Posts Tagged ‘j. r. r. tolkien’


J.R.R Tolkien designed this Ring and Eye motif for the covers of his first edition set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy,1954

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“The fact is that ‘rabbit’ is a peculiar word. The OED can find no ultimate etymology for it, nor trace it back in English before 1398. ‘Coney’ or ‘cunny’ is little better, going back to 1302, while ‘bunny’ is a pet-name used originally for squirrels, as it happens, and not recorded till the seventeenth century. The words for ‘rabbit’ differ in several European languages (French lapin, German kaninchen), and there is no Old English or Old Norse word for it at all. These facts are unusual: ‘hare’, for instance, is paralleled by Old English hara, German hase, Old Norse heri, and so on, while the same could be said for ‘weasel’ or ‘otter’ or ‘mouse’ or ‘brock’ or most other familiar mammals of Northern Europe. The reason, of course, is that rabbits are immigrants. They appeared in England only round the thirteenth century, as imported creatures bred for fur, but escaped to the wild like mink or coypu. Yet they have been assimilated. The point is this: not one person in a thousand realizes that rabbits (no Old English source) are in any historical way distinct from mice (O.E. mýs) or weasels (O.E. weselas), while the word is accepted by all as familiar, native, English … Rabbits prove that novelties can be introduced into a language and then made to fit—of course as long as one exhibits due regard to deep structures of language and thought. ‘If a foreign word falls by chance into the stream of a language’, wrote Jacob Grimm, ‘it is rolled around till it takes on that language’s colour, and in spite of its foreign nature comes to look like a native one.’

Now this situation of anachronism-cum-familiarity certainly has something to do with hobbits.  … Smoking later appears as not just a characteristic of hobbits, but virtually the characteristic, ‘the one art that we can certainly claim to be our own invention’, declares Meriadoc Brandybury (LOTR, p. 8). But what are they smoking besides pipes? ‘Pipeweed, or leaf’, declares the Lord of the Rings Prologue firmly. Why not say ‘tobacco’, since the plant is ‘a variety probably of Nicotiana’? Because the word would sound wrong. It is an import … reaching English only after the discovery of America, sometime in the sixteenth century. The words it resembles most are ‘potato’ and ‘tomato’, also referring to new objects from America, eagerly adopted in England and naturalised with great speed, but marked off as foreign by their very phonetic structure. ‘Pipeweed’ shows Tolkien’s wish to accept a common feature of English modernity, which he knew could not exist in the ancient world of elves and trolls, and whose anachronism would instantly be betrayed by a word with the foreign feel of ‘tobacco’ … .[‘Tomatoes’ was eliminated from The Hobbit in revised editions.] ‘Potatoes’ stay in, being indeed a specialty of Gaffer Gamgee, but his son Sam has a habit of assimilating the word to the more native-sounding ‘taters’— … but in fact the scene in which Sam discusses ‘taters’ with Gollum (LOTR, p. 640) is a little cluster of anachronisms: hobbits, eating rabbits (Sam calls them ‘coneys’), wishing for potatoes (‘taters’) but out of tobacco (‘pipeweed’). One day, offers Sam to Gollum, he might cook him something better—‘fried fish and chips’. Nothing could now be more distinctively English! Not much would be less distinctively Old English. The hobbits, though, are on our side of many cultural boundaries.

That, then, is their association with rabbits.  …  both insinuated themselves, rabbits into the homely company of fox and goose and hen, hobbits into the fantastic but equally verbally authenticated set of elves and dwarves and orcs and ettens. One might go so far as to say that the absence of rabbits from ancient legend made them not an ‘asterisk word’ but an ‘asterisk thing’—maybe they were there but nobody noticed. That is exactly the ecological niche Tolkien selected for hobbits, ‘an unobtrusive but very ancient people.”

Tom Shippey,

The Road to Middle-earth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, rev. ed., pp. 68-69

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“One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world.

In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-Semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we’re desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again. In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.”

– Adam Roberts, “From Wagner to Tolkien.A Mechanical Art. August 1, 2018.

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