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Re: Tolkien's distantly-seen mountains

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  • not_thou
    Naturally I agree with you, David, that a Lonely Mountain with total elevation of 3,500 ft. wouldn t look very impressive rising from a 2,500 ft. plain. But is
    Message 1 of 43 , Dec 20, 2012
      Naturally I agree with you, David, that a Lonely Mountain with total elevation of 3,500 ft. wouldn't look very impressive rising from a 2,500 ft. plain. But is that the base elevation near Long Lake? I don't think we know. One way we might craft an estimate is to compare the River Running, which drains ultimately (via the Carnen) into the inland Sea of Rhun, to real rivers of comparable length that empty into the Caspian Sea or the Aral Sea. From Long Lake to Rhun is approximately 1,200 miles, I think. One source of the Aral Sea, the Syr Darya, at its rising 1,374 miles upstream, has a surface elevation of 1,312 ft.

      I'm not going to check figures for a bunch of other rivers at this time. (Others are welcome to take on that exercise!) Before my initial post, I did look up the Mississippi, which 1,295 miles from its mouth, in Hannibal, MO, has an elevation of 502 ft. Of course, it drains to sea level, about 100 ft. below the level of the Aral Sea, so for a fair comparison we might adjust to 600 ft. (You will recall I previously suggested a base elevation of 1,000 ft.; I was rounding up from the Hannibal figure.) But I'll assume the Syr Darya figure is a bit low, and put the base elevation in the Desolation of Smaug at 1,500 ft. Now we're talking a 2,000 foot prominence for Erebor. As I previously mentioned, allow for seasonal variance in the snow cover that Fonstad used to make her determination that Erebor had a 3,500 ft. elevation (I continue to think she meant that figure in absolute not relative terms), and the peak would be taller: let's say 2,500 ft. Low as it sounds, this would be impressive in a fairly flat area. (Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, whose name provides the term geologists use for an isolated non-volcanic mountain,* has a prominence of only 2,150 ft.)

      We also don't know how accurate my assumption was that the base elevation near the High Pass of the Misty Mountains is the same as the base elevation near the Lonely Mountain. If one is significantly higher than the other, that too makes some difference.

      But for the distances we're talking about,** none of this matters very much. At more than 250 miles away, the Lonely Mountain seen from the Misty Mountains or the Carrock --or the Misty Mountains seen from the Barrow-downs, or Minas Tirith and Mount Doom seen from Edoras-- is either a little beyond the limits of visibility under even the most favorable atmospheric conditions, or is just within those limits, and will in such opportune circumstances appear as Tolkien describes them: tiny and barely distinguishable on the horizon.

      By contrast, the movie makes the Lonely Mountain appear impossibly close, meaning either that the filmmakers just got it wrong, or that they have, as John says, reduced the size of Mirkwood. Besides rendering that forest most unimpressive, I believe that the latter possibility contradicts the very maps seen in the films, but it would not be the first time that the filmmakers stumbled with geography. We can just chalk it up to poetic license, as John says, but I, having spent a fair amount of time hiking, prefer outdoor scenes to be portrayed more realistically.


      *A hydro-geologist of my acquaintance once argued that the Lonely Mountain is a monadnock rather than an extinct volcano:


      **Unlike the difference in the appearance of Mount Rainier from Kent vs. Belleuve, where the distance is only 40-60 miles, and the viewer's elevation matters a good deal: the photo to which Jason linked was taken from a building's 26th floor, for instance.

      --- "David Bratman" <dbratman@...> wrote:
      > "not_thou" <emptyD@...> wrote:
      > > ---"David Bratman" <dbratman@> wrote:
      > >> I am impressed by the research you put into this, but
      > >> I have one question. When you're giving the height of
      > >> mountains, are you measuring them from sea level or from
      > >> their own bases? Big difference.
      > >
      > > Your excellent question, David, provides one of many reasons
      > > why I have no intention of expanding my comments beyond a
      > > list posting!
      > >
      > > The answer is: we just don't have enough information, but I
      > > will attempt to adjust. I think we should take Fonstad's
      > > 3,500 ft. Erebor and Tolkien's 17,500 ft. Caradhras as heights
      > > of absolute elevation rather than of topographical prominence.
      > At this point I lose you. Rhovanion was a high inland plain. A
      > summit with an elevation of 3,500 ft placed at sea level will
      > look like a 3,500 ft mountain. A summit with an elevation of
      > 3,500 ft on a plain with an elevation of, say, 2,500 ft will be
      > a 1000-ft hill!
    • John Rateliff
      ... Yes, I was surprised by how much like The Lonely Mountain it looked -- more than do the other area volcanos (Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt.
      Message 43 of 43 , Dec 22, 2012
        On Dec 20, 2012, at 2:15 PM, not_thou wrote:
        > The view of Mount Rainier from Seattle probably approximates the view of Erebor from Lake-town. Rainier is taller but also further away.

        Yes, I was surprised by how much like The Lonely Mountain it looked -- more than do the other area volcanos (Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Baker). Enough so that I came to suspect the L.M. must also be an extinct volcano, just from the shape.

        From Tolkien's own drawings, though, we know that the L.M. looked smaller than this from Lake-Town, perhaps from partial screening by the rocky borders near the northernmost point of the Long Lake.

        One important piece of evidence I think you ought to figure in is the drawing of the Lonely Mountain as seen from near Lake-town, in the sketch DEATH OF SMAUG. The best reproduction of this I think is in Wayne & Christina's new book (THE ART OF THE HOBBIT, page 113). The Lonely Mt can distinctly be seen on the horizon just to the left of center, a touch of fire at its v. tip and a plume of smoke rising from it up to between the Dragon and the Moon. It's definitely large enough to be a distinctive local feature.

        Similarly, Merlin, if you do write up the piece in full (as I hope you will) you might want to discuss the adjustment made in JRRT's drawing of Tol Sirion, which showed Thangorodrim looming in the distance; the colorist made Morgoth's mountain much smaller, just a spot on the horizon, and much further away. Contrast both versions in a single spread (#36) in PICTURES BY J. R. R. TOLKIEN [1979]. This suggests that as realistic as JRRT's Middle-earth drawings and paintings are, they may at times represent what he saw in his mind's eye, not what a real-world observer cd see under parallel conditions.

        > (Though I believe it's close enough to require emergency plans in case of eruption.)

        Yes, especially those of us who live in the Green River Valley (famed as the home of Chief Seattle and infamous as the hunting grounds of the Green RIver Killer).

        Just to give folks a rough idea, the last time Rainier erupted (over a thousand years ago), it reduced the size of Puget Sound by a third. So, bad news for those of us who live down-slope of it. The volcanos in this area aren't solid rock but mostly frozen slush of ice and rock and packed snow. During an eruption, that all turns into a muddy slurry that rushes downstream. Hence the top thousand feet or so of Mt. St. Helen's simply disappearing during its last eruption, thirty-odd years ago.
        On the plus side, there's no sign of any eruption being immanent, and there shd be plenty of warning if thing heat up again.

        --John R.
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