DATING MIDDLE-EARTH USING ASTRONOMY
by James Strom
(Published in "Beyond Bree" June 2015)
In order to provide a timeline for the various Ages of Middle-earth, getting the astronomy right is essential. Tolkien himself put much effort into it, as can be seen in Appendix D of The Return of the King. In it he makes the assumption that the length of the tropical year has not changed significantly. To quote:
The year no doubt was of the same length now,(1) for long ago as those times are now reckoned in years and lives of men, they were not very remote according to the memory of the Earth.
(1) 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds.
This figure is correct for the time in which we're living. However, due mainly to the Earth's slowing rotation, it's a bit off in the distant past. In terms of mean solar days a tropical year gets longer the further we go back in time. Would this make much of a difference? Perhaps.
As described in the appendix, King's Reckoning gives us an average year of 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 28.8 seconds. This is only 17.2 seconds less than the modern value for the length of the year and shouldn't matter a great deal. But if it were used around 10,000 years ago, then it would be a minute and a half too short. This might not sound like much but it would result in the calendar being a week late at the end of the Third Age if it were in use since the beginning of the Second. A simple solution to this problem might be the adding of three, instead of two, days every 1,000th year to account for the millennial deficit.
This puts a practical limit to how deep in the past we can go to date these ages. Any claim that goes too far, such as that they occurred during the last inter-glacial 125,000 years ago, simply becomes untenable.
The Elvish calendar does much better. In fact, it has the right average length of a year in 8,000 BC of 365 days, 5 hours and 50 minutes. Also its further adjustments are unknown, allowing it to work somehow or another at any time in the past or future.
There is another limitation on how far back we can go based on what was written in The Fellowship of the Ring. From the third chapter:
Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire. Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt.
This is clearly referring to the Pleiades and the bright star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. But due to the precession of the equinoxes Orion gets lower in the night sky at the beginning of Autumn the more we go back in time. I checked this on on Stellarium, the fairly advanced free astronomy software. 9,000 years ago the belt of Orion wouldn't even completely clear the horizon at the latitude of Greenwich during the time of year in which Frodo and his companions were to have seen it.
So if one were to date the end of the Third Age one would have to accept that it happened sometime after 7,000 BC. Coincidentally, this is consistent with a quote from Tolkien in The History of the Lord of the Rings:
The moons and suns are worked out according to what they were in this part of the world [i.e. England or thereabouts] in 1942 actually.... I mean I'm not a good enough mathematician or astronomer to work out where they might have been 7,000 or 8,000 years ago, but as long as they correspond to some real configuration I thought that was good enough.
In a previous article I pointed out that if we compared the moon phases of 1942 with the days given in the books then the first day of the year in Shire Reckoning, 2 Yule, would be December 25, just like it was in England during medieval times. Surely this was deliberate on Tolkien's part. As such, we can place with confidence the dates in which to celebrate the events that happened way back then.
Once every 19 years the moon phases line up with the dates. We are lucky in that this year they do so with the adventures in The Hobbit. The unexpected party would have occurred on April 20th in our modern reckoning. Midsummer's Eve will be on June 24th. On the 28th they are captured by the goblins. They arrive at Beorn's on July 2nd. What does a werebear do on the night of a full moon? On the evening of October 14th be sure to look for a new moon and celebrate Durin's Day. November 16th is the Battle of Five Armies. Later on imagine you're at Beorn's during the Christmas holidays and again worrying about that full moon. Then on May Day we leave Rivendell for home.
The next year we can recreate "The Mirror of Galadriel" scene. Venus appears high and bright in the western evening sky on February 8, 2017.
And we get lucky again in 2017-18 when the moon phases line up for The Lord of the Rings!
Here are some screenshots I took from Stellarium of what the sky would look like for the various events described in the books. They're based on this quote from Tolkien: "The moons and suns are worked out according to what they were in this part of the world [i.e. England or thereabouts] in 1942 actually.... "
Stellarium 46-47. "The moon was shining in a broad silver crescent. He held up the map and the white light shone through it." (The Hobbit, "A Short Rest") Note that it was a broad silver crescent. The movie got it wrong. (46 • 47)
Stellarium 48-51. "He went to the opening and there pale and faint was a thin new moon above the rim of Earth." (The Hobbit, "On the Doorstep,") It's pretty hard to see. It's there, though. You might need a magnifying glass. (48 • 49 • 50 • 51)
Stellarium 42-43. "Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire. Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt."
(The Fellowship of the Ring, "Three is Company") The Pleiades (Remmirath) are at the top of the screen. (42 • 43)
Stellarium 52-55. "The Moon, now at the full, rose over the mountains, and cast a pale light in which the shadows of stones were black. (The Fellowship of the Ring,"The Ring Goes South") Helliun (Sirius) and Menelvagor (Orion) are visible here. (52 • 53 • 54 • 55)
Stellarium 44-45. "The evening star had risen and was shining with white fire above the western woods." (The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Mirror of Galadriel") The picture doesn't do justice to how bright Venus is compared to the surrounding stars. It is not a fallacy that this shining star can cast shadows. (44 • 45)
Stellarium 56-59. "And we'd been a week on the way last night, when up pops a New Moon as thin as a nail-paring, as if we had never stayed no time in the Elvish country." (The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Great River") Tolkien must have assumed a New Moon is visible shortly after its appearance. Not so. One shouldn't take an almanac so literally. (56 • 57 • 58 • 59)
Stellarium 60-65. "He rubbed his eyes, and then he saw that it was the moon rising above the eastern shadows, now almost at the full." (The Return of the King, "Minas Tirith") There was a lunar eclipse that night. Pippin must have fallen back asleep. (60 • 61 • 62 • 63 • 64 • 65)
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