Oct 5 2021, 11:49pm
For some reason this line of Sam's, from the 'Herbs and Stewed Rabbit' chapter of LotR, has been nagging at me:
Are some of Tolkien's word choices ... ill advised?
‘Po-ta-toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly.' - LR IV.4What got me thinking is that 'ballast' is distinctly a nautical term. It's the weights that are put in the bottom of an empty ship's hull to ensure it floats and sails upright.
And I thought, wait. Isn't this a word that would be rather typically part of a common Englishman's vocabulary, as one of a famously seafaring and boating people? And on the other hand, aren't the hobbits of the Shire, though based in so many ways on the country English folk of the Midlands, equally famous as being both historically land-locked, and averse to boating in any form?
Why, in other words, would 'ballast' appear in a quaint folk-phrase of Sam's? It's out of place.
I don't see, by the way, how the old gag of "it's a translation, and the hobbits didn't use that word in the original" as an approach to textual problems in LotR applies here. Ballast as an English translation would necessarily derive from a similar word in Westron, or it's a pretty poor translation, damning Tolkien from only a slightly different angle.
More to the point, I think, is that Tolkien often nodded as he cheerfully concocted what he called 'hobbit speech'. Some of his choices of vocabulary are too clearly English rather than hobbitish. (Another example that has always bugged me is "All aboard, Sam?" when Frodo hauls Sam out of the beer cellar as they prepare to leave Bag End!)
Or am I over-reacting? Most of Tolkien's craft in writing hobbit dialogue, like his other peoples' forms of speech, is excellent. The choices convey character and setting at least as much as the scenic descriptions do. Should I forgive 'ballast' - or is there an explanation I've missed for its presence in the story?
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Archive: All the TORn Reading Room Book Discussions (including the 1st BotR Discussion!) and Footerama: "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
Dr. Squire introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary
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