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Anachronisms in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings"

I've been a Tolkien fan since Legolas' actor was in diapers, and I used to play Elrond on TV.

Of Trains and Telescopes

J.R.R. Tolkien practically established the modern fantasy genre with The Hobbit, published in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings, published in 1955 after decades of labor. There were no rules, no authenticity police, and people didn't worry about "period costumes" in those days. Also, The Hobbit was written in the style of a fairy tale, in a much freer manner than the history-tinged epic that followed it.

Therefore, we find delightful little anachronisms and oddities that pop up in The Hobbit and in the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings, which are written more like The Hobbit.

This is not to nitpick. It's just to smile fondly at some well-loved books.

A famous waistcoat-wearer

A famous waistcoat-wearer

Bilbo's Waistcoat Buttons

Middle-earth exists in its own alternate universe, with different areas in different stages of development: the Riders of Rohan with their burial mounds and warrior bands resemble 8th century Anglo-Saxons, while the more urbanized Gondorians would be comfortable in the 13th-century mercantile city-states of Italy.

Hobbits, however, seem firmly lodged in Victorian England, with tea-time, pocket-handkerchiefs, "drawing-room sofas" and weskits:

"If Balin noticed that Mr. Baggins' waistcoat was more extensive (and had real gold buttons), Bilbo also noticed that Balin's beard was several inches longer."

Smaug also has a waistcoat, according to Bilbo!

Waistcoats first appeared in our world during the late 17th century, postdating the heyday of chainmail, spears and winged helms by several centuries. Buttons with buttonholes date to the 13th century in Europe.

Of course, it's anachronistic to compare Middle-earth with real-world equivalents, since it's a fantasy world; quite possibly, buttoned waistcoats were all the rage in the Elvenking's halls as well as in Bywater.

"Boiling Brassicas" clarinet player.

"Boiling Brassicas" clarinet player.

Bifur's and Bofur's Clarinets

Loud parties are a nuisance in every age, and the Dwarves helpfully brought strings, woodwinds, and even a drum to Bilbo's establishment to assist in throwing a really loud party and scandalizing the poor Hobbit as much as possible.

One could probably get a pass on Fili's and Kili's fiddles and Dwalin's and Balin's viols, but the clarinet is an 18th-century invention requiring fairly modern techniques to manufacture all its parts.

Next Stop: Bucklebury Ferry!

The Express Train to Bywater

Gandalf's fireworks display at Bilbo's "Long Expected Party" in The Fellowship of the Ring included some special effects that are far more impressive than modern CGI, considering the context:

"The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion."

Either The Shire had short rail, Gandalf was even more of a magician than we thought, or he was actually a Time Lord.

Yes, yes, I know, it's only a simile. It's not the sort of metaphor that appears later in the books, however.

Was it a cuckoo clock?

Was it a cuckoo clock?

Bilbo's Clock

Gandalf sounds positively fussy in the opening chapters of The Hobbit:

"Great Elephants!" said Gandalf, "you are not at all yourself this morning—you have never dusted the mantel-piece!"

"What's that got to do with it? I have had enough to do with washing up for fourteen!"

"If you had dusted the mantelpiece, you would have found this just under the clock," said Gandalf, handing Bilbo a note (written, of course, on his own note-paper).

The first mechanical clocks appeared in Europe in the 14th century, but these were bulky architectural features. The spring-winding clock, invented in the 16th century, allowed for the addition of small clocks to the growing number of dust-collecting curios on the mantelpiece.

18th century Englishman who earned ridicule for importing the new continental fad, the umbrella.

18th century Englishman who earned ridicule for importing the new continental fad, the umbrella.

Lobelia's Umbrella

Poor Lobelia Sackville-Baggins got short shrift in the films. She harasses cousin Bilbo, and attempts to abscond with various small items from Bag-end in the chaos following Bilbo's farewell party:

"Frodo... escorted her firmly off the premises, after he had relieved her of several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella."

Yet by the end of The Lord of the Rings, she has a few shining moments which redeem her as an irascible old bat.

Tom Cotton recounts her run-in with Saruman's minions, who call him "Sharkey":

'"I'll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!" says she, and ups with her umbrella and goes for the leader, near twice her size. So they took her. Dragged her off to the Lockholes, at her age too. They’ve took others we miss more, but there’s no denying she showed more spirit than most.'"

Umbrellas, or at least sun-parasols, date back to antiquity and were common in the East. They were used to shade the head of important persons, both kings and religious types, and this practice was imported from the Near East to Italy. However, umbrellas did not really take off in most of Europe until the late 17th or early 18th century, when the folding umbrella was invented.

Lobelia must have been a folding umbrella, handy for concealing silver spoons.

In a high place, not a low place

In a high place, not a low place

Gollum's Spyglasses

Here's another case where the anachronism appears in a simile, not as an actual Middle-earth object. However, we must remember that The Hobbit is purported to be based on Bilbo's own diary, There and Back Again: A Hobbit's Holiday.

"Actually Gollum lived on a slimy island of rock in the middle of the lake. He was watching Bilbo now from the distance with his pale eyes like telescopes."

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gollum exchanges his metaphorical telescopes for lamps. Sam describes him thus:

"Just then I saw the eyes: two pale sort of points, shiny-like, on a hump at the near end of the log... But whether those two lamps spotted me moving and staring, or whether I came to my senses, I don't know."

Telescopes date back to the 17th century.

But is it the woody end?

But is it the woody end?

Golf, a Hobbit Invention

This passage sounds more like an excerpt from Tolkien's tongue-in-cheek fairy tale Farmer Giles of Ham than from the Middle-earth of Aragorn and Lúthien:

[The] Old Took's great-grand-uncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul's head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment. ("An Unexpected Party," The Hobbit)

Tolkien later noted in a number of letters that he rather regretted some silliness in the first half of The Hobbit. A representative remark:

"The desire to address children...had some unfortunate effects on the mode of expression and narrative method, which if I had not been rushed, I should have corrected." (Letters 215)

This is one of the more entertaining, if incongruous, examples.

A Fantastic Fox

This isn't so much an anachronism as a style mismatch, another throwback to The Hobbit's fairy tale heritage.

In one of the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings, we get this startling Radagast-cam view inside a fox's skull:

"They set no watch; even Frodo feared no danger yet, for they were still in the heart of the Shire. A few creatures came and looked at them when the fire had died away. A fox passing through the wood on business of his own stopped several minutes and sniffed.

"'Hobbits!' he thought. 'Well, what next? I have heard of strange doings in this land, but I have seldom heard of a hobbit sleeping out of doors under a tree. Three of them! There’s something mighty queer behind this.' He was quite right, but he never found out any more about it."

Then again, I don't know why I'm quibbling with thinking foxes when we have talking spiders.

So, avid Tolkien readers, have you noticed any other anachronisms? What have I missed?

The Annotated Hobbit


Frank on July 23, 2015:

The elvish boats given to the Fellowship in Lothlorien have "gunwales."

Samira on January 13, 2015:

JACKINSISNS!!! WE HATES IT FOREVER!!!As you may have guessed I am NOT at ALL paelsed with the unecessary liberties they took with the story.To use the analogy I have found most appropriate.It is as if a 3 year-old has been given a highly detailed, and beautiful scale model kit. One that it has no business having, nor even attempting to assemble.Yet, attempt t assemble it the 3 year-old does.And what it creates has all of the pieces there. Yet they are glued together haphazardly, poorly and in the wrong order. The finished product has recognizable pieces of what the kit was supposed to be. But it is NOT what the finished product is supposed to be.Jackson murdered Tolkien's Hobbit in cold-blood.

Roman on January 12, 2015:

And as for the individual enmteles.Most of them were brilliant, and could EASILY Let me say that more loudly EASILY been incorporated into a story that didn't destroy the mythology and history of Middle-Earth.The Pale Orc was Azog, who was slain by Thorin at the Battle of Azanulbizar.Thrf3r, who in the movie is killed at that battle, actually died 100 (or so) years prior to it.Greenwood had been Mirkwood for nearly 1000 years by the time f The HobbitGandalf had already been in Dol Goldur, TWICE before getting the map and key from Thrain II (Thrf3r's son, Thorin's father), and KNEW that the Necromancer was Sauron.So did the other members of the White Council.EVERYONE KNEW THE WITCH KING WAS A NAZGdbL and couldn't be Killed or Buried (So WTF was that about the Morgul Blade anther pointless exposition that could have been better explained with the correct history). Same thing with the other 8 of the 9.It isn't like Jackson didn't have time to put all of these pieces together, and in their correct order.But Nooooooooooooo Jackson has to be Mr. Smarty-Pants are Screw Tolkien's work like a typical Hollywood jerk.And Thranduil on a MOOSE! WTF! (And the Sylvan Elves armor sucked)That had to be left over from Guillermo Del Toro, whom I am now grateful as all hell that he didn't get his paws on the movies. Same with the Sylvan Elves armor (Del Toro's ideas)> Del Toro tends to play to Celtic Pagan myths, and not to Anglo-Saxon mythology, nor to the Christianity of Tolkien (Thranduil on a Moose might as well have been Thranduil sacrificing Virgins on a Pentagram to a Satanic Snake The same mythological relationships are in play vis Pagan and Christian Themes from that age).So I'd watch this movie again if you think that it nodded to the Catholics. It did no such thing (and if it did, it was probably by accident).

Lisa from WA on November 26, 2013:

I've read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings numerous times over the years, even taking a class that specifically studied those novels while I was in college, but I never even considered the anachronisms before. I always love reading something that gives me even more insight into Tolkien's works. Well done!

spandrel on November 19, 2013:

Spoilport! You're right though and if he had wanted to write the LOTR again he wouldn't have started from there. Unwin must take half the blame.

More disturbing for me are Gandalf's unfortunate revelations in Book I, Chapter II which I won't mention for fear of spoiling the story for others. :)

scottartist on November 18, 2013:

The anachronisms do fit in with the omniscient narrator tone. Tolkien plays the part of a story teller in his own day, speaking to what would be a modern child. So the modern references, just as does the use of English, help his reader relate. That Tolkien came to regret taking that tone, and weaned himself of it in LOTR (though not fully in the early chapters) is simply one of the conundrums inherent in sub-creating a world before the watching public, rather than waiting until all the work is done before revealing any of it.

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on November 17, 2013:

Oh, a good one! Most of them are in The Hobbit, aren't they?

spandrel on November 06, 2013:

"The roar of his voice was like drums and guns;" - The Hobbit

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on August 15, 2013:

spandrel: Hahaha that's great.

Gandalf has an amazing talent for slipping off so that Bilbo, Frodo, Aragorn et alia can have their day in the sun.

spandrel on August 14, 2013:

Sometimes magic doesn't work. Have you seen Gandalf's flowchart at

scottartist on August 14, 2013:

Yes, Rowling went so far as to mention in the final Harry Potter that food is one of the special exceptions to summoning magic, and cannot be created out of nothing. Therefore, there is the danger of starving. This was not true in Oz, where the Wizard in later books could summon up a table of hot food for travelers miles away. Baum's solution to the conundrum was to have Ozma pass a law that only three people in Oz were allowed to perform magic: herself, Glinda and the Wizard.

spandrel on August 12, 2013:

Chess. It might be a translation of a similar game.

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on August 04, 2013:

I assumed "stripes" referred to scars from whipping, since it's a common older meaning for the word. However, now that I think about it, the "earn your stripes" idiom more usually refers to stripes on a soldier's uniform, so I'm not quite certain.

I'd forgotten the picnic, heh!

spandrel on August 04, 2013:

In Isengard Gandalf says to Saruman "You should have been the king's jester and earned your bread, and stripes too...". Stripes? What can he mean?

There is also the little matter of the orcs picnic in The Two Towers. I suppose it could be the English translation for the equivalent in the Common Tongue, but I have a hard time imagining orcs sitting in a meadow with sandwiches and cake.

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on May 28, 2013:

This was fun. Passing it along to my friends who are big fans of the movies.

scottartist on March 30, 2013:

It's an overriding problem of stories with magic. How much can that magic actually do? What are the limitations, so that every conflict and danger isn't so easily solved that there's no real story at all? Magic plus vulnerability is the essential mix. J.K. Rowling certainly had this dilemma to face in every Harry Potter story. Why are they in danger? They can just do magic! So she had to make it hard, and put limits on the magic: rules, and laws. Decades earlier, Superman had become too powerful, so Kryptonite had to be pulled out of the hat as a way of keeping some tension in the stories.

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on March 29, 2013:

Re: the "Eagle Taxi" problem: I think that was actually a minor flaw in Tolkien's writing which he almost managed to plaster over. He employed flying eagles in a few places (notably rescuing the Elf Maedhros stapled to the side of Morgoth's Dark Tower in the Silmarillion), but then, once you stopped and thought about it, there were so many other situations where the Eagles might have proved handy. To those suggestions, Tolkien had to protest that Eagles were not taxis, that they were a proud people who weren't servants even to Gandalf, that the defenses of Mordor would've kept them out, etc, etc. Methinks he protested too much. That's the problem with deus ex machina plot devices; they are sometimes too powerful. (Which is also, I suspect, the reason why Tolkien ruled out having Glorfindel join the Fellowship; between him and Gandalf, the party would never have gotten into any real trouble at all!)

scottartist on March 29, 2013:

Most questions like that of Barad-dûr have an answer if you dig down deep enough. many questions have become popular because of the movies, which can't take time to lay that kind of groundwork. There are reasons that Gandalf couldn't just fly the Ring into Orodruin on the back of an eagle, but boy do people like to come up with that one. The detail of Tolkien's sub-creation is more than many readers can really handle, and certainly too much for film.

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on March 29, 2013:

Oh, more trains! Good catch.

Thirteen as an unlucky number shows up in Norse mythology, which Tolkien was mining very loosely for The Hobbit. Loki seems to have been the thirteenth guest at a Valhalla dinner party:

Matches looks borderline. They belong to the same era as waistcoasts: that is to say, a later phase of technology than what we see in the rest of Middle-earth. Time and again, it seems like the Shire is a Victorian farming community plopped down in medieval Europe!

Ooh, lots of interesting questions about fireworks!

Come to think of it, the fact Gandalf only used fireworks for pleasure and not war is actually a window into his character, showing how he differs from Saruman. Even when Gandalf uses a tool, it's something more natural like a wooden staff or pine cone, not gunpowder. Whereas Saruman dabbles in the "dark arts" ;) of military technology and industry. Tolkien, veteran of WWI and trench warfare, had a negative view of tanks, bombs, mortar shells, poison gases, etc. He yearned for the "noble" warfare he read about in Norse sagas and medieval ballads: one-on-one duels between heroes looking at each other in the eye, fighting with honor, instead of lobbing shells at unseen opponents hiding in fox holes and blowing them to smithereens. Sauron's forces also use what looks like napalm (I think?) as well as an enchanted ram. Even the Elves "fell" to the dangers of technology when they invented Rings of Power.

Did Gandalf know about Saruman's blasting powder? Hard to say. Perhaps Gandalf couldn't guess exactly what technologies Saruman had developed; Gandalf's mind didn't work that way. But even if he'd guessed Saruman's forces might use some kind of engines of war, there wasn't anything else he could've done. Rohan had to take a stand against Saruman's army somewhere, and Helm's Deep was the most fortified option available. (Although in the books, Gandalf recommends that Théoden hide in Dunharrow while Éomer, Aragorn and Gandalf take on Saruman.)

And as for Barad-dûr, its foundations were magically laid partly with the power of the Ring (don't ask me how... has it got a built in forklift?!), and Elrond says that although the Last Alliance threw down the Dark Tower, its foundations could not be unmade while the Ring remained in the world. So I don't think explosives would've taken out Barad-dûr. For that matter, sneaking in enough explosives to destroy Barad-Dûr without getting caught would be much harder than sneaking in a couple of tiny hobbits in Galadhrim-cloaks who did everything they could to keep *away* from roads and fortresses once they got inside Mordor's fences.

scottartist on March 29, 2013:

The hazards of writing. Tolkien invented a lot of things as he went along, rather than having a detailed blueprint ahead of time. When he wanted to fix anachronisms, he had to work backward trying to find them. Easy to miss some.

spandrel on March 28, 2013:

More trains in The Hobbit chapter 1 "... like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel."

The unluckiness of 13?

"And then he felt for matches..." The Hobbit - Riddles In The Dark. Oh dear no! That will never do. Come to think of it, perhaps Gandalf made them as well as fireworks. So why didn't he make explosives and blow up Barad-Dur? Or even foresee Saruman's blasting powder?

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on March 28, 2013:

Yep. See the cute vintage photo in my article illustrating that one. ;)

scottartist on March 27, 2013:

And golf, as in the story of Bullroarer Took.

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on March 26, 2013:

Oh, good catch!

spandrel on March 26, 2013:

Football! Although ball games are pretty universal I think football is a bit too particular. Thorin complains about the mountain giants that they might be "...kicked sky-high for a football." (The Hobbit -Over Hill And Under Hill) So not just golf then.

scottartist on March 22, 2013:

I have to tell myself that, since it's an imaginary, alternate ancient Europe, Tolkien allowed for some discrepancies that could be true in that world even if they're not in ours. In the sub-creation reality of his world, perhaps potatoes did grow in the lands that would become Europe. He invented (or adapted) alphabets for their use, even though most of our Europe was illiterate until the Romans spread their alphabet- still in use. Maybe clocks came and went, or, in Tolkien's sub-creation, were invented at a much earlier age. Anachronisms are less a problem in an alternate Earth, than if one were writing about this world, and including true historical figures. If I wrote "Lincoln was watching TV," that would far too much (unless I'm proposing an alternate reality Lincoln.) But I think if Sam is hungering for potatoes, we can allow them to exist in HIS reality. It's a fine line. Or a web of fine lines.

spandrel on March 21, 2013:

Elves aren't exactly prolific though are they? Elrond only managed three in nearly seven thousand years. Tolkien wasn't up on population dynamics and neither am I, but I get the feeling it would take many ages of that world before it became a problem. As it is they were leaving Middle Earth and those that didn't were fading anyway.

Back on topic, I'm not bothered by the real world references in The Hobbit. More disturbing is Pippin's sudden mention of clock time in Minas Tirith. Surely a mistake? I have heard that hobbits imported their clocks. There are, after all, vast unknown lands to the east and south so it's possible. Maybe the potatoes came in by this route too.

scottartist on March 20, 2013:

There are built in problems to creating characters who are 'immortal.' Even beyond change in their language and customs. One has to do so much explaining- or none at all, and hope not to raise questions.

If a race is immortal, why would new births occur? The population would continually increase. Death and birth together form a cycle of renewal. And we know that elves are born, continually throughout their history. We know that elves can die if they are killed, but this is not being done to make room for the new births.

But, of course, Tolkien spent his adult life revising and reworking to try to answer these questions and ease inconsistencies.

Medicus Matt on March 20, 2013:

'New World' items like potatoes and tomatoes both feature in Middle Earth cuisine.

Then, of course, there's the 'pipe weed'.....

scottartist on January 28, 2013:

And yet, Tolkien did provide himself a workaround. Since he attested that English was simply a stand-in for Westron, then older forms of English, and Norse as well, were stand-ins for the actual languages that would have been used in the Elder Days. So words that appear to be English or Norse in origin would be only substitutions made for the translation. But you make a good point. Would the elven languages have changed so much? True, the different races of Elves had been sundered by history- so then Sindarin may have changed by exposure to languages of Middle Earth. But from a form resembling Finno-Ugric to one close to Celtic? The two are not related.

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on January 27, 2013:

Scott: Very true. Also, Tolkien had a little trouble justifying the etymology of Sindarin and Quenya Elvish. Certainly, the Elves who went to Valinor and the ones who stayed behind had lived apart for a long time, but when they came back together, many of the same Elves were still alive from before their sundering.

Of course, Tolkien knew how quickly human languages could change: witness the wide divergence of Romantic languages from Latin, or the northern languages from old Germanic and Norse roots. Elves, however, live so long, and tend to resist change, going so far as to create Rings of Power and jewels in which to preserve light and memories and their environment. Therefore it seems strange to assume so much change in the languages they spoke. Then again, at the time when LOTR was written, I'm not sure that Tolkien had decided exactly how long the Noldor dwelt in Valinor before they returned to Middle-earth. (He could've avoided the problem by saying that the Elves who went to the Undying Lands adopted Quenya from the Valar, just as the Gondorians adopted Sindarin which they had learned from the Elves, but then he would've lost the etymological history of the various Elven-tongues which was so dear to him.)

Oops, sorry, long reply. The languages of Middle-earth are a topic I find fascinating!

scottartist on January 24, 2013:

One anachronism, or prochronism, that's often overlooked is the use of languages that did not yet exist in Europe (or anywhere) as models for the languages of Arda. Considering that Tolkien was a philologist, it suggests that his his own tastes and preferences overruled accuracy. Norse and Welsh, both Indo-European, as well as Finnish were the primary models for the tongues of Elves and men- as well as Hobbits. Here again we have to accept that Middle Earth and Arda in general are an alternate reality. As Tolkien indicated, they are Europe in an imaginary past- some 4,000 BC. The emphasis must be on 'imaginary.' So if Hobbits can have clocks and potatoes, then we have to accept that language could have developed differently as well.

Spunk Nellie from New York, NY on December 16, 2012:

This was a really interesting and unique Hub. Timely, as well, with the new Hobbit movie being released!

jambo87 on December 12, 2012:

Cool hub, and timely. I liked how you involved Tolkien's stylistic choices in this.

E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on December 01, 2012:

Don't apologize, my friend!

I'm itching to edit, as I think I was a little loosey-goosey, but as you know, Minas Tirith wasn't built in a day. (Although Númenor sank that fast, which is a metaphor for something-or-other.)

I hadn't thought about Ps and Qs, but you're quite right. I know what the phrase is used for, but now I must look it up myself, as I'm not sure of its origin.

Haunty from Hungary on December 01, 2012:

Very interesting about waistcoats and clarinets. I've never thought about any of this before. In Book 1, one Hobbit says, 'Mind your Ps and Qs.' I only remember, because at first I didn't understand the meaning of this so I had to look it up.

This is going to be an amusing series of Hubs. I couldn't wait. Sowwy.