Academic journal article Mythlore

Laughter in Middle-Earth: Humour in and around the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien

Academic journal article Mythlore

Laughter in Middle-Earth: Humour in and around the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien

Article excerpt

LAUGHTER IN MIDDLE-EARTH: HUMOUR IN AND AROUND THE WORKS OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN. Edited by Thomas Honegger and Maureen F. Mann. Walking Tree Publishers, 2016. 242+ pp. ISBN 978-3-905703-35-1. $24.30.

TOM SHIPPEY, IN HIS FOREWORD TO THIS ESSAY COLLECTION, reminds us that "Laughter [...] is not the same as 'funny bits'" or "comic scenes" (1). As he points out, there are around two hundred and forty mentions of laughter in The Lord of the Rings, about fifty in The Hobbit, and even thirty in The Silmarillion. But laughter (bitter or mirthful), humor (sunny or black as orcish jests), satire, and the comic have been very little studied in previous scholarship on Tolkien. Of course, there is always the risk, with humor, of breaking a thing to find out what it is and thereby leaving the path of wisdom, as Gandalf reminds Saruman (LotR II.ii.259). But for the most part, these essays avoid that trap.

Maureen F. Mann's lead paper, which I encountered in its earlier form at the Return of the Ring conference at Loughborough in 2012, tries to determine what 'nonsense' means to Tolkien by examining both his texts and his letters. Tolkien grew up on the high Victorian nonsense found in the Alice books and Edmund Lear's poetry, as well as nonsense in nursery rhymes and folktales, and these roots are readily apparent in his work. In "'Certainly not our sense': Tolkien and Nonsense," Mann characterizes such early work as poems in his invented language Animalic as "full of ludic fun and a giddy enjoyment of pricking the pomposity of polite decorum" (12), exhibiting a "delight in neologisms" (13) that is one of the keys to Tolkien's brand of humor--his sheer delight in words and what can be done with them, his "primal delight in simply the human creation of sound" (15). Mann draws on critical essays on humor by Roderick McGillis, George Orwell, G.K. Chesterton, and Roland Barthes, among others, to support her notion of Tolkien's carnivalesque delight in the "pleasure of language play" (28) and the ability of "nonsense [to deflate] high seriousness" (29).

Laughter in Arda can be divided into two main categories: the gloating, over-confident, or deceptive laughter of villains, and the mirthful, open, or subversive laughter of the good. Alistair Whyte's essay, "A Fountain of Mirth: Laughter in Arda," explores the significance of both types of laughter, both to the narrative and as related to Tolkien's themes about "spiritual or moral conflict, the limitations of worldly power, and [...] the inevitability of change" (40). The laughter of the good "destabilizes the oppressor's assertion of dominance" (48), while the laughter of the evil signifies misplaced confidence and the absurdity of its plots in the face of the long arc of Iluvatar's plan. In both cases, laughter "indicates the continuing relevance of hope and the nonexistence of absolutes and certainties in a changing world" (55).

Jennifer Raimundo finds the key for her analysis of mirthfulness in Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories," linking laughter and humor to Escape, Recovery, and Consolation. The hobbits are exemplars of the value of giving laughter and simple enjoyment a central place in one's life; as Raimundo points out, Bilbo's last act in The Hobbit is "to laugh in gratitude for how small he is in this wide world" (65). The wisdom of mirth lies in its ability to provide "escape from the prisons of envy and bitterness and fear" (70) and a cathartic recovery from the "danger of taking oneself too seriously" (71). A particularly interesting point Raimundo makes in "Mirth's Might: The Tenacity of Humour in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien" is that every defeat of the One Ring's temptation to individual power is characterized by laughter: from Galadriel's "sudden clear laugh" to Boromir's final smile at the moment of his death (78).

Lukasz Neubauer categorizes and explicates some examples of Tolkien's philological jests relating to place names (toponyms) and character names (anthroponyms and zoonyms) in "Plain Ignorance in the Vulgar Form: Tolkien's Onomastic Humour in Farmer Giles of Ham. …

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