Sound Play: So What?

We observed previously that the sound words are fairly steady through the work with two peaks:

2015.07.09 Sound Only Graph

Chapter 9 Barrels Out Of Bond is full of grumbling, snoring, slapstick bumbling about, and sneezing – here are the thirty nine culprits which form that little peak: trotting clang bumped clank clink snored trotting bumped grunted racket thumped grumbling grumbling snoring bumping grumbled grumbled bump ho plump splash bump smacking thudding splash spluttering bumping creak bump dripping drippings sneezes snivel racket sneeze sneeze sneezed creaked grumbled.

Early on I entertained the idea that poetry was an indicator of high register.  Ahem.  One rousing chorus of [01.064] “Chip the glasses and crack the plates!” soon cured me of that, although I maintain that once Thorin declares himself, the register of the poetry rises, even including the reprise of Tra-la-la-lally.  I thought, “How can I measure poetical words within the prose?”  It’s too easy to cherry-pick one’s examples without a strict criterion, so I thought of onomatopoeia – poetry words that could be identified objectively.  Lucky for us, the OED marks words that are onomatopoetic – including echoic and imitative words – so I let those awesome editors make the human-yet-objective identifications for me.

Sound-play words became my measurement of poesy, and I abandoned all pretense of calling these words “high” register immediately, and of marking them either “low” or “high” very shortly after that.

In the end, it’s Chapter 5 which uses sound play words like the instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra.  After all, the chapter is not titled “Riddles in the Well Lit Parlour with Plenty of Visual Images”.

The exciting news for us is that we can measure exactly what Tolkien changed between his two editions of Chapter 5, and we know exactly why he made those changes.  We’ve proven that the new paragraphs were full of uncommon words, we’ve proven that those new paragraphs were full of sound words.  I believe we can conclude positively that the sounds of stagnant water and deep-throated swallowing and Gollum words and a preponderance of initial-S words are Tolkien’s specific instruments for creating the tone of decay and corruption which emanates from The Ring.  I would be excited to carry this idea forward to examine the ring-influenced portions of The Lord of the Rings.

So what?  So we have a tool – a robust and valid tool – for seeking the influence of the Ring, of corruption, of evil in Tolkien’s work at a subtler level.  It’s right there, encoded in the sounds of the words, waiting for us to discover.

footnote: alert Word Fans who hang on every graph will realize that this is a new version of the Sound graph made since the decision to count the names Gollum and Roäc and Carc as sound play words.  The scale goes up to 0.03 now to contain that Chapter 5 peak and even the Chapter 9 peak looks rather puny in comparison. For comparison, the overall uncommon words graph scale reaches to 0.070.  See the posts tagged 1937 to see with smaller windows even stronger influence of sound on Chapter 5.

Archaic Words: So What?

When we first considered the pattern of archaic words, I had decided ahead of time that these would indicate high register.  I think I’m going to have to let go of that for now.  Our green line of archaic words does indicate a general rise toward the rhetorical climax of the book.

Archaism with Words

But only 32 words out of 1534 uncommon ones – that’s 2% – qualify as archaic!  We simply don’t have robust findings, as the statistician part of my mind would say.

Let’s set aside the drive to prove something and have a look around.  We discussed earlier that archaic words signal elves in nearby scenes – a reminder that elves live much longer than hobbits.  Elves speaking the same tongue as Bilbo will have learned it centuries before he did and have a lovely old-fashioned diction in that hobbit’s opinion.  As we noted, however, it is the word “merry” which fills most of this trend.  Do thousands of years of life contribute to merriment?  Let us hope so.

When archaic words drop to nothing at all, those are goblin scenes.  Alert Word Fan Grace commented that “elf” and “goblin” may have been interchangeable words in literature before The Hobbit and that Tolkien probably tapped different parts of his vocabulary to express the huge contrast between the different peoples about whom he was writing.  Google’s Ngram viewer indicates through most of the nineteenth century that the two words were used at about the same rate, a suggestion that the words could have been used interchangeably, but before that the Norse-derived word “elf” had been strongly preferred in written English to the French-derived word “goblin”.

We also noted that the goblin scenes are bereft of food words as well – and that when food words are low, Tookishness trends upward!  It’s probably all to the good that Bilbo’s adventurous spirit rises when there are goblins about, now that I think of it.

Tolkien used a light touch with archaic words.  Compare his density of old forms with that of a writer who influenced him, William Morris who piles on real or invented strong past participles, thees and thous, kennings, and poetry in his work House of the Wolfings.  Tolkien enjoyed that story and then improved on the archaic techniques.  He never slowed us readers down by making us puzzle out his meaning.

I still have a drive to chase down archaic words, turns of phrase, and syntax; perhaps in The Lord of the Rings next.  I do admit that I spotted dozens of places in The Hobbit where I expected to see a subjunctive form and didn’t.  It’s a good thing the road goes ever on!

Morris, William. The House of the Wolfings. Project Gutenberg. Kindle Edition.

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.

Food Words: So What?

A few weeks ago, we posted our discoveries about the pattern of food words in The Hobbit.  You may recall our graph of uncommon food words (blue) superimposed on the graph of all uncommon words (red).  We also remember that the two graphs are on different scales: the height of the blue line accounts for a portion of the height of the red line.2015.07.02  Uncommon and Food with Food Line

At the root of my scholarly curiosity lies my childlike question full of wonder, “How does he do that?” I suspect that the proper, serious phrasing is, “How does Tolkien achieve and manipulate register throughout the work?”  I had a notion that Tolkien’s broad expressive vocabulary, developed both personally and professionally, provided numerous and powerful tools in his toolbox for creating high register.  We eliminated the most common words from our consideration and set to work finding patterns in the uncommon words.

If I connect the stars at “six eggs” and Chapters 6, 9, and 13, I have found a lovely pattern of food words decreasing over the course of the work.  We can observe Bilbo developing from a comfortable hobbit concerned with good things to eat into a more experienced and deep character, interested in and partaking of a world wider than breakfast-time, tea-time, and supper-time.  We can also see the places – those stars we just linked – where the food words contribute most strongly to the pattern of uncommon words.

So what?

We see a pattern – and we choose to discuss data points which support an idea we already nourished.  But what do we learn?  Let’s look beyond that convenient and too-simple line.  Bilbo “had only just had breakfast” in the first peak of food words in the first scene of the chapter.  Then the food words decrease parallel to all uncommon words while Bilbo’s Took side begins to rouse.  The food words reassert themselves by the end of Chapter 1 when “The Tookishness was wearing off.” [01.142].  Are food words a sign of Bagginsishness?  The food words even come back more densely than they had been at first as Bilbo takes breakfast orders and bustles about the very proper and Bagginsish hospitable duties of finding beds and linens

[01.142] The Tookishness was wearing off, and he was not now quite so sure that he was going on any journey in the morning.

To make the graph between peaks fall, it takes both hunger and distraction from food words.  It takes pleasant distraction in Chapter 3, fright and fight and flight in Chapter 4, focus and wits and luck in Chapter 5.  But it takes more.  As Chapter 3 begins, the food words plummet while the uncommon words soar steeply. It’s not a slow process but a liminal instant.

[03.006]  “You are come to the very edge of the Wild,

Not many of us reading novels in our comfortable chairs have been truly hungry, nor have we been over the very edge of the Wild.  Bilbo certainly has not.  Across that edge, the narrative voice changes, expands its word-hoard not only speaking less frequently of food but drawing on a wider array of uncommon words to tell of more wonders.

After that long food-impoverished section in Chapters 3, 4, and 5, the food words and Bagginsishness never rise to the same heights.  Mirkwood’s privations and spider-battles show a decrease in food words after which the food words rise again and again do not reach their former heights.  Calling Chapter 12 a “distraction from food” sounds a bit fatuous, but the sight of Smaug and the ensuing battle of wits as well as Bilbo’s quite successful bit of burglary completely drive food words from the text.  After that, empty crockery and cram are the meager sustenance; then war-time drives food back below even the rationing standards of England in the War.

Finally, we get to Chapter 19.  I have suggested previously that Chapter 19 heals.  Bilbo has made his way slowly home.

[18.051]  He had many hardships and adventures before he got back.  The Wild was still the Wild, and there were many other things in it in those days beside goblins; but he was well guided and well guarded – the wizard was with him, and Beorn for much of the way – and he was never in great danger again.

In the final chapter, elven song acknowledges the death and sadness of his adventure while offering up the idea that the green lands are waiting.  He spies his Hill and the seeds of poetry that were quickened in the spider-taunting scene bear fruit.

[19.033]  Gandalf looked at him.  ‘My dear Bilbo!’  he said.  ‘Something is the matter with you!  You are not the hobbit that you were.’

Indeed, Bilbo – the author and therefore narrator of the story – has not mentioned uncommon food at all since “bacon” at the end of Chapter 16, even in his after-battle recovery.  At the very end of the story – do you see that tiny uptick in the blue graph? – the kettle sings and the tobacco jar is shared.  Bilbo is different – changed, but not broken.  The food words will return, all the more savory.

Bilbo will recover from fear and war and inhuman enemies.  We see it in the pattern of words just as clearly as we feel it.  Resilience is inherent in being a hobbit, in valuing food and cheer and song above hoarded gold – and the tale took us there and back again.