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Anyone without the slightest idea of how J. R. R. Tolkien was like in real life perhaps would assume that he was a stiff, serious professor-type; well-read and charming enough, but not exactly a humorous one, judging from his photos. This, of course, was a wrong assessment, since Tolkien was known for being quite a jolly figure, fond of laughter and even silly jokes. This was a person who threw sugar cubes to people’s hats from teahouse balconies with his date, went to parties dressed as a polar bear, and irritated his neighbors by dressing up as Anglo-Saxon warrior and chased them down the street.
As Humphrey Carpenter noted in his Tolkien biography:
“He (Tolkien) could laugh at anybody, but most of all at himself, and his complete lack of any sense of dignity could and often did make him behave like a riotous schoolboy.”
Humphrey Carpenter: J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography
A funny person does not always produce funny works, but this general depiction gives a hint about Tolkien’s inherent sense of humor and his fondness of laughter. Something that he included in many of his fiction works, including the famous Middle-earth legendarium, yet are often overlooked by academic studies and readers in general. Humor and laughter are more than just devices to lighten the mood; they have significant meanings and functions for his stories and characters.
Published in 2016 by Walking Tree Publisher, Laughter in Middle-earth: Humour in and Around the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien dispels the notion that humor and laughter are not inherently important in Tolkien’s works. The book contains nine essays that delve into various works such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and shorter works like Farmer Giles of Ham. They explore the meaning of humor and laughter for various characters, situations, and themes in Tolkien’s works (and around), such as the function of laughter, linguistic jokes, nonsense, parody, and humorous illustrations.
The Function of Laughter
Laughter is often dismissed from serious discussions about literature, probably because of its nature as a spontaneous nonverbal expression that is considered mundane. Psychologist Robert Provine expressed similar sentiment in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (1996), citing the 1962 case of “contagious laughter epidemic” in Tanganyika (Tanzania) as one of the most notable cases involving the unique trait of laughter. While laughter might be spontaneous, it is surrounded by complex psychological dimensions.
When we laugh, it is not just for expressing mirth. We might associate it with humor and jokes, but laughter is a communication tool that expresses joy, aggression, embarrassment, satisfaction, confusion, and many other complicated emotions. In his book The Linguistics of Laughter (2006), Alan Partington depicts laughter as a form of “unconventional weapon”, holding the same weight with other types of more complicated expressions such as language, art, and literature. The same understanding might have encouraged Tolkien to incorporate laughter as more than mundane, meaningless expression among his characters.
The book has two essays that explore laughter specifically: “A Fountain of Mirth: Laughter in Arda” by Alastair Whyte, and “The Tenacity of Humour in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien” by Jennifer Raimundo. Both essays discuss laughter as signs of characters’ development. Laughter is considered as a symbol of strength and even precursor of big decisions. Pay attention to books like The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, and you will see many scenes or instances of laughter even when the characters are facing difficult times. Laughter also often precedes the scenes where characters are ready to take big decisions.
In The Lord of the Rings, there are several scenes where characters pick or briefly hold the Ring of Power, almost succumbing to the Ring’s tempting promise; a form of “test” for them. When a character refuses to succumb to the Ring’s temptation (hence, “passing the test”), they mark that decision with laughter. Galadriel laughs after refusing the temptation of the Ring, quietly accepting the fact that the era of the Elves in Middle-earth is coming to an end. When Faramir almost succumbs to the Ring Frodo carries, he suddenly laughs and sits, apparently successfully passing the test of blocking the enticing power of the Ring. Also, judging from the heavy burden carried out by Frodo dan Sam, it is both surprising and interesting that there are so many laughing scenes between them during that difficult journey.
Tolkien also considered laughter as the antithesis of evil. In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien depicted the concept of consolation and eucatastrophe; a joyful feeling and “happy end” that do not discount failure and sorrow, yet denying the universal defeat. It is not a coincidence that Tulkas the Steadfast, known as “the Champion of the Valar” and famous for his strength, is strongly associated with laughter and joy. His depiction even uses words that seem to clash: “greatest in strength”, “(his anger) passes like mighty wind”, and “laughs ever.” Evil and darkness are inseparable parts of life, but laughter beats the final defeat that they bring.
Etiquette Humor and Nonsense
My other two favorite topics described in this book touch etiquette humor and nonsense. In the delightfully titled “This Of Course Is the Way to Talk to Dragons,” Laura Lee Smith compared humor in The Hobbit with Through the Looking-Glass, The Princess and the Goblin, and Winnie the Pooh. All these books have been known as “subversive children’s books” because they subvert many elements of courtesy and etiquette, turning them into parody or hilarious scenes to amuse and entertain readers.
The Hobbit is especially ripe for exploring etiquette humor; notable scenes discussed in the essay include Gandalf and Bilbo’s famous “good morning” fiasco (a smart semantic play), Bilbo’s tremendous efforts in staying polite even with a bunch of Dwarves inviting themselves into his house, and the “competition of wit” between Bilbo and Smaug the Dragon. In a way, Tolkien showed that horror and hypocrisy can be well hidden underneath the face of politeness.
“Certainly Not Our Sense: Tolkien and Nonsense” by Maureen F. Mann finally answered my question of why the Elves portrayed in The Hobbit tease the Dwarves and Bilbo when they are crossing the bridge to Rivendell, with them singing a song full of “weird words”, a far cry from their elegant but fading portrayal in The Lord of the Rings.
Parody and Humorous Illustrations
Talking about humor, laughter, and joke is incomplete without touching the parody works. Tolkien’s famous stories have birthed various parodies, with noted examples such as The Stupid Ring Parody (an online parody created by a group of fans in Netscape as a response to the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring movie) and contemporary internet product such as an episode of Epic Rap Battles in History on YouTube, which predictably pitched J.R.R. Tolkien against George R. R. Martin. Sherrylyn Branchaw’s “Strategies of Humour in The Stupid Ring Parody,” for example, explores parody concept in things like breaking the fourth wall and engaging with fans.
One of my favorite parts in this book is the list of illustrations. The book inserts several funny illustrations by various artists that have elements of laughter or humor. However, there is a specific chapter that discusses humorous products and interpretation of Tolkien’s works. Titled “Humour in Art Depicting Middle-earth” by Davide Martini, this essays talks about the creation of humorous artworks as the opposite of Tolkien’s famous verbal humor. The essay features numerous illustrations by artists with notable styles like Cor Blok, Dar’ ya Yudina, Mikhail Belomlinskij, and many more.
In conclusion, Laughter in Middle-earth is a book that provides new insight on Tolkien’s works, especially associated with humor, laughter, and jokes. They appear in the stories not just as passing scenes or insignificant parts, but also symbols of hope, tenacity, and triumph against temptation. Furthermore, laughter is and mirth are among the biggest powers that keep darkness at bay. And if you still cannot see them, let Tolkien explained it better:
“It is precisely against the darkness of the world that comedy arises, and it is best when that is not hidden.”
- Tolkien’s reply to Rayner Unwin’s comments, after the latter first reading The Fellowship of the Ring and failing to notice the comedic elements.