A Relevant Quote from J. R. R. Tolkien

Letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 September 1954, §4.

Actually in the imagining of this story we are now living on a physically round Earth. But the whole 'legendarium' contains a transition from a flat world (or at least an οικουμενη with borders all around it) to a globe: an inevitable transition, I suppose, to a modern 'mythmaker' with a mind subjected to the same 'appearances' as ancient men, but taught that the Earth was round from the earlist years. So deep was the impression made by 'astronomy' on me that I do not think I could deal with or imaginatively conceive a flat world, though a world of static Earth with a Sun going around it seems easier (to fancy if not to reason).

I was young when I read this in his Letters.

I was even younger when I read Silmarillion with its transition from a flat to a round earth after the fall of Numenor at the end of the Second Age.

When I was told - I have since checked and it seems to be wrong - that "the Book of Henoch* says the Earth is flat," I immediately reflected whether Earth could have been flat before the Flood and become round during it, on a scenario similar to the Tolkienian one.

It did very much NOT make me doubt the reliability of the Holy Writ. All passages I have seen are consistent with two facts:

  • Earth as such is round. As a globe and not as a pancake.
  • There is a kind of world - inhabitable community of countries - on it, and this has or at least earlier, before Columbus, had a boundary with four corners. Though these have been transcended by civilisation since.

Now, it was easier to imagine a static Earth with a Sun going around it - to fancy if not to reason ... how was it Chesterton said? The logic of imagination is the real test of logic. What cannot even be imagined is what is really logically impossible. "If in a tale there is a rider on a horse, it is necessary that in that tale there are two animals, two arms and six legs."

There cannot be five legs only, unless either the rider or the horse are missing a leg. A horse missing a leg could hardly run, and a rider missing a leg could hardly stay in the saddle. So, Chesterton is perfectly right. A rider on a horse implies six legs.**

But if one can write a fairy tale in which Kronos and Rhea have a brother and a sister who together (incestuously as in those stories of Hesiod) make two divine children, Helios, Sol or Sun, and Selene, Luna or Moon, each of which drives the visible heavenly body across the sky, and if there is another story in which a male angel and a female angel hold each a fruit or a flower of the luminary trees of silver and of gold and flying as angels carry them across the sky, the Silmarillion scenario, then it is also possible that the Creator has "written a tale called reality" so constructed that angels carry Sun and Moon around us.

Unlike the strict implication of six legs on a rider and his horse, there is no strict implication that Sun and Moon and Earth are only moving in relation to each other by a play of blind necessities, simple enough in basic causality, though a bit mathematically intricate in application.

It remains entirely possible that reality is such that a globe of Earth with a bounded oecumene is static in the centre of the Universe and circled by two angels holding the two luminaries of Day 4, the further off and greater one making a circle in 24 hours (the time of the circle being the definition of the νυχθημερον which has 24 subdivisions) and the closer and smaller one in 24 hours 50 minutes or some such thing.

I really do not know what JRRT meant by "if not to reason". Perhaps he considered, alas, consensus of scientists as an obligation on reason, a bit like consensus of bishops holding to the Catholic faith is an obligation on the faith.

Or perhaps he considered the coincidences noted by scientists as being too neat for a non-Newtonian causality - even if there are very neat exceptions to these, like the orbit of Mercury.

Either way, admiring his talent as a storyteller, and his wisdom as both revealed in parts of his stories and in his letters, does not oblige me to agree with him on that point. Nor have I pretended he agreed with me, but I did say his story did. Much more importantly, so does standard Scholastic Metaphysics and Exegetics. St Thomas Aquinas as much as Riccioli. Even more important than that - it agrees with a Biblical Chronology, since it dispenses with great distances of "billions of lightyears away". If stars are moved by angels, parallax need not be parallactic and therefore distances as well as sizes can be lots smaller.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Bpi, Georges Pompidou
Pentecost Eve
7 / VI / 2014

* Excluded from Roman Catholic canon as possibly changed, but not condemned as heretical. Accepted by Ethiopian Church as part of canon. ** If someone wants to cite Odin riding on Sleipner as implying ten legs, one can legitimately ask whether the "eight legs" of Sleipner are really separate legs or just a malformation dividing each leg into two hooves. Wonder if the magician of Uppsala had such a horse. If so, it should have warned my Swedish ancestors not to accept him as divine.


  1. "And it is good, and it is good, and it is good." Dame Julian the Anchoress of Norwich.

  2. Well, he edited Ancrene Riule, did he not?