The Lord of the Limited Colour Palette

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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15 thoughts on “The Lord of the Limited Colour Palette

  1. Tolkien’s description of colour is not something I’ve ever noticed before. I’m currently re-reading the Lord of the Rings for the billionth time (I exaggerate), so I’ll keep an eye out for colours.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I did notice it, actually, and there are also geographical differences between locations – Shire is green and yellow (the favourite colors of hobbits), Gondor is white (Minas Tirith as the white city, White Tree, etc.), Rohan is green and gold, Orthanc black, etc. Thanks for the link, I’ll definitely read the analysis!

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  3. This isn’t anything I’d noticed either. But I was really interested in your post about blue and the ancient world, and found quite a few articles supporting the theme. I still can’t really get my head round it – so thanks.

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  4. Wait, so I’m thinking of the idea that LOTR is very black and white, but it’s not. There’s lots of greys to it, not the least being Gandalf going from grey to white. I’m also thinking of some of the kings who are manipulated (Theodon) or grim/embattled (Denethor). But it begs an interesting question of why stick to the primary colors? I don’t have an answer, but maybe like the ents it is something to think about for a while. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Every writer needs to be aware of the painter’s emotional color wheel as well as the musician’s emotional key wheel.

    Here’s an answer – The trick missed in this discussion is that sans adverbial complications the colors belong to the reader. Is your green my green? Is the green of the forest the green of the grass or the sea? It’s about reader investment and the author not leading us around by the nose.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s really interesting! I read The Hobbit for the first time this year and surprised myself by really enjoying it. I haven’t read the LOTR books yet but will definitely keep an eye for the colour descriptions (or lack of!) when I do 👍

    Liked by 1 person

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