Learned his letters?

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Ristin 26/Dec/2006 at 03:52 PM
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I have never wondered about this before but i ran across this quote- "Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters- meaning no harm, mark you" gaffer, A long expected party.  the question is, does this imply that many if not most people in the Shire were illiterate? Also since the shire was of the more prosperous and civilized regions of ME would this imply that many others in Lotr are unable to read?
Alcarináro 26/Dec/2006 at 03:59 PM
Banned Points: 14162 Posts: 14178 Joined: 24/Sep/2003
It is only very recently in the history of human civilization that some countries have literacy rates so high, something which seems to be taken for granted. Think of the time period we are talking about with The Lord of the Rings. People are going to be illiterate; that’s just the way things were.
halfir 26/Dec/2006 at 04:34 PM
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Ristin: The most interesting aspect of that quote is the last half of the sentence -meaning no harm, mark you.

One is reminded of the lines of Alexander Pope:

’A littte learning is a dangerous thing"

and in Letter # 246 perhaps Tolkien encompasses the Gaffer’s view to this with his comment  that:

’Sam was cocksure, and deep down a  little conceited, but his conceit had been transformed by his devotion to Frodo.’

The Gaffer shows both his class and indeed the age in which he lived by implying by that statement that learning is not for the likes of Sam:

’God bless the squire and his relations and keep us in our proper stations’

- the verse on an 18th century sampler would have very much appealed to the Gaffer. Learning was not for those in the lower stations of life - particularly ’book’ learning’ - and this -to us blinkered remark- is very much implicit in what the Gaffer is saying.

Tolkien, of course, sees Bilbo’s teaching of Sam an enhancing factor. In the same letter he writes:

’Imagine Sam withour his education by Bilbo and  his fascination with things Elvish! Not difficult . The Cotton family and the Gaffer, when the ’Travellers’ return are a sufficient glimpse.’

Kirinki54 27/Dec/2006 at 02:34 AM
Librarian of Imladris Points: 2897 Posts: 1354 Joined: 17/Nov/2005
We know for a fact that Sam taught Elanor ’the letters’ and perhaps it is no wild guess he also taught his other children. As far as I know, this can only be speculation, but I wonder if he used his offce of power to promote literacy? My guess then would be no (which I, with my contemporary values, find sad) but I think that though Sam and his family had won much migher respect and status, there is no indication that class structures per se changed in The Shire after the Ring?
Son of Huor 28/Dec/2006 at 07:24 AM
Scribe of Minas Tirith Points: 2491 Posts: 1689 Joined: 26/Sep/2003
I think it is very likely that Sam did teach all his children to read and write, if only to be able to continue to write this story (in the red-boof and it’s sequels)
Given the fact how important the fireside tales were to Sam himself, I think it would be stranfge if he would not try to make his children enthousiast for them too. Whether this was only by recounting, or also by writing, we can only quess. I guess Mery and Pippin are more likely to have used there influence to enhance litteracy and knowledge than Sam, however.
I think I recall an aside on the Appendices to LotR, where it reads that from the war of the Ring onward the Hobbits grew more aware of the world around them and even started actually to keep record and read the chronicles of others. This does suggests a wider spread of litteracy. You might want to look it up.
Kirinki54 28/Dec/2006 at 02:25 PM
Librarian of Imladris Points: 2897 Posts: 1354 Joined: 17/Nov/2005

Your memory serves well, though it was likely this passage:


At the end of the Third Age the part played by the Hobbits in the great events that led to the inclusion of the Shire in the Reunited Kingdom awakened among them a more widespread interest in their own history; and many of their traditions, up to that time still mainly oral, were collected and written down. The greater families were also concerned with events in the Kingdom at large, and many of their members studied its ancient histories and legends. By the end of the first century of the Fourth Age there were already to be found in the Shire several libraries that contained many historical books and records. (FotR: Note on the Shire records)


The note also states that “the largest of these collections were probably at Undertowers, at Great Smials, and at Brandy Hall”. This means there were other collections, and clearly the fact that many oral traditions were collected and written down implies a wider spread of literacy and promotion of books. Though one might suspect that the mere existence of “collectors” indicate a limited number of people transferring oral to written. Still, a great difference.