Narratology and The Shire


Perhaps one of the most delightful holidays of the year (for members of the Tolkien fandom) is September 22. This particular day is the birthday of two of the most important hobbits in Tolkien’s works: Bilbo Baggins and his nephew Frodo Baggins. Dedicated Tolkien fans all over the world remove their shoes and eat a second breakfast in honor of the beloved shire-folk. For that reason, a post concerning hobbits (even one sadly posted two days after the actual date) seems rather fitting.

Tolkien was a highly skilled narrator, and there are some fascinating literary tricks behind his portrayal of hobbit culture, particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The very first few pages of the entire saga are dedicated to explaining a few key aspects of hobbit culture (perhaps the most piquing of which are the one and a half pages dedicated to the history of pipe-smoking in the hobbit world).

The fact that Tolkien thought it necessary to include a prefatory chapter on hobbits raises the question of who is narrating, and who is being narrated to, which I will call for the sake of simplicity the “audience.” By referring to it as the “audience” I refer to the person(s) that the narrator is directly addressing. In imaginative fiction, the author is often different from the narrator, and the reader is different from the person being narrated to. The author assumes another identity in the narrator, and the reader in being narrated to. A narrative becomes especially tantalizing when it assumes information that the reader doesn’t have, but the one being narrated to does. It can also go the other way too, when an author references information the readers have, but the audience or the characters do not.

This sort of narrative requires a much higher level of intellectual engagement with a story than a simple historical narrative, where the author and the reader are not assuming pseudo-identities, nor possessing assumed and unexplained knowledge.

For example, we are merely readers of Homer now, whereas Homer’s audience can only be the ancient Greeks. Homer was really aimed at an audience of Greeks, and he references a lot of things which he assumes only his ancient Greek audience would know. Part of a classicist’s job is to reconstruct the audience to enhance understanding of the literature. Tolkien understood this very well, and exploited its power for his own narrative. The Shire narrative is one fascinating example of this sort of storytelling.

In the prologue, Tolkien very matter-of-factly describes the hobbits by giving us a list of their characteristics. The order of these characteristics, however, is very important. One of the very first nouns associated with them in this explanatory prologue is: unobtrusiveness. The first thing Tolkien and the narrator wants both reader and the ones receiving the narrative to understand is the inconspicuous nature of hobbit-kind. He then goes on to say that they love peace, quiet, and their well-ordered world. This then sets the tone for everything else that is to follow concerning hobbits. This will also set up the most marked contrast in the entire saga: the contrast between the quiet, well-ordered hobbit world and the dark, chaotic outside world.

Again, before Tolkien gives us anything to visualize, he tells us that the hobbits are very unmagical. They possess the ability to disappear and elude notice, but this is due more to their close kinship with the earth than any sort of magical study. This again sets them apart from much of what is to follow, taking place in the mysterious outer world. After this, Tolkien gives us more for our visual imagination: their shortness, their large bare feet, their curly hair, their good-natured faces, and so on.

Once Tolkien has situated us in hobbit culture, he then plunges the readers and those receiving the narrative right into hobbit culture.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The main reason for all the excitement is because of Bilbo’s odd character, and all the rumors surrounding him. Legends have arisen concerning Bilbo, who is an oddity in the calm, peace-loving hobbit community. Bilbo, of course, had returned from his adventures in The Hobbit a very different person than he was when he left. None of the hobbit folk seem to know anything at all about those adventures, except that Gandalf the wizard was involved.

If we have read The Hobbit, we the readers have knowledge that many of the characters do not. It is difficult to speculate what the audience would have known about it. Presumably, they know something about it because Tolkien makes reference to it. However, the readers know why Bilbo is so odd. That gives us the power of assumed knowledge within the narrative (if you have read The Hobbit), as we the readers are not entirely in the dark.

One of the best narrative tricks, in my opinion, is assumed knowledge. An author can use that trick to create a tapestry, without overdoing details, or wasting long paragraphs in arduous description.

Returning to the actual narrative, Tolkien turns his attention to a conversation that takes place between several old hobbits, including Ham Gamgee (Samwise’s father), and they reminisce about the history of the Baggins family, and particularly about Bilbo. This is all appropriate, considering how much of a stir Bilbo was causing.

One example of the assumed knowledge of the audience is the feud between the Baggins and the Sackville-Baggins families. It is never made explicit exactly what the feud is about, but the assumed audience knows apparently. The first reference comes on page 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring: “except for the Sackville-Bagginses, of course.” The phrase “of course” is in this instance the big clue. Even though we tend to ignore phrases like that due to overuse, in this case, it has a very particular purpose. It’s essentially saying “as you already know” or “there’s no need to explain.”

There are several more scattered references to the Sackville-Bagginses throughout, brought up in similar ways. They come up in the first conversation of the book mentioned above, as well as on the first page. References to them are fairly frequent, though easy to overlook.

Another example comes from Bilbo’s speech at his and Frodo’s birthday party. After some preliminary remarks, he also speaks about the day as Frodo’s birthday. He says, “’I should say: OUR birthday. For it is, of course also the birthday of my heir and nephew, Frodo. He comes of age and into his inheritance today.’” After the quotation, the narrator says, “The Sackville-Bagginses scowled, and wondered what was meant by ‘coming into his inheritance.’” This is one of the few slightly more explicit references to the Sackville-Bagginses and their desire to take over Bilbo’s estate after he dies. Their hopes were “dashed” when Bilbo adopted Frodo as his heir.

It is never fully explained exactly what is going on between the Bagginses and the Sackville-Bagginses, but one can guess that it is a simple matter of family greed. Probably a relatively common occurrence in our own lives. You may ask: Why is this so important? What has it to do with the story? Well, it is because it is so unimportant a detail that it is important. It is that unimportant detail that affords the audience and the reader enhanced understanding of hobbit-folk, and helps us further appreciate the contrast that is to come. Petty, intergenerational feuds aren’t spoken of in the rest of the saga, because the rest of Middle Earth has better things to worry about than eccentric relatives and their supposed fortunes. The unimportance of the feud provides a jarring contrast once the hobbits leave the Shire and become involved in much greater doings.

It is quite likely that your family has a Sackville-Baggins-like branch, or perhaps your own immediate family is made up of Sackville-Bagginses. Tolkien’s readers (and perhaps his audience too) have almost certainly had experience with this sort of family feud. Most of us know what it is like to have at least one eccentric relative, who perhaps has a bit more money than he or she ought to have.

We are, as readers, perhaps meant to identify more fully with the hobbit-folk. As modern readers to whom these books still apply, we understand hobbit-folk more than we understand wizards and elves, whose ways are explained much less and are meant to be less understood.

This is perhaps one of the many reasons why we find The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings so fascinating and enduring, because of the Tolkien’s close attention to detail and his use of such devices.

This sort of writing does not apply merely to Tolkien’s works, or to imaginative fiction. It applies to historical narrative, biography, and any number of works you may run across. Understanding these distinctions can illuminate a narrative text of any kind; they add depth and significance. For readers, and writers as well, knowledge of these narrative tricks can increase understanding of anything you might encounter in the literary realm, or even in the realm of conversation and live storytelling.

For members of the Tolkien fandom, perhaps this post gives readers yet another excuse to reread the trilogy in a whole new light. There is an underlying cleverness beneath the hobbits that goes undetected very easily, yet it links us, the readers, with the text itself. Tolkien fans don’t need to remove their shoes and eat a second breakfast in order to identify themselves with hobbit-folk; the author has already identified them with hobbit-folk in many ways. We, as readers, get to experience the adventures of danger and darkness alongside the hobbits rather than as mere spectators. Like them, we are new to the adventures and very quickly become immersed in them, and changed by them.

A shorter version of this post may also be found on this excellent site, along with other amazing articles on a wide variety of topics:


Mankind and the Stars


The 2007 film Stardust, based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, begins with this question: “Are we human because we look at the stars, or do we look at the stars because we are human?” It is a striking question that resonates with thousands of years of mankind’s gazing upwards.

The most ancient civilizations studied the stars. They tracked their movements, using them for predicting the future, for navigation, or for poetic inspiration. Innumerable myths have arisen surrounding the stars, making them either an object of superstition or worship. All throughout literary history, the heavens remain a commonplace, though not without a great variety of approaches.

We have probably all stared into the night sky and marveled at the stars, with all their distance and mystery. We see them as something utterly beyond our ken, and as something that inspires awe and perhaps even a sense of smallness.

2015-8-20 Stars img02.jpg

How do we human beings relate to the stars? Starting at the very beginning of time, I will first explore two examples that recount the creation of the world, one from the secular realm, and the other from the Old Testament.

Beginning with the secular realm, my first example is from Ovid’s masterpiece the Metamorphoses, first published in 8 AD. The work recounts in fifteen books over 250 myths from the ancient world, particularly stories of transformation or change. For example, it recounts how Zeus changed his paramour Io into a cow, or how the nymph Daphne came to be transformed into a laurel tree.

The Metamorphoses begins with a fanciful account of the origin of the world and the creation of human beings. According to this account, it was an unknown god who fashioned the world and all that is in it. He created men last, and “to man he gave a heavenly face, and commanded him to gaze at the sky, and to lift his upturned face to the stars” (85-6).[1]  In an earlier line, Ovid says that this god made mankind “in effigiem…deorum” (83), or in the image of the gods.

Stargazing is a feature peculiar to the “erectos,” or the upright creatures; it is held in common with both gods and men. Unlike the animals, the anatomy of the creatures who walk upright demands that they look at the heavens, they are heavenly image-bearers. As the narrative goes on, men slowly become less and less human, and in the case of some such as Lycaon,[2] they are given animal bodies instead. They are no longer worthy of their upright carriage, or of looking at the heavens.

Stars are even more important to the Biblical narrative, as we can see from Genesis 1:14 onward. God created the stars for many purposes: for light, for seasons, and for signs. God uses stars all throughout the Biblical narrative, from Abram to the Star of Bethlehem to the final prophecies in the book of Revelation. The stars are a part of God’s vast and beautiful creation, which He uses to communicate with His people. God put the stars in the sky for the benefit of human creatures, and filled His Word with many poetic references to them. He speaks to human beings in terms of the familiar creation, as creatures who were made to gaze at the stars, for whose benefit the stars were created.

There is an uncanny parallel between Ovid’s unknown creator god and the God of the Old Testament, who said (Genesis 1:26) that He would create man in His own image. As an image bearer of God, we were also made to look to the heavens and to marvel at the vastness of God’s creation and the stars He put there for our use. In both Ovid and the Old Testament, human beings or “erectos” (in Ovid referring to mortal beings), have a connection to the divine realm through their ability to gaze at the heavens.

That relationship is the motivating force behind Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante ends each of the three books of the Divine Comedy with the words “the stars.” Ending each book with “the stars” reinforces the upward direction of Dante’s spiritual journey towards heaven. This is the central theme of the entire work:

“We climbed…until
though a small round opening ahead of us
I saw the lovely things the heavens hold,
and we came out to see once more the stars” (136-39).[3]

“Is not God high in the heavens? See the highest stars, how lofty they are!” (Job 22:12 ESV). Dante’s references to the stars may recall this verse in the mind of the devout readers, and perhaps intends to remind us of the proper direction of our own spiritual journeys.

In the secular realm, humankind’s relationship with the heavens is far more nebulous The stars are still beautiful and intriguing, but treated with more skepticism and less superstition.

One example comes from ancient Rome, from the pen of the poet Catullus, who left behind a literary corpus both vile and charming. A fair number of the poems chronicle his turbulent love affair with “Lesbia,” which went from an ecstatic high to the deepest despair. In the midst of his euphoria, he wrote Poem 7.

In this poem, he asks Lesbia to give him a number of kisses outnumbering the stars. By doing so, he elevates their love affair to the mysterious and the solemnizing. It draws them both outside of themselves and infuses their love affair with cosmic importance. The poem concludes that invoking the stars in this way, and the underlying concept of infinitude, will prevent people from being able to “mala fascinare lingua” (12), or place curses on the happy couple. The stars here are a superstitious means by which the desperate lover might find some assurance for the future of his love, as well as an effective poetic device.

My next example is from another genre entirely, but still relevant. Shakespeare, the consummate poet, does not use the stars quite in the way you might expect. For example, Sonnet 14 contrasts most strongly with the Catullus poem. Unlike Catullus, Shakespeare rejects any knowledge or benefit he might attain by means of the stars:

“Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
and yet methinks I have astronomy,
But not to tell of good or evil luck

But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive….” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 14)

The stars are just for the superstitious; whatever you might learn from them is useless in love. As the rest of the poem states, the only “stars” that matter are his lover’s eyes. He scorns all the usual superstitious nonsense associated with the stars. There’s no point in astrology or fortune-telling, since the most important duty in life is procreating (the main theme throughout all of the sonnets).

Another example from the Shakespearean corpus is from Hamlet, act 2, scene 2, when the character Polonius reads a “love letter” from Hamlet to his daughter Ophelia:

“Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love” (116-19).

Who cares about the sun and the stars? Hamlet is essentially saying, “even if you doubt something as immovable as the stars, don’t doubt my love.” On that basis, Hamlet implies that his love is more trustworthy.

This quote relates to Sonnet 14 because it uses a similar rhetorical device, denying the relevance of all else except for himself and his lover. This contrasts with Catullus, who invokes the stars as a desperate means of protecting himself against jealous rivals and heartbreak. Shakespeare prefers the inner realm, without all the superstitions about the stars.

According to the Biblical account, God created the stars for mankind’s use and enjoyment. The modern world, represented here by Dante and Shakespeare, has demonstrated of a shift in attitude towards the stars, perhaps as a result of the progress made in astronomy. Dante’s attitude indicates more sophisticated knowledge of the heavens, yet the stars still retain their original purpose given by God. Shakespeare’s treatment of the heavens suggests that the usual poetical conventions surrounding the stars had grown hackneyed, and he deliberately turned the usual convention on its head and gave it new life.

As demonstrated by their prevalence in literature, the heavens loom large in our imagination. We are attracted by their vastness and mystery, and find inspiration in them. Though we may know more about the stars, and have a more humanistic view of our relationship towards them, their enigmatic, unattainable beauty still remains. The answer to the question Neil Gaiman asks seems clear: We gaze at the stars because we are human, and we are human also because we gaze at the stars.

[1] My own translation.

[2] Lycaon was the king of Arcadia. He offended Zeus, who turned him into a wolf as punishment.

The Morality of Translating

Translations of great works are a commonplace; we go the bookstore and pick up a translation of anything, from Plato’s Republic to The Brothers Karamazov, but we may not think about the moral and practical difficulties of translation.

We generally purchase translations because we cannot read the work in the original language. We therefore put our faith in the translator, trusting that they know both the original and translation language well enough to communicate accurately the meaning of the original text. .

We are implicitly trusting in both a translator’s skill and sense of moral obligation or reverence towards a text.

This had never occurred to me until one of my Latin professors brought it up. The class was primarily about the translation and discussion of Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae – Catiline’s War – though the professor loved talking about the nature of translating and even language itself.

When the professor spoke about translating, his words often had a distinctly moral tone, which eventually brought me to a realization: I had a duty towards the text. The professor characterized it as a “moral relationship” which implies obligation.

Now, what do I mean by “moral?” When I say I have a “moral relationship” with a text, I mean that I am obligated to exercise as much honesty and objectivity as possible towards the text.

This moral relationship theoretically excludes uncritically throwing words in simply because I need something there, or “just getting the gist.” It should exclude deliberately obfuscating the meaning of a word because I find it unpalatable. It should also exclude purposely mistranslating a text to make it say what I think it ought to say rather than what it actually says.

Now like many things that all sounds great in theory. In practice, the act of translation is much more difficult.

I’ll spend the rest of this article outlining a few of the major obstacles translators face. Some of them are obvious, but others are less so.

The most obvious consideration is the historical context, or how a work relates to the historical era in which it appeared. It is somewhat difficult to understand a work like the Bellum Catilinae without at least some understanding of the political climate of republican Rome at the time, and some knowledge of the characters. The narrative of that work would make no sense without understanding the Roman context.

Secondly, there is linguistic context, which involves understanding how the meanings of certain words evolved over time, and how it relates to the historical context of a work. Thirdly, there is cultural context, which is perhaps even more elusive than either of the other contexts. The farther removed from any culture a translator is, the more difficult it is to understand the cultural connotations. This can involve a lot of guesswork.

One fairly common linguistic difficulty is the “hapax legomenon,” [] or a word that only occurs once, either in a particular author’s work, or the entire corpus of literature in any language. In either case, it can be extremely difficult to determine the real meaning of a word. If it only occurs once in a certain author’s work, though it may be frequent elsewhere, we cannot always be certain how that particular author uses it, which comes down to not having enough context from which to judge.

Puns, wordplay, poetic devices, etc. all vary depending on the languages. These kinds of peculiarities rarely translate into another language and retain their original impact. Even a virtuoso translator may sacrifice accuracy in order to preserve the original word order or wordplay. In those cases, a translator makes a moral judgment about the text: whether it is acceptable to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of the wordplay, or sacrifice wordplay for the sake of accuracy.

For example, consider the famous adage “carpe diem” or “seize the day” from the Roman poet Horace (Carmina 1.11.8). This was parodied by the irreverent poet Ovid when he wrote “carpe viam,” or “seize the way” (Metamorphoses Book 8). We English-speakers are fortunate that “day” and “way” happen to rhyme and are accurate translations of the Latin, which means that the humor of the original isn’t entirely lost on us.

A more typical example of wordplay comes from a play by the Roman playwright Plautus, from his Menaechmi. Plautus set the play in a fictional town called “Epidamnus” which is a pun on the word “damnus,” meaning “loss.” The word “damnus” shows up a fair amount throughout the text but it is very difficult to render the puns in English without changing the original meaning.

Another difficulty is that there is virtually no way of capturing the spirit of the original in translation. The professor mentioned above used to say of his favorite literary theorist, “I never actually read Bakhtin. I only read translations of him.” He meant that sometimes a translator can only get bare ideas across but not necessarily the personality and flavor of the author. The translation is then just a skeleton of the original.

We could perhaps understand it with the epics of Homer as an example, coming from a long tradition of oral recitation and a rich background of mythology. We only receive a skeletal impression when we read it in translation, especially because we don’t get a sense of the original meter or the frequent onomatopoeic words, both of which are peculiar to Greek. We learn the storyline, and interact with the characters and their actions, though it is only the framework.

Finally, as translators, we can’t help but give up some small piece of ourselves to our work. This is especially the case when we dedicate ourselves to our translations. We can’t help but leave our own fingerprints all over some other author’s work when we try to translate it.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from one text translated by two very different men: The text is the first ten lines of the Odyssey, while our translators are Alexander Pope and T.E. Lawrence. Both men can from radically different eras and backgrounds, but they both translated the Odyssey. This first excerpt is from Alexander Pope’s Odyssey, the first 10 lines.

“The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,

Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound;

Who, when his arms had wrought the destined fall

Of sacred Troy, and razed her heaven-built wall,

Wandering from clime to clime, observant stray’d,

Their manners noted, and their states survey’d,

On stormy seas unnumber’d toils he bore,

Safe with his friends to gain his natal shore:

Vain toils! their impious folly dared to prey

On herds devoted to the god of day;

The god vindictive doom’d them never more

(Ah, men unbless’d!) to touch that natal shore.

Oh, snatch some portion of these acts from fate,

Celestial Muse! and to our world relate.”

Now read the same Greek lines, rendered by T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. “Lawrence of Arabia”:

“O Divine Poesy, Goddess-Daughter of Zeus, sustain for me

The song of the various-minded man, who after he

Had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy

Was made to stray grievously about the coasts of men

The sport of their customs good or bad

While his heart through all the sea-faring

Ached in an agony to redeem himself

And bring his company safe home, vain hope for them

For his fellows he strove in vain

Their own witlessness cast them away, the fools

To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted sun

Wherefore the sun-god blotted out the day of their return

Make the tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.”

The two translators are translating the same words, but the results are radically different. Alexander Pope’s translation seem to reflect his background as an intellectual who prefers refinement. His word-choice at the beginning is rather revealing. Pope uses the word “wisdom” in the first line, referring to Odysseus’ well-known tendency as “polutropos,” or as Lawrence translates it, “various-minded.” Other translations can be “crafty,” “shrewd,” “tricky,” “slippery,” take your pick. The Greek word implies all of them. Calling it “wisdom’s various arts” is indicative of Pope’s understanding of the term “polutropos,” and from that we may infer what motivated his word choice. Perhaps he prefers a more intellectual Odysseus, rather than the double-tongued Odysseus. Perhaps he can only imagine an Odysseus who is something of a philosopher like himself. Pope would have perhaps prized refined intellect over street-smarts. T.E. Lawrence, on the other hand, chose “various-minded.” That translation implies something more like “duplicitous” or “versatile.” Lawrence almost certainly would have been more likely to imagine a swashbuckling, tricky-minded Odysseus than a wise philosopher. So we see how men from two different eras and backgrounds can produce such radically different translations.

How then do we know what Homer actually means? The translations of even that one word so greatly diverge, and yet all of them are more or less correct. Are the authors cited above abusing their moral relationship with the text? If so, how do we make that call? That is the more difficult question. I would argue that the above authors committed no errors; they simply illustrated the inevitably personal nature of translating.

Certainly it is possible to mistranslate deliberately. Consider the following quote from Thomas Hobbes’ translation of the Iliad, lines 2.173-75:

“Deep rooted is the Anger of a King,

To whom high Jove committed has the Law,

And Justice left to his distributing.”

Commentator Eric Nelson says, “This is a significant departure. The Greek text says nothing here about Jove entrusting kings with ‘law’ and the task of ‘distributing’ justice. The original states merely that ‘their honor comes from Zeus – they’re dear to Zeus, the god who rules the world.’”[1] Perhaps the philosopher Hobbes couldn’t resist putting his own spin on the text, but this leaves the reader with the wrong impression of what the author intended. For that reason, it is deceptive.

In short, all those obstacles comprise the moral conundrum of translation. In many ways, it is inevitable. Removing ourselves from the process of translating is to render the task itself impossible, since no machine could ever translate from one language to another with all the peculiarities of human communication. Yet at the same time, we are intimately invested in every aspect of translation, whether in word choice or rhyme or emphasis.

It may seem impossible to reconcile our moral relationship with the text and the unavoidable problems associated with translating, but that relationship still exists. The only solution is to understand the difficulties. No one will ever be able to produce the perfect translation. We can only acknowledge the monumental nature of translating, and if we are the translators, give as much reverence and understanding to the task as we possibly can.

[1] Footnotes like this riddle Nelson’s edition of Hobbes’ “translation.”