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There is this famous quote from the Two Towers, where Aragorn says to Legolas:

What do your elf eyes see?

It is made clear that he can see at distances better than the other two (Aragorn and Gimli).

But how far can he see? Did Tolkien ever mention it in one of his numerous books? (including but not limited to HoME)

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    youtube.com/watch?v=Rk2izv-c_ts – Valorum Dec 29 '14 at 11:42
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    @Richard Did you jsut link a physics video on Scifi&fantasy? – Kevin Dec 29 '14 at 12:57
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    @kevin - It seemed relevant. The most pertinent comment is of course that elves are 'a bit magical' which obviously can explain away any discrepancies. – Valorum Dec 29 '14 at 13:48
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    Distance to the horizon given the relative heights of both Legolas and his visual target(s) is actually the biggest factor here (unless Elves are able to see as well as to sail on the "straight path"). If Legolas was at least at an elevation of ~60m relative to what he's looking at, he could see 5 leagues but then again so could you or me (remember that every night we can all see an object 384,400km away quite easily), allowing for atmospheric scattering/etc. Being able to resolve detail is another matter, however. – user8719 Dec 29 '14 at 15:58
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In The Two Towers, Legolas claims, correctly as we later find out, that he can clearly distinguish objects as small as a man at a distance of 5 leagues (approx 27.7km)...

There was a silence in the empty fields, and Gimli could hear the air moving in the grass. 'Riders!' cried Aragorn, springing to his feet. 'Many riders on swift steeds are coming towards us!' 'Yes,' said Legolas, 'there are one hundred and five. Yellow is their hair, and bright are their spears. Their leader is very tall.' Aragorn smiled. 'Keen are the eyes of the Elves,' he said. 'Nay! The riders are little more than five leagues distant,' said Legolas. 'Five leagues or one,' said Gimli; 'we cannot escape them in this bare land. Shall we wait for them here or go on our way?'

...and Gandalf confirms that elves (in general) have keen eyesight:

'You have the keen eyes of your fair kindred, Legolas,' he said; 'and they can tell a sparrow from a finch a league off. Tell me, can you see anything away yonder towards Isengard?' 'Many miles lie between,' said Legolas, gazing thither and shading his eyes with his long hand. 'I can see a darkness. There are shapes moving in it, great shapes far away upon the bank of the river; but what they are I cannot tell.

This feat (distinguishing one bird from another at 5.5km) is beyond the ability of any human, suggesting that their eyesight is around 8–10 times better than a human with 20:20 vision.

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    Tolkien consistently used 1 league = exactly 3 miles, so 1 league is about 4.8 km. – Jasper Dec 30 '14 at 1:30
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    @Jasper - Yes, I spotted that. He's not very consistent, even though he eventually tried to retcon by saying that the Middle-Earth "league" is in fact a Gondorian measure. I'm gonna leave it. Changing it would seem to confuse more than leaving it, especially since it's only a few percent out at these distances. – Valorum Dec 30 '14 at 1:45
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This is an interesting question. There is the answer that @Richard gave, which comes from the books.

However, physics says that in reality, these claims cannot be true.

Check out this video from MinutePhysics explaining it.

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    What use is physics in a magical universe? – Ellesedil Dec 29 '14 at 15:38
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    @Ellesedil - Precisely this. There are many elements in LOTR that are overtly magical. No physical explanation, just magic. In much the same way that dwarves can see when it's pitch black. – Valorum Dec 29 '14 at 15:53
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    So... you're not answering the question then? – Ellesedil Dec 29 '14 at 18:43
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    A better version of this answer would be to determine the size of the eyes that legolas would have to have to see as well at such a distance as claimed, assuming our earth and physical (non magic) constraints. Then use a photo editing program to enlarge his eyes (or pupils, if that's all that's needed) to demonstrate. As it is, the link shows that he can see about 3meters of resolution at that distance, so it may be that enlarging his pupils somewhat, and his eyes somewhat might give him the 1-2 meter resolution needed without saying, "It's utterly impossible because PHYSICS." – Adam Davis Dec 29 '14 at 20:08
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    The MinutePhysics account is too simplistic. There are a variety of superresolution techniques that can be used especially on objects that move over time while maintaining approximately their original (distinctive) color. – Rex Kerr Dec 29 '14 at 22:50
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Unless Middle Earth is completely flat, there is simply no way Legolas could see twenty+ kilometers if he was standing on the surface of the planet.

For an observer standing on the ground with h = 1.70 metres (5 ft 7 in) (average eye-level height), the horizon is at a distance of 4.7 kilometres (2.9 mi). For an observer standing on the ground with h = 2 metres (6 ft 7 in), the horizon is at a distance of 5 kilometres (3.1 mi).

  • For him to be able to see about 20 miles (given the curvature of the Earth) he would need to be 90 feet in the air. (REF: How Far Away is the Horizon; Discover Online)

  • This implies that elf vision must include some aspect of clairsentience or clairvoyance allowing him to be able to see beyond the curvature of the planet, in which case, the quality of 'Elven eyes' may be part of a particular magic not just a superior visual capacity.

Attacking this problem from a purely physical aspect, Elven eyes could simply be MUCH stronger than Human eyes.

  • With sufficient muscular strength, the eyes of Elves could be like those of the eagle whose visual acuity is among the most effective on the planet. Their optical structures could also be a bit more refined with simply better organic materials, cornea, muscles, muscular control, retina, etc.

  • They could also have much better mental pattern processing capacity allowing them to discern patterns at greater distances than Humans can.

The eagle eye is among the strongest in the animal kingdom, with an eyesight estimated at 4 to 8 times stronger than that of the average human. An eagle is said to be able to spot a rabbit 2 miles (3.2 km) away. Although an eagle may only weigh 10 pounds (4.5 kg), its eyes are roughly the same size as those of a human. - Wikipedia

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    If Middle Earth is not completely flat, then it's quite possible that he was standing on a rise in the ground, which is the logical place to look to the distance so your view is not blocked by trees, tall shrubs, etc. If he was on a small 10 meter rise above the average ground level, he could theoretically see 2 meter high objects located 17 km away. Here's a photo of the plains of New Zealand that illustrate how the ground is not completely flat. – Johnny Dec 29 '14 at 20:34
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    I've personally seen things over 10km away if I'm at sufficient elevation. It's not too difficult. Legolas doesn't need to be 90 feet in the air; he just needs to be at the top of a hill or a rise. – user8719 Dec 29 '14 at 21:21
  • @Johnny - Echoing Johnny, this only makes sense if they're standing on completely flat ground, looking at approaching riders who're also at the same elevation. – Valorum Dec 29 '14 at 21:25
  • The first part is a valid observation, the second contradicts the physics pointed to in comments and one of the other answers. – Carsten S Dec 29 '14 at 21:38
  • Suppose that the characters are not standing on a plain in Rohan which is a "flat plane" on the the curved surface of the Earth, put actually is a small flat chord cut off of the surface of the Earth by geological processes or the will of Eru, so one can actually see five leagues ahead, though only the eyes of Legolas can see clearly at that distance. Or possibly a very shallow crater about ten leagues wide. – M. A. Golding Jul 9 '15 at 4:12
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A few thoughts:

1) Distance. Assuming that Middle Earth sits upon a standard globe type planet, it would obviously curve.

2) Calculations for the distance to the horizon is based upon the Earth. Maybe this is a larger globe.

3) Equally obvious though is that in the dialog there was no mention that it meant anything other than an uninterrupted view. At no point is it suggested Legolas can see through walls, so the curve of the planet would be the same.

4) The eyeball itself. Visual acuity is a function of the lens, and the retina. For greater distance, we are discussing being able to discern a smaller detail. A greater number of cells on the retina would allow this. Or possibly the cells on the retina of a elf is capable of multiple signal detections, so that one cell is generating multiple light and spacial signals.

5) Signal processing (the brain). One of the problems with more visual information is processing. It is recognized that the part of the brain processing vision of predatory birds is significantly greater than humans. So, the problem is why aren't elves bird-brains (literally and figuratively). It wold seem the simplest answer is what we see with modern PC's vs those of 10 years ago, tighter wiring and signal processing. In other words, it would 'only' necessitate an elves neurons being functionally smaller, while maintaining the same (or greater) number of inter-neuron connections.

So, there may be magic to elves, but for vision, it is not a stretch to make a few suggestions to handle physiologically. If this were the case, it would also explain the greater level of dexterity typically assigned to elves, and likely also greater artistic skills.

  • These are really good points, but they don't really answer the question. – The Fallen Dec 30 '14 at 21:47
  • @SSumner - Point #4 does, as does point #5, albeit tangentially. – Valorum Dec 30 '14 at 22:07
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On Earth the horizon is just a few miles or kilometers away on a "flat"s surface, which is actually the slightly curved surface of a sphere thousands of miles wide. And Middle-earth is supposed to be our Earth about 6,000 years ago.

But suppose that geologic forces or the will of Eru bulldozed a small really flat area of the plains of Rohan, so they really were on a plane surface, a chord cut out of the usually spherical surface of the Earth.

Or maybe there was a very shallow crater about ten leagues wide, and the riders of Rohan were near the lowest part in the center and Legolas and friends were right below the crater rim. They could look down several hundred feet at the riders fifteen miles away who might not be over the horizon.

Or perhaps there was a very wide and shallow river/stream valley tens of miles wide and a few hundred feet deep. If the slope was even all the way down it would be about a one degree slope or so, which would seem rather flat. Would that elevation difference be stronger than the Earth's curvature?

Thaddeus wrote that on a level surface an average adult human can see to the horizon which is about 4.7 kilometers or 2.9 miles away.

I can tell you that from the boardwalk at Cape May, New Jersey, the lights of Lewes, Delaware can been plainly seen at night. So standing perhaps twice as far as eye level about sea level, I could see lights nearly 15 miles or 23 kilometers away without them being cut off by the curvature of the Earth.

And in the daytime, I have often aimed the pay binoculars on the boardwalk in the direction of Lewes and plainly seen houses, trees, and hills on the farther shore. Even without binoculars, I could just barely see a few tiny permanent bumps on the horizon in the direction of Lewes. Of course the height of the tide might affect how much of Lewes is visible at any particular time.

The elevation of Cape May is given as 10 feet or 3 meters, and its highest point at the intersection of Washington and Jackson Streets, is given as 14 feet or 4.3 meters.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_May,_New_Jersey

Thaddeus wrote:

For him to be able to see about 20 miles (given the curvature of the Earth) he would need to be 90 feet in the air. (REF: How Far Away is the Horizon; Discover Online)

If the ground sloped gently down about 100 feet in 15 miles and perfectly straight or even a little concave that would be about a tenth of a percent slope which should seem perfectly flat. Of course Legolas would have to be really "eagle-eyed" to tell the color of men's hair at that distance - several times as much as an eagle, in fact.

I wonder if Tolkien sometimes forgot whether Middle-earth or Arda was supposed to be flat or round during the era of a particular story when he was proofreading.

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