Welcome, dear readers, as always.
“At never may return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
In later years, there were things in the first edition of The Hobbit, published in 1937,
which the author found less satisfying and wished to change, or actually changed.
The most striking change was the revision of Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”, in which the Gollum of 1937 is moved towards the later Gollum of The Lord of the Rings, in order to synchronize the earlier story of the Ring with its reappearance in the later book.
A smaller change occurred in Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”, where Gandalf’s “And just bring out the cold chicken and tomatoes!” became “the cold chicken and pickles!”
In contrast to the need to revamp Gollum, such a change seems so minor. Why make it?
In a typescript of 1955,Tolkien says:
“ ‘Middle-earth’, by the way, is not the name of a never-never land…And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.” (from the typescript of a letter written by Tolkien to the Houghton Mifflin Company, May? 1955, Letters, 220)
In which case, if, by “Old World” he is implying—and the general look of Middle-earth in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings would appear to back this up—that this is a medieval world, then tomatoes would be an anachronism, as the tomato only appeared in Europe after the Spanish conquistadores brought them back from Mexico in the early 16th century, where it was first described in Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s (1501-1577) I Discorsi in 1544.
(This is the 1568 edition, where you can find a description at the very bottom of page 1136 under “pomi d’oro”, which differentiates between two sub-varieties, one being the color of blood, the other golden—hence that name “apples of gold”. If you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s that edition: https://archive.org/details/gri_33125014246561/page/1136/mode/2up )
Once the tomatoes go, there are several other New World plants which have somehow found their way to Middle-earth, all of which would also fall into that category of anachronism.
First, there is tobacco, which is mentioned in a number of early 16th-century Spanish documents, including Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes’ (1478-1557) Historia general de las Indias (1535-), where he describes local Native Americans smoking an herb. (Here is the reference: https://archive.org/details/gri_33125007267921/page/130/mode/2up Oviedo’s work is apparently a bit of a mess and this version was a mid-19th-century attempt to straighten it out.)
(How could I resist the first known image of someone smoking? This is from Anthony Chute’s 1595 pamphlet, Tabaco, a document so enthusiastic that it might have been produced by the advertising department of a tobacco company. Because tobacco was initially an expensive import, early pipes were, in fact, relatively small. This reproduction will give you an idea–)
It’s seems that JRRT was a little uncomfortable with tobacco, but not enough to remove all of the references to smoking in The Lord of the Rings, where he simply turned tobacco into “pipeweed” and everyone from the Shire to Gondor could then light up on a regular—often meditative—basis.
(And he even included a section on the subject in the Prologue—“2 Concerning Pipe-weed”. Of course, when one thinks of how many images we have of him with a pipe in his mouth, are we surprised?)
Then there are Sam Gamgee’s “taters”.
As with tomatoes and tobacco, it seems that it was the Spanish, as they increasingly spread through and occupied the Caribbean and points south, who imported the potato to Europe, possibly as early as the 1570s. Certainly by Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision of John Gerard’s 1597 The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes
we find this toothsome recommendation:
“The temperature and virtues be referred unto the common Potatoes, being
likewise a food, as also a meat for pleasure, equal in goodness and wholesomeness
unto the same, being either roasted in the embers, or boiled and eaten with oil,
vinegar, and pepper, or dressed any other way by the hand of some cunning in
cookery.” (This is from Book 4, Chapter 350, page 54, of a modernized text which you can find here: https://www.exclassics.com/herbal/herbalv4.pdf )
(as is this illustration)
To these, I add one more item, which, I admit, I only spotted while teaching The Hobbit this spring:
“A big jug of coffee had just been set in the hearth… (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
Coffee’s origins are a little murky, but one thing is clear: this was not introduced from the New World by the Spanish. Instead, the cultivated variety seems to come from Ethiopia and was introduced to eastern Europe in the 1520s by the Ottomans and to western Europe somewhat later, perhaps first by Dutch merchants. The first coffeehouse in London dates from the early 1650s. Here’s an advertisement from the owner of that first establishment, Pascua Rosee—
and here’s an early coffeehouse, although, by the dress of the drinkers, of perhaps a decade or so later.
From whomever and whenever it first appeared, it certainly was not available in our medieval world and, if we continue the reasoning that Tolkien’s Middle-earth as depicted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings corresponds to that medieval world, then, along with removing tomatoes, tobacco, and potatoes, that jug of coffee should have been dumped out and its contents replaced with ale—which, in fact, Bilbo’s dwarvish guests request—along with cakes–and more of that non-existent beverage:
“ ‘And more cakes—and ale—and coffee, if you don’t mind,’ called the other dwarves through the door.”
But what about that steam engine with which this posting began? If the replacement of tomatoes with pickles shows that Tolkien himself became aware of the dangers of anachronism, certainly steam engines should have joined them in being replaced. In fact, we learn from Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit that:
“For the 1966 revision of the text, Tolkien carefully considered the spacing of a possible replacement line here—‘like the whee of a rocket going up into the sky’—but in the end rejected it.” (The Annotated Hobbit, 47, note 35)
But why? Anderson offers the possibility that:
“This usage need not be viewed as an anachronism, for Tolkien as narrator was telling this story to his children in the early 1930s, and they lived in a world where railway trains were a very important feature of life.” (note 35)
And, as Tolkien didn’t change it, I suppose that we might accept this—but a small part of me still wonders, “Yes, but what about that coffee?”
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
I’ll take mine black,
And remember that there’s always
For a cheerful song about coffee from the time of the Great Depression, here’s Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” from the 1932 review “Face the Music”– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8kGjrjAKt4