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Re: [mythsoc] Tolkien and technology

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  • David S Bratman
    ... And one that can t be reduced to a simple scientific explanation either, one should also add. As Tolkien wrote, I dislike any pull towards
    Message 1 of 14 , Jan 1, 2003
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      At 01:55 PM 1/1/2003 -0500, Alexei wrote:

      >One should also note that the supposed "magic" of the Elves (like the
      >Silmarils, the palantíri, Galadriel's mirror, etc.) are really examples of a
      >very high technology, but one that isn't the product of an industrialised
      >system.

      And one that can't be reduced to a simple scientific explanation either,
      one should also add. As Tolkien wrote, "I dislike any pull towards
      'scientification'. ... [This mode is] alien to my story." (The invaluable
      Letter no. 210 again, p. 274)

      - David Bratman
    • Stolzi@aol.com
      In a message dated 1/1/2003 11:09:12 AM Central Standard Time, ... One gets the feeling that industrialized technology is what Saruman has been producing,
      Message 2 of 14 , Jan 1, 2003
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        In a message dated 1/1/2003 11:09:12 AM Central Standard Time,
        dbratman@... writes:


        > Hobbits got
        > on very well with technology, just not industrialized technology.
        >

        One gets the feeling that "industrialized technology" is what Saruman has
        been producing, although we're never quite shown what, or how.

        If it's driven by wood as fuel (the trees he's been chopping down) it doesn't
        seem terribly advanced; yet he apparently blows up the wall at Helm's Deep
        with something resembling gunpowder.

        Diamond Proudbrook


        [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
      • David F. Porteous
        Message 3 of 14 , Jan 1, 2003
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          <<One should also note that the supposed "magic" of the Elves (like the
          Silmarils, the palantíri, Galadriel's mirror, etc.) are really examples of a
          very high technology, but one that isn't the product of an industrialised
          system. Alexei>>

          No, I must disagree here. OCE defines technology as "the study or use of
          the mechanical arts or applied sciences". The items you mention are neither
          mechanical or examples of any kind of science. This "supposed magic" is
          better described as just "magic".

          Vision over distance or of the past is something we can now do with
          technology, but the function of these items should not be described as
          technological.

          -- David.
        • Pauline J. Alama
          Perhaps someone s already brought this up, but at any rate, I think that for an author whose best friends were sent to the trenches by leaders proud of their
          Message 4 of 14 , Jan 2, 2003
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            Perhaps someone's already brought this up, but at any rate, I think that for an author whose best friends were sent to the trenches by leaders proud of their modern thinking, and killed by some of the latest inventions of military technology, like chemical warfare and automatic weaponry, it's rather natural to have a somewhat jaded view of technology and progress.

            "What passing bells for these, who die as cattle?
            Only the monstrous anger of the guns."
            --Wilfred Owen, another WWI poet.

            Pauline J. Alama
            http://www.geocities.com/paulinejalama/paulinealama.html
            THE EYE OF NIGHT
            (Bantam Spectra, July 2002)
            --- On Wed 01/01, David S Bratman < dbratman@... > wrote:From: David S Bratman [mailto: dbratman@...]To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.comDate: Wed, 01 Jan 2003 11:01:13 -0800Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Tolkien and technologyAt 01:55 PM 1/1/2003 -0500, Alexei wrote:>One should also note that the supposed "magic" of the Elves (like the>Silmarils, the palant�ri, Galadriel's mirror, etc.) are really examples of a>very high technology, but one that isn't the product of an industrialised>system.And one that can't be reduced to a simple scientific explanation either, one should also add. As Tolkien wrote, "I dislike any pull towards 'scientification'. ... [This mode is] alien to my story." (The invaluable Letter no. 210 again, p. 274)- David BratmanThe Mythopoeic Society website http://www.mythsoc.org Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/

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            [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
          • alexeik@aol.com
            In a message dated 1/2/3 12:48:00 AM, David Porteous wrote:
            Message 5 of 14 , Jan 2, 2003
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              In a message dated 1/2/3 12:48:00 AM, David Porteous wrote:

              <<No, I must disagree here. OCE defines technology as "the study or use of

              the mechanical arts or applied sciences". The items you mention are neither

              mechanical or examples of any kind of science. This "supposed magic" is

              better described as just "magic".


              Vision over distance or of the past is something we can now do with

              technology, but the function of these items should not be described as

              technological.

              >>

              I can't agree. What the Elves do doesn't at all resemble traditional models
              of magic. Fëanor and the Noldor are consistently portrayed as craftsmen, not
              magicians; the Silmarils and the Rings of Power are "forged", clearly put
              together by some sort of physical process, even though it's not one we're
              familiar with. The passage Jan Galkowski just quoted from FotR (about the
              elven-cloaks) makes it clear that the Elves don't think of what they do as
              "magic", although it looks like "magic" to outsiders (viz. the old chestnut:
              "A sufficiently advanced technology is undistinguishable from magic"). It
              seems evident to me that Tolkien (not himself a scientist) envisioned his
              Elves as possessing a science that gave them a far more intimate knowledge of
              the workings of the universe than 20th-century human science has managed to
              achieve, and as having a technology that reflects this. He didn't bother to
              speculate in detail on the nature of this science and its technological
              applications (which would have turned his books into science fiction), since
              this was not where his primary interest lay.
              Alexei
            • David F. Porteous
              What traditional models are you referring to? I can t
              Message 6 of 14 , Jan 2, 2003
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                <<Alexei wrote: I can't agree. What the Elves do doesn't at all resemble
                traditional models of magic.>>

                What traditional models are you referring to? I can't dispute that point
                unless I know what you have established as a basis for "real" magic.

                <<Fëanor and the Noldor are consistently portrayed as craftsmen, not
                magicians; the Silmarils and the Rings of Power are "forged", clearly put
                together by some sort of physical process, even though it's not one we're
                familiar with.>>

                I would be curious to learn how you would go about constructing a ring which
                you considered magical and what part of that process you feel is lacking in
                the construction of these rings. Simply because the rings of power were
                forged does not by itself mean they were not magical. As for Fëanor being a
                craftsman he certainly was, but as I said that does not preclude him from
                also being able to make items of magic. "Then he began a long and secret
                labour, and he summoned all his lore, and his power, and his subtle skill;
                and at the end of all he made the Silmarils... And the inner fire of the
                Silmarils Fëanor made of the blended light of the trees of Valinor...." --
                (Sil. p67). Note the terms "power" and "subtle skill" -- the Silmarils were
                not simply an application of technology, of "lore", they were a creation
                beyond technology which depended on something being given to them by their
                creator. Part of that something may have been art or craft, part was most
                certainly magic. If you are implying that the elven understanding of the
                physical universe was sufficiently advanced to trap an endless source of
                light in a crystal I would say that such advanced technology would be
                otherwise represented in elven culture, it is not possible to go directly
                from living in trees to manipulating wave/particles; there are several steps
                in-between and while I'm prepared to countenance that elves may be very
                advanced I would first like to see some kind of evidence of these
                intervening steps.

                <<The passage Jan Galkowski just quoted from FotR (about the elven-cloaks)
                makes it clear that the Elves don't think of what they do as "magic"...>>

                No it doesn't, it makes it clear that the elves don't think of the cloaks as
                magic, which they aren't. I haven't heard anyone say they are. The quote
                actually tells us how the cloaks are made, somebody weaves them -- perhaps
                it's very technologically advanced weaving? If the elves had been
                questioned about the mirror I doubt their answer would have been as prosaic.

                <<...it looks like "magic" to outsiders (viz. the old chestnut: "A
                sufficiently advanced technology is undistinguishable from magic").>>

                And of course the reverse, magic might easily be mistaken for very advanced
                technology, is necessarily true. Unless of course your contention is that
                magic does not exist at all in Tolkien, in which case we cannot have this
                discussion.

                <<It seems evident to me that Tolkien (not himself a scientist) envisioned
                his Elves as possessing a science that gave them a far more intimate
                knowledge of the workings of the universe than 20th-century human science
                has managed to achieve, and as having a technology that reflects this.>>

                You may think it strange, but I would agree with that. Only in general
                sentiment though. Elves, as is the case with many of the peoples of our
                earth, have a spiritual understanding of their world and that this
                understanding does not derive through equations and formulae. But isn't
                this closer to what we would consider religion and mysticism than science?
                I've posed that question and I apologise as I'm also going to answer it. It
                is religion and mysticism -- which for Tolkien's world is real; discussions
                on how this pertains to our world are tangential and irrelevant -- which is
                only the shortest of steps away from magic.

                <<He didn't bother to speculate in detail on the nature of this science and
                its technological applications (which would have turned his books into
                science fiction), since this was not where his primary interest lay.>>

                Couldn't the argument be made that the reason Tolkien didn't speculate in
                this way was because there was nothing on which to speculate? Tolkien
                didn't speculate on a great many things which weren't part of his books.

                Tolkien did however use the actual words "magic" and "sorcery" in the
                narrative of his books, not just as misconceptions by characters. I cannot
                believe he would use such terms when he in fact specifically did not mean
                magic or sorcery, but technology.

                -- David
              • disneylogic <disneylogic@yahoo.com>
                On Thu, 2 Jan 2003 21:29:56 -0000 David F. Porteous wrote in part: [snip] ... A quibble, if you ll allow: Industrialization and
                Message 7 of 14 , Jan 3, 2003
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                  On Thu, 2 Jan 2003 21:29:56 -0000 "David F. Porteous"
                  <dporteous@...> wrote in part:

                  [snip]

                  >Elves, as is the case with many of the peoples of our
                  >earth, have a spiritual understanding of their world and that this
                  >understanding does not derive through equations and formulae.

                  A quibble, if you'll allow: Industrialization and mechanics does not
                  go, necessarily or not, hand in hand with superior mathematics.
                  Indeed, it is pretty much independent of it. Much of the gnostic
                  tendency in early European science and, before that, in southeastern
                  European religion was a combination of mathematics, mysticism, and
                  Manicheanism. Having been grounded in much of it, I can't imagine
                  anything closer to the spiritual than a view of our world based upon
                  quantum mechanics, although many of the purely rationalist opinion
                  would disagree with me on that.

                  Recall the toast of the Oxford Mathematics Society:

                  To Mathematics! May She be of no damn use to anybody!

                  Indeed, to people familiar with it, the astounding thing about
                  mathematics is that it is as useful as it is.

                  --jtg


                  [snip]
                • Stolzi@aol.com
                  ... Elvis did, too. [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
                  Message 8 of 14 , Jan 3, 2003
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                    > On Thu, 2 Jan 2003 21:29:56 -0000 "David F. Porteous"
                    > <dporteous@...> wrote in part:
                    >
                    > [snip]
                    >
                    > >Elves, as is the case with many of the peoples of our
                    > >earth, have a spiritual understanding of their world


                    Elvis did, too.


                    [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
                  • David F. Porteous
                    Message 9 of 14 , Jan 4, 2003
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                      <<disneylogic wrote: A quibble, if you'll allow>>

                      Hmmm, oh alright, you may quibble ;)

                      <<Industrialization and mechanics does not go, necessarily or not, hand in
                      hand with superior mathematics. Indeed, it is pretty much independent of
                      it.>>

                      Well I would agree that mathematics is not dependant on industrialisation or
                      mechanics, but engineering, and thus industrialisation and mechanics, is
                      dependant on mathematics.

                      <<Much of the gnostic tendency in early European science....>>

                      But in this instance the discussion is not about early science; the argument
                      which has been put is that elves are in possession of some very advanced
                      science. To duplicate the effects of the rings of power using technology
                      would require greater understanding than we currently have and it is my
                      contention that while such is not inconceivable, it would be necessary to
                      move to such an understanding systematically. Everything we know about the
                      development of technology tells us this is so.

                      <<Having been grounded in much of it, I can't imagine anything closer to the
                      spiritual than a view of our world based upon quantum mechanics, although
                      many of the purely rationalist opinion would disagree with me on that.>>

                      I think religious people would disagree that there is nothing closer to the
                      spiritual than maths, though I believe this Pope is very much in favour of
                      science being developed and doesn't feel it impinges on the remit of
                      religion. Personally, as an atheist, I believe in an existentialist
                      viewpoint.

                      <<Recall the toast of the Oxford Mathematics Society: To Mathematics! May
                      She be of no damn use to anybody!>>

                      Very good.

                      -- David.
                    • alexeik@aol.com
                      In a message dated 1/2/3 9:24:26 PM, David Porteous wrote:
                      Message 10 of 14 , Jan 4, 2003
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                        In a message dated 1/2/3 9:24:26 PM, David Porteous wrote:


                        <<<<[I wrote] The passage Jan Galkowski just quoted from FotR (about the
                        elven-cloaks)

                        makes it clear that the Elves don't think of what they do as "magic"...>>


                        No it doesn't, it makes it clear that the elves don't think of the cloaks as

                        magic, which they aren't. I haven't heard anyone say they are [mind you, the
                        hobbits have just expressed a suspicion they might be -- AK]. The quote

                        actually tells us how the cloaks are made, somebody weaves them -- perhaps

                        it's very technologically advanced weaving? If the elves had been

                        questioned about the mirror I doubt their answer would have been as prosaic.>>

                        Galadriel (in reference to the Mirror): "For this is what your folk would
                        call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and
                        they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if
                        you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see
                        Elf-magic?"
                        Much the same reaction as with the elven-cloaks (which are not simply
                        high-quality weave, but have unusual properties that could be ascribed to
                        "magic") -- "you people call it magic, even though that doesn't make sense to
                        *us*; but I'll humour you by calling it "magic" if it makes you comfortable".
                        Yes, as you point out, Tolkien does refer to "magic" and "sorcery" as
                        realities in his subcreation, but (as far as I can recall) always in
                        reference to activities of the servants of Morgoth, and later Sauron. The
                        reason, I think, is simple: as a Catholic, Tolkien has a strongly negative
                        view of magic and the occult as illicit spheres of knowledge ("the deceits of
                        the Enemy"), and doesn't want us to think that the activities of the Elves
                        are at all related to them in *kind*. What the Elves do is the product of
                        licit, "scientific" knowledge -- what a Mediaeval frame of reference would
                        call "natural philosophy". It is real knowledge of the workings of nature,
                        applied to licit ends.


                        <<<<...it looks like "magic" to outsiders (viz. the old chestnut: "A

                        sufficiently advanced technology is undistinguishable from magic").>>


                        And of course the reverse, magic might easily be mistaken for very advanced

                        technology, is necessarily true.>>

                        Not necessarily. One can mistake a very advanced technology (a technology
                        that has dispensed with bulky "hardware", for instance) for magic because the
                        process by which it works is invisible, cannot be reconstructed by
                        observation, and thus seems to have the properties commonly ascribed to
                        magic. But there's no in-built reason to perceive something that looks like
                        magic as being anything other than magic (unless one disbelieves in magic on
                        principle, and thus is forced to suspect that something else is at work).

                        << Unless of course your contention is that

                        magic does not exist at all in Tolkien, in which case we cannot have this

                        discussion.>>

                        See above: magic does exist in Tolkien, but it has the negative
                        characteristics it usually has in Christian tradition.


                        <<{I wrote] It seems evident to me that Tolkien (not himself a scientist)
                        envisioned

                        his Elves as possessing a science that gave them a far more intimate

                        knowledge of the workings of the universe than 20th-century human science

                        has managed to achieve, and as having a technology that reflects this.>>


                        You may think it strange, but I would agree with that. Only in general

                        sentiment though. Elves, as is the case with many of the peoples of our

                        earth, have a spiritual understanding of their world and that this

                        understanding does not derive through equations and formulae. But isn't

                        this closer to what we would consider religion and mysticism than science?

                        I've posed that question and I apologise as I'm also going to answer it. It

                        is religion and mysticism -- which for Tolkien's world is real; discussions

                        on how this pertains to our world are tangential and irrelevant -- which is

                        only the shortest of steps away from magic.>>

                        But for Tolkien, "religion and mysticism" are part of the real world, and in
                        fact come closer to giving ultimate explanations of the nature of the world
                        than any other approach. They're not mere epiphenomena that distract from the
                        investigation of material "reality", but a strong clue to understanding the
                        entire pattern of reality, including its material dimensions. As Steve
                        Schaper put it, "30,000 years of instruction by angels" has given the Elves
                        as much (much more, in fact) real *knowledge* of the workings of the universe
                        as millennia of trial-and-error empiricism could have. It's also allowed them
                        to bypass the messier stages of scientific discovery -- ie, cruder,
                        destructive and polluting technologies based on heavy industry.

                        <<If you are implying that the elven understanding of the

                        physical universe was sufficiently advanced to trap an endless source of

                        light in a crystal I would say that such advanced technology would be

                        otherwise represented in elven culture, it is not possible to go directly

                        from living in trees to manipulating wave/particles; there are several steps

                        in-between and while I'm prepared to countenance that elves may be very

                        advanced I would first like to see some kind of evidence of these

                        intervening steps.>>

                        But when scientific knowledge is obtained not through a purely empirical
                        process but through "30,000 years of instruction by angels", there don't
                        have to be any "steps in-between". You're assuming that the development of
                        science and the attendant development of technology must necessarily follow
                        the same pattern that it has on our world (and you may well be right if the
                        same limitations that affect human knowledge are in place in the subcreated
                        world as well). I doubt, however, that Tolkien was constrained by such an
                        assumption. A close parallel can be seen in _Out of the Silent Planet_, by
                        Tolkien's fellow-Inkling C.S. Lewis: initially Weston and Devine think that
                        the inhabitants of Malacandra are technologically primitive (and therefore,
                        like low-tech peoples on Earth, "inferior" and available for exploitation by
                        high-tech peoples) because they see no evidence of industrialisation on the
                        planet. Later, when he witnesses the dematerialisation of the bodies of the
                        dead hrossa at Meldilorn, Devine is terrified, realising that his assumptions
                        about the ignorance and helplessness of the Malacandrians were unfounded.
                        Again, "instruction by angels" has upset the expected model of technological
                        development, allowing Stone Age artifacts to coexist with "manipulating
                        waves/particles", eliminating the "steps in-between". Lewis (no more a
                        scientist than Tolkien) makes a general attempt to convey the different
                        nature of Malacandrian science (eg, Augray's brief disquisition on light and
                        angelic bodies), but he doesn't, of course, take it very far. I do think,
                        however, that the Elvish and Malacandrian models are very similar. Since what
                        they do consists of an application of real knowledge of the workings of the
                        universe to affecting local natural processes, I don't hesitate to call it
                        "technology". Perhaps your own definition of the term is incompatible with
                        this.
                        Alexei
                      • disneylogic <disneylogic@yahoo.com>
                        On Sat, 4 Jan 2003 13:04:24 -0000 David F. Porteous wrote in part: [snip] ... Yes, true enough, I guess. But apart from the
                        Message 11 of 14 , Jan 6, 2003
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                          On Sat, 4 Jan 2003 13:04:24 -0000 "David F. Porteous"
                          <dporteous@...> wrote in part:

                          [snip]

                          >Well I would agree that mathematics is not dependant on
                          >industrialisation or mechanics, but engineering, and thus
                          >industrialisation and mechanics, is dependant on mathematics.

                          Yes, true enough, I guess. But apart from the alchemist tendencies
                          on the part of Sauruman in producing the gunpowder-like substance to
                          use at Helm's Deep in LOTR, there isn't a lot of calculation
                          apparent. Sauruman seems to empower things using his wizard's staff
                          and the orcs appear to come already equipped with metallurgical
                          skills. In the movie, in contrast with the book, the Uruk-hai appear
                          to be formed whole. I don't recall the book detailing how they are
                          created.

                          <<Much of the gnostic tendency in early European science....>>

                          >But in this instance the discussion is not about early science;
                          >the argument which has been put is that elves are in possession of
                          >some very advanced science. To duplicate the effects of the rings
                          >of power using technology would require greater understanding than >
                          >we currently have and it is my contention that while such is not
                          >inconceivable, it would be necessary to move to such an
                          >understanding systematically. Everything we know about the
                          >development of technology tells us this is so.

                          Well, while clearly there has been progress in technology, based upon
                          the kinds of things we are capable of creating, there is always this
                          sense, felt at the fringe, that superior technology was once in hand
                          and has been lost. After all, isn't that part of the Atlantis myth?
                          And isn't that part of the thing that moves people, including some
                          folks who've recently grabbed the headlines, to believe our
                          civilization and perhaps even we are intellectual descendents of
                          'visitors from elsewhere'?

                          That could be, too, another gloss on "For nothing is evil in the
                          beginning. Even Sauron was not so." This might mean the skills and
                          art of doing all these things were given and created by Iluvtar,
                          along with the moral bounds and limits on their proper use, and this
                          usage has decayed since then. Indeed, why not paint Melkor as the
                          first vehicle who strayed beyond the proper use of these skills?
                          This sentiment isn't limited to technology. Maimonedes, in one of
                          his ego trips, wrote Judah ha-Nasi codified things in the Mishnah
                          with a completed understanding of the philosophical principles
                          underlying the Torah, common understanding had decayed since then,
                          and he, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, was going to set all right because he
                          knew what was right again. Maybe all this is is an extended fall
                          from grace? I've wondered, in fact, if the history of Middle-earth
                          might not be interpreted as Man's fall from grace, albeit it takes
                          thousands of years rather than the instant an apple is eaten.

                          <<Having been grounded in much of it, I can't imagine anything closer
                          to the
                          spiritual than a view of our world based upon quantum mechanics,
                          although
                          many of the purely rationalist opinion would disagree with me on
                          that.>>

                          >I think religious people would disagree that there is nothing closer
                          >to the spiritual than maths, though I believe this Pope is very much
                          >in favour of science being developed and doesn't feel it impinges on
                          >the remit of religion. Personally, as an atheist, I believe in an
                          >existentialist viewpoint.

                          The viewpoint is not modern, for sure. But I bet that's a lot of
                          what Scholasticism was about and how and why folks saw in Greek
                          sources another way of establishing their religious convictions, if
                          one accepts logic as being of the same stuff as mathematics, i.e.,
                          logos.

                          -- Jan

                          [snip]
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