1937 & 1951: Do the uncommon words differ?

A few weeks ago, we noticed that the longest sustained high frequency of uncommon words takes place in Chapters 3, 4, and 5 – in Rivendell, captured by goblins, and with Gollum.  Surely that’s not the rhetorical peak of the work – what is happening in these chapters?  We examined those special word categories we’ve been tracking – archaic words, food words, and sound words – and found a huge peak:

2015.06.15 Sound & Uncommon Graph

What was Tolkien doing with all those sound words – clearly the purple Sound Word graph drives the red Uncommon Words graph.  We do remember that the purple line is on a 1/3 scale: when the purple and red lines match, the number of sound words is about 1/3 of the total number of uncommon words at that point.  Although they’re not identical, the coincidence of the peaks at “a small slimy creature” and the similarity of the shapes of those peaks is suggestive.

Earlier I asked “How did Tolkien do that?”  Today I ask… “How did he do it and what did he do?”  Tolkien’s subtle hand with words operates on multiple levels.  As Blackwelder observed:

We may assume that a reader is following the story and the characters and may sometimes fail to notice the unusual words, phrases, or even passages.

We come out into the sunlight at the end of Chapter 5 breathing a huge sigh of relief… when we were safe at home in our comfortable reading chairs the whole time.  How did he use the words, phrases, and passages to effect us emotionally – subliminally?

Well then, let’s take advantage of the writing and publication history of The Hobbit and take a close look at Chapter 5, the chapter which we know he changed in order to change the facts and the feeling of the story.  Here is the graph of uncommon words of Chapter 5 as it was written in 1937.  For this much smaller sample, I used a rolling average on windows of 200 words.


I’ve placed a few textual landmarks – I love that “scrumptiously crunchable” is one peak and that the highest frequency is right at the end of the riddle game as Gollum is waiting for Bilbo’s last question.

You can see an artificial valley right as Gollum cannot find the ring, another one from about word 4250 to word 4900, and the largest and last one after Bilbo puts on the ring which stretches until he and Gollum part ways.  I call these “artificial valleys” because at these points the 1951 Chapter 5 has different paragraphs and I inserted the word “and” in each spot enough times to match those 1951 paragraphs’ word count without making a false image of uncommon words.

We’ve looked at which words are new in the 1951 edition (and which were lost from the 1937); are those words evenly distributed through the chapter?  Keep your eyes on those artificial valleys as I show you the 1951 graph overlaid on this 1937.


Look at those valleys!  Over all three 1937 valleys are towering 1951 mountains of uncommon words!  When he wrote those extra paragraphs, Tolkien pulled out the stops.  “Pocketses” and “Curse us and crush us!”  In the “curse us and crush us” spot in 1937, Gollum repeats “bless us and splash us”!  What effect did Tolkien accomplish and how did he do it?  I’m going there in the next blog post.

You can even see the small artificial valleys in the bright red line where I inserted “and” in the 1951 to make up the word count from the extra 1937 paragraphs.  Those 1937 paragraphs which were removed were definitely not peak word moments, they toddled along in a manner that looks pretty average for the rest of the chapter.  Notice that the graphs remain the same shape but become disjoined during the riddle game?  That follows a few spots where 1951 adds just a few words in just a few sentences, pushing that bright red 1951 line slightly rightward.

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