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Old 10-25-2013, 08:19 PM   #1
Inziladun
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Maladies of Maleficence

I recently started a thread questioning the place of science in LOTR with regard to things like Sauron apparently breeding his own flies, which had an "eye" marking on them. The forum blackout seems to have eaten that thread whole, however.

In a similar vein, in the books we see Morgoth sending a plague in the First Age which affected the Edain in Hithlum (incidentally killing Túrin's first sister and also sickening him), and Sauron using something similar to clear Mordor of Gondorian vigilance. How were those plagues generated?

Biology and science would seem to have little room in the works, and to me, that's as it should be. I don't want Middle-earth being too near this world! If the plagues weren't the result of bacteria or viruses though, aren't we left with "magic" as the origin? And that should give the illnesses more of a spiritual bent, affecting the fea and the will to survive.

The "cursed" weapon like that which nearly caused Frodo to become undead would seem to be an example of this too, and the Nazgűl had other "poisoned" weapons at their disposal. It was thought that Faramir had been a victim of such a wound, though Aragorn dismissed the idea. Earlier in Gondor's history, the son of the Steward Denethor I, oddly enough named Boromir, got a "Morgul-wound" in Osgiliath, which caused him to die early, and live the remainder of his life in pain.

And then there's the Black Breath of the Nazgűl, named by Aragorn as the cause of Merry's fainting and evil dreams in Bree.

So, are these illnesses originating from evil beings the result of biological or spiritual doings? Or both?
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Old 10-26-2013, 07:00 AM   #2
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A very interesting topic, Inziladun.

I'd say the Morgul wounds and Black Breath are the result of spiritual doings, simply by their nature and the fact that they seem very medically "clean." I find the surgical/treatment aspects interesting too, and also suggestive of spiritual wounding. I know the herb athelas is used, but in surgical terms Elrond would have had to practically cut Frodo in half to get that splinter out, and there is no evidence that he has done so when he wakes up in Rivendell, so the suggestion is that he has somehow "charmed" the splinter out. Gandalf says that it has been "melted." But did Elrond extract it with his own spiritual powers, and did it melt upon contact with the air? This seems more likely than it being melted within the body - the poison would have remained in Frodo's body had that been the case. By "medically clean" I mean small, clean wounds, not gory, festering ones, and not cured by surgery of the "cutting" kind.

In a way, you could compare the "drag of the ring" to this. It is a terrible weight to Frodo, which burdens his body as well as tormenting his mind, but it leaves no physical trace. The chain upon which it hangs does not cut into his neck (as it does in the film), but the Ring does exhaust his body as well as his mind. In my opinion, this is a spiritually evil force affecting the body - the Ring trying to save itself by immobilising its bearer - since it allows Frodo's strength to rush back when Gollum attacks him. It also allows Frodo to walk upright the rest of the way to the Sammath Naur. I think either the Ring knows that it has won by then, that Frodo is unable to let it go, or it is simply that Frodo is no longer resisting it, so there is no weight or torment. (Sorry, I have digressed a little here).

My gut feeling regarding the plague that killed Lalaith is that it would have been a mixture of spiritual and biological disease/pestilence. Morgoth's spiritual power harnessing germs or pestilences and augmenting/spreading them. After all, there are germs in Middle-earth already, such as the mild one that caused Bilbo to say "Thag you very buch." (Because I don't think that could can really be laid at Smaug's door (I'm joking, of course - see next paragraph). Being in cold water all night would give you a nasty cold in the Third Age, just as it would now. Also Frodo, shivering in Mordor, says "It's gone cold, or else I've caught a chill." And of course there must be many more fatal illnesses common to the Third Age and now. Frodo thinks "Perhaps he had been ill?" when he wakes in the Last Homely House, and one would presume a fatal illness carried off Bilbo's parents, Sam's mother, Widow Rumble's husband, etc. Of course, I'm stating the blatantly obvious here, and there is also the reference to the "leechcraft" of Gondor in the Houses of Healing episode, and the herblore of their master - there are remedies for such things as "headaches."

Which brings me to the "dragon sickness" which the Master of Dale fell under, and the unwholesomeness of Mirkwood. In the latter, I think the spiritual uncleanness of Sauron mingled with nature and infected it in a "biological" sense as well as a spiritual one. The "dragon sickness" seems more of an enchantment, though - a spiritual illness. Perhaps spiritual disease mingling with metals (treasure/swords) results in more spiritual woundings/illness, whilst when it mingles with nature (water or plant life) it becomes more biological. So - mingling with animal/human life - it seems to be both. In the case of the Morgul blade, a spiritually diseased knife causes a spiritual illness, and attempts to effect spiritual death/wraithdom. But it also causes severe physical pain and works towards the heart (physical/biological illness). However, the "physical" scarring it leaves appears to be quite invisible. It must be there, because the physical pain recurs when Nazgul are near (and I'm not even sure it needs to be the particular Nazgul that caused the wound, viz the flying one whose steed Legolas shot down when they were rowing down the Anduin) and upon anniversaries.

I am also reminded of the flowers which are "beautiful but horrible of shape" and the "charnel shapes" in Book 4 of LOTR and the horrible diseased land on the borders of Mordor. The latter is near the Black Gate, IIRC. The former, I think, is near Cirith Ungol, but I'd have to double-check to be sure. Lands do seem to become "biologically diseased" when an evil fea resides nearby. Also, I think Faramir warns Frodo and Sam not to drink from certain rivers. Diseases affect not only humans, but the natural world as well.

The enchanted stream/river in Mirkwood that causes forgetfulness is an interesting case, too. But given that Ulmo is a good and powerful fea who is connected strongly if not entirely with water, I wonder if lesser spirits on the side of evil might cause such enchantments. Fire spirits lurk in Middle-earth still, for instance. As Gandalf (I think it is he) says, "There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world."
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Old 10-26-2013, 06:57 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Inziladun View Post
In a similar vein, in the books we see Morgoth sending a plague in the First Age which affected the Edain in Hithlum (incidentally killing Túrin's first sister and also sickening him), and Sauron using something similar to clear Mordor of Gondorian vigilance. How were those plagues generated?

Biology and science would seem to have little room in the works, and to me, that's as it should be. I don't want Middle-earth being too near this world! If the plagues weren't the result of bacteria or viruses though, aren't we left with "magic" as the origin? And that should give the illnesses more of a spiritual bent, affecting the fea and the will to survive.
In a world without science, microbiology is black magic or a manifestation of divine wrath. One only has to look at our own 14th century and the Black Death to see the parallels. The Welsh referred to it as "death coming into our midst like black smoke", and in Scandinavian legends it was the black-robed hag Pesta who passes through villages leaving death in her wake, as did the White Lady of Slavic tales. There was absolutely no belief that the Black Death was caused by fleas carrying Y. pestis infesting the black rat population. The finest scientific minds blamed a misalignment of planets, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or God's wrath -- everything but bacillium, of which they were ignorant.

The plague itself was debilitating spiritually and needed no immortal malevolence to stricken those affected. Mothers and fathers abandoned their children, doctors refused to treat patients, and priests allowed their parishioners to die without last rites. As historian Barbara Tuchman wrote "the sense of a vanishing future created a dementia of despair." The desolation of the plague caused both overwhelming hopelessness and hysteria -- whole populations literally went mad.

So did Morgoth or Sauron actually create contagions, or did it merely arise (as it does naturally) from utterly filthy conditions? I would guess Mordor was akin to an open cesspool, with the inhabitants having little or no regard for hygiene (we never hear of Orcs preening). Perhaps it was just a fortuitous breeze that blew the plague westward, or it was carried by plague rats from the east (as it happened in Europe). Such a deadly weapon would certainly have been used again and again if indeed the Dark Lords could control plague, but that wasn't the case. If one could wipe out whole populations with a bacillus, what need of a standing army of many thousands?

As Hamfast Gamgee said, "It's an ill wind as blows nobody no good". Perhaps the plague wiped out the mannish populations in Mordor, Harad and Khand as well. As Mordor was the Middle-earth equivalent of North Korea, we wouldn't receive any reliable reports from eyewitnesses within. But one can't very well aim a disease with certainty (we know that regarding mustard gas attacks in WWI), so perhaps a plague was raging in Mordor, and Sauron, with his usual cold calculations, merely catapulted a few diseased corpses into Osgilliath (a feature of medieval warfare) and it spread not only through Gondor but all the way to the Shire.
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Old 10-27-2013, 11:24 AM   #4
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As I recall it, in the vanished thread Inziladun suggested that possibly scientific knowledge was always morally wrong in Tolkien’s legendarium. I pointed out various places in the books where what may be taken as scientific learning was not morallly wrong. One example was that Gandalf appears as possibly the inventor of gunpowder, or at least the most prominent user of gunpowder, in his famous fireworks. My post vanished with the thread.

One difficulty is that one might always claim that what looks like scientific knowledge in the books may in fact be supposed to be just magic. But since we cannot in most cases know that, it is impossible to prove either that it is or is not magic.

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I know the herb athelas is used, but in surgical terms Elrond would have had to practically cut Frodo in half to get that splinter out, and there is no evidence that he has done so when he wakes up in Rivendell, so the suggestion is that he has somehow "charmed" the splinter out.
I don’t see this. Surgery into where the splinter now was would be sufficient to remove the splinter and may have involved a very small amount of cutting. The difficulty would have been to first realize that the splinter existed, that the problem was not something like a spiritual influence from Frodo having the morgul-blade in his body for a short time. Second, the surgical technicians would have to determine exactly where the splinter was to be found so that Elrond knew precisely where to cut.

What techniques Elrond had to do either of these things the story does not get into. So any reader may imagine any techniques the reader wishes. The rest of Pervinca Took’s post I agree with, save that Faramir says nothing about the rivers of Mordor in general, but only that the Hobbits are not to drink from any stream that flows from Imlad Morgul. Presumably Faramir knows from experience of the area that most or all such streams are polluted, being either chemically polluted or carrying disease.
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Old 10-27-2013, 02:24 PM   #5
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If I recall from my history reading, the Greeks and Romans had a medical tool(I think they called it a scapula after it's shape, but I am not sure) they used for getting barbed arrows out of people that looked like a long metal shoehorn(you stuck in in the hole along the shaft and used it to push and hold the flesh apart wide enough you could remove the arrow without causing further damage). Assuming that the Elves have such a tool (and it seems to me that assuming the Elves have a level of medical tech roughly equivalent to the Ancient Greeks and Romans does not seem much of a stretch.) someone with a very good hand could use such a thing to get the dagger shard out. One could re open the scar (remember Frodo's wound had closed up over the shard, so it'd have to be re-opened push in the scapula until it connected with the shard (a good hand could probably feel it hit) get under it to disloge it (sort of like how you can use a sewing needle to get a splinter out of your finger) then pull it back up on the scapula.
It also occurs to me that, given the circumstances, actually physically taking the the dagger tip out might not have been neccacary (I know Gandalf says it was removed, but just follow me here). Since the morgul blade dissolves in daylight, it might be possible that, if daylight was gotten to the tip, it would dissolve as well which might be considered safer (after all the tip was almost at Frodo's heart, so there was a real chance of Elrond killing Frodo in the process if he actually had to cut it out) If one is willing to let magic in in some form, maybe Elrond simply sent a beam of sunlight into the wound. HOW he would do that, I have no idea, but it occurs to me that, if Galdriel had the ability to trap the light of a star in some water held in a crystal container and have it stay there as an illumination source, Elrond might be able to take a ray of sunglight and direct it (maybe some sort of lens apparatus?)
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Old 10-27-2013, 04:30 PM   #6
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Alfirin made the point that the splinter was now very near Frodo's heart. Or, at least, "deeply buried," Gandalf said. It tends to be assumed that it was working towards his heart, because Gandalf said that was where the Witch-King was aiming for. Perhaps it was simply known to the Wise that that was how Morgul-blades operated, how they turned a person into a wraith.

Gandalf believed all along that there was a fragment of the blade still in the closed wound, and Strider and the hobbits had seen that the tip of the blade was broken off. I presume that Aragorn could have tried extraction in the wild simply with a knife, yet he dared not. Maybe Morgul splinters had a nasty habit of resplintering - but if so, why was only one splinter found? Maybe they were simply elusive and only Elrond's skill - and the presence of Vilya at Rivendell - were enough to give Frodo a fighting chance of surviving extraction even if it could be achieved. At any rate, by the time they reached Rivendell, it must have been too late for a "scapula" method - it has travelled too far from the original site of the wound.

The pain travelled both down his (Frodo's) arm and his side - or, at least, the chill did, as did the sensation of "icy claws" - claws implies pain as well as cold. That makes sense in the early stages, but even later on, when the splinter is supposedly near his heart, he still cannot raise or use his hand. Reasonable enough - it was a deadly wound with residual damage. Then again, when the pain recurs even after the healing, it appears to be at the site of the initial wounding, not where the splinter ended up.

Further to Jallanite's point that the surgery could be "local" once the splinter was located, Glorfindel's searching of the wound with his fingers (by which he learns enough to disquiet him) might be the key to the "locating" aspect. It takes about three days, too - even a master of healing would need to know exactly where he was cutting.
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Old 12-06-2013, 02:42 PM   #7
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I had another thought on this.

If the workings of "evil" diseases and poisons were directed toward the spirit rather than the body, that would explain why neither Morgoth nor Sauron had any apparent fear that using the plague-weapons could have a negative impact on their own troops.
Then again, what about the Men in the service of evil? While the Orcs seem as a race to be evil-inclined, that doesn't seem to be the case with Men under Morgoth and Sauron. Did Sauron simply not care if his Men died? Maybe he found some way to blame it on the West.
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Old 12-07-2013, 05:10 AM   #8
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There is also the simple fact that one is vulnerable to new or new-to-you strains of disease. Think of how the Europeans wiped out native populations in the colonies with their diseases as their weapons.

I took a gap year befor university and worked for six months in a pharmacy. All day long I was exposed to the sneezing and snuffling of the local sick collecting their 'scripts and buying cough lozenges. The only cold I caught that year was the one my sister considerately brought home from the other side of the country.

I agree however that if you scare someone enough the physical becomes irrelevant, and it is unlikely that Sauron had any humanitarian concern for his troops.
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Old 12-11-2013, 05:06 PM   #9
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All day long I was exposed to the sneezing and snuffling of the local sick collecting their 'scripts and buying cough lozenges. The only cold I caught that year was the one my sister considerately brought home from the other side of the country.
It is known by those versed in scientific medical knowledge that by the time one has reached the point of suffering a full-fledged cold, one’s body has mostly defeated the main disease infection and is flushing out dead germs. These are totally harmless to others, though the process is miserable to the one who has had the cold infection. And people in an environment such as you were in tend to wash themselves more than they otherwise might.
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