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.