Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fireworks over the Shire

In the same discussion at Carla's blog that inspired my last post, I made an offhand remark about how odd it is that gunpowder weapons play no part in the War of the Ring. What makes it odd is that gunpowder is clearly known and used in Middle-Earth, quite spectacularly during Bilbo's birthday party at the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Carla gallantly pointed out that gunpowder is indeed used in a military context (setting off a mine under Helm's Deep), and suggests the plausible limitations to its use - scarcity, and lack of the technology needed to use it effectively in guns. Gunpowder was known and used throughout the Hundred Years' War, but was not important till near the end. These are all good excuses, especially the one about technical limitations. Readers of L. Sprague de Camp's wonderful Lest Darkness Fall will remember that Martin Padway "invents" gunpowder around AD 538, only to find that he can't come up with a mix that will go bang instead of foof.

The objection to this that they are all retcons, efforts to fix the problem after the fact. The fireworks show that Gandalf puts on is indeed a rarity - nothing seen like it in the Shire for near a century, since the Old Took died. But then, everything about Bilbo's birthday party is extraordinary. Hobbit children know all about fireworks, so they can't be all that uncommon. More to the point, Tolkien makes a big point of those fireworks, establishing gunpowder as part of Middle-Earth right at the start of the book, with never any hint then or later of constraints that would keep the stuff from being used in war with full post-1500 effectiveness.

What is going on here? Middle-Earth is after all the triumph of world building, in fact where we learned the possibilities of world building. I don't think science fiction had anything comparable at the time - Foundation Trilogy has the vast sweep, but none of the fine texturing or back-structure. So why this odd slip, conspicuously near the beginning?

As I said in my reply at Carla's, I believe that Tolkien blew it on gunpowder because he was not a science fiction writer. He did not much like technology and industrialization in general, and probably never thought much about them in a technical way. Only a technology geek, however, really associates fireworks with gunpowder. Fireworks pyrotechnics parted ways from the military uses of gunpowder centuries ago - so long ago that, except for later experiments such as Congreve's rockets, they have left scarcely a trace in military history. (I would think that mounting a few big fat Roman candles on the prow of a galley would be as good as Greek fire, but there's no clear indication that anyone ever tried it.)

Thus no doubt to Tolkien, and the vast majority of his readers, fireworks at Bilbo's party were no more a predictor of firefights in combat than knowing that hobbits prefer six meals a day would be a predictor that they prefer living underground. Not that the question of gunpowder in Middle-Earth has totally escaped attention; Googling "tolkien shire fireworks gunpowder" gets about 4200 hits. All the same I bet some of you lived happy and productive lives up to this point without ever considering the matter.

The fireworks passage in LOTR has a much odder oddity - at one point a fireworks dragon whooshes overhead "like an express train." I guess the Michel Delving express just highballs right through Hobbiton, huh? No one would write a line like that in a fantasy novel today unless the world had trains, or main characters came from our world.* This line is a bit of literary archeology, as noted here. Not deliberate world archeology, such as I mentioned last time - Tolkien's languages are the pioneering achievement of that - but a sign of how our own world has changed. It is a reminder that when LOTR was published it was not "a fantasy novel," because no such thing existed. LOTR created, or at least defined, a new subgenre of Romance.

I am (alas!) old enough to remember this. Science fiction was always around; fantasy came into being, as a defined entity, when I was in high school. Certainly there were fantasy elements around, and the term was in use, but there wasn't yet even a stereotype of a fantasy novel. (In the same way, Lest Darkness Fall was just fringe science fiction till it became identifiable as alternate history.)

In the literary culture as a whole, fantasy before LOTR was largely ghettoized within children's literature - Peter Pan, the Oz books, Wind in the Willows. It was creeping out via the pulps, and there was some quite adult fantasy out there, such as James Branch Cabell's books. I remember reading Jurgen in high school - I didn't understand much, but enough to know it was not kid stuff. That was the exception. The Hobbit is a children's book, and hobbits perhaps began in Tolkien's own imagination as more or less talking bunnies, before evolving into short, cheerful English rustics.

In a similar way, Middle-Earth surely evolved as a world - I recall at various times reading detailed textual exegesis that identifies some of this, like successive Troys buried beneath Minas Tirith. Middle-Earth also has some features that are more likely part of Tolkien's deliberate conception, but continue to intrigue me.

The Shire has always struck me as the solid anchor of Middle-Earth. It is the one place where we can most definitely see how it works. (I have seen a very funny Marxist interpretation - the Scouring as the revenge of the landowning classes.) You could probably work out an economic model of the Shire that would fit the picture given. Elsewhere it gets hazier. The Rohirrim have horses and lots of pastureland, I suppose. But where on earth, or in Middle-Earth, are the agrarian provinces that keep Minas Tirith fed and Gondor's armies supplied with recruits? I suppose they are somewhere on the map, but you sure never get any sense of them in the books. Minas Tirith has a lot more in common with the Emerald City than it does with Hobbiton.

Most of Middle-Earth, in fact, is pretty sketchy. This has led Tolkien's legion of bad imitators to the situation described by Diana Wynne Jones, where crowded inns turn up in the middle of nowhere, like finding a busy truck stop along a cracked pavement stretch of Former US 66. Tolkien gets away with it because after 500 pages of watching everyone in Bywater stuff themselves into a coma to watch Bilbo vanish in a flash, we are convinced of the solidity of Middle-Earth.

Also, as I mentioned in my comments at Carla's, the Shire seems more modern than the rest of Middle-Earth. It is set in a timeless premodern past but a sophisticated one, with postal service and the host of specialized trades called on for Bilbo's party. To me it feels a bit like the 18th century; I can imagine young female gentlehobbits reading Jane Austen novels and feeling completely at home. Beyond the Shire, however, at any rate past Bree, things feel about a thousand years earlier - very loosely synologous to Europe in the Early Middle Ages, what used to be rudely called the Dark Ages.

The Rohirrim are, duh, Anglo-Saxons, if the Anglo-Saxons had taken a wrong turn at the Isle of Wight and ended up on the Great Plains. The North-Kingdom has fallen, but its living spark remains as wandering paladins. (What a wonderfully rich and deep word, from late Roman palatini through Charlemagne's officers to a knight without armor in a lawless land.) The South-Kingdom of Gondor is, loosely, Byzantium, or would be if anyone as contemptable, nasty, and just plain byzantine as the Byzantines could possibly be the model for the flawed nobility of Gondor. Beyond Gondor, off to the south and east, is a hot country full of nasty people who take lots of slaves, but are very sophisticated, and did I say nasty? If you answered "Islam, as seen by Westerners on the eve of the Crusades," award yourself a gold star.**

All of this works because if we are the kind of people who read this kind of stuff, the essentials of this geography were already in our mental furniture - even before there were a million fantasy novels on the shelves. Fantasy worlds ever since have for the most part been loosely synologous to some part of the real past, usually Western Europe, for the very good reason that that is where Once Upon A Time still generally happens in our culture.

If you were expecting a brilliant conclusion to wrap this up, you read this in vain, because I have no particular conclusion in mind. So consider these just more notes on world building.

* Aren't steam trains now an archaic enough technology that they could fit into a timeless Once Upon? Not steampunk, but a rather Shire-esque world where populous and prosperous regions have always had trains as they have always had butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.

** The Fanatic Caliphates, as Diana Wynne Jones generalizes them. And boy are they problematic. My Catherine of Lyonesse world is unabashedly synologous to the (pre-Reformation!) 16th century, and therefore has syno-Muslims, unabashedly called Monites. I had in mind naval warfare in the Middle Sea, ripping off Lepanto and even more the battle of Preveza in 1538. (If you ever heard of this battle before, you are sick. Sick!)

Now, however, it is impossible to have anyone show up with a turban and scimitar without evoking very contemporary issues. Let two galleys meet prow to prow somewhere in the Pylian Gulf, and people will read it as an editorial. Useless to complain; it's a fact of life.


Jim Baerg said...

"But where on earth, or in Middle-Earth, are the agrarian provinces that keep Minas Tirith fed and Gondor's armies supplied with recruits?"

Actually that's one of the points on which Tolkien does fairly well. The Pelennor Fields between Minas Tirith & the Anduin river are explicitly mentioned as a major food source for Minas Tirith. In a scene in the 1st chapter of RotK there are troops coming from various provinces of Gondor coming into the city to help defend it.

Rick said...

That's what I get for not having re-read that part of the book since early in the Fourth Age.

I didn't really mean to pick on Gondor, but to contrast it to the extraordinary solidity (and stolidity!) of the Shire.

Bernita said...

Funny, I had no problem w/fireworks/gun powder, but in the movie, I did w/ the defenders of Helm's Deep being able to fire off flight after flight of arrows in an absolute drenching downpour.
Good oiled bowstrings there, I guess.

Rick said...

Bernita - LOL.

The implications of fireworks are getting very deep into the weeds of geekitude.

What bothered me most in the movie was the cavalry charge down an impossibly steep slope. (And, incredibly minor grump, the ships that transported the army of the dead were uninteresting - with all that was lavished overall, cool dromons would have been nifty.)

Anonymous said...

You know, fireworks in a world were magic works may well be the result of alchemy. That being said, I have to say that the Shire seemed to be much more mundane than Gondor; the contrast was between the work-a-day land of ordinary people, and that of the fabulous and slightly faded glorious land of myth and ledgend. My previous example of piling layer upon layer of details, painting a picture in the reader's eye, building a world where the reader subconciously supplies missing details describes LotR perfectly. I think we all wish we could write like that.

Rick said...

The fireworks might be alchemy, but the passage left me with the sense that at least most of them were to be understood as mundane.

I agree exactly on the mundane-ness of the Shire - and it anchors the rest of Middle-Earth, keeping it from floating off into Neverland, while freeing Tolkien from having to fine-detail all of it.

You bet we all wish we could do that!

Gian-Paolo said...

Great post -- I was pointed to it by my girlfriend, who knows of my fondness for both the influence of technology on military history and Tolkien's writing. Historically, there have been significant gaps in time between the development of gunpowder, its initial application in fireworks, and later military applications.

As I'm sure you know, gunpowder was probably developed in China in the 9th century. The first use of fireworks followed shortly thereafter, as did the first military use -- but these uses were a far cry from the widespread deployment of firearms. Incendiary bombs (which I believe were referenced in The Return of the King at the siege of Gondor, but I don't have my texts handy) were probably the first military application, followed by crude grenades in the 12th century. Rocketry started to come about in the 13th century, along with crude cannon.

It is, then, possible that the War of the Ring occurred in an interstitial time, when gunpowder was known to a few but not yet widely in use -- and there mostly used in fireworks and the conduct of siege warfare.

Rick said...

Gian-Paolo - yes, gunpowder has an amazingly long history between its invention and when guns became militarily important. I know almost nothing of the early history in China, but even in Europe - with a political environment of many rival powers, fostering military experimentation - it was about 100 years before guns became important as siege engines, and another 100 years before they became decisive in the field.

My impression of Gandalf's fireworks, though, was that they were so impressive as to show a good understanding of gunpowder's properties and potential.

If Tolkien really thought about gunpowder at all, probably the explanation of its uses and non-uses in Middle-Earth is primarily moral. Gandalf, the uncorrupted wizard, knows all about gunpowder but uses it only to entertain hobbits. Saruman, a corrupted wizard, is beginning to use it for industrial and military purposes.

Fitting that moral structure into a history of gunpowder would be tricky, but Tokugawa Japan shows that a sophisticated society can nearly disinvent guns - something Westerners would probably never have imagined as possible if there weren't a historical example. It is easier to never invent guns than to disinvent them!

The only thing the moral model of gunpowder usage in Middle-Earth does not explain is why Sauron, who has been corrupt for ages at least, doesn't have thermonuclear weapons. Of course that would have made LOTR a much shorter book.

And it would be a bummer for Sauron if he vaporized the Shire just for fun, and accidentally vaporized the Ring along with it. A fireball has got to be as hot as Mt. Doom!

Bernita said...

Rick, you'll have to admit that at least the mage used a flare of light to raise the spears and pikes so the front rank was not impaled by them.

Carla said...

Sorry I'm so late! I think you might be onto something with the moral dimension. Most (all?) technology can be put to good and bad uses. Gandalf uses gunpowder technology for life-enriching purposes (to amuse and entertain hobbits), whereas Saruman uses the same technology for domination and destruction. The question is why Sauron doesn't use it the same way at Pelennor Fields, to which I suppose the short answer is that Grond is more dramatic and the long answer must be that for some reason Sauron hasn't got the technology yet. It is said somewhere that Gandalf was especially associated with fire, so perhaps it was his invention and he kept it a closely guarded secret - so Saruman, who was initially a trusted colleague could get access to it, but Sauron couldn't.

About the "express train" simile. I think that reflects the change in style of the story as it was written. It started out in the same chatty let-me-tell-you-a-story tone as The Hobbit, and an express train fits that tone perfectly, being familiar to both audience and storyteller. As the story proceeds this tone disappears, almost as if the story is swallowing up the narrator, who is in a way now becoming part of the tale instead of sitting outside it (if that makes any sense at all). The shift in tone is even more pronounced if you read the early drafts published by Christopher Tolkien (yes, I am that much of a geek). So I reckon that "express train" line is an archaeological deposit left over from the original concept of the book, which was a lot more like The Hobbit.

Rick said...

Carla - yes on the moral dimension, especially the elegant tie in to Saruman, who might have learned of it before his fall. It strike me now that even if Tolkien never thought like an SF writer, of "gunpowder tech," anyone who'd been through a 20th c. war could hardly miss the sense of a nightmare fireworks show.

Regarding "express train," Tolkien warned us that the tale grew in the telling! I bet he knew perfectly well that it didn't strictly fit the eventual epic, but left it in because it works just fine in the passage, and pedants like me were sure to make fools of themselves about it.

Books must be full of archeological relics on various scales. Catherine's royal style, yada yada "by Heaven's Grace Queen," goes back to a time in worldbuilding when I thought I would have to make up a religion, and was meant to hint at something rather impersonal, like Chinese Tien. Then I decided, hell with it, since I'm unabashedly ripping off the flavor if not historical details of the real world, why not just let my people be slightly heretical Christians?

Davyd said...

I've always thought of Gandalf's fireworks as being someething extraordinary - but hobbits being hobbits, they treat it as something plain and normal. (Because it's fun, and abnormal things are not fun, so fireworks must therefore be normal, even if we haven't seen them before, thinks the good country squire.) The fact that Gandalf has been coming by for over 60 years and setting them off periodically probably helped, too. Certainly it explains why the children are familiar with them. But it's only the hobbits absolute determination to make life as normal as possible even in the face of amazing things that makes the fireworks seem mundane - I rather expect that if Gandalf had set them off anywhere else, it would have had a much grander reaction.

It's also worth remembering that the wizards aren't human. They're essentially mortalised angels, and as such have access to abilities that the rest of the world does not. I think it quite reasonable that the wizards would decline to share gunpowder with the rest of the world - Gandalf out of concern for the world, Sauruman out of concern for his dominant position.

Although I have some beefs with the writing in the novels, I've never really found a complaint that stands up (in my opinion) about the world-building Prof. Tolkien did.

Rick said...

As described, Gandalf's fireworks are indeed extraordinary - I have never seen or even heard of any real-world fireworks that come close.

(Except for space launches, of course.)

And you are right that Hobbits just don't do awesome - which has a great deal to do with why Frodo made a good Ring-bearer. For that matter, Bilbo possessed the Ring for decades, took zero precautions, and even so was not significantly corrupted by it. Hardly even trivially corrupted.

Regarding Tolkien's world building, my comments on fireworks (and express trains) are pure amused pedantry. Tolkien pretty much invented world building as we now understand it.

And his comments on sub-creation have had significant theological effect on me!