Thesis: Lord of the Rings

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¶ … Wording in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Although the recent motion picture adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, was not the first such enterprise, it did go a long way towards attracting a new generation of readers to the trilogy and its prologue in The Hobbit. In addition, the motion picture helped to reawaken and refuel interest among long-time fans of the works who may have forgotten just how entertaining and intriguing the series was after putting it aside for several years. Although the author has been accused of overwriting the work, the fact remains that Tolkien managed to create an entire world that was replete with mortal and supernatural beings of all types and dispositions and to sustain it over several volumes. The fact that the work is entertaining at all is testament to the author's fine craftsmanship with the written word and his choice of wording in The Lord of the Rings was clearly judiciously done in order to achieve this lengthy sustainment. To identify some salient examples of this selection, this paper provides a literary analysis of the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, specifically examining and evaluating Tolkien's choice of words as a British author vs. words that would normally have been used by American authors in their stead. A summary of the research and relevant findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

In many ways, the reader is transported to Merry Old England throughout the Lord of the Ring series simply by virtue of the words Tolkien elects to use when a dozen others would also have been appropriate. According to Regehr (2006), "Even though Tolkien was clear that he did not write his stories with the intention of promoting Christian ideas, Tolkien also admitted later that his faith informed his writing more than he originally intended or perhaps even realized (particularly in revisions)" (37). It was Tolkien's apparent goal to create an entirely new world that was populated by benevolent and malevolent creates that, although of his own design, were based loosely on those found in the extant mythologies of the West, especially Old English and Norse mythology, but which were kept separate and apart from modern literary traditions. In this regard, Regehr adds that, "Tolkien clearly believed in Christian concepts to the extent that they would apply universally. However, to write about these concepts using Christian words would be unnecessary, since there already is a Christian mythology in the Bible. From Tolkien's point-of-view, such an approach would defeat the attempt to create a separate fantasy world for readers, since that world would then have direct links to ours" (37). Based on this observation, Tolkien's judicious use of language throughout the Lord of the Rings series suggests that the author was crafting an entire universe that was separate and apart from modern experiences but which retained a sufficient amount of "realness" to make the storyline more believable. By any measure, though, there is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required to gain a full appreciation for the material presented by Tolkien. For example, Clark and Timmons (2000) emphasize that, "If readers have a predisposed aversion to heroic literature, imaginary realms, an elevated language, or magical creatures, then works like Tolkien's will meet with their disdain. The modernist revolt certainly would undermine or disparage the traditional themes and forms that Tolkien employs" (3).

Drawing on ancient English folklore as well as Norse mythology and others, Tolkien carefully weaves his descriptions of beings, places and events in such a fashion to create the sense that "we are not in Kansas anymore." For instance, drawing on the J.R.R. Tolkien glossary (2009) as well as personal reflections, it is apparent that Tolkien selects his wording carefully throughout the series and even uses words such as "bane," meaning a curse or the cause of destruction, to indicate on the one hand the nobility of a horse while simultaneously on the other emphasizing its ultimate impact on its rider, as with: "Faithful servant yet master's bane, Lightfoot's foal, swift Snowmane." In other cases, Tolkien combines old words into new phrases that are intended to communicate a specific feature or supernatural being. For example, in one of the more scary parts of the series, Frodo and his companions encounter what Tolkien refers to as "barrow-wights," using the coined phrase to reflect the barrows that represent an ancient grave formed of a mound of earth and stones and the term wight which refers to a supernatural creature or spirit. The barrow-wights in Tolkien's story almost succeed in killing Frodo and his companions and extracting their life forces and had it not been for Tom Bombadil's timely intervention, would likely have succeeded -- this was truly a close call. American authors would likely have substituted phrases such as "vampires," "blood-suckers," or "cave-monsters" in the place of "barrow-wights," but even these frightening but standard terms do not communicate the subtleties and therefore the horror that Frodo and his companions experienced during their encounter with these subterranean menaces but the term "barrow-wight," combined with Tolkien's vivid descriptions of them, provides the reader with the same bone-chilling encounter that the Company of the Ring undoubtedly experienced as well. Likewise, Tolkien makes frequent use of the word "fell" to refer to something that is dangerous or even deadly rather than resort to an inferior choice of more ordinary words that fail to convey the same feeling of dread.

While American authors would likely have opted for the use of terms such as "torches," this term may have been too contemporary for Tolkien's liking since it has also come to mean a flashlight in the United Kingdom and he consistently opts for the use of "brand" in its place. Similarly, Tolkien refers to "faggots" when the hobbits are building a fire instead of using the words "kindling" or "firewood." Rather than stating that the hobbits were provided with small shields that were commensurate with their diminutive stature, Tolkien prefers the term "buckler" for this purpose. Likewise, because the hobbits are so immensely fond of eating (especially mushrooms!), great care is given to the descriptions of the foods they eat, how they are prepared and the relish with which they are enjoyed by the hobbits, including a reference to the elevenses, a British term for a midmorning snack that would likely have been replaced by "brunch" if an American author had been writing the series, a substitution that would lack the charm that "the elevenses" provides. Likewise, at one point in the third edition of the series, The Return of the King, Smeagal (aka Gollum) provides Samwise Gamgee and Frodo with a "brace of conies" (otherwise known as rabbits) while he prefers to eat the raw fish he is able to catch with his own hands. The choice of the term, "conies," in this setting clearly reflects Tolkien's preference for traditional English terminology. American authors would most likely have simply used "rabbits" or, at a stretch, "hares," but these terms do not possess the same literary effect that a "brace of conies" has in communicating what largesse Smeagal bestowed upon his famished traveling companions who were not used to missing meals at all, let alone going lengthy periods without anything to eat except elfish Lembas which, though filling and wholesome, did not replace the eight meals a day to which the hobbits were accustomed.

Tolkien's use of specific words extends to place names as well. For instance, according to Black's Law Dictionary (1991), a "shire" is "A Saxon word which signifies a division. It was made up of an indefinite number of hundreds -- later called a county. So called because every county or shire is divided and parted by certain metes and bounds" (1378). Therefore, while it is likely that readers in the United Kingdom would recognize the term as referring to a normal county-sized parcel of land, Tolkien's use of the term "The Shire" to refer to Hobbiton and its environs communicates an otherworldly place of inhabitation for American readers. To help communicate a sense of authority, Tolkien refers to those who are in charge of nominally maintaining order in the Shire and elsewhere as "shiriffs" (designated only by a feather in their hats) and haywards rather than a constables or policemen in ways that make their position less connected with modern-day law enforcement. Likewise, Tolkien uses the term "fen" to refer to the various swamps and bogs the Company encounters during their travels. Finally, Tolkien's careful selection of words to paint a literary picture extends to the armor and weaponry used by those on both sides of the conflict, with elderly hobbits referring to the "ironmongery" that the returning Merry and Pippin sport in their capacities as knights of Gondor and Rohan, and also makes reference to the "livery" they wear rather than simply describing their apparel as being uniforms.


The research showed that in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien creates… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Lord of the Rings."  December 4, 2009.  Accessed August 22, 2019.