LotRFI Pt.2–Of Difficult Words and Gandalf

I wrote the previous entry, primarily concerning Tom Bombadil, largely from memory and without revisiting the text. I have subsequently had the opportunity to revisit The Fellowship of the Ring from the beginning, and this might explain why this second post concerning my first impressions of the text is out of chronological order from the narrative. Instead of pushing forward to Bree, which had been my intention, I want to take a step back and briefly discuss some elements of the Shire that I passed over because they seemed small at the time. When I look back now and add them together they have a large impact on my experience as a reader and to my interpretation of LOTR.

Perhaps one of the most engaging, or off-putting, elements of Tolkien’s text is his use of archaic or unfamiliar terms. This particular aspect of Tolkien’s writing has led to a number of silly misunderstandings surrounding phrases like “pipe weed” which were perfectly understandable choices, but now have very distinct connotations. For a child, this part of Tolkien’s idiom was not really problematic. I was used to adults using words that I did not know and having to search for meaning by using context clues. In fact, there are several words that Tolkien used that I, essentially, learned as part of my everyday vocabulary.

The word mathom in this Shire passages is one such word. Like most readers, I certainly did not know what it meant before I read LOTR. It was not until I used as many of my vocabulary-learning skills as I knew at the time that I could to understand it. This process, though, was not odd to me. It was not a fantastic element of the story. Instead, it was just an extension of the work that I already did every day to learn to understand the world around me. So instead of being a spark of the fantastic in the text, it was a source of what could perhaps be termed realism. It was something that made me engage with the text in a mode that I was already using to engage with the world around me. This creates an interesting observation of how what is used to engender a sense of the fantastic or the surreal in adults can have the opposite effect on children. I quickly realized that mathom was a rare word, but it was not until much later that I learned that it was Tolkien’s own invention.

This tendency for children to frequently experience indeterminacy in their surroundings is perhaps related to my understanding of the character of Gandalf. Again allow me to preface by saying that I am sure that my interpretation is heavily influenced by The Hobbit and the characterization of Gandalf found there. In the first chapter of LOTR, Gandalf frequently contradicts himself in the same sentence. A good example of this tendency is at the end of the chapter before he leaves. His parting words to Frodo are cautionary. Gandalf says “Expect me when you see me” and “look out for me, especially at unlikely times.” As a child these sentences defined Gandalf for me (perhaps owing in part to the high status I have always associated with parting words). These phrases conveyed several things to me about Gandalf. From them I deduced that his character was mysterious. These were obvious contradictions to me: how can you expect (here I thought of anticipate as a synonym) something only when you see it and not before? And if you are “looking out” for something, then how would the time be unlikely? Surely these were cryptic expressions.

At the same time, I understood these sentences to be paradoxes in that, while contradictory, they expressed a kind of truth. The movings of the wizard were beyond comprehension and hobbits, and children, should not expect to understand or be able to follow them. So, naturally, Gandalf would come in a way or at a time unanticipated, even if he was waited for. There was more, though. By choosing to express himself in the complex and contradictory ways, Gandalf became comical to me. I do not mean to say that he was laughable or farcical, but that he seemed humorous in a way that I found endearing. These were the passages, more than his wisdom in chapter two or his guidance of the fellowship that made me cry when he fell in Khazad-dûm.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I still intend to cover all of the topics from my previous post, but it may take a little more time to reach them. I think I will have a second post covering the Shire before we move on to Bree. I do intend to talk about interpretation of characters, but I may do so as the thematic urge arises, like I have done with Gandalf in this post.

What Do You Think?

How did you approach Tolkien’s archaisms or neologisms?
What were your first impressions of Gandalf?
Does the idea that elements used to inspire wonder in adults can be a source of realism to children make sense? Can you think of any others?


5 thoughts on “LotRFI Pt.2–Of Difficult Words and Gandalf

  1. I remember how Tolkien’s archaic language enchanted me. As English is not my native language, my first attempt to read him in the original in my first year at university was a failure: my English at that time just wasn’t enough. It was only many years later that I picked LOTR up again and everything fell into place. Though I did have to look up some words in a dictionary from time to time, it was a wonderful experience. The way Tolkien uses archaic words is so elegant, so natural, and I loved it from the very beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike P.

    This is interesting, though I find Mathom to be a very strange word to use as an example, because it is, if my memory doesn’t fail me, a word that Tolkien himself defines in the Prologue. This made it clear to me (and my first reading of LotR was somewhere around the age of 9 or 10) that it was a “Hobbit” word and thus almost like a proper noun, rather than akin to the various other difficult words that were scattered across the books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right in remembering that Tolkien gives some indications as to it’s real meaning! Unfortunately, if I am not mistaken, the word is given a lot of its context in the introduction. I had a very bad habit of skipping straight to the story when I was younger!


      1. Mike P.

        Yeah, it was definitely the prologue or introduction or whatever. “Concerning Hobbits”

        I was one of those bizarrely straightlaced kids that read EVERYTHING IN ORDER.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I picked up “mathom” from James Blish, who has Scotty using it offhandedly in Spock Must Die! to describe odds and ends he’s used as experiments in adapting the transporter. Kirk asks what a mathom is and Scotty just says it’s a useless object. There was a substantial overlapping fandom between original Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, encouraged by Nimoy’s recording of “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”. Several times, the question of a LotR film was raised in the pages of some of the better Star Trek fanzines, and Ruth Berman suggested Nimoy playing Strider.

    Liked by 1 person

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