Tuesday, 15 March 2005

Hobbits and Daleks

Among the 20th century authors whose works I find mostly unreadable are two who inspire many people with a devotion and respect which are, to me, quite inexplicable. These are Agatha Christie, whose flat and contrived puzzles featuring dreary cardboard characters give me no interest at all in finding out who done it, and J R R Tolkien, whose books strike me as pretentious tosh (and the recent LOTR films, though spectacular and nice to look at, were all about two hours too long.

One thing these two authors have in common is a total lack of humour – there isn’t a glimmer of wit in any of their thousands of words. I have heard incidents and lines from their books recounted and hailed as amusing light relief to the murder mysteries of one and the sword-and-sorcery epics of the other, but none of these struck me as remotely funny.

But The Hobbit is quite entertaining in a cute sort of way and I was interested to learn the other day from the archives of the excellent Oxford English Dictionary newsletter that Tolkien “modestly” claimed not to have coined the word although he had been credited with its invention. He was being accurate as well as modest, for it was later discovered to be a long-forgotten word, quoted in a 19th century folklore journal, for fairy-folk or little people. The note on hobbit in the OED Online has not yet been updated to reflect this, so the old professor is still getting the credit.

The word Dalek was coined in 1963 by Terry Nation, the writer of the first series of of Dr Who, who named them after an encyclopaedia volume covering ‘dal to lek’. I see that in the new series which is about to appear on our screens these terrifying but rather engaging creatures have been re-designed to make them far more formidable than they were in their earlier incarnations: stairs will no longer be a barrier to them. Fiendish!


Mark Gamon said...

Seems to me the BBC have gone to unnecessary expense. I watched the first series as a tiny boy and it never occurred to me to wonder how the Daleks got about. Everyone knows there are no stairs in the uncharted further galaxies, and all isolated space stations are bungalows...

Tony said...

But didn't they attack London sometimes? I seem to remember a platoon of them laboriously trundling about exterminating people outside Finsbury Park Underground. But they never got down the escalator though.