Hobbit Tomatoes

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There’s a scene in “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings” in which the hobbits are camping on Weathertop, waiting for Aragorn to do some scouting. Frodo falls asleep, but Merry, Pippin and Sam decide to start a little fire and cook some food. When Frodo wakes, his friends offer him “tomatoes, sausages and nice crispy bacon.”

A number of filmgoers became upset with this, because they felt that tomatoes, being a New World food item, didn’t belong in the setting. You read that correctly – the story is about four little humanoids carrying a magical ring to destroy in a volcano, being escorted by a 90 year old ranger who rode and fought as if he was in his thirties, under the direction of a wizard, but somehow tomatoes didn’t make sense.

I read about this in the afterword of a novel* I just finished, and it made me feel so much better. I write fantasy stories, and whether they’re set in the real world with gobs of history all over the place or a completely made-up place whose rules are mine to make, there are still chances for me to mess up. It happens. Tiny mistakes can slip by me and my editor, despite our best efforts to catch them. When I wrote Mad Kestrel, early in the story I let one of my unnamed pirates make a warding gesture against evil spirits, but I wrote it as “he crossed himself.” I didn’t mean it in the Christian sense, and neither I nor my editor noticed that it might be an issue. And it was edited three times, so it’s not for lack of looking. Nevertheless, a reader became unhappy with that wording, because my world did not have Christianity in it. She declared that she didn’t read any further. It broke my heart, because the crossing happened in the first chapter, which meant the reader didn’t give me any more chances to try and win her back. My ‘hobbit tomato’ was too much for her. And because I took it so seriously, my ‘hobbit tomato’ was also too much for me. It left me in a state of terror that anything I wrote would be so very wrong, no reader would ever get past any first chapter I wrote. I’m working on a novel set in pre-statehood Nebraska right now. I carefully drew out a map of the town, even though the character only goes into one building. And suddenly panicked, because I couldn’t easily dig up an answer to the question of whether frontier towns named their streets. If they didn’t, and I named a street in passing, was I instantly outing myself as a lazy writer who didn’t do her research? If they did, and I didn’t mention it, was I playing fast-and-loose with my worldbuilding? I didn’t know what to do next, and I found myself frozen. I couldn’t decide how to move forward for a long while. All because I was afraid of another ‘hobbit tomato.’

Am I saying that we need to keep even more on our toes than we already do? Not really, no We all do our best to make sure our facts are as accurate as we can make them. Ever hear writers talk about how easy it is to fall into the research wormhole? That’s because we start to let our characters ride a horse or shoot an alligator or climb the outside of a metropolitan skyscraper and we remember that we don’t know some aspect of what our character is doing. So we ask Google what sort of ammunition is best when hunting alligators and two hours later, while reading an essay about how a giraffe’s digestive system functions, we realize we’ve been at this forever.  We all do our level best. Still, mistakes happen, you end up with a ‘hobbit tomato’, a reader points it out and you spend a week calling yourself names and hating everything you’ve ever done.

What I am saying is that it’s unnecessary to obsess over the ‘hobbit tomatoes’ to the point that you kill your creativity. Try as hard as you can to get it all right, but don’t punish yourself if you can’t find one little factoid. If you made up a world and you want your characters to wear bandanas, well heck, let them. The important thing is to write a story that compels the reader to finish. Create characters who have personalities that rise off the page and grab your reader by the heart. Drive the action with soul and power. There’ll always be someone who’s hunting for mistakes, and if one little boo-boo is enough to ruin the book for them, they weren’t your audience to begin with. Don’t let fear shut you down.

Besides, roasted tomatoes are nice. No reason hobbits can’t enjoy them, too.

 

*Daughter of the Sword, by Steve Bein. Great book, highly recommended. And Steve, if you happen to see this little post of mine, thanks for the wonderful read and for the term ‘hobbit tomato’. I owe you a drink someday.

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7 comments to Hobbit Tomatoes

  • princejvstin

    Now, see, the Hobbit tomato thing never upset me because Tolkien’s own thoughts about Middle Earht being an prehistory of our world was, to be charitable, a vacillating thing. If you want to say that Hobbiton is set in Oxford and Mordor is Romania, then Hobbit tomatoes are a problem. If they aren’t, then why can’t Hobbits have tomatoes?

    Besides, they have potatoes, too, at least by Sam’s longing for french fries in The Two Towers.

  • Never bothered me, either. I mean, you could call it a plomit, but it would still be a tomato. Why can you have lettuce, stew, beans and so on, but not tomatoes? I get Mexican Rice, or Chinese Parsley, but just rice or parsley . . . The crossing thing–that might have thrown me. Not out of the book, but I’d have visualized the Catholic crossing or, from Nuns On the Run: Spectacles, Testicles, Wallet, and Watch. 😀

  • kdoylekeenan

    I LOVE the term “hobbit tomatoes”! It makes me want to develop a cherry tomato hybrid just so I can name it that. However. the tomatoes at Weathertop never bothered me. Tolkein made up a world. He can put anything he wants in that world, and it is perfectly correct. It was the reader’s perception that made it “wrong,” not the author’s, which makes the reader’s perception silly. Same with your character crossing himself. It was the reader’s perception that was wrong, not you. There’s no way an author can make up a completely new world, populated by completely alien beings and plants and using alien words to describe all this. No one would read it. (But I will still appropriate the term “hobbit tomatoes”!)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    (Yay for another Steve Bein fan! Daughter of the Sword is one of the few books I’ve ever really wanted to push on people.)

    As for Hobbit Tomatoes, I could see myself being briefly thrown out by that, or not, depending on my mood, but then the whole this-is-made-up-fantasy thing would have reasserted itself, same with your crossing-himself thing (which I personally don’t remember at all). princejvstin makes an excellent point about potatoes, and I wonder how many hobbit-tomato haters would have even noticed if the setting were a fantastical medieval Italy instead, despite all the same arguments applying.

    I think I have to confess to being on the dangerous other end of the research-worry spectrum. My thought is usually, “I’m writing fantasy; I can include or not whatever I want.” I do want things to be at least vaguely self-consistent, but to me self-consistent is more to do with what *could* happen than what *did* happen in a particular place and time on earth. I feel like too much adherence to what *did* happen shows a lack of imagination (again, fantasy?), or at least a lack of ability to just *entertain* different thoughts than what you’re used to. However, because I’m not concerned with matching, say, technology in a particular earth period, I probably miss a bunch of legitimate issues. I have a society with paper but not glass. Does that actually make sense? I have no idea. Also, there’s the whole inventing-the-wheel argument. Aztecs had the wheel, but only on children’s toys. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the “logical” next step just doesn’t get taken.

  • Huh. Tolkien’s world always seemed to me to be sideways from ours, rather than fore or aft — contemporary yet a different historical line without being alt-history. So by my interpretation, tomatoes and french fries are not so strange.

    But most of the time when an author does something like that, and it’s supposed to be Not Our World, it throws me against the wall, and its internal reality may never quite recover… I think it’s generally it’s a product of not quite thinking through one’s worldbuilding from the foundations up.

    Map Freak Dept: Judging by the lack of street signs or recorded street names in some very old, very small midwestern towns — and that most street names that do exist seem to be either states and presidents, or obvious-directions-to-somewhere (Main Street, River Road, Smith Ranch Road, etc.) … I’d say some did, some didn’t, but mainly a matter of 1) either being big enough to do some actual layout planning (which came along in the late 1800s, definitely post-frontier), or 2) getting enough traffic that *some* name stuck. Once there was a Main Street, adjacent streets usually seemed to collect names (often First Street, etc.) and the first major cross-street was likely to get some grand name like Broadway, Grand, or Central… but not always. IOW, any way you did it is correct somewhere and somewhen, as across much of farm country there’s no two alike.

    And I hadn’t thought about this before, because the subject has never come up, but… now that you mention it, I’m not sure my nonhumans DO name streets. They have the concept of addresses, but far as we’ve seen that tends to be descriptive: road’s end north, village, planet; west rail line, last siding before the brewery.

  • Razziecat

    Well…to be fair, Tolkien didn’t write tomatoes into that scene. Remember the movie was an adaptation of the book; it was Peter Jackson & the screenwriters who put tomatoes in. In fact, if I recall correctly, there was no “cooking breakfast” scene on Weathertop in the book. The characters were taking a rest; Aragorn told the story of Luthien and Beren, and Sam recited his troll poem. After a while the hobbits wandered off briefly (and I always secretly suspected a bathroom break!), and ran back to Aragorn because they sensed the ringwraiths approaching.

    And while Sam did talk about potatoes, I’m pretty sure he didn’t use the term ‘French fries,’ even in the movie. (If he did please provide a link to that specific scene?). Yes, those kinds of things CAN throw you right out of the state of suspended disbelief. I still shudder when recalling a book I read years ago in which the rather typical medieval-village type characters used “a bar of soap” (they also built a fire on board a ship to keep warm while trapped by ice floes, but that’s another rant!). Somehow, using a modern term like ‘bar of soap’ spoiled the world-building.

    But I would never stop reading after coming across these things. I hate to leave a book unfinished! I’m sure there are anomalies in my own writing that I haven’t spotted. It’s just human nature. 😀

  • Dana

    Thanks for this post. 🙂 I agonize the same way, and this put things in better perspective for me. I’ve seen fantasy and science fiction where it seemed like every animal and plant in the setting had an unrecognizable name. I definitely got a strong sense of being in an alien land, which was a good thing and probably the author’s intention, but I had to work harder to visualize the setting. There’ve been times when that actually was detrimental to immersion, at least for me.

    I guess I come down on the side of including enough mundane things that the reader doesn’t have to wonder if the character sat down on a chair, a cactus, or a donkey, but to also keep the setting from feeling too Earth-like.

    (I’ve been a lurker here for a while, and I finally got around to posting a comment. 🙂 I enjoy this site!)