The Science of Middle-earth
Henry Gee
Published by Jill Grinberg Literary Management. eBook for Amazon Kindle.

hgeeDid Balrogs have wings? How do the palantíri work? Do Elves have pointy ears? Do Hobbits?

These questions, and many others, are discussed wherever Tolkien fans meet, and they stem from the desire to understand how Tolkien’s wonderfully subcreated world works — to understand the underlying mechanics, and ultimately they provide a way to extend the enchantment of the story, to make the sense of immersion in Middle-earth even deeper.

In The Science of Middle-earth, Henry Gee discusses the creation and recreation of Orcs over two chapters and his approach is, naturally, scientific. Not just by using ideas and concepts from Primary World science, but by applying a basically scientific approach to solving the problem, to filling the gap in our knowledge.

Henry Gee sees a question, such as ‘how did Orcs reproduce?’ and he then goes on to investigate the problem (look- ing at the textual evidence from Tolkien’s writings), and moves on to formulate hypotheses that are then evaluated according to their explanatory power (can they explain the phenomena) and for ad hoc assumptions (what needs to be assumed true for the hypothesis to work).

As a scientist I cannot heap enough praise on Gee’s discussion of these issues: it is well thought out, it illustrates clearly my claim that the natural sciences are the most creative of all human pursuits, and it is a school example of scientific reasoning (I avoid mentioning the scientific method only because we’re a bit challenged on ways to experimentally test theories about the reproduction of Orcs).

As a Tolkienist, however, I feel that Gee’s discussion in two aspects falls just short of being completely satisfactory. Both of these can be traced back to the fact that we are, after all, dealing with hypotheses regarding a sub-created literary world rather than our Primary World.

The Catholic Church claims that no conflict is possible between science (as long as it does not override moral laws) and the faith, and the Church even sponsors some scientific research. One reason for this is that it believes that one can learn about the Creator by studying his creation.

Try putting‘sub-’in front of creator’and ‘creation’in that last sentence and you will find what is an important part of my motivation for studying Tolkien’s Middle-earth: I want to take into account what Tolkien intended — or what he might have intended if he had ever given that particular question any thought.

Whatever he may have had in mind, I am sure that Tolkien didn’t think of the Orcs as reproducing by parthenogenesis (virgin birth — female Orcs giving birth to female children that are effectively clones of their mothers), even if, scientifically, this is a highly attractive hypothesis, and one Gee promotes (at least to explain the Orcs’ability to reproduce their population very quickly).

Another complication that arises from prefixing‘create’with‘sub-`is that although the mind of the Creator is traditionally seen as immutable, the mind of a sub-creator can change. And in Tolkien’s case, change it did — often. Invented while he was writing‘The Fall of Gondolin’Tolkien first called them Orqui, but soon changed this to Orcs. This word is known from Old English texts such as Beowulf.

Tolkien glossed O.E. orc as ‘demon’, and the Orcs of The Book of Lost Tales are indeed demonic “for all that race were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal” (The Book of Lost Tales 2, chapter III, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’pp. 159–160). This demonic race created by Morgoth, stayed in the Silmarillion tradition, where work prior to The Lord of the Rings adds that they were made in explicit mockery of the Elves.

Meanwhile Tolkien also wrote that children’s story that would come back to haunt him. He freely borrowed from his Silmarillion mythology for background, but he did not import the demonic Orcs from the mythology, possibly feeling they were inappropriate in a children’s story. Instead he based the goblins of The Hobbit mainly on George Mac-Donald’s stories (especially the Princess and Curdie books).

Tolkien had been using ‘goblin’ as a synonym for ‘orc’ in his mythology from the start, so although he didn’t borrow the creature itself, he did borrow the identification of goblin with orc and thus Orcrist became the Goblin-cleaver.

Therefore, as his attempt to write a sequel to The Hobbit grew in the telling and got firmly rooted in the Silmarillion mythology, Tolkien was faced with the problem of having to somehow merge two different Orkish traditions: the demonic Orcs created by Morgoth in mockery of the Elves (represented by Treebeard’s descriptions of Orcs and also by the indifferent slaughter of Orcs during the Battle of the Hornburg) and the Hobbit tradition with its Mac- Donaldesque goblins (mainly seen in the descriptions of the Orcs in Moria and perhaps Merry and Pippin’s experiences in the clutches of the Uruk-hai). The result was a third kind of Orc — no longer created by Morgoth, but corrupted from some other stock as proposed by Frodo and exemplified by the Orcs seen by Sam (and Frodo) in Mordor.

In the years after finishing The Lords of the Rings, Tolkien would rewrite the Silmarillion texts to show Orcs as bred from captured Elves, and this was the situation at the publication of The Lords of the Rings. Then Tolkien started to niggle in earnest, and numerous other ideas were tested.

This complex history of Tolkien’s concept of the Orcs is, however, not considered in Gee’s otherwise excellent (and in any circumstances highly recommendable) book, and tex- tual evidence belonging to different orkish conceptions are mixed, giving an impression of a single, highly conflicted, conception, rather than of a series of reasonably consistent conceptions.

When we try to fill the gaps of our knowledge about Tolkien’s world with our own hypotheses, I feel that the most satisfying result comes when the scientific approach and the authorial intention approach are in dialogue and when they both respect that Tolkien’s conception was always changing. Gee’s scientific approach is brilliantly executed, and gives me the desire to enter into a dialogue with it as a vehicle for better understanding of both Tolkien and his work.

Troels Forchhammer is a danish physicist working in the medical industry. he has reviewed henry Gee’s The Science of Middle-earth on his blog,, and is an eager participant in online discussions about tolkien’s work. Republished from Mallorn – The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 54/ spring 2013.