“We fear nothing but the sky falling…”

In The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, a tragic episode in the history of Middle Earth is mentioned. A group of elves, forced into exile and betrayed by their kin, find that their only option for survival is to cross the Helcaraxë—the Grinding Ice. This broken, shifting ice-pack shrouded in clinging mists which were impenetrable to starlight formed the perilous bridge between two land-masses.

From the moment I read this scene, the idea fixed itself in my mind that this part of the story was not really fiction—that once upon a time, this really had happened and that this episode came more from deep ancestral memory than the wilder corners of Tolkien’s imagination.

But then—who were those elves? Where was the Grinding Ice? When had it taken place?

From time to time, I get these little pokes at the back of my brain when I’m reading. A tiny whisper that says to me: real, not fiction. I used to dismiss these thoughts. I would ignore the recurring idea that the enchanted winter of CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe really did take place, that the bridge of birds in Chinese folklore was the same as the necklace Brisingamen from Norse mythology and that they were both a stairway of ‘stars’ that circled the Earth as ice-rings now surround Saturn.

Because I have an interest in names and have long noted a connection between a writer’s name and characters (sure there’s Lewis, from the Welsh for lion, but there’s also George Lucas and Luke Skywalker; Tolkien and Tóki, a name which seems to be cognate with Earendel, Tolkien’s self-admitted source of inspiration; Catherine Fisher’s fisher-king in Corbenic; and most incredibly of all, Toni Morrison’s repeated use of names unique to the Morrisons of the Hebrides when she is Afro-American and Morrison is her ex-husband’s name), I tend to collect obscure fragments of knowledge to do with names and myths.

After a while, the accumulated weight of evidence all pointing in the same direction within fiction—and fantasy in particular—the names used in them for both characters and places, the storylines, the peculiar similarity of so many independent fantasies was overwhelming. And all indicated the mid-sixth century. During my investigations, I was extraordinarily fortunate: I made two errors that balanced each other out.  However, I’d also asked so many questions of friends, acquaintances and relatives for so many years that by the time I worked out an exact date, they knew to ring me straight away when Catastrophe was aired. It was a television programme and, as my sister said when she rang me about it, it quoted just about every piece of literature I’d been asking questions about over the previous decade. Incredibly, it mentioned the exact date I’d calculated from evidence within certain fantasies.

The work of dendrochronologist Michael Baillie is revolutionary. It shouldn’t be. Baillie has shown that historians tend to dismiss any record of the past that seems too extreme to be true, regardless of how widespread the testimony is. He has pointed out there have been times in history when the human race has come within a hairs-breath of extinction. The last time was during the period from 537-540 AD when there was no summer. Anywhere. Total and global climate collapse. Crop failure. Mass starvation. The sun shone through a blue veil. The moon and stars were invisible. Plague ravaged the already devastated land. It was possible to travel from one side of Britain to the other and not encounter a single person.

Although many places on the internet cite a massive volcanic eruption as the cause of this almost-unimaginable environmental downturn, Baillie himself believes it was the result of a comet or asteroid plunging into the Celtic Sea. The resulting impact winter was felt around the world for varying degrees of time (decades in some parts of North America—reflective of that Narnian enchanted winter).

So going back to the comments on the previous post about Jack and Jill (which prompted this interruption in my series on The Silver Chair), if they were indeed asteroids, then this is a likely time for one (or both) of them to have tumbled down. Dendrochronology is so accurate it is likely to be one or two years out at most.  And even though this passage does not appear to come from the right time, I think there’s a fair chance that it does come from this period (and that the date of 684 AD, recorded centuries later in the Annals of the Four Masters has got a little out of kilter):

A mortality upon all animals in general, throughout the whole world, for the space of three years, so that there escaped not one out of the thousand of any kind of animals.  There was great frost in this year, so that the lakes and rivers of Ireland were frozen; and the sea between Ireland and Scotland was frozen, so that there was a communication between them on the ice. 

Is this the source of Tolkien’s Helcaraxë? If it isn’t, I’m sure of one thing—it’s where I get the sense that his story is history, not fiction. Long before I found this, I’d decided that there were only two possible locations for any real Helcaraxë—and the Sea of Moyle had to be one of them. 

I have great problems when people say to me that they don’t read fiction because it’s ‘untrue’.  I have discovered more lost truths in fiction than ever I have in non-fiction. Sure they’re partly hidden, like buried treasure, but they’re also unsullied by the almost irrationally-defended modern belief that nothing really catastrophic has befallen the Earth for millennia.

Alexander the Great once encountered a group of Celts by the shores of the Adriatic. On asking them what they feared, they answered: ‘Only the sky falling.’ Yeah, right… was the essence of his response.

And his feelings are pretty much echoed by most people today. The sky falling? Yeah, right…

Only in the movies, only in fantasy.

But fantasy writers demonstrate that the memory of it is still a troubling one.


  1. Moderator

    For the 2nd part of the catastrophe transcript (the link in the text connects to the first), go here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/previous_seasons/flash/catastrophe2frame.html If you would like to view the PBS site resources connected to this program, try here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/previous_seasons/flash/

  2. Thanks for that, James. The second part of the Catastrophe transcript mainly references the theory of David Keyes that it was a mega-volcanic eruption responsible for the dust veil that blocked out the stars and caused the prolonged winter. It ought to be noted that Keyes is a journalist who heard Baillie speak at a conference and who rejected Baillie’s interpretation of the asteroid or comet impact. It is interesting to see, in Baillie’s more recent books, his increasing irritation with the dismissal of his own hypothesis in favour of that of a journalist who has played fairly fast and loose with the evidence for a volcanic eruption at the right time.

    Baillie’s book Exodus to Arthur is really fascinating, showing he unwittingly got involved in a controversy over the date of the Exodus (of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt. His discoveries about the mid-sixth century catastrophe were a result of his attempt to vindicate the reputation of a deceased colleague regarding a date for the Exodus.

  3. Alison Collins

    Wow, I’d love to read a “real” history book. And yes, good point about reading fiction. I have to confess to having been in the “it’s untrue” category, but your thoughts on this in recent times have been moving me back towards reading fiction again. It annoys me when even Bible notes comment on Job 41 “fantasy reigns in this description of a fire-eating dragon” (Harper Collins).


    • Hi Alison

      You’ve reminded me that I was at a writing mentorship recently where the discussion turned to “interesting” and somewhat perilous episodes involving wardrobes in the lives of the writers when they were children. After a while our thoughts turned to The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe and one of the women said, ‘Fiction isn’t untrue, is it?’

      As for Job 41, it’s one of my favourite passages of the Bible. Fantasy? Actually, since we’re discussing meteor impacts, I should point out that the beginning of the story of Job where he loses his herds and his children is, in fact, really quite close in description to a cosmic impact. And that makes it even more fascinating in terms of the fire-eating dragon at the end. Dragons are often associated with other stories reminiscent of meteor impacts:

      In this year dreadful signs were seen in the skies above Northumberland and people were terribly fearful. There was incredible lightning, and ferocious winds, and fierce dragons were seen flying through the air. And just after this there was a great famine, and then not long after in the same year on the eighth day of June, woe! heathens plundered and destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne, robbing and murdering.

      In this famous passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 793, dragons are inextricably linked with what seems like the description of a meteor strike and accompanying impact winter with famine following. If we interpret ‘dragons’ as the multi-coloured ionisation trail of a meteor, we can not only account for many of the rainbow serpent and dragon legends of the world, we can also explain why so many of them are linked to impact craters.

Leave a Reply

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.