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Tolkien Studies 2.1 (2005) 161-170

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A Definitive Identification of Tolkien's "Borgil":

An Astronomical and Literary Approach

As the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring passes, it is especially appropriate that academics and fans alike reflect on the singular richness of the mythology encompassed in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. In his role of "sub-creator," Tolkien crafted a "Secondary World which your mind can enter." While immersed in this other place, the reader believes in the truth of it "while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed" (MC 132). Tolkien's unsurpassed ability to invent such a self-contained universe was a reflection of his own widely varied interests. Science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp noted that Tolkien was "one of those people who has literally read everything, and can converse intelligently on just about any subject" (Carter 25).

Among the subjects which interested Tolkien, and thus helped shaped Middle-earth, was astronomy. His daughter, Priscilla, verified that her father "had a general interest in" astronomy (Quiñonez and Raggett 5). Several authors1 have summarized the remarkable breadth of astronomical allusions contained in Tolkien's work, but a sufficient taste may be found in Tolkien's published letters. For example, in a 24 April 1944 letter to his son, Christopher, Tolkien recounted how he "struggled with recalcitrant passage in 'The Ring.' At this point I require to know how much later the moon gets up each night when nearing full, and how to stew a rabbit!" (Letters 74). In another letter to Christopher dated 14 May 1944, he further explained that his writing was being "hindered by… trouble with the moon. By which I mean that I found my moons in the crucial days between Frodo's flight and the present situation (arrival at Minas Morghul) were doing impossible things, rising in one part of the country and setting simultaneously in another" (Letters 80). In a letter to Naomi Mitchison dated 25 September 1954, Tolkien explained the Númenorean story of the rounding of the world by the fact that "So deep was the impression made by 'astronomy' on me that I do not think I could deal with or imaginatively conceive a flat world…." (Letters 197).

It is in the context of these and numerous other examples from Tolkien's own notes and letters that the following passage from the chapter "Three's Company" in The Fellowship of the Ring should be understood: [End Page 161]

The night grew on, and the lights in the valley went out. Pippin fell asleep, pillowed on a green hillock.

Away high in the East swung Remmirath, the Netted Stars, and slowly above the mists red Borgil rose, glowing like a jewel of fire. Then by some shift of airs all the mist was drawn away like a veil, and there leaned up, as he climbed over the rim of the world, the Swordsman of the Sky, Menelvagor with his shining belt.

(FR, I, iii, 91)

Tolkien's own description of the history of Middle-earth as "a period of the actual Old World of this planet" (Letters 220), coupled with the importance of "real" astronomy in his process of sub-creation lead one to at least seriously consider the possibility that the tableau described was meant to mirror the real night sky. In addition, the chronology originally laid out in The Return of the Shadow and published in Appendix B of The Return of the King specifies that the hobbits' night with Gildor and the other elves occurred on 24 September (Shadow 160). This allows one to specify with relative certainty the identity of Remmirath, Borgil, and Menelvagor. This paper will briefly summarize the evidence for the undisputed identifications of the first and the third of these, then concentrate on the much-disputed identity of Borgil, utilizing both literary and astronomical analysis to reach a definitive identification.

Appendix E of The Return...