Cosmology of Tolkien's legendarium

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The cosmology of J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium combines aspects of Christian theology and metaphysics, mythology (especially Germanic mythology) and pre-modern cosmological concepts in the flat Earth paradigm with the modern spherical Earth view of the solar system.[1]

Tolkien's cosmology is based on a clear dualism between the spiritual and the material world. While the Ainur, the first created but immaterial angelic beings have the "subcreative" power of imagination, the power to create independent life or physical reality is reserved for Eru Ilúvatar (God); this power of (primary) creation is expressed by the concept of a "Secret Fire" or "Flame Imperishable". The term for the material universe is , "the World that Is", as distinguished from the purely idealist pre-figuration of creation in the minds of the Ainur. (Quenya for "let [these things] be!") was the word spoken by Eru Ilúvatar (metaphorically, in the purported Quenya-language account of creation) by which he brought the physical universe into actuality.

The legendarium examines the possibility of alternative theologies, in the sense of exotheology, by postulating immortality (via reincarnation) for the Elves, contrasting with the fate of Men, who remain subject to mortality and original sin.[2]

Ontology and creation[edit]

Further information: Secret Fire, Ainulindalë and Fëa and hröa

Eru Ilúvatar is the Elvish (Quenya) name of the monotheistic God of creation. Eru means "The One", or "He that is Alone"[3] and Ilúvatar signifies "Father of All".[4] The names appear in Tolkien's work both in isolation and paired (Eru Ilúvatar). He first created a group of angelic beings, called in Elvish the Ainur, and these holy spirits were co-actors in the creation of the universe through a holy music and chanting called the "Music of the Ainur", or Ainulindalë in Elvish.

Eru alone can create independent life or reality by giving it the Flame Imperishable. All beings not created directly by Eru, (e.g., Dwarves, Ents, Eagles), still need to be accepted by Eru to become more than mere puppets of their creator. Melkor desired the Flame Imperishable and long sought for it in vain, but he could only twist that which had already been given life.[5]

The abode of Eru and the Ainur outside of time or the physical universe is also called the "Timeless Halls" (Heaven). Tolkien made a point of keeping the ultimate fate of the souls of Men and the nature of their mortality open, and unknown to the Elves (who are tied to the physical world for the time of its duration, and Christian eschatology is not applicable to them). In the tale of Adanel it is suggested that Men return to Eru after death.


Fëa and hröa are words for "soul" (or "spirit") and "body" of the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men. Their hröa is made out of the matter of Arda (erma); for this reason hröar are Marred (or, using another expression by Tolkien himself, contain a "Melkor ingredient"[6]). When an Elf dies, the fëa leaves the hröa, which then "dies". The fëa is summoned to the Halls of Mandos, where it is judged; however as with death their free-will is not taken away, they could refuse the summons.[7] If allowed by Mandos, the fëa may be re-embodied into a new body that is identical to the previous hröa. (In earlier versions of the legendarium it may also re-enter the incarnate world through child-birth.[8]) The situation of Men is different: a Mannish fëa is only a visitor to Arda, and when the hröa dies, the fëa, after a brief stay in Mandos, leaves Arda completely. Originally men could "surrender themselves: die of free will, and even of desire, in estel"[9] but Melkor made Men fear death, instead of accept with joy the Gift of Eru.

Peter Hastings, manager of the Newman Bookshop (a Catholic bookshop in Oxford), had written to Tolkien (himself a Catholic) objecting to his description of the reincarnation as applicable to the Elves:

God has not used that device in any of the creations of which we have knowledge, and it seems to me to be stepping beyond the position of a sub-creator to produce it as an actual working thing, because a sub-creator, when dealing with the relations between creator and created, should use those channels which he knows the creator to have used already.

In a 1954 draft of a reply to Hastings, Tolkien defended his creative ideas as an exploration of the infinite "potential variety" of God: that it need not conform to the reality of our world so long as it does not misrepresent the essential nature of the divine:

We differ entirely about the nature of the relation of sub-creation to Creation. I should have said that liberation "from the channels the creator is known to have used already" is the fundamental function of "sub-creation", a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety [...] I am not a metaphysician; but I should have thought it a curious metaphysic — there is not one but many, indeed potentially innumerable ones — that declared the channels known (in such a finite corner as we have any inkling of) to have been used, are the only possible ones, or efficacious, or possibly acceptable to and by Him![10]


The account of the "events" predating creation is not presented from an omniscient perspective but presented as a fictional tradition, purportedly a record of the account given by the Valar to the Elves in Aman, and from there transmitted to Middle-earth, and translated from Valarin at first into Quenya and later into human languages. It is understood that the Valar, who were present at the moment of creation as Ainur, gave an honest account to the Elves, but were constrained by the limitations of language, the description of the "Music" or of the words "spoken" by Eru, or his "Halls" and the secret "Flame" etc. are to be taken as metaphors.

The physical universe[edit]

(the Universe) — (Quenya: [ea]) is the Quenya name for the universe, as a realization of the vision of the Ainur. The word comes from the Quenya word for to be. Thus, Eä is the World that Is, as distinguished from the World that Is Not. It may thus be assumed that everything outside Eä, including the Timeless Halls, has no material form. The Ainur, angelic beings from the Timeless Halls beyond Eä, refer to it as "the Little Kingdom", because all creation that humans can perceive is tiny in comparison to the mind of Eru Ilúvatar (God). was the word spoken by Eru Ilúvatar by which he brought the universe into actuality.

The Void, Avakúma, Kúma, the Outer Dark, the Eldest Dark, the Everlasting Dark — An uninhabited region of nothingness described as existing outside Arda, and reached through the Doors of Night. Avakúma is thus part of physical reality, but a vast space devoid of any material content, corresponding to the modern notion of outer space. There is the possibility of confusion between this concept of the Void, and the Void that predated the creation of Eä, as a state of Not-being.[11]

Nothing of any power or strength can be used within the Void. Melkor was cast into The Void after the War of Wrath, but legend predicts his return to the world before the end.

Flat-earth cosmology[edit]

Arda is the term for "Earth", i.e. the inhabitable continents and the seas surrounding them.

In Tolkien's conception, Arda (Earth), was created specifically as "the Habitation" (Imbar or Ambar) for the Children of Ilúvatar (Elves and Men). It is envisaged in a flat Earth cosmology, with the sun, moon and stars revolving around it. Tolkien's sketches show a disc-like face for the world which looked up to the stars.

Tolkien wrote that Middle-earth or Endor originally conformed to a largely symmetrical scheme that was marred by Melkor. The various conflicts with Melkor (as well as by the action of the Valar on one occasion) resulted in the shapes of the lands being distorted.

Originally, Arda began as a single flat world and the Valar created two lamps to illuminate it, Illuin and Ormal. The Vala Aulë forged great towers, Helcar in the furthest north, and Ringil in the deepest south. Illuin was set upon Helcar and Ormal upon Ringil. In the middle, where the light of the lamps mingled, the Valar dwelt at the island of Almaren in the midst of a Great Lake. When Melkor destroyed the Lamps of the Valar, two vast inland seas (Helcar and Ringil) and two major seas (Belegaer and the Eastern Sea) were created, but Almaren and its lake were destroyed.

The Valar left Middle-earth and went to the newly formed continent of Aman in the west, where they created their home called Valinor. To discourage Melkor from assailing Aman, they thrust the continent of Middle-earth to the east, thus widening Belegaer at its middle and raising five major mountain ranges in Middle-earth which adopted a relatively symmetrical distribution, namely the Blue, Red, Grey, Yellow Mountains and the Mountains of the Wind. This act, however, ruined the symmetry of the shape of the continents and their intervening seas.

  • Vaiya, Ekkaia, the Enfolding Ocean, the Encircling Sea (Outer space) — A dark sea that surrounds the world before the cataclysm at the end of the Second Age. Vaiya flows completely around the world, forming a sea below it and a form of air above it. Arda is described as floating on Vaiya, like a ship on a sea. Ulmo the Lord of Waters dwells in Vaiya, below the roots of Arda. Vaiya is described as extremely cold: where its waters meet the waters of Belegaer in the northwest of Middle-earth a chasm of ice is formed, the Helcaraxë. Vaiya cannot support any ships except the boats of Ulmo: the ships of the Númenóreans that tried to sail on it sank, drowning the sailors.[citation needed] The Sun passes through Vaiya on its way around the world, warming it as it passes. After Arda was made round Vaiya apparently disappeared, although it may have been changed into the upper atmosphere of the world.
  • Ilmen (the Solar system) — A region of clean air pervaded by light, before the cataclysm at the end of the Second Age. The stars and other celestial bodies are found in this region. Tolkien likely derived its name from ilma, the Finnish word for air. The Moon passes through Ilmen on its way around the world, plunging down the Chasm of Ilmen on its way back.

Spherical-earth cosmology[edit]

Further information: The Lost Road and Akallabêth

Tolkien's legendarium addresses the spherical Earth paradigm by depicting a catastrophic transition from a flat to a spherical world, in which Aman was removed "from the circles of the world".

This transition from a flat to a spherical Earth is at the center of Tolkien's "Atlantis" legend. His unfinished The Lost Road suggests a sketch of the idea of historical continuity connecting the Elvish mythology of the First Age with the classical Atlantis myth, the Germanic migrations, Anglo-Saxon England and the modern period, presenting the Atlantis legend in Plato and other deluge myths as a "confused" account of the story of Númenor. The cataclysmic re-shaping of the world would have left its imprint on the cultural memory and collective unconscious of humanity, and even on the genetic memory of individuals. The "Atlantis" part of the legendarium explores the theme of the memory of a 'straight road' into the West, which now only exists in memory or myth, because the physical world has been changed.

The Akallabêth says that the Númenóreans who survived the catastrophe sailed as far west as they could in search of their ancient home, but their travels only brought them around the world back to their starting points. Hence, before the end of the Second Age, the transition from "flat Earth" to "round Earth" had been completed. New lands were also created in the west, analogous to the New World. The same idea is expressed in The Lost Road, via an alliterating line in Primitive Germanic is revealed to one protagonist, Westra lage wegas rehtas, nu isti sa wraithas "Westward lay a straight way, but now it is bent."[12] The same sentence is recorded in Adûnaic, the original language of "Atlantis" revealed to one of the protagonists in The Notion Club Papers (written 1945), reading adûn izindi batân tâidô ayadda: îdô kâtha batîna lôkhî; this is glossed (by the character who experienced the vision, within the fictional narrative, as: "west / [a] straight / road / once / went / now / all / roads / [are] crooked").[13]

A few years after publishing The Lord of the Rings, in a note associated with the unique narrative story "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" (which is said to occur in Beleriand during the War of the Jewels), Tolkien equated Arda with the Solar System; because Arda by this point consisted of more than one heavenly body (Valinor being another planet and the Sun and Moon being celestial objects in their own right and not objects orbiting the Earth).

Names of planets and constellations[edit]

Concurrent with early versions of the mythology Tolkien developed a list of names and meanings called the Qenya Lexicon. Christopher Tolkien included extracts from this in an appendix to The Book of Lost Tales, including mentions of specific stars, planets, and constellations in the entries: Gong, Ingil, Mornië, Morwinyon, Nielluin, Silindrin, and Telimektar. In the introductory text for the index of Morgoth's Ring Christopher Tolkien notes several names which his father identified as planets, but speculates that this may have been passing thoughts rather than definitive conclusions.

  • Anarrima
  • Anor, Ur[16] (the Sun)[17] See Sun (Middle-earth).
  • Borgil (Aldebaran?)[18]
  • Carnil (Mars?)[15]
  • Eärendil’s Star, "Gil-Amdir",[19] "Gil-Estel",[20] "Gil-Oresetel", and "Gil-Orrain" [21] - The light of the Silmaril set on Eärendil's ship Vingilot, which represents the planet Venus. Earendel is a name of the morning-star in the Old English Crist I poem. The line éala éarendel engla beorhtast "Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels" was Tolkien's inspiration to this part of the legendarium. The Old English phrase is rendered in Quenya as Aiya Eärendil, elenion ancalima! "Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!". The Old English name may be translated literally as dawn-treader (i.e. the star appearing ahead of and heralding dawn), and is also the inspiration for Lewis' Dawn Treader.
  • Eksiqilta, Ekta- (Orion’s Belt)[22]
  • Elemmire (Mercury?)[15]
  • Helluin, Gil,[14] Nielluin, Nierninwa (Sirius)[23]
  • Ithil, Silmo,[22] (the Moon)[17] See Moon (Middle-earth).
  • Luinil (Uranus?)[15]
  • Lumbar (Saturn?)[15]
  • Menelvagor, Daimord,[14] Menelmacar, Mordo,[22] Swordsman of the Sky, Taimavar, Taimondo, Telimbektar, Telimektar, Telumehtar (Orion)[17] — A constellation meant to represent Túrin Turambar and his eventual return to defeat Melkor in The Last Battle. Menelmacar superseded the older form, Telumehtar (which nonetheless continued in use), and was itself adopted into Sindarin as Menelvagor.
  • Morwinyon (Arcturus)[14]
  • Nenar (Neptune?)[15]
  • Remmirath, Itselokte,[22] Sithaloth,[14] (Pleiades)[24]
  • Soronúme
  • Telumendil
  • Til
  • Valacirca, the Sickle of the Valar,[25] Burning Briar,[26] Durin’s Crown,[17] Edegil,[27] Otselen, the Plough, Seven Stars,[28] Seven Butterflies,[29] Silver Sickle, Timbridhil,[30] (Ursa Major / Big Dipper)[31] — An important constellation of seven stars set in the sky by Varda as an enduring warning to Melkor and his servants, and which precipitated the Awakening of the Elves. It also formed the symbol of Durin, seen on the doors of Moria, and inspired a song of defiance from Beren. According to the Silmarillion it was set in the Northern Sky as a sign of doom for Melkor and a sign of hope for the Elves. The Valacirca is one of the few constellations named in the book, another significant one being Menelmacar.
  • Wilwarin (Cassiopeia?)[32]
  • Vista, Air (the Atmosphere) — Vista is the breathable air.
  • Fanyamar, Cloudhome — The upper air where clouds form.
  • Aiwenórë, Bird-land — The lower air where the paths of birds are found.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Actually in the imagination of this story we are now living on a physically round Earth. But the whole 'legendarium' contains a transition from a flat world ... to a globe ...." (Letter written in 1954), Letters, #154
  2. ^ "... my legendarium, especially the 'Downfall of Númenor' which lies immediately behind The Lord of the Rings, is based on my view: that Men are essentially mortal and must not try to become 'immortal' in the flesh." (Letter written in 1954), Letters, #153.
  3. ^ The Silmarillion, p. 329; the root er means "one" or "alone" (p. 358)
  4. ^ The Silmarillion, p. 336; from ilúvë ("all, the whole", p. 360) and atar ("father", p. 356).
  5. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien, ed., Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-68092-1 
  6. ^ X:400
  7. ^ X:339
  8. ^ X:361-366; Tolkien abandoned this conception in the 1950s
  9. ^ X:341. Estel is a kind of hope, the "trust in Eru."
  10. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #153, ISBN 0-395-31555-7 
  11. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien, ed., Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Myths Transformed, section VII, ISBN 0-395-68092-1 
  12. ^ The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987), p. 43.
  13. ^ published in Sauron Defeated (1992), p. 247.
  14. ^ a b c d e Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Book of Lost Tales 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Appendix, ISBN 0-395-35439-0 
  15. ^ a b c d e f Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien, ed., Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Index, ISBN 0-395-68092-1 
  16. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Book of Lost Tales 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Coming of the Valar, ISBN 0-395-35439-0 
  17. ^ a b c d Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08256-0  — Tolkien defines Anor and Durin's Crown (under 'Star') in Index IV and Menelvagor and Ithil in Appendix E.I in the entries for 'H' and 'TH' consonant sounds respectively.
  18. ^ Larsen, Kristine (2005). "A Definitive Identification of Tolkien's 'Borgil': An Astronomical and Literary Approach". Tolkien Studies (West Virginia University Press) 2: 161–170. doi:10.1353/tks.2005.0023.  In The Fellowship of the Ring, 'Three is Company' Tolkien indicates that Borgil is a red star which appears over the horizon after Remmirath (Pleiades) and before Menelvagor (Orion). Larsen and others note that Aldebaran is known as 'the follower' of the Pleiades and is the only major red star to fit the description.
  19. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The War of the Jewels, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Later Quenta Silmarillion, ISBN 0-395-71041-3 
  20. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Of the Voyage of Eärendil, ISBN 0-395-25730-1 
  21. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, #297, ISBN 0-395-31555-7 
  22. ^ a b c d "Qenya Lexicon". Parma Eldalamberon 12.  The twelfth volume of the linguistic journal Parma Eldalamberon published the complete text of Tolkien's Qenya Lexicon, including star names listed in entries that were not included in the Book of Lost Tales appendix. These additional entries can be found on pages 35, 43, 63, and 82
  23. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Index, ISBN 0-395-25730-1  The index entries for Helluin and Wilwarin cite Sirius and Cassiopeia.
  24. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), Three is Company, ISBN 0-395-08254-4 
  25. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Of the Coming of the Elves, ISBN 0-395-25730-1 
  26. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993), Christopher Tolkien, ed., Morgoth's Ring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Later Quenta Silmarillion (I), ISBN 0-395-68092-1 
  27. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1987), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Lost Road and Other Writings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Etymologies, OT-, ISBN 0-395-45519-7 
  28. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Of Beren and Lúthien, ISBN 0-395-25730-1 
  29. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1984), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Book of Lost Tales 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Coming of the Elves, ISBN 0-395-35439-0 
  30. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1985), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Lays of Beleriand, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, The Lay of Leithian, A.379, ISBN 0-395-39429-5 
  31. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), Strider, ISBN 0-395-08254-4 
  32. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Index, ISBN 0-395-25730-1 

External links[edit]