I’m reposting this with some updates. Why, you ask? Well, partially, because in case you live in a bubble, yet have access to the internet to read this, there is a new film coming out on Friday which this bears some relevance on. And, partially, because I am up to a specific point in my Top 100 Novels and this seemed like a good intro, not to mention a good filler for a couple of days before that goes up. As for the updated part? Well, I’ve included input from both of my brothers. We’ll see if they have anything worthwhile to add.
If your only experience with The Lord of the Rings is the three Peter Jackson films (or, depending on when you stumble across this, four, five or six), you might have a lot of questions. The films do a great job of streamlining the epic story, but there are, of course, still things that are left unanswered.
Well, I’m not going to help you. The books are brilliant and you should go read them. And, you should stop complaining that The Hobbit is being split into three films. Between all the information in the appendices to LOTR and the background information in The Silmarillion and all the volumes of History, there is enough of a story to make Game of Thrones seem like a short tv movie.
But, there are questions that even long-time readers of the books must have. I know I certainly do, because they come up every time I read them and this time I decided to finally write them down (by that, I mean I wrote this 2009 and I updated it in 2012). There are probably answers to some of these buried either within the 12 volume History of Middle Earth or The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, but I’m not gonna try and slog through them right now. Too much other stuff to read at the moment.
But, I do present you with questions that occur to me pretty much every year. Feel free to respond if you have answers or guesses.
1. Why on earth do the dwarves have instruments with them when they arrive at Bag End? And what happens to them later?
Hell, Tolkien himself didn’t even have an answer for this question. At the end of the typescript of “The Quest of Erebor” which appeared in print in Unfinished Tales there was a penciled note that read “Nothing is said to justify the musical instruments that the Dwarves brought to Bag End – nor to explain what became of them.” (The Annotated Hobbit, p 377) It does provide a nice moment in The Hobbit, so they can play and have their moment, but why would they have brought the instruments when they knew what kind of journey they were on? And were they lost in the Misty Mountains when the Goblins stole the horses?
Both of my brothers mentioned the loss of baggage to the goblins. And yet, Tolkien himself, as I pointed out the first time, never really came to a conclusion about it. This is one of those things that was simply brought out at the beginning, kept in because of what a great mood it sets, then forgotten about. I’m curious if they do anything in the film to deal with this idea.
2. Can Gandalf really not read the runes on Glamdring?
I, mean, he is Gandalf after all. He’s been on Middle-Earth for close to 2000 years. He seems to know every language spoken on Middle Earth. And he can’t read the runes?
John points out that Gandalf has been around since only about T.A. 1000, while the swords are 5000 years older (roughly). And Kelly speculated that they were runes specific to Gondolin, and thus would, reasonably have been taught to Elrond, without Gandalf ever having learned them. In terms of authorial intent, I am going with the idea that Tolkien liked the revelation from Elrond (much more dramatic than Gandalf telling them right away), with the ideas of my brothers coming up with some useful excuses. But, in the two-volume History of the Hobbit (which I didn’t own when I first wrote this), another interesting point is brought forth. Elrond declares Glamdring as the sword of the King of Gondolin, which would be Turgon, Elrond’s great-grandfather, and thus the sword should belong to him. But both things seem to come from an interesting point comes up in the manuscript. When the swords are originally found, in the manuscript, they also find keys. These turn out to include the key to the door of Erebor. That Thorin wouldn’t recognize it as a dwarf key would make this more odd and the overwhelming coincidence of finding the key they need near the start of their quest is a bit silly. So, Tolkien wisely dropped that. But before he did, we have the first identification of the swords by Elrond, which don’t include names for the swords. The sword didn’t get a name until the manuscript reached the Misty Mountains. So, the manuscript clears up why Elrond doesn’t lay claim to the sword: it was being kept by Gandalf (who was still called Bladorthin at that point in the manuscript) and Tolkien didn’t make it the sword of the King of Gondolin until he already written much of the later part of the book, in which Gandalf makes use of the sword.
3. How did Fatty Bolger get to Crickhollow?
“Fond as he was of Frodo, Fatty Bolger had no desire to leave the Shire, nor to see what lay outside it. His family came from the Eastfarthing, from Budgeford in Bridgefields in fact, but he had never been over the Brandywine Bridge.” (I, p 153 – all the page numbers I use are from the Ballatine 1975-1980 version shown above, but the pages are the same as most paperback editions of the books).
But he’s on the other side of the Brandywine Bridge! I suppose he and Merry could have gone down and taken the furniture to Buckleberry Ferry when they left Hobbiton on p. 103, but is that likely? I suppose it’s a term that’s meant to describe hobbits who don’t leave the Shire, as opposed to the Brandybucks, but still. That sentence always struck me as quite odd.
This is one thing all three of us agree upon – that this is a colloquialism used to describe someone who has never travelled outside the Shire.
4. Does Frodo’s sword get destroyed twice?
“All blades perish that pierce that dreadful King,” Aragorn says on I, p 265, but then 21 pages later, Frodo’s sword breaks when he tries to resist the Witch King.
John was as confused as I was. Kelly (probably correctly) points out that Frodo doesn’t actually pierce the King, only his cloak. I suppose I always thought that meant he had stabbed him, but Kelly is probably right that what happens is that Frodo stabs at him and cuts the cloak, but misses the Witch King, and that’s why his sword survives.
5. What flies over the camp when they are in Hollin?
“Frodo looked up at the sky. Suddenly he saw or felt a shadow pass over the high stars, as if for a moment they faded and then flashed out again.” (I, p 374)
In the film, Peter Jackson decided to make the crebain from Dunland what was “moving fast and against the wind,” but in the book they flew past the night before. Every time I read it, I think this is the first appearance of the winged Nazgûl, but in The Two Towers, Gandalf makes it clear that the Nazgúl have not yet crossed the river. So what the hell flew over the Fellowship?
John said that he’s not sure and it’s a mystery not meant to be solved. Kelly suggested “The presence of the Eye of Sauron reaching out to try to find where the company was or a one-time recon mission of the Nazgul over the river.” So, this time I decided to check with Christopher Tolkien, and I looked up the incident on page 422 of The Return of the Shadow (The History of Middle-Earth Vol VI; The History of the Lord of the Rings Part One). And you know what? He doesn’t know what his father was thinking any more than we do. His footnote (on page 434) says “This incident was retained in FR, but it is not explained. The Winged Nazgúl had not yet crossed the River (The Two Towers, pp. 101, 201).”
6. Who do Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli see on the edge of Fangorn?
He’s wearing a hat, like Gandalf and unlike Saruman. He doesn’t attack them. It seems like it’s a foreshadowing of Gandalf’s return, yet on page 130, Gandalf is quite explicit that it is not him that they saw. Who was it?
I must admit, I always assumed this was Gandalf. But both my brothers think it’s Saruman, especially when John points out that Gandalf later tells Gimli “And are you yet wise enough to detect all his counterfeits?”
7. Are men more powerful than Maia?
It would certainly seem to be the case. Sauron gives way to the men of Númenor when Al-Pharazôn comes to Middle-Earth. Gandalf, a Maia, is able to match a Balrog, yet is perhaps over-matched by the Witch King of Angmar, a wraith that used to be a man. And Gandalf says of Denethor “He was too great to be subdued to the will of the Dark Power,” (III, p 161), yet Saruman, a Maia, is subdued. There might be a better explanation of all of this, but I was surprised this time around while reading the books to find this thought crossing my mind.
Neither of my brothers agreed with me on this (John suggested I got confused by the film, which is my own fault for using the picture on the right). John said that Númenor had the power of numbers and that he felt that Saruman was seduced, rather than subdued. Kelly suggested that Sauron was using trickery in submitting to the Al-Pharazôn. He also says that while Saruman was subdued by an equal, Denethor and Aragorn were too strong-willed to be subdued. They are probably right on Sauron submitting (especially since he uses it so well to his advantage after he is taken back to Númenor). I still wonder about the fact that Denethor and Aragorn had the strength of will to resist Sauron. And we don’t really know what would have happened in a battle between Gandalf and the Witch King. In spite of the great drama of the scene in the film, it is best that they took it out, both because it definitely makes the Witch King stronger and because it then begs the question of how the hell Gandalf has his staff later in the film when the Witch King shatters it.
8. Is Celeborn the wisest?
The rest of the questions I dealt with in chronological order, but this one I saved to the end because it seems so ridiculous. But Galadriel herself says “the Lord of the Galadrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth.” (I, p 462). Aside from a personal dislike of the character (he is so much less interesting than Galadriel or Elrond), this doesn’t seem to hold water. While Saruman leads the White Council, it was Gandalf that Galadriel thought should be the leader. Celeborn is not a possessor of one of the Three Rings, which seems odd if he is the wisest. And clearly Gil-Galad and Cirdan must not have thought so as neither chose to pass their ring down to Celeborn. And in the Tale of Years, Cirdan is described as one who “saw further and deeper than any other in Middle-Earth.” And Aragorn would also seem to lend doubt to the idea: “There are not many in Middle-Earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.” (II, p 220) I don’t see Celeborn on that list. I can understand Galadriel being modest, but to proclaim Celeborn wisest over Elrond? I just can’t see it.
John points out that in The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, Robert Foster says that Celeborn does not seem especially bright. But he also notes that Elrond, as Half-Elven, might not count in Galadriel’s thinking. Kelly suggests that his wisdom is in terms of Middle-Earth, having been, along with Cirdan, the longest lasting resident.
But an interesting little side-note here. I have once again dived into The History of Middle-Earth, this time on page 248 of The Treason of Isengard (Vol VII of HOME, Part II of HOLOTR). The original version of this line read “The lord and lady of Lothlórien are accounted wise beyond the measure of the Elves of Middle-earth, and of all who have not passed beyond the Sea.” Given all of this, I am going with Galadriel giving props to her husband, the man she has lived with for several ages. She has to correct him on the idea that Gandalf went needlessly into Moria and remind him not to repent of his welcome to the Fellowship. She called the White Council and she has the ring. Clearly, she is the wise one here.
9. Who is the oldest living creature?
This actually comes from a game I saw about Middle-Earth that had a lot of amusing points. But it brings up two quotes: “Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remember the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent.” That’s Tom Bombadil (on page 182 of Fellowship). Now this: “When you see Treebeard, you will learn much. For Treebeard is Fangorn, and the eldest and chief of the Ents, and when you speak with him you will hear the speech of the oldest of all living things.” That’s Gandalf, on page 209 of Towers. By logic, since Tom remembers the arrival of the Elves, and since the Elves taught the Ents to speak, then Tom must be older and Gandalf is simply incorrect. In an interesting note, in The War of the Ring (Vol VIII of HOME, Part III of HOLOTR), Gandalf’s line about Treebeard being the oldest of all living things isn’t in the original manuscript.