Great & Not-So-Great Literature

Lord of the Rings & Astronomy: The Mystery of Durin’s Crown

Moria

At the top, as high as Gandalf could reach, was an arch of interlacing letters in Elvish character. Below, though the threads were in places blurred or broken, the outline could be seen of an anvil and a hammer surmounted by a crown with seven stars…

“There are the emblems of Durin!” cried Gimli.

Here, at the West-gate of Moria, Durin’s Crown makes its first appearance in J.R.R. Tolkien’s popular fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. The legendary constellation is depicted on the West-gate (also known as ‘The Doors of Durin’) in the first book in the series: The Fellowship of the Ring. The constellation of Durin’s Crown appears in the legends of Middle-earth, and the only real proof of its existence is its image on the Doors of Durin. Was it a real constellation, or was it merely a vision; a wondrous event on par with the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem?

If Durin’s Crown were intended to be a real constellation in the Middle-earth sky, it is very likely that it has a counterpart in our own night sky; a constellation which Tolkien may have used as a model when constructing the mythology around it. Tolkien has stated numerous times that Middle-earth is really meant to be Europe in a time before recorded history. In a letter to his publishing company, he says:

Middle-earth, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in…. It is just a use of Middle-English middle-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middangeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men ‘between the seas’. And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.

Modeling his imaginary world after the real world in a realistic way took a considerable bit of effort. Tolkien put an extreme amount of thought into the world he was creating, and strove to give it as much depth as possible by incorporating as many aspects of our world as he could. Astronomy was one such topic of interest for him that is deeply embedded in the fabric of his literature.

If one were to read the first drafts of The Lord of the Rings (edited versions of which have been published by Tolkien’s youngest son Christopher Tolkien) one would find them to be overflowing with references to the phases of the moon. It also appears that most, if not all, of Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is choreographed to the lunar phases of 1941-2. There are a few discrepancies however, as the lunar chronology did not work as smoothly as Tolkien had anticipated, and there is evidence of his frustration with this particular problem in his letters to his son Christopher. All his efforts, while not fruitless, went rather unnoticed by the average reader, as many of his lunar cycle references were edited out of the final version before the trilogy’s publication.

Stars played a large role in the mythos of Middle-earth. The Elves, for example, are known as the ‘Eldar;’ the people of the stars. It is said that during the creation of the world, the Elves were the first to awaken and beheld the stars before any other living creature. Also, in Elvish star lore, the stars were created not once, but twice. In the beginning, the original stars were small and dim, and during the second star-making, brighter stars were created to grace the Middle-earth sky.

Tolkien also used the stars as symbols of all that is good. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, Elrond, the Elven ruler of Rivendell, sees the Fellowship off and blesses them, saying “May the stars shine upon your faces!”

The planet Venus makes an appearance in the trilogy as well. Venus, or the Evening Star, is called Eärendil in Middle-earth. Eärendil was said to be Elrond’s father, and is described as sailing the heavens wearing a bright jewel called the silmaril. In The Fellowship of the Ring, when the Elven lady Galadriel gives Frodo a small phial as a parting gift, she tells him that the light of Eärendil has been caught in the phial, and says “May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” Both Frodo and Sam use the phial later on in Shelob’s lair (The Two Towers) to ward off the giant spider Shelob.

Another instance in which Tolkien used modern astronomy in his literature is the design of Middle-earth constellations. All of the constellations and stars of Middle-earth described in Tolkien’s works directly correlate to constellations in the current night sky. For example, the description of the constellation Wilwarin (Elvish: ‘butterfly’) can without a doubt be identified with the prominent northern constellation Cassiopeia.

Cassiopeia

Another constellation, Soronúmë (Elvish: ‘eagle’) corresponds with our current Aquila the Eagle:

Aquila the Eagle

Remmirath, a small group of seven stars has been identified by Christopher Tolkien to be our Seven Sisters, or the Pleiades:

The Pleiades (Seven Sisters)

Menelvagor (Elvish: ‘heaven-swordsman’) is clearly our modern Orion, as is indicated in a passage from The Fellowship of the Ring that reads:

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 shifts 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.

Orion

The red star Borgil in the above passage can also be identified with our star Aldebaran, a giant orange star in our sky that rises before Orion, rendering it compatible with the description Tolkien gives above. Another famous grouping of stars in the Middle-earth sky is the Valacirca. Alternative names for this constellation are ‘The Burning Briar,’ ‘Sickle of the Valar,’ and ‘The Plough,’ the latter of which is the name used in British English to refer to the Big Dipper.

The Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major)

Of all the constellations in the Middle-earth sky, Durin’s Crown is the only one with which a definite connection has not been made. All previous evidence would suggest that Durin’s Crown corresponds to a similar constellation located in the night sky of this world. However, which of these constellations it could be has been the subject of much debate. Speculators have very little to go on, as it is uncertain if the shape of Durin’s Crown is the shape shown on the West-gate of Moria or if that was merely an artistic rendition. The only clues we have are the aforesaid image on the Doors of Durin, and the legend of Durin himself.

Liz Danforth - Durin I.jpg

Durin I

Durin I was the first of the seven Fathers of the Dwarves to be created at the beginning of time. According to the tradition of the Dwarves, he was set to sleep under the mountains of Middle-earth until after the creation of the Elves, Durin awoke alone at Mount Gundabad in the Misty Mountains during the time period Tolkien refers to as ‘The Years of the Trees,’ and journeyed south until he stumbled across Mirrormere, a lake located below what was soon to become the East-gate of Moria.

Peering into the waters of the lake, Durin saw the reflection of a crown of stars over his head, despite the fact that it was daylight and no stars should have been visible in the sky. He took this strange phenomenon as a good omen, and soon after founded the great Dwarven city of Khazad-dûm, which would later come to be more widely known as the Mines of Moria. A pillar called Durin’s Stone was set in the earth on the bank of the lake Mirrormere to commemorate the location and the event.

Durin I was often called ‘Durin the Deathless,’ although he was not immortal. He did, however, live to a very old age even by the Dwarves’ standards, outliving some of his children. It is speculated that he lived 1000-4000 years, making him the oldest Dwarf ever to have lived. The Dwarves believed that Durin would be reincarnated seven times, and he did have six descendants, all named Durin, who reigned in Moria after his death. The images of an anvil and a crown of stars became Durin’s embelms; their images appearing on the West-gate of Moria.

moriaoriginal

Tolkien’s original drawing of the Moria gate. Durin’s Crown can be seen near the center, directly above the hammer.

This legend appears in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Gimli sings ‘The Song of Durin’ while the company is traveling to Moria. Within the first stanza, Durin’s Crown is introduced:

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin awoke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadows of his head.

Gimli insists on looking into Mirrormere when leaving Moria through the East-gate, Frodo and Sam joining him. Looking into the water, they see the reflection of the forms of the mountains encircling them, and the reflection of the constellation of Durin’s Crown, although the sun was out and no stars were visible.

In identifying this group of stars with a grouping of stars in our own sky, one must take into consideration every little clue that is given. Durin’s Crown was, according to the legend of Durin the Deathless, located in the Northern Hemisphere of Arda (the sky). Since it was described to be visible at all times, even during the day, the options for its current night sky counterpart are significantly narrowed. If it never sets in the Middle-earth sky, then it would most definitely have to be a circumpolar constellation viewed from England (Tolkien’s home), correlating it to the small group of north circumpolar constellations in the sky.

Circumpolar stars are those that, from the viewer’s latitude, never set. The celestial north pole, a point in the sky around which all stars and constellations rotate, is currently situated near Polaris, which is often called the North Star. Polaris always has an azimuth equal to zero, ‘azimuth’ being the measure of the angular distance along the horizon to the location of the object. This measurement, by astronomical convention, begins in the north at the North Star (Polaris) at an azimuth of zero. Put more simply, the measure of the azimuth of a star is a similar concept to the measure of the latitude of a country or place on the globe.

All the stars in the night sky rotate around Polaris at varying azimuths. Those stars which are close enough to Polaris in the sky will simply rotate Polaris above the viewer’s head and never set. This will vary depending on one’s location on the earth. For example, if a person is standing at the North Pole, Polaris will be directly above his head and ALL the stars revolving around it will never go down below the horizon line; all stars at the North Pole are circumpolar. The same goes for the South Pole, only with different stars and constellations. From the equator, there are no circumpolar stars. From mid-north latitudes, Polaris will appear towards the north, some stars will rise and set, while others remain circumpolar. From England, circumpolar constellations included Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Cepheus, Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis.

fig12l

The image of Durin’s Crown represented on the Doors of Durin depicts a curved sort of v- shape, however it is uncertain as to whether or not this is the true shape of the constellation or not. The crown is made up of seven stars, which also narrows the field considerably. Most writers say that the most obvious candidate is Middle-earth’s Valacirca, or our Big Dipper. The number of stars in the constellation is correct, however, the Big Dipper’s shape is not the shape shown on the Doors of Durin.

Moriagate

The final artistic rendering of the seven stars of Durin’s Crown, visible at the top just under the arch.

Corona Borealis has also been suggested, for its seven stars are curved in a crown-like shape (although the shape is upside-down compared to what is seen on the Doors of Durin), and the name ‘corona’ means ‘crown’, however Corona Borealis is not a circumpolar constellation, so from Tolkien’s latitude, it would have set in the night sky. It is not impossible that Tolkien used Corona Borealis as a model when constructing the myth of Durin’s Crown, however a precise identification with the northern constellation cannot be made.

Corona Borealis

Draco is another north circumpolar constellation that could be taken into consideration. While the constellation in its entirety is not to be considered, a portion of it might be. Draco is a serpent in the night sky, and curves several times across it. It is faintly possible that Tolkien modeled Durin’s Crown after one of the curves in the serpent’s body, using seven of the constellation’s stars.

Draco

Another faint possibility is Auriga, another circumpolar constellation that has almost the right shape.

Auriga

Dr. Kristine Larsen, professor of physics and astronomy at Central Connecticut State University has done massive amounts of research on Tolkien’s use of astronomy in his works, written numerous papers and taught many classes on the subject. She has put forth a hypothesis of her own: Cepheus the King. Cepheus is a north circumpolar constellation with seven stars. The shape seems to be correct, however two of the seven stars are rather out of place, trailing off together from one corner of the constellation.

It is possible that Tolkien perhaps used a non-circumpolar constellation (such as Corona Borealis) and simply adapted it to be used in the myth of Durin’s Crown, however considering all of the other constellations have such definite counterparts, and that there are such blatant references and similarities to our world’s astronomy, this answer does not seem entirely satisfactory. But as the constellation of Durin’s Crown is only a myth in the lore of Middle-earth, and is apparently only visible in the reflection of Mirrormere, a definite identification is impossible to make.

And so Durin’s Crown remains a mystery.

_________________________________________

References

Byrd, D. (1993). ‘Exploring the North Polar Sky.’ Astronomy, 21(6), 68.

Larsen, K. ‘Scientific Motifs in Middle-earth: “Lost in Translation”?’ Retrieved from http://www.physics.ccsu.edu/larsen/translation.html

Larsen, K. (2002). ‘The Astronomy of Middle Earth.’ Retrieved from http://www.physics.ccsu.edu/larsen/astronomy_of_middle.htm

Manning, J. ‘Elvish Star Lore.’ Retrieved from http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.ips-planetarium.org/resource/resmgr/pdf-articles/elvish.pdf

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954). ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ Quality Paperback Book Club, New York. p. 317-322

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1955). ‘The Return of the King.’ Quality Paperback Book Club, New York. Appendix A, part III.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1996), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Peoples of Middle-earth, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, “Of Dwarves and Men.”

Astronomy Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. ‘Paths of the Stars.’ Retrieved from http://astro.unl.edu/naap/motion2/starpaths.html

__________________________________________

P.S. If anyone wanted to read the whole thing, here is the Song of Durin in its entirety.

The world world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the Moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone,
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head.

The world was fair, the mountains tall,
In Elder Days before the fall
Of mighty Kings in Nargothrond
And Gondolin, who now beyond
The Western Seas have passed away:
The world was fair in Durin’s Day.

A king he was on carven throne
In many-pillared halls of stone
With golden roof and silver floor,
And runes of power upon the door.
The light of sun and star and moon
In shining lamps of crystal hewn
Undimmed by cloud or shade of night
There shown forever far and bright.

There hammer on the anvil smote,
There chisel clove, and graver wrote;
There forged was bladed and bound was hilt;
The delver mined the mason built.
There beryl, pearl, and opal pale
And metel wrought like fishes’ mail,
Buckler and corslet, axe and sword,
And shining spears were laid in horde.

Unwearied then were Durin’s folk;
Beneath the mountains music woke:
The harpers harped, the minstrels sang,
And at the gates the trumpets rang.

The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

P.P.S. I did a brief presentation on this topic for a colloquium event at my university, and I painted the West-gate of Moria on my presentation board and I’M SUPER PROUD OF IT SO HERE’S A PICTURE:

001

IT TOOK ME FOUR HOURS AND IT’S KIND OF CROOKED AND DISPROPORTIONATE IN PLACES, BUT I DON’T EVEN CARE. BECAUSE LOOK AT ALL THE GLITTER.

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