The Science of Middle Earth

Posted on July 1, 2005

Lord of the Rings is often discussed as a perfect fantasy series with magic, fantastic settings and interesting creatures like elves, dragons, hobbits, dwarves and orcs. But Henry Gee, the author of The Science of Middle Earth (Souvenir Press), sees the books as more than just a fantasy.

Gee says Tolkien had a great respect for science. Gee also says that creating a new scientific hypothesis requires scientists to imagine a fantasy universe where their hypothesis works. Henry Gee wrote an article for The Guardian where he explains his idea for the book and his thoughts on Tolkien's universe and science.

When I told people I planned to write a book on Tolkien's universe from a scientific standpoint, they either remarked that I would not have enough material (evidently wrong), or pointed to Gandalf's denunciation (in The Lord of the Rings) of the reductionist urges of the traitor Saruman - that he who takes something to bits to discover how it works has left the path of wisdom. The easy equation of Gandalf with Tolkien resembles that of time and clocks. Any more than the most cursory reading of Tolkien shows he had a deep respect for science. What Tolkien objected to was the misapplication of science for the purposes of wealth creation, domination or the acquisition of power.

Science, like well-crafted fantasy, is not about the known, for that is boring. Science is about exploring the limits of the unknown and trying to peer further into the gloom. In his essay The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien argued that scholars of Beowulf had spent too much time excavating the ancient epic for clues about linguistics, and not enough appreciating it as a story.

As scientists, we must set our courses into the unknown. The monsters, said Tolkien, are what we should be looking at.

Gee's book is available for purchase on

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