by A. Appleyard

This article has been published in the Tolkien Society periodical `Mallorn'.
{FTN: .......} :: This matter should be a footnote.

Before 1938 Tolkien and C.S. Lewis once agreed to write stories. Tolkien chose `time travel' but merely started and abandoned a story about how two modern-age men time-travelled to Numenor. C.S. Lewis chose `space travel' and so wrote Out of the Silent Planet and Voyage to Venus. Those two books are well known; but what if anything of space travel as commonly understood occurs in Tolkien?

Well-known events indeed occur in the Void outside Arda involving Iluvatar, Maiar, Valar and Melkor (as recorded in `Ainulindale', `Valaquenta', `The Tale of the Sun and Moon', etc.).

References include an explicit mention in The Silmarillion of `strife in Ilmen [Quenya for Space] beneath the paths of the stars' when Melkor in vain attacked the Moon (Tolkien 1977, p101); but such massive spiritual events, described in a magical and mystic way, are not of the same classification as space-travel stories but rather are of the creation legend type.

Although Tolkien's world is largely of ancient warriors and magic, modern technology intrudes in a few places. In The Lord of the Rings the Deeping Wall and the Rammas are breached by what is far likelier to be an explosive than magic (Tolkien, 1966, p. 142). The Lost Road says that exiled Numenoreans after the Downfall, trying in vain to fly the Straight Road to Valinor, made aircraft (1987, p. 17). In `The Fall of Gondolin' (Tolkien, 1984) the descriptions of iron `creatures' powered by `internal fires' sound to me much more like internal combustion powered vehicles than any sort of animal, and Tolkien well describes the Elves' desperation when faced with certain death or deportation to slavery enforced by technology beyond their knowledge or ability to resist. Living war-steeds, even dragons, are limited in size and number by the need to feed them even when they are not being used; not so powered machines, and so Gondolin, a fortress of huge strength, was consumed in one assault by them, even without aid of anything airborne.

In all cases the good side sticks to personal valour with old-style weapons and numbers, and calling on the Valar if necessary. The exiled-Numenorean aircraft project was likely totally suppressed early and all records and parts destroyed so enemies could not make harmful use of them, as no trace of them occurs in other historical records.

This suppression was fortunately successful, as Legolas's arrow at Sarn Gebir and Eowyn's sword on the Pelennor would have been useless against a helicopter, and Sauron could have kept many more than nine of them, because, as stated above they would not have to be routinely fed when not being used. The Enemy invented the other known devices; but the Gondolin machines' technology perished in the fall of Morgoth's power at the end of the First Age and Saruman's machines perished when the Ents destroyed Isengard. A variant of the story of Numenor in The Lost Road describes undoubted engine-powered iron ships used by Ar-Pharazon after Sauron became his chief advisor; that technology perished in the Downfall. The speakers at the fictional meetings described in `The Notion Club Papers' in Sauron Defeated mention spaceships and space travel a few times; but those meetings are not set in his Middle Earth scenario but in a modern world for which the Middle Earth events are the ancient past.

I now consider Earendil, who Tolkien found in two lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry and thought of as the planet Venus as a morning or evening star, and personified as a sailor sailing into the West on a quest, to become one of the main origins of Tolkien's mythology. Tolkien's oldest versions say that his battered wooden sailing ship Vingilot was repaired and set to sail in the sky; a wooden hull floating on unsupporting emptiness, sails spread in emptiness. Many images and paintings of him follow this description.

I have seen it called a `star-ship', but meaning `a ship which is a star'. This treatment of the sky as an ocean with an upper surface that can be sailed on sea-fashion in an open ship is paralleled in a description of how Laurelin's last fruit was made into the Sun: the fruit's hard casing was split into hemispheres which were nested one inside the other like a two-layered open coracle, with no mention of roofing its hull over. Voyages, mostly Elvish, to Valinor after the Downfall, are in wooden sea-ships carried across Ilmen by unspecified means. It is intended that the reader assumes that the means are magical. Bilbo's voyage to Eressea at the end of The Lord of the Rings is described as being all by sea.

But Bilbo's song `Earendil was a mariner' in The Lord of the Rings (pp. 246-249), presumably getting its material from reliable Elvish sources in Imladris, says that for his sky voyages "A ship then new they built for him / of mithril and of elven-glass / with shining prow: no shaven oar / nor sail she bore on silver mast", and mentions no wood in its construction. This indeed sounds suspiciously like most people's image of a spaceship.

The Elves and Valar of Valinor were wise, far more so than Men, immortal and so not having each one's knowledge limited to what he can learn and pass on in a Man's lifetime. They likely knew far more of what we call `modern technology' than they were prepared to use as a matter of routine, or even to reveal to Men, Sindar, Avari, or others, for they could each foresee a personal future of thousands of years of having to live with the effects of such inventions being used. Even the operating principle of Elven-lights is not revealed.

Only Melkor and his servants and followers broke this rule, and at intervals, afflicted Arda with their war-devices for a while, until defeated. Only in theory are the Eldar and Istari likely to have studied such things, to keep memory of them, to recognize them if agents of Melkor try to make them or if Men find about them independently.

Whether or not in the vastness of Ea there are other Ardar englobed in the void, each with its own Valar and inhabitants and history, Tolkien does not say. C.S. Lewis in Voyage to Venus (1960, p. 73) wrote that the vast interplanetary and interstellar distances are "God's quarantine regulations" to make sure that each planet's life and culture develops in its own time in its own way, and given the extent to which he and Tolkien shared their ideas, it is quite likely that Tolkien thought similarly.

Here I consider further how space travel is treated in C.S. Lewis's books. In Out of the Silent Planet (a journey to Mars) and Voyage to Venus, Lewis describes Professor Wilson as seeking to aid human expansionism regardless of other worlds' natives. The Oyarsa of Mars once long ago had suppressed hard and thoroughly a native Martian technological development that was approaching space travel capability, and Wilson's spaceship was set by the Oyarsa to self-destruct soon after return to Earth, showing Wilson, and any on Earth who might seek to imitate him, that the Powers had effective defences against any future Earth fleet of Wilson-type spaceships; the only modern-type Mars native technology that Ransom found was an oxygen breathing set for high altitude. In Voyage to Venus Ransom was ferried to Venus and back by the Oyarsa rather than going in a spaceship. Wilson's new spaceship is lost in Venus's world ocean, and he dies on Venus without passing his invention on. No Earth spacefleet comes from it, and space travel is described as being for gods only. The well-known, unrelated Star Trek and Star Wars scenarios show the disastrously powerful space empires that can develop where routine faster-than-light space travel is possible.

Likewise the Eldar and Valar did not make such things. They likely felt that Arda's beings belonged on Arda and not wandering uncontrolled elsewhere, and that allowing too much curiosity about what is beyond causes trouble, as was shown when allowing routine contact between Numenor and the Undying Lands led at last to Ar-Pharazon's attack on Valinor. They could easily have built a fleet of craft to explore Ea beyond the realm of Arda.

But they did not. Only once did they allow breach of that rule. Only one spaceship ever by smithcraft took shape in Valinor, and, as a reward for his long hardy seafarings to seek aid for Elves and Men, Earendil was appointed to steer it and to watch what was happening to exiled Melkor and whatever else happened outside the Walls of Night. He was taught the passwords of the Door of Night and the Gate of Morning where the sky met the horizon at the east and west far ends of Ekkaia the Outer Sea; but he was commanded never to land again on Arda outside Valinor, and likely only the Valar know how its power drive works or how to make it. Once only did he come near Arda, when the fortunes of the war to overthrow Morgoth became desperate. In that battle he swooped low over Angband and destroyed Morgoth's flying dragons and broke open the deep fortress under Thangorodrim. Never again was he or his ship seen by Men except as a remote bright star. Men long to travel outside Arda, and write stories where they do so routinely and bring exciting accounts back to Earth, or fight battles there, or settle on other worlds; but only Earendil, half Elf and half Man, in truth flies afar across Ilmen and Ea, one only without crew, and sees wonders and strange beings, and at times he returns to Valinor for rest and to meet Elwing, and the Vala Aule services his craft; but he never takes anyone else with him, and the log of his voyages no man will know until the Great End.

What will cause Dagor Dagorath, the Last Battle and the End of Days? The Lost Road p333 says that in that time the watch of the Valar will fail and that Melkor will come back through the Door of Night to Arda. But since the change of the world Arda has been a sphere, and the Walls of Night are not a hemisphere lid over a flat Earth but a sphere about Earth remote from it, and Sun and Moon no longer go and return through it but are always visible in the sky somewhere, and each land sees a different horizon line on the Wall of Night. And before Melkor gets in, by whatever means, how will he become unbound?

The reputed quality of AulŽ's smithwork makes it unlikely that Melkor, weakened by past defeats, will erode his bonds through by chafing at them. Excluding the chance of him being freed by Ilu`vatar, or in malice or ignorance by a stray Ainu {FTN: a Vala- or Maia-like being not attached to Arda: see e.g. the Ainulindale in the Silmarillion} wandering in Eš, leaves as the only likely means someone or something from Earth reaching him and freeing him. The only present Earth power likely to develop both the will and the means is Men, developing powerful technology, and, seeking a way to travel in Ilmen, at last discovering for themselves secret skills of the Valar, or being taught them by someone or something who knows them. When his Ring was unmade Sauron was grievously weakened, but not slain; before Arda was made he was a Maia of the following of AulŽ the Smith, and he can still reveal secrets of AulŽ's craft if he thinks fit and can find someone who will listen, if he can see in it the only likely way to get his Master freed and some of his power back.

So men will make craft like Earendil's, and will travel in them. Those craft will be sleek, and will bear names of onwardness and far travelling, and will have far greater power per weight than merely at limit range reaching the Moon by huge blasting of explosive liquids; but the power in them will be one that some will say they should not have had. They will not travel far before they find the Walls of Night, hard and dark beyond anything that Man can make. Then, as in the Akallabeth when Ar-Pharazon saw Taniquetil, doom will hang by a thread, and some will remember ancient legends and feel awe at the untouched beauty of the heavens. But pride and refusal to be stopped will win, and they will make powerful weapons like what their crafts' power drive runs off, weapons which only Aule should have made and only Manwe should have wielded. With these they will blast breaches in the Walls of Night, and fly through, for the Valar will have shut themselves away too long in their hidden Valinor and their watch over the rest of Arda will have faded. Men will fly at will far across Ea~ and see strange things, and one ship-faring of them will find Melkor exiled adrift in his ancient bonds, and they will feel wonder.

Then Melkor will lie to them, and call for their pity and help against evil usurpers. They will marvel that in reality has come the `First Contact' with beings from beyond the world that many have written into fiction. With tools run off their crafts' drives, power of the Valar in the hands of mortal men, they will sever the Ilterendi, and cut off his iron collar which Aule~ long ago made from his iron crown, and torch Angainor to pieces, and he will be free. Again a dread deed will nearly remain undone, for one of them will recognize in the collar the remains of the holes where the Silmarils once shone, and with a shock of ancient legend seen real and alive will realize who they have found and what they are about to do; but others will overrule him. Far from their thoughts will be what they should do, to destroy Melkor with the power of their weapons, although they will have the means to, for pity will stay their hands, seeing him helpless in the void. Melkor will seek their help and treatment for his old wounds, and they will aid each other greatly; but in secret he will gather a new host, and at the due time he will attack Arda and Valinor through the broken Walls of Night, and the Last Battle will start. The men who released Melkor will realize too late what had happened, and some will fight against him, but not in time to be of enough effect, for he gathered his host before they armed enough of their craft for such war.

In that battle the Earth will be nearly all overturned and its foundations broken, and the Valar will have to free and arm all capable of it who they can find in Mandos, and much of ancient story will be shown to have been true after all, and Melkor's death and final end will be not by modern weapon but by the black sword of Tu`rin son of Hu`rin {FTN: Lost Road p333}. The Enemy's host and brood and all chances of it seeding again will be brought to nothing, as had often before been thought to have done and was not so. Earendil also will have to fight in defence there, and Men will come to know him as he is, and when all is over will at last know his voyages. Arda will be renewed by the labour of all, and it will be as it ought to have been - on Arda - or so they claim. It may be that some Men who had crossed Ilmen and settled afar on other Ardar which they found and broke into will stay out of the battle, and their story will continue, and there will be other conflicts, other farings across seas and Ilmen and Ea, other heroisms and victories and defeats.

Carpenter, Humphreys, 1977. J.R.R. Tolkien, a biography, London: George Allen & Unwin.
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1966. The Two Towers, London: George Allen & Unwin
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1977. The Silmarillion, London: George Allen & Unwin
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1981. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, London: George Allen & Unwin
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1984. The Book of Lost Tales II, London: George Allen & Unwin
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1985. The Lays of Beleriand, London: George Allen & Unwin
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1987. The Lost Road, London: George Allen & Unwin
Tolkien, J.R.R., 1992. Sauron Defeated, London: Harper Collins