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Comments For The Tolkienian War on Science
Hiya pandemonium! Love your fiction, and this as well.
Tolkien did, after all, have an excuse, having experienced firsthand the horrific damage done by modern weapons in WWI. I try to keep that in mind whenever I read the Silm, HOME, and other works. He was a very unusual person; I can't think of any others who so obviously would have been most comfortable living in pre-Renaissance Europe. So basically I'm not bothered by his attitudes, and try to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
I'm a physicist btw. I once read Tolkien's attempt at explaining why some types of knowledge were good and others bad. Unfortunately can't remember the reference, but basically he tried to distinguish between theoretical and practical knowledge. It was nonsensicaL and reflected his own ignorance more than anything else. Anyway, finding out that he basically had no idea what he was talking about made his attitudes much easier to stomach :)
Hey, thanks muchly for reading this old screed, maeglin, and for the compliments overall. Yes, he did have an excuse, but there were also those who fought in WWI, saw the same destruction inflicted by modern weapons, but did not eschew technology and progress quite so vocally. Heh. Yep, I imagine he might enjoy living in pre-Renaissance Europe. My grandfathers (both a good decade older than JRRT), however, very much embraced the benefits of modern medicine (antibiotics) and "infernal combustion engines." My paternal grandfather was the proud owner of the first steam engine-driven tractor in his rural county. He was a regular Sandyman, a farmer with a mind of metal and wheels, if you will. :^)
Like you, I definitely enjoy the ride, and JRRT's attitudes toward progress certainly don't keep me from immersing myself in his work. There's a lot to love about it. But it's not beyond a critical look, whether by a blog screed or ficcish hackery.
"I once read Tolkien's attempt at explaining why some types of knowledge were good and others bad."
Maybe from Letter 155 (to Naomi Mitchison) in which JRRT expounds on magia vs. goetia?
I expect both of us have encountered those who hold theoretical knowledge (or "pure" science) on a pedestal while blasting more applied aspects (as someone who sold her soul to one of the world's most reviled industries, I should know of such blasting), pouring out their criticism of technology and the evils of progress...while typing away on a computer. :^D
Thanks again for having a read and the comments!
I find myself feeling as if you expressed my feelings on this subject, but I enjoyed your sarcastic humor in this essay more then anything. "Plus they just wrung their divine hands and generally were whiny and ineffectual." :-)
I am no scientist, nor am I interested in science topics, but the wrongs caused to the Noldor simply for seeking knowledge, and finding it (Feanor), are a bit too much, even if I, like everyone else on this site, still love and enjoy reading Tolkien's creation.
"I enjoyed your sarcastic humor in this essay more then anything."
Heh. Thanks muchly, Scarlet! Once I cease being sarcastic and/or sardonic, I will cease breathing.
Yes, the perpetual notion that seeking deep knowledge is perilous carries through in Tolkien's writings. I can't disagree that it has its moral quandries, but not to seek it is perilous, too.
Yep, I may disagree strongly with some of JRRT's opinions, but I do love his mythology!
I remember reading this at Scienceblogs, but never commented on it there. (Bad Ithilwen!) It's an excellent essay, and mandatory reading for anyone who really wants to understand Feanor, and Tolkien's decidedly conflicted views of technological creativity.
Tolkien definitely had conflicted views! It really was eye-opening to have such a long hiatus between reading The Silmarillion during grad school, and then waiting 20 years before reading it again. And I still get riled up. :^D
We ended up closing our Science Blogs account for a number of reasons but the essay is on the Chimp Refuge v.3 (http:chimprefuge.com) which I have shamefully neglected.
Thanks a million for having a read, Ithilwen, and for the kind words.
Oh so true! And despite this antipathy for anything more technical than a wheelbarrow, several apparently magical or prodigious objects are given to the heroes of the Fellowship, in order to help them overcome the "scientific", machinery-driven evil promoted by Saruman and Sauron: the light of Earendil given to Frodo, super-nutritious lembas, swords that turn blue when Orcs approach, Elvish rope, the miraculous plantfood given to Sam, etc.
As one who loves Physics and Maths, I wholeheartedly agree with your views and proudly consider myself a nerd and a heretic.
But I still love to read Tolkien's Middle-earth, though I rant at him when he gets into his pastoral mood!
Great article, pandemonium, thank you!
Thanks so much, Russandol, for reading this screed, which is essentially the manifesto of the Pandë!verse. :^D Strictly speaking, Tolkien had nothing against science per se and in fact was keenly interested in it. He used his interest and layman's knowledge of astronomy, botany and even paleontology to great effect in creating his secondary world, thereby enriching it. So I think here as you aptly note...
the light of Earendil given to Frodo, super-nutritious lembas, swords that turn blue when Orcs approach, Elvish rope, the miraculous plantfood given to Sam, etc.
...these are all "good" aspects of science and technology. But as you and I know, it is extremely difficult to separate the good from the "bad" in science and technology.
Tolkien wrote an interesting discourse on "good" vs. "bad" magic in Letter 155 to Naomi Mitchison (the writer who aptly called The Lord of the Rings "super science fiction"):
I am afraid I have been far too casual about 'magic' and especially the use of the word; though Galadriel and others show by the criticism of the 'mortal' use of the word, that the thought about it is not altogether casual. But it is a v. large question, and difficult; and a story which, as you so rightly say, is largely about motives (choice, temptations etc.) and the intentions for using whatever is found in the world, could hardly be burdened with a pseudo-philosophic disquisition! I do not intend to involve myself in any debate whether 'magic' in any sense is real or really possible in the world. But I suppose that, for the purposes of the tale, some would say that there is a latent distinction such as once was called the distinction between magia and goeteia.1 Galadriel speaks of the 'deceits of the Enemy'. Well enough, but magia could be, was, held good (per se), and goeteia bad. Neither is, in this tale, good or bad (per se), but only by motive or purpose or use. Both sides use both, but with different motives. The supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specially about it) domination of other 'free' wills. The Enemy's operations are by no means all goetic deceits, but 'magic' that produces real effects in the physical world. But his magia he uses to bulldoze both people and things, and his goeteia to terrify and subjugate. Their magia the Elves and Gandalf use (sparingly): a magia, producing real results (like fire in a wet faggot) for specific beneficent purposes. Their goetic effects are entirely artistic and not intended to deceive: they never deceive Elves (but may deceive or bewilder unaware Men) since the difference is to them as clear as the difference to us between fiction, painting, and sculpture, and 'life'.
Both sides live mainly by 'ordinary' means. The Enemy, or those who have become like him, go in for 'machinery' – with destructive and evil effects — because 'magicians', who have become chiefly concerned to use magia for their own power, would do so (do do so). The basic motive for magia – quite apart from any philosophic consideration of how it would work – is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect. But the magia may not be easy to come by, and at any rate if you have command of abundant slave-labour or machinery (often only the same thing concealed), it may be as quick or quick enough to push mountains over, wreck forests, or build pyramids by such means. Of course another factor then comes in, a moral or pathological one: the tyrants lose sight of objects, become cruel, and like smashing, hurting, and defiling as such. It would no doubt be possible to defend poor Lotho's introduction of more efficient mills; but not of Sharkey and Sandyman's use of them.
I read -- with a nod to Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law, i.e. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" -- "magia" and "goetia" as something like science and technology. Tolkien wrote that these could be applied for good or bad purposes, and I certainly agree with that. However, even those efficient mills used in the absence of Sharkey and crew still have a price.
So the title of my screed is kind of a misnomer, but "The Tolkienian War on Scientists" just didn't have the same ring as what I used, conceived not long after (then) fellow Science Blogger Chris Mooney wrote The Republican War on Science. Most of the famous (and infamous) of the "fallen" beings of his mythopoiea were "smiths" and "craftsmen." That certainly slapped me in the face when I re-read The Silmarillion after a 20 year hiatus...and spawned the Pandë!verse! :^D