Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Navigating Middle-earth Before the Bending of the Seas


“Above all arts,” says the Akallabêth, the Men of Númenor “nourished ship-building and sea-craft, and they became mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished; and voyaging upon the wide seas was the chief feat and adventure of their hardy men in the gallant days of their youth.” With the exception of the Undying Lands, travel to which was banned, the Dúnedain traversed the Sundering Sea and beyond: “from the darkness of the North to the heats of the South, and beyond the South to the Nether Darkness; and they came even into the inner seas, and sailed about Middle-earth and glimpsed from their high prows the Gates of Morning in the East.” In other words: they got around.

To travel the world like that doesn’t just require hardy seafarers and ships, it requires skilled navigation. And that’s where the problem is. Before the Changing of the World that destroyed Númenor bent the seas and made the world round, the world—Arda—was flat. And if you know enough about maps, navigation, or mucking about with boats, you know that will have serious implications for navigation.

Think about how a sailing crew would navigate on our world. During the later years of the Age of Sail, a navigator might make use of a compass, a sextant and a marine chronometer to figure out their precise location on a map—the compass to determine bearing; the sextant to determine the latitude from the height of the Sun at noon or Polaris at night; the chronometer to determine longitude. (Longitude can be determined by measuring the difference in time between noon in two locations: if local noon is an hour earlier in one position than it is in another, it’s 15 degrees west of that other position.) Earlier in maritime history an astrolabe or a Jacob’s staff would have been used instead of a sextant.

All of these tools are predicated on a spherical (okay, oblate spheroid) world. On a flat earth they wouldn’t work the same way, or even at all. On a flat earth, noon takes place at the same time around the world—Arda has no time zones—so longitude can’t be determined that way. And while the angle of the Sun or the celestial north pole might change the further north or south you go, it would not (as we will see) be a reliable way of determining latitude.

So how could the Númenóreans have navigated? That’s a surprisingly tricky question—one I didn’t think would have a good answer when I started working on this article. But it turns out that there are methods they could have used to cross the wide seas of Arda without getting completely and hopelessly lost. In this thought experiment, I explore how they might have done it. (Read more.)

My review of The Rings of Power, HERE



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