Mariner’s Compass

Mariner's Compass

“Mariner’s Compass” by Lucas Durham

compass1

Han Dynasty Compass used for divination, c. 200 BCE

Here’s a nifty gadget, but is there such a thing in Middle-earth?

In our world, a magnetic compass was invented by the Chinese, though it took another 1000 years before they used it for navigation on the sea. The first mention of a compass in Western Europe dates to the late 12th or early 13th century which does put it within the range of other medieval technologies just arriving on the scene in Middle-earth such as black powder. But alas, no such device is ever mentioned in any of Tolkien’s writings.

In fact, I’m not sure it could even work, at least not until the Third Age. In the beginning of Tolkien’s cosmos the world was flat, surrounding by Encircling Seas. The magnetic poles upon which a mariner’s compass would depend simply didn’t exist. It wasn’t until the Downfall of Númenor that Middle-earth was reshaped into a globe and Valinor was removed from the circles of the world.

Arda Circles of the World

“Circles of the World” from Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-Earth (1981)

But how would Valinor’s new location play with the magnetic field of Arda? And would the 3000 years of the Third Age be enough to discover a compass? I feel like there’s a great essay in here somewhere for a science-minded Tolkien geek.

Until then, I’m content to accept FFG’s answer to these questions and use my Mariner’s Compass to navigate around the Rolling Seas of Belegaer!

mariners-compass1

Card Info: The Grey Havens #8

Artist: Lucas Durham

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6 comments

  1. I think it’s funny that I see your point. Not that it’s a poorly made point, in fact I never considered the actual requirements of a successful compass both on a civilization inventing one and a “world” having the magnetic poles. I think it’s funny that I’m fine with accepting orcs, Ents, and people who live in holes in the ground but now I doubt the existence of a compass!

    1. It seemed like a perfect fit to me at first, but then I thought, Wait a minute! Was such a thing ever even mentioned by Tolkien? No? Well then, why not?

  2. Fouilloux · · Reply

    Well, what about an answer like “it’s a kind of magic?” more precisely, we use the pole has a magnetic field, but in the world of Middle Earth, what about other “field” that can be of use for a compass? I mean, we have seeing stones!

    1. Ha ha, good point! Those Seeing-stones worked before and after the changing of the world. Still, the compass somehow doesn’t seem “magic” enough to me. I always imagined the Elves and Numenoreans sailing by the stars. Now that I think of it, I would have more readily accepted an Elvish Astrolabe or Numenorean Sextant than the Mariner’s Compass.

  3. I just figured that all compasses point towards Valinor, regardless of what age it is.

    1. Ooh! I like that idea. So from Middle-earth the needle always gives you West. What happens in the Third Age when you take the Straight Path?

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