Tolkien: Meeting with the authors who have passed the “legendarium” under the sieve of science


With “Tolkien and the sciences”, an astrophysicist, a paleontologist and a journalist have assembled a community of researchers to reveal the scientific richness of Tolkien’s work. The Geek Diary spoke with the last two – Jean-Sébastien Steyer and Loïc Mangin.

Credits: New Line Cinema.

Is 2019 the year of J.R.R. Tolkien? A few months after the eponymous biopic of Dome Karukoski and only a few days before the opening of the exhibition “Tolkien, trip to Middle-earth”, which is in full swing at the National Library of France in Paris, a new book on his work has just been released. “Use Tolkien’s universe to speak of human, physical or even natural sciences” : this is the exercise to which a trio of popular scientists and fans of the universe of the Lord of the Rings have dedicated themselves through their work “Tolkien and the sciences” (ed. Belin). Within this trio, Loïc Mangin, deputy chief editor of the magazine Pour La Science, and Jean-Sébastien Steyer, paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (who defines himself as a “Paleo-geek”), tell us a bit more about their book and the legendary fantasy author’s relationship with science.

Journal du Geek: What was your role in the trio supervising the work?

Loïc Mangin: I am the “spark” of this book. In addition to being an associate editor at Pour La Science, I am also responsible for his “Art and Science” section. A few years ago, I wrote a column on geology in Middle-earth. Then, Jean-Sébastien Steyer had published a scientific article on the feet of hobbits in the review Espèce. The latter then proposed to me the idea of ​​a special issue For Science on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and I replied that a book would be even better.

Jean-Sébastien Steyer: I confirm ! When I read “Small geological walk in Middle-earth”, Loïc’s article, I had just published “Why do Hobbits have big hairy feet?” “ where I deal very seriously with comparative anatomy. I said to myself: “there is something to do about science in Tolkien”. So I took my phone and Loïc arranged to meet me at the Pony Fringant (laughs). After a few drinks, the summary was already well advanced! A third hobbit, Roland Lehoucq, then greatly helped us!

From left to right: Loïc Mangin, Roland Lehoucq and Jean-Sébastien Steyer, co-authors of the book “Tolkien et les sciences”.

Why did you choose to take an interest in Tolkien’s work?

LM: Popularization of science is something we hold dear. Tolkien’s work holds immense, bottomless matter that can serve as the base material for popularizing science with a capital “S” – that is, physics or biology as much as the humanities.

JSS: All the scientists who contributed to this book love Tolkien. Our goal is not to criticize the author – or even to make him say what he never said – but to consider his rich and constructed universe as a statement for science while having fun. And I believe that the bet is won!

Can you give us some examples of scientific analysis compiled in this book?

LM: Coming from a background in biology, I have more affinities with its themes. So one of the subjects that fascinates me the most is the history of the Ents. In the past, I have dealt with several articles on the border between animal and plant. If it is now obsolete from an evolutionary point of view, the idea that Tolkien had with the Ents of bringing down such established patterns of thought was very avant-garde. The current phylogenetic rules and consensus did not exist in Tolkien’s time. Even on the subject of hobbit feet, which may seem quite anecdotal and superfluous, we can conduct a popular scientific analysis: what is the purpose of such feet, where does their morphology come from, etc. All these subjects allow us to draw bridges between a world entirely consistent with the data and scientific visions of today.

JSS: For me, it is impossible to choose … Each contribution is a real building block. As co-director of the work, I enjoyed editing the texts and I thank all the authors once again because they have done a remarkable job. Working with them was like a great adventure in Middle-earth!

Credits (illustrations): Diane Rottner.

Where do these analyzes come from?

LM: For each of the researchers who participated, each contribution corresponds to their chosen field. For example, on the subject of oliphants, we called upon a specialist in proboscidians. Everyone spoke about what they know and what they have discovered in their area of ​​expertise. All the subjects discussed are thus many entry points to this knowledge.

JSS: The main leitmotif is: “And if Tolkien’s world was very real, what can we say in light of current knowledge? ” You have four hours (laughs). More seriously, each author has dealt with his own scientific discipline by drawing on the very rich legendarium from Tolkien. For example, languages ​​and peoples have made it possible to deal with human and social sciences, the bestiary of natural sciences and materials (mithril, the Ring, etc.) of physical and chemical sciences.

What are they based on: books or film adaptations?

LM: This remained at the discretion of the authors sought. All of the contributors were mainly familiar with literary works. But sometimes, at the turn of a short sentence, the authors can notice the effectiveness and the accuracy of the representations made in the trilogy and compare them with the original descriptions given in the books.

JSS: The books form the starting point – the bibliographic reference. But we left a lot of freedom to the authors who could also compare them with the adaptations of Peter Jackson or Ralph Bakshi (director of an adaptation in animated film in 1978).

Is fantasy as suitable for this kind of exercise as science fiction?

LM: In this case, Jean-Sébastien Steyer and Roland Lehoucq are more experts in this exercise than I am. But from my point of view, it doesn’t change anything if the basic material is fantasy or science fiction. It just doesn’t use the same scientific fields. That said, when you study imaginary beings for example, the resulting speech can be of the same nature whether they are aliens or orcas. The difference is not obvious to me.

JSS: For me, paleontologist, the exercise is the same: I use the species of the geek culture to speak about sciences of evolution and to sharpen the critical glance. When I come across a description of a monster from the fantastic,heroic fantasy or SF, I act as if I discovered this new form of life between two geological strata. I analyze and compare its anatomical characters, I position the being in question in the tree of the Living, I give it a name of genus and species etc. For each imaginary being, I wrote an article! In a way, I am a paleo-geek (laughs).

Credits (illustration): Arnaud Rafaelian.

From a general point of view, does good fiction necessarily have to be based on good scientific reasoning? And if so, why ?

LM: When a work of fiction is based on good scientific reasoning, it becomes easier for the reader to integrate and more immersive. The fact that the coherence of a world that was created from scratch is based on laws internal to this world can seem like a kind of science. There is a scientific side to the work of an author who defines these laws and ensures that they are respected. However, this only applies to large enough universes. As a result, for smaller universes like that of Harry Potter, science has less of a say.

JSS: No, I don’t think good fiction needs to be scientific. When we open the pages of a sci-fi book or watch The Return of the King, for example, our critical mind goes to sleep – sociologists speak of “suspension of disbelief” – to make history. It is precisely this critical spirit that we are trying to awaken, without however breaking the myth! Of course, the more the universes are built, the more it is possible to bring back its science.

What about the purely fictional contribution of Tolkien’s work?

LM: The sciences discussed in our book just take Tolkien’s work as a pretext. Walking trees do not exist but addressing their case from a scientific point of view makes it possible to better dissect the whole work.

JSS: Tolkien remains a creator of the world. His universe is unique and his inspirations multiple. The legendarium de Tolkien (the set of works taking place in the enlarged universe of Middle-earth) inhabits us all. And trying to decipher it with regard to science has something both jubilant and very respectful of the work.

What relationship did Tolkien have with science?

LM: A somewhat double relationship. He came from a literary background, and all he could learn in science came from popularization sources. It seems to me that he particularly loved the natural sciences. For him, knowing how a thing worked increased its poetic dimension. In short, he’s a bit like me: knowing how the tree works inside makes it even more beautiful. It is true, however, that he had an aversion to scientific materialism, that is to say the progress of forced march and the technology that prevails everywhere. You should also know that he lived during the industrial revolution and saw his impact on cities and countryside.

JSS: Tolkien was a writer, a poet but also a philologist and a language teacher. These two disciplines belong to the humanities and social sciences. So we can say that Tolkien was also a scientist. In fact, as historian Isabelle Pantin explains in our book, the author had a multi-faceted relationship with science.

Would Middle-Earth be the same if Tolkien relied on today’s world?

LM: I think Middle-earth would have the same face but the dangers would be very different. Wouldn’t Saruman make his Uruk-hais using Crispr Cas-9? At the time of Tolkien, genetics was in its infancy. If the implementation tools were different, the framework would not have undergone a drastic change. We would have had the same timeless pattern of Evil versus Good. Maybe Tolkien would be against transhumanism.

JSS: This is a very nice book project! (laughs) More seriously, rethink the legendarium of Tolkien with the constraints of the modern world, that’s a bit what my friend Jean-Claude Dunyach does: in his novels, trolls must ask their hierarchy for a mission order to invade a country, and the zombies have a reduced budget for the spread of their disease! Going back to Tolkien, I think his world is universal. Current events always show us that power corrupts, like the Ring, and that new technologies are not always used wisely …

Finally, what do you expect from the next Amazon series on the subject?

LM: Nothing ! I’m having trouble with Amazon. I am not even sure to watch the series. Let’s say it stirs up distant curiosity. Anyway, filming hasn’t even started. We just know they’re going back to New Zealand, which’s always taken.

JSS: As for me, I hope this series will respect the work … and that I will have new monsters to put my teeth on!

“Tolkien and the Sciences” (383p), Belin editions, has been available in bookstores since October 16, 2019.

When you are not practising, someone somewhere is practising & when you will meet him, he will win.
CEO and Founder at NotesStack
Works at VIT University, Vellore
Studied Computer Science and Engineering at VIT University

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