All posts by RichardAbbott

Orbits 2

Gravity film release poster (Wiki)

Last time I talked a bit about orbital paths for getting from the Earth to the Moon, and how there are several alternatives, each using different amounts of time and fuel. Today I want to talk a bit about orbits around Earth – the kind of trajectories used by a multitude of satellites today. This post was partly motivated by a conversation in the film Gravity – a film which I quite enjoyed for the human interactions, but was seriously disappointed by the cavalier attitude to orbital mechanics! There’s a point fairly late on where George Clooney’s character points out to Sandra Bullock’s character an orbital space station where she can find additional supplies, and directs her to fire her own capsule engines while keeping the other station central in her forward window.

It sounds good – and it would sort of work on Earth if you translate Sandra Bullock’s plight into moving cars around a car park – but there is absolutely no way that such a strategy would get her to her target up in orbit. Quite apart from the matter of getting the two space vehicles to meet up in space, there’s also the problem of matching speeds so that she could easily move across to the second capsule. Earth orbits simply don’t work like that – it is certainly possible (with sufficient fuel) to transition from one orbit to another, but getting the engine burn right is a difficult task, and one which needs to be carried out by computer program rather than optimistic guesswork.

Hohmann transfer orbit (Wiki)

The most energy-efficient way to transition from one circular orbit to another is by means of what is called a Hohmann transfer orbit – an elliptical path that touches both circles at a tangent. Other transfers can be used, and may well take less time to complete, but they will use more fuel. The simple picture here assumes that both orbits are in the same plane – in a more general case it will be necessary to shift orbital plane from the old angle to the new one. But that aside, just looking at the two objects shows that the engine burn required is not at all directed straight at the target – indeed in this case it is almost diametrically opposite. (Hohmann transfers are also used on a larger scale for trajectories between planets, and exactly the same principles apply).

Now, the great majority of satellites are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – not a single trajectory, but a zone of space from about 200 to 2000km altitude, or equivalently with an orbital period of under two hours. LEO is easy to get to, and hence economical of fuel, but especially at the lower end of the range, orbits will slowly decay because of the very tenuous atmosphere still present there – hence either the lifetime is limited, or occasional actions must be taken to lift the orbital height. A consequence of such a low orbit is that the spacecraft transits the sky quickly – or equivalently, any one part of Earth stays in view for only a short time. Satellites providing the various GPS systems orbit much higher, around 20-30000km (12-15 hours). And higher still, a little over 40000km, are the geostationary orbits, in which a satellite takes 24 hours to orbit the planet, and so appears to be stationary over a particular place.

Cover - Far from the Spaceports
Cover – Far from the Spaceports

What does this have to do with writing? Well, maneuvering around a planet in low orbit is a tricky thing to get right, and not something you want to leave to intuition. In Far from the Spaceports, Mitnash gets a shuttle up to his spaceship, The Harbour Porpoise, which the AI persona Slate has been keeping in LEO waiting a decision on where they were heading off for. They end up going off to the asteroid belt, but their first move would be to get out of LEO and leave Earth’s gravity well behind. That’s not something where Mitnash would glance out of the window, push a couple of buttons, and hope for the best – Slate, or possibly the ship’s own onboard controller, would do some real calculations before firing up the main engines. And then off they go…

Next time, a zany idea I just read about concerning moving the orbit of the Earth itself…

Orbits 1

Artist’s impression of Beresheet probe mid-flight (Israel Space Agency)

A few weeks ago now, an Israeli space probe called Beresheet (“Beginning”) reached the moon’s surface – sadly a system glitch in the last few seconds of approach meant that it crashed rather than soft-landed, but nevertheless it was a remarkable achievement. A particularly interesting feature of the trajectory that the ground crew chose is that it is quite unlike the method adopted by pretty much every probe before now, including the Apollo spacecraft.

Successive orbit paths (Israel Space Agency)

The typical way to reach the moon has been in three phases – up to Earth orbit first, then a substantial burn of the main engines to escape Earth orbit and head towards the moon, then another burn to enter lunar orbit. The long leg of this is traversed with no engine activity at all, barring some trivial course corrections. Beresheet, however, adopted quite a different approach, as shown in the accompanying picture. A series of much smaller engine burns shifted the orbital path round Earth into ever-longer ellipses, until the path was close enough to the moon to be captured by the gravity there. The probe never attained escape velocity from Earth, and the trip took rather longer to arrive – a couple of months rather than a few days. However, it used less fuel and had the advantage that the successive changes in orbit allowed for lots of checking and fine-tuning.

Almost all probes to date, including Beresheet, have been driven by chemical rockets. They can exert huge acceleration at need, but have the disadvantage that the fuel tanks empty comparatively quickly. The times when the engines are used have to be rationed and carefully calculated, in order to have enough left over for critical events late on in the spacecraft’s journey. About the only exception to this is the Dawn probe, which visited the asteroid belt and returned remarkable new details about Vesta and Ceres. Dawn used an ion drive, which yields comparatively little acceleration but can be run continuously for weeks or months at a time. It’s a neat way to pile up substantial velocity without using much fuel at a time. It’s also the spaceship drive that I presuppose for Far from the Spaceports and successive books in that series – from a human-traveller point of view it has the huge advantage that you don’t have to put up with long periods of weightless travel, as well as considerably reducing travel times. The fact that the drive runs continually for all that time hugely offsets the fact that the actual propulsive power is much smaller.

That’s it for this week – next week there’ll be a few more thoughts on orbits. Meanwhile, here’s the last picture Beresheet took before crashing into the lunar surface…

Beresheet’s final image (Israel Space Agency)

About a podcast

Absolute Business MIndset podcast logo

A short blog today as I get back into blog writing after a very busy Easter. And it’s something a little bit different for me – a friend and former work colleague interviewed me for his podcast series over the weekend, and it has now gone live.

Now, I’ve never really got into podcasts, and Marks’ normal focus for his series is to do with business (as you can tell from his series title, Absolute Business Mindset), but we both managed to make something of the interaction.

Different people use different podcast software, but this site
https://gopod.me/1340548096 gives you a list of different options through which you can access the interview. Alternatively, search for Mark’s series by its title, Absolute Business Mindset.

In it, you can hear me talking with Mark about all kinds of stuff, largely focused around maths, artificial intelligence, Alexa and so on, ultimately touching on science fiction. The whole thing takes about an hour, and Alexa takes more of a central role in the second half. Enjoy!

Another asteroid mission

Artist's Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s Impression of Dawn in orbit (NASA/JPL)

Readers of this blog will know that I have been very enthusiastic about NASA’s Dawn space probe which spent a long time investigating first Vesta, and then for a rather longer time Ceres, before eventually running out of fuel and being decommissioned. The results from that mission have substantially changed our perception of the asteroid belt, and in particular have confirmed the ubiquity of water ice in all parts of the solar system. Of course, it also raised a lot of questions, such as what was responsible for bright surface markings on Ceres, and how the dwarf planet could apparently have supported both ammonia deposits and a large ocean at various times in its history.

Pallas, as seen from the European Southern Observatory

Anyway, I read this week that NASA is considering a smaller and cheaper mission to the third largest asteroid, Pallas. If approved – and the decision will be made later this month – this would launch in August 2022, which gives it a suitable orbit for a gravity assist from Mars. Unlike Dawn, the low price tag means that this is a flyby mission rather than one that aims to go into orbit, so it will be a case of capturing whatever data can be obtained in a relatively short span of time. Basically, it’s cheaper and easier to just race past somewhere, rather than carry the fuel to slow down and be captured gravitationally. Nevertheless, it should provide another batch of results to extend our knowledge of the diverse objects making up the asteroid belt. And in particular it will give some more solid information that – no doubt – wil one day find its way into my Far from the Spaceports series!

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

And in entirely unrelated news, last Friday I had the pleasure of participating in Helen Hollick’s blog series “Novel Conversations”, which focused on an interview with a character. In my case this was Brendan mab Emrys, who some people will know as the bard in the Arthurian section of Half Sick of Shadows. The interview can be found at Helen’s blog. And if you navigate over that way, you will also find an extract.

Finally, it would be sad to finish this blog post without briefly saying RIP Google+, which until yesterday was a place I shared out blog posts, nature photos, and other similar things.

Artificial Intelligence – Thoughts and News

My science fiction books – Far from the Spaceports and Timing, plus two more titles in preparation – are heavily built around exploring relationships between people and artificial intelligences, which I call personas. So as well as a bit of news about one of our present-day AIs – Alexa – I thought I’d talk today about how I see the trajectory leading from where we are today, to personas such as Slate.

Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon
Martian Weather Alexa skill web icon

Before that, though, some news about a couple of new Alexa skills I have published recently. The first is Martian Weather, providing a summary of recent weather from Elysium Planitia, Mars, courtesy of a public NASA data feed from the Mars Insight Lander. So you can listen to reports of about a week of temperature, wind, and air pressure reports. At the moment the temperature varies through a Martian day between about -95 and -15° Celsius, so it’s not very hospitable. Martian Weather is free to enable on your Alexa device from numerous Alexa skills stores, including UK, US, CA, AU, and IN. The second is Peak District Weather, a companion to my earlier Cumbria Weather skill but – rather obviously – focusing on mountain weather conditions in England’s Peak District rather than Lake District. Find out about weather conditions that matter to walkers, climbers and cyclists. This one is (so far) only available on the UK store, but other international markets will be added in a few days.

Who remembers Clippy?

Current AI research tends to go in one of several directions. We have single-purpose devices which aim to do one thing really well, but have no pretensions outside that. They are basically algorithms rather than intelligences per se – they might be good or bad at their allotted task, but they aren’t going to do well at anything else. We have loads of these around these days – predictive text and autocorrect plugins, autopilots, weather forecasts, and so on. From a coding point of view, it is now comparatively easy to include some intelligence in your application, using modular components, and all you have to do is select some suitable training data to set the system up (actually, that little phrase “suitable training data” conceals a multitude of difficulties, but let’s not go into that today).

Boston Dynamics ‘Atlas’ (Boston Dynamics web site)

Then you get a whole bunch of robots intended to master particular physical tasks, such as car assembly or investigation of burning buildings. Some of these are pretty cute looking, some are seriously impressive in their capabilities, and some have been fashioned to look reasonably humanoid. These – especially the latter group – probably best fit people’s idea of what advanced AI ought to look like. They are also the ones closest to mankind’s long historical enthusiasm for mechanical assistants, dating back at least to Hephaestus, who had a number of automata helping him in his workshop. A contemporary equivalent is Boston Dynamics (originally a spin-off from MIT, later taken over by Google) which has designed and built a number of very impressive robots in this category, and has attracted interest from the US military, while also pursing civilian programmes.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

Then there’s another area entirely, which aims to provide two things: a generalised intelligence rather than one targeted on a specific task, and one which does not come attached to any particular physical trappings. This is the arena of the current crop of digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana and so on. It’s also the area that I am both interested in and involved in coding for, and provides a direct ancestry for my fictional personas. Slate and the others are, basically, the offspring – several generations removed – of these digital assistants, but with far more autonomy and general cleverness. Right now, digital assistants are tied to cloud-based sources of information to carry out speech recognition. They give the semblance of being self-contained, but actually are not. So as things stand you couldn’t take an Alexa device out to the asteroid belt and hope to have a decent conversation – there would be a minimum of about half an hour between each line of chat, while communication signals made their way back to Earth, were processed, and then returned to Ceres. So quite apart from things like Alexa needing a much better understanding of human emotions and the subtleties of language, we need a whole lot of technical innovations to do with memory and processing.

As ever, though, I am optimistic about these things. I’ve assumed that we will have personas or their equivalent within about 70 or 80 years from now – far enough away that I probably won’t get to chat with them, but my children might, and my grandchildren will. I don’t subscribe to the theory that says that advanced AIs will be inimical to humankind (in the way popularised by Skynet in the Terminator films, and picked up much more recently in the current Star Trek Discovery series). But that’s a whole big subject, and one to be tackled another day.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy my latest couple of Alexa skills and find out about the weather on Mars or England’s Peak District, while I finish some more skills that are in progress, and also continue to write about their future.

Mars Insight Lander, Artist’s impression (NASA/JPL)

Making things

It seems a very long while since I wrote a blog article – this extraordinarily varied job I now have has kept me busy with all kinds of practical things and left me with little time or head-space to blog. But here after a gap are some thoughts triggered by a recent task.

To cut a long story short, we had to build a cupboard, from scratch with struts and planks rather than an Ikea-style assembly kit. The cupboard was intended to replace a room full of racking and shelves which used to hold a collection of necessary linen and such like, plus a whole lot of dumped bits and pieces which were no longer needed and had to find a new home. (The old linen store room was being reworked for a different purpose, but that’s another story).

An early stage - sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted
An early stage – sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted

Now it struck me, as we worked away with timber purchased online and delivered direct to the house, using power tools of various kinds and (eventually) hefty tins of paint – which again we had not needed to go out and collect – that we are living in a fairly unique period for this kind of work. Back in the Bronze age, say three of four thousand years ago, things would have been very different. The same is true of classical, mediaeval, renaissance, and pretty much all other times right through to very recently. I wonder how many stories presuppose that the heroes of the story are able to simply turn their hands to whatever happens to be the next task on the list, regardless of the practical problems? I know I’ve read some like that.

For a start, I would probably not have been in a position to freely decide that the work needed doing. If I’d wanted timber, I would probably have had to fell and shape it myself, or negotiate with others to do this for me. All the woodworking would need to be done by hand, and even for a simple cupboard that takes a fair level of skill and practice. I wouldn’t have had easy access to several kinds of paint (primer/undercoat and topcoat, at minimum).

Midway - doors now fitted
Midway – doors now fitted

In short, a task which took two of us a couple of days to finish (plus waiting time in between paint coats) would have been a seriously long proposition, and one which would have had a much more debatable outcome.

That’s looking back. But if you look forward, to the prospect of making a cupboard in low or zero gravity, a whole set of different problems presents itself. Let’s suppose that I would have either procured some wood, or else used a three-d printer to turn out something similar enough that I could make it. Then I’d have to manoeuvre it into position. In low gravity, mass and weight mean different things – I would have the muscular strength to shift much larger weights than here on Earth, but their mass, and so their inertia, would be exactly the same, so getting the planks to stop moving might be an issue. Most of my Earth-based tools would not work, since most of them rely heavily on friction to have an effect. A saw works by relying on the fact that you can fix both the wood and yourself in place sufficiently well that the teeth cut through the wood fibres. Shift into micro-gravity, and what tends to happen is that you just can’t get enough opposing force at the blade edge to get anywhere.

An astronaut working on the Hubble Space Telescope – note the cordless drill strapped to his belt (NASA)

Similarly for our dinky electric screwdriver. On Earth it’s great – you hold it steady, the screws turn round and work their way through the layers of wood. In microgravity, it’s hard to avoid you turning the opposite way to the screw. My layers of paint wouldn’t have a tendency to drip downwards – which would be very handy- but they’d also tend to disperse into little globules which would then go into all kinds of places you didn’t expect or want. The various space agencies have had to develop very specific – and very expensive – versions of everyday tools just so they can work in low Earth orbit reasonably well. Even so, tasks take much longer – in 2017 some 12 old batteries on the ISS were replaced with 6 new ones. The task took took separate spacewalks, the first of which lasted over 6 hours. Changing those 12 batteries took nearly as long as we took to build the whole cupboard. Fixing and making things in microgravity is hard work, and slow work.


3D-printed items using fake moon dust, or regolith (ESA)

Now, I’m quite convinced that as and when people will want to build a linen cupboard in low Earth orbit, or on the moon, or on an asteroid somewhere, they will be inventive enough to craft different kinds of tools which don’t make the same assumptions about gravity strength and direction that our current generation does. Maybe in a few decades I would simply download the cupboard template and print myself one, in whatever dimensions and colour scheme seemed good to me. Last year there was an interesting article explaining how ESA are testing the use of moon dust as the raw material for printers (at this stage it’s not actually dust from the moon, owing to a shortage of that, but the regolith they used has broadly the same properties). So you don’t send a bunch of tools and construction materials over to the mon, or Ceres, or Charon, or wherever – you send a printer with some pre-programmed templates, and you gather dust from your local environment.

For us, stuck with our 2019 toolset, there was a happy ending – the cupboard got finished quickly, and we can now move on to renovating the previous linen storeroom. And that would scarcely have been possible even fifty years ago, let alone all the previous years of mankind’s time here on Earth.

The finished article...
The finished article…

Emotions

Far from the Spaceports cover
Far from the Spaceports cover

In my science fiction stories, I write about artificial intelligences called personas. They are not androids, nor robots in the sense that most people recognise – they have no specialised body hardware, are not able to move around by themselves, and don’t look like imitation humans. They are basically – in today’s terminology – computers, but with a level of artificial intelligence substantially beyond what we are used to. Our current crop of virtual assistants, such as Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Bixby, and so on, are a good analogy – it’s the software running on them that matters, not the particular hardware form. They have a certain amount of built-in capability, and can also have custom talents (like Alexa skills) added on to customise them in an individual way. “My” Alexa is broadly the same as “yours”, in that both tap into the same data store for understanding language, but differs in detail because of the particular combination of extra skills you and I have enabled (in my case, there’s also a lot of trial development code installed). So there is a level of individuality, albeit at a very basic level. They are a step towards personas, but are several generations away from them.

Now, one of the main features that distinguishes personas from today’s AI software is an ability to recognise and appropriately respond to emotion – to empathise. (There’s a whole different topic to do with feeling emotion, which I’ll get back to another day). Machine understanding of emotion (often called Sentiment Analysis) is a subject of intense research at the moment, with possible applications ranging from monitoring drivers to alert about emotional states that would compromise road safety, through to medical contexts to provide early warning regarding patients who are in discomfort or pain. Perhaps more disturbingly, it is coming into use during recruitment, and to assess employees’ mood – and in both cases this could be without the subject knowing or consenting to the study. But correctly recognising emotion is a hard problem… and not just for machine learning.

From the article ‘Emotion Science Keeps Getting More Complicated. Can AI Keep Up? ‘ by Dr Rich Firth-Godbehere

Humans also often have problems recognising emotional context. Some people – by nature or training – can get pretty good at it, most people are kind of average, and some people have enormous difficulty understanding and responding to emotions – their own, often, as well as those of other people. There are certain stereotypes we have of this -the cold scientist, the bullish sportsman, the loud bore who dominates a conversation – and we probably all know people whose facility to handle emotions is at best weak. The adjacent picture is taken from an excellent article questioning whether machines will ever be able to detect and respond to emotion – is this man, at the wheel of his car, experiencing road rage, or is he pumped that the sports team he supports has just scored? It’s almost impossible to tell from a still picture.

From a human perspective, we need context – the few seconds running up to that specific image in which we can listen to the person’s words, and observe their various bodily clues to do with posture and so on. If instead of a still picture, I gave you a five second video, I suspect you could give a fairly accurate guess what the person was experiencing. Machine learning is following the same route. One article concerning modern research reads in part, “Automatic emotion recognition is a challenging task… it’s natural to simultaneously utilize audio and visual information“. Basically, the inputs to their system consist of a digitised version of the speech being heard, and four different video feeds focusing on different parts of the person’s face. All five inputs are then combined, and tuned in proprietary ways to focus on details which are sensitive to emotional content. At present, this model is said to do well with “obvious” feelings such as anger or happiness, and struggles with more weakly signalled feelings such as surprise, disgust and so on. But then, much the same is true of many people…

A schematic learning network (from www.neuroelectrics.com)

A fascinating – and unresolved – problem is whether emotions, and especially the physical signs of emotions, are universal human constants, or alternatively can only be defined in a cultural and historical context. Back in the 1970s, psychological work had concluded that emotions were shared in common across the world, but since then this has been called into question. The range of subjects used for the study was – it has been argued – been far too narrow. And when we look into past or future, the questions become more difficult and less answerable. Can we ever know whether people in, say, the Late Bronze Age experienced the same range of emotions as us? And expressed them with the same bodily features and movements? We can see that they used words like love, anger, fear, and so on, but was their inward experience the same as ours today? Personally I lean towards the camp that emotions are indeed universal, but the counter-arguments are persuasive. And if human emotions are mutable over space and time, what does that say about machine recognition of emotions, or even machine experience of emotions?

One way of exploring these issues is via games, and as I was writing this I came across a very early version of such a game. It is called The Vault, and is being prepared by Queen Mary University, London. In its current form it is hard to get the full picture, but it clearly involves a series of scenes from past, present and future. Some of the descriptive blurb reads “The Vault game is a journey into history, an immersion into the experiences and emotions of those whose lives were very different from our own. There, we discover unfamiliar feelings, uncanny characters who are like us and yet unlike.” There is a demo trailer at the above link, which looks interesting but unfinished… I tried giving a direct link to Vimeo of this, but the token appears to expire after a while and the link fails. You can still get to the video via the link above.

Meanwhile, my personas will continue to respond to – and experience – emotions, while I wait for software developments to catch up with them! And, of course, continue to develop my own Alexa skills as a kind of remote ancestor to personas.

Timing Kindle cover
Timing Kindle cover

Future life in space

Two quick bits of space news this week that – all being well – could make their way into a story one day.

Prototype of steam-propelled space probe (University of Central Florida, via Independent.co.uk)

The first was an idea of powering space probes by steam. Now, at first read this sounds very retro, but it deserves some thought. In space, you can’t move along by means of steam pressure turning wheels – there is nothing against which to gain traction. Steam-propelled rockets work like any other rocket – something gets ejected at great speed in one direction, so as to accelerate the rocket in the opposite direction. The steam engine part of the probe is a means of converting the fuel supply into something that can be directed out of the thruster nozzle. The steam, heated as hot as possible to give a high nozzle exit temperature, is the propellant.

The cool thing about pushing steam out of the back, is that it comes from water, and in particular ice. And, as we have been discovering over the last few decades, water ice is extremely common throughout the solar system, and more widely through the universe. So as and when the steam-powered spaceship starts to run low on fuel, it can land on some promising object and collect some more ice. The fuel supply, while not strictly unlimited, is vastly common wherever we’re likely to go. As and when needed, solar panels or (further from the sun) a standard radioactive decay engine can give a boost, but the steam engine would do the grunt work of getting from one refueling station to the next.

Is there wine on Mars? (JPL/Caltech via livescience.com)

Secondly, pursuing my occasional theme of alcohol in space, I read about a firm from Georgia (the country, not the US state) that wants to develop grape varieties that would survive on Mars and, in due course, be convertible into decent wine. This would be a serious challenge, given the low air pressure, high carbon monoxide levels, and wide temperature swings of said planet. As a rough rule of thumb, the air at the Martian surface is about the same as at 20,000′ here on Earth. Apparently, white varieties are reckoned to be more adaptable than red, but I suspect that we are a little way away from resounding success here.

Other attempts to ensure that future space travellers will not have to go without booze include Budweiser sending barley seeds into space to identify the effect of microgravity on germination, steeping and kilning – three steps in the production of malt. See this link. Allegedly, also, a bottle of Scotch Whisky spent three years on the ISS before returning to Earth for analysis… the resulting taste was said to be disappointing. I hope the ISS crew got a few measures out of the bottle before sending it back down again.

That’s it for today, except to wonder again how each of these ideas could be storified. My own near-future science fiction books assume an advanced version of today’s ion drives for propelling spacecraft, but there’s no reason why steam propulsion might not appear as a previous experiment. As to wine in space, well I have already assumed that the problems of fermenting beer in microgravity have been resolved, so again this would have to be a retrospective view of historical developments. Basically, both of these innovations are set between today and my own future world. So I’m looking forward to seeing how they get sorted out in the next decade or two…

The Music of Iluvatar – part 3

Cover – The Silmarillion (TolkienGateway.net)

Several months ago – shockingly, back in May last year – I wrote two blog posts on the poetry that JRR Tolkien includes in Lord of the Rings. (The posts are at these links: part 1 and part 2). Those posts covered two regular metrical patterns found in most of the poetry of the first two books of the trilogy. To summarise those posts: “Tolkien chose one of two “templates” around which to build his elvish poetry, both based around pairs of lines – couplets. One template has equal lines with four stressed beats in each line – I shall call this 4+4. The other has four beats in the first line and three in the second – this will be 4+3. Some people might recognise that second pattern from English ballads. When you scan through the various poems set out in the book, there is a tendency for the equal-length pattern to be used in more formal contexts, and the unequal one in more emotional ones. On top of that metrical pattern there are also some different rhyming patterns, which I think are secondary to the metre.

Now, in the creation story at the start of The Silmarillion, Tolkien writes that the creator, Iluvatar, set up a series of musical themes, the first two of which were distorted by the great enemy, Melkor. Iluvatar, while angry at the discord introduced into his design, affirms that in the end the apparent chaos will serve his purpose. Tolkien wrote: “Then again Iluvatar arose, and the Ainur perceived that his countenance was stern; and he lifted up his right hand, and behold! a third theme grew amid the confusion, and it was unlike the others.” This post tackles what I consider to be the third theme – the songs and poems of men.

Right at the outset we have a problem – many poems recited by men reflect material they have learned by close association with elves. So for example, Aragorn frequently quotes elvish poetry, especially when he is in the house of Elrond, or narrating past glories to his companions. The question is – how would men write poetry if it was not influenced by elvish principles? And this leads immediately to our next problem – the poetry of men is very diverse, and not so easily categorised as the earlier work. This should all, I think, be seen against Tolkien’s own background as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon and Norse. The old Germanic style of poetry, of which perhaps Beowulf is most familiar to us, relied heavily on alliteration, and was very relaxed about metrical pattern and end-rhyme. Typical features are the caesura (short pause) in the middle of the line, and the way in which alliteration links both halves of each line. Here’s a snippet from Tolkien’s own translation of Beowulf:

On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft.
Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.

So, what do we see in the poetry of men in Lord of the Rings? I will start early on in The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli recite a memorial for the dead Boromir. It is not clear, given the three different speakers, whether this represents human poetry or not, but at very least it shows a very different patterning to standard Elvish verse. The long lines show a fairly consistent pattern of
seven stressed beats, with an irregular number of unstressed syllables between:

The West Wind comes walking, and about the walls it goes
The North Wind may have heard the horn of the son of Denethor
What news from the North, O mighty wind, do you bring to me today?

It’s also clear that alliteration is used very heavily in these lines, which also show an fairly simple end-rhyme pattern AABBCCDDEE in each ten-line stanza.

In the next chapter, Aragorn catches sight of the mountains of Gondor and recites what seems to be a fragment of a longer poem. It again has a regular number of strong pulses – this time 6 in a line – with an irregular number of unstressed lines and heavy use of alliteration. But before long we arrive at perhaps the best-known of the songs of men – the lament of the Rohirrim for Eorl the Young, which in the film version was put very effectively into the mouth of Theoden. And here we again have what reminds us very strongly of Anglo-Saxon poetry – lengthy lines with a caesura in the middle of each line, and alliteration binding the halves of lines together. The lines also each have 6 stressed syllables with a variable number of unstressed ones linking them, with a rhyme pattern of the form AAAABBCC.

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?

Moving on to the third volume, The Return of the King, Theoden dies outside Minas Tirith, and we are treated to his lament in an out-of-sequence passage. This again shows similar patterning to the above. This time the regular pulse is of four-beat lines with irregular total numbers of syllables, extensive alliteration, and no obvious rhyme scheme. It would be hard to find something more aligned with the old forms of poetry that Tolkien knew so well:

We heard of the horns in the hills ringing
the swords shining in the South kingdom
Steeds
went striding to the Stoningland
as wind in the morning. War was kindled…

That happens to be the longest single piece of human poetry given in the books – 27 lines – and is also the last significant poem attributed to men (other than a snippet of another lament for Theoden, which shows most of the same features as above). It is curious that we don’t really learn anything substantial about the poetry of Gondor – presumably their long historical association with the elves will have shaped their habits. In contrast, the Rohirrim represent a new direction and new energy for humans in the post-Sauron era, as exemplified by Faramir’s marriage to Eowyn: “Would you have your proud folk say of you: ‘There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Numenor to choose?’” Apparently not.

So that brings to an end (after a long wait) this series of three posts on the music of Iluvatar – the three themes expressed in the creation story at the start of The Silmarillion, worked out in the examples of poems scattered through the three books. The first and second themes, associated with the older race of elves (and those other peoples influenced by them) are formal, highly structured, showing regularity of both stressed and unstressed syllables. The third theme, associated with men (and in particular the Rohirrim) is more fluid and open, and is based around structural principles more than formulae. I believe it is no accident that the examples of human poetry that we are given are almost entirely laments. After all, back at the beginning we learn that the third theme of Iluvatar was “deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.”

Simbelmynë – the flower that grows on the royal tombs of Rohan (http://tolkiengateway.net)

Some thoughts on poetry

Neolithic bone flute, China (Wiki)

I thought it was long overdue time that I wrote something on poetry – my historical fiction books lean heavily on poetry, and my various science fiction and fantasy books are regularly built around music and singing – something I reckon will forever be a part of human experience, wherever we end up living. Music has transformed itself many times over since our prehistoric forebears first accompanied their own voices on wind, string or percussion instruments. We have listened to and participated in music played solo or in groups, small and large.

The Muses (greekmythology.com)

But today I am writing about poetry, not music, though the two are very closely related – probably the topic of another blog sometime. Six of the nine Greek muses were explicitly involved with music and poetry, and the focus of the other three was on pursuits which depended heavily on them. In the myths, the muses were not just engaged in fun and celebration – they also turn up to defend their reputation and avenge themselves on mortals who presume to challenge their primacy.

When most people in the modern world think of poetry, we typically imagine lines of regular beats with some sort of rhyme scheme – either adjacent lines rhyming in an AA-BB pattern, or alternating lines sounding like AB-AB, or the looser version AB-CB. For example, the American anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, uses ABAB for the first four lines of each stanza, and AA-BB for the last four. At the casual end of the scale, Mary had a Little Lamb uses AB-CB. We all know that “real” poetry does not always adhere to these basic patterns, but if asked to come up with a rhyme on the spur of the moment, these basic schemes will probably come to mind.

Musicians from ancient Egypt (British Museum – Wiki)

Most of the earliest poetry that we have, however, is not built around rhyme, nor indeed around a regular pulse or metre. Instead, early poetry from Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed later all around the ancient near east and so also appearing in the Hebrew Bible, was built around the idea of parallelism. (Ages ago I wrote a post about how this pattern also turns up in the much more recent Finnish epic Kalevala) Pairs of lines expressed the same idea in different ways, without special regard for the exact number of syllables or metrical beats, or any rhyming pattern. Something like the start of the Ugaritic epic poem of king Keret:

The clan of Keret died out;
the house of the king was destroyed

Now the advantage of parallelism, from the point of view of other people trying to understand it, is that it is comparatively easy to translate. There will almost certainly be subtleties of the language, word plays and the like, which don’t translate, but the basics certainly do. But poets rapidly wanted to make their work richer and more complex. So variations of parallelism arose – words omitted or added in the basic couplets, changes of word order to invert the second line, triplet forms extending the basic pairs, and so on. The parallelism of words was enhanced by using alliteration of consonants to reinforce the connecting sounds.

Reproduction of an ancient Irish horn from Armagh (
http://www.ancientmusicireland.com)

So the stage was set for end-rhyme to make its appearance in poetry – the pattern that we are most used to today. You can look at end-rhyme as just another form of parallelism – but instead of the line endings being signalled by words with parallel meaning, something opposite is happening. The correspondence of rhyming words at the line ends makes us put them in parallel, and so establishes links between words which otherwise would remain separate in our minds. The more appropriately creative the rhyme, the more striking becomes the connection between words in our minds. William Blake’s Tyger has the following lines, provoking us to make connections between spears and tears

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears

And again, poets play with our expectations of rhyme in order to jolt us into a different interpretation. Sometimes called a “censored rhyme”, it is often used to suggest politically subversive or sexually risque themes – the actual words themselves are typically innocent, but the expectation aroused in the listener is not. My favourite example is Sweet Violets… almost every line sets the listener up to expect a particular rhyming word, and then diverges away…

There once was a farmer who took a young miss
In back of the barn where he gave her a lecture
On horses and chickens and eggs
And told her that she had such beautiful manners

That suited a girl of her charms
A girl that he wanted to take in his
Washing and ironing and then if she did
They could get married and raise lots of

Sweet violets
Sweeter than all the roses…

An authorised version of these songs (cover image – Caedmon Songs – see https://www.discogs.com/release/1039597)

This all has a lot to do with writing. Some authors want to include real poems in their books, as opposed to saying something along the lines of “then they sang a song”. So then you have to decide how your poem is to be structured in a formal sense, and whether you want that to mirror the conventions of the time of the setting. So a book set in the ancient near east – if it is to be authentic to its era – would not use rhyming couplets, but parallel ones. A story set in Anglo-Saxon times would use the conventions of Germanic poetry, built heavily around word alliteration and stock verbal images with little if any rhyme. A fantasy or science fiction book is free to build up its own conventions as to how poetry in that world is created – but would be enriched by making those fictional conventions fully integrated into the wider world-building . It’s a habit of thought that Tolkien was a master at – he had the advantage of being able to draw on a wide variety of early conventions of song and poetry, and he deployed these conventions so carefully that you can tell almost at first read of one of his poems, which of the various peoples of Middle Earth are in focus (see the Open Culture web site for some readings)

To close, here’s a video of ancient Irish music, found at http://www.ancientmusicireland.com. A wealth of information and live demonstrations, with (to my ears) odd resonances in the music of Bladerunner