- "Beneath the Earth's dark keel":Tolkien and Geology
"O Valar, ye know not all wonders, and many secret things are there beneath the Earth's dark keel" (Lost Tales I 214). So Ulmo explained the Earth's structure to the Valar. It is curious that they, having materially participated in the making of the world, should be uncertain of its form, but Tolkien was himself uncertain how to depict Arda, at this stage (c.1919) and for decades afterwards.1
Henry Gee has rightly observed that it is unsurprising Tolkien was interested in the earth sciences given his own view of his profession: "I am primarily a scientific philologist. My interests were, and remain, largely scientific" (Gee 34; Letters 345). Tolkien, like any educated person of his generation, was exposed to and to a degree internalized both the scientific method and the scientific worldview. For example, in "On Fairy-stories" Tolkien chose to use a geologic metaphor when discussing the preservation of ancient elements in fairy-stories: "Fairy-stories are by no means rocky matrices out of which the fossils cannot be prised except by an expert geologist" (OFS 49). As Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson note in their commentary, "The geologic comparison here is both timely and intentional: geology and mythology being coeval disciplines arising in roughly the same period and out of the same human impulse to dig into origins" (OFS 106). The same could, of course, be said of philology. Further, Tolkien was a reader of science fiction and well aware of the expectations it engendered in readers in terms of coherent world building (see Gee 23-41). Given Tolkien's insistence that Middle-earth is our Earth (Letters 220, 239, 283, 376) the inclusion of geological references is part of the "hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun" (OFS 65) which is, according to Tolkien, fantasy's essential foundation.
But scientific understanding and the theories and discoveries on which it is based develop and change. The importance of scientific developments, and geology in particular, to Tolkien's account of the shaping of Middle-earth has been emphasized by Karen Wynn Fonstad, Alex Lewis and Elizabeth Currie, Henry Gee and Kristine Larsen (Larsen, A Little Earth of His Own, Shadow and Flame).2 The geology Tolkien knew was not static in any way; new discoveries apparently influenced him as he revised his legendarium. The most far-reaching development in geological theory in the twentieth century, though it took most of Tolkien's scholarly lifetime to establish itself, was continental [End Page 21] drift and Tolkien's writing displays an awareness of and receptivity to it.3 Both Robert C. Reynolds and William Sarjeant have offered explanations of the topography of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age in terms of plate tectonics, but both articles are primarily descriptive and do not address the question of Tolkien's knowledge of geology, particularly the evidence for continental drift developing across the drafts of his legendarium.4
Indications of a growing concern with geological accuracy and a familiarity with continental drift emerge side by side in Tolkien's writings as they developed. Though Tolkien's geology would always have a strong catastrophist element, in the 1930s Tolkien began to incorporate into it a uniformitarian underpinning of geologic time as well as a dynamic theory of geological change. 5 The general uniformitarian consensus in geology in the second half of the nineteenth and opening decades of the twentieth century understandably formed the basis of Tolkien's treatment of geologic time. But the particular form geological change took in his developing presentation of Middle-earth in deep time may be in part the result of Alfred Wegener's then revolutionary theory of continental drift. Briefly put, "continental drift" proposes a lateral movement of land masses across the Earth's surface over geologic time. The notion of continental drift was suggested as early as 1596 in the third edition of Abraham Ortelius' Thesaurus Geographicus where he noticed the symmetry of the African and American coasts and reinterpreted Plato's Critias as referring not to Atlantis sinking but to...