Laughter in Middle-earth: Humour in and around the Works of JRR Tolkien
Thomas Honegger & Maureen F. Mann (editors)
Cormarë Series No. 35
With these words Tolkien replied to Rayner Unwin's comments upon first reading Book 1 of Lord of the Rings. Rayner had not commented on the comedy of Book 1 but on the overpowering effect of "the struggle between darkness and light", as he put it, and that omission disappointed Tolkien. If this was the response of Tolkien's famous first reviewer, it is not surprising that academic studies have also tended to overlook or disregard both the presence of humour in Tolkien's work and the effect of his work to inspire humour in readers' and artists' responses.
Laughter in Middle-earth: Humour in and around the Works of JRR Tolkien more than compensates for this critical oversight. From onomastic studies and parody, to historical, literary, and social contexts, a history of illustrations, textual interpretations, heroic forms of defiant laughter, and then to a reminiscence of the Inklings' tastes in humour, these scholarly articles analyse the broad range of comedy which arises against the darkness of the world in Tolkien's narratives. As well, interspersed between these studies are numerous comic illustrations, some of which appear in print for the first time, from well-known Tolkien illustrators.
As Eru is reported saying, in a typically egregious internet appropriation of Tolkien, "There is no joke that hath not its uttermost source in me." This book demonstrates that humour is truly a significant aspect of Middle-earth and its influences. Eru, like Tolkien himself, could, indeed, laugh.
Maureen F. Mann
Laura Lee Smith
My paper examines Tolkien's uses of nonsense as a concept, as a genre, and as linguistic disruption or silliness, although there is much slippage among those three. I situate these uses within Tolkien's historical contexts of Victorian Nonsense, traditional folk narrative, and nursery rhymes, but also within his own ideas and practices of language invention and literary descent. For Tolkien the sound of language is as important as its communicative value; unintelligible non sense is as valuable as common sense. My focus is on Tolkien's texts themselves but I draw comparisons and analogies to literary theory and scholarly analysis in order to construe readings of the texts. Nonsense is rarely rubbish in Tolkien.
The relationship between laughter and critical thinking is an expanding area of investigation for the understanding of human behaviour. To this point, however, insufficient attention has been afforded to understanding laughter when reading texts as both a narrative event and a signifier. This paper will investigate how laughter informs both the construction of the "Fairy-Story" and the representation of its themes. In the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, including The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, despite differences of race, gender and moral standing, characters consistently laugh: humans and non-humans, heroes and villains, in joy and in contempt. With reference to Robert Provine's scientific investigation into laughter as well as traditional laughter theories, this paper will examine how Tolkien uses laughter in his texts in relation to themes of morality, power and the inevitability of change. This paper will therefore argue that Tolkien takes a flexible approach to the role of laughter in the dynamics of morality and history and places them within his broader theodicy as explored in Morgoth's Ring. The paper aims as such to provide a greater depth of understanding to the place of laughter in Tolkien's work and how this deepens his understanding of the questions and themes which are so integral to the narratives of Arda as well as enhancing the appreciation of Tolkien's work as a corpus of interconnected texts.
A study of humour's appearances in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien reveals that for this author humour should be taken very seriously. "Mirth's Might" seeks out these instances of humour in Tolkien's legendarium and delves into how and why various forms of laughter and mirth act upon the characters in his stories. Going from Sam Gamgee to Túrin Turambar and travelling all the way from Niggle's Parish to Wootton Major, this essay discovers that humour holds many strengths each of which contributes to escape, recovery and consolation. In the pages of Tolkien, readers learn that humour is essential to the art of story-making and to life itself.
As a die-hard philologist, J.R.R. Tolkien was always exceptionally careful in the choice of names for his numerous characters and locations. Whether they be of (originally) Norse, Celtic, Finnish or other provenance, both the anthroponyms and the toponyms he used for the Middle-earth characters give the appearance of having been methodically selected to comply with the rigid contours of his complex linguistic map. Seen in this light, his short and light-hearted medieval fable Farmer Giles of Ham makes a notable, if somewhat disregarded, exception where the typically serious author frequently gives vent to his outstanding sense of philological humour. Here Tolkien's comic talent really shines through, as the reluctant hero Giles suddenly finds himself face to face with his not-quite-mortal foe, the greedy but craven dragon by the name of Chrysophylax Dives, and so the story gradually develops into what in all likelihood is a tongue-in-cheek rendering of the dragon episodes in Beowulf and the Vǫlsunga saga. A noteworthy addition to the witty plotline is the aforementioned philological humour which may not necessarily seem to be of prime importance to its younger readers, but could easily provoke many a smile amongst the more scholarly-minded people (as it doubtlessly did amongst his fellow Inklings). In Farmer Giles of Ham Tolkien evidently amused himself (and others) by giving the characters elaborate Latinate names and making up false etymologies. The paper seeks to examine the nature and supposed purpose of these little onomastic bits and pieces (i.e. mostly personal and place-names) with a particular emphasis on the sometimes surprisingly complex (and thus amusing) implications of their cultural roots.
The Hobbit frequently calls attention to social conventions within the story, and to the correctness or incorrectness of characters' conduct. The etiquette motif is sufficiently prominent, in fact, that some critics have ventured to discern a strong didactic purpose in it, while others have identified a more parodic intent. This essay considers several etiquette-laced interactions in The Hobbit, along with their apparent analogues or precedents in four earlier works of British children's fantasy – Through the Looking-Glass, The Princess and the Goblin, The Marvellous Land of Snergs, and Winnie-the-Pooh – and concludes that Tolkien is primarily lampooning ordinary forms of politeness for humorous effect, doubtless to the delight of generations of children who have been pressured to conceal their more selfish tendencies beneath a veneer of courtesy. But is this skewering purely subversive and comical, or is Tolkien perhaps making a deeper point about true politeness and moral courage? Even as they laugh, children are likely to gain a deeper intuitive understanding of the many shades of hypocrisy and sycophancy that so often underlie the outward forms of courtesy. Although true courtesy can be a sign of respect between equals, the powerful have far less need of politeness.
With J.R.R. Tolkien's works being among the most read texts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by Peter Jackson being incredibly successful as well, there is naturally an abundance of parodies. This paper does not attempt to list them all but to look at how parody works, and what strategies are involved to create a parody of Tolkien's works. Thus, I have categorised some of the parodies according to their underlying strategy: as textual or social parody, and whether they involve strategies of exaggeration/understatement, whether they substitute heroes and villains with non-heroes or non-villains, whether they make the quest ridiculous or trivial, make fun of place names and proper names, or add vulgarity or obscenity to the original text.
Begun in 2002 in response to the release of the first New Line Cinema film in December 2001, The Stupid Ring Parody bills itself as the "Earth's largest Tolkien parody." At over 300,000 words, its claim is likely to be correct. Stupid Ring is written in the form of a screenplay, and it follows The Lord of the Rings closely, parodying virtually every episode. Given the length and depth of the parody, and the obvious appreciation of and close attention to Tolkien's works with which it was written, Stupid Ring provides a fertile ground for examination of the many and varied strategies of humour employed by its creators. Drawing as it does on material from the film, from the greater body of Tolkien's legendarium beyond The Lord of the Rings, from the fandom culture that developed around the films, from other The Lord of the Rings parodies, and from other works of humour from popular culture, Stupid Ring is broad enough in scope to be the subject of several papers. In this paper, I study the construction of the parody as a text, by exploring the following strategies of humour: breaking the fourth wall; metatheatrical commentary by the characters/actors; engagement with the fan culture of which the parody is a part, and use of source materials.
Tolkien's humour is predominantly verbal, yet we can also find humour in the illustrations to and paintings inspired by his work. This essay provides a brief over-view of the development of illustrations of Tolkien's texts in general and then focusses on the figure of Gollum in particular. In Gollum's case, the publication history gave rise to an often humorous tradition of illustrations that attained independence of the later text-based descriptions found in The Lord of the Rings and the later editions of The Hobbit.
Did I put humour into my Tolkien pictures? Not more than Tolkien put into his text, I suppose. People may find that many of my characters look rather funny, but they are not intended to be funny. It is rather that my style of drawing is ‘lighthearted', so to speak: it avoids overdoses of seriousness where the subject – Tolkien's story – is already serious enough. My style walks on tiptoes where others prefer to march in on sturdy boots. (Email from Cor Blok to the author on 9/7/2015.)
"Humour in and around Tolkien's Work" – that is a very broad topic indeed, though the humour itself may not always be broad – and frequently is not. Let us separate our task here into two halves (or perhaps not-halves), the typology and definition of "humour" and the definition and exploration of "in and around Tolkien's Work," and look at what we mean by these "halves or halve-nots." After that we can go on to our discussions – and, doubtless, qualifications.
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