847: Stingray Nebula
Title text: Eärendil will patrol the walls of night only until the sun reaches red giant stage, engulfing the Morning Star on his brow. Light and high beauty are passing things as well.
The Stingray Nebula, in the constellation Ara, is the youngest known planetary nebula in the galaxy. It was formed by an asymptotic giant branch (AGB) B1 supergiant, which blasted out the gas while becoming a white dwarf in 1987. Well, it happened about 18,000 years ago, but the light of the incident reached the Earth in 1987.
This comic went from a reassuring comic about stars at night giving hope in the darkness, but then as with most xkcd's, it took a turn. In this case, the twist is that because Cueball's star he got attached to exploded into a nebula, we should only become attached to stars that aren't quite as volatile as the one that formed the Stingray Nebula.
While talking about his star, Cueball shares with his friend a quote from the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third installment in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy series. Sam and his friend Frodo were forced to travel through Mordor, a land of fire and death, to destroy the malevolent One Ring. The journey's hardship took a psychological toll on each of them.
Cueball compares his struggles as a kid, and his friend's struggles in the present, to Sam and Frodo's arduous journey through Mordor. Both he and Sam were able to find beauty and solace in the glimmering of some distant light. By attaching their hopes, woes and feelings to this small point of hope, they both get a sense of perspective and comfort in the fact that there is beauty in a greater sense before them.
The title text ties into the Tolkien quote. Eärendil, with a Silmaril strapped to his ship, Vigilot, is the Tolkeinian myth explanation for the planet Venus, which has historically been mistaken for a star due to its brightness, being known as the "morning star" or "evening star". Venus will eventually (in billions of years time) be engulfed by the sun's expansion into a red giant. The source of Sam's comfort is also temporary in the long term.
- [Cueball and his Cueball-like friend to the left is shown as white silhouettes against a dark sky. They're sitting on top of a grassy hill also shown inverted as white.]
- Cueball: I know things are tough right now. When I was going through some difficult times as a kid, I would go up on the roof and look through my telescope.
- [Zoom in on the twos white heads and upper torso only.]
- Cueball: One day I found a tiny star in Ara that seemed friendly.
- Cueball: There were millions like it, but I decided that this one was mine.
- [Zoom in only on Cueball's head and torso.]
- Cueball: When things got bad, I'd go find that star, and think of my favorite Tolkien quote. It's from Sam's time in Mordor.
- [The next panel is diagonally downward to the right of the previous. The upper left corner overlaps. A single star is shown above the highest peak in a jagged chain of mountains with at least five other large peaks and several smaller ones. Above the star in the black sky is a long quote.]
- "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 forever beyond its reach."
- —The Return of the King
- [Back to normal panels below the quote panel. Larger zoom than in panel two both showing the same of the two.]
- Friend: That's comforting!
- Cueball: It was rather undercut in 1987, when the light from my star's explosion reached Earth. The debris forms the Stingray Nebula.
- [Zooming further out even than the first panel, showing more of the grassy mound below the two.]
- Friend: There's probably a lesson there.
- Cueball: "Never trust an unstable asymptotic giant branch star. Stick with main sequences and dwarfs."
- Friend: I'll, uh, keep that in mind.
- The title of this comic was subsequently referenced in the following MIT Mystery Hunt puzzle.
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