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SAURON, Mount Doom, and Elvish Moths: The Influence of Tolkien on Modern Science

From: Tolkien Studies
Volume 4, 2007
pp. 223-234 | 10.1353/tks.2007.0024

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

SAURON, Mount Doom, and Elvish Moths:
The Influence of Tolkien on Modern Science

J.R.R. Tolkien once explained that Middle-earth was based on his "wonder and delight in the Earth as it is, particularly the natural Earth" (New York Times 18). Numerous authors have analyzed the influence of real-world science on Middle-earth, including Flieger, Quiñónez and Raggett, Manning, and Larsen. In turn, Tolkien's works have influenced a number of distinct disciplines, the most obvious being fantasy writing. In 1980, Attebery noted that "No important work of fantasy written After Tolkien is free of his influence, and many are merely halting imitations of his style and substance" (10). Even the most cursory examination of the voluminous Tolkien Music List demonstrates the impact Tolkien's subcreation has had on myriad musical genres. Less well-known is Middle-earth's influence on the teaching of composition, literature, and even astronomy (Stanton; Nelson; Larsen "Teaching"). This paper will examine a surprisingly rich yet largely neglected area of Tolkien's influence, namely that on real-world science and scientists.

It has been documented that Middle-earth caught the attention of students and practitioners of science from the early days of Tolkien fandom. For example, in the 1960s, the Tolkien Society members were said to mainly consist of "students, teachers, scientists or psychologists" (Resnik 94). A decade later, the printer at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) was adapted to handle a Tengwar font (Davis 124). Not surprisingly, scientists from such varied disciplines as paleontology and astronomy began honoring their favorite author through the naming of discoveries after Tolkien himself and various characters of Middle-earth. Nowhere has this been more evident and widespread than in the taxonomy of living and extinct species.

Bee specialist Doug Yanega explains that in taxonomy, "most names are descriptive, and a big chunk of the rest of them are honorific" (Milius 330). As Henry Gee notes,

Given Tolkien's passion for nomenclature, his coinage, over decades, of enormous numbers of euphonious names—not to mention scientists' fondness for Tolkien—it is perhaps inevitable that Tolkien has been accorded formal taxonomic commemoration like no other author

(54). [End Page 223]

As one of the central characters in the Third Age of Middle-earth, Gollum/Sméagol is an obvious choice for such scientific immortality. In 1973, K. J. Hedqvist named a new species of Swedish wasp Smeagolia perplexa, while in 1980 F. M. Climo dubbed a new order of "enigmatic New Zealand slug" Smeagolida (514). The corresponding new genus Smeagol was named for

the pallid, sometimes subterranean Tolkien character Smeagol (whose alternative name is Gollum), a pitiable humanoid who ultimately played a very important role in saving 'Middle Earth' from evil forces. The slug below is far more significant, phylogenetically, than its drab exterior indicates—hence the analogy.


New Zealand is also home to two other Gollums, the first being Galaxias gollumoides, a freshwater fish with large eyes, named after the "dark little fellow with big round eyes who sometimes frequents a swamp, a character in J. R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' and 'Lord of the Rings', hence gollumoides meaning Gollum-like" (McDowall and Chadderton 85). The other "Kiwi" Gollum is Gollum attenuatus, "a bizarre-looking longnosed deepwater shark" first recognized by L.J.V. Compagno (192) in 1973. This original Gollumshark was recently joined in the subfamily Golluminae by two other still unnamed species, temporarily dubbed Gollum A and B (Compagno, Dando, and Fowler 258-9).

Hobbits are also honored in the taxonomical system. Terry Erwin named a species of Central American ground-beetle Pericompsus bilbo due its short, fat stature and hairy feet (470). Syconycteris hobbit, the moss-forest blossom bat indigenous to Indonesia and New Guinea identified by Ziegler in 1982, is currently listed as a vulnerable species. Juan Morrone named three new species of Andean weevils after Tolkien characters (Macrostyphlus bilbo, Macrostyphlus gandalf, and Macrostyphlus Frodo) in 1994. Other familiar names that appear in the taxonomy of living creatures include Gwaihiria naumann, an Australian wasp discovered by I. D. Naumann in 1982 and named after the great eagle; Sauron, a genus of spiders from the Saur Mountains...