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Old 03-12-2004, 11:32 AM   #1
Essex
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The importance of Tolkien's minor characters

One of the great things about Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s use of minor characters inasmuch as they have important, sometimes critical, parts to play.

For example:

Gaffer Gamgee – (unwittingly) sends a Black Rider off to Buckleberry because he thought Sam and Frodo had already left Hobbiton. No Gaffer, no Lord of the Rings (well from page 82 onwards anyway!)

Fatty Bolger – stalls a number of Black Riders at Crickhowell, aiding Frodo’s escape from the Shire

Radagast the Brown – unwittingly helps to defeat Saruman’s plans by passing on Gandalf’s request to animals that he requires information at Isengard. Without this, Gandalf would have remained imprisoned in Orthanc, with dire consequences.

Tom Bombadil – hardly minor, but without him perhaps no Merry and Pippin, or at least no Numenorean Sword for Merry to help defeat the Witch King with.

Glorfindel and Asfaloth. What would have happened without the Elf to assist driving the black riders into the river, and Asfaloth to rush Frodo to Rivendell?

Erkenbrand. No Erkenbrand and his men, no victory at Helm’s Deep.

Ghan buri Ghan – No Ride of the Rohirrim, they would have been waylaid or stalled until it was too late to assist Gondor.

Beregond – Halts some of the guards’ attempts in bringing Faramir to a grissly end at Rath Dinen. Without him, the line of the Stewards may have come to a halt.

And, of course, Bill the Pony. How far could have Frodo got during his almost 2 week voyage from weathertop without Bill to carry him?

I've probably missed loads, but I put it to you that the forces of 'good' would not have suceeded if perhaps one or two of the minor characters above had not intervened?

What I'm trying to say is what an amazing, intricate, well thought out plot LOTR has.

Your thoughts?
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Old 03-12-2004, 12:31 PM   #2
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Eye

The soldier of Rohan that killed Grishnakh (sp?) was quite important. Just imagine if old Grishy had escaped with Merry and Pip as prisoners.

And the Barrow-Wight was important too. If he didn't capture the hobbits then Merry wouldn't have got his hands on that anti-ringwraith blade.

And also, I've always had a feeling that the fox in the Shire was of great importance.
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Old 03-12-2004, 01:00 PM   #3
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Ioreth is a minor character who plays an important role; without her memory of the old prophecy concerning the king as healer, and her spreading the rumours of his deeds in the Houses of Healing, who knows whether the citizens of Minas Tirith would have been so eager to accept Aragorn as king?
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And soon the word had gone out from the House that the king was indeed come among them, and after war he brought healing; and the news ran through the City.
This is one (rare) case where gossip definitely had a positive effect!
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Old 03-12-2004, 02:47 PM   #4
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How about Barliman Butterbur? He did a couple of things: he didn't send the letter, and if he had Frodo might have been almost to Rivendell by the time the Black Riders even got close to the Shire. He also encouraged Frodo to go to the Common Room and wouldn't let Aragorn in to see Frodo, and if he hadn't and had done these things Frodo probably wouldn't have exposed his invisibility to all those people.

Farmer Maggot is a good example too. He sends the Black Rider off to Crickhollow as well as later helping the Hobbits get to Bucklebury Ferry.

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Old 03-12-2004, 06:30 PM   #5
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Ahhh the scouring of the shire... anyhoo, don't forget Ellohir and Elladain (SP?)
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Old 03-13-2004, 05:40 AM   #6
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If Nob, Barliman Butterbur's lackey at The Prancing Pony had not gone outside looking for Merry and found two Ringwraiths stooping over his semi-conscious body, Merry would have been taken prisoner and who knows what effect this would have had on the quest to send the Ring to Mt Doom? He certainly would not have been there to help kill the Witch King. Also, if Nob had not given Sam that bag of apples, what else would Sam have used for target practice on Bill Ferny's head?

To The Phantom: I too have my suspicions about those foxes. The Hobbits and Aragorn also spotted one in the Chetwood. Some sort of fox conspiracy?
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Old 03-13-2004, 10:58 AM   #7
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Grishnakh and Ugluk: Technically not minor characters, but they only really appeared in one chapter. It at first seems like they are just a very annoying hindrance, separating Merry and Pippin from the dwarf/king/elf trio, but in fact they are rather crucial doing good. Obviously it was unintentional, but if they hadn't taken Merry and Pippin to the eaves of Fangorn and then, in the resulting fray, had they not fleed from orcs and horsemen into the forest itself, they never would've met Treebeard, no march of the ents, no fall of Isengard.
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Old 03-13-2004, 11:04 AM   #8
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That was in the movie Kransha, in the book, the ents decided to go to war at the ent moot.
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Old 03-13-2004, 11:33 AM   #9
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Oh, heavens to Illuvatar, you're right. Well, that's not what I meant exactly. I suppose I meant to say, Pippin and Merry wouldn't have been there. Still, despite my blasphemous book-to-movie confusion, Ugluk and Grishnakh still have their vile little roles to play. Let me see if I can rack my brain for other mild importances.

Here's one: Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth. On technicality, he is pretty minor, but has a role as well. If not for him and his cadre of knights, Faramir would be lying dead on Pelennor. With the whole "Amroth to Faramir" bit, he managed to rescue the future Steward of Gondor from the very jaws of orcy nasty death. Plus, the father of the person he saved didn't seem to appreciate it.
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Old 03-13-2004, 12:13 PM   #10
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Essex wrote:
Quote:
I've probably missed loads, but I put it to you that the forces of 'good' would not have suceeded if perhaps one or two of the minor characters above had not intervened?
Yes, I completely agree, the quest was so desperate that its success depended on the actions of lots of different characters. I think that these wellknown words of Galadriel, not only apply to the Fellowship, but to all the characters (major and minor) involved in the story :

Quote:
your Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all

The Mirror of Galadriel; The Fellowship of the Ring
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Old 03-13-2004, 01:00 PM   #11
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Shield

How about Belladonna Took-Baggins. Her adventurous spirit came out in Bilbo to go on an adventure.
Quote:
Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his make-up from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out.
and
Quote:
The Took side had won.
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Old 03-13-2004, 03:15 PM   #12
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Shagrat and Gorbg and their respective orcs: if Sam had not heard them discussing how Frodo wasn't dead, he would never have gone to save him and the quest would most likely have failed. Also, if they hadn't been figting in Minas Morgul, Sam would never have reached Frodo uncaptured or alive.

Gwaihir and Landroval: who would have saved Gandalf in Isengard? Who would have saved Frodo and Sam from the fires of the erupting Orordruin? i suppose this applies to eagles in general.

Elladan and Elrohir: who knows what dangerous orcs they killed out fighting when everybody else was feasting?

Bill Ferny and the squint eyed southener: i don't know if these are counted minor, but what would have happened if they had not told the Ringwraiths about Frodo's disappearing act? and who would they hae acquired a pony from?

Ahhhhh, the fox, the sweet fox.
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Old 03-13-2004, 07:07 PM   #13
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What about Elfhelm? If anyone else was leading the eored that Dernhelm joined, would she and Merry be allowed to ride to Pelennor?

Or Hama, who allowed Gandalf to keep his staff as he entered Meduseld?
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Old 03-13-2004, 07:49 PM   #14
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And also, I've always had a feeling that the fox in the Shire was of great importance
Me too

Ghan buri Ghan, Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, Haldir, Imrahil, the Warden-fellow at the Houses of Healing, Hama, Elfhelm(curse those tree roots!).
Come to think of it, I think alot of my favorite people could be considered "minor." Maybe that's what makes LOTR such a great book-Tolkien's supporting characters aren't just cardboard cutouts.
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Old 03-14-2004, 04:19 AM   #15
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Halbarad was minor-yet-important. He brought with him some of Aragorn's credentials for the Kingship (Arwen's banner), without those he'd not have been able to claim the throne.

Arwen's role in the books (not her inflated role in the movies) is relatively minor, though she also sends Aragorn some needed "king equiptment" by way of Galadriel, namely the brooch which gave him his name Elessar.

The Wood-Elf guards who took pity on Gollum and ended up letting him escape play a major role in the story, in that without them, no final drop over the edge at Mount Doom. Same goes for Haldir, Rumil, and Orophin at Lothlorien when they hesitate to kill an unidentified shadow in the trees.

Snowmane is another one. Without Theoden's Bane would Eowyn have stood up to the Witch King? Doubtful.

Sophia

PS. Eeek! I almost posted this as a new thread, not a new post! Thank goodness for the preview button!
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Old 03-15-2004, 08:09 AM   #16
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Thanks for your replies. And I thought my original list was pretty comprehensive!!! Your many additions have added further credence to the importance of 'minor' characters in Lord of the Rings.
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Old 03-16-2004, 11:57 AM   #17
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Pipe Others

Imrahil, yes very influential character. It was said only his knights of dol amroth and gandalf could withstand the nazgul shriek. Besides Boromir and Faramir he was probably the best leader Gondor had. They definately needed Imrahil for Boromir was dead and Faramir was injured.

Glorfindel, key character here as well, very powerful elf, Galadriel is the most powerful elf, and second would probably be Glorfindel.

Don't forget Elladan and Elrohir probably the best orc slayers in the 3rd age. Someone mentioned Bill the Pony, what about Bill Ferney, nasty person he was but without Bill Ferney no Bill the pony. Barliman Butterbur as well, jolly, fat, man with news about Gandalf and what was to be done next, would the hobbits of trusted Aragorn without Butterbur's note from Gandalf?
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Old 03-16-2004, 04:47 PM   #18
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Silmaril

Well, the only other minor characters I can think of is Sam's love interest Rosie Cotton and family. Without them, would the Shire have risen as fast? I don't think so. Plus, it wasn't just food and a comfy bed that kept Sam going to Mt. Doom and home again!!! And without her, who would have taken over bag end? The foxes were a little, um, stalking? I guess they count as minor characters too. And the moth that saved Gandalf. It was a moth wasn't it? Or a bird?
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Old 03-16-2004, 06:47 PM   #19
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We never get his name, but I thought the soldier of Rohan who ran to get water in his helmet to cleanse the stones when Wormtongue spat at Theodon's feet was very touching.

There were the elves who met Frodo and friends in the Shire... they sent messages to their friends to be on the lookout for Frodo and I think (my opinion) that is why Glorfindel was there when they needed him.

Deagol... if it wasn't for him the ring would never have been found, or at least it wouldn't have been found in such a way as to lead to such a wonderful story.
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Old 03-18-2004, 02:00 PM   #20
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i like this fox conspiracy! were they eyes of someone? or perhaps omens of something?
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Old 03-19-2004, 04:31 PM   #21
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Tolkien

Ahh, yes, how could we forget dear old Deagol. He did find the ring after all and set this whole adventure back in motion.

Hmmmmm, who else? Ah, yes, how about the ork capitan in Mordor? If he had not spotted Sam and Frodo on the side of the road and made them participate in the forced march of those so many miles, would Sam and Frodo been able to reach Mount Doom in time to save their friends? or even been able to reach Mount Doom at all?

Hmmm, I never even noticed the foxes. I guess I must read the books again. What a shame!!
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Old 03-21-2004, 02:13 PM   #22
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I think you are right. there are a few you missed. without the king of the dead, no aragorn at minas tirith. no ugluk and merry and pippin would have probably been killed by grishnak. and about shagrat and gorbg, if they hadn't fought over the mithril coat, Sam would not have gotten into Cirth ungol.

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Old 03-21-2004, 08:29 PM   #23
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Okay, this is going back to THE HOBBIT, but if the Dwarves and Bilbo hadn't got rained on and Fili and Kili hadn't been so slack about checking out that cave, they wouldn't have been dragged off by the Goblins, Bilbo wouldn't have become lost and found the Ring in the first place and it would have stayed lost for longer. Maybe he might not have been able to help the Dwarves as well with the spiders? Or perhaps the Elvenking would have caught him wandering the palace and THAT part of the quest would have been different. But whatever else was different - the events of LOTR would have been very different.
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Old 03-21-2004, 08:36 PM   #24
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Sting

so who are you saying is an important minor character? the clouds?
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Old 03-22-2004, 01:30 PM   #25
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'Minor' Characters

It's a testament to the scope of Tolkien's achievement that three very important minor characters haven't yet been mentioned: Arwen (who did get a brief mention in an above post), Elrond & Galadriel! They are all minor characters in the sense that they hardly appear in the book at all, and when they do it is to provide help or support to the major characters. They undergo no character development of their own, and are not real hindrances to the journey, nor do they play hugely 'active' roles in the Quest (more on that below).

Well, OK, as I write that I realise by my own definitions I shall have to take Galadriel off the list, perhaps

What is so great about their characterisation, however, is that while they are minor characters in the plot/story/narrative they are very important parts of the thematic concerns of the work. In this respect, Tolkien is comparable to Shakespeare (I DO hope you are reading this post Kransha!) who frequently uses characters for brief appearances in the plays, and yet without whom the whole fabric would fall apart (Caliban in The Tempest for example, or Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet).

Elrond is there as a repository of memory, and as a reminder of the huge sweep of history that the War of the Ring culminates. He is part of that history, and so the Quest to destroy the Ring could only begin from his home.

Arwen's thematic importance as the fulfillment and complement to Aragorn's story is so obvious (and has been dealt with so much in other threads) that it hardly bears comment here. And yet she hardly EVER appears in the book itself -- a minor character indeed, but hugely important.

Galadriel (who I will still put in my list) is the very embodiment of WHY the Ring must be destroyed. To have people talking all the time about how dangerous it is, is one thing: to actually have a Noldor tempted by it -- and to see the potential danger that she presents to the world should she take it. . .brrrrrrr

One thing that occurs to me only as I write this: the more powerful a character is, the more minor a role he or she is accorded. Only makes sense when the book is dedicated to foregrounding the hobbits. The great irony of the book revealed! -- the minor characters of the history of Middle-Earth are the major characters of LotR, and vice versa.
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Old 03-23-2004, 01:35 AM   #26
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Yeah, the clouds were definitely important in the story of Bilbo and the dwarves:-), but I was thinking of Fili and Kili - slack, both of them! ;-)
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Old 03-23-2004, 02:47 PM   #27
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Yep, it's true. Pieces to a puzzle.

I think Tolkien understood the idea that everybody has some part in everything, no matter how little that part is. I think that's where they nabbed that line for Galadriel in the Fellowship movie, "even the smallest person can change the course of the future" and so forth.

That's what makes the story a little more realistic (and coincidentally was a common practice in the writings of the early 20th century), including lots of characters that show up, and are practically never seen again. It certainly makes things more realistic, seeing as how you meet and see people once, and then never see them again.
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Old 03-23-2004, 09:53 PM   #28
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Silmaril

Gil Galad & Kransha, Merry & Pippin are still prime movers in Treebeard's/Ents moving against Isengard.

Gandalf makes reference in the book to their part:
Quote:
The coming of the hobbits and the tidings that they brought have spilled it: it will soon be running like a flood; but its tide is turned against Saruman and the axes of Isengard. A thing is about to happen which has not happened since the Elder Days: the Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong.
(From "The White Rider")

And, from "Treebeard":
Quote:
Treebeard was however especially interested in everything that concerned Gandalf; and most interested of all in Saruman's doings. The hobbits regretted very much that they knew so little about them: only a rather vague report by Sam of what Gandalf had told the Council. But they were clear at any rate that Ugluk and his troop came from Isengard, and spoke of Saruman as their master.
I find it rather sad (yet interesting) how the movie changes my recollections of a story I've been reading over 30 years!
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Old 03-30-2004, 01:33 PM   #29
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Sauron himself

It is interesting that what has the most power is never really seen to use it. The only thing we see the ring do (or not see, as the case may be) is turn folks invisible. Other than that, we get no real demonstration of its power. The same goes for Sauron. All we ever see of him is an eye. We only have the word of Gandalf and the elves that he was a bad guy. Wait a minute! What if he was really all right and those people were just spreading lies about him? After all, we never really hear his side of the story.

Just kidding. Don't want to get carried away.
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Old 03-30-2004, 09:01 PM   #30
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Let's hope you ARE kidding, Stickiifinger! If the story took place in the modern world, Sauron would be one of those politicians or big business tycoons who are quite happy to wreck the environment for the sake of money or votes! Mind you, I wouldn't be surprised if, somewhere in the depths of fan fiction, there's a Mary Sue tale about how Sauron was redeemed with a hug. A lot of my friends in other fandoms prefer the villains.

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Old 03-31-2004, 07:49 AM   #31
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Sauron

Yes, I really am kidding just because I love the story as it is. But, what if...?

For the sake of argument, suppose Gandalf and the elves WERE the bad guys. We all know how the story can be skewed by bias. Suppose all the environmental damage was done by the "good guys" attacking Sauron. Suppose he was just trying to defend himself and the little piece of territory they allowed him. Suppose the orcs all had unhappy childhoods because they lived in poverty. What if the hobbits were just gullible?

And I repeat, this is just an exercise in creativity. The story is perfect as is, in my opinion.
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Old 03-31-2004, 08:20 AM   #32
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Pipe Broadening discussion

Are minor characters performing important plot devices not just that? Plot devices, clumsy or otherwise?
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Old 03-31-2004, 01:48 PM   #33
Essex
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Fordim Hedgethistle, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't what rimbauld saying is kind of what you said (in a round about way) on your earlier post?

I find it quite refreshing that Tolkien uses these minor characters as 'plot devices'. I can't put my finger on WHY, I just do. Maybe someone else will eloquently explain why..............
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Old 04-01-2004, 02:45 PM   #34
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I think that he uses them to show that even one person can make a difference -for good or evil. One small choice can be the difference between life and death, in the case of this book.

Many people say that "it only takes one person to make a difference." Tolkien used that. One minor character helped them on part of their quest. One "minor" character told them an important piece of information. One person gave them food, or shelter. That makes them major characters, in my opinion. True, not the characters that our story focuses on, but major in the way that they influenced the outcome.

Ok, I'm starting to repeat other posts now. So I'll leave it at that!
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Old 04-02-2004, 10:51 PM   #35
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Essex, I am still rooting among the truffles in The Letters of JRR Tolkien and recently came across the following--it speaks to your wondering about the appeal minor characters as "plot devices"
Quote:
There are of course certain things and themes that move me specially. The inter-relations between the 'noble' and the 'simple' (or common, vulgar) for instance. The ennoblement of the ignoble I find specially moving.
This is both a nice & ingenious thing to do. It also reflects & illustrates some truths about the world & the plan behind it. For me, another part of the appeal is in thinking that I, too, may one day be considered an ennobled "plot device" in the moving of things in this, the 7th Age. [Hi, Child!]
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Old 04-05-2004, 01:00 PM   #36
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Dininziliel, I will definately have to but a copy of Letters !

The quote you state pretty much sums up what I love most about LOTR and it's great to see that if affected Tolkien in the same way.

The things that make me cry and feel joy are when we see the hobbits praised by the 'greats' , or Nobles as Tolkien puts it.

You know, when Gandalf says that Merry should have been carried into Minas Tirith in great honour, or when Eoywn says to Eomer that Merry should be made a knight of the riddermark, or when Aragorn kneels to Sam and Frodo.

'The ennoblement of the ignoble' sums it all up.
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Old 04-05-2004, 06:01 PM   #37
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Pipe The character of minor characters

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Dininziliel, I will definately have to but a copy of Letters !
Oh, but you definately must, Essex. I am reading the Letters at the moment, and finding them to be an absolute revelation. For one thing, they provide the answers to so many of the questions that come up routinely in this forum. And for another, they give great insights into Tolkien's works (particularly LotR). And I also find myself agreeing with so much of what he says about life in general (see my sig, for example ).

Anyway, back on topic. For me, it is not so much Tolkien's use of minor characters as "plot devices", to move the story on or impart useful information, that indicates his skill as a story-teller. After all, any story which spans great distances and encompasses great events must include characters other than those at the forefront of the story. What I do find delightful, however, is the way in which he imbues so many of his minor characters with real character. He really brings them to life by giving them individual identities and character traits which make them seem real, and only some of which are necessary to help in developing the plot. While their characters are not really (and do not need to be) developed beyond what we see of them when we meet them, what we do see of them makes them entirely believable and completely individual.

The two prime examples of this which spring to mind are Barliman Butterbur (whose very name gives a good indication of his character) and Ioreth. They have individual characters which really mark them out as more than just cardboard cut-outs carrying out their plot-developing duties. Butterbur is the slightly bumbling and absent-minded, but nevertheless kind-hearted, barman. He maybe fearful of the Ringwraiths (who wouldn't be), but one suspects that he would be as tough as nails if a fight were to develop in the Prancing Pony (which it probably does quite frequently). But it is only his role as barman of the Prancing Pony and his forgetfulness (in sending Gandalf's letter to Frodo) which is necessary for plot purposes. As for Ioreth, she probably occupies even less space in the book than Butterbur, but we get a good sense of her character as someone who is kind-hearted, learned in her art, and also a bit of chatterbox (evident in Aragron's gentle teasing of her quick tongue). But it is only her knowledge of old lore which is necessary to the plot, since it is this which is central to Aragorn becoming recognised as the true heir to the throne. Importantly, though, her role in the development of the plot flows not just from what she says, but also from what she is.

We even get a good sense of the character of some of the bad guys in Ugluk, Shagrat and Gorbag. They are just Orcs, and all we really need to know about them for plot purposes is what they do. Ugluk commands the assorted Orcs who capture Merry and Pippin and attempt to take them to Isengard. We need to see his role in the argument which develops, and is central to Merry and Pippin escaping, but we do not really need to see that he also has a character. Except that we do, because this makes him a more interesting and believable character. And much the same goes for Shagrat and Gorbag. They could just be those two Orc leaders who capture Frodo and then fight in the Tower of Cirith Ungol. But they are much more than that. They are also the two Orc leaders who talk nostalgically about the old times and would rather make off and have an easy time of it. It's not necessary to the plot for us to know this about them, but it does add so much more colour to them.

Of course, not every minor character is so well developed as these, but there are many that are. Does anyone else have any good examples?
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Old 04-05-2004, 06:10 PM   #38
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What about those often overlooked miner characters, the Dwarves? Just because the account we receive of the events at the end of the Third Age is so elfophilic, doesn't mean that the stunted children of Aulë were any less important!!

A very good point has been made that minor characters may be there often out of convenience. Still, that's far better than using major characters all the time. Modern stories (movies, etc.) tend to overvalue the major players, and give them all the credit. Nothing riles me more than a non-speaking extra who should have been allowed to say a few words.

Tolkien takes the time to show the rich tapestry that is humanity and our everday lives. Certain individuals (the hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn) were the focus of the Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien seldom makes minor characters fade into the obscurity of the background. They are present more often than not, even unnecessary characters such as:
  • the rider of Rohan who doubts Gandalf will return
  • Mablung and Damrod
  • the Healer
  • Lindir
  • Rúmil, brother of Haldir
These characters aren't solely there to accomplish plot devices. They fill out the story and make the world much more believable. And yeah, as pointed out, most of them saved the universe as well.
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Old 04-05-2004, 11:03 PM   #39
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Quote:
Originally Posted by doug*platypus
What about those often overlooked miner characters, the Dwarves?

MINER characters... dwarves HARF HARF HARF
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Old 04-06-2004, 01:34 AM   #40
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I'd like to stretch this from minor characters to seemingly minor events, rather than make yet another thread. What about the events in THE HOBBIT? Of course, there's the matter of the Ring, as we all know, but what about the trolls' hoard? Bilbo picks up something small enough to be a troll's pocket knife and it just happens to be from Gondolin and what do you know? Many years later, Sting gives Frodo a lot of warning of orcish presence. Thorin casually throws a pretty mail coat made for an elvish princeling at Bilbo and many years later, it saves Frodo's life in Moria, not to mention leading to the fight that so conveniently wipes out enough orcs to enable Sam to rescue Frodo.

And, Saucepan Man, right on about the wonderful things Tolkien does with minor characters! I wonder if Thranduil's wine-loving butler is still sampling the goods in Mirkwood during the War of the Ring? Are Legolas's people still sending barrels down the river to a re-built Esgaroth?
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