Anachronisms in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
Of Trains and Telescopes
J.R.R. Tolkien practically established the modern fantasy genre with The Hobbit, published in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings, published in 1955 after decades of labor. There were no rules, no authenticity police, and people didn't worry about "period costume" in those days. Also, The Hobbit was written in the style of a fairy tale, in a much freer manner than the history-tinged epic that followed it.
Therefore, we find delightful little anachronisms and oddities that pop up in The Hobbit and in the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings, which are written more like The Hobbit.
This is not to nitpick. It's just to smile fondly at some well-loved books.
A Famous Waistcoat-Wearer
Bilbo's Waistcoat Buttons
Middle-earth exists in its own alternate universe, with different areas in different stages of development: the Riders of Rohan with their burial mounds and warrior bands resemble 8th century Anglo-Saxons, while the more urbanized Gondorians would be comfortable in the 13th century mercantile city-states of Italy.
Hobbits, however, seem firmly lodged in Victorian England, with tea-time, pocket-handkerchiefs, "drawing room sofas" and weskits:
"If Balin noticed that Mr. Baggins' waistcoat was more extensive (and had real gold buttons), Bilbo also noticed that Balin's beard was several inches longer."
Smaug also has a waistcoat, according to Bilbo!
Waistcoats first appeared in our world during the late 17th century, postdating the heyday of chainmail, spears and winged helms by several centuries. Buttons with buttonholes date to the 13th century in Europe.
Of course, it's anachronistic to compare Middle-earth with real-world equivalents, since it's a fantasy world; quite possibly buttoned waistcoats were all the rage in the Elvenking's halls as well as in Bywater.
Bifur's and Bofur's Clarinets
Loud parties are a nuisance in every age, and the Dwarves helpfully brought strings, woodwinds, and even a drum to Bilbo's establishment to assist in throwing a really loud party and scandalizing the poor Hobbit as much as possible.
One could probably get a pass on Fili's and Kili's fiddles and Dwalin's and Balin's viols, but the clarinet is an 18th century invention requiring fairly modern techniques to manufacture all its parts.
Next Stop: Bucklebury Ferry!
The Express Train to Bywater
Gandalf's fireworks display at Bilbo's "Long Expected Party" in The Fellowship of the Ring included some special effects that are far more impressive than modern CGI, considering the context:
"The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion."
Either The Shire had short rail, Gandalf was even more of a magician than we thought, or he was actually a Time Lord.
Yes, yes, I know, it's only a simile. It's not the sort of metaphor that appears later in the books, however.
But Was It a Cuckoo Clock?
Gandalf sounds positively fussy in the opening chapters of The Hobbit:
"Great Elephants!" said Gandalf, "you are not at all yourself this morning—you have never dusted the mantel-piece!"
"What's that got to do with it? I have had enough to do with washing up for fourteen!"
"If you had dusted the mantelpiece, you would have found this just under the clock," said Gandalf, handing Bilbo a note (written, of course, on his own note-paper).
The first mechanical clocks appeared in Europe in the 14th century, but these were bulky architectural features. The spring-winding clock, invented in the 16th century, allowed for the addition of small clocks to the growing number of dust-collecting curios on the mantelpiece.
Gandalf knows about all sorts of explosive devices...
Trendsetter in Bree?
Poor Lobelia Sackville-Baggins got short shrift in the films. She harasses cousin Bilbo, and attempts to abscond with various small items from Bag-end in the chaos following Bilbo's farewell party:
"Frodo... escorted her firmly off the premises, after he had relieved her of several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella."
Yet by the end of The Lord of the Rings, she has a few shining moments which redeem her as an irascible old bat.
Tom Cotton recounts her run-in with Saruman's minions, who call him "Sharkey":
'"I'll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!" says she, and ups with her umbrella and goes for the leader, near twice her size. So they took her. Dragged her off to the Lockholes, at her age too. They’ve took others we miss more, but there’s no denying she showed more spirit than most.'"
Umbrellas, or at least sun-parasols, date back to antiquity, and were common in the East. They were used to shade the head of important persons, both kings and religious types, and this practice was imported from the Near East to Italy. However, umbrellas did not really take off in most of Europe until the late 17th or early 18th century, when the folding umbrella was invented.
Lobelia's must have been a folding umbrella, handy for concealing silver spoons.
In a High Place, Not a Low Place
Here's another case where the anachronism appears in a simile, not as an actual Middle-earth object. However, we must remember that The Hobbit is purported to be based on Bilbo's own diary, There and Back Again: A Hobbit's Holiday.
"Actually Gollum lived on a slimy island of rock in the middle of the lake. He was watching Bilbo now from the distance with his pale eyes like telescopes."
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gollum exchanges his metaphorical telescopes for lamps. Sam describes him thus:
"Just then I saw the eyes: two pale sort of points, shiny-like, on a hump at the near end of the log... But whether those two lamps spotted me moving and staring, or whether I came to my senses, I don't know."
Telescopes date to the 17th century.
But Is It a Woody End?
Golf, a Hobbit Invention
This passage sounds more like an excerpt from Tolkien's tongue-in-cheek fairy tale Farmer Giles of Ham than from the Middle-earth of Aragorn and Lúthien:
[The] Old Took's great-grand-uncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul's head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment. ("An Unexpected Party," The Hobbit)
Tolkien later noted in a number of letters that he rather regretted some silliness in the first half of The Hobbit. A representative remark:
"The desire to address children...had some unfortunate effects on the mode of expression and narrative method, which if I had not been rushed, I should have corrected." (Letters 215)
This is one of the more entertaining, if incongruous, examples.
The Annotated Hobbit
True Tolkien fans ought to pick up a copy of this edition of The Hobbit, including Tolkien's illustrations, fascinating background notes, and the original text of the Gollum "Riddles in the Dark" chapter, which was changed drastically after LOTR was published to make him a more sinister character. The original Gollum had been quite willing to give Bilbo the ring, and when it went missing, he showed Bilbo the exit as an apology!
A Fantastic Fox
This isn't so much an anachronism as a style mismatch, another throwback to The Hobbit's fairy tale heritage.
In one of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings, we get this startling Radagast-cam view inside a fox's skull:
"They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.
"'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it."
Then again, I don't know why I'm quibbling with thinking foxes when we have talking spiders.
So, avid Tolkien readers, have you noticed any other anachronisms? What have I missed?
More by this Author
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While Tolkien is infamous for his scarcity of female characters (there are none in The Hobbit), there's actually a fair number of strong women in his Middle-earth writings.