Monday, November 26, 2001
A Star Shines Upon the Hour of Our Meeting - Xoanon @ 13:19 PST
Spy report on the National Air and Space Museum's Monthly Star Lecture: 11-24

Inspired by the blurb on TOR.N's front page, I fire up the "Ford of Bruinen" (classic 1976 truck), leaving behind the mirky woods of southcentral Pennsylvania and the Hobbitish horse-drawn ploughs of Amish Country. No fierce blizzards of Caradhras to turn me back, only the tangled urban web of Silver Spring, Maryland, which sends me backtracking on the beltway, past the gleaming white towers of...Minas Tirith?, no just the Morman Tabernacle (graffitti once adorned an overpass framing the approach to it: "surrender Dorothy"). I descend into the dark tunnels of the Metro Rail (is that Moria spelled sideways?) into Washington D.C. There is little sign of the "Dark Lord's attack" of Sept.11, only a giant crane rearing on the horizon, (somewhere near the Pentagon?) and swift and efficient bag checks at all the museum entrances. (...but the Lady of Lothlorien herself gave me this pepper mace...)

I meet strange beasts; (titanothere, moasaur, chalicothere), succumb to the sea-longing (the "Ancient Seas" exhibit in Natural History is awesome), visit the glittering caves (Natural History's Gem and Mineral Hall) for which only Gimli would have adequate words. Hear a dozen different languages and accents. I touch the moon (the moon rock is still on display in Air and Space) and a piece of Middle Earth (BIG green rock from New Zealand).

About five-thirty the guards have herded nearly all the tourists out the doors. The rest of us ( a couple of dozen folks ranging from teachers to physicists to a lady who asks if stars are suns too) have found our way to the information booth in Air and Space, waiting to be ushered to the Albert Einstein Planetarium. We lurk under the wings of the Wright Brothers Flyer and Amelia Earhart's bright red Lockheed Vega. "Is this where the lecture meets?" I ask a likely looking Hobbit. She replies yes, and I learn it is her brother who's doing the lecture.

He is Sean O'Brian, staff astronomer for the Air and Space Museum. He's tall, scholarly and bespectacled, rather like a wizard in training. His parents are there with his sister, and they tell me he built his own telescope when he was a teen.

He opens with a letter from JRR Tolkien to Christopher, talking about the origins of Middle Earth, how it grew from the languages: how Tolkien wanted to create a world where a standard greeting would be "elen sila lumen omentielvo", a language that would be pleasing to his own aesthetic.

Sean goes on with readings from the Hobbit, LOTR and the Silmarillion, to illustrate how Tolkien's knowledge and love of astronomy and the night sky roots Middle Earth in reality. Tolkien has taken the time to be familiar with the natural world; he knew a lot about a great many different things, trees or stars or horses, and all of it enriches Middle Earth. (He also rewrote great chunks of the story because he'd got the moon phases or other astronomical data out of whack.)

We start with the scene in the hobbit where the sinking sun, followed by a sliver of moon, illuminates the secret door under the Lonely Mountain. (A lesser author would have put the moon in the wrong place or the wrong phase). We find familiar stars in the Middle Earth sky: Menelvagor (or Menelmacar) is Orion; Remirath, the netted stars, the Pleiades or seven sisters; the sickle rising above Bree Hill is the dipper (or the plough, or Charles' Wagon in Europe, Fisher (as in a largeish tree-climbing, porcupine-eating mustelid) in native north America); Borgil, the red star could be Mars, or Aldebaran (up from Orion's belt); the icy blue of Helluin is Sirius, the dog star.

This may be the first time Elvish has been spoken in the National Air and Space Museum...

The third brightest object in the sky is Venus...the Evenstar. (Venus, Goddess of Luuuuuv...Is this appropriate or what, for Aragorn's Significant Other?) In Tolkien's mythos, the good guys come from the west, the bad guys come from the east, so it HAD to be an evenstar. (In the fall, planet Venus is actually a morning star.)

We are in a planetarium, so we can see how the sky would have looked to the Valar, before Varda drew the dews from Telperion and filled the heavens with stars. We can see how the sky looked to the Firstborn awakening. Or how the sky looks in the Shire (no light pollution). Or to Strider the Wanderer, when he traveled far south "where even the stars are strange".

We are treated to an impromptu meteor shower: "Chewie, lock in the hyperdrive!"

We see how the changing sky helps track time through the books. Or how the unchanging sky illuminates the timelessness of places like Lothlorien; Sean reads favorite bits from the books. "The Moon's the same in the Shire and in Wilderland, or it ought to be. But either it's out of its running, or I'm all wrong in my reckoning." (Sam) "Nay, time does not tarry ever. But change and growth is not in all things and places alike." (Legolas)

Those of us in the northeast of the U.S. forget how far south we actually are until a program like this one points out the latitudes and shape of the night sky in the lands of Middle Earth (like England, it's waaaay farther north). From Hobbiton to Rivendell, the stars remain constant, because the travelers are on the same latitude. From there "the ring goes south" and minas Tirith would have the same stars as Florence Italy. We wonder whether Strider ever saw the southern cross. We see it, and all the rest, in a few minutes; and we don't have to walk the whole way.

Near the end of LOTR, Sam and Frodo are wondering about what kind of tale they are in; and Sam realizes they are in the same tale begun with the light of Earendil's star, which they still carry in the phial of Galadriel. The stars themselves are an integral part of the structure, the myth, the history, the landscape of Middle Earth.

"Applicability not allegory", Sean O'Brain tells us. Tolkien hated allegory. He built his world as complex and rich and real as the night sky.