Every now and then I stumble across a Web discussion about some fictional world where someone, attempting to explain the inexplicable points of the fiction, sums up their argument with a variation of, “And as always, in a fictional world the author’s logic always works.”
That’s an important lesson for people who want to hold their fiction to a rigid scientificist realism: the author may not have the science down right, but (s)he sees the story unfolding and makes a best effort to write it all down before the facts slip away. We the readers must accept and infer from the author’s efforts what seems like a reasonable supposition: in a fictional world, if the author says eggs bake themselves, then eggs bake themselves.
Middle-earth, of course, has been examined under the light of scientificism unnumbered times, and often with the same precision that the average reader perceives in the story: that is, with no more real knowledge of what is right and scientific than what the author disguises in vagueness and illusory language about “forgotten lore” and “secret knowledge”.
It’s really not something I have cared much about, but I have always accepted that there are people who want Middle-earth to work in a logical, scientifically-acceptable way. So I was only mildly surprised to learn that a lot of scientists have published papers attempting to explain the physics and other aspects of Tolkien’s fiction in real-world terms (even if the scientific conclusion turns out to be “magic”).
Far be it from me to dissuade the scientific community from these loving exercises in theoretical deconstruction of fictional universes. They undoubtedly justify the cost in time and publishing resources by comparing these exercises to the study of models. Besides which, everyone wants Middle-earth to be real, so if we can figure out how it might be, all the better, right?
As I was reading that article in the Atlantic the idea occurred to me that someone might one day perform a meta study of all these scientific studies. A good meta study could quantify how much of Tolkien’s fiction (by percentage) is scientifically acceptable and how much relies on “magic” (which, admittedly, oozes from nearly every page). But what is Tolkien’s magic, if not a natural part of the universe that we poor readers have not yet understood?
Speak of magic in a scientific discussion and someone will inevitably mention Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim: any sufficiently advanced technology seems like magic. The magic of Middle-earth, therefore, could simply be a sufficiently advanced technology. But the problem with showing that scientifically is that all of Middle-earth’s “magic” has a single ultimate source: God.
If we could show that the God-given magic of Middle-earth conforms to some advanced, sophisticated technology, then we would have a useful model for studying God in the natural universe. That’s a radical idea. Having discussed the concept of God with a few non-believing scientists I know quite well how they like to dismiss the idea of scientific research into God with mumbo-jumbo and hand-waving.
The only real objection that science (not scientists) has to our studying God is that we don’t have a scientific definition for who or what God might be. Science, in order to be scientific, must begin with a simple idea, a principle that can be tested and evaluated according to accepted scientific principle. But if you remember your Exodus and Luke, then you know that it is written: “do not test the Lord your God”. So we have a problem with testing God, asking (like the Israelites) “is He among us”.
A universe model might be an acceptable way to study God without directly testing him. We could, for example, define a universe where God exists and the universe exists alongside God, or it exists in spite of God, or it exists because of God. Such a spectrum of possibilities assumes that we could define God in such a way that we could model a theoretical God with all the capabilities necessary to accomplish the things that are attributed to him.
The universe model would help us define a scientific theory of God, and in so doing we might be able to eliminate some of the claims made through the millennia on behalf of higher beings (God, gods, angels, demons, etc.). For example, it might be possible to show that our definition of God does not require choirs of singing angels in order for Moses to have left Egypt. The choirs would be optional, not mandatory, in such a universe model.
It would take much thought and practice to develop such a theory of a universe-with-God. Science has some pretty good mechanisms for swatting down the illogical and irrelevant. Hence, we could take Tolkien’s Middle-earth and use it as a model for theoretical investigations into a universe model that supports the existence of God. But first we must test Tolkien’s model scientifically to determine if it’s rigid enough model to serve as a template for other theories.
And it appears that testing has unfolded quietly through the decades without anyone drawing much attention to it. If we can test Tolkien’s Catholic-themed fictional universe via rigorous scientific investigation, what might it disclose about the author himself? Was he perhaps a theorist who wanted to propound a theory of God but was afraid to? Einstein is credited with saying “God does not play dice with the universe”, but every role-playing game enthusiast has thrown the dice at least once. Tolkien, too, maybe tossed the dice around the table as he tried to figure out what should work and not in Middle-earth.
He was capturing an image of a fictional world where, for him, everything must be logical. He proceeded from a small set of axioms, one being that Middle-earth is our Earth, the real world, round and inescapable, the habitable lands of man. It was just set in an imaginary past time that never existed.
In other words, Middle-earth is a real place as imagined in a theoretical history. The theory of the history must stand up to rigid logical scrutiny, something we know not to be possible because Tolkien never finished his work. But the scientists have taken the plunge and put this theory to the test, and in some cases the tests show that Middle-earth’s theory holds up very well.
Sadly, in other cases the theory must fall back on Dark Matter of the Imagination: magic. We don’t know why Legolas should be able to run on snow without leaving tracks, although we can certainly imagine some very special footwear that could, conceivably, make this possible. We have snowshoes, after all. Maybe the Elves of Middle-earth figured out some principle of physics to allow them to do what Legolas did.
That would be Tolkien’s hypothesis, which we could state as: it is possible to devise footwear that redistributes the pressure of a creature’s weight upon snow such that the body does not sink into the snow. At best we can show we don’t know how to do it. At worst we can devise the math that shows it simply is not possible without some intervening field that bears Legolas’ weight.
For example, you could build a maglev device that fits into footwear and, hypothetically, use that footwear to elevate yourself or lighten your impact on a snow-covered surface (although maglev trains require that snow be cleared from their tracks to prevent accidents). But there were, so far as we know, no magnetic coils or superconductors on Caradhras; magnetic levitation is probably not occurring in Middle-earth. And yet the concept of using fields of energy to repel one’s weight from the ground is sound. One just needs to find a field or energy that matches an Elf’s footwear.
In Tolkien’s world it may be that this is all possible. In our world, perhaps not so much. Of course, we have footwear now that makes us feel bouncy as we walk. It reduces the pressure on the soles of our feet. Maybe Tolkien imagined that the Elves could take the concept of footwear to places unimaginable in 1940 without violating the laws of physics.
The purpose of Tolkien’s theory was not to prove that God exists, or that we can devise footwear to walk on snow. I think he had a much more mundane goal in mind: to show that one can devise a logically ordered fictional world that contains “magic”, something we don’t understand. He was not interested in devising “laws of magic” (as some modern authors have attempted to do). He was, rather, interested only in devising “Laws of Middle-earth” that worked in a logical, almost scientific way.
Hence, if you stick the most heroic man with enough swords and arrows even he must die. If you ride the most superior horse in the world from Edoras to Minas Tirith, even he must rest, be brushed down, watered, and walked. But when you use magic the only limitation is that there must be some limits; otherwise, people won’t believe in your story. And if they don’t believe in your story then your theory is proven false.
The truth of the Theory of Middle-earth is that it works, at least mostly, and for most people. Because it works people want to understand why and how it works. It’s not aspiring to be anything more than what the author says it is, but we can see the machinery poking out in odd places, either because he forgot to hide something or because he was amused by the idea that we might see what he was doing and try to understand it.
It is not sacreligious to question how Tolkien made Middle-earth, or how Middle-earth works, or if we are in Middle-earth itself. Middle-earth is a safe world for the imagination to wander in according to the laws of physics and logic, except where we encounter magic. And there the imagination must stop and concede that not everything can be explained.
The purpose of the magic is to make Middle-earth a more wonderful place and the author need not know how it works or question if it works; it simply works, just as the sun simply shines. But whereas the greater universe reveals its inner workings bit-by-bit Tolkien’s universe is incomplete. That incompleteness prevents us from testing the theory. His work stands inviolate because it is not fully developed, not ready to be tested.
Still, we can follow in Tolkien’s footsteps and imagine a world where magic not only works but works according to the laws of logic, and that the magic has a true and ultimate source. It is not simply a thing inexplicable but rather is a natural part of the universe. Just as Tolkien’s magic is. But if we give a precise and scientific definition to the magic then we strip it of its magical nature, for by Arthur C. Clarke’s definition if we understand the process well enough to recognize it as technology then it only seems like magic.
Magic remains beyond the reach of science because it, like God, lacks a scientifically testable definition. It is not magic because it is unscientific, but rather because we use the word “magic” to describe things we cannot subscribe (or perhaps that it is believed we ought not describe). The words magic and machine come from the same ancient roots. Tolkien surely knew that, and he may have been amused at the idea of conflating magic with machinery in such a way that a wise and powerful race would be confused by such conflation.
Magic is a prerequisite for Middle-earth but Tolkien did not invent it. He simply gave it boundaries, allowing it to do certain things but not all things. Death is certain in Middle-earth but not final, for Tolkien believed in the soul and the soul whether of an Elf or a Maia or a Man survived the death of the body. The soul is therefore something of substance, if not material substance like mineral and vegetation, and that substance is the ultimate source of magic in Middle-earth: the real magic, the kind which allows an Elf to run on snow, to create a palantir, to pour water into a stone basin and see things from afar.
The element of magic in Middle-earth is very simple, very elemental, in Tolkien’s fiction. Magic comes from within us, from our spirit, and it is a gift from God. In most people, maybe, it is weak and undeveloped, left to achieve little. But with proper instruction, say from the Valar and Maiar, some people (the Eldar of Aman) were able to develop their innate spiritual gift to influence the world around them.
In Tolkien’s fiction this manipulation comes with a price: you leave something of yourself in the things you make, whether they are cloaks or Rings of Power. If you leave enough of yourself, maybe, the thing becomes animate, maybe even purposeful. Hence, the Elvish rope Frodo and Sam used to climb down from the Emyn Muil was able to untie itself when the hobbits needed it to; not because of an inexplicable magical force, but because something of the Elf who had made the rope remained with it and therefore was able to perform a necessary task.
In such a world everything is like a horcrux, constantly splitting off a part of your soul as you interlace with it. You need not commit murder to impart your soul into the thing but there will come a time when you can give no more. Such subcreative actions would diminish the beings who engaged in them; hence, Feanor could no longer make Silmarils, and Celebrimbor could not withstand Sauron when he was finally captured. For they were less than they had been before they made their great artifacts.
This theory of Middle-earth, therefore, includes something like the principle of entropy and it adheres to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The only way there can be a continual creation within Middle-earth is if some external force acts upon it; a God-like being, and Tolkien identified that being with God.
Hence, to understand Middle-earth scientifically we must understand Tolkien’s definition of God. Ultimately everything that we label as “magic” comes from him. But does he diminish himself in order to create things separate from himself, or does he truly create new things that only reflect his thought and do not reduce it to fragments of what it previously was?
Tolkien, of course, stipulated that God was indeed the Creator, and not merely a subcreator, as he the author was. Tolkien’s idea of subcreation thus becomes axiomatic for the scientist. It helps to define the boundaries of what we call magic, even though it is necessarily only a machinery we don’t fully understand.
Middle-earth does not have to explain our world. It only has to explain itself. It must unfurl itself from a tightly bound roll into a fully-developed scroll or tapestry, if completed. But even incomplete Middle-earth still reveals enough of itself to show us that it seeks to be logical, to adhere to a rigid design that, if only the product of a man’s thought, is sufficient to test ideas about the universe that Einstein himself was reluctant to embrace.
God does not have to play dice with a universe that operates according to his will, and science does not need a dicey universe in order to justify itself. Through a theoretical universe like Middle-earth science can play in the backyard of God without offending him (maybe) and perhaps illuminate some of the mysteries that our less well-informed ancestors never solved. They called it magic but we call it physics.
And Tolkien probably called it logical, but he understood that everyone would want to play in this theoretical universe if only because he himself became immersed in its minutiae. He wasn’t trying to prove that God exists or that magic is real; he was only trying to show that if these things are then they must exist in a logical, rational fashion, at least within the confines of story.
And maybe that is why science is so fascinated with Tolkien. He can be measured and quantified as a man, but his fiction can also be measured and quantified, even if not always understood.
Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.