What Did Pippin Tell Denethor?

by John Holbo on April 18, 2015

I’m reading The Lord of the Rings to our daughters. (Famous trilogy of fantasy novels, in case you’ve been in a coma since 1953 and are just checking Crooked Timber to see what’s new.) Last night we began The Return of the King. One thing that happens at a couple points is our heroes narrate the tale of their travels to someone they meet, without fully revealing the true nature/purpose of the Fellowship (Merry and Pippin when they first meet Treebeard; Frodo to Faramir; Pippin to Denethor). Obviously Tolkien summarizes his way past these points, since the reader doesn’t need to hear it all again. But it’s impossible to imagine what Pippin actually said. He couldn’t tell Denethor 1) they’ve got the ring; 2) the goal of the fellowship; 3) the existence/identity of Aragorn; 4) the meaning of ‘Isildur’s Bane’.

‘Now tell me your tale, my liege,’ said Denethor, half kindly, half mockingly. ‘For the words of one whom my son so befriended will be welcome indeed.’

Pippin never forgot that hour in the great hall under the piercing eye of the Lord of Gondor, stabbed ever and anon by his shrewd questions, and all the while conscious of Gandalf at his side, watching and listening, and (so Pippin felt) holding in check a rising wrath and impatience. When the hour was over and Denethor again rang the gong, Pippin felt worn out. ‘It cannot be more than nine o’clock,’ he thought. ‘I could now eat three breakfasts on end.’

So here’s your challenge. What did Pippin tell to the shrewd Denethor for an hour? Narrate the tale of how and why Pippin and three other hobbits left the Shire in haste, traveled to Rivendell, Lothlorien, etc., without mentioning any of the things he has promised Galdalf he won’t. Here’s my best shot. Pippin tells Denethor ‘Isuldur’s Bane’ is some sort of exotic brand-name pipeweed Elrond is looking to score. He knows hobbits are into pipeweed, so he sent for them from the Shire. But they didn’t have any. So he sent them out to score it for him, and someone heard maybe there was a dealer in the Mines of Moria. But that didn’t work out. Meanwhile, Saruman and Sauron have this wrong idea that the hobbits are themselves pipeweed dealers, since orcs overheard them asking around after ‘Isuldur’s Bane’, and so …

If you’ve got a more plausible, false explanation for the Fellowship, I’d like to hear it. Pippin must be one hell of a liar.



Oz from Australia 04.18.15 at 7:43 am

well, Pippin gets to play the ignorant fool. Something he seems pretty well qualified for to me. So any questions that are too searching get greeted with a combination or ignorance, apathy, or embarrassed giggles.


Phil 04.18.15 at 8:31 am

…which has the additional benefit of lending credence to the pipeweed story. Also, munchies! It all fits.


david 04.18.15 at 8:33 am

Pippin blabs #1, #2, and #4 to Denethor, leaving out only Boromir’s confession that his will failed him and he tried to seize the Ring. He leaves out the identity of Aragorn, since a Ranger of the North is an entirely respectable member of the Company; Denethor seems unaware of Aragorn’s precise claim to be the actual no-shit direct male heir from Isildur. Being told that it is a Ranger alone is sufficiently alarming, since all Rangers share Númenórean descent. He does not know that this Ranger intends to claim the kingship but he suspects it is the case.

Pippin’s cover story is straightforward and mostly true – Boromir and the Ranger were to accompany the Ring-bearer for as long as they were traveling in the direction of Minas Tirith, and then both Boromir and the Ranger would head for Minas Tirith. The Prince of Mirkwood (i.e., Legolas) and Gimli of the Lonely Mountain would not even need to travel that far – they only initially agreed to accompany the Ring-bearer across the mountains (i.e., near the lost Dwarven territories) and then through Lothlórien. Thereafter Gandalf was supposed to make new decisions, keeping the pre-existing commitments of such highborn representatives in mind.

Later on – when Faramir returns to the city – there is a scene where they discuss the “mighty object” that Denethor believes Boromir would have brought to the city; Tolkien uses this scene to illustrate Gandalf’s superior assessment of Boromir’s character. Nonetheless Denethor clearly already knows of the nature of Isildur’s bane and expects Pippin and Gandalf to be unsurprised of this, so they did talk about it.


david 04.18.15 at 8:42 am

If anything, the surprise is that he only takes one hour to summarize all of that + all the complications of Saruman’s attack on Rohan.


Peter Metcalfe 04.18.15 at 9:01 am

Denethor does not know that all the Dwarvern Rings have been taken or accounted for (Not even Gloin and Gimli knew this until Gandalf told them at Rivendell). Thus Pippin could pretend that the Ring they had was actually the one of the rings of the Dwarf Lords and that Bilbo stole it from Thorin Oakenshield.

To explain Isildur’s Bane, Pippin merely has to claim that Isildur was ambushed by Dwarves at Moria

As for the aim of the Fellowship, Pippin could pretend confusion or uncertainty, believing that the intent was to travel to Minas Tirith while bypyassing Saruman at Isengard.

Still makes him one hell of a liar though.


Marshall 04.18.15 at 3:28 pm

Why do you supposed Gandalf is getting wrathful and impatient? I imagine Denethor, a practiced interrogator, pumped Pippin dry without Pippin even realizing how much he was giving away. Fortunately Pippin’s understanding of what’s afoot would be limited and confused, so Gandalf would be able to put some spin on it later that played to Denethor’s paranoia. But in the end it turned out badly for Denethor: a little learning is a dangerous thing.

I like the pipeweed story. The good stuff will put hair on your toes for sure. But extratextual.


bos 04.18.15 at 3:31 pm

Pippin wiped back the drape of hair that had fallen in front of his eyes.

“So it was like a gap year, yeah? Dad wanted me to intern in the bank, but like that’s still going to be there after I finish uni*, so me and a couple of best buds strapped on the backpacks and hit the trail. First stop was the pub of course. Get a few pints in before we hit the trail proper. Also some of the buds wanted to hook up with this Gandalf chap. He’s some kind of guru, you know meditation and chakra and the meaning of Liffe† and sh-stuff.
So we got chased out of town, which was a bit naff. I mean, we hadn’t even bullered a restaurant. Think someone must have eyed up the wrong girl. In rural parts, it’s best to find out whose relatives are in the room before you start checking out the chiquitas. We met Guru Gandalf when we were on the run and he showed us to this brilliant place which was like, completely hidden. You need some special map and you get to this place which is like incredible and awesome, with the most incredible weed ever. To be honest it was a bit too tree-huggery for my tastes, although some of the buds really got into it. But…no beach? I mean, what’s that all about? I mean, a secret place that only a few people know about and you don’t have a beach. Hello. Someone missed a trick. And the food was a bit too foreign if you know what I mean. There are plenty of Elvish takeaways in the Shire but this was something else entirely. Most of us had to have more than one sit down session in the lav to contemplate the Rivendelly-belly question. There curries were hot, I mean proper hot. Too hot in fact. Certainly knew what is was to have a ring of fire after one of their vindaloos, if you know what I mean.
Anyways, we hooked up with some like minded peeps, Boromir being one of them. Good lad, handled a yard of ale like a natural. You really value someone like that when you are surrounded by people of the tree-huggery persuasion. We were going to check out the bungee jumping at Mirrormere. Not all that it’s cracked up to be, in my opinion. Scenic, yeah sure, but a bit tame really. If you’re passing by, yeah sure, but I wouldn’t go out of my way. Oh yeah, we visited some caves on the way to Mirrormere, nothing much, seen one cave you’ve seen them all. Then we stopped off at another so called “secret” paradise. Again no beach. That’s when we heard about the white-water rafting on Anduin. That is more like it, a bit of action.
Unfortunately we must have pissed off some of the locals Deliverance-stylee, if you get me. Suddenly there these oiks surrounding us, and they meant business, they were all tooled up, no replicas. Boromir did great. Man he can swing a sword. He was calling 911 on his horn but no-one came in time.

Say, we had some some righteous weed earlier and I’ve the munchies. Could you call out for some pizza? I’m pretty sure I missed breakfast.”

Denethor got Ingold to put an order in for pizza. It turned out that they were all a bit peckish so they ordered several large pizzas with the the garlic bread and the coleslaw.

“So,” said Denathor, looking keenly at Pippin’s face. “Diet Coke?”

“Are you mocking me?” Pippin’s looked the old man in the eye. “Full fat Coke of course. What do you take me for.”

Denathor sat back in his chair of stone. “Pray continue, my liege, I am most interested in your tale.”

Pippin produced a roll-up from under his tunic. “You don’t mind if I blaze up, Lord? It helps with the recollecting.”

The Lord Denathor nodded his head in assent. Pippin made himself more comfortable on the bean bag and continued in the recounting his tale.

* Oxford of course.
† Lothlórien Interbank Financial Futures and Options Exchange.


Belle Waring 04.18.15 at 3:44 pm

bos: your tale is worthy indeed to be told to the Steward of Gondor! Golf clap!

Marshall: it says that the air is basically crackling between Denethor and Gandalf the whole time.

david: right on the literal actual doorsill of the throne room itself (not, like, any of the preceding days, or, you know, walking up through the seven gates of the walled city or anything), because he is one inconvenient motherfucker, Gandalf says, “you can’t tell him about the true purpose of our company’s journey, nor who Aragorn is.” Pippin then is like, “why not?” Gandalf: we’re showing up to tell the dude his heir is dead, maybe we’ll hold back on how his whole family is about to be [SPOILER ALERT] ousted from the rule of Gondor by the true king? Hm? Pippin: Aragorn’s the king of Gondor?! wat. WAT? y u no tell me these things? Gandalf: wizard facepalm and….talk to Denethor.


Zamfir 04.18.15 at 3:56 pm

Why was boromir sent to the north in the first place?


SusanC 04.18.15 at 4:47 pm

Frodo and Sam fell in love with each other, but as the Shire is a bit behind the times and homophobic, they couldn’t get gay married. So they joined up with some other gay hobbits, and prominent rights activist Aragorn, to journey eastwards to the San Francisco of Middle Earth. Although Mordor is an industrialized big-city kind of place, and it’s a bit sleazy sometimes, at least its inhabitants won’t raise an eyebrow at two male hobbits going out with each other.


Scott P. 04.18.15 at 4:51 pm

“Why was boromir sent to the north in the first place?”

He had a dream, in which he was told:

‘Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells;
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.’

Imladris is Rivendell.


david 04.18.15 at 5:33 pm

Belle @8

That’s true. My reading is that Pippin talks anyway:

‘Indeed you did your best,’ said the wizard; ‘and I hope that it may be long before you find yourself in such a tight corner again between two such terrible old men. Still the Lord of Gondor learned more from you than you may have guessed, Pippin. You could not hide the fact that Boromir did not lead the Company from Moria, and that there was one among you of high honour who was coming to Minas Tirith; and that he had a famous sword. Men think much about the stories of old days in Gondor; and Denethor has given long thought to the rhyme and to the words Isildur’s Bane, since Boromir went away.

This is consistent to describing Aragorn (‘Strider’) as a Ranger on the way to Minas Tirith and disclosing that Isildur’s Bane had been given to Frodo, although not to what end Frodo would commit it, nor its identity as the Ring.


Mike Schilling 04.18.15 at 6:01 pm

Denethor had long suspected that Isildur’s Bane was that most fell of weapons, a private equity firm.


Bruce McCulley 04.18.15 at 8:40 pm

It was Faramir’s dream, which Boromir tells the Council of Elrond he had as well:
“For on the eve of the sudden assault a dream came to my brother in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.”
I’ve always thought Boromir’s claim to have had the dream more than a little suspect–a way to claim the journey to Rivendell that should have been Faramir’s.


Niall McAuley 04.18.15 at 9:53 pm

Denethor has a palantír, and hates Aragorn since their rivalry in the armies of Gondor in their youth.

Pippin could recite The Waste Land for all the difference it would make.


nm 04.18.15 at 10:09 pm

Or perhaps Pippin recites the Odyssey, up to the point where Odysseus is telling his story to Alcinous? Denethor gets very confused and doesn’t believe a word of it, but finds it compelling listening.


bos 04.18.15 at 11:40 pm

Niall @8

The Waste Land is relevant but not for the self-awareness it might awake in Pippin et al

“Am an attendant lord, start a scene or two”

True of Pippin and Merry, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Frodo’s Hamlet. Problem is that it is also true of Denethor, who is basically just another attendant lord.

There are a lot of things Pippin can reveal, but they lose impact if it is an attendent lord revealing to an attendent lord. The author cannot have that. Aragorn announces himself as King on the field of battle as the game changing victor (and later he is the NHS to the city’s wounded). If he is revealed to Denethor by Pippin there would be an unseemly political battle with Denethor – possibly more a Le Guin story than JRRT.

So there cannot be any reveal by Pippin to Denethor, they are both too junior.

If JRRT had to write the Pippin/Denethor scene, it would probably be a question of Denethor qualifying whether P knows anything worthwhile. Pippin qualifies out very early on, but Denethor keeps on with the questioning just to show Gandalf that he (D) can keep them there. Basically a pissing contest.


bos 04.19.15 at 12:19 am

Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

That feels so much better.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 04.19.15 at 1:02 am

So he sent them out to score it for him, and someone heard maybe there was a dealer in the Mines of Moria. But that didn’t work out.

Turns out that Sauron was really Nancy Reagan, and this was the original War on Drugsâ„¢.


krippendorf 04.19.15 at 1:35 am

I’m pretty sure Pippin read part of the Silmarillion out loud, thereby putting Denethor and Gandalf to sleep.


GurnerGate 04.19.15 at 1:43 pm

Pippin paused and then said:

“Actually, it’s about ethics in videogame journalism.”

Denethor nodded ruefully. “It is always the same tale, Master Halfling. Wizards and SJWs meddling in your affairs.”

Pippin wondered what single Jewish women had to do with it, but now his mood changed, for the Steward’s stewards were bringing in trays for the third breakfast of the day.


anon/portly 04.19.15 at 5:36 pm

As david in #12 inadvertently points out, John Holbo’s question is a little odd since Tolkien answered it himself about one page later. david of course misreads the passage he quotes; the clear implication of what Gandalf says is that “Isildur’s Bane” never comes up.

I think the real question is whether it is a good idea to read really good books to your kids, and not let them discover them (or not) on their own. What is JH going to read next? The Castle? Fer-de-Lance?

What would really be nightmarish is the parent who reads Tolkien to his kids and then tells them about Tolkien’s moral deficiencies, a la the many dullard commenters in the last Tolkien thread here. “You know kids, even though LOTR is the favorite book of many very intelligent, thoughtful women, JRRT’s attitudes towards women were really terrible….”


Donald johnson 04.19.15 at 5:47 pm

What would a LOTR thread be without a troll? Welcome, anon/portly. I’d say that in the Black Tongue, but I don’t really know it,except for what is engraved n the Ring.


Donald johnson 04.19.15 at 5:56 pm

I love LOTR–one of my favorite books in fact. But if I were a black parent or any parent, I think certain passages would need a little explaining if I was reading it to my child–for instance ” black men like half- trolls” and speaking of that I’m feeding a troll at this very minute. Tolkien’s attitudes on women are more mixed–I joked about a bad marriage he describes in “Unfinished Tales” and he is a bit of a traditionalist, but Eowyn is a great character and the Beren/Luthien story is pretty good too, if only Tolkien had written the Silmarillion as a novel instead of as Old Testament 2.0


Donald johnson 04.19.15 at 6:02 pm

And actually, even Tolkien’s attitudes on race are mixed. There are the embarrassing passages, but he also has the bit on the dead haradrim soldier, and he is clearly an anti-imperialist when writing about Numenorean treatment of people in Middle Earth, ( the Numenoreans became imperialists when they started their turn towards evil) and sides with the “wild men of the woods” against the Rohirrim who used to hunt them like animals.


John Holbo 04.19.15 at 8:20 pm

anon/portly: “John Holbo’s question is a little odd since Tolkien answered it himself about one page later. david of course misreads the passage he quotes.”

I am afraid you are no better a textual exegete than you are an ethicist, anon/portly. The question was not what Denethor inferred from what Pippin said (no doubt a great deal!) but what Pippin said (presumably somewhat less). As to teaching my daughters right from wrong: it would be very sad to suppose that ‘this is a really wonderful book, but …’ was too complex an idea for them to understand, however painful a wrench it may give anon/portly.


Tyrone Slothrop 04.19.15 at 9:14 pm

Thusly dismissing anon/portly with an Epic Pooh-pooh…


Niall McAuley 04.19.15 at 9:15 pm

When it comes to reading aloud, The Lord of the Rings is the business. Sentences are reasonably short and are written with clauses and commas in just the right places. People speak in singular and identifiable voices, lending themselves to accents if that’s the way you role – the whole thing is just perfect read aloud.

I have read the whole Harry Potter series aloud, and it is not in the same ballpark.

The only book I’ve found so far to rival LotR as a bedtime read which is an actual pleasure, and not a chore, is LeGuin’s Earthsea. She does have a habit of listing off place names which, without a map to consult, is a bit challenging, but if you forge ahead (and remember how you pronounced Karego-At three chapters ago) all is well.


Plarry 04.19.15 at 9:30 pm

Pippin was not at the Council of Elrond. It is not clear that Pippin knew the rhyme that Boromir and Faramir dreamt until he met Denethor. Regardless of whether he knew it or not, there is complete plausible deniability that follows from not being at the Council and not mentioning anything associated with the ring. A simple narration of the events of their travel would be quite possible. Should Denethor ask questions of why, Pippin could always defer to Gandalf as an affair of wizards. If he were to do that, it takes no great imagination to understand why Gandalf grew impatient that Denethor continued to question Pippin. The narrative could then be summarized as: (1) Journey to Rivendell to accompany Frodo; (2) Journey from Rivendell to support Frodo in the affairs of wizards; (3) After Moria, caught up in events.


AcademicLurker 04.19.15 at 9:34 pm

As far as reading aloud, the trick is making it through the journey-from-The-Shire-to-Bree section. As I recall, that was a bit of a slog in which Tolkien apparently felt the need to describe every leaf on every tree.

Maybe I’ll take a look and see if it’s better than I’m remembering.


Scott P. 04.19.15 at 9:46 pm

“if only Tolkien had written the Silmarillion as a novel instead of as Old Testament 2.0”

Tolkien was going for Epic. You might as well complain that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was a painting not a mint julep.


Donald johnson 04.19.15 at 10:28 pm

“Tolkien was going for epic.”

Yeah, I got that. What he produced was like an extended version of the appendices to LOTR. Which I read, every word. Parts of the Silmarillion work– for instance, when describing the Creation symphony or the doings of the gods before elves and humans were around. When humans and elves enter the picture, he should have come further down to earth. The extended story of Hurin and Turin was great–I mean what appeared in Unfinished Tales and later as a stand alone novel. The whole Silmarillion could have been like that.

I think the Iliad and Odyssey are considered epic–nobody thinks they are boring.


Conrad 04.19.15 at 11:08 pm

“The only book I’ve found so far to rival LotR as a bedtime read which is an actual pleasure, and not a chore, is LeGuin’s Earthsea. She does have a habit of listing off place names which, without a map to consult, is a bit challenging, but if you forge ahead (and remember how you pronounced Karego-At three chapters ago) all is well.”

I started reading “A Wizard of Earthsea” to my four-year old. Turns out it was a bit too scary for her. I’ll try again in a couple of years. Niall’s right about how good LeGuin is to read aloud though.

Oh and the ship list in the Iliad is pretty damn boring.


Rich Puchalsky 04.19.15 at 11:16 pm

Conrad: “I started reading “A Wizard of Earthsea” to my four-year old. Turns out it was a bit too scary for her. ”

Yes. I can’t remember anything in LOTR as scary as the person casually threatening to cast a spell to run molten lead in someone’s bone marrow. Or the inescapability of the shadow. Mordor had its Eye of Sauron, but let’s face it that eye seemed to miss a whole lot, and Sauron’s emissaries regularly seemed to bumble around and not wipe groups of hobbits and the like.


Stephen Johnson 04.19.15 at 11:21 pm

Donald at 23 Рperhaps pushdug Anon/portly -glob b̼bhosh skai would serve, h/t Grishnakh, and of course, the invaluable Ardalambion


anon/portly 04.20.15 at 12:27 am

“I am afraid you are no better a textual exegete than you are an ethicist, anon/portly. The question was not what Denethor inferred from what Pippin said (no doubt a great deal!) but what Pippin said (presumably somewhat less). As to teaching my daughters right from wrong….”

Sorry JH, I certainly didn’t mean to imply anything about what you might be teaching your daughters – I did not mean to associate yourself with the “dullard commenters” of the earlier thread. I would be very surprised if you or any of the other CTites would feel it necessary to unburden themselves about JRRT’s (or any other great author’s) way of thinking being so inferior to their own.

I was called a troll and you obviously didn’t like my comment either, but I really think it is an interesting question whether parents should read their kids the really good stuff, or not. It’s kind of like the way mediocre books can make great films but not great books; I was kind of wondering if something like that might work for reading to your kids. Maybe it’s because my own parents reading LOTR (or any other literary classic) to me would have been really strange….

Finally, I fail to understand why “what Pippin said” is even the slightest of mysteries in light of the passage quoted by david in 12 that comes one page later. So now I have to admit I don’t understand the question. Was it supposed to be facetious?


John Holbo 04.20.15 at 2:35 am

“Finally, I fail to understand why “what Pippin said” is even the slightest of mysteries in light of the passage quoted by david in 12 that comes one page later.”

The passage David quotes is totally unclear, since systematically ambiguous.

“You could not hide the fact that Boromir did not lead the Company from Moria, and that there was one among you of high honour who was coming to Minas Tirith; and that he had a famous sword. Men think much about the stories of old days in Gondor; and Denethor has given long thought to the rhyme and to the words Isildur’s Bane, since Boromir went away.”

This could mean 1) that Gandalf is acknowledging that Pippin couldn’t tell the story without explicitly revealing at least this much; and that, having done so, the rest would be obvious to Denethor. Or it could mean 2) that Gandalf is saying that, even though Pippin tried to disguise even these details, they weren’t perfectly concealed; hence Denethor guessed them, hence the rest. As to whether Pippin knew and used the phrase ‘Isildur’s Bane’ – the passage is consistent with him using it or not. Gandalf could be saying there was no way for Pippin to mislead him about the phrase’s true meaning, implying that Pippin indeed tried to dance around it somehow; or he could simply be saying figured out on his own, in which case he knew the Fellowship was carrying the ring before Pippin opened his mouth.

In sum, the passage David quotes is consistent with Pippin trying to hide nearly everything, trying to hide only a few things, and all points in between. Of course, Denethor is actually able to read minds to some degree so Gandalf is pretty much resigned to the old guy dragging it out of Pippin one way or the other. I think #29 is the closest we will get without imagining that Pippin reinvents the whole thing as some pipeweed-deal-gone-wrong story. Or maybe as some “Get Shorty” (with halflings!) story about how it turns out Isuldur isn’t dead (!!). He faked his death, by orc arrows, and has been living in the Shire ever since, but he owes a debt to a Balrog named Barboni, and so the hobbits …

“I would be very surprised if you or any of the other CTites would feel it necessary to unburden themselves about JRRT’s (or any other great author’s) way of thinking being so inferior to their own.” I think you mistake ethics for arrogance, frankly. They needn’t be the same thing – although, admittedly, there is an uncomfortably close relationship.


Belle Waring 04.20.15 at 3:56 am

anon/portly: our daughters are thirteen and going-on-eleven in a few days. Thus there isn’t any need to point out that J.R.R. Tolkein’s books suffer from a dearth of female characters or that the way the men of “high blood” associated with the old men of Numenor are portrayed vs. the “swart Southrons” arrayed against them fighting under the banner of the lidless eye is frequently racist (though tempered by humanizing observations, especially from Sam, who is the moral centre of the book.) They notice it and comment on it all by themselves. Our brainwashing game is that strong. Then we all discuss it together. Zoe (our elder) just realized that the young knight who took pity on Meriadoc and is helping him ride to the besieged Gondor is Eowyn and is super siced!


Belle Waring 04.20.15 at 3:57 am

Raising your children to be able to notice obvious racism and sexism: not hard.


david 04.20.15 at 4:20 am

Denethor, later on:

‘Counsels may be found that are neither the webs of wizards nor the haste of fools. I have in this matter more lore and wisdom than you deem.’

‘What then is your wisdom?’ said Gandalf.

‘Enough to perceive that there are two follies to avoid. To use this thing is perilous. At this hour, to send it in the hands of a witless halfling into the land of the Enemy himself, as you have done, and this son of mine, that is madness.’

‘And the Lord Denethor what would he have done?’

‘Neither. But most surely not for any argument would he have set this thing at a hazard beyond all but a fool’s hope, risking our utter ruin, if the Enemy should recover what he lost. Nay, it should have been kept, hidden, hidden dark and deep. Not used, I say, unless at the uttermost end of need, but set beyond his grasp, save by a victory so final that what then befell would not trouble us, being dead.’

Note that he hasn’t revealed his palantír at this point, so he’s saying stuff that Gandalf should not be surprised that he knows. It’s ambiguous here whether he’s accusing Gandalf of losing the halfling of prophecy, or whether he’s accusing Gandalf of actively dispatching the halfling there, but he certainly knows that the halfling possesses Isildur’s Bane and he’s talking as if his knowledge of this shouldn’t surprise Gandalf at all. So Pippin told him during their first chat. Later on:

‘Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here [Pippin] to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy within my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.’

So, yes, Pippin disclosed that Frodo was given Isildur’s Bane. Note (from Faramir’s conversation with Frodo back in Henneth Annûn) that Isildur’s Bane’s nature is rumour at this point; it is suspected (of course) to be an object of some strong but corrupting power (since, among other things, it destroyed Isildur), but it is not known to be a ring, never mind the Ring. That element is what Pippin kept secret. Denethor’s outrage revolves almost entirely around the awkwardness of the then-pretender Aragorn being a stone’s throw away from the heir of the steward biting it.


david 04.20.15 at 4:30 am

(alternatively-alternatively, Faramir discloses that it is the Ring during his account of Frodo, and Frodo’s intended destination. But that seems out of character for Faramir, really.)


John Holbo 04.20.15 at 5:34 am

Denethor’s interrogation of Pippin comes before Faramir has returned, so that one is out.

“Note that he hasn’t revealed his palantír at this point, so he’s saying stuff that Gandalf should not be surprised that he knows.”

But note also that Denethor and Gandalf are in a pissing contest at this point, so it’s actually quite consistent to read Denethor as trying to psych Gandalf out by speaking as if it’s elementary, dear Watson, that he, Denethor, knows more than Gandalf thinks he knows.


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.20.15 at 10:39 am

And while we’re talking about racism/sexism in LoTR, Tolkien’s dwarves were pretty obviously Jews, although more physically tough than the average Jewish stereotype. Maybe Israelis?


iolanthe 04.20.15 at 1:32 pm

This is not exactly a hidden explanation Ebenezer as Tolkein himself acknowledged that ‘both peoples being dispossessed of their lands, forced to wander the world, and adopt the languages of other lands: both were at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue’ But in any case I think accusations of anti Semitism can be pretty well dealt with by his famous reply to the German Government which inquired as to his possible Jewish roots when The Hobbit was published in Germany before the war: ‘Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.’


AcademicLurker 04.20.15 at 1:40 pm

The “swarthy men of the east” stuff and the fact that the good guys have a pecking order determined pretty much entirely by blood is something that everyone over the age of 5 who reads LoTR notices. Most of us can register our distaste and still enjoy the books. Likewise every even halfway serious Lovecraft fan is aware of his racial issues but still enjoys Cthulhu Mythos stories.

It’s possible to be aware of the sketchy aspects of a work without being a preening bore about it.


AcademicLurker 04.20.15 at 1:42 pm

Not that I’m saying anyone here is doing that, but 22 seemed to imply that noticing those aspects somehow requires one to be a preening bore.


Bloix 04.20.15 at 5:00 pm

#30 -“every leaf.” All of LOTR is filled with detailed descriptions of the physical world, which illuminates the psychological state of the characters. Pull out a volume and scan a page, and you’ll be amazed at how much of the text is devoted to description. Here’s a random sample, pulled after ten seconds of searching, from TTT, Book IV Ch. 1, “The Taming of Sméagol”:

“The cleft was longer and deeper than it seemed. Some way down they found a few gnarled and stunted trees, the first they had seen for days: twisted birch for the most part, with here and there a fir-tree. Many were dead and gaunt, bitten to the core by the eastern winds. Once in milder days there must have been a fair thicket in the ravine, but now, after some fifty yards, the trees came to an end, though old broken stumps straggled on almost to the cliff’s brink. The bottom of the gully, which lay along the edge of a rock-fault, was rough with broken stone and slanted steeply down. When they came at last to the end of it, Frodo stooped and leaned out.”

Another random example, from TROTK, Book V, Ch. 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”:

“Presently he came to an open space where a small tent had been set up for the king under a great tree. A large lantern, covered above, was hanging from a bough and cast a pale circle of light below. There sat Théoden and Éomer, and before them on the ground sat a strange squat shape of a man, gnarled as an old stone, and the hairs of his scanty beard straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss. He was short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy, and clad only with grass about his waist. Merry felt that he had seen him before somewhere, and suddenly he remembered the Púkel-men of Dunharrow. Here was one of those old images brought to life, or maybe a creature descended in true line through endless years from the models used by the forgotten craftsmen long ago.”

This is Tolkien’s standard technique: as the characters move through a landscape we are almost always given a super-realistically detailed description of what they saw and how they perceived it.

#34 – scariness and violence. In pure percentage terms, very little of LOTR is devoted to scenes of warfare, fighting, and threatening confrontations. The battle scenes are violent enough, and there’s plenty of suspense and derring-do in the Shelob episode and the like, but Tolkien has some of the most violent episodes take place off-stage. And in addition to the acres of description, the pages of LOTR are packed with verse, lowering the pace and the emotional temperature.

If you compare the percentage of screen time devoted to fighting and killing in the movies to the percentage of pages devoted to the same, you’ll see that the movies resemble the books more or less the way that a hyena resembles an Irish sheepdog – all the same parts are there, but, man, the proportions are different.


Doug 04.20.15 at 5:05 pm

I don’t think Pippin would’ve had to lie much (or at all). By substituting “Isildur’s Bane” for “The One Ring” (and being vague about what the Bane was–easy to do since Frodo always kept it hidden) and not mentioning Aragorn by name, Pippin could give a fairly accurate accounting of the trip without giving away the really dangerous details. Especially since no decision had been made vis a vis Gondor or Mordor at the point where the Fellowship broke up–so he could honestly say he wasn’t sure where the party was headed. And let’s not forget that Pippin wasn’t exactly worldly or observant–in all likelihood, he didn’t even know much that Denethor would find useful.

Pippin doesn’t strike me as the type to lie anyway. I think he’d do his best to answer Denethor’s questions without mentioning the specific things Gandalf said not to mention.


Teachable Mo' 04.20.15 at 10:56 pm

I suspect that hour long conversations were for Tolkien what a man coming through the door with a gun in his hand was for Raymond Chandler.


John Holbo 04.21.15 at 1:48 am

“Pippin doesn’t strike me as the type to lie anyway.”

Absolutely. It is definitely true that honest ignorance was his best defense against Denethor.


dsquared 04.21.15 at 3:13 am

Isn’t it something like…

“I’m on a quest. Some kind of fucking quest. I don’t recall ever actually asking to be part of it. I thought we were going to have a laugh and see the world. But apparently the whole mission has got much bigger than we thought it was when we had the original planning meeting. To which I wasn’t invited, by the way. Did I mention we’re lost? Anyway for reasons I don’t understand, a simple exercise in destroying a weapon of mass destruction had turned into a global clash of civilisations and a whole load of otherwise uninvolved parties have been told that ‘you’re with us or against us’. The guy whose idea it all was seems to have totally disappeared and the only person who seemed to have a clue where we’re all meant to end up isn’t communicating. We don’t have anything like enough resources for our stated mission and nobody seems to have an acceptable answer as to how it’s all going to get paid for. Do you want to hear my story? I’ll tell you my fucking story….”


Mr Spoon 04.21.15 at 3:29 am

Just a quick late response to #20, #31: JRRT did not write the 1977 Silmarillion – this was Christopher Tolkien’s first attempt to put together a coherent narrative of the 1st Age of Middle-Earth, based on 50 years of JRRT’s half-finished notes and outlines, with Guy Gavriel Kay as a co-author.

I had the notion the King Jamesian structure and language were not Chrisopher’s first choice. His voice is much clearer in the ‘Unfinished Tales’ and ‘History of Middle-Earth’. I always found it a relief to go back to the Silmarillion after tackling any of these Gobi Desert fossil beds.


Peter T 04.21.15 at 3:54 am

But, dsquared, Iraq would have turned out MUCH better if Cheney had been cast into a live volcano.


John Holbo 04.21.15 at 4:21 am

dsquared wins the thread as usual.


Anderson 04.21.15 at 4:43 am

52: I never knew the GGK angle. Thanks!

28: Agreed that JRRT reads well aloud. I read The Hobbit aloud to my mom when I was 12, and I am such a sad nerd that I enjoy reading aloud some LOTR passages to myself, like Galadriel rejecting the Ring and the Lord of the Nazgul at the gate of Minas Tirith. I believe Tolkien, consciously or not, had the gift of writing with an ear for how his prose would sound. Try reading Lovecraft aloud and the contrast is sickening.


John Holbo 04.21.15 at 7:41 am

I agree that Tolkien is especially great for reading out loud. But I listen to audio books a lot, and I find Lovecraftian verbiage to be pleasant in its own way. I’ve listened to hours of it (while happily working on other projects. I like audiobooks while I’m doing something else.) Reading Lovecraft out loud doesn’t add anything, but it doesn’t subtract to a painful degree. It slows it down a bit, and that’s maybe a bad thing. Lovecraft is very florid, but he is also good at maintaining a fast pace. That’s what makes him better than a lot of other merely florid writers.


bos 04.21.15 at 9:43 am

JRRT was a member of a group called Inklings who read their work to each other. This must have influenced the writing process.

Also there is a JRRT lecture where he talks about ‘cellar door’ in terms of the sound and beauty of the phrase. Clearly the sound of the language was important to him.


Doug 04.21.15 at 1:12 pm

Many years ago I read a fascinating book about LOTR, which, sadly, I can’t remember title or author, but it looked at the language in detail, especially the language used by the characters themselves, and how Tolkien used this to establish the characters’ status and personality.

Elves and Numenoreans, for example, never use contractions, and always speak very formally. Hobbits and non-dunedain humans tend to be more informal, with important exceptions (Frodo, for example, reflecting his study of Elven, and Theoden, being King.)

Orcs are the only group that speaks what we might call “modern” or “colloquial” English. Obviously this reflects Tolkien’s dislike of modern industrialization–but it also raises the fascinating possibility that orcs are actually industrialized humans, akin to Morlocks. (I wonder, did JRRT ever read The Time Machine?)


Phil Koop 04.21.15 at 1:18 pm

Doug has it right: the character of Pippin as drawn by Tolkien would be reluctant to lie in any circumstance. Also, recall that it was supposed to be difficult to fool Denethor and dangerous to try. Then too, we have textual evidence that when obliged to deceive, Pippin displayed little natural talent for it:

‘Aragorn?’, said Beregond, ‘Who is he?’

‘Oh,’ stammered Pippin, ‘he was a man who went about with us.’

But I think you underestimate one of Pippin’s best advantages, which was the weakness of the counterfactual. Suppose he had instead undertaken to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? How well would that have gone over?

“It all started with dear old uncle Bilbo, who had this magical ring that made him invisible. You know, like eccentric uncles often do. We thought it was just a run-of-the-mill Ring of Power, such as any Dwarf Lord or Nazgul might have, but it turns out its actually the One Ring, sufficient to plunge the Middle Earth into a second Darkness, to which none can foresee the end etc. Well obviously we couldn’t leave a thing like that just lying about – it really had to be destroyed. Unfortunately, there’s a snag about that, because its nearly indestructible; the only thing to do is to cast it into the Fires of Mount Doom. Mount Doom, as you know, is situated behind a wall of mountains, on a plain of ashes filled with pits. Pits, pits pits, and Orcs, thousands of Orcses. Location, location, location. Well really, its guarded by the Dark Lord’s many armies, any one of which would suffice to crush the combined forces of the West. So we thought we’d better send nine chaps to do the job. Why nine, specifically? Well there are nine Nazgul, aren’t there? So it stands to reason – inevitable, really. Of course, we made sure all the major stakeholders were represented. You know, a couple of Men, an Elf, a Dwarf, and an angel of Iluvatar. Admittedly we may have gone overboard with the Hobbits. Aragorn? Oh, he’s descended from the fellow that your ancestor usurped. His people have been living in the sticks and stifling their political ambitions for generations. But now that Gondor looks like being overwhelmed by the Black Tide, he thought the time was ripe to seize control and guide the ship of state as it sails into a second Darkness. After all, change is opportunity.


Rob in CT 04.21.15 at 4:08 pm

Huh, I never really thought about it, beyond figuring that Pipping told as much as he could while trying to uphold Gandalf’s requests, and mostly failing because Denethor is shrewd and of course has access to a Palantir. Pippin’s the youngest and silliest of the Hobbits. A fool, but an honest fool, as Gandalf puts it. He tries his best. The trickiest bit is probably the start, as he’s not supposed to mention the ring. I mean, what’s the quest about then? No ring, no quest. So why is this group of 9 walkers setting out from Rivendell? Err…

As it happens, I’m also reading my daughter LoTR. She’s 5. It wasn’t my intention to do so when she was so young but halfway through The Hobbit her incessant questioning turned up the existance of LoTR and she demanded that I read it (by now, her questions have required that I explain a good deal of the Simirillion). We’re up to Sam & Frodo leaving Cirith Ungol.

The lengthy descriptions of everything are actually a little frustrating at times, as it means that we make very little progress each time we read (this is typically right before bedtime: 15-20 minutes of reading roughly). Yet she’s following along well and if quizzed can tell you exactly what’s happening. She can also recite the rhyme about the Ring, verbatim (the full version). I may have created a monster. :)


Rob 04.21.15 at 4:09 pm

On an unrelated note, I also read it to my daughters. But it bothered them that there were so few women in the whole thing. (There are absolutely none in the Hobbit.) When I read ‘Merry’ they decided that it was ‘Mary’ and they forced me to change all the pronouns.

(They were delighted when Eowyn got to kick arse a bit.)


Rob in CT 04.21.15 at 4:19 pm

Hmm, having re-read the thread, Doug @ 48 is probably right.


Rob in CT 04.21.15 at 4:22 pm

Actually, I’ve been thinking about deliberately seeking out an adventure story with a female protagonist to read to her soon. Tiffany Aching springs to mind, but oddly enough I think Pratchett would be lost on her at age 5 (oddly, b/c here I am reading her LoTR).


JanieM 04.21.15 at 4:56 pm

@Rob in CT: Your daughter sounds like a hot ticket. This is especially wonderful: halfway through The Hobbit her incessant questioning turned up the existance of LoTR and she demanded that I read it (by now, her questions have required that I explain a good deal of the Simirillion).

As to this: Actually, I’ve been thinking about deliberately seeking out an adventure story with a female protagonist to read to her soon. — Try Tamora Pierce. My daughter got pissed off about about the gender imbalance in stories and movies almost as soon as she could talk, and finding Tamora Pierce’s books was some consolation. The Alanna and Dain books (each a series of 4) were the trigger for her to finally learn to read (she was a bit late getting around to it) — she got sick of waiting for me to read the next chapter, and the next, and the next….

Alanna is the first. Might was well go in order.

Pierce did a reading at our local B&N when my daughter was about twelve. She was great – accessible and funny – in person, too.


TheSophist 04.21.15 at 5:12 pm

Doug (@58) may well be talking about Tom Shippey’s “The Road to Middle Earth”, which is a very interesting deep dive into the linguistic roots of Tolkien’s world.

Tragically, I heard Shippey speak just last week, and…it was like listening to Grandpa Simpson if old Abe had a PhD and was a UKIP member. A semi-coherent rant about how the world is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket (as evidenced by such things as the reduction in size of the British army and the (I sh*t thee not) ban on fox-hunting) with an occasional amazing interjection about (eg) the etymology of the word “sheriff”. His fundamental claim was that because there are only a dozen shiriffs (JRRT’s spelling) in all of the Shire that (basically) libertarianism is good. He was recommending an execrably bad book entitled “The Hobbit Party” by a couple of third-rate American academics that wants to be taken seriously despite committing howlers such as claiming that Bilbo ran all the way to Bree (!!!) to meet Thorin and Co on the morning after the party.


Donald Johnson 04.21.15 at 10:26 pm

On preening and so forth, not that I was accused–LOTR immediately became one of my favorite books when I first read it as a teen because in part I agree with much of what Tolkien seems to be preaching. Now if he spent too much time preaching (like Pullman in his trilogy) he’d be a bore, but it’s mostly just part of the story and the characters. But it’s a little embarrassing that in the midst of all that great stuff that moved me so much as a teenager there are these flashes of really noxious racism. So if you love a book, that sort of thing bugs you. Or bugs me anyway.

On another point, I loved the nature descriptions in the first part of the book. All the details about trees and rain and biting insects and so forth help the whole world building thing. You can more easily believe in the Balrogs and Nazgul and trolls and giant spiders later on. The Silmarillion fails miserably because it’s all epic monsters and no annoying gnats.


Belle Waring 04.22.15 at 3:24 am

Anyone who can bear to have only 15 minutes of LOTR read to them at night can have Tiffany Aching read at night, Rob in CT. She will think the Wee Free Men are the funniest thing in the world. Also I suggest Sabriel and the sequels? SO AWESOME. Zoe is in Chiang Mai on a school trip reading it now.


ZM 04.22.15 at 4:21 am

“. I mean, what’s the quest about then? No ring, no quest. So why is this group of 9 walkers setting out from Rivendell? Err…”

They are a team of surveyors setting out to correct The Shire’s cartography of Middle Earth – Rivendell is particularly undetailed on the extant maps


ZM 04.22.15 at 4:24 am

Or rather, not Rivendell wherever they are heading. It’s been a long time since I read the book.


Sebastian H 04.22.15 at 4:53 am

Sabriel is amazing.

Re, physical descriptions:

JRRT doesn’t use the omniscient narrator style, so we never get direct access to what is going on inside people’s minds. This is one of the reasons that some modern readers don’t think it has depth (you have to infer things from their actions instead of getting it explained by their inner thoughts). However, he kind of hedges a little bit with the descriptions of the landscape often reflecting the inner thoughts of the characters. If you think of many scenes as “my mind was drawn to notice that…..” you can get a good feel for the characters’ moods.


John Holbo 04.22.15 at 9:41 am

One more Lovecraft thought. There is almost no dialogue whatsoever in Lovecraft, which makes for a distinctive, perhaps somewhat unsatisfyingly steady narrative voice. Lovecraft only does … Lovecraft. By contrast, all the characters in Tolkien have their own voices. Often stock and cliched (hey, it worked for Dickens). It’s very easy, as a Tolkien reader, to ‘do’ all the different characters differently, thereby providing a good listening experience for little girls. Orcs and gollum are hell on the larynx, however.


Doug 04.22.15 at 1:34 pm

TheSophist @65, that sounds right, thanks! Sorry to hear about the follow-up, though.

Basing any sort of government on the Shire is a Very Bad Idea, insofar as Hobbits are not humans. Hobbits generally lack ambition and greed–even the “worst” of the hobbits, the Sackville-Baggins, commit fairly venial sins compared to humans, a fact cast in high relief in the scouring of the Shire.

Reckless speculation time: Were the Sackville-Baggins named after the 1st Viscount Sackville, aka Lord Germain, a rather despicable personage in 18th Century England?


TheSophist 04.22.15 at 7:07 pm

Sackville-Baggins is actually a Tolkien pun, sayeth Shippey. Sack = bag, and of course derives from the French. For JRRT “Sackville” would be a double dose of Frenchness, which (linguistically) is a bad thing (he bemoaned the Norman Conquest not for its political implications, but rather for its impact on his beloved Anglo-Saxon tongue.)


LizardBreath 04.22.15 at 7:18 pm

Orcs and gollum are hell on the larynx, however.

I found reading The Hobbit difficult for almost exactly this reason. Twelve voices that are all distinguishable from each other but all sound dwarfy? I’d end up in a coughing fit halfway through any scene with a lot of dialogue.


John Holbo 04.22.15 at 11:56 pm

Oh, I didn’t do twelve voices. You just do Thorin as kind of gruff, and Fili And Kili as a bit higher, and Bombur as a bit more plummy, on account of his girth. And the rest is just plain dwarves.

I do have a reasonably low voice, which helps limit the coughing, I suppose.

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