t have any negative connotations in its description.  “In the dim light of the stars their stems were grey, and their quivering limbs a hint of fallow gold.” (LotR II,vi)  Grey is a friendly color in Middle Earth, gold is pleasing to Man and Dwarf alike, and JRRT even includes the stars as a sort of benevolent framing device.  Boromir expresses reluctance to enter, but both Aragorn and the narrator make it clear that he’s working from bad intelligence.  Lothlórien seems like it ought to be Faërie, but it’s clear that we’re not invited to think of it that way.

Why don’t these two forests fit into Olga’s frightening group?  Because someone is in charge.  Real forests are complicated ecosystems, a huge network of cooperative and competitive relationships between individuals of a myriad of species.  Haldir describes Southern Mirkwood as “a forest of dark fir, where the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither.”  Competition apparently isn’t a good thing to Haldir. (or JRRT?)  Much better if someone has everything organized, knows the name of each tree, makes sure that each is in its proper place and everybody has enough water and sunlight. Then you have a “good” forest, one which even the Entwives might appreciate.  But the workload — “That would indeed be a burden!” as Goldberry put it. (LotR I,vii)

And now I understand something I didn’t when I started writing this post. The Old Forest looks like it doesn’t fit. When I put Fangorn and Lothlórien on one side, and Mirkwood and Taur-nu-Fuin on the other, they look like the classic dichotomy of Law and Chaos.  For example, from Three Hearts and Three Lions:

This business of Chaos versus Law, for example, turned out to be more than religious dogma. It was a practical fact of existence, here. He was reminded of the second law of thermodynamics, the tendency of the physical universe toward disorder and level entropy. Perhaps here, that tendency found a more animistic expression…

Poul Anderson

What, then, do we do with the Old Forest?  It looks to the hobbits like Chaos, but Bombadil is there in the middle of it. Why isn’t it a forest of Law? As Goldberry says, “…all things growing or living in the land belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master.”  I never understood the distinction she’s trying to convey.

Dark Forest

This forest belongs to me, but I am not its Master.

There must be some difference between what Galadriel (for example) does and what Tom does. The word “master” comes from Old English mægester, “one having control or authority”. The Old English word comes from the Latin magister, meaning “the one who is greater”.  Tom doesn’t control things, exactly, though he does seem to have authority.  Like a fencing master!  I don’t have to do what our fencing master says – she’s not the owner of the salle, nor is she the Queen – but if I know what’s good for me I’ll do what she says.  She has authority because she knows more about fencing than I do. And now I know what Tom Bombadil’s role in the Old Forest is.  Because he knows more songs, or his songs are closer to the actual Music, even Old Man Willow does what he says.

[1] There is no way to spell “absences” that will ever look right to this Idiosopher. [back]


Several people were live-tweeting the proceedings at the C.S. Lewis & Friends Colloquium, and from them I learned that Sørina Higgins had described Lewis’s poetry as “metrically competent”. Sick burns from faint praise, all in a spirit of good fellowship.  Well, I know a double dactyl when I see one, which led to this.

Higgledy piggledy
Metrically competent
C.S. “Jack” Lewis sat
Down with his pen.

“Time to get on with it,”
Counting on fingers, he’s
Writing again

Persistence of Family Names

If I still had any doubts about how much we can rely on the persistence of family names, Matt Yglesias just fixed them.  The article reports the results of a study of wealthy people in Florence, Italy in 1427 and 2011.  The richest people today have the same family names as the richest people in the fifteenth century.

The original paper is by Barone & Mocetti of the Bank of Italy.  More information is in a column from the Center for Economics and Policy Research.

Renfield ate beetles, right?

Bless that good, good woman who hung the crucifix round my neck! for it is a comfort and a strength to me whenever I touch it. It is odd that a thing which I have been taught to regard with disfavour and as idolatrous should in a time of loneliness and trouble be of help.

Bram Stoker, Dracula, ch. 3

To which I compare,

When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me, …

Paul McCartney, “Let It Be”

I’m going to assume that this is just a coincidence.  I will keep it in mind, though, when I listen to experts in natural-language processing tout their skills at making connections between texts.

The Punning Mind

Gandalf tells the story of his confrontation with Saruman at Orthanc:

I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.[1]
“I liked white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.” LotR, II, ii.

Saruman is making an elaborate, layered pun here.  Let’s step away from the Germanic-root words for a moment.  Breaking white light into its spectral components: analysis. Writing things on paper: thesis. Dyed white cloth:  high-status ancient Romans usually wore white to work, but it was tacky to wear that to dinner.  For festivities, they wore a brightly-colored outfit called a synthesis.  If you’re familiar with classical civilization and you like word games, Saruman is encapsulating the scientific method in three quick phrases.

Am I just imagining this?  Well, “His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle…” and there’s this:

… Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman, the name of which had (by design or chance) a twofold meaning; for in the Elvish speech “orthanc” signifies “Mount Fang”, but in the language of the Mark of old the “Cunning Mind”.  LotR, II, ii.

This is exactly the same kind of multi-lingual pun.  Saruman has a previous conviction, Your Honor.  (Once again, little in Tolkien is due to “chance”.)

And we were warned this was coming.  “Saruman” comes from “searo“, “art, skill, contrivance, deceit, stratagem…” which the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary[2] warns “is uncertain whether the word is used with a good or with a bad meaning”.   And no way am I going to try to contradict Professor Tolkien on Anglo-Saxon, but I note that “orÞanc” also has a positive gloss as “original thought”.  Both of these words for intelligence can be taken two ways. There’s a context in which this ambivalence persists in modern English:  For every “smart person”, there’s a “smart alec”; for every “wise man”, there’s a “wise guy”.  And those latter terms are generally applied to a person who makes clever puns in ostensibly serious situations.[3]

Saruman is playing a mind-game here, irritating Gandalf with too-clever puns so he’s rattled, and doesn’t see the trap Saruman is about to spring on him.

1. I have a friend who would buy a gown made of that cloth in a heartbeat.[back]
2. Thanks to Tom Hillman for the link to Bosworth-Toller. For learning Anglo-Saxon, Prague is the last place I’d have thought to look. [back]
3. The public-school career of your humble Idiosopher could in no way have contributed to the evidence for this observation. [back]

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