South Park Self

a note under the clock

Say what you will about Tolkien (I'm looking at you, China Miéville), his worlds do fill your headspace. Having re-watched the LotR films and re-read the books, and The Hobbit, and some random stuff from Unfinished Tales and things, over the last few weeks, I can certainly testify to that: I've pretty much been in Middle-Earth for the last month. It's a nice place to be, even if what you're mostly doing is mentally filling in the gaps and silences in the work. (Am I alone in darkly suspecting that Elven sex, such as Tolkien pretends doesn't actually exist, is probably inventively kinky? You live forever, you have to get horribly bored with missionary. Elven sex toys are probably works of extremely dodgy art. Also, both Denethor and Boromir were absolutely and definitely gay. One of the appendices refers to Boromir as being no lover of women, and talks about Denethor loving his wife as much as he was capable of. Hah. The family dynamics of that particularly fucked-up family suddenly become very clear. Poor Faramir.)

But I digress. What's really been hitting me forcefully, particularly after re-reading The Hobbit, is a funny sort of issue of world-building. Tolkien is supposed to be the ultimate world-builder, the man who's lovingly created the full histories and languages and mythology to support his fantasy realm. But he's really oddly unconcerned with a particular aspect of world-building which I can only think of as technological. His various civilisations exist cheek-by-jowl geographically, but actually represent separate stages over about five hundred year's worth of technological development, all mish-mashed together and apparently failing to affect each other at all.

We start out with the Shire, which is really the identification point for the reader. Hobbits live in a sort of idyllic middle-class pastoral haze, whose agricultural lifestyle is simultaneously primitive and comfortable. They have, for example, clocks and umbrellas and pocket-handkerchiefs. I bet you anything you like that they have indoor plumbing. Their gadget-level is approximately seventeenth century at the earliest, as are many of their rituals (tea-drinking, for example, or eggs and bacon for breakfast). This all makes perfect narrative sense, as they represent the quiet, normal, everyday existence against which all the high heroics are going to be contrasted. (They are also partially defined by the children's-story vibe of The Hobbit, and the tone of their doings shifts weirdly in and out of domestic fantasy and high epic across LotR).

But they make absolutely no technological sense at all. The next main civilisation encountered by Frodo et al (apart from Elves, who make even less sense) is Rohan. The Riders of Rohan are, in feel and language, Anglo-Saxonish; they're approximately eleventh century, I'd say, in civilisation and lifestyle. Their traditions seem to be oral and sung, and Meduseld is only a few steps up from a Viking hall. The Rohirrim drink mead and eat bread and chunks of meat; no afternoon tea here. They're a good five hundred years behind the Hobbits. But their nearest neighbours, and the civilisation they most interact with, is Gondor, which is the remnant of the noble Numenor, absolutely the last word in civilisation in Middle-Earth. Even in a fallen state Gondor has highly-developed architecture, more sophisticated armour, a tradition of written learning, and a complicated administrative system with codified laws. Denethor's guests are served wine and cakes, not mead and bread. Nonetheless, I'd define its level of functioning as an idealised high medieval, probably around fifteenth century at most.

So you have to ask what the hell happened here, historically. The hobbits have been sitting fatly in the Shire for umpteen generations, having very little in the way of wars or other contact with the outside world. (The Hobbit is interesting because it posits Dwarves moving freely through the Shire, but the commonplace of their presence has completely vanished by the time Tolkien writes LotR). Hobbits may have inherited something of Numenorean techology, but if Gondor has relapsed from that point, they should have relapsed even further; they've had nothing in the way of stress, war or challenge to kick-start any sort of technological advancement. They should not, in short, have umbrellas and clocks. You can argue that the Dwarves give them those sorts of gadgets, but that's not how Tolkien dwarves roll: they're about as high-medieval as Gondor, with a touch more Wagner.

And I'm not even getting into Elves. Elves lead that kind of mystic, elevated, idealistically pure existence which is all about beauty and miminalist requirements and Tolkien's need to reject metal and machinery other than Bilbo's clock. Elves make me think of Eloi: there has to be a huge, complicated mechanism churning away under that society to make it work at all. A few Elven smiths dicking around with forging rings really doesn't cut it. You're forced to do what Tolkien did, which is to mentally sub "magic" in as the unexamined, catch-all motivating force, and it's bloody unsatisfying.

But, of course, in many ways it's futile and pointless for me to try and apply this kind of world-building rigour to Middle-Earth at all. Tolkien's world-building is all in terms of language and mythology, not science and development; he recreates these particular historical periods not because they make any sense in a larger idea of Middle-Earthian history, but because those are the moods and tones and settings that his story demands. It's about narrative identification, not technological. In a lot of ways the middle-class comfort of the hobbits is completely out of place in a high-medieval heroic tale, included for contrast, not because a world could actually work like that. The story works brilliantly. The world doesn't. On average, he's still seriously ahead.
  • Current Mood: contemplative randomly analytical
  • Current Music: Fleet Foxes
Yes, but....

Tolkein wasn't building worlds. He was building languages and then giving them stages to work on, that's all. He even invented a philological society, dammit.
Yes, my point exactly. He wasn't building worlds in anything but a highly specific sense, and it amuses and amazes me that he gets away with the resulting inconsistencies.

Although I think there's more to it than a stage for the languages. The languages are important, but the quest/mythology/heroic narrative impulses actually form the backbone the languages flesh out, not the other way round.

Also, I am very aware that I've been thinking way too much about Tolkien lately.
you mention that the Rohirrim are essentially Anglo-Saxons - so is their language, where Sindarin shares many similarities (lack of irregular verbs, sentence structure) with Latin and thus informs - in the society of Men - a far more high middle ages feel.

And the Shire is built on rustic menials rather than middle-class values. It's a place of Gaffer Gamgee and Farmer Maggot, not Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. This, I think, informs its technological level (as well as the dialects spoken) far more than any deliberate planning.
Point taken re the effect of languages, but I think Tolkien's problem is that he wants to have his cake and eat it: yes, it's about Gaffer Gamgee, but he does also include Lobelia and in fact Frodo himself. Those are a sort of lower landed gentry, not rustic menials; you're right that "middle-class" is not quite the right term, but their lifestyle comes across as middle class where that of Sam, at the start of the novel, is clearly menial.

All I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that on some levels of representation of lifestyle and technology Tolkien's messages are very mixed, and that it's interesting that we generally don't even think about it.
oh, lord, sorry, I still owe you an answer to that email. I looked at it, thought "Cool! love to do that!", then thought "aargh it'll eat my life, fear!, and the resulting conflict imploded my head enough that I never replied. I still have very mixed feelings. Probably not right now, is the short answer, but maybe once I've killed this outstanding paper I'm supposed to be writing?
It WILL eat your life! On the other hand, it's the best fun I've had in simply ages. Also, playing with people you know in Real Life is very cool, so hurry up with the paper already!
The Shire remains a problem, but the co-existence of Gondor and Rohan is not something I have a problem with. see for example the co-existence and cultural contact between Byzantium (which heavily informs my mental Gondor) and the vikings.
Yes, I also find Rohan/Gondor reasonably believable, ship-wise ;>. The Shire, on the other hand, is a complete Mary Sue: the humble, completely instrumental outsider.

Why Byzantium, though? Interesting.
I was going to say a similar thing - that wildly different cultures existed in our history, with one being quite more advanced than the other. Funnily enough, I thought of Byzantium and Vikings (and Anglo Saxons), which I suspect comes from my adoration of anything Guy Gavriel Kay.

To me, it feels like Tolkien took these disparate and separate cultures as inspiration, but moved them closer together geographically for the purposes of keeping the story going - avoiding having to go across oceans and vast expanses of land to get to one another, in order to keep the story from taking too long.

Cheers, Dayle