Hobbit Continuity Error

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his three main books in the order their contents happen in his fantasy world. But they weren’t published in that order. Young Tolkien writes the various component works of The Silmarillion, middle-aged Tolkien writes and publishes The Hobbit, old Tolkien writes and publishes The Lord of the Rings, then his son Christopher and Guy Gavriel Kay posthumously edit and publish The Silmarillion.

This means that the original readers of The Hobbit and LotR had no idea what Tolkien meant when he alluded to his unpublished mythology in those books. In fact, Tolkien doesn’t seem to have viewed The Hobbit as a serious addition to his world when writing it. He just embellished it with little bits of First and Second Age lore without worrying about whether the parts fit together. But as many critics have remarked, it’s the combination of the everyday folksiness of the hobbits with the high-fantasy elvish tragedy of the mythology that then makes LotR such a great book.

One of my favourite continuity errors in The Hobbit has to do with magic swords. In chapter 2, Gandalf tricks three trolls into staying outdoors until sunrise, whereupon they turn to stone. Afterwards the party loots the cave where the trolls once lived, finding various plunder including two jewel-studded swords. In chapter 3 Elrond takes a look at them and reads their inscriptions.

‘These are not troll-make. They are old swords, very old swords of the High Elves of the West, my kin. They were made in Gondolin for the Goblin-wars. They must have come from a dragon’s hoard or goblin plunder, for dragons and goblins destroyed that city many ages ago. This, Thorin, the runes name Orcrist, the Goblin-cleaver in the ancient tongue of Gondolin; it was a famous blade. This, Gandalf, was Glamdring, Foe-hammer that the king of Gondolin once wore. Keep them well!’

A reader with access to the appendices of LotR and The Silmarillion may find it a little odd that Elrond mentions the fall of Gondolin but not the fact that the entire land mass where the city was located has sunk beneath the sea. But anyway: plunder from Gondolin was apparently taken east to the area where the troll cave is located and has probably been buried there until the trolls somehow got their hands on it. There is no indication that the two swords have been heard of since the First Age. Gandalf doesn’t recognise them, and Elrond has to read their inscriptions to place them correctly.

Now, in chapter 4 comes the continuity error. The dwarves camp one night in the entrance to a major underground goblin/orc lair on a mountain pass and get captured. When the orcs examine their captives’ belongings and find the sword Orcrist, we get this.

The Great Goblin gave a truly awful howl of rage when he looked at it, and all his soldiers gnashed their teeth, clashed their shields, and stamped. They knew the sword at once. It had killed hundreds of goblins in its time, when the fair elves of Gondolin hunted them in the hills or did battle before their walls. They had called it Orcrist, Goblin-cleaver, but the goblins simply called it Biter. They hated it and hated worse any one that carried it.

The orcs, brutish short-lived illiterates though they are, apparently have a pretty amazing body of oral tradition concerning old weapons. Because the sword Orcrist hasn’t been heard of since the fall of Gondolin, which at the time of Bilbo Baggins’s momentuous adventure with the dwarves and the wizard lies about 6,500 years in the past. But every single orc in that cave immediately recognises it on sight!

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Comments

  1. #1 Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo
    September 13, 2010

    Yep. And it would be so frustratingly easy to fix: the orcs could just recognize them as elven-made weapons because they shine…

  2. #2 Akhôrahil
    September 13, 2010

    One interesting question is whether orcs are functionally ageless, the way elves are – we never really get a definitive answer on that. If they are, it would make the entire thing a lot more easy to understand.

    Although of course, heredity in Tolkien is some kind of Lamarckian-Lysenkoist notion – it’s very obvious that acquired traits are inherited in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, so the fear of Glamdring and Orcrist could be some kind of racial memory for all we know.

  3. #3 Martin R
    September 13, 2010

    As Johanna no doubt knows, Tolkien did build continutity into The Hobbit retroactively (“ret-conning”) by re-writing the chapter where Bilbo and Gollum meet for later printings of the book. Originally, Gollum just gave Bilbo the ring and sent him on his way!

  4. #4 Martin R
    September 13, 2010

    Akhy, even if orcs didn’t die of old age, I believe their lifestyle would kill them off pretty effectively given how they behave in LotR. But yes, if all orcs are born with the Silmarillion written into racial memory, then no problem. (-;

  5. #5 Victor
    September 13, 2010

    I didn’t really see that part as an error (though it could be). My take is, the Orcs, having minds that focus on murder and terror, do keep alive folklore and knowledge when it concerns warfare and other dark aspects of the world. And, that their obsession with it is what kept them from developing much of a culture. After all, they did have swords and armor, but never got around to developing any other conveniences, like cooking pots.

  6. #6 Johanna Vainikainen-Uusitalo
    September 13, 2010

    On the other hand, consider Narsil: a legendary sword still known by name after… how long was it again? some thousands of years? after it was broken. The existence of more legendary swords is quite logical. Although I do not recall Turgon actually using his sword at all before the final battle…

  7. #7 Birger Johansson
    September 13, 2010

    I assume the baddies that originally created orcs as a kind of dark reflection of the elves made some built-in limitations to their abilities, so they would not stroll too far from their intended role of arrow-fodder for the baddies.

    It is spectacular how both the elves and the other races fail to cumulatively amass knowledge; The peak of craftmanship is in the early First age, and then it is downhill. This is probably because of Tolkien´s view that (many, if not all) things were better in the past. This conservative view is also found in ancient Greece and in China. Tolkien´s writings are full of sadness over lost glory, and the impossibility of regaining greatness.
    One might rationalise it by saying much of the craftmanship of the elves and dwarves was connected with magic- and magic powers (at least of the strongest individuals) were most powerful in the First age.

    A real-life declining technology/culture analogy can be found in the Swedish bronze age: A region in southern Sweden apparently had good trade connections with Mycenae, and a tomb here is a near copy of a Myceaenean tomb, as is a lot of the excellent metal work. Apparently, the local region could not support this kind of complexity on its own (when trade links presumably were interrupted) since craftmanship returned to the baseline in a few generations.
    Now, imagine that the traders had introduced literacy to Northern Europe with a modified version of Mycaenean script, and the local priests had kept it alive…These kind of speculation makes one wonder what might have been.

  8. #8 stripey_cat
    September 13, 2010

    I light-heartedly assume that the legendary glowing swords thing was a tale to scare little orcs into behaving themselves. So, of course, there’s total panic when they actually turn up. Don’t be too hard on all the orc mothers, though, scaring their kids like that. Imagine what a toddler-orc tantrum must look like. And god help you when they hit puberty.

  9. #9 Lassi Hippeläinen
    September 13, 2010

    The orcs are just distorted elves. They can live as long as elves. Tolkien doesn’t state it openly, but some passages support the claim. E.g. at the end of Two Towers the orc from Minas Morgul, Gorbag, remembers the Great Siege, which obviously is the siege of Mordor at the end of Second Age. And anyway, orcs would keep memory of weaponry more keenly than elves, who thought that the swords were lost forever when Gondolin fell.

    But why doesn’t Elrond show any enthusiasm about finding the sword of Turgon, his own great-grandfather? He even hands Glamdring back to Gandalf as if it were a bone…

  10. #10 Lassi Hippeläinen
    September 13, 2010

    …and to Johanna #6: Of course Narsil was remembered. It was a key element in a prediction. Therefore it was treasured in Rivendell, waiting its reforging.

  11. #11 Martin R
    September 13, 2010

    A region in southern Sweden apparently had good trade connections with Mycenae, and a tomb here is a near copy of a Myceaenean tomb, as is a lot of the excellent metal work.

    Nope. Only Bob Lind believes that.

  12. #12 Vicki
    September 13, 2010

    The other reason it makes sense for Narsil to be remembered is that Elrond isn’t talking history, he’s talking about things from his own life. Yes, they’re history now, but it’s the difference between me talking about the Korean War and a veteran of that war describing the same events.

    Elrond either kept very good diaries, has a phenomenal memory, or both.

  13. #13 Masks of Eris
    September 13, 2010

    How do you recognize a sword anyway? Wouldn’t one glowing Elvish sword look much like any other?

    Anyway, given that the Sack of Gondolin was the Good Old Days ™ for the Orcs, one could make a wild guess and say the Orcs had some “Bible” that described the most important details of the Wars of Beleriand. Including, of course, a good description of the weapons of the enemy, because while it’s hard to praise your enemies, the nassty dirty elvses, there’s nothing in praising a scary sword. And given that the Orcs won, they would have had plenty of time to write good descriptions of the swords and the victories before the end came and some troll fled east with the trophies underarm, and a cloud of ash rising off Thangorodrim behind his back.

    This though would have some Orc shamans (or priests? didn’t Orcs worship Melkor the Magnificent and Sauron the Strong as gods?) that could read a musty old scroll of the glories now long past.

    Or if you assume Sauron, Angmar or some other ruler guy so wished, there may have been periodical “history lessons” for the grunts whenever that ruler had the time. Ringwraiths could read for sure; and Sauron was there when Gondolin fell! (“Hear, my children of the night, about this foul Elvish blade, the cruelest of all blades, that we took from the broken body of its wielder; hear how strong your ancestors were who took it; and be sure those lesser day-lively Tark scum, those Rhudaur rats, those Cardolan cretins, will fall by your steel!”) But this still would leave a thousand years from the fall of Angmar to Bilbo’s days.

    Okay, I think my fan-ness is showing through.

  14. #14 Siamang
    September 13, 2010

    Wow…. big time, Eris. Big time.

  15. #15 Brett McCoy
    September 13, 2010

    Well, Gandalf technically would have never seen the swords before because he did not come to Middle Earth until after the Fall of Gondolin, although the case could be made that certainly he knew enough lore (and would have been able to read the runic inscriptions on them) to have guessed at their lineage, as he did with the Ring (which he had also never seen before). But then again, Gandalf misread the inscription on the Gates of Moria… so who knows?

  16. #16 Jessykinns
    September 14, 2010

    Since Orcs are just corrupted elves, i think they’re supposed to be immortal like the Elves. Gorbag (or Shagrat) seemed to recall the war that happened centuries ago in which Isildur was killed. Orcs aren’t supposed to be illiterate either they have a written classical language in the form of the Black Speech.

  17. #17 Akhôrahil
    September 14, 2010

    Orks worship Gork and Mork – Gork is brutal but cunning, while Mork is cunning but brutal… wait, wrong fantasy world!

  18. #18 Martin R
    September 14, 2010

    Haha! And then there’s the book about the world of the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books, where the name of the orcs is explained as “What the Creator said when he saw how they had come out”.

  19. #19 Birger Johansson
    September 14, 2010

    “Nope. Only Bob Lind believes that.”

    My bad! My excuse is that I usually read Science or Nature, but rarely find my way to Swedish science publications (unless they are medical).
    Another thing, there is little doubt that Tolkien shared racial prejudices that were common at the time of his birth, so his description of orcs as inherently bad would fit into the concept of “higher” or “lower” races.
    And his positive description of feudal societies…his world-view was already obsolete by WWI.
    (This does not detract from his genius, but the reader should be aware of T;s conceptual blind spots)

  20. #20 csrster
    September 14, 2010

    Is it as bad as a waxing crescent moon rising some time in the middle of the night?

  21. #21 Martin R
    September 14, 2010

    Haha, Tolkien did a re-write to LotR because of something like that, right?

  22. #22 Birger Johansson
    September 14, 2010

    I find it inconsistent that ordinary sunlight was enough to turn trolls permanently to stone -wouldnn´t they have reverted to form at nightfall?

    If the authorities allowed it, I would not mind changing my name to one of those Orch names; “Grishnakh” practically sounds like somebody biting off a (human?) limb! Alas, with my body, I had better stick to some of the Hobbit names that sounds like somebody rather respectable, pot-bellied and disgustingly conventional.

  23. #23 Martin R
    September 14, 2010

    I could call you Ghân-buri-ghân if you like.

  24. #24 scidog
    September 14, 2010

    seeing as how we are on the subject.i read the Silmarillon for the first time during a summer canoe trip.it is a great read when your alone in the wilderness.so anyway i’m reading along and one of the hero’s after going thru what can only be discribed as hell ends up at a feasting table with his “magic” sword.the guy across the table asks “is it true the women of you country run like deer thru the forest in nothing but their hair?”–hero reaches across the table and sticks said wise guy with the sword of Graelforst–or something like that and heads out the door…now where did JRR come up with that!!..in all of his books i never came up with another zinger like that one.

  25. #25 Martin R
    September 15, 2010

    Woah, that’s harsh. Anybody remember this scene? Who is it about? Sounds like something Turin Turambar might do.

  26. #26 Masks of Eris
    September 15, 2010

    Ah yes, it was Turin, in Menegroth, but with a cup, not with a sword. As the Cluedo manual… er, the Silmarillion says:

    Túrin grew fair and strong in Doriath, but he was marked with sorrow. For nine years he dwelt in Thingol’s halls, and during that time his grief grew less; for messengers went at times to Hithlum, and returning they brought better tidings of Morwen and Nienor.

    But there came a day when the messengers did not return out of die north, and Thingol would send no more. Then Túrin was filled with fear for his mother and his sister, and in grimness of heart he went before the King and asked for mail and sword; and he put on the Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin and went out to battle on the marches of Doriath, and became the companion in arms of Beleg Cúthalion.

    And when three years had passed, Túrin returned again to Menegroth; but he came from the wild, and was unkempt, and his gear and garments were way-worn. Now one there was in Doriath, of the people of the Nandor, high in the counsels of the King; Saeros was his name. He had long begrudged to Túrin the honour he received as Thingol’s fosterson; and seated opposite to him at the board he taunted him, saying:

    ‘If the Men of Hithlum are so wild and fell, of what sort are the women of that land? Do they run like deer clad only in their hair?’ Then Túrin in great anger took up a drinking-vessel, and cast it at Saeros; and he was grievously hurt.

    On the next day Saeros waylaid Túrin as he set out from Menegroth to return to the marches; but Túrin overcame him, and set him to run naked as a hunted beast through the woods. Then Saeros fleeing in terror before him fell into the chasm of a stream, and his body was broken on a great rock in the water. But others coming saw what was done, and Mablung was among them; and he bade Túrin return with him to Menegroth and abide the judgement of the King, seeking his pardon. But Túrin, deeming himself now an outlaw and fearing to be held captive, refused Mablung’s bidding, and turned swiftly away; and passing through the Girdle of Melian he came into the woods west of Sirion. There he joined himself to a band of such houseless and desperate men as could be found in those evil days lurking in the wild; and their hands were turned against all who came in their path Elves and Men and Orcs.

    Which, while fatal for Saeros, was for Turin just another episode of the world crapping on him his whole life, courtesy of a M. Morgoth.

  27. #27 Kaleberg
    September 18, 2010

    It doesn’t sound inconsistent to me. Different communities remember different things. That’s one of the great things about travel and the internet. Wasn’t there the classic example of the archaeologists who pondered a strange device consisting of two rings at either end of a rod? They assumed it was used in rituals, but an old Inuit knew it well. It was a harpoon straightener. For all we know orcs mention famous swords all the time in metaphor the way sports fans mention various players and teams.

  28. #28 Deborah
    September 19, 2010

    I came late to this. Hey, I’ve been hanging around with the crowd of scholars who actually study Tolkien from academic perspectives for a number of years now. I usually do one or two conferences a year and have given a few papers and published an article. It’s quite true the orcs were “corrupted” elves, but Tolkien did have a hard time coming to grips with what that really meant. He wrote some late essays about it, and they can be found in the HoME series, I think in the volume called Morgoth’s Ring but I would have to get off the couch to be sure and I’m watching baseball, so … My view, there are a lot of little details in The Hobbit that don’t quite fit. Whether it’s detail of fact or tone, it comes down to Martin’s first point that this was not meant initially to be part of the Silmarillion world. LoTR, of course, did not exist, so it makes no sense to talk of The Hobbit (at the time of writing) being part of the LoTR world. It became the germ of that, and both were made to fit the Silmarillion world afterward. Tolkien’s conceit for explaining away some of these problems and inconsistencies is, of course, the Red Book of Westmarch. Since everything in the three Great Works (H, LoTR, and Sil) comes to us as “filtered” via the Hobbits’ recording in the Red Book, this is supposed as the source of many imperfections, errors and variations. The Hobbits were good fellows, but they were not among the Wise, and they did get a few things wrong. Tolkienian texts are meant to be approached as imaginary histories, so one thing that’s fun to do is to bring the tools that one would bring to real world ancient historical documents, and recognize that each book is constructed as a blended narrative drawn from many & diverse original sources. Thus, the differing “voices” in different sections of the books. I won’t go on any more. Except for one final comment. Replying to #19 above. It’s not at all true that there is “little doubt” Tolkien shared the racial prejudices typical of his day. Quite a lot has been written and debated about this. There’s solid evidence he took a firm stand against anti-semitism, which was the dominant racial prejudice of the time. He uses the typical language, with the muddled meanings of race/culture/people that was used by all academics at that time, but a strong case can be argued that he was not race-prejudiced. It’s complicated, though, and needs a bit more space than what I have here, but I could point to a good summary in a recent book by Dimitra Fimi called Tolkien, Race and Cultural History (Palgrave MacMillan 2009).

  29. #29 darwinsdog
    October 1, 2010

    I opened this thinking it was going to be about whether or not Homo floresiensis was really a modern human suffering from hypothyroidism…

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