Now when first Vingilot was set to sail in the seas of heaven, it rose unlooked for, glittering and bright; and the people of Middle-earth … called it Gil-Estel, the Star of High Hope.” – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 24
Tolkien provides no Elvish word for “planet;” they’re lumped in with the eleni. In fact, many of the unidentified names in the quote above are often assumed to be some of the planets. The non-Earth planets are notable objects in the night sky – not only fairly bright (well, at least five of them are), but wandering across the sky when the rest of the stars’ positions, relative to each other, remain fixed.
The only planet for which we have a definite equivalent is Venus – the brightest object in the night sky, save the Moon during certain phases, the International Space Station when the Sun hits it just right, and the occasional comet or supernova.1
Now fair and marvellous was that vessel made…and Eärendil the Mariner sat at the helm … and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow. Far he journeyed in that ship, even into the starless voids; but most often was he seen at morning or at evening, glimmering in sunrise or sunset, as he came back to Valinor from voyages beyond the confines of the world.” – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 24
Venus is sometimes referred to as the “Morning” or “Evening Star” because, depending on where it is in its orbit, Venus is either the first star-like object you see as the Sun sets, or the last star to remain visible as the Sun rises. So as the elves would tell it, Venus is not the work of Varda, but a dude with a really bright jewel on his forehead, sailing the heavens in a magical boat.
He also killed a dragon. Whether or not Venus could slay Ancalagon the Black with its lead-melting temperatures, surface air pressures nearly 100 times higher than Earth’s, basically oxygen-less atmosphere, and acid rain is a question we’ll have to hold onto.
Tolkien does make one apparent mistake with Eärendil as Venus, stating “the star of Eärendil shone bright in the West as a token … and as a guide over the sea” for Men to follow to the island of Númenor. Venus above the western horizon itself isn’t an error, but it’s there at sunrise.
Venus is always relatively close to the Sun in the sky, because its orbit is inside of Earth’s, so you can’t have the Sun rising in the east and Venus simultaneously in the west.
Thing is, in Tolkien’s version of things, the Sun actually did rise in the west. For a bit, anyway, back when it was first made.
Anar and Isil
These vessels the Valar gave to Varda, that they might become lamps of heaven, outshining the ancient stars, being nearer to Arda; and she … set them to voyage upon appointed courses above the girdle of the Earth from the West unto the East and to return.” – Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 11
The Sun and Moon were actually Attempt #3 at illuminating Arda with anything more than Varda’s starlight. First, there were two perpetually-lit lamps placed on mountain-sized towers – Illuin in the north and Ormal in the south. After Melkor and his minions destroyed those, there were the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin. Their silver and golden light, respectively, waxed and waned over a period of seven hours, but alternated (with one hour of overlap) so that there was still perpetual “day”light (though if you weren’t living in Valinor, you didn’t get to see any of it).2
The Trees were killed by a giant spider lady spirit thing that eats everything, including light, but the Valar were able to save a single flower from Telperion and fruit from Laurelin, which they used to create Isil, the Moon, and Anar, the Sun. Each was held inside a lamp driven across the sky by one of the Maiar. Tolkien explains away the difference in brightness between the two by the one escorting Anar being a literal spirit of fire.
Too bright were the eyes of Arien for even the Eldar to look on, and leaving Valinor she forsook the form and raiment which like the Valar she had worn there, and she was a naked flame, terrible in the fullness of her splendour. Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 11
Isil got full run of the sky for a whole week before Anar first rose (unlike, you know, the Sun exiting before the Moon formed). And yes, they both rose in the west and set in the east. Arda was supposed to be perpetually lit (again), but Varda got complaints about there never being a night time, so orders got switched up so Anar would hang out in Ekkaia just off of Valinor, then get pulled underneath Arda to pop up in the east and then travel west. Rinse. Repeat. Isil was supposed to so the same, but Tilion’s terrible at following orders.
But Tilion went with uncertain pace, as yet he goes, and was still drawn towards Arien, as he shall ever be; so that often both may be seen above the Earth together, or at times it will chance that he comes so nigh that his shadow cuts off her brightness and there is a darkness amid the day. Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 11
Thus, Tolkien explains the different rates and paths of travel the Sun and Moon take across our sky, as well as solar eclipses.
There’s also a quick passage where Tilion drove way too close and Anar’s flames scorched/”darkened” Isil, which Physics/Astronomy professor Dr. Kristine Larsen says is Tolkien’s origin of “the ‘dark side’ of the moon”, but given that the dark side of the Moon’s always changing – it’s whatever half of the Moon isn’t facing the Sun – I would argue it describes the Moon’s maria, or “seas”, which are really made from long-cooled lava flows. They’re less reflective than the surrounding, older rock because they have a different mineral composition.
That’s an important note to make between Isil and the Moon. Our Moon does not produce its own light; Tolkien’s does.
We never learn what happens to the Sun and Moon’s travel plans after the world becomes spherical. Did Eru rearrange the entire solar system, or are we still stuck in a geocentric solar system where the Earth doesn’t rotate?
That’s just one of the many questions I’d have for ol’ Ilúvatar after I leave the Halls of Mandos and go where the Eldar know not.
Feel free to contribute your own. I’ll make a list.
Did you miss the first part of JD Voyek’s analysis of Tolkien’s astronomy? Here it is!
1: The last one brighter than Venus’s minimum brightness (magnitude -3.8) happened in 1572. The last one brighter than Venus’s maximum brightness (magnitude -4.9)? 1054.
2: As he expressed in a letter to Milton Waldman in 1951, Tolkien saw the light of the Two Trees as “the light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively … as beautiful”. It was inherently purer than any light that came after, and therefore “the Sun is not a divine symbol, but a second-best thing, and the … world under the sun…a dislocated imperfect vision.”