Across the Doubtful Sea, alternate history, anachronisms, Anglo-Saxon, Bertil Thorvaldsen, cabinet of curiosities, Cicero, Elias Ashmole, Gaius Verres, Greeks, Hellenistic, hobbit measurement system, John Tradescant the Younger, Marquette University, mathom, Mathom-house, mathum, Muses, Oxford, Renaissance, Rochester, Romans, sculptor, Shire, Strong Museum of Play, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Victorian Museum
Welcome, dear readers, as always.
A year or two ago, we were visiting the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, a wonderful place, filled with memorabilia of childhood, as well as up-to-date exhibits and generally just fun things to see and do. (Strong Museum website)
Museums, as public display areas, are rather recent in western history.
The name tells us that it was to be a place devoted to the inspirers of the arts, the ancient Greek Muses.
(This is not ancient, but a 19th-century imitation by Bertil Thorvaldsen, 1770-1844, one of the early Romantic period’s most famous sculptors.)
Greeks—later ones (in the period called “Hellenistic”)—and the Romans collected artistic things, but they were private collections—although Cicero
in his orations attacking the corrupt ex-governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, mentions that a predecessor had nobly allowed his art to be loaned out to decorate the public streets on festive occasions. (It is a horrible irony that Verres, who had fled Rome when it was clear that Cicero had demolished him and his reputation in his first speech, was eventually murdered in Massilia—present-day Marseilles–over a piece of sculpture.)
The first actual “museums” in modern times were Renaissance collections—often hodgepodge assemblies called things like “cabinet of curiosities”, but in England, by the 17th century, John Tradescant the Younger (1608-1662)
had built upon his father’s collection, which was held in the family house south of the Thames (called “The Ark”).
At his death, that collection passed to Elias Ashmole (1617-1692)
—and there’s a really strange story about how this happened and the consequences, including the very suspicious death of Tradescant’s second wife, Hester.
Ashmole bequeathed it to his alma mater, Oxford, on the condition that an appropriate building be constructed for it. That structure was built, in 1678-83, and may have been the first public museum in western Europe.
There is, in fact, a museum in the Shire. In the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, we are told of Bilbo that:
“…his coat of marvellous mail, the gift of the Dwarves from the Dragon-hoard, he lent to a museum, to the Michel Delving Mathom-house, in fact.”
(where Gandalf supposes it is “still gathering dust”—The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”). Its name and function are described in the Prologue:
“The Mathom-house it was called; for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom.”
Such a description suggests something more like an old-fashioned Victorian museum,
or even a “cabinet of curiosities” like Ole Worm’s 17th-century one.
We suspect that the Mathom-house is JRRT’s quiet joke on such older museums, which, even in his day, could be filled with dusty glass cases in which were a wide variety of objects, from fossils to rusty weapons found in the fields, all described on yellowing, hand-labeled cards. In the Hammond and Scull Companion, they suggest that the joke is even more complex, first quoting Tolkien “mathom is meant to recall ancient English mathm”, to which they add:
“Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898) notes mathum ‘a precious or valuable thing (often refers to gifts)’. Thus Tolkien uses mathom ironically for things which are not treasured, only for where there was ‘no immediate use’ or which the Hobbits ‘were unwilling to throw away’.”
The Strong Museum, in contrast, is bright-colored and inviting, and, in a section dedicated to children’s authors, there is an entire display case devoted to JRRT, which included this. It’s a beautiful replica from the Marquette University Tolkien archive of a menu (the label gives the date “1937-1955”) on which JRRT has carefully written out the hobbit linear measurement system.
You can see that, unlike the rather abstract mechanism of the metric system, with its linear basis being a segment of the distance from the North Pole to the equator, Tolkien has used the Anglo-Saxon tradition, where the “foot” was actually originally based upon body parts, being divided into 4 palms or 12 thumbs (although there is another system based upon barley corns).
And, just to confirm this, to the right of his bold numbers, there are fainter numbers which indicate the English equivalents.
This system, as ingenious and carefully-worked out as it is, is never used, either in The Hobbit or in The Lord of the Rings. The measurements we can remember—this was done off the top of our heads—any reader who would like to supply more, please feel free!– actually being used are:
- leagues (about 3 miles per league is pretty standard = 4.8km)
- ells—30 make the coil of elven rope Sam takes from the boat in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien” (one ell = about 45 inches = 114 cm; 30 ells = about 112 feet = about 34 metres)
- inches–Sam, in The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”, comments that Merry and Pippin are “three inches taller than you ought to be” (3 inches = 7.6cm)
Why spend so much time and effort on something which never went anywhere farther than a menu card in an archive, then?
It’s possible, of course, that this was written in a moment of boredom: although we don’t actually know the occasion, we can imagine that the menu was for a formal dinner to which JRRT had been obliged to go and he improved upon a dull moment with a little Middle-earth fun. Then again, the dating of the card, “1937-1955” places it between the publication of The Hobbit and that of The Lord of the Rings: was this something worked up to be employed in the latter, but simply never needed—or was it, once produced, abandoned as too obscure and hence the use of the (potentially) more familiar leagues, ells, and inches? Or, again, was this simply a product of the almost-obsessive side of JRRT, where so much was so painstakingly created in fine detail? Here is another item from the Strong Museum which displays that side. It is a working-out of the phases of the moon for The Lord of the Rings (sorry it’s a little blurry—this was taken through plexiglass with an i-phone).
In an early posting, we once wrote about achieving authenticity in a fantasy novel. Our first, Across the Doubtful Sea, which was set in an alternate 18th century, in France, in London, in South America, and in the South Pacific, required a great deal of research.
To prepare for it, we spent some time reading books on everything from 18th-century navies to South Pacific exploration (and even posted a partial bibliography). Much of our research went into the finished book, but much never did. What we hoped, however, was that, by having so much background in our heads, that background would be reflected in our text. That meant, even if it were an alternate 18th-century, there wouldn’t be glaring anachronisms, on the one hand, but, on the other, that we would give our work a “feel” for the period which would be convincing to our readers and so increase both their engagement and their enjoyment. We would like to think that JRRT, when scribbling hobbit measures on a menu card, had had the same goals.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
We’ve had the crazy idea to build our own imaginary Mathom-house for the works of JRRT and we’re having fun thinking what visitors would see hung from the walls or lying in the cases. Readers: what would you like to see on display?