Monday, June 20, 2011

The Hobbit and Summer Solstice

The earth is rapidly approaching the point of June solstice -- summer solstice for the Northern Hemisphere, the point at which the north pole points most directly at the sun, which will take place on June 21 shortly after 10 am California time.

Of course, this is a very important point in the annual cycle of the sun, and was duly marked and encoded in various ways by ancient civilizations. Readers are encouraged to revisit the previous post entitled "The Solar Double Spiral" for a discussion of one important representation of the sun's annual path in ancient art.

It is very likely that this particular symbol is represented by the double Uraeus found on the mask of Tutankhamun, for example. While conventional historians often declare that the Egyptian Uraeus featuring both an asp and a vulture represents political symbolism -- the uniting of the earthly geographic realms of Upper and Lower Egypt -- the authors of Hamlet's Mill argue that celestial imagery is "continuously mislabeled" in political terms, and that the mislabeling of celestial imagery as the Uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt is one of the most common examples of this confusion (see for example pages 162 and 163).

The serpentine path of the sun throughout the year discussed in the post on the solar double spiral also suggests the form of a dragon, and likely also relates to the Norse myth of a serpent that encircles the entire earth (the Midgard Serpent). In the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (which take place in "Middle Earth," an English translation of the Norse word "Midgard"), the concept of an encircling "ring" is of course very prominent, as are dragons (especially in The Hobbit). William Lasseter has written a very insightful discussion of some of the themes in The Hobbit (including the hospitality theme, which is central to Beowulf, which Tolkien analyzed extensively in his professional life as a literary and linguistic scholar), which can be found on his blog ScribbleBibble here. He argues that Tolkien's "dragon-imagery embodies the action of self-reflection that emerges in serious intellectual inquiry" -- that Bilbo's confrontation with Smaug is in many ways a confrontation with himself (as is the encounter with Gollum).

Interestingly, the summer solstice plays a role in the entrance into this encounter with the dragon in The Hobbit. At the beginning of the book, Gandalf reveals a map which indicates the existence of "a closed door which has been made to look exactly like the side of the Mountain" (26).

Then, in Rivendell, where the party stays until the night of midsummer (summer solstice and the period of three days surrounding the solstice), Elrond discovers "moon-letters" which give the clue to opening this mysterious door: "Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole" (52). Elrond is able to see this message only because he looked for them on precisely the right day, as he explains:
"Moon-letters are rune-letters, but you cannot see them," said Elrond, "not when you look straight at them. They can only be seen when the moon shines behind them, and what is more, with the more cunning sort it must be a moon of the same shape and season as the day when they were written. The dwarves invented them and wrote them with silver pens, as your friends could tell you. These must have been written on a midsummer's eve in a crescent moon, a long while ago." 52.
The next morning, midsummer's morning, the party sets off from Rivendell -- a place of safety and song and assistance, after which there is the wild and a series of increasingly dangerous incidents leading up to the encounter with the dragon. Thus, it is appropriate that Tolkien has his party leave there at the summer solstice, after which the year begins to decline towards winter, and the days grow shorter and shorter.

Tolkien's work, which is familiar to many modern readers, is an example of the way in which celestial imagery can be encoded in memorable stories. To say that there are celestial themes working alongside the other themes in a piece of literature does not take anything away from the other themes of human existence which are usually present as well (such as the theme of self-confrontation and identity which Bilbo must wrestle with). On the contrary, they add to it. This appears to be what is going on in ancient myth as well (see for example the discussion in this previous post).

As summer solstice approaches, it is appropriate to consider the events in The Hobbit as an accessible modern window into the way that ancient myth encodes truths about celestial events, and is thus linked not only to literature but also to science. Considering the role of the summer solstice in The Hobbit may also reveal a hidden door for us to enter into our own "action of self-reflection" or confrontation with ourselves, as it does for Bilbo.

References to page-numbers in The Hobbit are from the 1978 hardbound Houghton Mifflin edition, reprinted in 1998.