Friday, 8 February 2013

Explaining Trotter's clogs... a cold sweat moment from the writing of Lord of the Rings

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In reading The History of Middle Earth, and the early drafts of Lord of the Rings, there are some 'cold sweat moments' when you realize how horribly wrong it all might have gone - or perhaps it is just that a genius needs to make mistakes en route to a masterpiece.

Many of these relate to the character called Trotter - a friend of Gandalf whom the hobbits met at the Prancing Pony in Bree and who guides them to Rivendell.

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Trotter eventually became the noble Numenorean heir to the throne of Gondor and Arnor we know as Aragorn - but he began as a brown skinned hobbit who wore wooden shoes.

The wooden shoes - whose clopping sound on the road explains the nickname of 'trotter' - seem (for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom) to have been taken by Tolkien as an immovable necessity to the story, and he expended considerable ingenuity in devising explanations for why a hobbit should be wearing clogs...

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These matters come to a head in the draft chapter for the Council of Elrond (page 401 of The Return of the Shadow - volume 6 of The History of Middle Earth) :

Gandalf spoke long, making clear to those who did not already know the tale in full the ancient history of the Ring, and the reasons why the Dark Lord so greatly desired it.

Bilbo then gave  an account of the finding of the Ring in the cave of the Misty Mountains, and Trotter described his search for Gollum that he had made with Gandalf's help, and told of his perilous adventures in Mordor. 

Thus it was that Frodo learned how Trotter had tracked Gollum as he wandered southwards, through Fangorn Forest, and past the Dead Marshes, until he had himself been caught and imprisoned by the Dark Lord.

'Ever since I have worn shoes,' said Trotter with a shudder, and though he said no more Frodo knew he had been tortured and his feet hurt in some way...  

[Reference 20]

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Well, all this is bad. After all this build-up about the clogs we get the phrase 'Hurt in some way...

Lame, one might say

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But worse is yet to come.

The real, twenty-four carat cold sweat moment comes in Reference 20, where Christopher Tolkien reveals:

My father bracketed the passage from 'Ever since I have worn shoes' to 'hurt in some way', and wrote in the margin (with a query) that it should be revealed later that Trotter had wooden feet.

Go back and read that last sentence again...

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Clogs would have been bad enough; but instead of the noble Aragorn, we very nearly had a mahogany-footed halfling.


Phew! (Wipes brow with large spotted handkerchief.)

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13 comments:

matthew livermore said...

Wow that is properly weird. I knew of Tolkien's peculiar desire to keep Trotter in it, but had not heard of the wooden feet idea. I think it's sometimes hard when you create something to get a critical viewpoint on it, especially if the character came to Tolkien as the name Trotter. His method was always to see if he reason out the name, which was the prior thing.

Samson J. said...

That is really, really great... thanks for sharing that, Bruce. I've got to get my hands on this History of M-E, having finished the Notion Club Papers over Christmas.

C. said...

Editors can always tell when a character or plot point is just hanging around because the author liked it and/or thought of it early. I'm glad Tolkien was wise enough to change Trotter before it came to that.

stephen c said...

I never noticed that before ... as a possible source for the "wooden feet" and JRRT's cavalier language (not cavalier attitude, I would never accuse JRRT of that) regarding the horror of "wooden feet", I might suggest that Tolkien had been paying attention to American folklore (Longbottoms, Proudfeet, etcetera) and had somehow picked up the extremely unempathetic portion of American folklore regarding George Washington's "wooden teeth"
(i.e. dentures for unfortunate people who needed them)

Bruce Charlton said...

This is just the way (some) great writers work; and I can only observe.

But even Christopher Tolkien expresses mystification at the way some elements persist long beyond the point where they had any use and where they have become an intrusive menace.

The hobbit called 'Odo' is one such - he was one of the hobbits who accompanied the characters who would become Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin - yet he was clearly redundant and Tolkien kept making notes to get rid of him, eliminate him from the plot - but somehow this took a lot longer than seems reasonable.

I suspect that these are clues to the germs of the story - in Tolkien's case these were sometimes to do with names (and other words), sometimes they seem to have been of the nature of visions, sometimes from dreams.

Naturally, it would be difficult to get rid of such primary sources of inspiration, and an author would tend to write around them, even when it would be simpler to eliminate them.

B. Shelley said...

I appreciate someone who has the aesthetic sophistication to parse classic fantasy as you do, Mr. Charlton. This seems to be part-and-parcel with a greater understanding of the underpinnings of the cultural situation. For my part, I found this posting quite amusing, as someone who does not live and breathe this particular genre...

AlexT said...

I love the Tolkien threads. I didn't know about the wooden feet, but i think this is why JRRT took so long to write these books. He must have written and rewritten the whole thing dozens of times before he was absolutely sure he'd trimmed all the fat and reduced it to what it needed to be, but without sacrificing anything that might not have been essential, but added something worthwile to the books(Tom Bombadil).

CorkyAgain said...

Did Tolkien know someone who lost a foot in the horrors of WW1?

His reluctance to give up the idea suggests that there might some personal recollection or acquaintance involved.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Corky - with another author I would suspect that; but with Tolkien the things he holds-onto (unreasonably!) in composing don't seem to be of that nature: rather they are words, and things seen in vision or dream.

Also, the lateness of the note about wooden feet seems to suggest to me that it was a secondary explanation (arrived at in desperation, perhaps!) designed to account for some other thing which was primary - which was probably the clogs.

The idea of a hobbit in wooden shoes seems to have been what he was holding onto - although the fact that Trotter was a Ranger (requiring stealth and surefootedness) makes clogs an absurdity - so I think Tolkien felt a need to explain why Trotter *had to* wear wooden shoes... hence the ideas about torture, the wooden feet...

Davidstanley said...

Great, apparently I can get it on my kindle on the 25th December 2019?Would I like to pre-order? What do you think?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ds - What on earth are you asking about? Pre-order what exactly?

Davidstanley said...

Sorry, I was trying to get "The notion club papers" on kindle and a message said it would be available in 2019 and did I want to pre-order it?
Seemed a bit strange that's all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DS - Oh, that's what you mean. If I were you, I would just order a secondhand paperback edition.