LotRFI Pt. 5–Farmer Maggot

I feel like my first impression of Farmer Maggot was typical. At first, I did not like Maggot because I took Frodo’s account as accurate. I believed that he and Maggot had a history of clashing and were at odds with one another. This made Frodo’s reaction to being on his land seem logical.

“One trouble after another!” said Frodo, looking nearly as much alarmed as if Pippin had declared the lane was the slot leading to a dragon’s den. (FR, I, iv, 91)

It was not until Maggot offered food and shelter to the young hobbits that I began to trust him. So far, I think that most readers would agree with this impression, though some of them may have tempered their opinion of Maggot earlier, when Pippin began to push back against Frodo’s characterization.

Interestingly, I was recently listening to a podcast (Corey Olsen’s Exploring The Lord of the Rings, episode seventeen) which highlighted a disagreement that my perspective may have with others. In this podcast, Corey Olsen presents his belief that Maggot’s account of his interaction with the Black Rider is a rather objective recounting. Here is the passage in question:

“Good-day to you!” I says, going out to him. “This lane don’t lead anywhere, and wherever you may be going, your quickest way will be back to the road.” I didn’t like the looks of him; and when Grip came out, he took one sniff and let out a yelp as if he had been stung: he put down his tail and bolted off howling. The black fellow sat quite still.

‘“I come from yonder,” he said, slow and stiff-like, pointing back west, over my fields, if you please. “Have you seen Baggins?” he asked in a queer voice, and bent down towards me. I could not see any face, for his hood fell down so low; and I felt a sort of shiver down my back. But I did not see why he should come writing over my land so bold.” (FR, I, iv, 94)

Olson contends that, because Maggot’s account is objective, the Rider’s use of “yonder” is an attempt for him to blend in to the local dialect to collect information. My interpretation, however, has always been to treat this passage as reported speech. That is, Maggot is conveying the general sense of the interaction using his own idiomatic way of speaking. I never considered, then, that the Rider actually uses “yonder.” Instead, I always thought, and still believe, that Maggot is putting that word into the Rider’s mouth instead of trying to recount the interaction verbatim. This approach to the dialogue seems probable to me because it is a way of retaining the established characterization of both the Black Rider and Maggot. In that the Black Rider is not going to demean himself to try and fit into the dialect of the hobbits, and Maggot has no qualms about paraphrasing other people in his own dialect when it suits him. Also, I think that had Tolkien meant for readers to treat this scene has objective dialogue then he would have embedded the interaction into the text in a different way. As it stands in the published text, however, the entire episode is intended to be reported speech from Maggot’s perspective.

A second manner in which my approach to Maggot was very different from the norm is that he served as a proto-Bombadil encounter to me. My experience of Bombadil was very similar to the pattern that most people adopt with Maggot. It began with distrust but gradually evolved into respect and amiability. I know that this is very different from the opinion of others (as I recounted in my first post), but the pattern established by the Maggot encounter served as a template for many of the meetings that followed it in LOTR.

Where do we Go From Here?

Next we will visit the Barrow Downs, and then on to Bree!

What Do You Think?

How do you approach this passage which recounts dialogue between Maggot and the Black Rider?
Did the Maggot episode serve as a template of encounter for you as a reader?


LotRFI Pt. 3–Shire Trees and Old Man Willow


Since I read the books as a child, I had no real concept of what different kinds of trees looked like. Growing up in Southern United States, the most common trees around me were birch, maple, oak, and ash. Tolkien only uses two of these species in his descriptions (oak and ash), but I undoubtedly pictured The Shire with the same trees that I encountered every day.

Tolkien included:
I added:

At first, this may seem like a trivial matter, but it can have a very large impact on the visual landscape in the reader’s mind. For example, in Chapter three, the travelers (Frodo, Sam, and Pippin) stop in a “fir-wood” and make camp for the night:

“Just over the top of the hill they cam on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees, and gathered dead sticks and cones to make a fire” (FR, I, iii, 72).

Tolkien describes the hobbits setting up camp under a group of trees similar to this:


However, I had never seen fir trees. Using the context clues, I assumed that it had to be a kind of tree that had “cones.” Well, I was certainly familiar with one of those, we had dozens of pine trees in my back yard! So I pictured the three hobbits sitting in a group of trees that looked something like this:


Now I know that many readers are saying, “They are all evergreen conifer trees, this really isn’t a big deal!” But I would ask you to look closer. Here is a close comparison of branches from each (images from http://www.finegardening.com/fir-vs-spruce-vs-pine-how-tell-them-apart):

This view shows you the very different appearance of each tree. Also, if you grew up with pine trees (or used one for your Christmas/Yule celebration) then you know that they have two very unique characteristics: they shed their needles and their sap is very sticky and odoriferous. This means that in order to start a fire under the pine trees, the hobbits would likely have had to clear a space among the fallen, dead needles of a pine so as not to start a larger fire than they intended! So while this distinction of trees is very small, it makes a very large difference in the impression it leaves on the reader.

In the end, The Shire that I pictured as a child had a few more birch and maple trees than Tolkien probably envisioned, and all of the fir trees were replaced with pine. This leads to a very different mental image and also changes the associations that the reader has with the trees. These differences of experience lead to different individual interpretations and responses to the text.

Old Man Willow

I was fortunate in that I had a lot of experience with a Willow tree as a child, so I was prepared to visualize the character of Old Man Willow. The type of willow that I was familiar with, however, was the Black Willow, commonly refereed to as a “Weeping Willow” by the people in the southern US. What this meant is that my mental picture of Old Man Willow was probably leaner and more ‘weeping’ than most of the Brits who read the book. From some cursory research, it looks like England has several native Willow species and only one or two have branches that droop as much as the Black Willow.   Picture

This actually explains why many of the artists who have portrayed Old Man Willow have made the dangling limbs shorter than I always imagined them. I had always thought that it was largely artistic license, since a curtain of dangling limbs is less appealing than a clear view of the action,. Perhaps this latter consideration still plays a role, but the fact that the types of willow in England ​and that many of them have characteristically shorter limbs than a Black Willow certainly reaffirms their decision.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I intend to have the first reflection on the character of a hobbit soon. I also want to look at the events with Farmer Maggot and the Barrow Downs before we head on to Bree.

What Do You Think?

What trees have you always pictured in the Shire?
Do you think that the kind of trees you imagine change the way you think about the setting?
How have you always pictured Old Man Willow?

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?