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“It Always Had Been a Vast Globe…”

It is well-known that in the late 1950s Tolkien made an attempt to revise the cosmology of his imaginary world in order to make it more realistic and scientifically credible than, as he put it, “the Flat Earth and the astronomically absurd business of the making of the Sun and Moon” he had been inclined to adhere to earlier. It resulted in a new conception of his world, often referred to as the “Round World” version of the Silmarillion, which was widely reflected in Tolkien’s writings of that period, notably (but not exclusively) the texts of Myths Transformed, published in Morgoth’s Ring. One of those texts contains an abandoned narrative, on which Christopher Tolkien commented:

It may be, though I have no evidence on the question one way or the other, that he came to perceive from such experimental writing as this text that the old structure was too comprehensive, too interlocked in all its parts, indeed its roots too deep, to withstand such a devastating surgery (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 383).

This passage is sometimes cited as an argument that Tolkien allegedly abandoned the “Round World” conception due to the difficulties of reconciling his legends with it, but this does not seem to be the case, given the content of text I of Myths Transformed (Morgoth’s Ring, pp. 370–5), which expresses the idea that the legends of the Silmarillion are traditions handed on by Men in Númenor and later in Middle-earth (Arnor and Gondor), but already far back blended and confused with their own Mannish myths and cosmic ideas, and thus not necessarily reflecting astronomical and geological truths that would be known to the High Elves. This view was clearly reiterated much later in The Shibboleth of Fëanor from c. 1968 (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 357, n. 17), in a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green from 1971 (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #325) and in the note on Elvish reincarnation from 1972–3 (Nature of Middle-earth, p. 263, fn. 2). Thus the problem was apparently solved (at least largely) by accepting the fact that the legends do not have to be fully adjusted to the new cosmological conception. It seems likely that if the Silmarillion had been published by Tolkien himself during his lifetime, the actual truths of his world or excerpts from authentic Elven-lore would have been presented in author’s notes or appendices, as indicated by the following remark:

The cosmogonic myths are Númenórean, blending Elven-lore with human myth and imagination. A note should say that the Wise of Númenor recorded that the making of stars was not so, nor of Sun and Moon. For Sun and stars were all older than Arda (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 374).

Another argument for the alleged abandonment of the “Round World” conception by Tolkien is the reference to “the Change of the World” in Last Writings (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 381). However, a similar reference occurs in text XI of Myths Transformed (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 427), which nevertheless clearly shows the characteristic features of the new cosmology (i.e. the equation of 1 Valian Year to 144 Sun-years). One can conclude that this phrasing does not necessary imply the flat Earth becoming round, but can merely imply the removal of Aman from the physical world, by whatever means, which surely remains a thing in the “Round World” conception. This problem is considered in the text named The Númenórean Catastrophe & End of “Physical” Aman (c. 1959), published in The Nature of Middle-earth (pp. 343–5), which suggests that after the Downfall of Númenor Aman was removed from the physical world into another mode of existence, being preserved in the memory of the Valar and Elves, its former landmass becoming America. This notion, which probably first appeared here, was reaffirmed a few years later, as will be shown below.

Now the evidence that Tolkien still adhered to the new cosmology in the 1960–70s should be considered.

In 1960–1, Tolkien drew a series of heraldic devices for important characters of his mythology, most of which were reproduced in Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien (#47). Among them can be found the devices of Finwë and Elwë, which depict the Sun and Moon (this interpretation is unambiguously confirmed by the inscriptions “Winged Sun” and “Winged Moon” assigned to them in the original manuscript). Of particular interest is the Sun on the device of Finwë, since this would be impossible within the framework of the old cosmology, as noted by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull:

When he assigned this device to Finwë Tolkien would have had in mind his late reworking of his ‘Silmarillion’ cosmology, in which the Sun and Moon existed from the beginning of the world, and so during Finwë’s lifetime. In most early versions of his tales Finwë was slain before the Sun and Moon were created from the Two Trees (J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator, p. 194).

A few years later, in 1964, Tolkien was interviewed by Denys Gueroult about The Lord of the Rings. During the interview, he said that Aman was part of the physical world until the Downfall of Númenor, and then proceeded to discuss the effects of the Catastrophe on the Earth and the Blessed Realm. The full recording of the interview can be found at The passage cited below goes from 35:17 to 36:08 (note that there is no official transcription of the interview and the one presented here may contain misreadings insignificant for the purposes of this article).

Then became an intellectual… People lived there only in memory, it lived in time, but not present time… And of course Númenor was drowned and the earthly paradise removed, so then… you could then get to sail to America. [In the] Third Age the world became round, you see, it always had been a vast globe [emphasis Tolkien’s], but they… but people could now sail around, discovered it’s round. And that’s my solution of the… I also wanted to give the fall of Atlantis some universal application. Because the point is really, I’ve written this as a story [about] language, as they get to that, you suddenly see the real curvature of the world going down like a bridge… You’re on a line which leads to what was. Of course I don’t [know] what your theory of time is, but what was, what is… or it never had an existence must… still has that same existence, but that’s just so… we won’t go too… you can’t go too deeply in[to] those [things], but they really are sailing back to a… to world of memory.

It is notable that in this interview both the idea of Aman existing in memory after the Catastrophe and the fact that the world of his Legendarium “always had been a vast globe” were confirmed by Tolkien publicly and not in his private writings. As was pointed out to me after the original version of this article was published, the mere mention of the world being “a vast globe” from the beginning does not necessarily contradict the old cosmology, in which the Flat Earth was encircled by Vaiya, the Enfolding Ocean, both from below and from above, which resulted in the spherical shape of the whole world. However, given the rest of the quoted phrase, it seems to me more likely that the word “world” is used here to refer to the Earth as such with its sailable surface.

Two years later, in 1966, the third edition of The Hobbit was published. Among the changes Tolkien made to the text of the book was the following, in the chapter “Flies and Spiders,” noted and commented on by Douglas A. Anderson in the revised and expanded edition of The Annotated Hobbit (pp. 218–9):

1937: “In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight before the raising of the Sun and Moon; and afterwards they wandered in the forests that grew beneath the sunrise.” >

1966: “In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon, but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost.”

On this Douglas A. Anderson comments as follows:

The 1937 version of this passage is in full accord with both the early history of the Elves and the story of the making of the Sun and Moon from the last fruits of the Two Trees in Valinor, as is told in Chapter 11 of the published version of The Silmarillion. The revised reading seems to reflect Tolkien’s decision late in life to abandon this idea and accept that Middle-earth was illuminated by the Sun and Moon from its very beginning (The Annotated Hobbit, p. 219).

Around the same time this change was made, somewhere in the late 1960s, Tolkien composed a group of texts describing the Elves’ astronomical picture of the world, which was published in chapter Dark and Light in part three of The Nature of Middle-earth (pp. 279–285). These texts clearly imply that the Sun, the Moon and even Venus (mythologically Eärendil) are celestial bodies coëval with Arda.

Even more hints of the new cosmology can be found in Tolkien’s latest writings. The narratives of that time contain some references to the change of the time of day, which imply the existence of the Sun at the time when it could not yet exist within the framework of the old cosmology. The Shibboleth of Fëanor (c. 1968) tells the story of the burning of the ships at Losgar:

In the night Fëanor, filled with malice, aroused Curufin, <…>

In the morning the host was mustered… [emphasis added] (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 354).

Last Writings. Círdan (1972–3) describes the moment when Círdan sees the Lonely Isle departing from the shores of Beleriand:

Then, it is said, he stood forlorn looking out to sea, and it was night, <…>

From that night onwards… [emphasis added] (Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 386).

As a conclusion, it seems evident that the “Round World” conception, accepted by Tolkien in the late 1950s, was professed by him throughout the 1960s and up to his death in 1973 and could hardly be abandoned. The conflict between the new cosmological views and the long-established legends, caused by such a dramatic upheaval, was largely solved by adopting the Mannish transmission of the Silmarillion, which transformed it into an “inner myth” inside Tolkien’s imaginary world. It naturally resulted in abandonment of some elements of Tolkien’s creation, like the elaborate chronology of The Annals of Aman (though one could argue that eventually Tolkien became dissatisfied with it even regardless of the matters of cosmology, as can be seen from some of his notes), but the whole continued to live and evolve. In any case, the purpose of this article is not to judge which version of Tolkien’s cosmology is “better” (opinions may differ on this point), but only to provide the evidence of Tolkien’s own views in the last decades of his life, as far as they can be determined.

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