November 28, 2007

Extremely Gratuitous Tolkien Geek Observation

I don't recall having ever seen anybody else mentioning this before, but one of my very few literary gripes with Tolkien is over a passage very early on in The Fellowship of the Ring in which he describes the fireworks display at Bilbo's 111th Birthday Party. It reads, in part:

And there was also one last surprise, in honour of Bilbo, and it startled the hobbits exceedingly, as Gandalf intended. The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon - not life-size, but terribly life-like; fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.

Emphasis added. This has always rankled me. Even if you accept Tolkien's general narrative flow, which progresses from a child-friendly description of life in the Shire (and here I'm thinking of the fox's commentary on finding Frodo, Sam and Pippin asleep in the woods near Hobbiton) to a far deeper, darker account of the history of Middle Earth (as LOTR eventually becomes), I believe sticking in a railway simile is just not on. Did Tokien do this as a deliberate hook? Or was he just being sloppy? (Gary - I'm calling you out for your opinion on this.)

Just thought I'd mention it. And yes, I'm reading the furshlugginer books again.

UPDATE: I changed "reader-friendly, almost shallow" to "child-friendly" because that's much closer to what I meant.

Of course, it is well-known that "the tale grew in the telling" and I think the Abbot is right that this section must be one of the earliest. I suppose I'm just a little surprised that what with all the evolutions, amendments and rewrites, this particular simile survived. I cannot recollect anywhere else in LOTR where Tolkien uses a similar, completely non-Middle Earth, term.

Geekery Yips! (And Shameless Side-Blog Blegging) from Gary:
OK, I'll bite at this one. My first instinct is to say the Oxford Don was being sloppy. I mean, I don't know how many words fill the 1000 page epic but you'd think he'd make an incongruous error or two in the lot. But when you read about how meticulous he was about revisions in his Introduction you kind of have to accept the idea that it was intentional. But then, Robbo, I would ask you - what other metaphor (or is it a simile?) could he use that was in line with what was around in Middle-Earth at the time? The only thing I can think of that would describe the roar and charge of a dragon (even if it's a faux-dragon) would be...well, a dragon. Maybe a fell beast, but the reader is not yet familiar with those at that point.

I'll give you credit for catching it though. Goes to my feeling that no matter how many times you read the book you can still find stuff you never noticed before.

And while we're on the subject...any one interested in reading chapter-for-chapter some of my own insights on the work should head over to -


And to piggyback on The Abbot's comment below, how on earth can you have vinification (i.e. "Old Winyards") in a place that's roughly equivalent to being above the 30th 50th parallel in the Northern Hemisphere? A strong, red wine made in that microclimate? Highly unlikely, I say.

Yips! back from Robbo: I appreciate your point. (And it's a simile - "like" or "as", you know.) My advice would be to chuck it altogether. "The dragon passed in a thunderous blaze," for example, would get the image across as well.

Posted by Robert at November 28, 2007 11:22 PM | TrackBack

That's one of those phrases that betrays the author's original intent for the book -- a sequel to the Hobbit, written for English children of the 1940s.

The line about the express train must have been one of the earliest parts written. It is as out of place as the Narnia streetlamp.

There is a line in The Hobbit early on about Bilbo putting his thumbs behind his braces, also, that always nagged me -- although as far as I can tell, suspenders were a nineteenth century invention.

Also consider tea and pipeweed -- unknown in England before trade with India and the discovery of the New World, yet ubiquitous by Tolkien's time. He explains pipeweed reasonably well in the Appendices, but unless he's talking about herbal tea, then trade in Middle Earth was more advanced than anyone knew. Were the Southrons shipping tea to the Grey Havens? I'm sure some geek has written a doctoral thesis on the economics of Middle Earth (I know people have mocked the economics of Harry Potter), but until the advent of reliable ships, the limited liability shipping firm, and the concept of insurance, trade in Europe was a pretty haphazard thing until the eighteenth century, when luxuries like Tea and Tobacco became commonplace.

But let's not go there, shall we?

I have the copies of the first draft of the trilogy that Christopher Tolkien released as "The Return of the Shadow, The Treason of Isengard, and the War of the Ring. It is pretty remarkable how the book was transformed over the years. For instance, Aragorn was -- I kid you not -- originally a rogue Hobbit named Trotter. As he rewrote, he conceived of the book differently, and rewrote some more.

Posted by: The Abbot at November 29, 2007 08:21 AM

Re: wine & 30N

I'll notify the Napa Valley to "knock it off"...

Posted by: mojo at November 29, 2007 02:56 PM

Doh! Sorry wrong direction from the equator.

Make that above the 50th parallel.

Posted by: Gary at November 29, 2007 03:59 PM