The promise of a fantasy fiction like The Lord of the Rings is that the reader will be shown another world. A world of weird creatures (most of the time), magic (usually), and heroes – a palate cleanser, if not just an escape, from everyday life.
But with a line, the film trilogy raises a question that can easily bring someone back to real life: does anyone in The Lord of the Rings have a job?
2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the Lord of the Rings films, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So, every Wednesday of the year, we’ll be going back and forth again, examining how and why movies have remained modern classics. This is the year of the Polygon ring.
Whether you ask about the books or the movies, Frodo and Bilbo don’t have a job. They live off Bilbo’s family wealth and the transport of an independent mission (heist) he took about 60 years ago. Merry and Pippin too. Legolas, Gimli and Boromir are essentially descendants of political families. Gandalf is basically an angel. Aragorn is a king, of course, but it’s not a job; it is a responsibility.
This is perhaps precisely the kind of question that naturally arises as we approach Labor Day, the traditional end of summer in the United States. But it’s a question that can lead us to one of the most basic challenges of building a fantasy world that still feels familiar.
Because there are definitely people in The Lord of the Rings movies who have jobs. Orcs have jobs.
Paid workers of Middle-earth
Tolkien nods to Jobs in a few places of The Lord of the Rings. Sam is Frodo and Bilbo’s gardener, after all. Some Shirefolk are farmers, and they all pay for services and goods with earned money, like at the Pony Fringant, which employs several people. But there are many places where Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh developed Tolkien’s work in order to translate it into film, and occupations are one of them.
In the Jackson movie trilogy, orcs have a job. Because orcs have restaurants. Boyens, Jackson and Walsh invented Orc restaurants in a brief scene from The two towers, when the orc company carrying Merry and Pippin takes a break to rest.
“I’m starving,” complains an orc. “We only had maggot bread for three smelly days!”
In a fitted approximation of a Tolkien argument The two towers, the orcs argue over whether they are allowed to torture and kill their prisoners, with hunger as their motivation. A great Uruk-hai insists that Merry and Pippin are not for eating. Society becomes agitated and menacing, but just as a little orc grabs the hobbits for “just a bite”, the Uruk cuts off his head in one fell swoop, declaring these infamous words:
“Meat is back on the menu, guys! “
The rest of the orc company takes this as a sign to descend on the corpse and consume it raw, the intestines wriggling in the air like straw.
Follow the logic: if the orcs know what menus are, then they know what it’s like to pay for the food someone else has prepared. And maybe that means there are only Orcish cafeterias, where soldiers can eat. But it invites to imagine orc bars, orc barbecues, maybe even Orc bistros.
Orcs have restaurant jobs.
How the Lord of the Rings got a Moss Troll
OK, OK, the orcs don’t have restaurants; it is an anachronism. Well, the “chron” in the anachronism comes from the Greek for “time”, so maybe it’s more of a anacosmism, from Greek for “world”.
We accept and appreciate that menus are a salient concept for orcs because it’s fun. And because the alternatives are difficult and can result in a more detached and less relevant setting. But obviously, it can take place in unexpected leaps of logic. Writer Sarah Monette (The Goblin Emperor) called the quagmire the Moss-Troll problem in a short essay for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2010.
You may never have read a story with a Moss Troll, but you’ve probably heard of a Womp Rat. Luke Skywalker made it an indelible part of the Star Wars universe when he said, “I used to beat rats in my T-16 at home. They don’t measure much more than 2 meters.
And you can find plush toys made by fans of an animal never seen on an episode of Star Trek, thanks to the line “I can see it in your eyes.” You can barely resist the urge to jump and start jumping like a Tarkassian razor.
“The advantage of writing urban fantasy or fantasy across the world,” sci-fi / fantasy writer Marissa Lingen wrote in her LiveJournal in 2006, “is that when the sea serpent has eyes the color of NyQuil, you can tell rather than spending the time trying to find an Icelandic counterpart from the Settlement Era that had something to do with Moss Troll ichor. Once invented for a single line, the ichor troll of mosses becomes a brick in the edifice of the author’s fictional universe, which must be remembered so as not to become an inconsistency or a contradiction. And, as Lingen said, “You can pretty much guarantee it’s going to come back and bite your butt in another pound or two.”
Monette developed Lingen’s idea in her article for SFWA, calling it the “Moss-Troll problem” after Lingen’s hypothetical example. And for her, that’s a usual challenge for anyone building a fictional world that’s radically different from ours.
“You cannot, for example, say that something is as fundamental as the missionary position in a world without missionaries,” she wrote. “What if we said that something is as fast and sharp as a guillotine blade?” Well, did Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin exist in this world? You will find Moss Trolls over and over again whenever you begin to describe imaginary people, places, and things in your fantasy world.
Boyens, Jackson and Walsh’s solution to the Moss-Troll problem was “Meat is back on the menu, boys!” The line is objectively large. Actor Nathaniel Lees’ delivery is impeccable, even through the heavy orc makeup. It’s much better than saying “Meat is back on our options list!” “Or” The rebels get eaten! ”
Tolkien would also opt for a mundane reference in his work. Although there is very, very little anacosmisms in The Lord of the Rings, there is one that escaped the editorial pen from its very first chapter.
Here’s how Tolkien describes the imaginary climax of Gandalf’s fireworks display at Bilbo’s birthday party:
The lights went out. A great smoke rose. It formed like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the top. He spouted out green and scarlet flames. A red-gold dragon flew up – not life-size, but terribly realistic: fire was issuing from its jaws, its eyes glittering; there was a roar, and he whistled three times above the heads of the crowd. They all dodged and many fell prone. The dragon passed like an express train, somersaulted and erupted over Bywater with a deafening explosion.
So you see, if the orcs have restaurants, then the hobbits have trains.