Science of Middle-earth: Can dragons exist?

“One ring to judge them, to find them all…” If you say this sentence in a group of people, there is a good chance that someone will complete it immediately. Who does not know “The Lord of the Rings”?

British writer JRR Tolkien’s brilliant novel is one of the most commercially successful books of all time with 150 million copies sold and is the main inspiration for the long-running fantasy boom in cinema, books and computer games.

The Tolkien classic caused quite a stir among fans after the turn of the millennium, when director Peter Jackson’s 30-time Oscar-nominated film grossed €2.9 billion worldwide.

The recently aired American series “The Rings of Power” (Amazon Prime) based on Tolkien’s characters is probably one of the most discussed broadcasts of the year.

The research team scrutinizes the novels

Professor of English Linguistics at Oxford University, who died in 1972, left a rich literary legacy that is well regarded.

A science journey through Tolkien’s world: A new book explores the question of how much reality is in the popular material of fantasy.

Photo: wbg Theiss Verlag

But never before has an interdisciplinary team of scientists consisting of biologists, archaeologists, chemists, geologists, botanists, paleontologists, astrophysicists, psychologists and sociologists looked behind the scenes of his complex fictional world to explore its roots in reality.

The Science of Middle-earth, published in September, provides fascinating insights into the creative processes of cult writer Tolkien, who based his work not only on mythology but also on current research from his time.

The collaborative work of thirty authors also answers intriguing questions like this: Can Ents exist in nature? Are flying, fire-breathing creatures biologically acceptable? And what could the “One Ring” consist of?

Influences from ancient myths

Strictly speaking, The Lord of the Rings is not a story, but an essential part of a 1,000-year-old legend endowed by its creator with an elaborate historiography, special languages, sophisticated geography, and a wide variety of creatures.

The well-read Tolkien was influenced by classic epics such as the Kalevala and Beowulf as well as Norse sagas, prehistoric paintings, and Egyptian history.

The Briton – a somewhat eccentric conservative who disapproved of cars and machines – did not see his work as a critical allegory of the modern world.

Yet a person who reads The Science of Middle-earth cannot help but discover in Tolkien’s descriptions of the wasteland of Mordor and the military production of Isengard a passionate rejection of authoritarianism and a strong environmental message that feels modern.

Shire could be in Belarus

Much of the action in Tolkien’s world takes place on the continent of Middle-earth. After a geomorphological analysis, the authors of the new book came to the conclusion that this fictional world on our planet is most likely located in Australia and Siberia.

When it comes to the mysterious island of Númenor, they see similarities with Sulawesi in Indonesia and the Spanish city of Cadiz. Simulations of weather patterns in Middle-earth by climate researchers have suggested that Sauron’s home world is likely west of Texas and the Shire is most likely in Belarus.

The Science of Middle-earth characterizes Tolkien as a skilled botanist and alchemist with an excellent knowledge of metallurgy.

Subterranean minerals and the world of dwarves are described in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” with a great deal of expertise. However, according to modern researchers, the gem Arkenstein, which the dwarves adored, could not exist – it is a “metallic illusion”, that is, pure fantasy.

Ents and great eagles are biologically unimaginable

Speaking of chimeras: Scientists are also convinced that some of Tolkien’s beings are unimaginable because their properties are irreconcilable with the laws of nature.

While plant-like animals are known, there can be no such thing as connected Ents. The same goes for bear people. Or the giant eagles from “The Lord of the Rings” – according to experts’ calculations, their wingspan should be 54 meters, which is impossible for moving wings.

Also pure fantasy is the extraordinary visual acuity of the elves, who in Tolkien could make out knights 20 kilometers away. The authors of the book prove that such piercing eyes could not be found in humanoid beings, otherwise their heads would look completely different from the description.

Phosphorus and methane as kite propellants

On the other hand, biologists could theoretically envision GMOs like orcs and beings like the dragon Smaug – in the latter case a lizard-like creature that could produce bursts of fire. Simply put, it is a chemical reaction in which methane gas is ignited with the help of phosphorous.

However, there have never been wings that could support an animal weighing several hundred kilograms. A moisturizer for all kite lovers.

Finally, the “One Ring” with its unusual features: what’s behind it? According to the “Science of Middle-earth”, Mordor appears to contain a particle accelerator or a natural radioactive source.

After detailed analysis, chemists suspect that the “one ring” consists of an alloy of radioactive isotopes of gold, mercury, platinum and iridium obtained by “neutron bombardment of gold-bearing source rocks”. So obviously Sauron was a genius nuclear engineer.

Reading advice

Roland Lehock, Loïc Mangin, Jean-Sebastien Steyer: “The Science of Middle-earth”, wbg Theiss Verlag, 384 pages, 50 €.

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