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In many places throughout Tolkien's works, he describes his characters seeing stars in the sky during daylight hours, usually when the characters are passing through deep, narrow canyons or ravines. For instance, it happens to the Grey Party in the canyon of Dunharrow, in The Return of the King, and to Tuor and Voronwë as they pass through the Orfalch Echor on the way to Gondolin, in the first chapter of Unfinished Tales.

In the real world, there was a very long lived old wives tale along these lines: According to many otherwise reliable sources, such as Aristotle and Sir John Herschel, a person at the bottom of a canyon, mineshaft, or extremely tall chimney can see stars during daylight hours. Unfortunately for these sources, this is absolute nonsense. Scientists have, on more than one occasion, attempted to test this idea, and the result is always the same: Unless there is a solar eclipse, you can't see stars with the naked eye during daylight hours under any circumstances, ever. It has been calculated that, to be visible to the naked eye during daylight hours, a star would have to be at least 5 times brighter than the brightest star in the sky.

I'm wondering if Tolkien fell for the same tall tale as Aristotle and Sir John Herschel - that is to say, if he believed that a person in the real world could see stars with the naked eye during daylight hours - or if he is saying that things worked differently in Middle-earth 6,000 years ago than they do now.

The latter possibility is certainly plausible in the context of the stories, because he also describes a lake in which the night sky is always reflected, even during the daytime (Lake Mirrormere, located just outside the gates of Khazad-dûm/Moria).

So there are basically two possible explanations:

  • People in Middle-earth can see the stars because of magic and stuff, which wouldn't be surprising, since magic is very real in Tolkien's world.

  • People in Middle-earth can see the stars because Tolkien believed the old wives tale.

The former option is more appealing, but I think the latter option is more likely.

Why do I think the latter option is more likely? Because elsewhere in his works, Tolkien seems to support other old wives tales, such as the now-debunked belief that it is unhealthy to drink extremely cold water. This belief was fairly common until the middle of the 20th century, for reasons that I don't fully understand. Tolkien seems to have believed it, and his characters act as though it were true.

Is there any way to determine which of these two possibilities is the real explanation? Do Tolkien's characters see the stars because Middle-earth is different from the world we live in, or because Tolkien believed an old wives tale?

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    maybe they're really bright? – Petersaber Jul 8 '15 at 6:37
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    @Petersaber You don't need to be bright, just have good vision, to see stars in the daytime ;-))) – Rand al'Thor Jul 8 '15 at 9:24
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    Because eru wanted them to? – user46509 Jul 8 '15 at 12:34
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    You can see the Morning "Star" during the daytime. I'm sure that the people of Middle Earth wouldn't have recognized the distinction. – Chris B. Behrens Jul 8 '15 at 17:05
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    @eirikdaude - Matt Gutting actually solved the problem for us. The relevant quotes are in his answer below. – Wad Cheber Jul 8 '15 at 20:48
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As one can see from, for example, the discussion of the calendar and the length of the year in Appendix D of The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth was conceived as being part of Earth at (as Tolkien says in one of his letters) "a different stage of imagination".

Tolkien doesn't introduce "magic" into his narrative without a very specific narrative purpose; so one should be cautious about interpreting any given unusual event as "magic".

The first place in The Lord of the Rings which instances people seeing stars by day (and then only indirectly) is, as you point out, when Gimli and Frodo look in the Mirrormere:

They stooped over the dark water. At first they could see nothing. Then slowly they saw the forms of the encircling mountains mirrored in a profound blue, and the peaks were like plumes of white flame above them; beyond there was a space of sky. There like jewels sunk in the deep shone glinting stars, though sunlight was in the sky above. Of their own stooping forms no shadow could be seen.

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book II, Chapter 6, "Lothlórien"; emphasis added)

Clearly some magic is intended here; cf. the last stanza of Gimli's poem in Moria:

But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

On the other hand, at the passing of the Grey Company through the Paths of the Dead, there is no obvious reason to believe magic is in play:

Suddenly [Gimli] heard the tinkle of water, a sound hard and clear as a stone falling into a dream of dark shadow. Light grew, and lo! the company passed through another gateway, high-arched and broad, and a rill ran out beside them; and beyond, going steeply down, was a road between sheer cliffs, knife-edged against the sky far above. So deep and narrow was that chasm that the sky was dark, and in it small stars glinted. Yet as Gimli after learned it was still two hours ere sunset of the day on which they had set out from Dunharrow; though for all that he could then tell it might have been twilight in some later year, or in some other world.

(The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter 2, "The Passing of the Grey Company"; emphasis added)

A similar statement holds for the passage in "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin":

Tuor saw that they stood at the end of a ravine, the like of which he had never before beheld or imagined in his thought, long though he had walked in the wild mountains of the North; for beside the Orfalch Echor Cirith Ninniach was but a groove in the rock. Here the hands of the Valar themselves, in ancient wars of the world's beginning, had wrested the great mountains asunder, and the sides of the rift were sheer as if axe-cloven, and they lowered up to heights unguessable. There far aloft ran a ribbon of sky, and against its deep blue stood black peaks and jagged pinnacles, remote but hard, cruel as spears. Too high were those mighty walls for the winter sun to overlook, and though it was now full morning faint stars glimmered above the mountain-tops, and down below all was dim, but for the pale light of lamps set beside the climbing road.

(Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth, Chapter I, "Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin"; emphasis added)

Thus we do appear to be on Earth (as we know it nowadays), and in two of three cases, this seems to be an effect independent of magic. On the other hand, Tolkien never—as far as I can discover—appears to state outright his belief (as the author, not the narrator) that one can indeed see stars in the daytime under such circumstances.

I conclude that there is no specific evidence supporting the statement that Tolkien the man believed the "old wives' tale" you mention, but on the other hand there is no reason to believe that this was an effect introduced by Tolkien because Middle-earth was "different" or "magic".

  • Excellent answer. +1 and thank you. I'm inclined to think he really did believe the old wives tale. – Wad Cheber Jul 8 '15 at 20:51
  • @WadCheber I'd say it's likely to probable; he almost certainly hadn't during his travels been in a situation where he could test it. But as far as evidence, there's nothing that says so outright. – Matt Gutting Jul 8 '15 at 20:53
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    In both of the latter examples the characters are hemmed in by very high mountains blocking a rather low sun (due to time, season, and/or latitude). It seems plausible that at that altitude where the chasms opened, the sky actually was quite dark. It's a very different situation from a well or chimney in the cited examples, with the full daylit atmosphere above the opening. – Travis Christian Jul 8 '15 at 22:20
  • @Travis that's possible; but we do see "two hours ere sunset" and "full morning". Regardless, if the question is whether Tolkien believed this to be true, I'd still say there's no good evidence one way or the other. – Matt Gutting Jul 8 '15 at 22:39
  • Well, but one generally count sunset as the time when the sun disappears below the horizon, I think? At least for most modern purposes I think, dunno how it was done back in the 20s-30s. I don't think it'd be too uncommon to see at least Venus at that time, even if you can actually see the sun? – eirikdaude Jul 8 '15 at 23:52
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Since you don't know the absolute magnitude of stars in Middle Earth, you can't say if they would be visible by day or not.

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    Given that Middle-Earth is just an ancient Earth, I'd say that the Stars' brightness isn't much different – The Fallen Jul 8 '15 at 17:24
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    So the Venus probe the Russians sent found an Elf in a boat with a Silmaril? – Oldcat Jul 8 '15 at 20:38
  • Oldcat - it is possible that when Eru wrapped the flat earcha round a sphere of rock thousands of miles whide he rebuilt the heaves, creating the stars and planets we see today and using them to replace the much smaller and closer oebjects from the First Age. this would have been over thre thousand years before The war of the Ring. PS The Russians sent many probes to Venus over decades. – M. A. Golding Jul 9 '15 at 3:46
  • OLdcat - please pardon my spelling. first sentence: "It is possible that when Eru wrapped the flat Earth around a sphere of rock thousands of miles wide, he rebuilt the heavens, replacing the small, near stars and planets of the Elder Days with the stars and planets of today". I hope that is clearer. – M. A. Golding Jul 9 '15 at 3:58
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    @Oldcat I'm just imagining Eru watching it all going wrong, and shouting "Ok, ok! I'm sorting out the bloody physics! Just stop looking at things for a minute, will you?". And he probably couldn't roll out the proper fix until he'd got the users to migrate off "elven magic" onto "hard work" and "tricks", so the bent paths thing was probably a massive hack. – SusanW Mar 9 '17 at 20:08
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These sources say either it is impossible to see stars during the day or else it is very, very difficult and you have to know where to look, etc.

[1]https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=can+you+see+stars+in+the+daytime

there is a video which allegedly shows Vega during the daytime.

Back around 2000 I went out before dawn to watch a meteor shower. I could see stars in the sky for about as long as I could see meteors. When the sky got to light to see stars and meteors I went back home, and then it was light enough on the ground to see vapor rising from a large pile of wood chips about 500 feet away.

So in my own experience I could see "shooting stars" until shortly before sunrise.

I think that Legolas and other elves with their super vision could probably see stars in some daylight conditions. I wonder if Gimli the dwarf had better vision than Men, and if Tuor was a special case who got better vision and a few other elven perks when he was born because Eru knew he was destined to choose to become an elf.

Tolkien did sometimes use "old wives tales" such as a ant queen controlling the colony with some type of telepathy - in that particular case I don't know if that simile was written by frodo who might have believed it or was introduced by Tolkien the translator.

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It's just my own opinion here, but I think Tolkien used these "old wife's tales" as part of the mythical setting to his tales (even though they were set on Earth). Thus, the Sun and the Moon actually go around the Earth, and there are perhaps several other such "inaccuracies" presented as the real thing.

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