Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The History of the Stew

The world of The Lord of the Rings is an ancient version of our world, predating the birth of Jesus, Rome, Stonehenge, and the like. It is commonly held that Middle-earth is a world that Tolkien created, but as we learn from his letters, it is more accurate to say that Middle-earth is a land that God created in a historical period that Tolkien created. (It would perhaps be more accurate to say not that Tolkien created Middle-earth, but that he created the Third Age, the Fourth Age, et cetera.)

In creating the languages and cultures that exist in The Lord of the Rings (and to a lesser extent The Hobbit), Tolkien consciously linked, through names of people and places, different peoples with different linguistic and historical tropes. For example, Shippey notes that all of the interaction which precedes the Company’s ability to see Theoden, King of the Mark, mirrors almost exactly the rites and procedures that the author of Beowulf describes. In doing this, Tolkien is painting a multiethnic world wherein language (even sentence structure, as can be seen quite strikingly in the differences in dialogue between, for instance, Hobbits and Dwarves), custom and rite are deeply ingrained and, at least to the reader, it may seem genuine, “real”. The depth of the cultures and the thought and precision which went into the creation of linguistic relationships between names and places allow the reader to believe that these cultures might have formed organically, rather than as some interesting idea in some author’s head.

In doing this, he borrows from various cultures which did exist, whether it be the Saxons, the Danes, et cetera. This begs the question of historicity, a question which Tolkien was very aware of: how can you transmit a culture’s qualities back through time and graft them onto an ancient people? Tolkien is very certain that, at least from a technically correct historical picture, this cannot be done: while Hobbits may mirror the English, for instance, it is not clear that they are Englishmen of prehistory. To solve this historical problem, Tolkien added the conceit which comprises Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings: “On Translation”. The narrator here states that the stories come to him from the Red Book of Westmarch (primarily, but not wholly) and that it was written in the (fictional) language of Westron, and that in his function as a translator of Westron, he has taken certain liberties in translation which have allowed for the depth of allusiveness that Tolkien-as-author wished to include.

As has been mentioned before, Tolkien viewed the elements of fairy-story as being ingredients in a pot, a stew, and he believes that, for one reason or another, certain elements through history become parts of the soup, churning around in the consciousness as elements of fairy-storytelling. (I will point here to the example of “The Three Bears”, which was first published by Robert Southey, though it was a common fairy-story that people heard in childhood. Later, Joseph Cundall transformed the old woman who finds the three bears into a small child, Goldilocks, and the character of Goldilocks found herself in the stew, in the consciousness of the story which has taken on its own wings.) All of the elements, Tolkien states, came from somewhere, and he believes that a lot of them came from history: King Arthur was really a king, for instance, and the tales of King Arthur grew from there, into the soup, and combined with other elements to form a myth. But, as Tolkien writes in The Notion Club Papers (giving the words to his characters), Tolkien believes that there is more truth than commonly believed in the myths which find themselves in the stew.

The world of The Lord of the Rings closely parallels a generic “Middle Ages” or “Dark Ages” feel. The travels of the Company from Rivendell bring to my mind images of Holy Roman Emperors crossing the Alps to get to Rome, or other commonly treacherous journeys. But Frodo, Bilbo, and others are not living in the Middle Ages. Tolkien does, however, give us a character that does: Farmer Giles.

Just like our common perception of the the Middle Ages, which we in our popular imagination fail to realizes lasted centuries, several centuries are condensed (perhaps as a joke) in Farmer Giles’s very specific Little Kingdom. Tolkien situates the world clearly, making reference to several real towns and structures (such as the Rollright Stones) and “explains” the names of Thame (which should be Tame) and Worminghall, both places where Farmer Giles had the dragon (a worm, who was tame). Meanwhile, the King, who is roughly sixty miles away, is clearly a foreigner to the lands.

It is in Farmer Giles of Ham that Tolkien is capable of explicitly doing the work which he clearly enjoys, which is finding something that fascinates him and creating an explanation as to why it exists: things such as Worminghall and Thame, golf and “Hey Diddle Diddle”. In this task, he is creating protoforms, trying to understand what ingredients entered into the stew before they reacted with other ingredients or were burnt on the bottom of the pot (i.e. lost). Based on the amount Tolkien does this, he clearly enjoys it: Tolkien (like the rest of modern society) has the finished cake, and attempts to learn what goes into it.



  1. I sometimes feel that Tolkien has put us in a bind: how best to describe his work? What is ‘more accurate’? This is okay, though, since many artists do this too. Tolkien explicitly situates his project within the methodologies of the academic disciplines (history, linguistics, comparative mythology) as they had grown up by his day. For us I think they supply very precise structural analogies for the ordering, even analytical, principles of his creation. Scholars must often posit things - archaeologically, linguistically, historically - that can’t be readily proven. These things provide contexts for making sense of the data as we’ve received them. Plausibility will be more or less convincing depending on a number of factors. I don’t know if we have to follow Tolkien’s terms (or any single writer’s), though it is revealing of method. We can leave them, or translate them into terms that make sense within a broader theory of words. One of his values is evidently the appearance of organic formation, as you say. The Goldilocks example is interesting. To what extent is the protagonist’s identity as a young girl something that has been discovered or invented by the story’s later teller? Has the meaning of the story been changed? The story is almost inconceivable in any other form (‘the consciousness of the story,’ you say). Is this because it’s traditionally transmitted to us (i.e., enters the stew, in your description), or because it seems more appropriately constructed in this form, aesthetically? Finally, is this an alternative pattern of a story’s evolution, where its meaning is realized over time?


  2. Nice account of the problem of how Tolkien saw history. I would have liked to hear more about the differences between "history" as we have it in the stories of Middle-earth and "history" as we see it in Farmer Giles. You are quite right that the stories are doing different kinds of things, but it would be interesting to hear how exactly you think they differ.


  3. I really like the distinction you make between God creating Middle-Earth and Tolkien creating the historical period as kind of an asterisk historical period in his work. Ordinarily, one would have come into this course with the opposite views. I also like the statement you made about Tolkien’s efforts to try to be faithful to past culture through the frame of dealing with language, which Tolkien sees as the indicator of how close people are. I think that in some ways, Tolkien definitely captured different timeless qualities of an England in both Farmer Giles of Ham and in The Shire. In Farmer Giles, I feel like we get a more comical, yet more realistic depiction of people than we might get from the Shire, which definitely was meant to overemphasize characteristics. Yet, the people Farmer Giles and the Hobbits are both supposed to be painted as somewhat dim, petty, and narrow-minded. I think the main difference may lie in the epic story genre versus the comical satire that we see in Farmer Giles, but this is just a stab at it.

    -Andrew Wong