anachronism, Hans Christian Andersen, matches, Swan Vestas, The Hobbit, The Little Match Girl, The Lord of the Rings, tinder, tinder box, Tolkien, Vesta, Vilhelm Pedersen
As always, dear readers, welcome.
Recently, we’ve been examining anachronisms in The Hobbit. These are always such minor things that JRRT, before its initial publication in 1937,
doesn’t appear even to have noticed them (see our recent postings for more on them) and only corrected some in succeeding editions.
In our last, it was “guns”, but, in this, our last, at least for the present, it’s this:
“After some time he felt for his pipe…Then he felt for his pouch…Then he felt for matches…”
(The Hobbit, Chapter Five, “Riddles in the Dark”)
Others have noticed this before—Anderson in his invaluable The Annotated Hobbit even has a footnote on it (page 116), adding the detail from Chapter Six that “…Oin and Gloin had lost their tinder-boxes. (Dwarves have never taken to matches even yet.)”
Why are matches an anachronism? Tolkien, a life-long pipe smoker,
would have used them without thinking—perhaps these, “Swan Vestas”, long sold as “the smoker’s match”.
(The name “Vesta” comes from the Roman goddess of the hearth,
a fragment of whose temple still stands in the Roman Forum in Rome.
Inside was a hearth—a fire pit—which symbolized all of the hearths in Rome.)
Matches, however, are a nineteenth-century invention, with a complicated history—and, at the beginning, a complicated ignition. For example, these, from 1828, had a tip of sulphur which burst into flame when dipped into a container of phosphorus.
This was hardly a practical way to strike a light and soon matches were made by which friction could be used to light them. After 1830, the tips of these were coated with white phosphorus, which was rather unstable and could be set off by everything from rubbing against each other to strong sunlight. They were made by the millions in factories (many employing young women and girls)
and sold on street corners everywhere, commonly by children and the very poor.
Considering this made us think of a Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)
story we can’t bear to read. In English, it’s called “The Little Match Girl” and was first published in 1845. Here’s an illustration for it by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859), Andersen’s favorite illustrator.
(If you would like to read it—we’ve warned you!– here’s the LINK to a very rich site, which has all of Andersen’s fairy tales both in the original Danish and translated into English, along with all of the rest of Andersen’s extensive literary work.)
But, if Bilbo lives in a sort of medieval world, where, presumably, matches wouldn’t be available, then what can he use? The answer, of course, is what Oin and Gloin have lost (and Sam will have in The Lord of the Rings–see The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”): a tinder box.
Such a box would contain three basic items: a dry material in which to catch a spark (bark, dry moss, linen rags), a piece of steel and a piece of flint to make sparks.
And here’s how it works—
Long before the invention of matches, this was the common way in the western world to strike a light (literally) with “flint and steel”, as it was called—and it’s what the dwarves use in The Hobbit.
It’s also the title of another Hans Christian Andersen story, but a jollier one, called, in English, “The Tinder Box”, first published in 1835—and here’s another Pedersen illustration.
In this story, a soldier on the way home from war is stopped by an old lady on the side of the road.
She tells him that there’s treasure below a tree and, if he will climb in, he can take all that he wants and all that she wants in return is a little tinder box to be found there.
He climbs in and discovers rooms full of riches, as well as three dogs of increasingly enormous size.
The tinder box is, of course, not a little nothing, but the key to the dogs and to the magic beyond, although the soldier doesn’t know that at the time. When he climbs out of the tree, and the old woman (a witch, of course), demands the box, however, he grows suspicious and, instead of handing her the box, the soldier hands her her head.
(We said that this was a jollier story—but clearly not if you’re a witch.)
We refer you to the LINK we mentioned earlier for the rest of the story—SPOILER ALERT: it does have a happy ending. As does The Hobbit, except for goblins and wargs, of course. Oh, and Thorin.
And then there’s Smaug, whose fire goes out—dare we say it?—like a burnt match.
Thanks, as always, for reading and, as ever,