Does Gandalf Know the Sun is a ball of fusing hydrogen?

Back in June, I asked whether Gandalf knows about atoms. Today’s question is a simpler one. The Sun, as you may be aware, is a huge ball of mainly hydrogen burning in a fusion reaction caused by the Sun’s own gravity squishing its atoms together, more or less.

Alternatively, the sun is the last firey fruit of the golden tree Laurelin, rescued from its dying branches after it was murdered by Morgoth and the big-arse spider Ungoliant. The fruit was placed in a vessel and given to a demi-god who steers the burning fruit through the sky. The kind of fruit isn’t stated but it wasn’t a banana because that is technically a berry. Yet, even if it was a durian, that is quite a size difference.

No, I’m not trying to pick plot holes in Tolkein’s brilliant myth-making and unlike the previous discussion, this is not about the fundamental matter of middle-earth but about the role of realism in the story. It is something that is partly bugging me about the Rings of Power adaptation.

Tolkien implies that middle-earth is our Earth and by the Third Age, a lot has happened that makes the world less “mythic” and more legendary. Tolkien wasn’t trying to crudely create his own version of the Old Testament but there is a transition in the OT where we go from settings in which cosmic things happen to ones that become more clearly set in recognisable historical periods. In Tolkien’s lore we get a creation, then the first age in which cosmic events (such as the creation of the sun and moon) still occur and whose end is marked by the creation of a star – specifically the evening star is Eärendil with the last Silmaril on his brow.

The second age doesn’t add anything to the solar system but the fall of Numenor involves some further work on the geography and the implication that the Earth is now curved. That’s all good. As we progress through the ages, the physical world gets less one that is defined by stories about individual acts and more one that operates as great big chunks of rock.

Having said all that, unlike the Bible, in Tolkien’s sequence of events, these things happen within living memory – at least for some characters. Galadriel is in Lord of the Rings and she was an adult when the Sun was first created. Elrond is younger but the planet Venus is literally his dad sailing a magic ship with a glowing stone on his head.

I don’t think that is a huge problem for a live-action film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, for the central characters, these stories are legends. Yes, Gandalf is also a demi-god of the same class of being as the being who steers the sun across the sky but we don’t really get to see the world through Gandalf’s eyes nor is Gandalf wandering about as Silmarillion-literalist insisting that everything that happened in the legends is a stone-cold fact. Nobody asks Gandalf or Galadriel to describe exactly what kind of fruit the sun is, nor does anybody press Elrond to explain why, if Venus is his dad, who all the other visible planets are. Given everything we know about Tolkien and his faith, I’ve no reason to believe he was a biblical literalist either and he would have been intentionally using this gradient where all of the lore and stories are explanations of events as personal stories about love & death but which become more grounded over time in a reality that is recognisably our own.

I’ve said before, that what I’d really love to see is an animated adaptation of The Silmarillion as an anthology series, with different parts animated by different studios in different styles (with some continuity of character design). A live-action adaptation would undermine the mythic aspect of it.

That puts The Rings of Power’s second age setting in an odd place. Firstly, Elrond and Galadriel are central characters and secondly, at least one cosmic change is still yet to happen (the Earth is still sort of flat). Even if we assume the fruit-sun evolves over time to become a less-magical and more materialist ball-of-gas sun, during the Second Age it presumably is still small enough to be ORBITING a flat world. THAT IS FINE as a story! It just gets a bit weird in a live-action adaptation where part of the conceit is to imbue a story with a degree of physical realism. The Rings of Power feels like the world of the Lord of the Rings but cosmically and NARRATIVELY they are not. The Second Age is essentially in a setting that is a different genre of a fantasy world than the Third Age, one in which magic is more fundamental, more present and more relevant to how the world works at a physical level.

In the TV show, the character called The Stranger, who arrives on Middle-earth as a falling star is an attempt to add that kind of aspect to the show. The lead Harfoot states that the “stars are strange”, so there is a hint of a world in which the cosmic setting is still magically mutable. There is also a plot point towards the end, where the stranger sets out to THE EAST in an attempt to reach lands where the constellations are different. Observant viewers will know that on our planet, you’d need to head south to get a different bunch of stars. I don’t know if that was just an astronomical error on the writer’s part or them nodding at the cosmic mutability of the setting but I suspect the second.

The point is, the mythic sense (ie. a world in which gods may re-arrange the universe or your planet or do cosmic things) is something the show has to grapple with in a way The Lord of the Rings films do not.

Does Gandalf know the sun is a ball of burning gas? Sure but he also remembers when it was a fluorescent banana (which were still fruit back in his day).


42 responses to “Does Gandalf Know the Sun is a ball of fusing hydrogen?”

  1. “Tolkien implies that middle-earth is our Earth” — He did and he didn’t. Middle Earth isn’t the whole planet, but instead just a large continent sort of analogous to Europe but with different, supposedly more ancient topography. And while Tolkien often implied that Arda, the planet, was Earth in early ages, he also at other times implied that it wasn’t and said it was a secondary world in another universe. And it makes a lot more sense if it’s not Earth. So even though you can look at it as the early days of Earth, though everybody wears Renaissance Faire clothing instead of ancient tunics, I’ve always just treated it as a separate, secondary world. And I’m pretty sure the new series is doing the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, I think Gandalf is aware of the material explanation for the Sun, but doesn’t consider that to be the most important or interesting fact about the Sun (or even the tenth most interesting fact about it), like the chemical composition of Abraham Lincoln is not the most relevant fact about him – they it is something people today are aware of.

    In Lewis’ Narnia we meet a star who is doing community service for unspecified crimes – I don’t recall if someone else is doing his stellar job, though.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. So what you’re suggesting is that throughout the second age the fruit-sun was gradually rotting away until there was nothing left but a big ball of gas?

    (I once had a housemate who let this happen to a pumpkin, which is technically a fruit)

    Liked by 4 people

  4. No quibbles, other than to add that whatever Gandalf’s knowledge base may be, he still had to go look some stuff up in archives.


  5. I just want to note that berry is a subgroup of fruit, not something else. Bananas are fruits that are also berries. I’m pretty sure that nothing in the stories says anything like “the fruit of Laurelin – and this was a type of fruit that wasn’t a berry” so we can’t rule out that the sun is a banana.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Were bananas round in the ancient times, then?

      Isn’t it more likely that the original sun was a lemon, or one of the many citrus hybrids, or a quince. Or some variety of yellow apple, a la “the golden apples of the sun” and other early myths?

      Yellow, mostly round, and definitely a fruit, are all of those.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Were bananas round in the ancient times, then?
        Maybe? You would have to ask Galadriel about that. Or find someone else old enough to have seen bananas back then.

        A tomato is also an option, as our host mention. Or maybe a cloudberry? They’re also the right color.

        And I don’t want to confuse things further here but just want to throw in that the sun might also be a potato. Now, potatoes aren’t fruit, but in some Norwegian dialects, potatoes are called “jordeple”, literally “earth apple”. And it’s not impossible that there’s a translation error here where a similar Valarin word for potato was misinterpreted and now everyone think it’s a “fruit”.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I am reminded of something from Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in which one of the Gethenians asks Genly (a visitor from Earth) whether his statement that they were related was “a moral fact, or a material one.”

    (Genly answers that it’s both, while thinking that “a moral fact or a material one” is a very Karhidish distinction.)He answers, but also thinks that this was a very Karhidish distinction


  7. Do we know/assume that the the sun (and other stars) in the Tolkeinverse a ball (balls) of fusing hydrogen? Are there atoms and molecules, even? Is there ether? Were they not so, in the early age(s), but at some point, become so? (Ignoring, perhaps, whether the answers, cough, materially matter to any of the plot points.) Also, so is Groot an Ent, or what?


      • “ In sleep I had the dreadful dream of the ineluctable Wave, coming out of the quiet sea of quantum foam …” (Tolkien after talking with Schrodinger about wave mechanics in a not-so-far-off branch of the multiverse)

        Liked by 1 person

  8. That reminds me, is mithril an element, and if so, where would it fit in the periodic table? And in mithril vs adamantium, who (which) would win? What if Sauron was really Mysterio — or Dr Doom? (And what is Doom’s doctorate in, anyway?) If Shelob was radioactive, would Frodo have gained spider powers?


  9. Obligatory Pratchett quote:

    “Thank you. Now . . . tell me . . .”
    “Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
    “Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
    She turned on him.
    “It’s been a long night, Grandfather! I’m tired and I need a bath! I don’t need silliness!”
    “Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. “nor does anybody press Elrond to explain why, if Venus is his dad, who all the other visible planets are.”

    They just don’t want to get onto the subject of the poor guy who ended up as the asteroid belt.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Somewhere in a radio interview in the sixties, Tolkien answers the question about whether Middle Earth is our world in the past with something like “no it is our world in a higher stage of imagination” which of course doesn’t answer the question, but quite clearly shows his intention with the legendarium.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The WikiP page with the grandiose title “Cosmology of Tolkien’s legendarium” suggests that Tolkien himself was never entirely sure how the various parts of his ideas all connected together. There may have been no way for a consistent connection to exist.

      As a Catholic, Tolkien was familiar with inconsistent and confused ideas lying at the heart of a narrative, like the Trinity, theodicy, transubstantiation, and so on. Did he, in thinking about the sun in our world, or in his, consider the ball of fusing hydrogen as being the mere accidents of the sun, while its substance was something else? It might be an interesting project to review his works with an eye for that sort of sue of Catholic theological ideas being hinted at.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Back in June, I asked whether Gandalf knows about atoms. Today’s question is a simpler one. The Sun, as you may be aware, is a huge ball of mainly hydrogen burning in a fusion reaction caused by the Sun’s own gravity squishing its atoms together, more or less.

    As a nit, I think this is more complicated rather than simpler: Not only is the sun made of atoms, but an addition fact about atoms (that they can release energy in the form of light due to forces operating on them (so also the existence and behaviors of those forces must be known)).

    Another thought: Is it known that the moon, and the wandering stars (planets), are mere reflectors of light rather than actual light sources?

    Liked by 2 people

  13. As long as comments are still open, I had a belated thought to tack on here:

    The reason we learned that the sun, and other stars, are spheres of mostly hydrogen, despite the fact that we cannot actually go to them and take samples, is because of spectroscopy: breaking apart solar and stellar light to see what it is made of, and seeing that it matches light from the atoms we have here on earth.

    Which of course brings us back to Gandalf’s retort to Saruman, and Tolkien’s possible antipathy towards scientific reductionism.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I’m such a dilettante about Tolkieniana that I didn’t even know that Tolkien, well aware of the conflict between his flat Earth of the Silmarillion legendarium and scientific cosmology, had been working on a revised alternate version for years:

    Christopher Tolkien described the Round World Version as “de-mythologised”. As well as removing the flat Earth, the need for the Sun and Moon to be transported by mythical beings is removed. Also gone are the two enormous lamps that light the Earth before the creation of the Sun. The Sun is there from the beginning.[23]

    In the Round World Version, the Earth was always round, and Arda was the name for the whole solar system instead of just the Earth. The Sun and the Moon were not the fruit of the Two Trees, but preceded the creation of the Trees. Instead, the Trees preserved the light of the Sun before it was tainted by Melkor.

    The Moon is not created by Eru, the supreme being, as in the Flat World Version, but by Melkor, his chief antagonist, who tore it from the Earth. The Moon becomes Melkor’s stronghold and because of this, it is moved further away from the Earth by the Valar to diminish Melkor’s influence. Christopher Tolkien considers this more de-mythologising: the Moon is created after the Earth, and from a part of it, in accordance with the scientific paradigm.

    So I guess maybe Gandalf knows about the Sun that which was/is in-universe true?

    I am reminded of Terry Pratchett’s quip:

    There are no inconsistencies in the Discworld books; occasionally, however, there are alternate pasts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • In Lewis’ Space Trilogy (which was influenced by Lewis’ prepublication knowledge of the Silmarillion) the Moon is half corrupted by Earth’s fall into the hands of Satan (the near half of course).


      • You reminded me to look in That Hideous Strength:

        Ransom replied, “Sulva is she whom mortals call the Moon. She walks in the lowest sphere. The rim of the world that was wasted goes through her. Half of her orb is turned towards us and shares our curse. Her other half looks to Deep Heaven; happy would he be who could cross that frontier and see the fields on her farther side. On this side the womb is barren and the marriages cold. There dwell an accursed people, full of pride and lust. There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them, they are so dainty (delicati) in their dreams of lust. Their real children they fabricate by vile arts in a secret place.”

        I wondered if “Sulva” had some Tolkien connection, but I haven’t found any so far (I see that there’s a fandom site (Sulva) for the Space Trilogy). But a few paragraphs before the above, there does occur:

        Ransom: “It may happen to seem to you the speech of barbarians, for it is long since it has been heard. Not even in Numinor was it heard in the streets.”

        Merlin: “Your Masters let you play with dangerous toys. Tell me, slave, what is Numinor?”

        Ransom: “The true West.”

        Although I just realized now that Ransom misspeaks — Valinor is the true West. Numinor could be described as “a great land that is no more, but once lay between here and Valinor, the true West”.

        The WikiP page for Númenor mentions Lewis’ reference, and adds that the alternate spelling is because Lewis only heard Tolkien reading the word.


        • (I can only presume that Lewis would have been horrified and disgusted by teledildonics and uterine replicators)


          • I had forgotten those ideas (I read “Hideous” in 1978 or so). Lewis is known to have read science fiction – I wonder if he picked up those ideas from SF (Stapledon or Clarke), or from Bernal’s non-fiction (but heavily influential) “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”


    • TIL this from you.

      Reminds me of some Middle Eastern/West Asian mythology that had the world created flat but it turned round from some godly conflict. Something Mesopotamian or Semitic, but I can’t recall which.

      Liked by 1 person

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