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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Discussing Published Hooks & Books » LOTR--Anachronisms

   
Author Topic: LOTR--Anachronisms
History
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As time permits, I am continuing my nostalgic rereading (or re-listening) of adult fantasy classics. I've traveled there and back again with Bilbo and am presently donning my travel cloak and heavy pack in preparation for The Ring going south. What I am stunned by, as a would-be fantasy author, is what His Nibs J.R.R. gets away with in regard to anachronisms that I don't believe would be acceptable today. Some examples:
--Bilbo has a clock and matches
--Bilbo shrieks "like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel".
--the Corkney speech of the trolls in The Hobbit.
--the reference to Christmas and church steeples in The Hobbit.
--the use of the Gregorian calender in both The Hobbit and the LOTR.
--
Is it because the story is so powerful and enmeshed with its own extensive mythology and long ages of history that few seem to note or comment upon this?

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Crystal Stevens
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About the Christmas and church steeple references:
Seems to me this could be possible. Christianity was around during the Midevil (forgive my misspelling) times in our history. There's no reason for it not to be in Middle Earth... or am I mistaken <<shrug>>?

Thought I'd add that some authors DO get away with things like this in present day. In the Twilight series a girl makes out with a guy who's been dead for quite some time and gets pregnant. I'm using this only as an example. I'm sure there's more in recent works than this if you look for it. I've found others, but this is the only one coming to mind right now... and probably better ones than this.

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Meredith
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quote:
Bilbo has a clock and matches
--Bilbo shrieks "like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel".
--the Corkney speech of the trolls in The Hobbit.
--the reference to Christmas and church steeples in The Hobbit.
--the use of the Gregorian calender in both The Hobbit and the LOTR

Except for the calendar, all of these examples are from THE HOBBIT.

THE HOBBIT was written very differently and, I would argue, for a different audience than LotR. I think the effort in THE HOBBIT was to make Middle Earth seem comfortable and familiar in some ways.

LotR was written for a more advanced audience and there's more emphasis on the "mythological" aspects of Middle Earth.

The calendar is probably just for convenience.

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History
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Crystal,
Tolkien's Middle-Earth predates known human history.

Meredith,
In The Fellowship of the Ring firecrackers sound "like pog-guns" and the famous dragon firework passes over the hill "like an express train."

In the Return of the King and its Appendices, the Shire celebrates the midwinter holiday "Yule" which is as strange to me if the East Farthing hobbits celebrated Chanukah. [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Justin
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The thing that always stands out to me is Denethor's reference to "Heathen kings"

quote:
No long slow sleep of death embalmed. We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.
I know that "Heathen" does not necessarily refer to non-Judeo-Christian religions, but that's the connotation it has for me. Also, there's very little about the religion of Gondor that I can recall, so it's impossible to imagine what "heathen" would even mean.
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MAP
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I know a lot of people care about these types of inconsistencies, but I don't. I have no problem with clocks and matches and references to Christmas, etc.

On another forum there was a huge discussion on whether the economics of Middle Earth worked. I just don't get why people care that much. The story was brilliant. The world fit the story. It doesn't have to be completely realistic. In fact, you can tear apart at least some aspects of worldbuilding in 99 % of the Fantasy novels out there if you really wanted to.

IMO, the worlds we create in our stories do not have to be completely realistic (I'm not even sure if that is possible). They only have to be detailed and logical enough to feel real and fit the story that is being told. Some stories need worlds to be more realistic than others, but no worldbuilding is ever going to be airtight.

Tolkien created a rich and detailed world that worked for the story. Having clocks and matches and Christmas doesn't take away from that.

ETA: History, isn't LOTR and The Hobbit written in third person omniscient. Bibo, Frodo and company may not know what a train sounds like, but the narrator could.

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History
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Your last comment, MAP, is what best permits these inconsistencies, I believe. The tale, purportedly "The Red Book of Westmarch" is being not merely translated but interpreted by the narrator who (like a poor scholar) is inserting himself between the narrative and the reader.

As Meredith pointed out, this is most flagrantly abused in The Hobbit, for example in the scene regarding the trolls given the common English names of Bill, William, and Bert. As a tale interpreted/translated for children, an allowance for this could be made, but it cheapens the tale and patronizes the audience as too stupid to otherwise understand Middle-Earth as it truly was long long ago, before England, before trains, before Christmas, before the modern calender.

In the LOTR, where such great emphasis is made on creating the reality of the first Three Ages of the world, its peoples, languages, extensive histories, such anachronisms are paradoxically inconsitent in maintaining the illusion of reality of his invented creation.

It is only by the sheer wonder of the tale (and its fame) that such inconsistencies are ignored or forgiven.

Do you believe such anachronisms would be as readily permitted by modern editors in your own stories?

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

P.S. I should note that I am merely making an argument. I am a great fan and student of Tolkien with a very extensive collection that I'm embarrased to elaborate upon.

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MAP
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quote:
Do you believe such anachronisms would be as readily permitted by modern editors in your own stories?
Yes, but it depends on the world and the story. Some stories demand a more realistic world building, others have more leeway. I think it is the difference between doing it ignorantly and doing it deliberately.
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Robert Nowall
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It's more of Tolkien not working out his notions of---what was it he called it, sub-creation?---and building consistency into the narrative and background. It's largely due to Tolkien that this is a subject for debate and concern. (Shakespeare's histories are loaded with anachronisms of this nature...)

Besides what MAP said about the sound of a train---The Hobbit a story written by The Narrator, based on accounts found elsewhere---there's a few hints that the land of Numenor might have been more technologically advanced before its destruction than Middle-Earth in general...it's possible (though not necessarily plausible) that memory of some technology (if not the actual technology) could have survived into the late Third Age...

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History
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The Numenorians were great craftsmen and architects--in the large scale--as the Argonath and Orthanc and the citadel of Minas Tirith demonstrate, yet of trains or other automated vehicles they had none (at least in any of Tolkien's writings).

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Robert Nowall
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They did talk of people in various ages observing the stars but did not mention telescopes...

I also note that some of the more recent innovation in the Third Age, notably pipe-weed and its uses, is associated with Hobbits. It may be that they came up with some others (though, likely, not train engines).

Aside: There was an two-volume edition of (mostly) the early drafts of The Hobbit a couple years back---I have it but don't have it open before me---but, as I recall, anachronisms abounded, even more than in the published text.

And back to our main topic...I think Tolkien's position was one that "evolved" (if one can use that word in that sense, in light of current events), and much of the massive detail in the appendices comes from a desire to justify things said in the body of the narrative. On the whole Tolkien was successful in this...but not perfect, and, I gather, Tolkien had a hard enough time letting things go than most writers...

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Crystal Stevens
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quote:
Originally posted by History:
Crystal,
Tolkien's Middle-Earth predates known human history.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

Ah yes. I'd forgotten about that. Guess it's obvious that I haven't read these stories in decades. LOL
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MartinV
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It can all be done because it's Tolkien. Tolkien is immune to rules of writing. He be god now.
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MattLeo
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Well, they had flying machines in Atlantis, didn't they?

The narrator of *The Hobbit* is not a Third Age writer; he is a modern storyteller relating a story of long ago and far away which he probably received orally, despite it being written down at one time. Thus the metaphorical use of something like a steam engine is not an anachronism unless it is literally present in the story.

Now as for the clock he has on the mantle, the mantle itself is just as much an anachronism, since fireplaces were unknown in antiquity. The earliest chimney in any residence in Britain dates from the 12th C, and they were uncommon until the early modern era.

As a philologist who actually read ancient manuscripts, Tolkien knew quite well what was anachronistic in his work, e.g. that there were no potatoes in the Old World until after Columbus. He didn't fuss over it, because it's always easy to explain anachronisms away *provided you want to believe*:

* The dwarves knew how to make mechanical clocks and matches, and while the Near East was in the stone age everyone in Middle Earth knew how to make steel. Subsequently this knowledge was lost, just like the knowledge of magic.

* The calendar and "Christmas" are translators' license for the Numenorean calendar and the hobbits' mid-winter feast (as explained in the LotR appendices).

* Pipeweed might have been an herb related to the New World crop "tobacco", but it's impossible to tell from ancient manuscripts.

* "Potato" is translators' license for some kind of unidentifiable root crop.

What can't be explained away is the total lack of any trace of Third Age Middle Earth geography in the modern world (e.g. the mountains of Mordor). Not that it matters. If you make the story world internally believable and give readers a few hints on how to resolve the anachronisms, you can count on them to do the hard work of reconciling Middle Earth with modern history.

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Robert Nowall
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Oh, one can come up with just about any explanation for why anachronisms abound in Tolkien or anything else. (There are all sorts of sites devoted to things that pop up in movies that don't belong.) It doesn't really matter; it doesn't make The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings bad. They're not deliberate errors. And their presence even adds something to the works.
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MartinV
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No, that doesn't make LOTR bad. Cardboard characters, cliche villain, slow pace, that makes LOTR bad.

What I found fascinating in LOTR was a major character with schizofrenia in a fantasy world. Not that's an idea worth admiring.

[ May 16, 2012, 03:32 AM: Message edited by: MartinV ]

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MattLeo
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Well, I have to disagree with MartinV about Tolkien's characterizations, which were often quite astute. I'd cite as examples the temptation of Boromir, or the kind of facsimile of birth-order family dynamics that goes on between Merry and Pippin. And of course there is Gollum, who should put to rest the notion that characters are either totally good or totally evil in LotR.

Even the orcs have a degree of moral complexity to them when we're not meeting them in open battle. Their character is self-righteous; they actually make ethical arguments that show that they know morality is something that should govern everyone's behavior, but the arguments are always self-serving.

But I totally understand not seeing how penetrating these characterizations are, because I didn't see it for many years. I think there are two reasons it's easy to miss this. First, I think on first reading the characters are lost in the sheer epic scale of the work. It's much easier to see Tolkien's flair for psychological observation and even satire in The Hobbit.

The second reason Tolkien's character insights get overlooked is that he doesn't buy into certain narrative conventions and the psychological beliefs behind them. Take the character arc. The twentieth century was the heyday of the ideology that self-knowledge leads to self-improvement. Psychoanalysis was the epitome of that ideology. Know yourself, and you will become a better, or at least a healthier person which is presumably better.

Tolkien doesn't have much affinity for that kind of thinking. In a way he's almost a crypto-protestant; he doesn't quite rise to believing in the Total Depravity of Man, but he doesn't think people change much, unless it's for the worse. Tolkien would think it absurd that the problem with people is that they don't remember their toilet training. The problem with people is that under the pressure of expediency they forget the difference between right and wrong, or at least that that applies to them.

The prime virtue in LotR is perseverance. Frodo's journey isn't about discovering who he is, it's about *remaining* who he is, to have an intimate experience of evil without being corrupted.

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Robert Nowall
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I think it's important to note that, though The Hobbit and [/i]The Lord of the Rings[/i] might seem loaded with cliches, one must realize that this is the source of them. This is where it all started.

A number of features have not been picked up by Tolkien's successors in the commercial fantasy genre...for instance, it's been pointed out that the Quest in Tolkien is not to find someone or something, it's to get rid of something...hardly anyone has rigged a Quest of that nature in commercial fantasy...

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hoptoad
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sidenote:
quote:

the Shire celebrates the midwinter holiday "Yule"

I believe yule comes from the old norse 'jol' which was an ancient midwinter festival... also the origin of our word 'jolly'

odin was also called Jolnir in some traditions.

PS: interesting to note the cognates between gandalf and odin.

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hoptoad
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quote:

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings might seem loaded with cliches, one must realize that this is the source of them. This is where it all started.

Although one could argue that Tolkien took his cues from much older sources, your comment illustrates the difference between 'archetype' and a 'stereotype'.

To employ an 'archetype' is a great way to tap into a whole swag of assumptions and powerful pre-existing ideas. However, to do it without understanding the essential character of the archetype -- or the reasons why the archetype has such longevity and influence -- risks producing a cookie-cutter cliché like a Brothers Hildebrandt illustration or the Sword of Shannara characters. [Razz]

[ May 31, 2012, 09:45 PM: Message edited by: hoptoad ]

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