Potatoes

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Bashrat 10/Jan/2004 at 10:05 PM
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Potatoes are obviously a very important ingredient to the staple diet of Hobbits in Tolkien’s books. The Gaffer is very proud of the "taters" he grows, and Sam yearns for some potatoes when he is cooking the rabbits in Ithilien.
Now, LOTR is set in a time and place, which is equivalent to medieval Europe. But in those days potatoes were completely unknown, being a plant originally indigenous to the american continent only. Potatoes were first introduced to Europe long after the middle ages, after America had been discovered, and even then were not widely accepted as food for centuries. It was not until the late 1800’s (if memory serves me right) that potatoes were generally used as staple food in Europe.

Tolkien must have been aware of this fact, or wasn’t he?

I personally see it as a slight inconsistency in his writings that he would include this plant in the world he created.

Mikeloth 10/Jan/2004 at 10:17 PM
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ireland’s staple crop were potatos. then something happened to the potatos and people fled to america because they where poor. so are you sure that potatos existed in america and not anywhere else? because i’m not.
Bashrat 10/Jan/2004 at 10:21 PM
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Yes, I am sure, Mikeloth. What you are referring to happened after the introduction of potatoes to Europe.
Elnarsil 10/Jan/2004 at 10:22 PM
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Bashrat , interesting observation. Tobacco is also an integral part of Hobbit(and not only their) life and yet it was not known before the discovery of America. I guess it just goes to show that Tolkien’s world is a world of its own, and not a copy of our middle ages.
Bashrat 10/Jan/2004 at 10:27 PM
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Right, Elnarsil, tobacco falls into the same category. And someone else simultaneously came up with a very similar question about coffee in the basic lore forum.
Your explanation is the the only plausible one, which is also my opinion.
halfir 11/Jan/2004 at 01:42 AM
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Bashrat: There is an interesting comment in Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit along similar lines to your own .

In the 1937 edition of The Hobbit Gandalf had asked for "cold chicken and tomatoes". In the 1966 revision Tolkien changed this to "cold chicken and pickles."

Anderson writes:

"This revision brings up the question as to why it should matter whether Bilbo’s larder was stocked with tomatoes or pickles. Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle-earth , suggests that as Tolkien wrote the sequel to The Hobbit, and as he came to perceive the hobbits and their land as characteristically English in nature, he recognized tomatoes as foreign in origin and in name. They were imports from America, like potatoes and tobacco , which were quickly adopted in England. Though Tolkien does use the word tobacco in The Hobbit a handful of times , it is strictly avoided in The Lord of the Rings, where pipeweed is used. There, as well, potatoes are given the more rustic name taters. Tomatoes were thus out of place in the Shire as Tolkien came to perceive it."

orodon 11/Jan/2004 at 02:42 AM
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I don’t really care whether tobacco and potatoes were in Europe or not. Tolkien made his world up. Elves didn’t exist in the middle ages in Europe, so why does it matter if potatoes and tobacco were??? If potatoes weren’t in Europe back then, how does that  keep it from being in Tolkien’s world??
Bashrat 11/Jan/2004 at 04:45 AM
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Halfir, I had been wondering whether Tolkien had ever mentioned tomatoes as well, since they belong to the same family of plants as potatoes, but could not remember any passage, neither in The Hobbit, nor LOTR. Now I know why.

I guess Tolkien himself was very fond of potatoes (as he was of tobacco), so that he could not find it in his heart to substitute or omit the precious plant.

Tarlanc 11/Jan/2004 at 05:02 AM
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Tolkien was perfectily aware of teh potatoes, as is explained in ’The Road to Middle Earth’ by T.A. Shippey.

The potatoes are a linguistical/cultural pun of Tolkien. It is a deliberate anachronism. This is indicated by the Hobibts not calling them potatoes but ’taters’. And by the fact that Sam suggests making Fish n’ Chips for Gollum in ithilien, which is also quite unappropriate for the time the story is to play.
The same applies to the rabbits. A critic once called the Hobbits rabbits. It sounds similar, both dwell in holes and are cute. But Tolkien was not too content with this critic and so he let’s the Hobbits eat a rabbit in Ithilien. But they never call it a rabbit. It is called coney, to gain a distance between the hobbits and the rabbit.
Bashrat 11/Jan/2004 at 05:15 AM
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Thanks for that explanation, Tarlanc. But the word "rabbit" is actually used; it is in the title of the chapter, which is called "Of herbs and stewed rabbit".
Anyway, Shippey may be a very credible source, but I don’t understand how the case of the rabbits can be compared to that of potatoes and tobacco by him. Potatoes and tobacco are a true anachronism, but rabbits are not. They did exist in medieval Europe, whereas the plants didn’t. Rabbits were a mere association.
This comment by Shippey seems to me somewhat illogical.
halfir 11/Jan/2004 at 06:19 AM
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Tarlanc: While I see Shippey as being one of the most illuminating and worthwhile secondary commenators on Tolkien we have to be a little careful in arguing that Shippey’s statement of Tolkien’s intent is the correct one. The fact is we will never know. So while I, like yourself and many others, use Shippey to help illuminate aspects that I find perhaps somewhat unclear I would never go so far as to say ergo that is what Tolkien actually meant- unless the text made it crystal clear- in which case I wouldn’t need Shippey or anyone’s help!X(
Elendi 11/Jan/2004 at 07:28 AM
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I’m not sure you can really try to connect the books with real history...... Tolkien made Middle Earth on a separate timeline...and you cant really know that the Middle Earth timeline was the same......
Think For Yourself 12/Jan/2004 at 12:04 AM
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Potatoes, tobacco, coffee...enterprising (long distance) Hobbit smugglers?
Jarocal 12/Jan/2004 at 12:29 AM
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 Another view of it could be that since the LOTR is "Tolkien’s translation of the Red Book" when he anglicized names, he could have also done it for a tuborous root the Hobbits ate in the manner we view potatoes and the word only inserted for reader comprehension of what he was talking about. The pipeweed I won’t touch with a ten foo pole, Coffee and tea one is brewed from the leaves of a plant and the other is from the fruit of the plant.

 Halfir- thank you for the cautionary reminder on the use of Shippey as a source. Although I will admit he is better than Day, my opinion of his work is lower than yours (and I will leave it at that)

Anawen 12/Jan/2004 at 12:33 AM
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Personally, I have always thought that Tolkien added Potatoes, as part of the Fish and Chips, as a pun on the famous british Cuisine!  Especially relating the Shire to England, in any form, I thought it his little inside joke, his moment of humor in an otherwise serious and dangerous journey....  but maybe it is just me? 
Glomping Minion 12/Jan/2004 at 08:31 AM
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Wow I had no idea that so much controversy could come up over potatoes. Although I do find most of the things that are in this forum to be rather intersting especially the idea of the potatoes just being Tolkiens idea of an inside joke. I think that  Anawen might be right.