View Full Version : Modern World references in Middle-Earth

07-01-2001, 07:00 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Wight
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I just saw a thread about Middle-Earth references in the Modern World, and I wondered, how many times did Tolkien put in little hints about our world. For instance, I remember Thorin saying something about the stone giants kicking the dwarves &quot;sky high for a football&quot;.

Can anyone think of any other things like that?


07-01-2001, 09:54 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Animated Skeleton
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Re: Modern World references in Middle-Earth

Ball games are recorded throughout history, but usually with few details of the rules. But we know that the Classical Greeks played a game similar to football called harpaston and the Romans played a variant of it they called harpastum.

Likely various ball games using feet have been known almost since ball games were invented, so Thorin is not necessarily making any kind of necessarily modern reference here.

The reference in The Hobbit to golf being named from the Goblin king Golfimbul is perhaps more anachronistic, though here again there are mentions of various club and ball games throughout history of which we know little. Presumably we must imagine some similar game in the Shire which Tolkien has represented as golf, and has modified the true name of the Goblin king name accordingly.

The food and material artifacts found in the Shire, especially in The Hobbit are very anachronistic: coffee, potatoes, tobacco, mantlepiece (chimneys were not invented till the middle ages) with a clock on it, umbrellas, and various modern musical instruments played by the Dwarves in The Hobbit. But some of these are probably supposed to be analogues to modern counterparts. Coffee would really be another kind of drink altogether, for example, and the musical instruments would correspond very roughly. The clock, perhaps on a shelf rather than a fireplace mantlepiece, could be some sort of waterclock.

Potatoes are perhaps to be identfied with the mysterious roots that Mîm the Dwarf gathers for food in the &quot;Narn i Hîn Húrin&quot; in Unfinished Tales, which are unknown to Men and Elves, and perhaps mostly stayed unknown to them but were later used by Hobbits? The European poisonous nightshade is a relative of the potato. Perhaps in the Third Age there were also non-poisonous nightshade tubers?

Tobacco was introduced from Númenor, and would be thought of as dying out in the Old World sometime after the Third Age and our own era.

Stirrups are mentioned also, though historically they can be traced no earlier than the 2nd century BCE in India, and probably reached Europe only the the 7th or 8th centuries.

In LR, &quot;A Long-Expected Party&quot;, occurs the rather odd phrase, &quot;The dragon passed like an express train.&quot;


07-02-2001, 07:51 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Wight
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Re: Modern World references in Middle-Earth

You have raised a lot of good points! Football could have meant anything, but I still think it might have been meant to be modern football. Tolkien could have added in something familiar, to create more interest in the book, especially due to the popularity of football. People would think, &quot;Hey, Thorin knows about my favorite game!.&quot; Things like that can bond the real world with a fantasy world, not just in Tolkien's work, but also in lots of other books.

Other than that I agree with you on all points! <img src=wink.gif ALT=";)">


07-02-2001, 11:32 AM
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Re: Modern World references in Middle-Earth

I seem to recall a thread on this particular mention, but Pippin referring to being &quot;claimed&quot; like luggage, is a more or less modern sort of thing.

Gandalf's fireworks making noise like a train is a direct reference.

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07-02-2001, 11:36 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Spirit of Mist
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Re: Modern World references in Middle-Earth

Don't forget Lobelia Sackville-Baggins' umbrella.

"The Silmarils with living light
were kindled clear, and waxing bright
shone like stars that in the North
above the reek of earth leap forth." </p>

07-04-2001, 03:56 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Hungry Ghoul
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Re: Modern World references in Middle-Earth

Sam offered Sméagol in Ithilien to cook fish and chips for him.
Of course you can make fish and chips from Bywater Pool carp and the Gaffer's taters, but the appeal of modern Englishness is obvious.
Perhaps it is a translation by JRRT for a typical simple Shire meal.

Obviously, the references grow generally less as the story runs on. While the more childlike Hobbit and first book of Fellowship have a couple of deliberate anachronisms, ROTK surely would not have a Nazgûl described as passing like a train.

<h6>'I will keep my heart from you / To keep you safe / I will wipe every tear / Of your frozen heart / I will always be there / Though from a distance / And though my heart shall bleed / My love shall never blacken.'</p>Edited by: <A HREF=http://www.barrowdowns.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_profile&u=00000003>Sharku</A> at: 7/4/01 6:01:44 am

07-09-2001, 01:41 PM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Hungry Ghoul
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Re: Modern World references in Middle-Earth

After the meeting with Denethor, Gandalf explains the situation to Pippin a bit.

Gandalf uses the metaphor of chess herefore - that the board is set, that he misses the piece of Faramir, and that the enemy is about to make the first move. It becomes obvious that chess is meant when he speaks of the role of pawns such as Pippin in that game.
Pippin even ponders over it with the words: ‘A pawn did Gandalf say? Perhaps, but on the wrong chessboard.’

Again, I would accept the fact that this is just a translation rather than a deliberate anachronism. However, there is no mention elsewhere of a strategical boardgame both known to hobbits and Gandalf, so this may just have slipped in.

</p>Edited by: <A HREF=http://www.barrowdowns.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_profile&u=00000003>Sharku</A> at: 7/9/01 4:08:56 pm

07-10-2001, 08:31 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Haunting Spirit
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Potatoes, taters, came from the Americas. Europe would not have had potatoes before the fifteen hundreds. I don't know when carrots came from Egypt.

Fireworks came from China. If you had fireworks, would you have gun powder?

The hobbits are dealt with rather loosely in this fashion.


Mister Underhill
07-10-2001, 08:37 AM
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Re: References

Sam's gardening shears strike me as a modernized reference.


07-10-2001, 08:44 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Hungry Ghoul
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Re: References

With florae and faunae, JRRT could always have argued with the cosmology of Middle-Earth, i.e. that is but our world some 6,000-7,000 years ago. In that context, potatoes for example would not be a reference to our current time.


07-10-2001, 09:01 AM
Even more so if we remeber the stories are supposed to be translations from Westron to English, and English words should have been sought to fit the word for more or less similar plant, or of similar functions.

Mister Underhill
07-10-2001, 09:05 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Dread Horseman
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Re: References

<blockquote>Quote:<hr> Fireworks came from China. If you had fireworks, would you have gun powder?<hr></blockquote>Perhaps this explains what the blue wizards got up to in the East.


07-10-2001, 09:15 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Hungry Ghoul
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Re: References

But would Gandalf need gun powder at all?


Mister Underhill
07-10-2001, 09:44 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Dread Horseman
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Re: References

<blockquote>Quote:<hr> The Hobbit:
But not Gandalf. Bilbo's yell had done that much good. It had wakened him up wide in a splintered second, and when goblins came to grab him, there was a terrible flash like lightning in the cave, a smell like gunpowder, and several of them fell dead.<hr></blockquote>Maiar power, or did Gandalf use a hand grenade?

</p>Edited by: <A HREF=http://www.barrowdowns.com/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_profile&u=00000005>Mister Underhill</A> at: 7/10/01 11:45:17 am

GandaIf The White
07-10-2001, 11:39 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Shade of Carn Dûm
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Re: References

I remember a quote in FoTR saying something about the Fireworks of Gandalf. When Smaug swooped over the hobbits it said he sounded like a train.

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."</p>

07-10-2001, 08:25 PM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Pile o' Bones
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Doesn't Bilbo wear eyeglasses or spectales in lotr?


07-11-2001, 08:39 AM
<font face="Verdana"><table><TR><TD><FONT SIZE="1" face="Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif">Animated Skeleton
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Re: World

Simple gunpower was made by the chinese using Swine unrin and defication so it is not like those in the west couldn't make it they just never did.


The Barrow-Wight
11-12-2001, 04:09 PM
Over supper I was watching the beginning of a Magnum P.I. rerun.... It was flashback to his Vietnam days... and a South Vietnamese radioman was using the call signs Gandalf and Frodo smilies/smile.gif

11-13-2001, 03:34 PM
Or maybe they did have literally all these things like clocks and stirrups (with a few translational equivalents thrown in). After all, wasn't Atlantis supposed to be full of amazing devices and whatnot that were subsequently lost into the sea? I'm sure a few things could have spread to the Shire in the Third Age. And then of course eventually cities fall into ruin, knowledge is forgotten, Dark Ages Inc., and the next person to think of it gives himself a pat on the back for being original.

11-14-2001, 05:53 AM
Another point about the football reference:
Hurley is often mention in ancient Irish Pagan myth (The great warrior Cùchullain played it as a boy). The sport is still very popular in Ireland, in fact it only got an official set of rules near the start of the 20th century. I doubt Hurley was the first ball game to be played and I'd say that an early version of football (soccor, not the American one) could be traced back further.

09-14-2002, 08:32 PM
Thought I'd bring this post forward again Sharku.

Did anyone happen to notice that it is the Hobbits that seem to have all the innovative, "modern" conveniences. The rest of Middle Earth seems comfortably stuck in their Middle Age groove.

I imagine there was nary a mantel clock in Rivendell, and when it rained in Minas Tirith - well, you got wet.

Verrrryyy clever, these Halflings.

09-14-2002, 08:54 PM
It's interesting that modern technology grew less and less as the Legendarium developed.

The first Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin has mechanical dragons which were rejected later.
An early account of the Downfall of Númenor has the Númenoreans developing aircrafts. And The Hobbit and early FotR chapters have the well known modern commodities.

09-14-2002, 09:02 PM
Hullo Birdland:

* bows a friendly greeting * smilies/smile.gif

Thanks for bringing this topic to the fore. As you aptly point out,

I imagine there was nary a mantel clock in Rivendell, and when it rained in Minas Tirith - well, you got wet.

* comes inside and settles in on a chair by the fire to smoke comfortably on an unusual evening where both lightning and moon were visible at once in the same sky *

From what I've observed during my stays among Elves, I would venture that one reason why time pieces are not as prominent at Rivendell has to do with Elvish immortality and how that colors their relationship to the passage of time. Of course it's possible to calculate calendar dates according to both Elvish and Shire reckoning, and confer with a clock to tell time. To be at Rivendell, however, is to stand on a hypnotizing shore where drops of time meet the ocean of eternity, and the tide pulls West.

Gandalf the Grey, who does not wear a watch

09-14-2002, 10:09 PM
Ha-ha! Makes me think there was a grandfather clock gifted to the elves by Bilbo. Gandalf had it magicked so that it only dinged the year, since for the elves that was sufficient. Only the elves got used to it, all the mortals in the hall were startled every new year.

Reminds me of my musings on the elvish legal system, where the hearing was marvelously fair, attended to personally by Elrond or Galadriel or whomever the leader of that particular place was. Only problem: your hearing date may be 127 years from now. If you explain you're mortal, they'll move it up to 20-30 years. They really feel that is fair and won't understand your impatience.



[ September 15, 2002: Message edited by: Marileangorifurnimaluim ]

09-14-2002, 10:29 PM
Well, maybe elves didn't need to know the time, but I could definitely picture them appreciating the soothing sounds of "tick-tock". smilies/biggrin.gif

09-14-2002, 10:34 PM
How about that pocket watch? that was definately 18th-19th century. Then jump back to waist coasts.... horse drawn carriages...

hmmm some interesting stuff

11-02-2002, 07:05 PM
Hey! What about the song?

For a moment Frodo stood gaping. Then in desperation he began a ridiculous song that Bilbo had been rather fond of (and indeed rather proud of, for he had made up the words himself). It was about an inn; and that is probably why it came into Frodo's mind just then. Here it is in full. Only a few words of it are now,as a rule, remembered.

Man that is so cool!

I wish I could post the whole thing,but it's so long...
but you might recognise these characters:

The ostler has a tipsy cat
that plays a five-stringed fiddle...

The landlord keeps a little dog
that is mighty fond of jokes....

They also keep a horned cow
as proud as any queen...

And O! the rows of silver dishes
and the store of silver spoons...

So the cat on his fiddle played hey-diddle-diddle...

With a ping and a pang the fiddle strings broke!
the cow jumped over the moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver sunday spoon.

Tee Hee Hee

smilies/biggrin.gif smilies/redface.gif smilies/wink.gif smilies/evil.gif smilies/biggrin.gif smilies/smile.gif

[ November 02, 2002: Message edited by: Alcerin ]

11-03-2002, 02:11 AM
Incredible thread; thank you for bringing it up again, Birdland! (Adding my voice to the chorus of thanks).

The idea that Tolkien "translated" most of the artifacts is a neat one, it just leaves me wishing he'd dropped a few more hints about the "originals" in his appendices.

The only one I can't remember seeing mentioned is Bilbo's pocket-handkerchief which he's so worried about throughout "The Hobbit". I can't imagine that those go back terribly far, and especially interesting is that when he returns to the Shire, he has "borrowed one [a handkerchief] of Elrond" which implies that Elves used them too (though it's sort of hard to imagine an Elf wiping sweat off of his brow, or blowing his nose).

For some of the previous mentions: Spectacles I believe came in around the 13th century, in a very crude form (mostly for magnifying things). Not sure what those would have been a translation for, unless they carried tiny magnifying glasses.

Tobacco - in this case I suspect the original was simply pipeweed, which is the only term used in LOTR. Pipeweed was around, and smoked, in England in the Anglo-Saxon era and very likely before; this practice may have survived directly from the Third Age smilies/wink.gif. When tobacco came in, people found it pleasanter to smoke, and so they switched.

Similarly chess is a very old game which was around in the very early centuries BC (at least the first mention of it is then) albeit in Arab countries; the Easterlings may have been more likely chess-players, but hey, Wizards know about these things (though how Gandalf explained chess to Pippin all in a moment is fairly mystifying). Or else the "original" game may have been Go, a black-and-white piece board game which is very complex itself and has certifiably been around for thousands of years; it's been called the oldest game in the world.

And a couple of other things - what about Bilbo's "singing" teakettle and those infamous silver spoons? Silver spoons I can believe have been around a long time, but these sound like parts of a place setting - something you'd get for a wedding present, maybe - and that's a fairly modern incarnation. Does anyone know how long the teakettle has been around?

One more thing - I'm *fairly* sure there's a reference to someone wearing velvet somewhere in LOTR - I can't think of a specific passage, so this is just a possibility. Velvet was not invented or worn until the 14th century, so if the reference is in there, I'd hypothesize that velvet was a substitute for some sort of wonderful Elvish fabric which is now, alas, lost to us.

Just my $0.02. Does anyone else have thoughts? I'm really curious about that teakettle now.

[ November 03, 2002: Message edited by: Kalimac ]

11-03-2002, 07:07 AM
There was a Celtic game similar to chess called fidhcell. There are references from the 1st century A.D and perhaps earlier.
In the Hobbit dosen't it say the Beorn's roaring was like guns and drums.

Bill Ferny
11-03-2002, 11:00 AM
Well, I’m scratching my head over this thread. How can there be anachronisms in a fantasy world? Hey, I like to get lost in Middle Earth, myself, but its not a history of an epoch. Its all made up. If Tolkien wanted to have the game of golf, velvet, football (soccer for us American chaps), spectacles, glass windows, coffee or potatoes then great. There’s no reason to believe from the canon that any of these things are different than they are, and there’s no reason for further explanation. After all, it can’t be an anachronism if the place or time never existed.

Its like a friend of mine once asking: “How did the dwarves of Moria feed the furnaces for their forges if they weren’t downing massive amounts of trees to supply them with charcoal?” Does it matter? When do you require realism, and just plain old unquestioning acceptance in order to maintain the integrity of the story. I really can’t picture a Gwaith-i-Mírdain elf in Eregion tending a charcoal clamp. Though realistically in order to have forges and furnaces you need charcoal, and therefore they would have to make it. Do I need that kind of realism to believe that the Gwaith-i-Mírdain were great craftsmen?

The real question is not anachronism, but realism versus verisimilitude. Tolkien was not trying to write a realistically accurate account from the view point of a historian or archeologist, but was writing from the stand point of a storyteller engaged in the art of getting the reader’s attention. He didn’t need to be historically accurate, because the story was never intended to be a lesson in history. Thus, he was free to relate to the reader’s everyday experience by the use of verisimilitude.

The lack of stirrups would have made mounted combat impossible for the Riders of the Mark (at least this would have been the general impression by military historians at the time Tolkien was writing, though we know better today), and mounted combat was something for which they were famous. The addition of the stirrup, therefore, in Tolkien’s mind, was necessary for verisimilitude. A glass window is more recognizable as a window than a piece of stretched vellum over an opening in the wall. A waist coat on a hobbit paints a recognizable portrait for the modern reader. Sam standing up with his hands behind his back like a school boy, immediately gives the reader a certain impression, but there doesn’t necessarily have to be hobbit schools. The lopping off of a goblin’s head, and it’s landing in a hole, is the perfect opportunity to make a witty comment about a sport with which the reader may be interested.

Archeologists and historians know things like what kind of lichen people in Mercia during the sixth century used to wipe their butts. I mean, really, am I the only one here that’s happy Tolkien was a storyteller and not an archeologist or historian?

11-03-2002, 12:25 PM
well, hobbits do take baths....

11-03-2002, 01:29 PM
Ive got a similar question:
Did Tolkien relate lotr to the time period that he was writing the book in? For example WW2

11-03-2002, 05:15 PM
Bill Ferny, I was thinking the exact same things as I made my way through the posts! I'm glad you wrote it all out and spared me the trouble. smilies/wink.gif This was Tolkien's world...he could mix and match however he liked.

This all reminds me a bit of the beginning of William Goldman's "The Princess Bride" where he repeatedly says things like, "This was before that" or "This was after that". "This" being the story, of course. Like porridge..."This was after porridge, but then again everything is."

[ November 03, 2002: Message edited by: Diamond18 ]

11-03-2002, 08:17 PM

I'm pretty sure he said so in the preface of FotR that he wrote it before and after WW2 and he wrote about what he was feeling during experience.

01-18-2003, 05:16 AM
The idea that Tolkien "translated" most of the artifacts is a neat one
But then how do you expect Bilbo to keep a sundial on his mantelpiece, O marshy one?

We are lucky that Bill Ferny spotted this thread, and posted an eloquent call to 'keep it real'. I'm now a little bit closer to understanding the mysterious word verisimilitude. Personally I've always been suspicious of words with that many eyes.

It obviously doesn't matter at all that the Chinese invented gunpowder in whatever year. Even though Middle-Earth is in the same place as our world, it is in a far removed time, and most physical traces of it have vanished from our own time. There are of course remnants such as the Cow Jumps Over the Moon song, and the origin of the name Golf. Farmer Giles of Ham likewise provides an explanation for several placenames, including Thames. But gunpowder could have been invented and used by Saruman and Gandalf, who then left without passing on the secret. Likewise, the location of Moria, the one source of mithril, has been lost to us, and so has that superb metal.

I think that it's important to be able to explain what at first appear to be anachronisms, and frequently we can do so. For example clocks were constructed by dwarves. Glass is nothing more than sand of a favourable composition heated to 1000°C or so. Most examples in fact seem to be easily explainable, and the only one that really stands out to me as being completely out of place is the reference to the express train. Seems like an isolated slip-up, considering the emphasis Tolkien placed on point-of-view.