1937 & 1951: What does the change in diction reveal?

Why does Tolkien use sound words more densely in the new 1951 paragraphs of Chapter 5 than in the earlier edition?  As Corey Olsen says (2015), the caverns and tunnels are just as dark in 1937.  In this project, we focus on register: what change in register did Tolkien achieve in his later edition?  Gollum in 1951 is based on Gollum of The Lord of the Rings – more wicked, more tragic (Olsen 2012).  The ring of invisibility, so convenient for burglars, must now hint of the menace and sleeping evil of the One Ring.

So.  Wicked register, tragic, menacing, evil.  Dangerous, slippery, slimy, decaying.  Unclean, unwholesome.  Tolkien used a thicker density of sounds, particularly hissing esses and Gollum’s just-a-bit-off sibilant speech, to create corrupt register.  Our noses twitch with instinctive disgust.  With our new tools, we see at the word level what other scholars assert at the plot, character, and concept level.

I suggest one more step back to an even wider view.  We are reading Bilbo’s memoirs.  In the 1937 edition, winning the riddle game was the high point of the uncommon words, the sound words, the danger, the excitement of the chapter.  Bilbo’s writing thereafter is less intense, matching less-intense memories.  In 1951, once leaving the sanctity of the riddle game, the danger increased and Bilbo, charged with the memory of adrenaline and excitement, wrote more vividly of the sounds which twanged his every taut nerve.


I observe that Lexos was developed to find the change in the hand which held the pen – to detect when a different scribe took over the copying of a manuscript by finding the patterns in the small differences in a few key penstrokes.  In the difference between the lavender sound words of 1937 and the bright purple sound words of 1951, do we detect the difference between the hand of a hobbit making up an unremarkable story which he hopes no one will press him about and the hand of an older hobbit who understands that the true tale must be told and in writing it relives the adventure in its heart-stopping fullness?

‘Very well,’ said Bilbo. ‘I will do as you bid. But I will now tell the true story, and if some here have heard me tell it otherwise’ – he looked sidelong at Glóin – ‘I ask them to forget it and forgive me. I only wished to claim the treasure as my very own in those days, and to be rid of the name of thief that was put on me. But perhaps I understand things a little better now. Anyway, this is what happened.’

Olsen, Corey. Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Olsen, Corey. Personal correspondence. July 5, 2015. email.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 249). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s