Moon Phases in The Lord of the Rings
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Phases of the Moon
As you perhaps noticed on the home page or in the archives, this site displays the phase of the moon for each day of the adventure in The Lord of the Rings. Since some readers will be curious how this site computes the phase of the moon, and others may even wish to do their own calculations, this page attempts to collect everything known about lunar phases in Tolkien's text.
The text of The Lord of the Rings usually offers only a partial description of the Moon — such as telling us that the Moon is shining without mentioning from which direction, or giving the time at which it sets without describing its phase. So we are fortunate that the shape, position, and schedule of the Moon are closely related, allowing us to frequently deduce some of its properties from others. The basic relationships are sketched in the following diagrams for those who might be unfamiliar with them:
In case you find the terminology unfamiliar, the Moon is said to be waxing as it grows toward full, waning as it shrinks again afterwards, to be crescent when less than half full, and to be gibbous when more than half.
There are many nights during the adventure, and indeed entire weeks and months, for which The Lord of the Rings gives no description of the moon. To display its phases, therefore, requires a general schedule or formula that gives the phase whether the text mentions the moon that night or not. Since the new and full moons in the narrative are separated by different lengths of time, much like the slightly irregular schedule of the real Moon, we cannot merely estimate the moon's phase using the average length of the lunar month and have the results match the text. It would therefore be helpful to find a modern schedule of new and full moons matching those in The Lord of the Rings upon which we could base our predictions.
Unfortunately, any attempt to correlate modern Moon phases with those in The Lord of the Rings fails because of the impossibly long interval between the New Moon of February, S.R. 1419 and the full moon that follows on March 8th. As the Company travel down the Anduin after leaving Lórien, we are told on February 22nd that:
At Aragorn's bidding they paddled now for long spells, and the banks went swiftly by. But they saw little of the country, for they journeyed mostly by night and twilight, resting by day, and lying as hidden as the land allowed. In this way the time passed without event until the seventh day.(II.9)
The weather was still grey and overcast, with wind from the East, but as evening drew into night the sky away westward cleared, and pools of faint light, yellow and pale green, opened under the grey shores of cloud. There the white rind of the new Moon could be seen glimmering in the remote lakes. Sam looked at it and puckered his brows.
We can empathize with Sam and his puckered brows! But while Sam himself is confused because he lost track of time amidst the immortal beauty of Lórien, we are confused because this crescent moon simply should not be visible yet.
Each month, the crescent moon first becomes visible one or two days after the moment at which the moon is new — the instant at which it is most completely dark and at the opposite end of its journey from full. But this means that the actual moment of new moon must have arrived more than a dozen hours before Sam saw its crescent above the lakes, putting the new moon far too early when compared with the subsequent full moon:
Phases of the moon for the beginning of S.R. 1419.
Even after making every possible concession, the schedule of moons presented in The Lord of the Rings remains impossible for the modern moon:
seventh day” on the Anduin must therefore be the 22nd; and this agrees precisely with the fact that the attack on the boats above Sarn Gebir, which the Tale places on the 23rd, is described in the text as being on the “
eighth night” of the voyage. Even were we to ignore the Tale of Years, the narrative of The Lord of the Rings is continuous from this point to the full moon of March 8th, so we can verify the time elapsed without reference to dates at all.
full moon” from Henneth Annûn before dawn on the 8th, we might be tempted to place the actual moment of full moon on the evening of the 7th, and hope that the moon would still have looked full to Frodo and Sam several hours later; but unfortunately we are told explicitly that Pippin sees the moon as merely “
almost at the full” after sunset on the 7th.
Since in modern times the period between new and full moon never exceeds 15 days, 15 hours, any modern schedule will still fall more than nine hours short of the sixteen-day interval required by the text. Though at least three wild theories seem available for explaining away the impossibility, each of them falls short:
we'd been a week on the way last night, when up pops a New Moon as thin as a nail-paring”, clearly using the verb “
up pops” to describe a Moon seen above the horizon.
The year no doubt was of the same length, for long ago as those times are now reckoned in years and lives of men, they were not very remote according to the memory of the Earth.”
The only remaining option is simply to accept, without the possibility of an internal explanation, that this particular New Moon of the Third Age fell at least one day early, and determine how to include this aberration in a general framework for computing moon phases.
The impossible moon phases of S.R. 1419 are explained very simply if Tolkien was copying his moon phases out of an almanac for a real year, and mistakenly thought that almanacs use the phrase “new moon” in its colloquial English sense, meaning the date on which the new crescent moon appears. But almanacs in fact use “new moon” in its astronomical sense, to mean the moment when the moon is most dark. Through this mistake, Tolkien would have put a crescent moon in his narrative everywhere he really wanted the dark of the moon, and would thus have forced the actual new moons in Middle-earth to each be one or two days too early.
If one examines the very few dates which Tolkien could have counted as the first day of Shire year 1419 and gotten a pattern of full and new moons matching the full and crescent moons given in the narrative, one is immediately struck by the presence of Christmas 1941 in the list of dates:
For reference, the following table demonstrates how counting Christmas 1941 as the first day of Shire year 1419 would have given Tolkien precisely the moons required:
|1942 Almanac||Date in S.R. 1419||Tolkien describes this moon:|
|January 2nd||— Full||January 8th||As “
|January 16th||— New||January 22nd||(not described)|
|February 1st||— Full||February 8th||(not described)|
|February 15th||— New||February 22nd||As the “
white rind” Sam sees
|March 3rd||— Full||March 8th||As “
|March 16th||— New||March 21st||As a new crescent*|
*Since on the 24th they see a “
four nights old”
To display the phase of the moon for this web site, the real moon phases of 1942 are combined with a correction that moves the moment of each new moon about a day and a half earlier. The effect of this correction upon the waxing and waning half-moons must be different: the waxing half-moon must remain in place so that the moon is still crescent when Frodo sees it on February 29th, but the waning half-moon must happen early for a crescent moon to be seen by Frodo on January 16th. The corrected phase we use is therefore:
Here are all of the references to the actual appearance of the Moon in The Lord of the Rings (a list which ignores things like references to the Moon in poetry and song). References which create problems when trying to work out a realistic schedule of moon phases are highlighted and marked as “problematic”.
a dark shadow under the moon”.
the young moon rising”, which presents two problems: first, that he should instead be seeing an old moon; and second, that a young moon would be setting rather than rising. We had better dismiss this observation as a disorientation produced by the dream. When he describes the dream at the Council of Elrond a month later, he only mentions the moonlight falling on Gandalf's hair, and the wizard, in his own retelling of the event, says merely that it was “
a night of moon”.
the stars were thick in the dim sky, but there was no moon.”
The moon was waxing, and in the early night-hours a cold grey light lay on the land.”
was a black starry sky. Suddenly a pale light appeared over the crown of Weathertop behind him. The waxing moon was climbing slowly above the hill that overshadowed them, and the stars above the hill-top faded....
‘Look!’ said Merry. ‘The Moon is rising: it must be getting late.’” They continue to see the Moon on subsequent evenings as they move south of the Road and make for the Last Bridge.
Moon, now at the full, rose over the mountains, and cast a pale light in which the shadows of stones were black.” Before dawn we are told, consistent with this, that “
the moon was low.”
night was old, and westward the waning moon was setting, gleaming fitfully through the breaking clouds.”
Moon now shone upon the grey face of the rock”, which can only have happened after midnight — and thus early on the 14th — since a waning moon cannot shine on a westward-facing cliff until it passes into the western sky after midnight. So the “Tale of Years” must be incorrect when it has the Company enter Moria before midnight on the 13th.
The Moon is almost spent, and it will be dark tonight”, and indeed when night falls we are told that, “
There were many clear stars, but the fast-waning moon would not be seen till late.”
sickle Moon was gleaming dimly among the leaves”. This moon should really be exactly half-full, rather than sickle, eight days after the full moon.
the white rind of the new Moon could be seen glimmering in the remote lakes”, raising the problems discussed at length above.
thin crescent of the Moon had fallen early into the pale sunset”, which confuses Sam because he lost track of time in Caras Galadon.
waxing moon was riding in the West,” and it is described explicitly as “
the slim moon...
already falling westward” and a soon afterwards we are told of “
the last rays of the sickle moon.”
There in the still cool hour before dawn they rested for a brief space. The moon had long gone down before them, the stars glittered above them...
.” Late in the day Aragorn decides that, “
We will not walk in the dark...
If the Moon gave enough light, we would use it, but alas! he sets early and is yet young and pale.”
The young moon was glimmering in a misty sky”, and it is described explicitly as a “
Somewhat confusing is the description of this same Moon when it is
sighted by Merry and Pippin from the Orc-camp that the men of Rohan
have surrounded: “
Later in the night when the moon came out of the
mist, then occasionally [the Riders]
could be seen, shadowy
shapes that glinted now and again in the white light, as they moved in
ceaseless patrol.” This sounds at first reading as though the Moon
is rising, but of course a waxing crescent is always setting after
nightfall; we can only assume that “
the moon came out of the
mist” means actually that the mists were themselves clearing away
from in front of the Moon. Clouds are given as the reason that the
night darkens again later: “
It did indeed become very dark again;
for the moon passed westward into thick cloud, and Pippin could not see
anything a few feet away.”
like small white holes in the canopy above the crescent moon.” The Moon is mentioned several more times after they have descended the cliff and as they encounter Gollum, and then by the time they set off Sam asserts that “
The Moon's gone, and the night's going.”
Faramir says of this date during conversation at Henneth Annûn that
he saw the body of Boromir pass him on the Elven-boat “
in the grey
dark under the young pale moon”.
The moon had set and the night was very dark.”
Under the cold moon they went on once more, as swift as by the light of day....
The miles went by. The waxing moon sank into the cloudy West.” Before dawn Frodo meets Gollum and retains him as a guide, saying “
Now for it! The Moon's gone, and the night's going. We'd better start.”
It was not until the moon had sunk, westering far beyond Tol Brandir, that[Gollum]
would get up or make a move.” At the end of the day the Riders of Rohan make camp on their way to battle with the forces of Saruman, and “
In a great circle, under the starry sky and the waxing moon, they now made their bivouac.”
The clouds were torn and drifting, and stars peeped out; and above the hills of the Coomb-side the westering moon rode, glimmering yellow in the storm-wrack.” Later, when Gimli announces that he killed two orcs, “
The sky now was quickly clearing and the sinking moon was shining brightly. But the light brought little hope to the Riders of the Mark.” Finally, “
Aragorn looked at the pale stars, and at the moon, now sloping behind the western hills that enclosed the valley.”
And when later recounting the destruction of Isengard by the Ents,
Pippin remembers the same westerning moon: “
‘It must have been about
midnight when the Ents broke the dams and poured all the gathered
waters through a gap in the northern wall, down into Isengard. The
Huorn-dark had passed, and the thunder had rolled away. The Moon was
sinking behind the western mountains.’”
The slow moon mounted, now waxing towards the full, and in its cold silver light the swelling grass-lands rose and fell like a wide grey sea.” The wolves scavenging at the Fords slink away when they see “
Gandalf in the moon, and Shadowfax his horse shining like silver.”
Dark lay the vale before them, for the moon had passed into the West, and its light was hidden by the hills.” Even later “
the watchmen cried out, and all awoke. The moon was gone.”
The Moon appears again that evening after dark as they are returning
southward from Isengard: “
Night came down from the mountains. All
the mists were gone. A chill wind blew. The moon, now waxing round,
filled the eastern sky with a pale cold sheen.” A few more
references are made to the Moon, adding no further information, as
Pippin steals and looks into the Palantír and then as a Nazgûl passes
across the Moon's face.
From the point of view of Frodo and Sam and Gollum, “
The moon was
now three nights from the full, but it did not climb over the mountains
until nearly midnight, and the early night was very dark.”
The sinking moon was obscured by a great sailing cloud”. In the evening, Frodo etc see “
The night became fine under star and round moon”.
the third night since he had looked in the stone” he saw “
the moon rising above the eastern shadows, now almost at the full.” This raises the difficulty that the third night could refer either to the evening of the 7th or the 8th, depending on how one counted; but fortunately the ambiguity is resolved a few paragraphs later when Pippin wonders where Frodo is and we are told that Frodo was looking on “
that same moon as it set beyond Gondor ere the coming of the day.” This means that we correctly place this observation such that the following morning Frodo is seeing the full moon set from Henneth Annûn.
the full moon is setting”, and when the Hobbits go outside they indeed see that “
in the West the full moon was sinking, round and white.”
Last night the moon was full, and in the morning I shall ride to Edoras to the gathering of the Mark.”
the sinking moon escaped from the pursuing cloud”.
the waxing moon was four nights old, there were smokes and fumes that rose out of the earth and the white crescent was shrouded in the mists of Mordor.”
the round Moon rode slowly above the mists of Anduin and flickered through the fluttering leaves”.
the Moon went westward” above them. In fact, it seems that no moon should have been visible.