Mistakes and inconsistencies in Tolkien's works
However his work has been admired, studied and analyzed by "Tolkienists" over the years in various aspects and levels; unavoidably, some more or less obvious inconsistencies seem to have slipped the author's attention. Most are revealed after more than one reading of the book and possibly thorough study.
Fans of Tolkien usually accept that in any work there are usually plot holes. In a larger, far more detailed and realistic book we expect fewer (if any) plot holes, when in reality there is a far greater chance because of its complexity.
Any inconsistency can be blamed on the fictitious Tolkien who adapted ancient sources such as the Red Book or on the characters who wrote and compiled those sources. Tolkien himself mentioned in Appendix D that he might have made many errors on the calendar while "translating" the "ancient sources", a comment written as a fail-safe for any narrative mistakes the author possibly made.
Such explanations attributing the mistakes to the "translator Tolkien" are easy and unenlightening. Therefore many fans prefer to explain those inconsistencies with some internal explanation. The explanations below of are this type. For example, at least some of the logical mistakes can be attributed to the characters themselves who said a contradicting phrase, since none of them is supposed to have the "omniscience" of the author.
Possibly the most noticeable inconsistency in The Lord of the Rings is that both Tom Bombadil and Treebeard are referred to as the eldest being in Middle-earth. Tom says that about himself, and Elrond mentions that the Elves knew Tom as "oldest and fatherless". However, Gandalf tells Théoden that Treebeard is "the oldest of all living things", and Celeborn addresses Treebeard as "Eldest".
- Maybe Tom is not "alive" as Treebeard is (though he seems to be). On this subject, Gandalf, Saruman, and Sauron have existed far longer than Treebeard, as they are Maiar, but they haven't been alive (in a physical body) as long.
Merry tells Frodo that as a result of Sam's eavesdropping, he and Pippin "know most of what Gandalf has told you about the Ring". But most of what Gandalf told Frodo was in one long conversation, at the end of which Gandalf caught Sam, and Merry says that after Sam was caught, he "seemed to regard himself as on parole, and dried up".
- Maybe Sam's information was what he learned before he was caught, though that's not what Merry says.
A choice of dangers
Aragorn tells the hobbits, as they prepare to leave Bree, "After Weathertop our journey will become more difficult, and we shall have to choose between various dangers." The ridges they have to climb after Weathertop may be more difficult than the Midgewater Marshes, but they encounter no dangers on the route Aragorn chooses, and Aragorn doesn't warn the hobbits of any dangers, except the chance that the Nazgûl will find them as they cross the Last Bridge).
- Aragorn does cite two other possible courses. One is going north through the Ettendales instead of crossing the Ford of Bruinen, but in addition to the danger of trolls, that route would take too long and the Company would run out of food. The other is finding the Ford without following the Road, but that's impossible. Maybe although he describes these alternatives as impossible when he faces them, in Bree they only seemed to present the danger of taking too long or getting lost.
Aragorn tells the hobbits in Bree, "I know all the lands between the Shire and the Misty Mountains, for I have wandered over them for many years." But later, speaking of the Ettendales, he says, "That is troll-country, and little known to me," and "I do not know the way" to Rivendell by detouring through them. The Ettendales or Ettenmoors are on a line between the Shire and the northern part of the Misty Mountains.
- If we take Aragorn's line "wandered over them" literally, we can accept that Aragorn has also wandered over the Ettendales. Of course that doesn't necessarily means that Aragorn should know everything about those lands, or even know all ways (e.g., to Rivendell) through them. He does say that he knows those lands a "little".
Possession of the Nine Rings
In The Council of Elrond Gandalf says that the Nazgûl kept their Rings by saying "The Nine the Nazgûl keep". However in most other references, it is mentioned that Sauron had taken them. Furthermore, Frodo doesn't see any Rings on them on Weathertop, and it is believed that if they did wear the Rings, they would have been fully invisible (including their cloaks).
The line in the Council of Elrond represents Tolkien's earlier intention that the Nazgûl should still be wearing their Rings, but he later changed his mind and simply missed revising that sentence.
- The phrase can be also interpreted as "The Nine keep the Nazgûl [in Sauron’s thralldom]"; or as the Nazgûl are Sauron's slaves, his owning the Rings may be equivalent to the Nazgûl's keeping them.
- Or perhaps, Gandalf was mistaken.
Feeling the mithril coat
The mithril coat that Bilbo gives Frodo is "almost as supple as linen", and Aragorn carries Frodo in Moria (after the orc chieftain spears Frodo) without noticing the coat. However, when Bilbo slaps Frodo on the back after giving him the coat, he says, "Ow!... You are too hard now to slap!"
- Perhaps Bilbo is joking.
Galadriel tells Frodo and Sam that she knows Sauron's thoughts that concern the Elves. It seems strange that they don't ask her whether she has any information they might find useful and she doesn't offer them any. Also, she doesn't seem to have known about Saruman's betrayal some nineteen years earlier, though the defection of a member of the White Council might be thought to concern the Elves. At least, she didn't warn Gandalf in the messages he got from Lórien after reading the Scroll of Isildur, the year before he trustingly entered Orthanc. (Also, when Aragorn was serving in Gondor under the name Thorongil, he "often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman". It's strange that he knew not to trust Saruman but Gandalf didn't.)
- Conceivably Galadriel gained the ability to read Sauron's mind sometime after the messages went to Gandalf.
Galadriel tells the Fellowship, "I will not give you counsel, saying do this, or do that. For not in doing or contriving, or in choosing between this course and another, can I avail; but only in knowing what was and is, and in part also what shall be. Later she tells Frodo, "I do not counsel you one way or the other. I am not a counsellor." However, the rhyme she sends Aragorn advises a specific course: the Grey Company should come out of Rivendell, and Aragorn should take the Paths of the Dead. Likewise Legolas and Gimli conclude that Galadriel sent the message to the Grey Company telling them to join Aragorn in Rohan; this seems to be "contriving" and "choosing between one course and another". Incidentally, it is odd that the Grey Company got this message without knowing who it was from.
- One could imagine that someone else (Celeborn?) made the decisions and Galadriel only sent the messages. Legolas and Gimli may have erred in thinking she was the source.
Tales of hobbits
Pippin tells Théoden, "I have wandered in many lands, since I left my home, and never till now have I found people that knew any story concerning hobbits." But hobbits live in Bree, Tom Bombadil knows many stories about hobbits, one would think the Rangers (who guard the Shire and Bree) and the Elves of Rivendell (where Bilbo has been living) would know some, and the Elves of Lórien have at least heard of hobbits.
- Pippin has just woken up from a nap, after a lunch that included wine, and is talking to a king for the first time in his life; he may not be thinking clearly.
Knowledge of the Palantíri
After Gandalf learns that the crystal ball he has recovered is the palantír of Orthanc, he tells Pippin the White Council didn't know any of the palantíri (presumably those of Gondor) survived disaster in Gondor (presumably the Kin-strife). However, after Denethor reveals his palantír, Gandalf claims to have known all along that the Stewards had it.
- Gandalf could have learned about Denethor's palantír by himself, after the last time the White Council met.
The peril of deep arts
In connection with the palantír of Orthanc, Gandalf observes to Pippin, "Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves." However, never in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings does he warn Thorin or the hobbits against using their magic swords, and he returns the Phial of Galadriel to Frodo and Galadriel's box of earth to Sam. Also, there is no apparent danger in characters' using other products of elven arts (cloaks, hithlain ropes, lembas).
- How magic works is not clear. Parts of the books indicate that the some arts of the Elves despite appearing so, are not "magic". However maybe the palantíri are "devices" in a sense in which the other things named are not.
- Furthermore, it's possible that Gandalf only attempted to discourage Pippin from his curiosity, knowing that this could connect him with Sauron (as he finally did).
Aragorn mentions that the name "Sauron" (meaning "Abominable") is the name used by his enemies, and Sauron himself does not permit it to be pronounced. Therefore it would be problematic, if not logically impossible for a servant of Sauron to have a title or name that includes the word "Sauron".
- It could be that Aragorn was mistaken.
The name Moria means "Black Chasm" and was a derogatory description of the place which the Dwarves did not like much; it was given after Durin's Bane took over the city and it was overrun by Orcs. It is therefore a paradox why that name appears on the Doors of Durin (Ennyn Durin Aran Moria), made in the Second Age, and with the consent of the Dwarves.
- An "external" explanation is that since the translated Norse names Durin and Narvi are seen in the inscription, Moria may also be a "translated" name.
One of the best-known alleged plot holes is why the Eagles came to carry Frodo and Sam back from Mount Doom but did not help them to fly the One Ring there. While there are many counter explanations, it is a logical gap why this idea was not proposed in the Council of Elrond.
- See here for a more detailed discussion.
The distances of the Dwarves' travel to Rivendell in The Hobbit seem to have different proportions than those in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien tried to reconcile the Hobbit description with the scale of the LotR map but couldn't find an appropriate solution.
While Frodo and his companions needed 28 days from Hobbiton to Rivendell (10.7 miles/day), Karen Wynn Fonstad calculated that Bilbo and Thorin and Company needed 38 days (17.5 miles/day). Andreas Moehn goes further and supposes that Thorin and Co. wanted two weeks from the Trollshaws till Rivendell (a distance which Glorfindel covered in two days), resulting in c. 48 days total..
- The distances and days are not described in the narrative and can be measured only by references such as the moon phases and other fan calculations; therefore there can be a margin of miscalculation.
- In general, perhaps the Dwarves are by nature slower travelers than the Hobbits.
In general, it is possible that Tolkien consulted a modern almanac to model the moon phases, and also possible that he confused the meanings of "New Moon": the astronomical (the moment when the moon is darkest) and the colloquial (appearance of the new crescent moon).
Another mistake appears in The Hobbit: Bard I killed Smaug "at the rising of the moon" when "the moon rose above the eastern shore and silvered his [Smaug's] great wings... the waxing moon rose higher and higher". Also the thrush tells Bard, "Wait! Wait!... The Moon is rising."  However, according to astronomy a waxing moon rises only in the morning, after the sun.
- The moon could have been waning and setting in the west (not rising from the east), thus helping Bard kill Smaug.
Shadow over Eregion
While the Fellowship of the Ring traverses Hollin, they see and feel a flying shadow over them. Since no other such phenomena occur, when the Fell Beasts are introduced, the reader makes such a connection. However later we learn that Sauron did not permit the Nazgûl to traverse west of the Anduin after their accident at Bruinen.
- Possibly it was a "lost" or "disobeying" Nazgûl who despite orders found himself prematurely west of the Anduin, or simply something wholly unexplained and unrelated to the Fell Beasts. Perhaps it was some feeling of foreboding as they would eventually have to go to Moria.
Beater and Biter
The swords Glamdring and its "mate" Orcrist are found in a Troll hoard, said to belong to King Turgon of the First Age. They never appeared much in battle (Turgon fought only in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad) and they were witnessed only by the Orcs of Beleriand.
- There can be several theories and explanations of how the swords and their fames reach Eriador. The only problem is the narrative of The Silmarillion, which doesn't justify their significance to the extent of being remembered and recognized by the Goblins of the Third Age, even by tradition.
The elf-king's favorite gems
The narration of The Hobbit says the elf-king's favorite gems are "white." However, after the Battle of Five Armies, the narration says, "To the Elven-king he [Bard] sent the emeralds of Girion, such gems as he most loved...."
- The sentence is somewhat ambiguous: "he" could refer to Bard or Girion instead of the elf-king. However, the elf-king's preference in gems, not the others', would be relevant to Bard's choice of what to give him.
The date of Gandalf's letter
The letter Gandalf leaves for Frodo at the Prancing Pony is dated "Midyear's Day, Shire Year, 1418." However, Appendix B says Gandalf met Radagast on June 29, and Gandalf says he left Bree at dawn of the following day, which would be June 30, two days before Midyear's day (as 1 Lithe comes between).
- Possibly someone made a mistake involving the different calendars, though Bree uses the Shire-reckoning (aside from the number of the year). Perhaps more likely is that Gandalf, who was in a hurry, and traveling for days, confused the passage of time.
Several mistakes were simply remnants of earlier concepts of Tolkien, which later escaped his attention when revising the book. Some of them were corrected in the 50th Anniversary Edition.
In the second edition of LotR, Sam Gamgee's year of birth was added to The Tale of Years as Third Age 2963. This contradicts both a later entry in The Tale of Years and the Appendix C given as Third Age 2980.
- This discrepancy was noted by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull in The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, where they explained why they left it unchanged in the 50th anniversary edition. Amon Hen was a week before the Battle of the Hornburg; even for a stout Dwarven warrior, lamenting not killing an Orc for that short period would make him look too bloodthirsty.
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "In the House of Tom Bombadil", "Eldest, that's what I am.... Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn."
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond"
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Road to Isengard"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "Many Partings"
- ↑ Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth: Revised and Expanded Edition, p. 107
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "A Conspiracy Unmasked"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Shadow of the Past"
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Strider"
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Flight to the Ford"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Flight to the Ford", "'We cannot hope to find a path through these hills. Whatever danger may beset it, the Road is our only way to the Ford.'"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Shadow of the Past", "the Nine [Sauron] has gathered to himself; the Seven also, or else they are destroyed."
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Mirror of Galadriel", "You saw the Eye of him that holds the Seven and the Nine."
- ↑ http://oakroadsystems.com/genl/ringfaq.htm#Q0-InvRiders
- ↑ 14.0 14.1 14.2 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Ring Goes South"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
- ↑ 16.0 16.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Mirror of Galadriel"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Old Forest"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The White Rider"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Passing of the Grey Company"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Lothlórien", "We had not heard of—hobbits, of halflings, for many a long year...."
- ↑ 22.0 22.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Palantír", "It was not known to us that any of the palantíri had escaped the ruin of Gondor."
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Pyre of Denethor", "Though the Stewards deemed that it was a secret kept only by themselves, long have I known that here in the White Tower, as at Orthanc, one of the Seven Stones was preserved."
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Departure of Boromir"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Return of the Shadow p. 204
- ↑ 26.0 26.1 Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-earth
- ↑ http://lalaith.vpsurf.de/Tolkien/Durin%27s_Day.html
- ↑ http://shire-reckoning.com/moon.html
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "The Gathering of the Clouds"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Fire and Water"
- ↑ http://lalaith.vpsurf.de/Tolkien/Durin%27s_Day.html
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "Flies and Spiders", "If the elf-king had a weakness it was for treasure, especially for silver and white gems...."
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "The Return Journey"
- ↑ Wayne G. Hammond, Christina Scull, The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, page 716