Bag End, Baggins, carpet, classical altars, Cosmati, English Ham House, Erasmus, Felicity Irons, floors, Gamgee, John Howe, Lady Chapel, paneling, parquetry, rush door mat, Shire, social levels, stone block, swags, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, tile, Tolkien, Took, Typha, Versailles, Westminster Abbey
Welcome, dear readers, once more to our blog. In this installment, we are returning to our inspection of Bilbo’s entryway.
So far, we’ve examined the barometer, the clock, the umbrella stand, and that hat in the left foreground—intentionally misread as a sugar loaf. Now we want to examine the floor, which looks to be a pretty complicated place, asking ourselves, as we always do, where does this come from and how much of the medieval—so often the foundation of Middle-earth—does it contain?
The Shire clearly has social levels. Bilbo, Frodo, and Merry and Pippin (contrary to P Jackson—who violated JRRT’s wishes on the subject of the latter two), for example, all speak (in translation, of course) what is called “Received Standard English”. In contrast, Sam, the Gaffer, and the Cottons speak what would appear to be a rural dialect and Sam even thinks of Frodo as “Mister Frodo” and even “Master”. We do not know where these class distinctions came from, but we know of Bilbo that:
- he is called “a very well-to-do hobbit “ at the very beginning of The Hobbit (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
- he has distinguished forebears in the Tooks—his mother was “the famous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
- he lives in an extensive, rambling burrow: “a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted…The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill…bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
And the entryway certainly shows some elements of a wealthier lifestyle, with its paneled (US spelling) walls—but we intend to devote a later posting to the walls and support structure of Bag End, so let’s turn to what is said next: “floors tiled and carpeted”. Looking at JRRT’s drawing, we can see both—and more.
Before we had gone back to this passage, we were a little puzzled as to the basic floor. As you can see in Tolkien’s illustration, it’s in a checkered pattern and, at first, we wondered if this might be an example of what’s called “parquetry”. In this method of flooring, different strips or blocks of wood are laid into designs of all sorts. Here are a couple of fancy examples from the 17th-century English Ham House.
Parquetry appears to have been developed in France, as an alternative to marble floors (much less weight to support by the floor beams and equally pretty, we’d guess). Here’s an example from Louis XIV’s Versailles.
But the description in The Hobbit says “floors tiled”– here’s an exterior tile pattern from Ham house.
and an indoor one.
So, although Bilbo appears well enough off to afford parquetry, there is no mention of it in JRRT’s description and it is a decorative detail from the 17th century and beyond, which rather goes against our usual “Middle-earth is (more or less) medieval” idea. The text of The Hobbit clinches the fact that it’s tile, of course, but the tile we then see in JRRT’s illustration strikes us as even plainer than the late-19th, early 20th century hallway tile we’ve seen, as in this restoration picture, and with which Tolkien would have been familiar on a daily basis.
Medieval tiles, in fact, can be even more elaborate, first appearing in England in the 13th century, mainly in ecclesiastical buildings. Here’s one from the Lady Chapel (completed in 1373) in York Minster.
Much medieval tiling has disappeared over the centuries and here’s a useful link which explains why. And to see an amazing example of such work, here’s a link to the restored Cosmati paving in Westminster Abbey.
Over this tile, Tolkien has laid a carpet (as his description has said, the floors are “carpeted”).
It’s faint, but what one can make out appears to be a solid-colored center with what appear to be wreaths and what are called “swags”—long chains made to imitate garlands of ribbons, fruit, and flowers used to decorate classical altars.
So far, we haven’t located anything which closely resembles the carpet at Bag End, but here’s an 18th-century French example to provide a kind of general idea.
There are two more items on the floor, both just below the door.
The first looks to be perhaps a stone block, used as a sill. (Our illustration is actually of a mistake—the central block here has fallen out of position, but it gives you the idea of such a block in use.)
The other item appears to us to be a rush door mat (dog—“Bo”–optional).
Rushes (genus Typha) grow all over the world and can be used, it seems, for almost anything. Here’s the English rush weaver, Felicity Irons, busy harvesting.
Rushes, however, bring us back to the subject of English medieval flooring. Our research suggests that the houses of farmers and lower-level townspeople would have been of natural substances, like clay pressed to make a hard surface. Richer people would have had wooden or even, in a few cases, tile floors (more such floors after the commercial business took off in the 15th/16th centuries). Carpets appear to be much later (most weaving was hung on walls, to keep down drafts, it seems). Our sources for what people laid on top of their floors are very sketchy and some modern writers have depended upon a quotation from the Dutch scholar, Erasmus (1469-1536),
who visited England and spent some years there around 1500. He tells us that the English covered their floors with rushes, but that they only added more to the top, without cleaning out the lower levels, which became full of refuse and caused bad smells (which to a person of Erasmus’ time represented the danger of “miasma”—bad air which could cause disease—something believed as scientifically true even throughout the first half of the 19th century). Some modern commentators have questioned this, proposing the difficulty of moving about on a weedy floor in a long gown, as women and, in time, men, wore during the later Middle Ages. At least one of those questioners even suggests that rushes meant rush mats—see above.
Bilbo’s hall has only one of these, meant, from its position, to be used as a modern would, as a doormat.
Taken altogether, we would suggest that Bilbo’s floor, just like his clock and barometer and umbrella stand, would appear to belong not to the medieval world which lies underneath Middle-earth, but rather to the late 19th-20th century world of the author. And we’re not alone in our opinion. Here’s John Howe’s version of that hallway—compare it with JRRT’s and see what’s been erased.
And here’s the film version–
There are more differences, too–for fun, see how many you can find.
And thanks, as always, for reading!