Under the Starry Skies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Frost

Update: I’ve revised and expanded this presentation and post a bit in preparation for two talks tomorrow (3/5/13) at Norman North High School. Should be fun!
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Tonight I’m giving an informal presentation at the OKC Astronomy Club on the astronomy of Tolkien and Robert Frost. It is good to be invited back. Although one might discuss either writer and their love of the starry skies for days on end, this is just a little talk, not scholarly in nature, intended simply to encourage us all to read them again with an eye to their love for astronomy.

Download it here (pdf, 34 MB).

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. TolkienTo introduce Tolkien, I begin with Dante’s closing sentence of the Divine Comedy and a quote from C.S. Lewis distinguishing Medieval and Modern models of the cosmos. Lewis, a friend of Tolkien’s, was similarly a medieval scholar. Lewis owned and regularly used a backyard telescope, and frequently mentions in his letters the weekly configuration of planets and seasonal appearance of constellations. In a famous conversation with Tolkien, the two scholars agreed to write works of fiction that would recover aspects of the medieval sensibility for modern times.

I then move on to a few quotations from Tolkien, such as this one from a passage describing the weary trails of Mordor:

“Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book VI, Ch. 2, “The Land of Shadow.”

To present the skies of Middle Earth, I share Rachel’s Song of the Stars poem because it represents Tolkien’s astronomy so well, and also in the hope that the beauty of a poem will attract his readers to the wonders of skywatching. To begin exploring Tolkien’s astronomy, start with the following:

  • Rachel’s poem, Lindë Elenion, “Song of the Stars”
  • Rachel’s commentary
  • The quotes from Tolkien in the presentation.
  • Jim Manning, “Elvish Star Lore,” The Planetarian, December 2003, pp. 14-22.
  • Various articles by Kristine Larson, including:
    • “A Definitive Identification of Tolkien’s “Borgil”: An Astronomical and Literary Approach.” Tolkien Studies 2 (2005): 161-70.
    • “Swords and Sky Stones.” Mallorn 44 (2006): 22-26.
    • “Myth, Milky Way, and the Mysteries of Tolkien’s Morwinyon, Telumendil, and Anarríma.” Tolkien Studies 7 (2010): 197-210.
    • “Tolkien’s Burning Briar: An Astronomical Explanation.” Mallorn 43 (2005): 49-52.
    • “Sea Birds and Morning Stars: Ceyx, Alcyone, and the Many Metamorpohses of Earendel and Elwing.” Tolkien and the Study of His Sources: Critical Essays. Ed. Fisher, Jason. Jefferson: McFarland, 2011. 69-83.
    • “An Elrond by Any Other Name.” Mallorn 53 (2012): 4-8.

Robert Frost

Poet robert frost in affable portrait axe slung over shoulderIn the section on Frost, I quote from a few of the poems listed below, with page numbers to the Library of America edition.

Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose & Plays
Library of America edition

  • A Star in a Stone-Boat, 162 (more)
  • The Star-splitter, 166
  • Fire and Ice, 204
  • Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, 207
  • The Freedom of the Moon, 224
  • Fireflies in the Garden, 225
  • Acquainted with the Night, 234
  • Canis Major, 239
  • On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations, 246
  • Lost in Heaven, 269
  • The Lesson for Today, 318
  • A Loose Mountain, 327
  • The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus, 335
  • Five Noctournes (Night Light, Were I in Trouble, Bravado, On Making Certain Anything has Happened, In the Long Night), 346
  • Astrometaphysical, 352
  • Skeptic, 353
  • Two Leading Lights, 354
  • Etherealizing, 358
  • Why Wait for Science, 359
  • Take Something Like a Star, 365

A great starting point for reading Frost is “The Star-splitter”:

“You know Orion always comes up sideways.

Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,

And rising on his hands, he looks in on me

Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something

I should have done by daylight, and indeed,

After the ground is frozen, I should have done

Before it froze….”

Frost believed that every town should have its own telescope. The humorous tale recounted in this poem illustrates how the presence of a telescope will change people, and entire communities, for the better.

For more on Robert Frost and astronomy, don’t miss Charles Laird Calia, “The Astronomy of Robert Frost,” Sky and Telescope 2005, v. 109, issue 4, pp. 50-53.

Epilogue

As noted above, I use a quote from C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, to contrast medieval and modern cosmologies. Tolkien and Frost can illustrate these two sensibilities, respectively. Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, yet it’s a heuristic to prompt reflection. Their sensibilities are, of course, different, and I hope that I’ve indicated something of that in the presentation. Yet, just as with any collection of amateur astronomers gathered under a starry night, their evident similarities are more significant:

  • both Tolkien and Frost shared a common wonder toward the night sky.
  • A regular reader of either Tolkien or Frost sooner or later will be stimulated to watch the starry heavens.

For these and other reasons, I love them both.

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PS: For more happy reading on astronomy and literature, try these:

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4 Responses to Under the Starry Skies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Frost

  1. Ken says:

    I just finished reading the whole presentation, and it was (forgive me) stellar!!!

  2. Eileen Grzybowski says:

    Kerry – Your presentation still returns to me and speaks volumes of how people are influenced by the starry skies. Would you mind if I suggested you as a speaker to NASA’s Night Sky Network? They have various folks speak for a 40 minute call-in teleconference every few weeks. People download a POWERPOINT and folks call in and listen. There is an open mike session at the end for questions. I do not want to recommend you if you do not have the time. Should you have any questions, please let me know. http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/
    Eileen

  3. Pingback: Planet Narnia meets Galileo’s World | Kerry's loft

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