Stone Giants and Endoliths

J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Mountain-path" with enhancement.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Mountain-path” with enhancement.

They were high up in a narrow place, with a dreadful fall into a dim valley at one side of them. There they were sheltering under a hanging rock for the night, and [Bilbo] lay beneath a blanket and shook from head to toe. When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone giants were out, and were hurling rocks at at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. Then came a wind and a rain, and the wind whipped the wind and hail about in every direction, so that an overhanging rock was no protection at all. Soon they were getting drenched and their ponies were standing with their heads down and their tails between their legs, and some of them were whinnying with fright. They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.

“This won’t do at all!” said Thorin. “If we don’t get blown off, or drowned, or struck by lightning, we shall get picked up by some giant and kicked sky-high for a football.”

“Well, if you know of anywhere better, takes us there!” said Gandalf, who was feeling very grumpy, and was far from happy about the giants himself.

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter IV.

Tolkien gives us a dramatic introduction to Middle-earth’s stone giants – and then he never uses them again.

Worlds of Imagination

In letter 35, written in 1939, he told his publisher that there would be a giant in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien apparently changed his mind.

He did tell an Oxford-based author, soon after the trilogy’s second volume was published (letter 157), that:

I always felt that something ought to be done about the peculiar A. Saxon word ent for a ‘giant’ or mighty person of long ago — to whom all old works were ascribed. If it had a slightly philosophical tone (though in ordinary philology it is ‘quite unconnected with any present participle
of the verb to be’) that also interested me.

Treebeard, Skinbark, Quickbeam and the other Ents are more than a fair trade-off for giants!

Here is a thorough discussion of giants in Tolkien’s imagined world. The artwork is nice, too, but I imagined them as more “Thing”-like.

This guy.  (Source)

This guy. (Source)

My stone-giants would have had a varied appearance – granite giants would be different colors and rather clear-skinned but knobby; schist giants would have fine-grained skin, speckled with pyrite and garnet, and come in pastel colors of olive green, rust and gray…that sort of thing.

Tolkien himself probably saw stone-giants as quite different either from my view or that of the artist at the above-linked website. That’s the wonderful thing about well-written fantasy – it happens in as many different worlds as there are readers to imagine it.

It’s not as though there are living rocks in the real world.


Life finds a way

As it turns out, the hills actually are alive, and so is the sea floor, the beach sand, and just about every other stony environment you can name.

Meet endoliths.

These guys.  (Image source)

These guys. (Image source)

Endoliths can eat rock, somehow (there’s no consensus on how they do this, apparently). Some live on gases and other fluids in the rock. They also eat each other and, perhaps most terrifying of all, they “support a variety of grazing animals, equipped with hard rock-scraping mouth parts.”

These extremophiles been around since the Precambrian Eon.

It makes sense. Conditions at Earth’s surface have changed dramatically over geologic time, and rock can protect their tender, moist little bodies from solar radiation and dryness. It also contains basic nutrients for life.

Sure, it’s a little difficult to frolic around in, but according to Dr. Wikipedia, they’re very slow. Some of them take 10,000 years just to reproduce once.

These guys, though endoliths come in other forms, too.  (Source)

More endoliths. (Source: NOAA via Carleton College)

Endoliths have been found in Earth’s crust – the sea floor as well as continents – as far down as we can dig. They also exist in the mountains, and in extreme places like Yellowstone and Antarctica. According to these geologists, “Photosynthetic, endolithic microbial communities commonly inhabit the outer millimetres to centimetres of all rocks exposed to the Earth’s surface. In the most extreme terrestrial climates, such as hot and cold deserts, endolithic microorganisms are often the main form of life.”

Scientists have known about them since the 1970s. While they talk among themselves of “cryptoendoliths…growing within structural cavities, chasmoendoliths…inhabiting fissures and cracks of the rock, and euendoliths…actively penetrating rocky substrates,” the rest of us in the lay world haven’t heard much about these critters.

I don’t know whether this is because the scientists are concerned about losing funding if they go around trying to convince people that life thrives inside solid rock, or if they don’t want to terrify us, or – most likely – because Science still is mind-boggled by the whole thing, even after four decades of research.

Studying them, of course, is very difficult. Nonetheless, scientists are working at it, for the existence of endoliths raises questions about the history of life on Earth, as well as the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Think about it – right now the Curiosity rover might be rolling over millions of Martians living just a few inches or even miles below the planet’s surface, and we’d never know it.

It’s unknown whether scientists also looking into the possibility of endolith colonies organizing to create a jaeger-like Stone Giant, so let’s assume that, yes, they are.


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Categories: Tolkien Tuesday

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1 reply

  1. The mentions of stone-giants and faeries in The Hobbit have bothered me since I was little, as they’re dropped in later writings, but I’m currently reading The Annotated Hobbit for the first time and there’s a footnote explaining that the stone-giants are a type of troll – something that hadn’t even occurred to me before.

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