Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Hobbit, clotted cream, and evocative details

So I'm reading Tolkien again, as I do every few years. This is the edition I'm reading, by the way, with the Alan Lee covers. I think they're about the most attractive I've seen. Check this site, for an impressive account of the different covers through the years. For what it's worth, the first time I read Lord of the Rings, it was the hippie covers. Thanks, Dad!

But that's not what I wanted to note here. I think Tolkien is a brilliant writer. Not necessarily the best plot-architect (although when I start reading him I can seldom stop), but a brilliant writer. Part of this is his choice of words, and his sentence-smithing, but part of it - and this is probably more important to his success as a novelist - is his eye for the telling detail. He's not the most descriptive writer, for the most part: you can go through the whole of The Hobbit and only have the vaguest idea of what an orc or a dwarf really looks like. But when he does include details, they're extraordinarily evocative.

Proof? Every time I read Tolkien I get hungry. Take this passage, from The Hobbit (p. 118 of the Houghton Mifflin trade paper edition pictured above):
At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug - he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drunk at least a quart of mead - and he took out his pipe.
This is at Beorn's house. It's a casual moment, and what Gandalf actually ate is for the most part relegated to parentheses. But it immediately gives you a feel for life at Beorn's. The honey reminds you of the wondrous bees the company saw in Beorn's gardens - and if it also makes you think of Winny the Pooh and his hunny jar, so much the better. We're in bear territory. The butter and clotted cream suggest the master of the house's mastery over his animals, while the absence of meat suggests the restraint with which he uses them. The whole spread, notably the loaves (and what kind of bread must that have been?) suggests a wholesome richness, humble and close to the land but as luxurious as you could ask for.

And if that doesn't make you want to sit down to a hunk of good solid bread, some honey and real butter and clotted cream - well, in that case, you're probably thinner than me, at least.

(Bonus link: if you're an American like me you may have to consult Wikipedia to know what clotted cream is. Once you know, you may find yourself, as we did, running to the nearest imported-foods store [for us it was Cardullo's in Harvard Square] to see if they carry it. They did, Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki whipped up some scones, and we had a hobbit breakfast yesterday.)

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