Sunday 13 November 2016

Diction and narrative in The Lord of the Rings

A paper given at the Tolkien Day, Liverpool Hope University, 11 November 2016

I recently made a study of several words that are of frequent occurrence in The Lord of the Rings and are connected with the diminution of light (‘Wan, dim, and pale: the OED and Tolkien’‘Wan, dim, and pale: the OED and Tolkien). In the course of this I began to form the view that there is a significant and carefully planned relationship between Tolkien’s choice of diction and the structure of his narrative. Looking into it further, it appears to me to be a vast subject; so that all I can do here is to present a mere sketch, taking a tiny subset of the available material.

My previous study was concerned with the words wan, pale, and dim. I suggested that pale is positioned within two separate sets of imagery—a positive set, associated especially with the Elves, and a negative set, associated with the threat of evil. I also noticed that 12 of the 20 occurrences of the word ominous in LR are in close proximity to clusters of pale. There is a particularly striking instance in Book I., chapter 8, Fog on the Barrow Downs, where Frodo encounters a pair of standing stones described as ‘ominous’  just before he is captured by the barrow-wight; but leading up to and away from this is a pathway of 12 instances of the word pale.

We’ll return to this episode later.

ominous and premonition

ominous of course has to do with omens, and omens with the idea of premonition: the idea that a noticeable happening betokens a subsequent more important one, especially one with good or bad consequences. Now I think I’m on fairly safe ground if I say that our age places little credence in this idea. We do not think that an event in the future can cast a shadow on the present, except in the sense that it can be caused by or be an amplification of something happening in the present.

By contrast, in most societies in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the idea of omens is firmly established: in Gondor and Rohan, as well as among the Elves and the Wise. But the Hobbits of Frodo’s time are an exception.

The vocabulary of premonition in LR

Let’s have a quick look at the vocabulary of premonition in LR. Tolkien uses several different vocabulary sets to express this idea.
First, the word sign, which is of course used in many other quite ordinary ways. But here it’s used in its premonitory sense:

IV. 5 ‘But orc-arrows are plenty, and the sight of one would not be taken as a sign of Doom by Boromir.’ (Faramir)
V. 1 ‘It is the sign of our fall, and the shadow of doom, a Fell Rider of the air.’ (Beregond)
V. 8 ‘Behold the Sun setting in a great fire! It is a sign of the end and fall of many things, and a change in the tides of the world.’ (Aragorn)

Next, forebode (verb):

V. 1 ‘All the signs forebode that the doom of Gondor is drawing nigh.’ (Denethor)

Often this is an inner intuition rather than an outer sign:

I. 3 ‘But my heart forebodes that, ere all is ended, you, Frodo son of Drogo, will know more of these fell things than Gildor Inglorion.’

In LR, forebode occurs 8 times, more than the noun foreboding, which occurs 6 times. This contrasts with the Google Ngrams score for  1940, at which time foreboding was 25 times as frequent as forebode.

The third group of words is portend and portent:

IV. 7 ‘A waiting silence broods above the Nameless Land. I do not know what this portends. But the time draws swiftly to some great conclusion. Storm is coming.’ (Faramir)
V. 1 ‘It [Boromir’s death] has been guessed already,’ said Ingold; ‘for there have been strange portents here of late.’

Last but not least of course is the word omen itself:

II. 4. ‘It [Moria] is a name of ill omen,’ (Boromir)
III. 2 ‘His spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky.’ (Éomer)
IV. 5 ‘But that would be an ill omen, if it were so. We do not want the escapes of Mirkwood in Ithilien.’ (Anborn)
V. 3 ‘But as for the Paths of the Dead, you have yourself walked on their first steps. Nay, I speak no words of ill omen!’ (Théoden)
V. 3 ‘Even if you bid me ride with you on the Paths of the Dead.’ ‘Speak not words of omen!’ (Théoden)

Notice in the last two the idea that one’s own inadvertent utterances can themselves be an omen of a bad event.

Finally, an example of omen from the mouth of Gandalf himself, referring to the verse ‘the Halfling forth shall stand’.

V. 1 ‘It is…One of the twain. The other is with Théoden... Halflings they are, as you see, yet this is not he of whom the omens spoke.’

Hobbits and premonition

Hobbits (apart from Frodo perhaps) are markedly different from all these eminent Middle-earthers: the worst of them are unaware and careless of portents; the best are responsive without awareness.

Prologue 3. 10 Reports...of strange persons and creatures prowling about the borders...the first sign that all was not quite as it should be, and always had been except in tales and legends of long ago. Few heeded the sign, and not even Bilbo yet had any notion of what it portended.
I. 3 Giants and other portents on the borders of the Shire were forgotten for more important matters: Mr. Frodo was selling Bag End.

And here is Sam on the border of Mordor:

VI. 1 He took off the Ring, moved it may be by some deep premonition of danger, though to himself he thought only that he wished to see more clearly.

omen and portent

Let’s look at definitions of omen and portent from the First Edition of the OED, the OED of Tolkien’s time:

omen: Any phenomenon or circumstance supposed to portend good or evil; a token significant of the nature of a future event; a prophetic sign, prognostic, augury

portent: That which portends or foretells something momentous about to happen, esp. of a calamitous nature; an omen, significant sign or token.

omen and 1911

I’d like also to take a detour into the real world of Tolkien’s own life, from a letter of 1967, long after the events referred to. Tolkien writes of the year 1911:

‘The annus mirabilis of sunshine in which there was virtually no rain between April and the end of October, except on the eve and morning of George V’s coronation (Adfuit Omen!) [Footnote: Which I remember, since (omen again) the OTCs of that day were specially privileged and I was one of 12 sent down from KES to help “line the route”].’ —Tolkien, Lett. 306

Tolkien is here deliberately turning the optative absit omen ‘let it not be an omen’ into the declarative (as Humphrey Carpenter glosses it) ‘that was an omen’. What does this say about his attitude to premonition?

ominous: meanings

Now I’d like to turn to the adjective. The key fact here is that there is a significant contrast between the older and the current meanings of this word. It is of course a common word, used a great deal in fiction to establish an atmosphere of menace; but this is its extended or figurative meaning. There are two older, literal senses. In one, the thing described as ominous literally foretells or presages some subsequent event (not necessarily a bad one).

OED (ed. 1) sense 1: Of the nature of an omen, serving to foretell the future, presaging events to come, portentous.
e.g. 1692 I hope my Dream may presage her Wealth, and Content, my Dreams are always ominous.

In the other literal sense, the ominous event presages subsequent bad fortune.

OED (ed. 1) sense 3: Of ill omen, foreboding evil, inauspicious.
e.g. 1666 If..a dog, as one would say, did bark at them, thinking it ominous, they immediately return.

In the more recent figurative sense, which is now the main one, the thing described only seems like an omen (since omens are not thought possible) and has no future significance.

OED (ed. 1) sense 3c: Of doubtful or menacing aspect or appearance.
e.g. 1877 Columns of hieroglyphic text, interspersed with ominous shapes, half-deity, half-demon.

ominous: frequency in LR

In Google Ngrams the frequency of ominous is 3 or 4 per million words. In LR there are 20 examples, which, taking LR to contain about half a million words, is a rate of 40 per million. It is therefore a word chosen to be used rather than occurring randomly. And incidentally there are also 3 examples of ominously.

ominous: distribution in LR

The word is not distributed evenly. There are 8 occurrences in the first book, then half that in the second two taken together. Then 4 occurrences in the fourth book, and the same number in the last two taken together.

Book I: 8—ch. 2 (2), 3, 6 (2), 8, 12 (2)
Book II: 3—ch. 4, 9 (2)
Book III: 1—ch. 3
Book IV: 4—ch. 2 (2), 3, 7 (ominously in ch. 4)
Book V: 0 (ominously in ch. 3)
Book VI: 4—ch. 2, 3 (2) (ominously in ch. 1)

As one might expect, they mostly occur before the main crises* in the story.

Book I
2. The Shadow of the Past (2)
3. Three is Company
6. The Old Forest (2)
8. Fog on the Barrow Downs *
12. Flight to the Ford (2) *
Book II
4. A Journey in the Dark *
9. The Great River (2) *
Book III
3. The Uruk-hai
Book IV
2. The Passage of the Marshes (2)
3. The Black Gate is Closed
7. Journey to the Crossroads *
Book VI
1. The Tower of Cirith Ungol
2. The Land of Shadow
3. Mount Doom (2) *

ominous: meaning and context in LR

Let’s consider the meaning intended by Tolkien: It’s perfectly fair to say that many instances could be read as the current, figurative sense ‘menacing’, ‘disconcerting’, ‘fearful’, etc. But even with these cases, several can also be taken as having the literal sense ‘that is a (bad) omen’. And some can really only be taken in the older literal sense.

And an important factor, the one with which this whole investigation started out, is the context in which the word occurs, that is to say the kind of imagery, expressed by significant words, with which it is framed. Some uses occur without any significant framing imagery at all. But many uses are framed by what we might call ‘ominous’ imagery; words such as dark, shadow, shade, pale, night, and so on. In a few cases there is quite complex and elaborate framing.

ominous: current meaning

1. Let’s look first fairly quickly at uses where we need not assume more than the current figurative meaning, i.e. that the thing described is scary or makes one think that something bad might be around the corner.

1.1. Within this category, I’ll take first those without framing imagery.

Instance #7
I.12 Flight to the Ford
They caught glimpses of ancient walls of stone, and the ruins of towers: they had an ominous look. ‘…Men once dwelt here…They became an evil people…’
Instance #8
I.12 Flight to the Ford
They had been in fear of pursuit for so long that any sound from behind seemed ominous and unfriendly.

Two in the same chapter in Book I.

Instance #13
IV.2. The Passage of the Marshes
A black shadow loosed from Mordor; a vast shape winged and ominous.
Instance #14
IV.2. The Passage of the Marshes
When day came at last the hobbits were surprised to see how much closer the ominous mountains had already drawn.

Again, two in the same chapter, this time in Book IV.

Instance #15
IV.3. The Black Gate is Closed
And further still, remote but deep and ominous, there echoed in the hollow land beyond   the  mighty horns and drums of Barad-dûr. Another dreadful day of fear and toil had come to Mordor

In all these cases one can say that the thing itself is the evil, rather than being a presage of some other evil.

1.2. Here are some with the figurative meaning that are framed with a small amount of atmospheric imagery:

Instance #9
II.4. Journey in the Dark
…a dark still lake. Neither sky nor sunset was reflected on its sullen surface. The Sirannon had been dammed and filled all the valley. Beyond the ominous water were reared vast cliffs, their stern faces pallid in the fading light: final and impassable.

Instance #18
VI. 2 The Land of Shadow
Behind it there hung a vast shadow, ominous as a thunder-cloud, the veils of Barad-dûr… The Dark Power was deep in thought.

Instance #19
VI. 3 Mount Doom
The Mountain standing ominous and alone had looked taller than it was. …the plain of Gorgoroth was dim below him, wrapped in fume and shadow.

ominous: the literal meaning

2. And now I’d like to look at the cases which are particularly interesting, because the literal meaning seems to be in play.

2.1. First some without a frame of imagery.

Instance #1
I.2 The Shadow of the Past
So it went on, until ... his fiftieth birthday was drawing near: fifty was a number that he felt was somehow significant (or ominous); it was at any rate at that age that adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo.

Here’s Tolkien using the word for the very first time in the meaning which is not now the primary one, right at the start of the first crisis in the story, the revelation of the Ring. Unlike most or all of the others, this is found in an earlier draft.

Instance #4
I.6. The Old Forest
It shut with a clang, and the lock clicked. The sound was ominous.

The second instance is significant as coming with their first step into the world outside the Shire. Nothing is said, but it’s hard not to think that Frodo reads it as an omen of exclusion.

2.2 Now we move on to occurrences of the literal meaning where there is some framing imagery.

Notice the co-occurrence with dark and shadow.

Instance #2 (only two paragraphs after #1)
I.2 The Shadow of the Past
Mordor. That name the hobbits only knew in legends of the dark past, like a shadow in the background of their memories, but it was ominous and disquieting.

There’s some ambiguity here, as if the narrator is saying that the name was a literal omen, even though the hobbits took it more in the figurative sense, as merely menacing.

Instance #3:
I.3 Three is Company
The tidings were mostly sad and ominous: of gathering darkness, the wars of Men, and the flight of the Elves.

Again, the tidings were literally an omen of things to come, and Frodo now knows that they are.

Instance #12
III.3 The Uruk-hai
The Riders had returned to their silent ominous vigil. It would not last very much longer. Already the night was old. In the East, which had remained unclouded, the sky was beginning to grow pale.

This is an isolated use, the only one in the whole of Book III, but it is one that makes it all the clearer that Tolkien often intended the word to be taken literally. This can only mean that the vigil was a bad omen for the orcs.

Instance #16
IV. 7 Journey to the Cross-roads
There, far away, beyond sad Gondor now overwhelmed in shade, the Sun was sinking..and falling in an ominous fire towards the yet unsullied Sea.

This is another interesting case: the Sun (which is entirely an image of goodness) is the omen. The Sun is setting; Gondor is sad and overwhelmed in shade; so ominous of what? It’s left ambiguous, but the last rays fall on the stone king’s head—a good omen, and Frodo takes it so.

Instance #17
VI. 1 The Tower of Cirith Ungol
He felt himself enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor… challenge the Power that sat in its dark hold beyond the valley of shadows.
Instance #20
VI. 3 Mount Doom
Far away now rising towards the South the sun, piercing the smokes and haze, burned ominous, a dull bleared* disc of red: but all Mordor lay about the Mountain like a dead land, silent, shadow-folded, waiting for some dreadful stroke.

As in the previous cases, the omens here are positive. Sam is portrayed as an omen of downfall to Mordor. The Sun is, it turns out, also an omen to Mordor of what is about to happen. (The Sun occurs as an omen for good three times in the latter half of LR.)

2.3 Now let’s consider four cases where there is considerable framing imagery.

This is a particularly intriguing occurrence. The hobbits have been rescued by Tom Bombadil. They ought to be safe and to feel safe. Yet their journey to his house, which they make without him, turns out to be an ordeal.

Instance #5
I.6. The Old Forest
They began to feel that all this country was unreal, and that they were stumbling through an ominous dream that led to no awakening.

The narrative of the journey includes a host of menacing images (pale is ambiguous).

The journey through the forest:
Great shadows fell
Trunks and branches..hung dark
The swiftly falling dusk
The pale sky
Faces that gloomed dark..

When they emerge from the forest the imagery immediately turns positive.

Emergence from the forest:
In the darkness..the white glimmer of foam
Trees end, mists behind, grass, river leaping merrily, glinting in light of stars
Path to grassy knoll, grey under the pale starry night
Wide yellow beam from door

Nevertheless the sequence closes with the menace of the Barrow Downs.

After sight of Tom’s house:
shoulder of land lay grey
dark shapes of the Barrow-downs

Could it be the Barrow-downs of which the fancied dream is ominous? Or is it a kind of curtain-raiser to the whole story?

Instance #6
1.8. Fog on the Barrow Downs
a darkness began to loom through the mist… The dark patches grew darker, but they shrank; and suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones. ...He had passed between them almost before he was aware: and even as he did so darkness seemed to fall round him.

We need to recall that Gandalf told Frodo that the barrow episode was ‘perhaps the most dangerous moment of all’: even more dangerous, it appears, than the confrontation with the King of the Black Riders on Weathertop. Hence the build-up and the reiterated imagery of the context.

Let’s look at the scene just before they sit down on the wrong side of the stone to eat lunch.

In the midst of it there stood a single stone, standing tall under the sun above, and at this hour casting no shadow. It was shapeless and yet significant: like a landmark, or a guarding finger, or more like a warning.

Now let’s look at the wider context of this episode. It is framed by 12 occurrences of pale: 3 pages before, we find pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, green and pale gold, Forest rising pale and green, glint like pale glass; 2 pages before pale earth-colours; the page before long pale shadow, the sun a pale and watery yellow.  On the page after eyes with a pale light, pale greenish light, faces deathly pale; 2 pages after pale light; 5 pages after belted with pale gold.

Finally, let’s consider two successive episodes in a single chapter, one at night and one by day.

The Great River (1): framing imagery

Instance #10
II.9 The Great River
…all the time they were carried nearer and nearer to the eastern bank. Now dark and ominous it loomed up in the night.

Here the preceding context is full of characteristic words expressing light diminution:
weather was...grey;  faint light, yellow and pale green; grey shores of cloud; grey weathered...stone dark with ivy; the grey hill-country; against the pale sky; a dark spot against the fading light; grey east wind; pale sunset; peering into the gloom; night grew dark; but in contrast: stars...were strangely bright; glimmer on the face of the River.

The following context:
[Legolas’s] head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind; great clouds; dark outriders; sudden dread; a dark shape...came out of the blackness; a great winged creature, blacker than the pits in the night.

And the consequence was:
Frodo felt a sudden chill...he crouched down, as if to hide.

The Great River (2): framing imagery

Instance #11
II.9 The Great River
…two great rocks approaching: like great pinnacles or pillars of stone they seemed. Tall and sheer and ominous they stood upon either side of the stream.

These are of course the Argonath. The preceding context again describes changes in the light:
The sky above grew lighter...
over them was a lane of pale-blue sky,
around them the dark overshadowed River, and
before them black, shutting out the sun, the hills

The following context includes:
dark chasm; dim sky; black waters

But again, we see the effect on Frodo, though a subtly different one:
Awe and fear fell upon Frodo, and he cowered down

I feel that careful patterning has been devised, and very subtly hidden in the narrative flow.


Let’s look again at the distribution of these instances.

Book I
2. The Shadow of the Past
(1) Literal sense, no frame – a number (fifty)
(2) Literal sense, frame – a name (Mordor)
3. Three is Company
(3) Literal sense, frame - tidings
6. The Old Forest
(4) Literal sense, no frame – a sound (gate)
(5) Literal sense, major frame – a dream
8. Fog on the Barrow Downs
(6) Literal sense, major frame – standing stones

12. Flight to the Ford
(7) Figurative sense, no frame - ruins
(8) Figurative sense, no frame – a sound

Book II
4. A Journey in the Dark
(9) Figurative sense, frame – water (Sirannon)
9. The Great River
(10) Literal sense, major frame – riverbank (Anduin’s east side)
(11) Literal sense, major frame – rocks (the Argonath)

Book III
3. The Uruk-hai
(12) Literal sense, frame – vigil (Rohirrim)

Book IV
2. The Passage of the Marshes
(13) Figurative sense, no frame – shape (Nazgûl)
(14) Figurative sense, no frame - mountains
3. The Black Gate is Closed
(15) Figurative sense, no frame – sound (horns and drums of Mordor)
7. Journey to the Crossroads
(16) Literal sense, frame – fire (the Sun)

Book VI
1. The Tower of Cirith Ungol
(17) Literal sense, frame – threat (Sam)
2. The Land of Shadow
(18) Figurative sense, frame – shadow (Barad-dûr)
3. Mount Doom
(19) Figurative sense, frame – mountain (Orodruin)
(20) Literal sense, frame – the Sun

The first six, all in Book I., are all in the literal sense, and in all cases the omen speaks to those who are the enemies of Mordor and is of danger or evil.

The tenth example is the last literal use where the omen is of this kind (and Frodo cringes). From the Argonath onwards (where Frodo is bowed down in awe) the omen is ambiguous for the protagonist and reader, but in retrospect can be seen to be an omen of defeat to Mordor. The omens to Mordor after the Argonath are the vigil of the Rohirrim, the Sun, Sam himself, and again the Sun. All the other uses of ominous in this part of the book are the current figurative one.


Tolkien uses the word ominous many more times than statistically likely. He frequently uses it in its older literal sense to designate an occurrence that is an omen of something to come. The majority of these uses are in the portion of the story leading up to the River journey, just before the breaking of the Fellowship, and they are all omens of warning to the protagonists, some elaborated with portentous imagery.  From the Argonath onwards most occurrences are of the current figurative sense, but the few literal ones describe things that turn out to be omens of the downfall of Mordor. My hypothesis is that none of this is accidental.

*John Garth pointed out that the sun is also described as ‘bleared’ (in chapter V ‘The Steward and the King’) as seen by Faramir and Éowyn from the walls of Minas Tirith at exactly the same time.


  1. Thank you for that interesting study.
    I probably don't understand everything, as English isn't my mother's language, but this is anyway enlightening.
    By the way, may be because of some misunderstanding, I don't fully agree with your "We do not think that an event in the future can cast a shadow on the present, except in the sense that it can be caused by or be an amplification of something happening in the present."
    Imagine you know for certain that you'll have to undergo some surgery next month, won't it cast some shadow on your mood today?
    Of course, the surgery in itself is not a premonition, as it will be done for certain (or nearly). But the risks and consequences induced by this certainty let some place to a bit of anguish or bad premonitions which, in my humble opinion, do cast some shadow on the present.
    Don't you think so?

    1. Yes, I agree. I didn't put it well at all. What I meant was "We don't think that an event in the future can cause a premonitory event to occur earlier that is not caused by something that causes both of them" (i.e. anxiety about future surgery is caused by the medical people notifying you that the surgery has been arranged).