Tag Archives: books

The Fall of Civilization as We Know It

Once upon a time, people talked to each other. That stopped long ago. Today, is there anyone who bothers with face-to-face communication anymore? No there is not. Everyone just spends hours staring at rectangles in front of them, and talks to things instead of people. Yes, everything was originally created by a person, but there’s still no human contact at all. No mere thing can think or feel. However many minds we can exchange information with, that’s still no substitute for an actual conversation.

People today are more isolated than ever before. If you put a handful of people in a room together, it used to be that they would talk to each other. Now, talking to people is something to be avoided. They just all pull out their gadgets and commence ignoring each other. Those gadgets are sucking all the feeling and meaning out of human existence. If “human” is even the right word any more.

Nowhere in nature is there anything resembling this modern technology.  It is used by humans only, and it works against the traits that make us human. These devices have no human feelings, and the more they are used the less contact there is with real people. Less personal means less human, and isolating people from one another is turning them into machines. This is the inevitable result of anything this artificial and unnatural.

Can you communicate a tone of voice or a twinkling eye over a text-only medium? All you can send are words. Words are great, but imagine a conversation where the words are the only information being sent, with the tone of voice or body language left to guesswork.  It would be monotonous in every sense. Not to mention ambiguous; you wouldn’t even be able to detect sarcasm! Communication should be face-to-face, and anything else is inferior.

We live in an age of more communication than ever before, and most of it is useless. In the world as it used to be, you would get a piece of information and act on it. Now it’s expected that most of the information you get doesn’t apply to your life at all. We receive record amounts of news from the other side of the world, and then proceed to devour it and ignore it. Of the things you read recently, what percent affect your life at all? How much is going to change your actions? How much is completely frivolous? People put all their effort into collecting information that they know is useless.

Nobody understands anything anymore. They don’t need to, because “I don’t know, but I can find the answer right here” is considered an acceptable answer. So they depend on access to completely useless lists of facts, and let that stand in for actually knowing anything. Instead of being educated, they substitute having information at their fingertips. This is not how knowledge is supposed to work.

People are meant to be people, not some unholy mass of collected information. But everyone supports this new technology, because they’ve always associated information with intelligence. Real knowledge is more natural than that. You either know something or you don’t. This modern use of gadgets is no better than using technology to give people better memories or computing power, and it’s obvious that making people smarter through technology is wrong. “Unnatural” doesn’t begin to cover this; it’s more like “dehumanizing and immoral.”

But if all this technology can make people smarter, it also has the opposite problem. When was the last time you memorized a poem, or had a conversation about philosophy, or did any of the things people used to do all the time? Anything involving thinking is just too hard for all the technology-dependent people, which is everybody, so nobody does it. You can get all your thoughts in pre-arranged packages, so there’s no need to think for yourself.

And everyone consumes all the same content. Whatever’s currently popular, you can count on everyone being intimately familiar with all of that and completely unfamiliar with anything else. Mass distribution of information makes it easier than ever before to just do what everyone else is doing and not bother forming your own opinions.

This is all before even considering the physical effects. People spend hours staring at their rectangles, not moving from one spot. Often, they don’t bother getting out of bed. Inactivity is at an all-time high because anybody can get their favorite entertainment on demand. We’re amusing ourselves to death.

Anyway, this is why I’m opposed to books.


In Which I Drop an Anvil

And not just casually dropping it a little bit onto someone’s head, like in all those cartoons. No, this is a drop of mythic proportions.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, it’s stated that Tartarus is as far below earth as earth is below heaven; a bronze anvil will take nine days to fall to earth from heaven and, if dropped again, nine to fall to Tartarus. This is problematic on a number of levels.

Here’s what happens if you try the anvil thing on or around Earth, using mostly real physics.

You pick a starting point high enough for the fall to take nine days. This is going to be significantly higher than when we dropped the Enterprise, since that only took a couple days at most. We’ll be dropping the anvil from a lot more. I haven’t estimated the numbers (I wouldn’t have the equation to find a precise answer anyway), but I’d bet that it’s easily high enough to be outside the Moon’s orbit and probably a lot further out than the human distance record on top of that. Anyway, we’re dropping it from really high.

Nine days later (minus a few fractions of a second), it’s falling at several thousand kilometers per second. It punches through the earth’s atmosphere and probably vaporizes. Hopefully. If not, it hits the surface at precisely the nine-day mark and Bad Things Happen.

If we took Hesiod literally, it would mean that Tartarus and heaven are both at the same height (plus or minus the diameter of the earth), because if we let that anvil fall through the earth (through a strategically placed hole painted on the sidewalk?), it’d come out the other side and start going upward to nearly the same height as it started from. He did say it’s the same distance. And things don’t fall up, so let’s see what happens when we drop it and leave it for nine days.

To find the depth of Tartarus, we’ll have to assume there’s a frictionless hole deep enough to drop the anvil down. Either that or it’s a special divine lump of bronze endowed with the ability to pass through regular matter and affected only by gravity. For our purposes, those will act the same.

If you drop that down, it’s going to go straight through, accelerating until it reaches the center of earth. Then it’ll keep falling, but slowing down because gravity is pulling it the other way. When it reaches the other surface, it’ll stop and start falling back. One direction takes a bit over 42 minutes.

(Side note because it’s really cool: It’s the same amount of time for any frictionless straight line through Earth, no matter what angle it’s at. The math is a bit beyond me, but that doesn’t make the fact less cool.)

The anvil is falling from one side of the earth to the other, repeatedly, every 2530.3 seconds, for nine days. It traverses the earth 307.3 times, so that after precisely nine days it ends up 2011 km deep, as measured from the other side of the world. So it’s most of the way through the earth’s mantle, on the other side of the core. Of course, it hasn’t “landed” in any way, but that’s where it is when it hits the nine-day mark so that’s where Tartarus is. Even if it’s nowhere near as far down as the heavens are up.

OK, so that didn’t fit with Hesiod, like, at all.

But gravity doesn’t work the same way in mythology! Everything falls at its own natural speed, and “inverse square” doesn’t even mean anything. So we can just figure out the natural speed for a bronze anvil to fall at, and ignore all this Newtonian silliness.

Finding that is probably impossible. What we can do is find how fast an anvil would actually fall, and assume that that’s the number the Greeks would say is its natural speed. So, we just have to use the awesome power of the Internet to find terminal velocity.

Getting representative statistics from an online anvil store (of course there’s an online anvil store), your classic anvil would weigh about 167 lbs and has a cross-sectional area of 102 square inches. Those anvils are made of steel, and bronze has more variation in its density. But the range is about right.

Those numbers can get plugged into a handy terminal velocity calculator, and it spits out a number of 84.7 m/s, about the speed of a high-speed train. Since it’s falling for nine days, or 9*24*3600 seconds, it started at 65,800 km above the surface. And so that’s the height of heaven and the depth of Tartarus.

On the real Earth, those would be up in space and down…in space. The distance is about five times the diameter of Earth. But we don’t need to worry about that future stuff right now; it’s 800 B.C.

One last mental image: The anvil falls for over a week, and then flies directly into the bottleneck of the underground prison in the deepest pit on Earth. There was probably a red bulls-eye painted around it. Then it falls for another nine days, where it lands directly on the head of the most hated enemy of the gods, Wile E. Coyote. Tell me you weren’t picturing that all along.

Fictional Magic

Renowned fantasy writer W.X. Mossy made a startling admission today when a fan asked where she got her ideas.

She used to be famous for her world’s impressive and innovative magic system. Every detail would be perfectly consistent, and someone who knew enough of the trivia would be able to guess future details. She could describe a clever magical device to do almost anything. But according to what she said today, it was all plagiarized. None of it was original, and the entire setup was copied wholesale from real physics.

Fans of Ms. Mossy are sharply divided over this shocking revelation.

“I always thought she was so creative” said Nameless Fan #1. “I’ve never seen another writer say that the characters have to be touching something to levitate it. And when she had a character find out that the magical force you use to push something is equal to the magical force pushing back on you, I loved it. But now that it’s the stuff we learn in school, it’s just not cool.”

Others disagreed. “When I got the news, I was happy,” said a fan wearing glasses and a pointy hat. “This means I have all the same powers as Gary Claybender!” Then he shouted something that sounded like Latin and lifted up a pencil. “I always thought I was just pretending, but now I know that it’s for real!”

It wasn’t only the fans who had strong opinions on this revelation. Allium News reached Jack Chick for comment. “Where the author got her inspiration doesn’t make the books any less occult. Those books are satanic, whether they call it ‘magic’ or ‘physics’ or anything else. If children read these books and listen to what they’re encouraging, they’ll be tempted into a life of physics. And that leads straight to the lake of fire.”

(He is referring, of course, to the incident in book seven when the author describes a  fire-creating spell in great detail. We now know that she was talking about the chemistry behind combustion.)

~Change of subject~

Someone asked me recently what would be my ideal magic system. I started rambling about consistency and having everything follow logically from a small number of differences from the real world and stuff like that. So the thing above is an extreme case for the purposes of making fun of myself. But I stand by what I meant. I am not a fantasy writer, but I am a fantasy reader. So I think I’m entitled to an opinion that’s not authoritative in any way.

Part of it is obvious. If you decide that your magic system works in a particular way, please don’t contradict that. But you can take this further and actually think through the implications. I’ve heard (but didn’t confirm) that part way through the Mistborn trilogy, fans could look at the half that had been revealed of how the physics worked and deduce the other half. Not coincidentally, I enjoyed those books.

And don’t just ignore real physics. One of my favorite details in Starfall was how some characters have super-speed without all the required secondary powers that most books would give them. So just because you can move inhumanly fast doesn’t mean you get to magically know where there’s a safe place to step, and conservation of momentum is definitely still a thing. Most books would have ignored that.

Of course, if you do all this, then you lose all the awe and mystery that some people like. Maybe you’d rather have nobody know how it works. Tolkien goes that route, and it works because the book wasn’t about the magic.  And The Name of the Wind solves the issue by using multiple independent sets of magic, one with stated rules (Conservation laws and everything! And even a magical equivalent of friction!) and another that’s less well understood but more mysterious. There are all kinds of good answers; I just prefer the one that involves me the reader having lots of information.

So if I were inventing a magic system, it would be based around cosmological engineering. You have to actually edit the laws of the universe. And since most of the laws are unchanged and interrelated, one mistake could go horribly wrong. Think you can fly by turning off gravity? Well yeah, but you also make the Earth explode.

Imagine making combustion not work, causing a fire to instantly go out. Does it work? Yes. Burning becomes impossible and your cells can’t burn glucose. You die. And if you try something bigger, like passing a law that everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, then everyone dies.

For that reason, researching new spells is very dangerous and done only on remote asteroids by highly paid physicists with low risk aversion. People are more likely to stick to known methods of altering the universe.

You can, for instance, alter conservation of momentum. Write in an exception, stating that for trademarked objects of a particular size and mass, every action exerting a force on it provokes a reaction precisely twice as strong.  Then you sell them to power companies. (Just never bump two of those objects together.) You can set up perpetual motion machines and free energy generators with those things. But this isn’t even very ambitious yet. When you can alter physical laws, the problem isn’t with what you can do; it’s with keeping from doing too much.

You could build an Alcubierre warp drive for interstellar travel by expanding and contracting space toward the destination, you could create a naked singularity just to see what happens, you could hold a sun in the palm of your hand. The trick is finding the right combinations of rules that allow you to do what you want but don’t instantly destroy you. Good luck.

Incidentally, when people ask me what kind of engineering I’m studying I always say cosmological. A surprising number of people have bought it.

Is Aragorn Actually the Rightful King?

Warning: Contains politics.

I was going to write this as a fake court decision because the last one was fun to write, but it turns out that U.S. law doesn’t actually apply in Gondor and their supreme court decisions are only rarely available on the Web. And I considered writing it as “historical” fiction, but then I’d have to write characters. So I’ll just explain it directly.

Aragorn, for the none of you who don’t already know, was the Heir of Isildur, the descendant of the old kings who used to rule Gondor literal thousands of years earlier, and is remembered as one of history’s great legendary heroes. In the volume titled “the Return of the King,” he returned and started kinging. But the book skipped over the bit where that was questionably legal.

I’m not just talking about the fact that history is written by the victors (Although, the book that we call the Lord of the Rings was written by a professional scribe hired by Aragorn and based on notes taken by friends of Aragorn, so there is that.) It’s a little-known fact that someone else had tried to claim the throne of Gondor for precisely the same reasons, and got denied because his claim wasn’t good enough.

A thousand years before Aragorn, King Ondoher of Gondor died without an heir. There was a man called Arvedui, a prince of Men in the North, and when he heard that Gondor was short one king, he decided to go claim the throne. He could do that because he was the Heir of Isildur…sound familiar? The problem was that Isildur had been king of Arnor, a kingdom best known for not being Gondor. His brother Anarion ruled Gondor. So Arvedui, descended from Isildur, lost the throne to a second cousin of the recently dead king. (Second cousin once removed, if you’re keeping score.)

Isildur had actually been high king of both kingdoms for a while, but then he gave Gondor to his nephew, meaning there was a bit of confusion about whether the nephew, Meneldil son of Anarion, was king or regent. In 1945 (Arvedui’s lifetime), the Council of Gondor, the closest thing Gondor had to a Supreme Court, said that Meneldil had been king. And so the throne belonged to the nearest living relative of Anarion’s line. By all accounts Earnil was actually a good king, so happy endings all around. (At least for one more generation until the Witch-King annihilated the kingdom of Arnor in the North leaving only a few Rangers and also rendered Earnil’s successor missing-presumed-dead so that Gondor had no king and was ruled by Stewards. Other than that.)

Point is, according to established precedent, being the Heir of Isildur was not enough to claim the throne of Gondor. But Arvedui had another claim: His wife, Firiel, was the daughter of the late Ondoher, so she should become Ruling Queen. And then he would get to be King Consort or something. This was because in Numenor, the lost ancient forerunning kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, women could inherit the throne, so Firiel should inherit the throne of Gondor. This is rather like if someone tried to make an argument from what the legal system was like in Atlantis. The law in Gondor had not yet been settled, but the Council decided to stay sexist. They installed war hero Earnil instead.

About a thousand years later, Aragorn came by with exactly the same claim. He was the Heir of Isildur, he was descended from Arvedui and Firiel, so he was in the direct line from both Isildur and Anarion, and he was a war hero. Unfortunately for him, those exact claims had already been weighed and found wanting when his ancestor tried them.

The Council had said that Arvedui couldn’t be king, so being descended from Arvedui must not be good enough. And Firiel couldn’t rule, so Aragorn couldn’t inherit the kingship from her side either. He argued that he was the heir of Elendil, who was the father of Isildur and Anarion and king of both nations, but since Aragorn was from Isildur’s side of the family and that side has no claim to Gondor’s throne, that shouldn’t have helped. He got away with it because Faramir took his side (Arvedui definitely didn’t have the luxury of being allied with the Steward), but history ultimately forgot about the sketchy legal details.

Aragorn’s claim was ultimately that he might not have been descended from the kings of Gondor, but he was descended from the kings of the United Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor from before the split. And after everybody accepted that claim, he re-founded Arnor and ruled the Re-United Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor. Historically, that wasn’t a good enough claim (remember, it failed when Arvedui tried it), but let’s assume that it was.

Gondor and Arnor were founded by Elendil and his sons when they escaped from Numenor. Numenor was something like Atlantis: A formerly great island nation that descended into less-than-greatness and eventually sank in unusually impressive display of divine retribution. Only the good guys made it out, led by Elendil, and they founded the newer kingdoms to try to preserve some of the good stuff about Numenor. Even in Aragorn’s time, men of Gondor would always look west before every meal, because they were remembering how much better Numenor was.

So if they were going to accept claims of being related to pre-Gondor royalty, why should they have stopped at Elendil? They could have found an heir of Elros Tar-Minyatur himself, the legendary founder of Numenor from before it was corrupted. All the most noble leaders of Men including Aragorn had nearly pure Numenorean blood, and Elros was the original Numenorean. Elros had been dead for most of human history, but his brother was still around. (His brother was an Elf. Don’t ask.) Clearly the most royal ruler possible would be whoever had the nearest kinship to Elros.

Aragorn was a descendent of Elros. History does not record the exact number of generations between them, but it was at least forty-eight. In the year that Aragorn assumed the crown, there was one nearer mortal relative. Elros’ brother was too much of an Elf to want to rule over Men, but his niece was human. (I said don’t ask.) She was more royalty than Aragorn was, and by ancient Numenorean law she could have inherited the throne.

You might think it’s a problem that Aragorn was a descendent of Elros and she wasn’t, but even he isn’t in the direct line of heirs. (One of his ancestors was a sister of the heir and never inherited the scepter). If Aragorn’s claim was being considered, then it must already be decided that it was perfectly fine for the ruler to be from a line of ancestry that diverged from the original way back in the distant past. And if that was acceptable, then the same logic would lead a bit further and point to a different candidate.

You heard it here first, people: Arwen for Queen!

OK, I should probably explain which parts are serious. All the genealogical facts should be accurate. Any mistakes are actual mistakes. The Arvedui incident did happen that way, but since the Council of Gondor doesn’t work by stare decisis, it doesn’t have to be considered binding precedent. So the present Council can ignore the last one if they want to.

(Although, I don’t remember anything in the books about the Council even being asked to confirm Aragorn as king. Maybe it happened off-page, but if it didn’t happen then that would be a big problem. Seems like a mistake that Aragorn wouldn’t make, so I’ll assume it did happen. If it did, that would entirely take care of the legitimacy issue, so it seems like something that shouldn’t have been left out.)

Aragorn is the best available candidate for king, but if they’re going to be a monarchy then he’s probably not good enough. That’s because he isn’t actually descended from Anarion. It would be like if the British royal line died out and they gave the crown to that guy in Australia who’s descended from an alternative line of succession. Except worse. Faramir was the guy who really had the law behind him if he wanted to rule (only as Steward, not king), but he recognized that having Aragorn on the throne would be the best thing for Gondor anyway. And since Aragorn is awesome and I’m not a strict monarchist, I’m not going to say Faramir was wrong.

About Arwen, well, I don’t actually think she has a real claim to the throne of Gondor. Claim to the throne of Numenor, debatably worth mentioning, (if Numenor still existed), although that would actually belong to Aragorn since he’s at least somewhere on a straight line of descent from the kings of Numenor. Or more realistically, there’s some minor character that we’ve never heard of who is also descended from Numenorean royalty (That describes, like, everyone in Gondor) but from a branch that split off later than Aragorn’s did. My point with bringing Arwen into this is that when you start creatively interpreting the law to allow the result you want, it might go a bit farther than you expect. Aragorn is still the best available that we know of.

Elros is irrelevant to the throne of Gondor and was only brought in because I had to make a case for Arwen somehow. But if you’re going to go back before Meneldil to Elendil, there’s no obvious reason why you couldn’t also go back further to Elros. Aragorn still wins, though, because his ancestry diverged from the relevant kings only three thousand years ago, and that’s more recent than anyone else can prove. He really is the best candidate there is, and Arwen’s family tree is just an interesting bit of trivia.

Of course, anyone who managed to slog through all the names probably already identified the problems with Arwen’s “claim,” plus a few more that I don’t know about besides.

Long live the King!

Word Count: Guess

It’s a phrase that we all know and love, and it once completely wrecked the economy. This never would have happened to the math people; they would have seen it coming from one point six kilometers away. But it hit us hard.

Our city was the world’s premier location for buying words. Short, sesquipedalian, or seventeen-lettered; you name it and it was there. We did a great trade. After all, everyone needs words and lots of people love them. You could buy a vowel, barter the definite article for an indefinite one, or modify a word you already own. Everybody used all the right words and only the right words. Signs were posted all over saying,

Brevity is the soul of wit.

People kept trying the best words possible, and everything worked. Lawyers hammered out agreements. Stories were woven out of the best words available. Wordsmiths did their smithing and constructed some of the best poetry that was ever made. Slogans and phrases were crafted with care, and the best combinations of syllables became public favorites. If you have a felicity or a eudaimonia that was spelled back then, it’s ridiculously valuable now. They don’t make words like they used to.

That was before. Then, people started saying that phrase. I don’t know if it was a marketing campaign gone horribly right, a virulent meme that got out of hand, or just an accident. But suddenly, everyone decided that a picture was worth a thousand words.

The most obvious problem was that people started to care more about pictures than about words. They all started trying to communicate in pictures instead of words, setting writing back a couple thousand years. Since people didn’t care about words anymore, the entire market slowed to a crawl. The signs posted everywhere changed, warning everyone not to buy what they used to:

An ill-chosen word is the fool’s messenger.

Nobody wanted to buy words any more. Why should they, when they thought pictures were so much better? The few people who were selling pictures before ended up fabulously wealthy. People would hand over words by the hundreds for a single picture. A chiasm that had been in the family for generations would be traded in along with everything else. Artists selling pictures were underselling each other, of course, but that didn’t help much. Anything priced under a thousand would be snapped up instantly.

It got worse. People stopped even caring what pictures they bought. Everyone was so used to thinking that a picture is worth a thousand words that they’d buy anything. So the picture-makers (you could hardly call them artists, anymore) started getting sloppy. They could make their thousand words per picture regardless of what the picture was. At one point I saw a reproduction of the Mona Lisa on the same shelf as an unrecognizable 20 x 50 pixel picture of Napoleon with the same price tag for each. The second one sold first.

Some of us tried to tell people that even if a picture was worth a thousand words, nobody said what picture it was. And they definitely didn’t say all pictures were worth a thousand words. As you might imagine, we lost. We were quibbling about words, which were the one thing everybody cared about least.

Speak fitly, or be silent wisely.

And it got even worse. Soon after that, people decided that their new philosophy meant that which word you were trading in didn’t even matter, just as long as there were a thousand of them. A few people spoke out against it. “Words aren’t fungible!” “You’re devaluing the phoneme!” But nobody listened. Maybe that was because they had spent all their fancy words to get more pictures and had no idea what the other people were saying.

People used to look closely at quagmires and upholsterys and flabbergasts to make sure they were high-quality words. Slang just sucked.  But now, nobody distinguished between Hamlet and the word “ant” repeated thirty thousand times. Either one could buy thirty pictures, and they were therefore equal. Words lost all meaning. Only a few even bothered to still use them. It was frowned upon to use words for anything unless you had to.

And then they started selling moving pictures. Whole rolls of film, showing dozens of pictures every second. Only the wealthiest could afford them. They could cost whole vocabularies even for a few seconds of video.

Silence is golden.

In a matter of months, nobody used words at all. Vocabularies had been reduced to zero. Communication was done entirely by pictograms (there was no shortage of those) and by gestures. The city that used to prize its dictionaries was speechless. Those of us who were unfashionable or antisocial enough to not join the craze were even more outcasts than before. We could, quite literally, not talk to anybody else in the city.

Despite the fact that barely anybody used words, a politician named Bill or Brian or something gave an incredible speech that got famous afterward for its metaphor. Something about crucifixion on a silent cross, and also currency. Naturally, that reference went right over everybody’s head. He lost his next election.

The problem did get fixed eventually. A logician from outside the city convinced the citizens that if they don’t care about words, and a picture is worth a thousand times nothing, they don’t care about pictures either. The bubble popped. The mint printed enough vocabulary for everyone to be able to converse normally, and if the city never fully recovered it at least made it back to functioning like before.

We try not to publicize how it happened. We found a scapegoat which we could blame, and left it at that. Now, people think they’ve learned from their mistake, but they’re just making the opposite one. Throwing around words that are superfluous, repetitive, and redundant. Generally acting like words grow on trees. Even pointing loaded metaphors where they might hurt someone. Unfortunately, language here is still lacking all rhyme and reason.

Disclaimer: the setting and some of the results were lifted wholesale from The Phantom Tollbooth. Causes and most of the events are original. People who have read The Phantom Tollbooth seem to overestimate how much was stolen, people who have not read The Phantom Tollbooth need to go do that right now. Seriously, drop what you are doing and go read it.

Tolkien hates me now, doesn’t he.

‘And what gift would a Dwarf ask of the Elves?’ said Galadriel, turning to Gimli.     

  ‘None, Lady,’ answered Gimli. ‘It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.’

     […] Yet surely, Gimli son of Glóin, you desire something that I could give? Name it, I bid you! You shall not be the only guest without a gift.’

     ‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing unless it might be – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire.[…]

     ‘And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak? But tell me, what would you do with such a gift?’

     ‘Treasure it, Lady,’ he answered, ‘in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if I ever return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be a heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.’

This incident is Gimli singlehandedly curing the millennia-old feud between Dwarves and Elves and being more awesome in forty seconds than Legolas was in his entire life. That is not the important part.

Another thing the important part isn’t is that, since Gimli did make it back to the smithies of his home, there is now a hair (well, three actually) from Galadriel’s head that he set in imperishable crystal to be passed down throughout the Future.

The important part is that what do we do with hair? Clones! Some time in the distant future of the Fourth Age, someone clever could clone Galadriel. (Tolkien guessed that we might be at the end of the Fifth Age, or maybe into the Seventh. It was never supposed to actually fit with real history, but someone asked.)

This would mean that the Elves might not stay extinct in Middle-Earth! It’s a Really Big Deal.

In Tolkien’s universe, it’s pretty much assumed that ancient foregoers are basically more intrinsically awesome than their descendants. And everyone knows it. Aragorn is so much better than every other human partly because he has the blood of Numenor that happened to turn out almost 100%. Back when Numenor was around, Aragorn would have been more like “average.” Faramir has the same thing: in his case “the blood of Westernesse runs nearly pure.” His brother is less awesome because he doesn’t have nearly as much of that blood (Tolkien didn’t care much about how genetics works.) Anyway, the point is that people Back Then had some kind of inherited quality that was gradually lost over the course of those three Ages. This diminishment is a major theme of Tolkien’s work and blah blah literary criticism blah, but the point is that clones.

Galadriel is from the First Age. She is from so far back that her grandfather was never actually born: he (Finwe) was simply created. Galadriel didn’t just know the world’s mythic history, she remembered it. She is one of those legendary forerunners; she was one of the legendary forerunners even back in Frodo’s time. She is probably the single best person from the War of the Ring to clone. Lucky we have her hair.

But wait, I’m sure you’re saying, just because the clone is genetically identical doesn’t mean she’d be as awesome as Galadriel was. Sure, she’d be taller, stronger, more beautiful, maybe smarter than most other Elves (let alone humans), but all the wisdom and authority and stuff are all from experience. And who knows how magic works with heredity. It would be like if you cloned King Arthur. The new guy is genetically Uther’s son and maybe he’s a pretty cool guy, but you’d be an idiot to put him in control of England just because of that. (Merlin agrees with me on that point; he’s a big proponent of nurture over nature.) In the case of Galadriel, you are extremely right.

Galadriel is one of the Elves of Light. Without going into too much detail, that means she saw the light of the Two Trees before they were destroyed and replaced with the Sun and Moon. (I told you she was old.) Elves who have seen that are basically better in every way than Elves who decided not to go or Elves who were born too late. The clone would not have seen the Trees and would therefore be less impressive than Galadriel herself.

Or would she? Another obscure detail about the Elves is that when they die they spend a little while (up to but no more than the remainder of the world) in something like Limbo, and they have the option to reincarnate as themselves. (Except Feanor. He’s serving a serious time-out right now.) The new body is always recognizable as being identical once it reaches adulthood, and all memory comes back. So when we clone Galadriel, it’s possible that the fea (the spirit) would, if Galadriel happened to be dead at the time, end up here. If that happens, you basically hit the jackpot. She wouldn’t just be someone similar, she’d be Galadriel herself, complete with memory, history, and magic. This would be like if you cloned King Arthur and the clone turned out to actually be King Arthur, if King Arthur had won the War of the Ring, had once been on speaking terms with the gods, and had superpowers.

How likely is that? Not very. Galadriel is more or less immortal, and while she might have died by accident at some point during or after the Fourth Age, she probably didn’t. Elves are tough. And even if she did, she might have just decided to be reborn. So her fea is unlikely to be hanging around bodiless at any given time.

If the clone does turn out to be Galadriel herself, she wouldn’t want to stay here for long. She’ll go back to her own world (which used to be part of this one, back when it was flat, but now only Elves can sail back…long story). Maybe she’ll let someone try to follow her boat, just to see what happens. Now that could be interesting.

But that won’t happen, because Galadriel’s fea is otherwise occupied and won’t be dropping by. Instead, you’ll just end up with a nearly immortal superhuman. Boring.

If you noticed that the hairs in question were cut off rather than pulled out and therefore have no follicle and no genetic material and the entire premise is impossible, then you win a lot of nerd points. And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling smart people.