“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
This has been for decades now one of my favorite passages in one of my favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. I myself have at times taken hope from stargazing. Our earthly troubles cannot touch the Heavens. And there are times when you positively want to be insignificant, when you want your own misery to not extend beyond your own skin. This is the lesson that Job learned in the course of his sufferings. At the start of the book that bears his name, Job curses the universe. He wishes that the day of his birth would disappear from the calendar. He calls for darkness over light, and nonexistence over.. well, over everything. Yet by the end of the drama, Job is rejoicing over wild asses in the mountains who do not know man, the self-sufficient animals who haunt the wilderness, and even over Behemoth and Leviathan who cannot in any way be tamed or mastered. His many sorrows do not touch them.
That appears to be the lesson good Samwise learns in an instant, gazing in wonder at the unsullied beauty of a single star from the unrelieved horror of Mordor. He realized that all the evils of the world - past, present, and future - were incapable of tipping the scales in the presence of the perfect light of this star. Perhaps even in our day, surrounded by omnipresent death and suffering due to the pandemic, by economic misery, and millions of lives seemingly buried in despair, perhaps even now we can take solace from looking at the stars. I know that I do.
But on an entirely different level, I have always been fascinated by what exactly an author was thinking of when he references the sky and its inhabitants. For the most part, they're sadly not thinking of anything in particular, but it is fun to attempt to match art to reality. For instance, there have been numerous attempts to match Van Gogh's Starry Night to recognizable constellations in the hope of pinning down the exact portion of the sky the painting is depicting. (It has been definitively determined that the bright "star" to the right of the cyprus tree is actually Venus.) In the same vein, I've often wondered whether the "Netted Stars" seen by Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring are the Pleiades.
With the magic of modern software, we are able to duplicate the sky for any particular time or date one wishes. According to Appendix B of The Return of the King, Sam saw his star on the 17th of March. The Mountains of Mordor were to the west of Frodo and Sam on that date, and since they were close to their base, anything low on the western horizon would have been behind the mountains. Assuming the star was one of the brighter stars in the skies and that Sam was looking up before midnight, that narrows our candidates down to (from north to south) Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel. We can rule out Aldebaran, because Tolkien tells us the star in question is white, whilst Aldebaran is most definitely orange. My own vote goes to Rigel, because Capella would have been too close to the zenith to qualify as being "above" the mountains.
Of course, all bets are off, if Tolkien (like Van Gogh) was referring to a planet, rather than a true "star". And since we don't know how the years in the Third Age match up with our own calendar, it would be anyone's guess whether the star in question could be Venus, Jupiter, or even (but not likely) Saturn.
So now, while COVID-19 is ravaging the land, and our "leaders" (irony intentional) are divided like never before, we can look up at Orion, and admire the matchless beauty of its component stars... and hope.