Creative Lists in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – Part III

by Rahel Orgis

In my previous post, I highlighted that Tolkien introduces the appendices to The Lord of the Rings as based on pseudo-factual records collected by hobbits. The same goes for the main narrative, which, according to the Prologue, “is drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch” (I, 23): that is, the account of the novel’s events “as seen by the Little People” (III, 307), compiled primarily by the hobbit protagonists Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. The Prologue further explains that, being involved in these momentous events, hobbits took “a more widespread interest in their own history,” leading them to compile for the first time “their traditions” (I, 23). Hence both the appendices and the main narrative are presented as the hobbits’ attempt to write themselves into the history of Middle-earth. In this endeavour, lists play a crucial role, akin to stories, as a textual means to record, categorise, transmit and preserve knowledge.

“I have put their names into the Long List”
The question of what hobbits are and where they live and come from is a recurrent topic of discussion in the novel when the hobbit protagonists encounter foreign people and creatures, who are generally amazed by their appearance. The pseudo-factual lists in the appendices can be read as the hobbits’ attempts to situate themselves in Middle-earth, as the lists present hobbits alongside men, elves and dwarves and also indirectly characterise the different peoples of Middle-earth. The lists of royal descendants in Appendix A (cf. III, 315-316, 318-319, 349-352, 361), for instance, reveal the concern of dwarves and humans with kingly lineage to legitimise the transfer of monarchic power from one generation to the next. By contrast, the hobbits’ family trees branch out horizontally to include great-great-uncles and cousins of various degrees (III, 380-383), visualising hobbits’ interest in how they are related to one another and in the complex network of hobbit family relations (cf. I, 16-17). Furthermore, the inclusion of the Shire calendar and explanation of the Shire Reckoning in Appendix D illustrate hobbits’ belief in self-sufficiency and self-determination: in their own country, the Shire, hobbits insist on measuring time and recording history by their own standards. But the appendices also reveal the hobbits’ dependence on the world around them since they detail the relations between the different calendars and reckonings in Middle-earth. Lists in this context thus function as civilising tools that can be used by communities—here the hobbits—to attempt and delineate their own culture and to negotiate their relations to other communities.

The endeavour to inscribe hobbits into the history of Middle-earth is by and large successful also in the main narrative, and the ultimate means to do so is once again a list—the “Long List” (II, 191) evoked at the very centre of The Lord of the Rings. In the middle of the second part of the novel, the chief Ent called Fangorn or Treebeard, a tree-like being who has presumably lived longest in Middle-earth, meets the hobbits Merry and Pippin and does not know whether to treat them as friends or enemies:

What are you, I wonder? I cannot place you. You do not seem to come in the old lists that I learned when I was young. But that was a long, long time ago, and they may have made new lists. Let me see! Let me see! How did it go?

Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!
First name the four, the free peoples:
Eldest of all, the elf-children;
Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;
Ent the earthborn, old as mountains;
Man the mortal, master of horses:

Hm, hm, hm.

Beaver the builder, buck the leaper,
Bear the bee-hunter, boar the fighter;
Hound is hungry, hare is fearful … (II, 67)

When Fangorn concludes that they “do not seem to fit in anywhere” (II, 68), the hobbits’ critical reaction is to complain:

“We always seem to have got left out of the old lists, and the old stories,” said Merry. “Yet we’ve been about for quite a long time. We’re hobbits.”
“Why not make a new line?” said Pippin.
Half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers.” (II, 68)

Once the hobbits have proved that small individuals can also decisively impact the course of history, Fangorn, in guise of a parting gift, “put[s] their names into the Long List,” ensuring that “Ents will remember it” (II, 191). The “Long List” categorises and defines hobbits—“hungry as hunters, the Hobbit children, / the laughing folk, the little people”—but it is a living rather than a finite list, existing in different forms, shorter and longer, and, as Fangorn indicates, open to renewal.

Like the opening list of The Lord of the Rings (see my first Listology post), Fangorn’s list takes the form of a poem—in this case that of an alliterative poem in the style of Old English poetry, in which Tolkien specialised as an academic. The list is organised into rhythmic verse with four stresses per line and a central caesura that splits each line into two equal halves. These halves are held together by means of alliteration, adding a repetitive sound pattern to the structural regularity of the lines. This clear poetic structure of sound and rhythm makes the list memorable, and the poetic form also emphasises that lists fulfil the same functions as legends in the form of stories, poems, songs and nursery rhymes: they preserve and transmit old lore even when it has faded out of common knowledge. Being part of “old lists” and “old stories” is largely synonymous, as Merry’s complaint suggests.

It seems only fitting then that the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings, “The Scouring of the Shire,” figures yet another list, combining the functions of preserving and passing on knowledge. This list is “a Roll” of “the names of all those that took part” in the Battle of the Bywater, the fight that liberates the Shire. The “Roll” is thereafter “learned by heart by Shire-historians” (III, 295), underlining its function of transmitting knowledge but also revealing its structuring impact on social memory. The narrative explains that “the very considerable rise in the fame and fortune of the Cottons dates from this time; but at the top of the Roll in all accounts stand the names of Captains Meriadoc and Peregrin [i.e. Merry and Pippin]” (III, 295). By listing Merry and Pippin at the top, the “Roll” confers a higher degree of importance to them and makes it more likely that they will be remembered than for instance the Cottons. The “Roll” thus guarantees both social memory and, since there are no alternative lists that challenge the prominence of Merry and Pippin, the collective remembrance of a social hierarchy.

If lists in the logic of the narrative serve to record, categorise, transmit and preserve knowledge, it follows that they also make knowledge accessible. Thus Fangorn recites what he remembers of the “Long List” to access his knowledge of creatures. In addition to using lists to elaborate the fictional universe of Middle-earth and presenting them as a helpful textual form to capture, organise and pass on knowledge, Tolkien also envisioned accompanying The Lord of the Rings by an extensive index—another type of list that makes knowledge accessible. Promised in “the foreword to volume one” in 1954, this “index of names and strange words,” which should have included “much etymological information on the languages” (I, v), delayed the publication of volume three and, in the end, was never published. It continued to lead a ghost life as the second edition of The Lord of the Rings was instead followed by an “index of the names of persons and places” (I, 8). This index, according to Tolkien, “is in intention complete in items but not in references, since for the present purpose it has been necessary to reduce its bulk” (I, 8). Even the limited index proved too large for publication with the narrative, and Tolkien concludes that “A complete index” would require an “accessory volume” (I, 8). The final list that should have made the fictional universe of The Lord of the Rings accessible for readers thus never acquired a definite published form, but remained in a perpetual state of creation, somewhat like Fangorn’s open-ended “Long List.” However, even without that final list, Tolkien, like Fangorn within the narrative, certainly managed to inscribe hobbits and the universe of Middle-earth into collective literary memory.

Work Cited:
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd ed. 3 Vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992.

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