The Two Towers by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991,2007) pp.583-591
I was going to give this piece the title of “On Hobbits and Coping With Difficulties” but then I asked myself the question, “how would Ted Sandyman deal with this?”, or Lotho Sackville Baggins or the Shirrifs who arrest Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin on their return to the Shire after all their adventures? The point is that hobbits have as much variety in character as any other people.
So let us return to the way in which Merry and Pippin try to cope with the horror of being taken prisoner by orcs. In last week’s piece we found Pippin briefly giving into self-pity and we saw that this is a trope that runs through the story up until the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But then we saw how Pippin rapidly turned from this to the practical problem of getting free. Pippin, in particular, is not given to very much introspection but both he and Merry share a particular quality together and that is to try to make light of difficulty by the use of humour.
Later in the story Merry will speak of this to Aragorn in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith.
“It is the way of my people to use light words at such times and say less than they mean. We fear to say too much. It robs us of the right words when a jest is out of place.”
You only have to open your mouth in England and say a few words and the person with whom you are speaking will begin the process of placing you in a particular social background and will start to treat you accordingly. But class is not something that is set in stone in English culture. It is possible to move from a lower to higher class. Education plays an important role in this process and Tolkien’s education at King Edward’s school in Birmingham and at Oxford University meant that when war came in 1914 he was made an officer and not placed among the ranks.
And it is in the rhythms of speech and the language used by Tolkien’s fellow officers that we will find Merry and Pippin. The use of “light words” is not only a characteristic of the officer class in England it is regarded as essential behaviour. And so Merry speaks of the horror of being taken captive by orcs as “a little expedition” a country walking holiday at the end of which “bed and breakfast” will be found in a pleasant country cottage. By speaking in this manner Merry signals to Pippin that he is alright and Pippin is reassured. And so we see the interplay in The Lord of the Rings between the England of the early 20th century in which Tolkien grew up and the heroic age whose literature Tolkien loved. Again it is an interplay about which Merry and Pippin comment in Minas Tirith when Pippin speaks of having to live “on the heights” as he is brought out of the Shire, the England of the early 20th century, into the heroic world that is represented by Aragorn and Faramir, for example.
We might briefly comment upon the Orcs before concluding these thoughts. Readers of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis might remember how Lewis comments on how, in The Magician’s Nephew, Frank, the London cab driver (my grandfather’s profession by the way), begins to revert to the country style of speech that he would have used before moving to London in search of work. This style of speech is the same that Sam Gamgee uses and Lewis is commenting on this reversion favourably. The opposite direction of travel is towards an urban style of speech that is used by Bill Sykes in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, for example, and expresses his brutal nature. This is the language of the Orcs. Both Tolkien and Lewis hated the effect, as they saw it, that urban living had upon people and it is no mistake that the orcs often live in the industrial landscapes of Isengard and Mordor. Could Orcs make the same journey that Frank does in The Magician’s Nephew? I will leave that question to my readers.