J.R.R. Tolkien was not known for his comedic stylings as evidenced by the fact that his work has been referred to as “dry” and “a slog.” And yet the esteemed philologist was not without humor or the ability to turn an amusing phrase. The Lord of the Rings will never be mistaken for a comedy but every year when I read it, I find myself grinning at the book’s understated humor.
Much of that humor, especially in the films, comes from Merry and Pippin or Legolas and Gimli, all four of whom take turns functioning as the comic relief. But some of my favorite jokes in the text of The Lord of the Rings come from the omnipotent narrator. Though the narration becomes more brief and serious in tone as the story advances, the first portion of the book—especially those parts set in and around the Shire—contain a more active narrator, akin to the grandfatherly narrator of The Hobbit, who is prone to dry and sarcastic quips.
One of my favorite such passages comes just after Bilbo’s disappearance from his birthday party. The hobbits of Hobbiton, being quiet and conservative types who tend to have a natural dislike of change or adventure, have long considered Bilbo to be an oddity but also unfairly fortunate. Despite his going on journeys with foreigners like Gandalf—an act decidedly counter to hobbit sensibilities—Bilbo was seemingly rewarded with incalculable wealth and perpetual youth. By hobbit-estimation, it simply wasn’t right. No hobbit would actively root for Bilbo to suffer misfortune (save maybe the Sackville-Bagginses) but if he did suffer a change of luck, there were some who might experience a bit of schadenfreude. So when Bilbo finally disappeared for good at last, well, I’ll let the narrator tell it:
“The general opinion in the neighborhood was that Bilbo, who had always been rather cracked, had at last gone quite mad, and had run off into the Blue. There he had undoubtedly fallen into a pool or a river and come to a tragic, but hardly and untimely, end. The blame was mostly laid on Gandalf.”
I won’t dwell on this anymore because explanation ruins comedy and all that but [chef’s kiss]. My god, do I love that passage and its swift, dryly hilarious conclusion. The credit belongs entirely to the author.