We use trivia to prove our depth of knowledge in a given topic but also to introduce people to new ideas or to revive interest in old things. How many people do trivia contests motivate to read books or perform Internet searches? But what we choose to include in our trivia lists suggests our priorities or interests are biased, either toward the simplistic or the popular. “Hard trivia” is almost a non sequitur. Why is it “hard trivia”? Is not all trivia hard for the untutored audience?
Why do people focus on the more well-known details of Tolkien’s stories rather than dredge up the hard-to-find facts? Perhaps it is simply because we don’t want to humiliate ourselves, but maybe it’s a reflection of where reader interests lie. The people who make up trivia contests are no different from the people who participate in them. We all love the story and immerse ourselves in the details. And yet we paint those details with expectations and assumptions.
Inevitably after I write up a list of trivia questions for any reason, regardless of their degrees of difficulty, I think of other questions later I could or should have included. I receive enough reader questions about Middle-earth every year I could have just assembled a list at random from the unprocessed queue in my email. The questions would have been more random and I would still be almost as unlikely to know the answers off the top of my head.
But there is another way we could do a trivia contest, to make it hard, which is to pose the questions as topics for debating teams. Imagine a list of ten questions such as “do balrogs have wings”, “how many Thrains did Tolkien include in the first edition of The Hobbit“, and “are all vambraces made of metal?” These questions are sure to keep the legions of fans arguing for decades. There are no universally satisfactory answers for any of them, try as we might to construct long, detailed answers (and I have composed many such answers). It would be a challenging trivia contest to include only ambiguous topics, would it not? You could not simply provide an answer but must also provide an answer with supporting reasoning.
But there is something more to the trivia that really appeals to the scholarly corner of the audience. Many a scholarly paper, perhaps all of them, has focused on minutiae that would make great trivia questions. “Who researched Tolkien’s use of Slavic in The Hobbit?” would not be so hard for anyone familiar with John Rateliff’s work but there are other scholars who have written about Tolkien’s Slavic words. Can you name them all? I cannot. Such a trivia contest could award points for verifiable inclusiveness.
Our thirst for Tolkien trivia drives epic reference works from Douglas Anderson’s Annotated Hobbit to Hammond and Scull’s Lord of the Rings reference books (and I include all the art books, not just their Companion and Reader’s Guide). We have an insatiable thirst for Tolkien trivia. Maybe it validates our love of a finite fictional world for which we never want to find the boundaries. There is always something new to find in Tolkien’s fiction. How did he ever find time in a single lifetime to weave all these details together to create such a richly detailed world? That’s the magic of Middle-earth, isn’t it?
Every trivia question has a story to tell. I wish I had the time to tell them all. But now on to the questions and their answers.
1. Whose weapon had a pommel shaped like a hideous head?
That is Grishnakh’s long knife, which Gimli found on the battlefield near the edge of Fangorn forest.
2. How many miles did Merry and Pippin wander into Fangorn on their own before meeting Treebeard?
From the book: “They climbed and scrambled up the rock. If the stair had been made it was for bigger feet and longer legs than theirs. They were too eager to be surprised at the remarkable way in which the cuts and sores of their captivity had healed and their vigour had returned. They came at length to the edge of the shelf almost at the feet of the old stump; then they sprang up and turned round with their backs to the hill, breathing deep, and looking out eastward. They saw that they had only come some three or four miles into the forest: the heads of the trees marched down the slopes towards the plain. There, near the fringe of the forest, tall spires of curling black smoke went up, wavering and floating towards them.”
3. Who said that no foe had ever taken the Hornburg?
Please don’t hate me for being a literalist here but the answer I was looking for was “Minstrels”, according to Eomer.
‘Nonetheless day will bring hope to me,’ said Aragorn. ‘Is it not said that no foe has ever taken the Hornburg, if men defended it?’
‘So the minstrels say,’ said Éomer.
4. How long did the Ents allow the Isen to flow into Isengard to flood Saruman’s underground chambers?
There is no precise definitive answer but I estimate the flooding lasted from from midnight to late night the next day (almost 24 hours). Pippin described the flooding of Isengard for Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli at their reunion in the ruins of Isengard. I will bold the information in this citation for you.
‘It must have been about midnight when the Ents broke the dams and poured all the gathered waters through a gap in the northern wall, down into Isengard. The Huorn-dark had passed, and the thunder had rolled away. The Moon was sinking behind the western mountains.
‘Isengard began to fill up with black creeping streams and pools. They glittered in the last light of the Moon, as they spread over the plain. Every now and then the waters found their way down into some shaft or spouthole. Great white steams hissed up. Smoke rose in billows. There were explosions and gusts of fire. One great coil of vapour went whirling up, twisting round and round Orthanc, until it looked like a tall peak of cloud, fiery underneath and moonlit above. And still more water poured in, until at last Isengard looked like a huge flat saucepan, all steaming and bubbling.’
‘We saw a cloud of smoke and steam from the south last night when we came to the mouth of Nan Curunír,’ said Aragorn. ‘We feared that Saruman was brewing some new devilry for us.’
‘Not he!’ said Pippin. ‘He was probably choking and not laughing any more. By the morning, yesterday morning, the water had sunk down into all the holes, and there was a dense fog. We took refuge in that guardroom over there; and we had rather a fright. The lake began to overflow and pour out through the old tunnel, and the water was rapidly rising up the steps. We thought we were going to get caught like Orcs in a hole; but we found a winding stair at the back of the store-room that brought us out on top of the arch. It was a squeeze to get out, as the passages had been cracked and half blocked with fallen stone near the top. There we sat high up above the floods and watched the drowning of Isengard. The Ents kept on pouring in more water, till all the fires were quenched and every cave filled. The fogs slowly gathered together and steamed up into a huge umbrella of cloud: it must have been a mile high. In the evening there was a great rainbow over the eastern hills; and then the sunset was blotted out by a thick drizzle on the mountain-sides. It all went very quiet. A few wolves howled mournfully, far away. The Ents stopped the inflow in the night, and sent the Isen back into its old course. And that was the end of it all.’
Gandalf Dwarves entered Hobbiton on a waggon before the Party, what was hanging beside the hobbits’ doors?
According to the text, curious hobbits looked out at him from their lamplit doors. I imagine these were some form of Victorian station lamps but Tolkien rarely describes what types of lamps his characters use. They hang from posts and boughs and beams as well as walls. Bilbo has a lamp with a shade in The Hobbit and Faramir has an earthenware lamp in his secret refuge at Henneth Annûn. Lamps are ubiquitous in Middle-earth and the Elvish cities from Tirion to Caras Galadhon are lit by multitudes of lamps.
6. How did Frodo, Sam, and Pippin cross the Water when leaving Hobbiton?
They crossed the stream by a wood-plank bridge. This is, to my knowledge, the only use of the word “plank” in The Lord of the Rings.
7. What were Frodo’s beds stuffed with?
Frodo missed his feather-stuffed beds when he, Sam, and Pippin were trekking through the Shire and sleeping under the trees at night. The feather beds of Bag End are mentioned once in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
8. What was the name of the valley between Hobbiton and Bywater?
This is a good sensible hobbit-name: the Water-valley. Tolkien capitalized the word “Water” to make it clear he was referencing the stream or small river that ran between Hobbiton and Bywater, but admittedly that does not necessarily mean the hobbits called the area “the Water-valley” any more than we Americans would speak of “the Colorado Canyon” (which is better known as “the Grand Canyon”). Some people might feel this is a trick question since the name does not appear on any map or in any geographical discussion.
9. Where did Frodo, Sam, and Pippin eat their second dinner after leaving Hobbiton?
They ate their evening meal on the second day in a hollow tree near the Stock-Woodhall fork in the back road they were following.
10. What surprise gift did Gildor’s people give to Frodo, Sam, and Pippin?
When the hobbits awoke they found the Elves had refilled their water bottles with “a clear drink, pale golden in colour: it had the scent of a honey made of many flowers, and was wonderfully refreshing.” I have always wondered if this was Miruvor (which Gandalf described as “the cordial of Imladris”) but it does not have to be the same drink.
11. How far was it from Farmer Maggot’s lane to the Buckleberry Ferry?
Five miles in the book. The movies, alas, made little time for mushrooms.
12. How many lights did Tom and Goldberry leave burning after their first dinner with the hobbits?
Three: A lamp and two candles. What I find significant about this passage is that Tolkien provided so much detail for the setting, but his narrative then quickly moves us into a dimly lit conversation between Bombadil and the hobbits.
13. On what day of the week did Bilbo escape from Gollum and rejoin Thorin and Company?
Thursday, according to the text. Could there possibly be a connection between Thorin’s name and Tolkien’s choice of Thursday?
14. Which Dwarf realized first that Thorin was no longer with them in Mirkwood?
Dwalin asked where Thorin ws some time after the battle with the spiders had ended. This was the only distinctive thing Dwalin did in The Hobbit.
15. What child read the manuscript of The Hobbit before it was given to Stanley Unwin?
This is a tricky question but I did not mean it to be a trick question. Most people (including me) assume that one of Tolkien’s sons, perhaps John, read The Hobbit manuscript first.
Tolkien wrote in Letter No. 15: “The MS. certainly wandered about, but it was not, as far as I know, ever read to children, and only read by one child (a girl of 12-13), before Mr Unwin tried it out.” I don’t know anything more about her. If anyone knows who she was, do please share in the comments.
16. At what age does J.R.R. Tolkien say his son John first heard the story of The Hobbit?
Also according to Letter No. 15: “My eldest boy was thirteen when he heard the serial. It did not appeal to the younger ones who had to grow up to it successively.”
17. What was Gadara View?
From Letter No. 241: “It is said that Sir John M. J. built himself a fine house near Bangor overlooking the Menai Straits, to Môn (Anglesey). But the ‘friendly’ nickname for the inhabitants of that isle is (on the mainland) moch ‘swine’. Some gentry from Beaumaris paid him a visit, and after admiring his house, asked if he was going to give it a name. ‘Yes’, said he, ‘I shall call it Gadara View. ‘. . . .”
There is, to my knowledge, absolutely no connection between this anecdote and Middle-earth. This is a trick question. Sorry, but I never said all the questions were about Middle-earth.
18. What was the greatest treasure of Belegost?
Nimphelos, a pearl from the Isle of Balar that was the size of a dove’s egg. This is one of the many obscure details Tolkien mentions in a narrative only once. It receives more anecdotal entries in The Silmarillion than the one mention.
19. What was the only Elvish name to be used in the primary narratives of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Hurin?
So far as I know, the only Elvish name to be mentioned in all four books is Gondolin. I apologize if anyone thought only of personal names. It didn’t occur to me until after I published the last article that there might be some confusion about whether the name was of a person or a place.
20. How many times is the name “Elbereth” used in The Lord of the Rings?
I counted 21 uses.
Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.