Quick note before the main feature – I co-run another blog, called Fiction Can be Fun, and we run a monthly writing prompt. The prompt goes out on the First Sunday of the month, and because it’s #FlashFiction, we close it on the following Friday. In honour of #AtoZChallenge, we have an A-Z prompt for you – check it out here. And now back to the scheduled broadcast…
When I was younger, I loved the writing of David Eddings. These days, this enthusiasm has waned, partly because I thought that “The Redemption of Althalus” was just too ridiculous and partly because as I have written more myself, I have become more discerning as a reader. In particular, my inner editor has a tendency to pop up, red pen in hand. But that’s by the way. One thing that Eddings did very well was world building.
Whilst there are a lot of similarities between the worlds of the Belgariad and the Elenium, two of Eddings’ main series, this is in part because they are both clearly fantasy settings. There are more differences than there are resemblances, although one of the key plot elements is the same: a stone of great power that everyone wants to control. In one series, the stone is bound to a single bloodline and has immense power – the limits are never really explored – and the aim of the bad guys is to deny the power of the stone to the hero, and to lead said hero around by the nose when they do get hold of it. In the other, the stone is revealed to not only be sentient but intelligent; if anything it has even greater power, but in reality it is a protective casing for an entity that travels the Universe creating worlds. I’m not going to talk about the Orb of Aldur – this is described as a stone, found by a river and is shaped by the will of the god Aldur and imbued with some of his spirit and power. There are all sorts of ways that this could go, up to and including manipulation of matter at the quantum level. We could even appeal to manipulation of space-time if we wanted, although that feels a bit excessive…The point is that the Orb is fundamentally a rock that has been manipulated by an external agency and whilst we can make some guesses as to the nature of the original stone (based on where Aldur found it), it doesn’t really help us in the long run.
No, I’d like to look more closely at the other stone, Bhelliom, also known as the Sapphire Rose. In the end, it is revealed that Bhelliom is a sentient intelligence that has existed since the beginning of the Universe. This entity drifts through the Universe and causes matter to coalesce into planets, specifically ‘blue ones’. When the world of the Elenium and Tamuli stories was created there was too much ‘red dust’ (iron oxide) present, which caused the entity pain (there are all sorts of speculations we could make here…) and so Bhelliom formed a hard shell around itself. The shell looks like an enormous sapphire and when it is discovered by Gwherig, a deformed troll, he is so enamoured of it that he takes to polishing and carving it. The immensely long-lived troll then spends his time carving the stone into a rose, saying later that he spent 10 years carving each petal. For the purposes of this discussion we then need to decide if that is because the stone is so immensely hard that he cannot carve it easily, or if it is because of the delicacy of the work he is trying to achieve. From the text, and also from our judgement that if it was so hard then he wouldn’t have any tools to work on it with, we can assume the latter case. Part of his purpose for carving the Rose is to give him control over the powers that he can sense inside. Later he is told that he needs to create rings, set with off-cut fragments, that he can use to compel the Bhelliom. This he does, putting in the same level of effort. He manages to do a few things with the Bhelliom, but before he can really get underway with his programme of world domination, the rings are stolen, and subsequently Bhelliom itself. Later the rings are given to two warriors who have just survived a ferocious battle against great odds and the stones become “stained with their mingled blood, turning as red as rubies”.
So much for the exposition. Interestingly, in one sense, this isn’t as farfetched as it might seem. In regards to precious stones there are four that everyone regards as key: diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds. (Emeralds are the least hard, more difficult to work without damaging and consequently when dealing with similarly sized gems, emeralds are usually more expensive than others). Diamonds are, as is well-known, an allotrope of carbon* (and a girl’s best friend); emeralds are a compound of beryllium, aluminium and silica (Be3Al2(SiO3)6). Sapphires and rubies are a form of aluminium oxide called corundum. The only significant difference is that each have different elements present as impurities in the structure. It is the way that light interacts with these impurities that gives rise to the different colours. (As Pratchett would say, it’s becuase of quantum).
*Recalling from yesterday’s post that an element is defined by the number of protons and electrons that it has, whilst its various isotopes have different numbers of neutrons, an allotrope is a structural form. Some elements can only interact in specific ways. Diamond and graphite are both carbon, but whilst graphite is formed from stacks of layers with strong bonds in two dimensions (like sheets of paper packaged as a ream), carbon in a diamond has strong bonds in three dimensions.
We tend to think of sapphires as blue, but very pure stones can be almost colourless. Exotic examples, such as star sapphires actually have so much in the way of impurities that these are able to form a discrete crystal within the larger stone. This requires significant time at a relatively controlled temperature, allowing the impurities to diffuse and react as appropriate. There are three types of gem-stone corundum: sapphire, ruby and padparadscha (this last having a pinky-orange hue). So what’s the difference? Sometimes definition is in the eye of the beholder – ofttimes there is a great deal of debate as to whether a stone is a pink sapphire or a ruby. It is generally agreed though that a minimum of 1 atomic % chromium is required for a corundum to be a ruby. In an ideal world the ruby will have very little iron in it as this will make for a much duller, more orange stone. That said, this should not then be confused with the padparadscha sapphire – the colour here is usually described as salmon, but is very light and clear, and is due to a small amount of beryllium. All other sapphires get their colouring from larger or smaller quantities of vanadium, chromium, titanium, magnesium, copper… the list goes on. This means that you can get almost any colour of sapphire, from clear to almost black, albeit that the truly red is called a ruby.
So where does that get us? Well, recalling that we’re interested in a sapphire that is supposedly stained red so that it looks like a ruby, it’s potentially a bit of a materials science fail. The argument in the book is that the originally blue stone has been turned red because of contact with blood, and it is explicitly stated that blood is red because it contains iron. (I’m not going there, not at the moment, anyway). It’s important as a plot point, because the added iron is supposed to give greater control over the parent stone, the Bhelliom. But. 1) To get the impurities into the stone so that it can cause the physical, light changing properties required, would take time, pressure and heat. 2) Iron would make it look yellow, if it was originally uncoloured, but as Bhelliom is already blue, it is more likely to add to the intensity of the blue.
We could just write the whole thing off as poetic license – but that would rob us of an interesting discussion! We are left in something of a pickle from a materials science perspective though, and it perhaps provides two salutary lessons. Firstly, it is easily possible to over think things, especially when one has special knowledge of a particular area. Secondly, it just goes to show how easy it is to write something without really thinking through the consequences. From the perspective of this series of blog posts though, we are left with a few choices. We could just say “it’s magic”, and leave it at that, but I find this a very unsatisfactory solution! We could make the argument that Bhelliom manipulates matter at a local level, and having been studying humans (it wants to be released to continue on it’s journey) it is using dramatic imperative to set the scene for its eventual release under the right circumstances. It is of course entirely possible that Bhelliom is not in fact trapped in a corundum type mineral at all, and people just refer to it as the Sapphire Rose because they don’t know any better…
(With thanks to The Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library and Information Center for their help with information of the amount of chromium in rubies).