A couple of months ago, I was talking about Odd Colours in the Odyssey, about how Ancient Greek didn’t have a word for ‘blue’ (which I think is pretty interesting, go take a look if you missed it).
In the comments, calmgrove got me interested in another related topic – the use of colour descriptions in Lord of the Rings. Now, I am a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien – he is undoubtable the father of modern high fantasy literature, the man changed the world by sharing his imagined world with us. That’s my opinion and yes, I accept I’m biased.
Have you read The Lord of the Rings? It’s an incredibly epic adventure full of magic and heroism; his narration is beautifully descriptive, bringing the place and the characters to life. One thing I’d not noticed before was his use of colour but was fascinated when I started reading The Green Sun: a study of color in J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by Miriam Younger Miller.
I really recommend having a read – it’s about nine pages, really interesting, and I found I read it pretty quickly. She points out:
Tolkien used a strangely limited palette – red, green, blue, black, gray, brown, yellow, and white (the last two are also referred to as gold and silver) — with very, very few exceptions […] [and these] color words are used without modification; i.e., we see, again, with very, very few exceptions, green, not pale green, or emerald green, or chartreuse.
Did anyone else notice this? I mean, I thought his descriptions of Middle Earth were incredibly evocative, how did I miss this? And why did he do it? He’s a very talented writer and a life-long artist, this must have been a conscious decision, right?
Miller concludes that it was a definite decision for a definite purpose:
The limited palette of pure hues that Tolkien provided paints Middle-Earth in primary sensations, avoiding the subtleties and nuances which inevitably would be evoked by using a profusion of tints, shades, and tones, the subtleties and nuances which colour the Primary World […] Middle-Earth is a world purposely simplified, a world of pure hue, a world of black and white, as it were, a world unlike ours with its bewildering ambiguities, where nothing is clear cut.
While I haven’t had chance to read The Lord of the Rings again since then, I’ve had a lot of fun re-reading Farmer Giles of Ham by Tolkien. It’s about a hundred pages, a simple story told well in a much more light-hearted way than his novels. And do you know what? Despite an early description of Farmer Giles as having a red beard, there’s very few colour words used in this book either.
Well, very few colour words used that I noticed but I’m prepared to be corrected – I got a bit caught up in the story so I wasn’t always paying full attention to this, and I’m not sorry.
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