November 30, 2007

Extreme Tolkien Geekery Warning!

Yesterday, Robbo and I got into a little discussion over a part of "The Fellowship of the Ring" that caught his attention - specifically a description of the fireworks dragon at Bilbo's "long expected party". The odd use of the phrase "passed like an express train" apparently smacked him in the face like a wet, cold fish (so juicy sweeeet) as express trains were certainly not known to the world of Middle-Earth.

Naturally, I've given this some further thought (as I'm prone to do) and it got me considering another reason for its presence in the early part of the story.

When Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings, his early intention was to merely scribe a sequel to his first book and further explore the world of hobbits rather than paint a portrait of Middle-Earth on so wide a canvass as a three volume work. The author's early drafts of the first few chapters were much similar in style and tone to "The Hobbit" than the darker tale that it would become. When he wrote "The Hobbit", it was written from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who tells the story in a very informal way. Tolkien actually intended the tale to be read to children. As such, descriptions like "express train" were certainly appropriate for that kind of story-telling.

As The Lord of the Rings evolved into essentially a "translation" of an ancient text written long ago, "express train" does seem to be a glaring editorial error. So in that sense, I think Tolkien had in fact overlooked this reference. However, there are other parts of the early chapters that - to me - seem a little out of place. For example, there is a passage in Chapter Three - "Three is Company" featuring a fox thinking aloud his observation of sleeping hobbits which seemed strange to me. Allow me to quote myself:

Now this whole business of a sentient animal mulling over the peculiar behavior of these hobbits seems really out of place. It's almost as if Tolkien was reprising the lighter narrative tone he used in The Hobbit. And there are certainly no other incidents of animals expressing their thoughts to the reader. You don't get inside the head of a horse of the Riddermark thinking, "Gee, isn't this odd that I should be mounted by a shield maiden of Rohan and a hobbit dressed as the king's esquire? Quite strange, indeed! Oh well, off to the battle now." Personally, in the arduous process of editing and rewriting his various drafts, I think this is something that could have stood to be left out. But I suppose it at least suggests how unconcerned Frodo was at this point in his journey.
So I see certain elements of the beginning of "FOTR" as being almost a throwback to "The Hobbit". In that sense, Tolkien may or may not have made a conscious decision to leave them in. But, considering the vastly intricate editing process that Tolkien needed to do time and again at the beginning of his writing, I'll cut him a little slack.

Or course, now that it's been pointed out it will probably bother me every time I re-read it.

Posted by Gary at November 30, 2007 09:20 AM | TrackBack

The tail end of ROTK, where they have the scouring of the Shire, they need to get rid of what Sauron has done to the Shire: turning a bucolic land into an industrial wasteland, with machines belching out smoke. So it is possible that there was some country in Middle Earth where there were steam engines and trains. Perhaps a lesser theme in LOTR is the conflict between the almost Medieval past and the industrial future. One could almost get a sense of Tolkien's longing for a time when war was fought hand to hand rather than by machines.

Posted by: rbj at November 30, 2007 09:50 AM

Or foreshadowing that one day machines would become the dragons of the day.

Posted by: Gary at November 30, 2007 09:52 AM

I have always taken the position that the "express train" quote is used as a translation of some other untranslatable concept - and I am sticking to that.

Posted by: steve at November 30, 2007 11:02 AM

There is a scene he cut from the end of the ROTK where Bilbo and Frodo are walking on the beach at the Grey Havens. And then they see it, sticking out of the sand. The head and arm of the Statue of Liberty.

Not an imagined past -- it's the future, man.

Our future.

"Take your filthy paws off me, you damn dirty elves . . . !"

Posted by: The Abbot at November 30, 2007 12:33 PM

The narrator of Lord of the Rings is speaking to his audience of 20th Century readers. Read the "Regarding Hobbits" section (or whatever) of the prologue. It speaks at length about how Hobbits are not as numerous as they were in days of yore and they are even less likely to be seen by us "big people" today.

He is describing things as we (or 20th Century British readers) would understand things.

This is common in the 3rd person narrative form of the novel. The narrator knows things - and the reader knows things - that the people in the story will never know. If this was written as Frodo's memoir, then the use of descriptions that called on 20th Century references would be a problem.

Besides, there are many problems in the books. There are in most books. That doesn't mean they aren't great books.

Posted by: Zendo Deb at November 30, 2007 01:10 PM

Oh, nobody is denying the books' greatness. We're just being hyper-finicky.

As to narrator and audience, what you say is true. But Tolkien is otherwise generally so good about keeping his narration within what the tech kids would call the parameters of Middle Earth that his insertion of this particularly non-Middle Earthian simile has always stuck out to me.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at November 30, 2007 01:45 PM

In the original draft, he also made reference to things being written in "elf-latin." No joke.

The implication being that Elvish in Tolkien's universe, Elvish had the same role for hobbits and men that Latin had for medieval lay-people -- the language of mystery and magic.

He struck that out for obvious reasons -- there being no Romans in Middle Earth, there was also, clearly, no Latin.

Elvish, too, was based on Tolkien's knowledge of Finnish.

Posted by: The Abbot at November 30, 2007 07:31 PM