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Friday, December 21, 2012

Hobbits and hypotheses | Henry Gee

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Hobbits and hypotheses | Henry Gee

All good tales should have a self-consistent back story. If they do, they are amenable to scientific investigation

"Why?" If you have a toddler, this is a question that will assail your ears many, many times each day. Why is the sky blue? Why do people get old and die? Why am I here? To a person newly exposed to the world, everything is unfamiliar, and therefore deserving of explanation, even if the encrusted taboos of adulthood are broken in the asking.

To a parent, who is old enough to have the luxury of taking everything for granted, it's infuriating. "Scientist" is a name we give to a person who has never really got beyond the toddler stage of inquiry. To a scientist, the world is still full of marvelous phenomena that demand explanation, and in which nothing should ever be taken for granted. Shibboleths such as the existence of God, for example, are fresh meat for scientists, who will not understand the position of people for whom this question isn't so much unanswerable, as unaskable.

Someone with a childlike sense of inquiry can and should ask such questions not just of the real world, but the fairy-tale world of fiction. For fiction to work, it must take place in a world that is self-consistent. In recent years I have had the mixed pleasure of reading the entire Harry Potter sequence to my offspring. Leaving its literary merits aside, I come away unsatisfied by J K Rowling's exercise in world creation. How is it, for example, that the products of just one school, Hogwarts, can satisfy an entire wizarding economy that requires a highly bureaucratic Ministry of Magic, let alone a thriving wand-manufacturing business? We are not told. And that irks me.

This is why I am more drawn to J R R Tolkien's world of Middle-earth, a locale that the author took immense pains to make self-consistent, the better to make it believable while you're in it. Everything in Tolkien has a backstory. Every artifact, every character, every ridge and rill in the landscape, is there for a reason. At its simplest, this satisfies Chekhov's Rule â€" if in Act I you say that there is a pair of dueling pistols on the mantelpiece, then they must be used by Act III. Otherwise they are there for no reason, and can be discarded. But if they are there, whether or not they are used, they will be a prompt to further enquiry. How did they get there? Where were they made? For whom? And why?

A few years ago I found myself as occasional science correspondent for a Tolkien fansite,, answering questions sent in by readers of Tolkien's fiction that could only be answered by the appliance of science. How is it that elves can see further than humans? Are hobbits evolutionarily related to humans? And so on. My mind raced ahead of the inquiries, so that I found myself asking (and answering) such questions as â€" how could dragons breathe fire? What would life be like for a walking tree? How do all those elves live beautiful, healthy lives without any obvious means of support? Do balrogs (the terrifying demons of fire in Tolkien's world) really have wings, and if so, how did they fly? (The answer â€" no, and they didn't.)

At first this was just the kind of addictive parlour game that Tolkien himself, as he admitted in his letters, found too fatally attractive. But there was a deeper point to it all, too. A close examination of Tolkien's writings showed that he was not the anti-scientific tree-hugging romantic that everyone assumes he was. It was not science itself to which he objected, but its use by some to dominate or subjugate others.

The science itself, as any form of scholarship, was something that interested him deeply. Along with his friend, C S Lewis, he had a very sound knowledge of the burgeoning science fiction scene between the 1930s and 1950s â€" his most creative period as a writer, when both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were written. And one telling line in a story, The Notion Club Papers, unpublished in his lifetime, showed that Tolkien grasped the concepts of relativity. That statement was "gravity is a fundamental statement of where you are in the Universe".

The intersection of science and Tolkien provided a rich â€" and surprising â€" source of insight that enriched my own enjoyment of his stories, and, I hoped, offered an entirely new critical angle. I pulled together my thoughts in a book, The Science of Middle-earth, which, by the wonders of technology, is now available for your Kindle.

When The Lord of the Rings was published, one wag remarked that there seemed to be no sex in Middle-earth â€" which was rather strange, he continued, given the amount of sword-fodder required for the story to work. This led to another question â€" how did Tolkien create the enormous armies of hideous goblins â€" the orcs â€" that threaten to overwhelm our heroes every step of the way? I investigated this idea in a series of thought experiments in The Science of Middle-earth, and, 20,000 words later, was unable to reach a conclusion. This should be no surprise, however, as Tolkien himself was unable to untie this seemingly knotty problem. Fragments that only came to general notice when published posthumously show that Tolkien was wrestling with the idea of orkish reproduction right up to his death.

In the Silmarillion Tolkien says in one throwaway line that orcs reproduced the old-fashioned way. Boy orcs and girl orcs would get together to produce baby orcs. But this doesn't square with the evidence. Never do we see any explicitly female orcs. Sure, Middle-earth is a bit like a boys' own fantasy, so this might not be a surprise. However, Tolkien goes to great pains to mention the existence of females in every other species, even when â€" as in the dwarves and the ents â€" they are offstage.

Elsewhere, Tolkien says that Morgoth (Sauron's boss) created orcs from captured and tortured elves, but that could hardly supply enough orcs to make a small platoon, let alone armies. There had to be a way of creating orcs from other orcs.

In The Science of Middle-earth I offer a suggestion that is at the same time radical and yet consistent with the evidence â€" orcs are, in some circumstances, parthenogenetic. That is, female orcs reproduce without the benefit of males, producing daughters that are clones of their mother. Parthenogenesis is known to occur in a variety of species that normally reproduce in the boy-meets-girl manner, but resort to this strategy when they need to exploit an ephemeral resource quickly, before it disappears.

Parthenogens are found among the rotifers in fast-evaporating puddles; and among the greenfly on your tomatoes. Given that parties of crunchable dwarves, hobbits and wizards don't turn up on one's Misty Mountain doorstep every day, it makes sense for orcs to reproduce as fast as possible when they do arrive. Otherwise, how could one possibly account for the deluges of orcs that ambush Mr Baggins and his party in The Hobbit?

This does lead to the rather surprising conclusion that all the orcs we see are, in fact, females. There are, of course, several other possibilities. The orcs in the Misty Mountains are ruled by a much larger orc, the "Great Goblin", a circumstance which reminds one of a hive of workers presided over by a queen. Not parthenogenesis â€" some males are required â€" but an overwhelmingly female-based society.  These possibilities are not mutually exclusive, partly because Tolkien never settled the matter in his own mind.

But why should any of this matter to us, the reader? It matters because the most engaging stories succeed precisely because they engage. Books are more than a one-way-street between didactic author and passive reader. Good stories are a conversation between author and reader, and as readers, we are invited to ask the question "why"?

Henry Gee is a senior editor of Nature and author of the SF epic The Sigil. His book The Science of Middle-earth is now available on Kindle

JRR TolkienJK RowlingLord of the RingsScience fictionHenry Gee © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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