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December 11, 2011 11:24 AM   Subscribe

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Die When You Fall Into Lava - You'll never be able to watch Return of the King the same way again.
posted by Defenestrator (128 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
to quote the Cunard steamship motto:

GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN
posted by Postroad at 11:26 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love stuff like this, but I think he's communicating in the wrong format. I need to see an animation or something of what would happen, because I am now just not sure I understand what would happen if I jumped into molten lava. Would I walk on the molten lava because of its density? Would I still instantly die though without the sinking effect? Should I have read the article more closely? (Wilco's new album is on spotify so I got distracted...)
posted by scunning at 11:35 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm not clear.

So, I think you would obviously burst into flame, and you would probably collapse onto the lava, or maybe, just kind of sink into it a little bit as you thrashed and flailed momentarily before you would probably die from a combination of detrimental factors? But you would still mostly be on top of the lava?
posted by kbanas at 11:39 AM on December 11, 2011


So if you can't sink into lava, would it be theoretically possible to design protective equipment that would allow you to walk on lava? Cause walking around the inside of an active volcano would be pretty cool.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:42 AM on December 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also, paging Adam Savage...
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:43 AM on December 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


If anyone wants to try this, I do have a private island with a couple of active volcanoes. So far I've really only had a chance to use the volcanoes on the island's native inhabitant - kittens. Yes, I bought a private island and it turned out to be populated entirely by kittens. I should have checked first.

But I've been punting the little fuckers in there whenever I catch them. It's not that hard, they're kittens. And also, fortuitously, there are dense clusters of yarn plants situated directly around the base of both volcanoes, and I find that these act as a natural lure.

Anyway, the kittens burn up well before they get anywhere near the lava, so it doesn't really add much to the discussion.

But, if you or a loved one would like to experience the thrill (and add to our collective understanding of the world around us) I can facilitate that. Once I am done with the kittens.

Which may be awhile.
posted by kbanas at 11:43 AM on December 11, 2011 [27 favorites]


Check out the Mythbusters episode about quicksand. It's the same idea, although the density numbers aren't the same. You won't sink much, and a lot depends on your orientation (feet first, or laying flat?).
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:44 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


So is falling into lava sort of the way getting burned up in a forest fire works--combustible things (us included) catch fire before the visible flames are upon them just because of the heat? So would Gollum have caught fire like halfway down?
posted by resurrexit at 11:44 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will die in lava any way I want to. If I choose to die in utter, inexplicable, awesome and cinematic defiance of all known laws governing the interaction of materials, no article from Wired is going to stop me.
posted by gauche at 11:44 AM on December 11, 2011 [28 favorites]


I think you would obviously burst into flame

Well, your clothes and hair might burst into flame. I imagine that getting anything as soggy as human flesh to actually catch fire itself would be pretty hard.

Also:

ADAM SAVAGE. YOU MUST TAKE DEAD PIGS, DRESS THEM IN SUITS, AND THROW THEM INTO STREAMS OF LAVA.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:45 AM on December 11, 2011 [27 favorites]


In a film with spiders of physically impossible size, talking trees, ugly warriors birthed out of mud and a disembodied malevolence pouring causing a ring to corrupt the mind of anyone who wears it (and also turn them invisible), we're going to complain that the lava is not viscous enough?
posted by jscalzi at 11:48 AM on December 11, 2011 [45 favorites]


Another thing to do right next time? Just rent a couple of goddamn dragons. Seriously. With the group discount they just cost 50 gold coins per day and the trip to mount doom just takes 14 HOURS INSTEAD OF MONTHS. GOD HOW FUCKING CHEAP CAN YOU GET.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 11:48 AM on December 11, 2011 [9 favorites]


If I were going to die falling into lava, I am going to do it MY way, screaming "UP YOURS ERIK KLEMETTI YOU CAN'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO HAHAHAHAHAHA OW"
posted by louche mustachio at 11:55 AM on December 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


So is falling into lava sort of the way getting burned up in a forest fire works--combustible things (us included) catch fire before the visible flames are upon them just because of the heat? So would Gollum have caught fire like halfway down?

Well, he may not burst into flames, but he'd certainly be cooking on the way down. Likewise, Sam and Frodo would have been fairly roasted on that rock surrounded by an 1100 C flow.
posted by calamari kid at 11:55 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


ADAM SAVAGE. YOU MUST TAKE DEAD PIGS, DRESS THEM IN SUITS, AND THROW THEM INTO STREAMS OF LAVA.

No, dude, that is not how you make bacon.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:56 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe that's not how YOU make bacon.
posted by lostburner at 12:04 PM on December 11, 2011 [21 favorites]


So if you can't sink into lava, ....
Also, paging Adam Savage...


CANNONBALL!

(too soon?)
posted by hal9k at 12:04 PM on December 11, 2011 [24 favorites]


Slarty Bartfast: "Also, paging Adam Savage..."

He might be a bit distracted right now...
posted by Splunge at 12:14 PM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


In a film with spiders of physically impossible size, talking trees, ugly warriors birthed out of mud and a disembodied malevolence pouring causing a ring to corrupt the mind of anyone who wears it (and also turn them invisible), we're going to complain that the lava is not viscous enough?

I'm not convinced that fantasy just gets a free pass on believability. All those things you mention are either aspects of the mythology Tolkien is echoing or the world he is trying to create. I don't see where changing the properties of molten stone fits into that.

In fact, one might reverse the argument. Maybe the strangeness of a fantasy world needs the support of a strong grounding in physical reality, if the fantastic is not to be confused with the whimsical. This seems to be a school of thought in science fiction, and I'm not sure why it wouldn't apply to (at least a certain sort of) fantasy.
posted by howfar at 12:17 PM on December 11, 2011 [16 favorites]


If you are less than one-third the density of basalt (and you are, admit it), it is going to be next to impossible to sink into that liquid.

That is unless the creatures that live in the lava don't get you by the leg and pull you under.
posted by three blind mice at 12:19 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


So what would happen if somebody dumped a bunch of molten gold on my head? Assuming I wasn't the true dragon?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:20 PM on December 11, 2011 [12 favorites]


So, the article doesn't actually explain any right or wrong ways to die in a lava flow. It only talks about how movies have depicted the event, and then goes on to talk about whether or not they are accurate.

I now won't be satisfied until I actually read an article which describes correct and incorrect ways to actually die if one should fall into running lava.
posted by hippybear at 12:21 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


You know, I went to Hawaii with the specific intent of poking lava with a stick. I built a special collapsible stick, one that would pack in my luggage, but still be long enough to do the poking, and with no burnable plastic tips or nothing. I actually intended to deliberately get a lava burn, too, 'cause a lava burn scar would be awesome, you know?

But there weren't any surface flows when I was there. Talked to guides, saw a bunch of lava, and got cut badly enough that I do have a lava scar, but not from a burn. Cool trip, though.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:21 PM on December 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


You can get a lava cut anywhere in the world! Just have somebody stab you with a obsidian dagger!

I don't know how to tell you this, but you wasted your trip to Hawaii.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


Please. Gollum was weighed down with eons of concentrated dark power, which his body sequestered from the Ring. There was no Self left, thus no will self-preservation, only yearning. Wheras the Ring was a nexus of power, fighting to exist. Therefore, Gollum sank while the Ring of Power remained at the surface before succumbing to the ultimately more powerful Forces of Nature. Duh.
posted by zennie at 12:24 PM on December 11, 2011 [12 favorites]


"Did you mean to get the cheese dip this hot?"

"Yes."

"Why are you putting Fritos on it?!"

"Hush! It's for SCIENCE!"
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:29 PM on December 11, 2011 [12 favorites]


Dying in gloopy old lava? Pshaw. I'm not waiting around for that - I shall instead be running headfirst into the warm and welcoming arms of the meaner and much cooler (well, technically somewhat cooler) pyroclastic flow. Lava's for squares and mutant hobbits with poor haircuts.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 12:33 PM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


howfar:

"All those things you mention are either aspects of the mythology Tolkien is echoing or the world he is trying to create. I don't see where changing the properties of molten stone fits into that."

It's okay to posit a spider of physically impossible size because of Tolkien needed a big damn spider in his text, but not exceptionally low-density lava because Tolkien never noted it in the text itself? If Tolkien had specified in the text that Gollum sunk into the lava, what would your position on it be then?

Mind you, since the text doesn't concern itself with Gollum after his fall (I just checked), this discussion should properly be concerned with the film, which does follow Gollum all the way down. Which is why, I'll note, in my previous comment, I specified the film version. So I think my original observation still stands.

Also, this plate of lavabeans is excellent.
posted by jscalzi at 12:35 PM on December 11, 2011 [11 favorites]


I keep seeing "The Right (and Wrong) Way to Die When You Fall Into Love" and I'm momentarily confused.
posted by mustard seeds at 12:39 PM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


I keep seeing "The Right (and Wrong) Way to Die When You Fall Into Love" and I'm momentarily confused.

It's only "the little death" you're seeking there. There are right and wrong ways to do that, I'm pretty sure.
posted by hippybear at 12:42 PM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


I remember from my childhood science books (not a complete waste!) this picture of a man floating on mercury. I think mercury is far more dense than lava, but less viscus, and probably not as hot.
posted by Jehan at 12:42 PM on December 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Lava Flood of Doooooom
posted by R. Mutt at 12:51 PM on December 11, 2011


Just rent a couple of goddamn dragons.

One does not simply.....well, you know.
posted by gimonca at 12:55 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Alternate snark--the line Sam should have said to the eagles when they got rescued: "Where the hell were you guys when we started out??"
posted by gimonca at 12:57 PM on December 11, 2011


You know, Gollum sinking into the lava never actually bothered me as much as the fact that the hobbits didn't receive any burns while inside Mount Doom even though it must have been searing hot in there, probably hot enough to actually set them on fire; yet it didn't even so much as scorch their eyebrows.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:00 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


What about the air content? My vague recollection was that it was bubbly lava; displacing air bubbles is pretty easy. All lava is not the same.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:02 PM on December 11, 2011


Slarty Bartfast: "Also, paging Adam Savage..."

Splunge: "He might be a bit distracted right now..."

Seriously, that dude has twins.

posted by The Michael The at 1:03 PM on December 11, 2011


I know what would happen if you fell into lava.

But honestly, too horrible to write up.

Suffice it to say, there wouldn't be much flailing-- you would stick.
posted by zennie at 1:03 PM on December 11, 2011


Backstroke.
posted by spitbull at 1:07 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


ROU X: Well, your clothes and hair might burst into flame. I imagine that getting anything as soggy as human flesh to actually catch fire itself would be pretty hard.

From Wiki

...most [cremation] machines operate between 1,500 to 1,900 degrees F.

and

When first erupted from a volcanic vent, lava is a liquid at temperatures from 700 °C to 1,200 °C (1,300 °F to 2,200 °F)


Frankly, I resent the implication that I am soggy. As much face/hand/body cream I've used already this winter, I would imagine I'd gently toast a lovely brown.

Otherwise, I'm melllllting...
posted by BlueHorse at 1:08 PM on December 11, 2011


jscalzi, are you serious with this whole line of thought, or are you being funny and/or playing devil's advocate? because while I can appreciate the latter two, I have a hard time actually believing that you believe that as soon as any work has any fantastic element in it, it becomes immune to any critiques of realism. like, let's say instead of this example it was a continuity error, and frodo made reference to events as if he had been there, when it was clearly established that he was somewhere else at the time, previously. would you dismiss that because, duh, hobbits? i feel like you can't really hold that position, so i feel then like the two examples must be different (lava vs. continuity error), and yet i'm not sure in what sense they're different.

(i get that the label "continuity error" suggests an answer, but i used that term only to identify the type of thing i'm talking about, and not necessarily posit the factual cause of the events in the text. someone could argue that my hypothetical wasn't an error "because tolkien obviously meant for frodo to be in two places at once and really you're questioning that in a book with rings of power?" and that seems perfectly consistent with your line of reasoning to me so i feel okay about setting aside the error aspect of it, if you get what i mean here.)
posted by neuromodulator at 1:08 PM on December 11, 2011


After reading that Wired article, now I know why you cry.
posted by benzenedream at 1:09 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


hippybear: I now won't be satisfied until I actually read an article which describes correct and incorrect ways to actually die if one should fall into running lava.

The right way: As mercifully quick as possible.
The wrong way: Slowly and agonizingly protracted.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:16 PM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's well established that "the fires of mount doom" are singular in Middle Earth. Sauron needed its unique properties in order to forge the one ring. It's clearly not your everyday volcano in the first place, so why wouldn't one of its peculiar properties be that the lava has exceptionally low viscosity?
posted by chimaera at 1:18 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't always sink into lava, but when i do, I'm carrying a full set of diamond armor and tools.
posted by empath at 1:22 PM on December 11, 2011 [25 favorites]


empath take this legendary work of art pick with you too, im sure no one will miss it or anything
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:26 PM on December 11, 2011


Well, the laws of physics clearly don't operate the same way in Middle Earth as they do on Earth, since Gollum sinks into the lava a lot faster than the ring does.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:30 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please. Gollum was weighed down with eons of concentrated dark power, which his body sequestered from the Ring.

This is basically the same argument as "Applejack might be composed of dark matter".
posted by running order squabble fest at 1:32 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


First of all, this article assumes that the Fires of Mount Doom are stoked by just ordinary run of the mill lava. Did this guy even see the movie or read the book?! Tom Hanks ain't gonna forge Rings of Power that dominate the mortal inhabitants of fucking Middle Earth with happy fun time Hawaii lava!
posted by Brocktoon at 1:43 PM on December 11, 2011


are you serious with this whole line of thought, or are you being funny and/or playing devil's advocate? because while I can appreciate the latter two, I have a hard time actually believing that you believe that as soon as any work has any fantastic element in it, it becomes immune to any critiques of realism.

"It is easier to fall for a big lie than a small one."

The Nazis had all sorts of useful things to say about fantasy fiction!
posted by furiousthought at 1:49 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's okay to posit a spider of physically impossible size because of Tolkien needed a big damn spider in his text, but not exceptionally low-density lava because Tolkien never noted it in the text itself? If Tolkien had specified in the text that Gollum sunk into the lava, what would your position on it be then?

We're heading into perhaps deeper water (lava?) than I think anyone initially intended, but there are maybe some interesting questions about fiction here. I suppose that the essence of my position is to do with intention. I am presuming the reason we have talking trees and magic rings is not just that they reflect the specific intention of the author in writing the words that include them, but are part of a broader artistic intention that to some extent implies their existence. By contrast, low viscosity lava may well have been the specific intention of the author*, but we do not readily read it as part of a broader intention.

The problem with this position, of course, is linked to the more general problem with intentionality. How are we supposed to construct the broad intention of the author except through reading the specific words that he wrote (or shots he chose etc)? Some applications of the idea of the intentional fallacy might completely discount positions such as mine, "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" and all that jazz. I take the point, but I'm not really comfortable with the idea. Partly that's because any criticism of realism in any story would be open to the same objection. We couldn't comment negatively on the fact that the short-sighted Piggy's glasses could never cause light to converge in Lord of the Flies, because in the text they just do.

Tolkien is an interesting author to have this discussion about. As it happens, we do have great reams of text produced by the author describing the process of writing, and documenting the intentional elements that go into it. We can find out exactly why ents can speak and rings make you vanish. But a library full of explanation like that wouldn't actually help solve the problem of what to do with the idea of intention.

Anyway. Somewhat rambling. What I'm really saying jscalzi is that I can see your point, but I also think it opens up a can of worms. My "broader intention" is riddled with demonstrable holes, and yet reading fiction without it seems inconceivable to me. I don't have a theory that deals with the problem.

*Imagining that Tolkien had dealt with the fall. I'm not sure whether it is Tolkien, Jackson or "the makers of the film" is pertinent a question, although I'll stand correction.
posted by howfar at 1:54 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Neuromodulator:

"I have a hard time actually believing that you believe that as soon as any work has any fantastic element in it, it becomes immune to any critiques of realism."

When my daughter was much younger, my wife was reading to her from a picture book about a snowman who came to life and befriended a young boy, and on each page they would do a particular activity: build a snow fort, slide down a hill, enjoy a bowl of soup and so on. The last three pages had the snowman walking, then running, and then flying. At which point my wife got an unhappy look on her face and said "A flying snowman? That's just ridiculous!"

To which I said: "So you can accept a snowman eating hot soup, but not flying?" Because, you know, if you can accept the former (not to mention the entire initial premise of a snowman coming to life), I'm not sure how the snowman flying became qualitatively more ridiculous.

These days, I call the thing in a fantasy or science fiction book which throws out your suspension of disbelief a "Flying Snowman." And when someone encounters a Flying Snowman, and tells me about it, I ask them why it's this particular thing that causes them problems when so many other things of equal ridiculousness fly under their radar.

In this particular case, clearly insufficiently viscous lava is a Flying Snowman. What I'm asking is, in a film where one has already accepted so many other things which are physically impossible, ranging from Spiders of Unusual Size to millennia-old disembodied evil entities, it's this thing that stands out.

This is not to say that, when encountering fantasy work, one has to abandon all criticism. But if you're going to complain about one specific element as being unrealistic, you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.

So, yeah: In a film with impossibly large spiders, talking trees, rings freighted with corrupting evil, Uruks birthed from mud (not to mention legions of ghost warriors and battle elephants larger than tanks), are we really going to complain about insufficiently dense lava? Because if you're going to demand that be accurate in a physical sense, I want to know why you're giving the rest of that stuff a pass. If you're going to complain that the snowman flies, you should also be able to explain why it's okay to have it eat hot soup.
posted by jscalzi at 1:55 PM on December 11, 2011 [14 favorites]


Time for GEOLOGY!

Lava has a huge range of viscosities, depending mostly on the silica content (silicates form long molecular strings, so lots of them together makes it more viscous). The silica comes from the kind of rocks your continents are made from, so volcanoes coming through continental plates (the Andes, Vesuvius, etc) all have viscous lava. Volcanoes that come through mostly oceanic crust (not much silica) are much less viscous, and give you the very liquid-y lava you see at places like Hawaii. If you fell into a lava flow at Hawaii, I imagine you'd sink quite happily. Not quite as easily as you would into water, but you certainly wouldn't sit on the surface. There are many videos (I'm at work and can't get onto youtube, but search for 'Hawaii lava flow' or something) that show lava splashing and bubbling in a very non-viscous fashion.

Now - the kind of lava you have will determine what your volcano looks like. Viscous, silicate-rich lava doesn't flow very well, so it will form steep sided conical volcanoes. Non-viscous, silicate-poor lava flows too easily to build up a good volcano, so you get the little flat lying things (shield volcanoes) that bubble their liquid lava quite happily. This will also determine the nature of your eruptions - watery lava can't contain much pressure, so the slighest thing will let them bubble out and spurt around a bit - these volcanoes will never black out the sun or wipe out thousands of square kilometres of land. Your viscous lava containing, conical volcanoes, however, are much more dangerous. The thick, syrupy lava can contain a whole lot of pressure, allowing it to build up quite a bit. They also contain quite a bit of water, and it's the rapid expansion of this water from liquid to steam that is the explosive force behind the volcano. So, all your Pompeiis and Mt St Helens were viscous lava under high pressure blown to bits by water.

At for Mt Doom, it's your classic viscous lava conical volcano, so you've got no Hawaiian watery stuff in there. Gollum wouldn't have been able to sink like he did. That being said, it's much more rare for these volcanoes to have a pool of lava just sitting there on the surface, so perhaps Gollum should have just broken a few bones on solid rock.

Either way, volcanoes are cool and water is explosive.
posted by twirlypen at 2:05 PM on December 11, 2011 [33 favorites]


The Nazis had all sorts of useful things to say about fantasy fiction!


You know who else wrote about a race of tall, blonde men standing as a bulwark against sub-human monsters to the east and dark-skinned men from the south? Etc.
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:06 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


To which I said: "So you can accept a snowman eating hot soup, but not flying?" Because, you know, if you can accept the former (not to mention the entire initial premise of a snowman coming to life), I'm not sure how the snowman flying became qualitatively more ridiculous.

This all leads me to recommend listening to the new Kate Bush song Misty, which is about having an intimate encounter with a snowman.

Shorter outtake animated version is also available.
posted by hippybear at 2:10 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


At for Mt Doom, it's your classic viscous lava conical volcano, so you've got no Hawaiian watery stuff in there. Gollum wouldn't have been able to sink like he did. That being said, it's much more rare for these volcanoes to have a pool of lava just sitting there on the surface, so perhaps Gollum should have just broken a few bones on solid rock.

A classic "never watch Braveheart with a historian" moment. Thank you!
posted by Jehan at 2:12 PM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


A classic "never watch Braveheart with a historian" moment. Thank you!

Certainly never watch it with Stewart Lee.
posted by howfar at 2:17 PM on December 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


empath: I don't always sink into lava, but when i do, I'm carrying a full set of diamond armor and tools.

Remember that bug that caused you to still take falling damage if you fell into lava, even with a potion of fire resistance? I actually thought it was kind of fitting, because that's much closer to what would really happen if you did somehow fall into lava with some magical protection from heat.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:28 PM on December 11, 2011


I don't always sink into lava, but when i do, I'm carrying a full set of diamond armor and tools.

My brain read this in the voice of Jonathan Goldsmith.
posted by hippybear at 2:31 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure that any significant contact with lava would result in rapid unconsciousness and death, even disregarding damage to the body part contacting the lava. When your mostly-water body gets a good solid contact on something 700-1200 C, I don't think it'll take very long for enough of that heat to conduct across your body and into your brain to shut it down. That's not even considering that a person in contact with molten lava is going to be absorbing a ton of radiant heat from the environment and from their clothes, etc. that just burst into flame.

So I guess Gollum falls unconscious from heat exhaustion and shock on the way down the volcano, is killed by falling damage upon hitting the lava, and immediately starts to sizzle and burn, probably bursting into flames and jets of steam within less than a minute. Pretty dramatic in its own fashion, actually.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:39 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]




"solid" matter isn't actually solid.

Some suggest that it's only our perception of it being solid which keeps us from passing through what is really mostly empty space and quantum probabilities.
posted by hippybear at 2:43 PM on December 11, 2011


To which I said: "So you can accept a snowman eating hot soup, but not flying?" Because, you know, if you can accept the former (not to mention the entire initial premise of a snowman coming to life), I'm not sure how the snowman flying became qualitatively more ridiculous.

It's commonly accepted that the digestive tracts of snowmen are hard packed snow; they can eat hot soup, but it's extremely painful. Taken in moderation, it pools in their stomachs and cools before slowly melting through the walls of their stomach, usually resulting in injuries short of death. When a snowman eats hot soup with the child who created him, it is a ritual of self-sacrifice, performed with grim determination, intended as the ultimate demonstration of devotion.

But flying? That's preposterous. Maybe commercial, but they'd never make it through security before melting.
posted by eddydamascene at 2:51 PM on December 11, 2011 [17 favorites]


Out of curiosity, what happens to a gold ring then if you throw it into magma? I'm now thinking that it's even harder to destroy the damn thing than I'd thought before. You probably have a fairly long window in which you could retrieve it before it was consumed by the lava, making it all the more important that you got to the lava alone. The self-control needed to overcome the ring's power over you or your companion seems implausibly high given my reading of Frodo's character.

Which is actually an interesting twist. I can imagine the ring sitting atop the molten lava and people fighting to retrieve it, falling over one another, getting burned pretty badly but not immediately killed.
posted by scunning at 2:53 PM on December 11, 2011


I remember from my childhood science books (not a complete waste!) this picture of a man floating on mercury. I think mercury is far more dense than lava, but less viscus, and probably not as hot.

Holy crap. My understanding is that contact with mercury is dangerous, so I'm guessing sitting on top of a swimming pool full of it means this guy is hurting.
posted by scunning at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2011


Jack Handy 'If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let 'em go, because man, they're gone.
posted by kenaman at 2:57 PM on December 11, 2011 [7 favorites]


The article is misleading because is offers no tips to the would be volcano jumper. The right and correct way to die in a volcano is to inhale the fume deeply and to lie on ones back. This ensures a clean burn and allows one to experience the delirium of volcanic vapors as you expire from injuries. A poorly thought through fall could merely leave one badly burned and forced to endure an entirely unpleasant end.

Also I note that the author fails to account for the velocity of Gollum's impact. By my quick count his fall is almost ten seconds. At 9.8m/s^2 and assuming a weight of 50kg for our hobbit sized creature we can determine that he the surface of the lava with enough power to break through the molten surface and cause the trapped gas within the flow to bubble up and escape. Thus we would see an effect like we see in the film. He hits the lava and sticks into the viscous top layer like a stick. The force of the impact compresses the gasses in the rock and causes them to bubble up around him. The bubbles reduce the density of the lava and the rebound of the lava ripple pulls him under.
posted by humanfont at 3:01 PM on December 11, 2011 [9 favorites]


The melting point of gold is 1064C. Lava is more than hot enough to melt it.

The length of time you would have would be equal to the length of time required for the metal of the ring in contact with the lava to transfer heat from the lava through all the metal in the ring.

I've done more than enough gold casting to know that the window really isn't that big. Even if you succeed on getting ahold of the top of the ring before it melts, the chances are the bottom of the ring has gone liquid (or at least jello soft) during your attempts.
posted by hippybear at 3:05 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


hippbyear - is the surface area of the lava at that temperature? I suppose the entire volcano is a giant oven, though, so you're probably going to say yes. But I was just wondering. The movie presents the melting of the ring occurring as its encased in the lava, not necessarily as it sits atop the molten rock.
posted by scunning at 3:07 PM on December 11, 2011


Styrofoam has a density of 300 kg/m^3? Did an extra 0 get thrown in there?
posted by crapmatic at 3:09 PM on December 11, 2011


mustard seeds: "I keep seeing "The Right (and Wrong) Way to Die When You Fall Into Love" and I'm momentarily confused."

Actually, falling in love is much like falling in lava. After getting dumped you wish you were dead.
posted by Splunge at 3:10 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pfft. Golem probably died from deceleration since he fell from the top of the crater.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:10 PM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Am I missing something, but why are many of the comments in this thread obsessing over the viscosity of the lava? Isn't the fact that it is 3x as dense as a person the more relevant factoid in determining whether you would sink of float, and the viscosity somewhat irrelevant?
posted by selenized at 3:10 PM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


is the surface area of the lava at that temperature

My only experience with lava in any form is at room temperature, so I really don't know. I can only speak to my experience with melting gold on a regular basis through various methods (torch, oven) when I used to make jewelry a lifetime ago.
posted by hippybear at 3:12 PM on December 11, 2011


Because if you're going to demand that be accurate in a physical sense, I want to know why you're giving the rest of that stuff a pass. If you're going to complain that the snowman flies, you should also be able to explain why it's okay to have it eat hot soup.

I'd have a bigger problem with the soup drinking snowman than with the flying one. I'm kinda surprised that anyone wouldn't, but that just shows what I know about how other people's mind's work. The snowman flying serves a purpose in the narrative, the snowman drinking soup seemingly (not having read the book I can't say for sure) serves no purpose at all. Likewise, if all Treebeard were good for was firewood, Saruman could've let the good times roll, while Gollum going plop would have served no purpose I can see.

I suppose my answer to you question (that avoids going all around the houses) is "The flying snowman makes it a better story, the soup drinking snowman makes it a worse one". I can see the problems with this answer though.
posted by howfar at 3:22 PM on December 11, 2011


Well duh. That's how the couch cushions remain floating on the surface while you use them to cross into the safe area.
posted by availablelight at 3:27 PM on December 11, 2011 [14 favorites]


I'm sure the flying snowman would not be a problem if he just had wings.
posted by WhackyparseThis at 3:44 PM on December 11, 2011


Hang on. Mt Doom is Sauron's forge. That's where and how he made the ring in the first place. So it's not a natural place anyway. I don't believe Tolkien even uses such crudely geological terms as lava or volcano. So there's a built-in out here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:47 PM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


Am I missing something, but why are many of the comments in this thread obsessing over the viscosity of the lava? Isn't the fact that it is 3x as dense as a person the more relevant factoid in determining whether you would sink of float, and the viscosity somewhat irrelevant?

I think the reason to care about viscosity here is that Gollum is falling rapidly before he contacts the lava surface. So, his velocity should carry him some distance under the lava -- just like diving into water, even if you have a density less than that of water -- provided the lava is not too viscous.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 3:49 PM on December 11, 2011


Does this mean Anakin Skywalker could've just retrieved his limbs floating in the lava flow and had them sewn back on?
posted by Dr. Zira at 3:57 PM on December 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


I think I would define Flying Snowman = something that breaks the already established aesthetics and conventions of the story. At least that's the definition I came up with after having this argument a few times irl and here.
So offhand, and obviously not having the pleasure of reading that book, a flying snowman is ridiculous on it's face because i would fully expect snowmen to be regular old men made of snow. If there was an element of magic (yes, I realize there quite possibly is something like magic at work because we are talking about snowmen coming to life) then that would be a different set of aesthetics at work.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:03 PM on December 11, 2011


Does this mean Anakin Skywalker could've just retrieved his limbs floating in the lava flow and had them sewn back on?

Yes, although they would be fully cooked limbs.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:06 PM on December 11, 2011


The flying is ridiculous because the snowman is emulating and then magically becomes human, with the abilities of a human only, and his crippling heat intolerant condition is mollified. In fact, we don't know, from this short retelling, if he has all the abilities of a human, or if he lost whatever advantages might exist for a person of snow. But if he flies, he becomes superhuman, which is sort of a second transformation above the first.
posted by cobaltnine at 4:11 PM on December 11, 2011


Anyway, the important thing with snowmen isn't to stop them drinking soup, it's to keep the guzzling bastards away from your IRN-BRU.
posted by howfar at 4:14 PM on December 11, 2011


Assuming that hobbitses' bodies are composed similarly to human's, they are 75% water, yes? So wouldn't Gollum sort of explode like a kernel of popcorn as the water in his body boiled/turned to steam? Or would his body catch fire before the water could get to boiling temperature?
posted by fancyoats at 4:37 PM on December 11, 2011


Only if he's exoskeletal. As the water heated, the meat it contains would cook and the water would be released as steam, just like cooking any other mammal.
posted by hippybear at 4:44 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes, although they would be fully cooked limbs.

Except for his arms. You'd think that he'd be all over getting those back, biomechanical limbs can't be cheap.
posted by selenized at 5:06 PM on December 11, 2011




There's a clear explanation missed here: The cave fish Gollum survived off of were also chock full of mercury. Protected by the ring, Gollum survived for hundreds of years as more and more mercury accumulated in his body.

Oddly enough, it wasn't the ring that was driving him mad...
posted by drezdn at 5:26 PM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's okay to posit a spider of physically impossible size because of Tolkien needed a big damn spider in his text, but not exceptionally low-density lava because Tolkien never noted it in the text itself? If Tolkien had specified in the text that Gollum sunk into the lava, what would your position on it be then?
It seemed big because the hobbits were small, maybe only about the size a human. Maybe it had evolved a circulatory system or something.
Holy crap. My understanding is that contact with mercury is dangerous, so I'm guessing sitting on top of a swimming pool full of it means this guy is hurting.
Not really. Mercury compounds are poisonous, because they can be absorbed into your body, but touching mercury would be no more painful then touching lead, for example. Metallic mercury doesn't really get absorbed into the body very easily, and mercury poisoning isn't something that people realized could happen right away. People used to actually drink it.
posted by delmoi at 5:32 PM on December 11, 2011


A spider the size of a VW Bug? I think it's safe if we file that one under 'Big'.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:40 PM on December 11, 2011


Now I have this song in my head.
posted by desjardins at 7:16 PM on December 11, 2011


Some suggest that it's only our perception of it being solid which keeps us from passing through what is really mostly empty space and quantum probabilities.

Here's another take -- perception is irrelevant; inanimate objects collide in space with no one to think about them. If particles all have a small but nonzero probability of being far away from their mean location, that same probabilistic model tells us that the chance that all particles in a clump of matter have checked out far from their average location is much, much smaller. So, practically speaking, it's all there. And in terms of what is there, it is mostly empty space, but the matter that is there fills that space with force fields, and spooky action at a distance. Probabilistically, every collision is a bonk. Quantum mechanics allows that there is a chance that it might not be, but tells us practically never to expect it.
posted by eddydamascene at 9:16 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some suggest that it's only our perception of it being solid which keeps us from passing through what is really mostly empty space and quantum probabilities.

Here's another take -- perception is irrelevant


Yeah, I never actually believed all that Richard Bach stuff... I just like saying that on occasion when it seems appropriate.
posted by hippybear at 9:38 PM on December 11, 2011


If you are less than one-third the density of basalt (and you are, admit it), it

As if I needed an excuse to have another doughnut.
posted by arcticseal at 2:19 AM on December 12, 2011


Also, lava, hobbits and flying soup drinking snowmen; this is a contender for best thread EVAR.
posted by arcticseal at 2:20 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Its still a bit unclear what would happen then, I guess you would light on fire and then just bounce around on top of the lava flow, much like this canon ball bouncing around in a bath of mercury?
Canonball in Mercury bath..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rm5D47nG9k4
posted by mary8nne at 3:14 AM on December 12, 2011


The snowman flying serves a purpose in the narrative, the snowman drinking soup seemingly (not having read the book I can't say for sure) serves no purpose at all.

This is an odd argument for me because I think Tolkien's "world" is really only credible on the areas in which he was a professional. But I have few objections to giving both Tolkien and Jackson a creative license pass on geology as long as they stick to Tolkien's grand themes of fall, mortality, and the machine. Mount Doom isn't physical or historical, it's mythological.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:46 AM on December 12, 2011


This is not to say that, when encountering fantasy work, one has to abandon all criticism. But if you're going to complain about one specific element as being unrealistic, you should consider the work in its totality and ask whether in the context of the work, this specific thing is inconsistent with the worldbuilding.

howfar is right, though, that we can also consider whether some specific element of unreality feels like a creative choice relating to the magical or SFnal nature of the work, or feels like the author/filmmaker just didn't know any better.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:21 AM on December 12, 2011


Good SF&F is frequently wrong.

Great SF&F dares to be spectacularly and fantastically wrong.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:54 AM on December 12, 2011


I imagine that getting anything as soggy as human flesh to actually catch fire itself would be pretty hard.

I'm from Cleveland, Ohio. Our river caught on fire. You'd be surprised...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 6:57 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Relevant TVTropes: Convection Schmonvection and Lava Is Boiling Kool Aid
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:20 AM on December 12, 2011


Good SF&F is frequently wrong.

Great SF&F dares to be spectacularly and fantastically wrong.


Right, but there's being wrong about superluminal travel or the existence of magic, and there's forgetting that the capital of New York is Albany and not NYC.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:01 AM on December 12, 2011


Or you can become Darth Vader
posted by stormpooper at 9:18 AM on December 12, 2011


jscalzi: In this particular case, clearly insufficiently viscous lava is a Flying Snowman.

Is it? The link just says it's something a student asked a geologist. I didn't notice anything to say that Gollum sinking broke anybody's suspension of disbelief.
posted by stebulus at 9:23 AM on December 12, 2011


or feels like the author/filmmaker just didn't know any better.

Or you maybe stepping into overthinking it territory. It's still fiction for a reason. If say in Fringe they decided NYC is the capital, as long as the presentation supports that then there really isn't a reason to nitpick that choice. Fringe Division inside the Statue of Liberty is never explained but I got past that without a problem - it's not this reality - any subsequent explanation just verifies and reinforces that.
The viscosity of lava doesn't even support any part of the narrative at all; there isn't any argument one way or the other that it isn't a pit of destruction. To argue whether someone would die stuck halfway in or slip all the way under is akin to arguing about whether laser sounds in space should or shouldn't be in a sci-fi flick. It matters only at the level of artistic implementation. That amounts to being a second order problem, or a Hot Soup problem: what effects would the soup cause? A Flying Snowman Problem would be first order: how does a snowman fly?
There is a ton of stuff about this over at TVTropes, including Bellisario's Maxim, and A Wizard Did It.
posted by P.o.B. at 10:06 AM on December 12, 2011


It doesn't make physical sense, but it makes dramatic sense given the expanded character development that Jackson gave Gollum over the the course of the trilogy. Gollum's face transforms from rage, to tender joy as he falls, to bewilderment, before concluding with self-sacrifice as he tries to hold his Precious over the surface of the lava. This is one of those cases where Jackson's dramatic license pays off IMO.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:27 AM on December 12, 2011


A classic "never watch Braveheart with a historian" moment. Thank you!

I watched Dances with Wolves with my grandmother, who spoke Lakota. Whoo boy.
posted by KathrynT at 10:43 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


This thread is pretty much a textbook example of why I fucking love Metafilter. You've got a geologist expertly weighing in on the varying viscosity of lava AND a lauded SF author explaining his flying snowman theorem, all in the same spot. Best! Monday! Ever!
posted by shiu mai baby at 11:09 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Or you maybe stepping into overthinking it territory. It's still fiction for a reason. If say in Fringe they decided NYC is the capital, as long as the presentation supports that then there really isn't a reason to nitpick that choice.

Fringe is a bad example because it had already been presenting an alternate universe/timeline. Most works, even SF/Fantasy works, aren't.

If you were reading Harry Potter and Rowling had someone running off to get married in Gretna Green, in Northumberland, it would certainly be possible that Rowling was slyly telling you that this world, with its wizards and so on, is not intended to be even a fictional version of ours. But a simpler explanation would be that Rowling forgot exactly where Gretna was.

It's really not very hard to tell these things apart. Some things are clearly aspects of the world the work is set in, other things are clearly the author slyly telling you something about where the work is set (say, Ken MacLeod's mentions of President Gore in _The Night Sessions_).

But other things are just as obviously the author not knowing any better, or the author not caring to inquire about how something might actually work.

In this case, it's obvious that either Jackson didn't stop to think about what falling into lava would actually be like, or he thought about it and just didn't give a shit. The fact that he lets Frodo and Sam survive, without protection, being surrounded by flowing lava a few feet away for some reasonably long time argues for the first.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:31 AM on December 12, 2011


if you held him down to prevent him from dying and took the ring away, after the whole dark lord thing dissipated, would gollum return to being a normal hobbit
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:35 AM on December 12, 2011


For anyone unfamiliar with the aforementioned flying snowman story, (a.k.a. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs) here is the summary of the plot.
For the record, the "magic" kicks in at the stroke of midnight, so classic bewitching hour magic + Christmas magic there is what enables the Snowman to eat soup, hang out in non-subzero temperatures (although he does enjoy a cool breeze by sticking his head in the family fridge) and fly.
posted by Dr. Zira at 11:39 AM on December 12, 2011


ROU_Xenophobe: In this case, it's obvious that either Jackson didn't stop to think about what falling into lava would actually be like, or he thought about it and just didn't give a shit.

Or both, which is an entirely justifiable creative decision given that the role Mount Doom plays in the narrative has absolutely nothing to do with the physics of lava.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:43 AM on December 12, 2011


This is an odd argument for me because I think Tolkien's "world" is really only credible on the areas in which he was a professional. But I have few objections to giving both Tolkien and Jackson a creative license pass on geology as long as they stick to Tolkien's grand themes of fall, mortality, and the machine. Mount Doom isn't physical or historical, it's mythological.

I think you're identifying the same problem with my argument as I am, that it does not, in fact, depend on credibility, but on a notion of an intent to make a world of a certain type, which encompasses all specific acts of literary creation in the text. I think it is this notion that I am using to evaluate the relative internal credibility of talking trees and sloppy lava.

I know that this is a flawed position, but I'm not sure how to do away with it, or at least some variation on it. There are no fixed standards of credibility, whether you're reading fantasy or realistic fiction, but the notion of credibility is too important to reading to set aside.
posted by howfar at 11:50 AM on December 12, 2011


howfar:" The snowman flying serves a purpose in the narrative, the snowman drinking soup seemingly (not having read the book I can't say for sure) serves no purpose at all. "

I think the soup (and the radiator) serves a very specific purpose: It demonstrates that the magic that brings the snowman to life is so powerful, he's nearly indestructible. It basically sets up a baseline for all the awesome things the magical snowman can do to sell the audience on the magic BEFORE the Snowman takes flight. The flying comes as sort of a climactic moment - you already know the he can just sort of hang out indoors and drink hot soup. Enduring relatively hot temperatures is a pretty high threshold for magic, but the flying goes above and beyond it, so when he takes off flying with the kid it's a real Holy Shit kind of moment because it's the last thing you expect a snowman to do (other than maybe hang out in hell - which wouldn't really work very well in a story trying to sell Christmas magic*). There's even an entire song in the score written just for that moment ("Walking in the Air") which accompanies the whole flying sequence.

*BTW: The Snowman has a brilliantly depressing ending because unlike every other Christmas story which just sort of leaves you suspended in Christmas magic happiness, it ends with the kid/narrator just walking off into ennui as he rhapsodizes about his perfect childhood Christmas moment that will never happen again. It's like the anti-Polar Express.
posted by Dr. Zira at 12:09 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


This: if you held him down to prevent him from dying and took the ring away, after the whole dark lord thing dissipated, would gollum return to being a normal hobbit

Interesting question. My take on Tolkien's narrative is that the ring enables Smeagol's moral fall. (A theme developed in parallel with Denathor and Sauron.) Gollum becomes slightly more hobbit-like in response to kindness, and more Gollum-like when he rejects kindness. So it might have been possible had Gollum renounced the ring.

howfar: I'll take sincerity over credibility. After all, how are Oz, Wonderland, Flatland, Narnia, or Earthsea remotely credible as realistic cultures and settings? Concern over the biological effects of lava on the characters strikes me as exactly the wrong sort of question to ask of a mythic narrative like Lord of the Rings, for the same reason it's nonsense to question whether Thor can eat his goats night after night.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:42 PM on December 12, 2011


exactly the wrong sort of question to ask of a mythic narrative

We discussed this issue a little bit a couple months ago.

There does seem to be a big disconnect between those who think of such questions as a fun way to play with stories and those who think such questions profoundly miss the whole point of stories.
posted by stebulus at 1:09 PM on December 12, 2011


Oops, I didn't mean to link to my comment specifically. (That's just how I tracked the thread down.) The discussion starts much earlier in the thread.
posted by stebulus at 1:10 PM on December 12, 2011


I'll take sincerity over credibility. After all, how are Oz, Wonderland, Flatland, Narnia, or Earthsea remotely credible as realistic cultures and settings?

Aren't we talking about the same thing then? The notion that "credibility" is an internal construct derived from the relationship of specific aspects of the narrative to an overall creative intent.

Concern over the biological effects of lava on the characters strikes me as exactly the wrong sort of question to ask of a mythic narrative like Lord of the Rings, for the same reason it's nonsense to question whether Thor can eat his goats night after night.

This is an interesting point, I think. You're expanding the terms by which we can sensibly assess "credibility" (and its relevance) into broader culture. The standards of credibility (or sincerity) of the story are determined less by the intention of the author than by the relationship of the text to our expectation and to other texts. I'm fairly convinced that this is a necessary step, but I'm not sure that it ultimately gets us away from the problem that concerns me, that we all know what we're talking about when we discuss credibility, but don't really have anything to hang it off except a notion of intention or competence to interpret the culturally imputed meaning of a text.
posted by howfar at 1:44 PM on December 12, 2011


but don't really have anything to hang it off except a notion of intention or competence to interpret the culturally imputed meaning of a text.

Aesthetics tend to account for everything. I'm not saying it makes everything right, but it's implied that everything is intentional and therefore we shouldn't have to question every little non-realism.

Also, if you can't see the difference in questioning whether a tree can talk and whether the viscosity of lava is correct, then I think there is a disconnect there. Those are two very different questions, with two very different ideas of a the physics of a fantasy story.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:31 PM on December 12, 2011


Also, if you can't see the difference in questioning whether a tree can talk and whether the viscosity of lava is correct, then I think there is a disconnect there.

The difference is obvious to me, I just also think the question that jscalzi raises, which is (I think) "why is it obvious?" is a really difficult one to answer in a satisfactory way.

Aesthetics tend to account for everything. I'm not saying it makes everything right, but it's implied that everything is intentional and therefore we shouldn't have to question every little non-realism.

Hmmm. This seems like a restatement, rather than a justification. It doesn't deal with the problem neuromodulator raised. If we can assume that everything is intentional, are there really no errors in the text to identify? And what does an error in a work of fiction mean? A big one in LotR is Sam's intelligence gathering right at the start. If he is "on his honour" after Gandalf discovers him, when did he actually tell the conspirators the things he needed to know? If we take that for a "plot hole", what justification do we have for doing so, being as it's just as much a part of the reality described as talking trees, and more likely in terms of real world credibility? LotR is not a perfect book in this respect (the Gaffer assuming that his dearest son has moved away without saying "goodbye" always seemed crazy to me too). The question is, then, "how do we know it's not perfect, if we are not comparing it to some ideal of perfection?"

I'm not here to argue for or against any position on this. It just strikes me as an interesting area, particularly in the case of Tolkien, due to his ideas on "subcreation". Tolkien does seem to have thought that his world creation endeavours were more than stage dressing, and to have felt them to be both aesthetically and spiritually significant in themselves.
posted by howfar at 3:22 PM on December 12, 2011


if you held him down to prevent him from dying and took the ring away, after the whole dark lord thing dissipated, would gollum return to being a normal hobbit

By analogy to Bilbo once he gave up the Ring: his personality would probably have improved, but he also would have begun to age rapidly, likely even more so than Bilbo since he was so much older than Bilbo. Given his already fairly decrepit physical state, he probably would not have lived for long.
posted by jedicus at 3:50 PM on December 12, 2011


By analogy to Bilbo once he gave up the Ring: his personality would probably have improved, but he also would have begun to age rapidly

Does Bilbo age rapidly? 17 years pass between him giving up the Ring and Frodo's arrival at Rivendell. He lives in Middle Earth for just over 20 years after giving up the Ring. I have never really been sure whether the longevity effect of the Ring lasts or not.
posted by howfar at 4:10 PM on December 12, 2011


I don't think they are very different questions. The Ents are mythic creatures that serve a specific role in the story. Mount Doom is a mythic setting that serves as the origin and conclusion of most of the conflicts in the story. Nothing about Mount Doom makes sense if you treat it as a realistic volcano. If we did, the four characters (including the Ring) couldn't be there without protective gear, and how nice that there's a convenient overhang over a pool of molten lava.

Gollum's death echos that of Saurman, who's betrayed by Grima and devoured by his own machine. I imagine that Walsh, Boylens, and Jackson thought that the film's most visible and complex antagonist deserved a bit more direction than, "exit stage down, screaming." So we get a complex 30 seconds of pantomime that wraps up the Gollum-Ring conflict. If there is a criticism to be made here, it's that the death scenes of Saruman, Gollum, and Denethor are a bit ham-fisted and melodramatic in their symbolism (although WB&J tone down Denetor's death IMO).

You can probably fill a dozen pages with things that Tolkien was just plain wrong about (starting with Shadowfax), and another dozen on cinematic conceits used by WB&J (starting with Legolas). I don't think these things really matter that much because neither novel nor adaptation pretend to be anything other than a fantastic tale.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:44 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think these things really matter that much because neither novel nor adaptation pretend to be anything other than a fantastic tale.

Fantastic tales have their own standards of credibility and consistency, certainly. I don't know that the quality of a tale can be so easily disconnected from the extent to which it enables suspension of disbelief. I am not inclined to take the "why" of the flying snowman rhetorically, because "relax dude! It's just fantasy", while valid, isn't the place I feel like stopping. The road goes ever on, but there is no need for anyone who doesn't fancy the trip to accompany me.

I get the sense that we're all talking to some extent at cross purposes. This is fine, and I think it's been reasonably productive, but I get the sense that it might start to get frustrating if we pursue it too much further.
posted by howfar at 5:27 PM on December 12, 2011


are there really no errors in the text to identify?

Accepting the idea that there is an aesthetic attempt, then the questions are part of a conversation. If someone asks "how can I believe that?", then the story must have already asked "how much can you believe?" In one sense the narrative needs a certain amount of strength to say what it wants, but the reader needs to let go of a certain amount of reality to accept it. So your questions are capturing two points of reference and to properly go about answering then we would need to make clear between those.

I don't think they are very different questions.

Well there is I believe a separate part that tends to hang up what I was just talking about and it is the point of view that assumes: the story builds it's reality upon itself therefore the more you accept of it, then the lesser parts should be inherently acceptable. If you accept something fantastical as ___insert any creature from LoTR here___ then why would you have a problem with low viscosity lava? One certainly takes much more to be believed. But is that a valid question to retort with? Because I think the latter mostly falls under "because it's creator wanted it that way" aesthetics.
I agree with your answer, but I think those questions rather do stand apart in that context.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:35 PM on December 12, 2011


cobaltnine: "The flying is ridiculous because the snowman is emulating and then magically becomes human, with the abilities of a human only, and his crippling heat intolerant condition is mollified. In fact, we don't know, from this short retelling, if he has all the abilities of a human, or if he lost whatever advantages might exist for a person of snow. But if he flies, he becomes superhuman, which is sort of a second transformation above the first."

This is exactly it, to my mind, and summarizes where I think Scalzi is wrong. Several people at the Livejournal of sf critic James Nicoll called it the "straw that breaks the camel's back" issue. But I think it's more that we've implied already that the snowman can do human-like things, so it's no surprise he can eat hot soup. Flying is totally unexpected, as it is not something people can do.

So, yes, there are walking, talking trees in Middle-earth, and it's plausible, because we know WHY they can walk and talk. If Treebeard suddenly turned into a dragon, it would not be plausible, because we've been given no reason to think ents can do that.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:43 AM on December 13, 2011


someone should make a shmup where youre a nazgul
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:10 AM on December 13, 2011


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