The Language of Naivete and Experience in Fellowship of the Ring
Naiveté is the Name (minus Strider)
A snarky kind of sentiment arises within me as I read The Lord of the Rings again because I’ve never really noticed the full extent to which the hobbits bungle about the quest and show their complete, initial lack of understanding in what is involved. What is particularly striking on this read through are the words and how the way a character uses and reacts to a word, which assists in defining that character. Not that anyone would ever expect that kind of pandemonium from a linguist. Consequently, I am indebted to Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion for showing me that the very name Baggins holds within it a large score of jokes within The Hobbit. Meant by Tolkien to recall the end of a bag or a pudding bag (also synonymous with cul-de-sac), Bilbo Baggins tells Smaug in The Hobbit that “I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.” Consequently, Bilbo lives at Bag End, a little hobbit hole at the end of a lane, much like a cul-de-sac. If that isn’t enough, Tom Shippey observes that in the Oxford English Dictionary, baggins also signifies the custom of taking an afternoon tea – a practice that Bilbo Baggins is especially adamant about.
Finally, the name Bag-End used as a substitute for cul-de-sac takes on yet another level of the comic in revealing something about the linguistic preferences of the author. For Tolkien as a linguist detested the influence the French language had on English. According to Shippey, the assumption regarding French and English words were that French words were higher in sophistication while English words were lower and if must be used, they should be Frenchified. So while cul-de-sac isn’t officially from the French language, it is noted as stirring up that notion of class feeling, French words vs. English words (premiering on channel 67 later tonight!). Ergo, instead of using a word that might be Frenchified, Tolkien opts for a more English word, Bag-End. And knowing that, it’s hard to miss the underdog rising up to take down Goliath, though Tolkien’s weapon is a word, not a slingshot.
This is the Story of a Word Use (and what it reveals)
Getting back to the subject of words, it is, on one level, humorous to see how the naïveté of the hobbits is revealed by the way they use certain words – and in the process, are constantly remonstrated by those in the know. The term Black Rider and all the other terms associated with these terrifying creatures is one example. The term is first used among outsiders in the chapter “Three is Company”. Thus far in the quest, the hobbits have hidden from Black Riders on the journey to Frodo’s new home in Crickhollow and they have learned that these Black Riders are asking after Frodo. But that is the extent of their information. Now examine the following passage marking the first use of the term.
“O Wise people!” interrupted Pippin eagerly. “Tell us about the Black Riders!”
“Black Riders?” they said in low voices. “Why do you ask about Black Riders?”
The Elves did not answer at once, but spoke together softly in their own tongue. At length, Gildor turned to the hobbits. “We will not speak of this here,” he said. “We think you had better come with us. It is not our custom, for this time we will take you on our road, and you shall lodge with us tonight, if you will.”
Note, if you will, the discrepancy between how Pippin acts about the Black Riders and how the Elves react. Pippin’s question is asked eagerly, reminiscent of a young student asking about a concept simply to receive back the desired information. At this point, the Black Riders are just a question to be answered. Examining the Elves response to the Black Riders and the way they use the term, it becomes clear quickly that Black Riders means something darker and more sinister to them. Something to be discussed in low voices and then set aside until a safer location is reached. Yet more importantly, upon hearing about the Black Riders, the elves decide to forsake their custom and take the hobbits with them – no small matter for Elves. Also having read The Hobbit, one can’t help but note that this is of some import when the elves didn’t assist the dwarves and Bilbo when they ran into them (although the circumstances were different enough that it is more understandable in that instance). The reaction of the Elves to the word, when compared with Pippin’s, already shows which one is not in the know.
Yet while their ignorance (or, to be more specific, Pippin’s) is revealed in small measure by the Elves, it becomes even clearer when they meet Strider. Already, Frodo knows that others scorn Strider, a Ranger who has plenty of tales to tell when he has a mind to. Strider already displays a more serious, cautious demeanor than Frodo and certain comments he makes suggests he knows more about Frodo and his quest than Frodo would like. Following the debacle at the inn of the Prancing Pony in which Frodo accidentally puts on the Ring, Frodo meets Strider in his room just as Strider had proposed. What follows is a series of moments in which Frodo reveals his ignorance through the use of the word Black Rider while Strider reveals his unwanted experience.
The First Instance
“I knew these horsemen were pursuing me; but at any rate they seem to have missed me and to have gone away.”
“You must not count on that!” said Strider sharply. “They will return. And more are coming. There are others. I know their number. I know these Riders.” He paused, and his eyes were cold and hard.
The Second Instance (a few lines down from the first instance)
“They will come on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help. Do you wish them to find you? They are terrible!”
The hobbits looked at him, and saw with surprise that his face was drawn as if with pain, and his hands clenched the arms of his chair. The room was very quiet and still, and the light seemed to have grown dim. For a while, he sat with unseeing eyes as if walking in distant memory or listening to sounds in the Night far away.”
The Third Instance (found in A Knife in the Dark)
“I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.”
“Do not speak of such things!” said Strider quickly and with surprising earnestness.
Over and over again, the way Strider uses a word and the way Frodo uses a word displays their knowledge about that word. In the first instance, Frodo quickly dismisses the danger that the horsemen imposes. His reaction shows a lack of concern that, while not apathetic, becomes troubling when considering Strider’s reaction to the word. Strider’s response to Frodo’s use of the word is sharp and he admits in brief, punctured phrases that he knows more about the Riders. That knowledge influences him, as becomes clear in the second instance in which his reaction following his use of the word becomes increasingly visceral. Again, his fear of the riders shows them just how far they have to go in understanding a word that is at the moment still a foreign notion to them. Finally, in the last instance, it becomes clear that even joking about such a concept as Black Riders and wraiths is dangerous. Yet what is especially dangerous about the joke is that Frodo doesn’t realize just how tangible that possibility it is. At that moment in time, the joke is again, for him, based on a notion that is still somewhat ludicrous. Him? Become a wraith? Hardly. Only at the end of the chapter, that ludicrous notion becomes a very tangible, very real threat posed to him.
What’s Words Got to Do with It?
Many people often say that literature and writing has no real value. It’s just fluff. At least, not in terms of what the field of science, math and programming contribute to society. Yet the more practical fields don’t convey the kind of analysis of society, possible threats imposed by different institutions, or the power of words in the way literature conveys. I doubt anyone would call George Orwell’s 1984 fluff. And Uptown Sinclair’s The Jungle certainly had its moment of contribution to society, though not in the way Sinclair intended. But in terms of this moment, what do words have to do with it? What is the overarching meaning that one can take from the hobbits and the way they use words?
The temptation might be to let the naïve use of one term perpetuated by a group of hobbits remain in the story. But that would be a grave error. For, on going through the journey with Frodo and seeing his use of words in comparison with how others use words, we can better understand those learning moments in which we use words that aren’t quite as real to us also. A friend of mine who grew up in Albania once confessed how as a young child, she was in another country when she and her sister learned that the term “cookie” was quite offensive. Being young kids, no one told them just what cookie meant, so they decided to start shouting cookie while in a line. This decision didn’t last very long simply because of the way everyone around them reacted with intense discomfort.
Yet there are other words that we might use in a familiar way while never fully understanding the term. The term “war” for instance will doubtless have more of a meaning to someone who has been in one than one who has seen a video of one. Like Aragorn who experienced the Black Riders, people who have been in war will doubtless have more of a reaction, internal or external, when they use that word. I still remember the uncomfortable day when, sitting in my Spanish class watching a clip of the Motorcycle Diaries, my professor started crying. He, being from Chile, had the misfortune of seeing some friends being shot and the movie recalled that experience to him where for us students, the movie acted as a tool to gain information. For that professor, words like war would mean something different and it would doubtless be reflected in the way he talked about it. And we were, to a less extreme, like Pippin inquiring after words that would never mean what it meant to that professor.
Of course, while there are words that we probably use without much thought or understanding, life provides us with an intimate understanding of some words that many others around us do not have. Dog conveys a different response to a dog owner than to one who has little experience with a dog. So do terms like heart attack, cancer or leukemia for those who have either experienced it or watched someone experience it. And unfortunately, other terms that some have experienced and others have not provides a large gap in communication about those words. And if we are among the experienced, do we not feel that instinct to sharply correct any naïve use of our words just as Aragorn corrected the naïve use of the word Black Rider? If we are among the inexperienced, do we not continue to show some lack of understanding that can never be fully compensated except by experience?
Perhaps the problem of our word use will never be fully resolved. We don’t know our naïveté until someone of experience comes along and points it out to us. Or we don’t know our experience until we see someone showing the lack of experience. At times, this can be quite vexing for both parties. Having been in both parties at different times, it seems that the naïve party requires at times a higher willingness to be patient, show compassion and express a higher willingness to listen to the one with experience (among other qualities, I’m certain). Oh, and the willingness to set aside pride is imperative! For the one with experience, patience is again needed along with the understanding that the person being addressed does not have the benefit of experience. The one in experience should also strive to be as considerate of the feelings of the other (provided the other isn’t an enormous jerk) because it can be rather humiliating to not be in the know. And for that matter, a certain measure of being able to put up with ignorance is required (though I would say there certainly are limits). But in any case, we can at least understand how some words will always mean more to others just as other words will always mean more to us than those around us.
And that is the lesson that comes from some hobbits and the audacity they express in their naïve use of a term they don’t fully understand at this point.
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