A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Oral and Written Culture in Middle-earth

Dawn Walls-Thumma has an excellent essay up on her Tumblr blog.  “Excellent” in this case means “gave me the answer to something I’d puzzled about for a long time, and also something to argue about”.

The Wise

All through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings we get references to “the Wise”. We are told who they are, but what about them makes people think they’re so wise? [1] The wisest thing they do is sign on to Gandalf’s confessedly-foolish plan to win the War of the Ring.

Dawn, though, has put her finger on it.  Northern Middle-earth has an oral culture. The upper classes can read, also some of the wealthier peasants like Butterbur, but as she shows, writing is ancillary to the spoken word.  Elves don’t have a written culture at all.  (Why would anyone write a history, when you could just go ask the guy who was there?)  I’ve often thought this is why the Elves of Rivendell liked Bilbo so much: his offer to write down all their stories was a novelty to them, and they were as flattered as an old Appalachian who gets a visit from a Smithsonian researcher.

So, then, the Wise are those who are best at remembering stories verbatim, so the old knowledge base doesn’t get corrupted. The techniques for doing this are well known, even today when we no longer need them.  (Can you imagine the size of Elrond’s memory palace?) You get a reputation for being Wise when the information you retrieve from the immense stores in your head is always correct, and you can act on it in confidence.

Incidentally, I think this exonerates Gandalf from Dawn’s charge that he’s not being square with Frodo when he says “If I were to tell you all that tale, we should still be sitting here when Spring had passed into Winter.”  We’ve been spoiled by the random-access data storage all around us. Remembering used to be hard work, especially if the needed facts are stashed among thousands of years’ worth of memories.  Extracting information from a memory palace isn’t fast. Gandalf would have to start at the front door and walk through all the corridors to get to the things Frodo wanted to know. [2]  It’s not like opening a book to the right page.  Which brings me to the thing I want to argue about.

Written-word vs. Oral-culture Infosec

Dawn says,

There is little control of information in the oral tradition. It exists among the people, and anyone present to hear it can possess it. Written tradition, though, can be controlled and its audiences limited, creating authority in a way that doesn’t exist in the oral tradition.

Not keeping a secret

I think this is backward.  Oral cultures strictly control who gets to know what. There are initiation rituals, rites of passage, etc. that one must pass through before one is permitted to hear. Speakers can usually arrange to see everyone in earshot. But when authors write something down, they have no control over where the paper will end up.

Tolkien certainly uses the two media this way.  Isildur didn’t tell people about the inscription on the Ring, he wrote it down “lest it fade beyond recall”.  He had no idea who would need to know it, so he couldn’t have guessed whom to tell. (The obvious answer to the latter is Elrond, but that would have been an awkward conversation.) In the immediate context of “The Shadow of the Past”, Sam eavesdropped on the oral communications between Gandalf and Frodo, but was immediately busted.  On the other hand, Merry got to read a page or two of Bilbo’s book with no one the wiser.  Altogether, writing things down is much better for disseminating them than telling people.

[1] Apart from Celeborn, of course. He’s obviously wise.  Shutting up and letting your wife do all the talking is the highest degree of sagacity, here at Idiosophy Labs.

[2] Note that when Gandalf is trying to remember the correct path in Moria, he sits there for six hours to make his decision. He can’t be collecting new information, so what’s he doing? He’s traversing his memory palace, over and over, looking for rooms he ought to have visited.


The Ultimate Question


Middle-earth is not very medieval


  1. I’m going to argue back a little, if you don’t mind. 😉 First: Elves have an oral culture but a written one as well. The Silmarillion was early on conceived as an Elven text, largely the work of Rumil of Tirion and Pengolodh of Gondolin, and continued to be regarded as such for at least thirty years after. (I think it still is, but that’s rather beside the point for now.) In LotR, the Prologue says that Bilbo “had used all the sources available to him in Rivendell, both living and written” in writing the Red Book. Then, in “The Council of Elrond,” in a rare instance where the narrator surfaces from the story, we are told, “Then through all the years that followed he [Elrond] traced the Ring; but since that history is elsewhere recounted, even as Elrond himself set it down in his books of lore, it is not here recalled.”

    I agree with you on the point that there are aspects of the oral tradition that are highly controlled, such as sacred and ritualistic texts. In general, though, the oral tradition depends on the survival of people in a way that written text does not (as in your example of Isildur) because it is subject to die with its keepers. Thinking especially of the Germanic oral traditions with which JRRT would have been most familiar, public performance of the remembered past was an essential component of the tradition. Similarly, in LotR, we see how the Hobbits remember, through their oral tradition, Mordor and the Elves, even if full understanding of the former has been lost. This knowledge that is restricted to “the Wise” when put to paper is in general circulation in the oral tradition.

    I agree that writing, because it exists on a physical object, can be passed among people, including across time. But the opposite of that is true as well: written texts can be guarded and kept by the will of one or several people. But probably the most formidable limitation is literacy itself. It is doubtful that there was universal literacy in Middle-earth. The upper classes of Hobbits appear to be literate, as do Dwarves. Elves descended of the Eldar are literate; among those descended of the Avari, this is less certain. Among Mortals, the nobility at least appears to be literate. And when I say “literate,” I mean that they can decode written text in their native language; the vast majority would have no understanding of the ancient languages in which some of those texts are written, much less how to interpret the type of text. (Being able to read a storybook or a book of accounts does not mean that one can comprehend an ancient historical or scriptural text, for instance, even if one understands the language in which it is written.) I like Walter Ong’s depiction of writing as technology for this reason because it captures how much of this form of communication that we take for granted in our near-universally-literate society actually depends on highly specialized learning that has not been available to most people throughout time (and probably would not have been, except to the long-lived and the privileged, in M-e either). I mean, in the Western world, we send children through a minimum of ten years of schooling with the primary purpose of achieving basic literacy.

    So I come out with an understanding of “the Wise” that is pretty much exactly the opposite. 🙂 They are not the people who are best at remembering–although that is certainly part of it–but the people who are able to comprehend and interpret the vast stores of written information produced across time and cultures and in myriad language and dialects and then synthesize that information with what they know of the remembered or oral tradition. Because that information is so specialized and unavailable–even if a person could physically get hold of it–to the vast majority of Middle-earth, the Wise are able to exercise a high level of control over that information, i.e., Gandalf’s remark that Saruman was the expert in the Rings of Power but deliberately failed to share key information with the others.

    • Joe

      Of course I don’t mind arguing. What are blogs for?

      I think we disagree because you’re thinking of “oral culture” in the broad sense of the stories that make a society cohere, and I’m thinking of the specific case in LotR, which is espionage and military planning.

      We get enough detail about the libraries of Minas Tirith that I can see them clearly. (No, PJ, that’s not it.) Elvish books only get glancing references in the text, so I can’t imagine anything but a room with big tables for maps. Did Elrond have a library? What do you suppose it looked like?

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén