The Tolkienian War on Science
|The Tolkienian War on Science
|16 March 2007
|The Silmarillion, other Tolkien
|science/technology in Tolkien's works, Fëanor, the Noldor, Sauron
|@ scienceblogs.com; @ SWG
|Click here for related articles on Fanlore.
The Tolkienian War on Science is an essay in the Tolkien fandom by Joan Bushwell, published in 2007. It discusses Tolkien's attitude to science & technology, particularly as evident in his treatment of Fëanor & the Noldor in The Silmarillion, in the context of contemporary American anti-science sentiment.
- Tolkien's longing for a pastoral idyll rendered him anti-science/technology
- The Noldor are the Tolkienian equivalent of scientists & engineers, with the Silmarils being high-tech objects
- Science is amoral but scientists are human
- The Silmarillion ignores Fëanor's intellectual property rights to the Silmarils
- Fëanor's attitude to the Valar resembles contemporary scientists' attitude to the American Christian Right
- The Noldor's punishment was disproportionate
- Sauron is another example of a scientist/technologist
...There were three groups of Elves living in Aman in the West: the Vanyar, the pious faithful who were sycophants of the Valar, the Teleri who were the surfer-dudes who dug tunes, built ships and lived by the sea, and finally, the Noldor.
This time I recognized the Noldor. Tolkien called then "craftsmen and smiths." Read that in 21st century-speak and you know that these people are our people: scientists and engineers. Now science and engineering are amoral in and of themselves, but those who practice such crafts are only human, so are equally subject to good and bad influences, but Tolkien really, really did not like modernism and science/technology. Thus, there were plenty of morality lessons to be had among the crafty Elves. In his milieu, the most talented of sci-tech types among the Noldor were prideful and possessive, easily corrupted and therefore worthy of punishment.Fëanor, the master smith/scientist/engineer created three high tech artifacts, the Silmarils. Morgoth coveted the Silmarils. In his efforts to gain the jewels, Morgoth worked to create divisions among the Noldor and subsequently tainted their work, not unlike the US administration's pressure on those scientists who studied global warming to withhold data or those in the FDA who stopped Plan B.
Reception & Reviews
The essay was generally well received, with reviewers considering it thought provoking even if they did not agree with Bushwell's argument. Reviewers who self-identified as science/tech people often strongly agreed with the conclusions, and some extended them to characters in The Lord of the Rings. Some reviewers enjoyed the essay's humour and the fast pacing.
How I cheered when I first read this essay! Doc Bushwell's take on Tolkien's hatred of science and technology is spot on. Generally, when I read the books, I just want to go along for the ride, but all too often Tolkien won't let you. He is too busy preaching, and it gets in the way of his story-telling. All the same, the true artist in him is at war with the preacher, and so you get the portrait of Feanor as the "evil scientist" but also the "greatest of the Noldor." In that way Tolkien himself recognized his own dilemma. In the Lord of the Rings I recognize it primarily in the treatment of Saruman. According to Gandalf, Saruman wants to pursue social order and therefore follow Sauron. It's rather hard to understand what this is supposed to mean, since whenever you see them Sauron's minions are busy killing and destroying. Not good for business. The only sense my atheistic brain can make of it is that people like Saruman aren't supposed to boss all the others around. What, like telling the Elves to leave Middle-earth, where Eru put them, and come to Aman? Go figure. In the end, like all religions, you just have to accept the unexplainable on faith. And that's why I'll always be on Feanor's side! Really, there's a great AU tale of Saruman in there somewhere.... (Gandalfs apprentice)
Just as Doc Bushwell, I read Tolkien's works at a later age and the way she perceives his works, and shines a different light on the Noldor made me humming yes or oh yeah all along. As a Silm writer, Feanorians to be precise, it sometimes is difficult to describe why you want to write about them and as much as one might try, the dreamier elven races always seemed more appealing to readers and were favoured by the Professor himself. However, after I read this bit: [There were three groups of Elves living in Aman in the West: the Vanyar, the pious faithful who were sycophants of the Valar, the Teleri who were the surfer-dudes who dug tunes, built ships and lived by the sea, and finally, the Noldor.] a giggle surfaced and well, I simply could not quit reading. Doc Bushwell writes in clear and engaging prose, weaves in twinges of humour, but even more so, her essays are also a joy to read. No matter what topic that might be - for those non-scientific it is easy to follow and the examples given are explained in a tangible way (although the name of Dick Cheney made me laugh so hard). She weaves in examples from current day life, Fëanor's IP rights are a great example here, to explain why those who do feel drawn to Fëanor's house, love to explore and write about them. I think we often don’t think about how the world in itself works, even though the professor’s work are a great source for escapism, I think Doc Bushwell illustrates Tolkien’s antipathy for scientist in a great way as veiled as it may be in his works. The structure of this essay is cleverly constructed and comes fully to its right at its conclusion where more examples except Fëanor are brought up - Sauron is yet another good example - and with the knowledge of all his works, Doc Bushwell rightfully wonders why the scientists on Arda had to be punished so severely. A point well brought across, I could not agree more with this piece. (Rhapsody)
I very much appreciated this essay, because it managed to explain in an intelligent manner some of the concepts that I had been bandying around and annoying others with for the past year and half or so. Crudely put that the Valar weren't exactly nature's noblemen, that the Noldor were punished in fairly hideous and incidious ways for defending themselves, and, hey, what's a little kinslaying in the context of world history -- OK, all right, in my exaggeration and hasty emotionalism, I go way too far and come across too stident (not to mention inarticulate), that is when I try to point to this article and Doc Bushwell and say "That is what I really meant to say!" I also read The Lord of the Rings in 1968, but I greatly appreciated Tolkien's anti-science, return-to-nature bias (it was during the period when I was ranting about the "military-industrial complex" and agitating for organic vegetables as a political statement). I also had the history of hailing from a blighted coal-mining area, which supported both stip mining and underground mining. I had some idea of what the Shire could look like after the bad guys won. Time passes and one gains life experience. The mines are around my childhood home have long closed. The strip pits have been filled with water and stocked with bass and the hills are green and wooded once more--OK, the poverty is appalling, the unemployment rate obscene, but the landscape is lovely. I now look upon Tolkien's naturism with a more critical eye. And, having become completely obsessed with the Silmarillion, find myself a die-hard Noldorin nationalist at the moment. I agree with Doc Bushwell that [science and engineering are amoral in and of themselves, but those who practice such crafts are only human, so are equally subject to good and bad influences]. There is more complexity to the question than a simple dislike of science and technology on the part Tolkien. He is the one who wrote those Noldor as so attractive and appealing (I've always thought of that as the John-Milton aspect of his mythology--the villian as the real hero of the piece, OK, maybe not the hero, but at least the one most swoon-worthy). Great piece, Doc Bushwell, thoughtful, perceptive, funny and so well-written. (Sorry. I promised a good review and give you this silly rant--forgive me.) I highly recommend Doc Bushwell's stories posted on the Silmarillion Writers' Guild site which explore her thoughts on this subject in fiction. Great storytelling and wonderful characterization. (Oshun)
I love the way this article is written, with the passion of a scientist and the enthusiasm of a fan. The touches of humor [Sauron. He's not quite as horrible as his big boss, Dick Cheney, er, I mean, Morgoth] are fun and very much to the point, and the concept that Tolkien was anti-science is compelling and thought provokng. Of course the article raises an important question. Was Tolkien anti-science? This question could include many authors through the years, not just the writings of one fantasy author who conceived his world of Elves and Vala more than fifty years ago. The question, IMO, goes to the heart of how science and technology is viewed by the people who benefit from the advances produced by these arts without always fully understanding their methods and processes. As Arthur C. Clarke said, ["Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."] I think Tolkien understood this, on some level at least, when he wrote about Feanor and the Silmarils. Keeping in mind that Tolkien's intent was ostensibly to create a mythology as deeply rooted in the collective unconscious as that of the Norse and Greeks, it seems to me that, while following the themes of these myths, and adding elements of biblical stories as well (consciously or not) he chose to exploit the love/hate relationship with which men have always viewed technology. Fire, while useful and necessary, is also destructive, weapons created to hunt can also be used in war, etc. How Tolkien felt about all this personally remains a matter for debate. However, Tolkien wrote that being possessive of the knowledge and craft used to create the Silmarils was a "sin" worthy of punishment. If only the Valar had been as high minded and pure of intent as they expected the Elves to be, Feanor might have fared much better. But then we would have a different story altogether. An excellent article that brought me new insights into the Silmarilliion (which I still have not finished). (Ignoble Bard)
Doc Bushwell made her first appearance this past year as a Tolkien writer--writing both fiction and non-fiction--and "The Tolkienian War on Science" is a wonderful example of why she has quickly become one of my favorite authors. With an impressive knowledge of canon and a lively style that keeps me reading--and laughing--till the last word, "Tolkienian" is both hard-hitting and engaging and is well deserving of the nomination it has received here. But what truly sets Doc Bushwell's writing apart from many other canon-savvy writers with a gift for their craft is the knack she has for taking the same facts that the rest of us study and use and turning them on their heads to generate conclusions and a version of Middle-earth quite unlike any I have ever seen. While "Tolkienian" is non-fiction, it serves as a basis, almost a mission statement, for her work that follows. She jumps with both feet into one of the most popular debates among those who study and write about the First Age: were the Valar justified in their treatment of Feanor? Did they have the right to demand access to the Silmarils, or did Feanor have the right to refuse? Who is truly morally and ethically just in his demands of the other? Looking at Feanor--and the Noldor as a whole--as a scientist/technologist used and abused by the society in which he lived, Doc Bushwell makes a strong argument in his favor. Drawing modern comparisons to the treatment of scientists and technologists by the "morality"-obsessed and fundamentalism-fueled politics in the modern U.S., she connects these attitudes with the treatment of Feanor and the Noldor in _The Silmarillion_ and, furthermore, Tolkien's own attitudes towards practitioners of science and technology. She asks readers--many of whom may never have questioned the superiority of Tolkien's idyllic, pastoral vision devoid of "technology"--whether this is truly the proper path to take. Is this the world that we want? She adroitly gives voice to the arguments one can easily imagine Feanor making and shows a side of the debate oft-neglected both by Tolkien's "histories" and the writers who study them. "Tolkienian" is guaranteed to be controversial, and many readers, I know, have walked away without being fully convinced. But regardless of the conclusions one comes to embrace, it certainly deserves credit for taking on a difficult question (and an unpopular view) in a skillful, well-informed, and very entertaining manner. And to all who find themselves nodding furiously as they read, Doc Bushwell's fiction--based largely on the same ideas--comes with heartiest recommendation. (Dawn Felagund )
I thoroughly enjoyed this essay - not only was it well though-out and well-argued, but it was told at a fast enough clip that I enjoyed reading it all the way through. That's not always the case with essays, even fannish ones. (Would that professional summarisers like Cliffs' notes writers would do as good a job, actually.) I had not noticed just how deep Tolkien's anti-science sentiment went at times, but having read this it seems so obvious. The comment that science was neither moral or immoral did make me think. While science itself may be amoral, it seems less clear that *scientists* are amoral. Doc. B, how do the ideas you developed in your Los Alamos story fit into this, I wonder? And now you have me wondering how Tolkien would feel about science if Feanor had in fact given the Silmarils to the Valar - would the science that had allowed the Trees to be reborn still be viewed so critically. In any event - a great look at an undertreated topic. Thanks for looking at this. (Marta)
I found this dissertation thanks to a mutual e-friend Rhapsody and I am glad I read it! I had moments of bursting out in laughter and quiet giggling to myself only to cackle endlessly again. Being a computer engineer by trade, I finally understand why I love the Noldor so much and I never thought to look at the story of Feanor in a technological sense either until now. Many have discussed the thoughts and feelings of Tolkien concerning technology and mechanization but Doc makes it truly insightful and hilarious in ways that scientists and engineers can identify with, yet can also have non-tech related folks follow along with understanding it all, too. Great work! (TrekQueen)
An entertaining exploration of Tolkien's concepts of science vs. nature. Apart from the rather long and rambling introductory passages, it is pleasantly fast-paced, which might not often be a criterium for non-fiction, but fit well with the snarky, colloquial language, which casts Tolkien's creations into contemporary concepts we are familiar with today. I found the conclusions rather extreme and too much black-and-white, but thought the general premise a plausible and interesting interpretation of the subject matter. (Imhiriel)
- MEFA Archive: The Tolkienian War on Science (accessed 7 July 2016)