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Why did J.R.R. Tolkien randomly capitalize various words throughout his books?

My husband asked me this question today and we were wondering if there's any rhyme or reason to Tolkien's capitalization process. These are examples taken from the LOTR trilogy and The Hobbit:

  • And there upon that hill they looked east to the Shadow and west to the Twilight, and they plighted their troth and were glad. (ROTK)
  • She shall not be the bridge of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor. To me then even our victory can bring only sorrow or parting -- but to you hope of joy for a while. Alas, my son! I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Man may seem hard at the ending. (ROTK)
  • In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon, but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. (THE HOBBIT)
  • It is fortunate that I could find it, for it is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle-earth. Athelas, they named it, and it grows now sparsely and only near places where they dwelt or camped of old; and it is not known in the North, except to some of those who wander in the Wild. (FOTR)
  • "Nob, you woolly-pated ninny! he cried. "Can't you give old friends their names? You shouldn't go scaring me like that, with times as they are. Well, well! And where have you come from? I never expected to see any of you folk, and that's a fact: going off into the Wild with that Strider, and all those Black Men about." (ROTK)
  • Yet hardy and full of wrath as he was, it is said that when he camed down from the Gate he looked grey in the face, as one who has felt great fear. (ROTK)

Are these kind of examples style choices? Did Tolkien give careful consideration to each word he used and how? Because I know Tolkien also developed his own Elvish languages, I wondered if perhaps he applied some of the rules from his Elvish languages to the way he wrote English. I feel confident in saying that I don't believe the random capitalizations are mistakes. And some of the words capitalized make total sense:

  • the One Ring, the Eye
  • the Nazgûl, the Mumakil
  • Théoden, Éowyn, Éomer
  • the Orcs, the Haradrim, the Elves, the Dúnedain, the Hobbits

Although "elves" and "hobbits" are not always capitalized in Tolkien's writing (This makes sense, as we don't capitalized "people" or "humans"; however, we do capitalize "American" or "British".).

Why did J.R.R. Tolkien randomly capitalize words?

I'm not asking this in English.se because I felt with the special languages associated with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus the existence of The Silmarillion (which I do not have access to), the answer might more easily be found at SFF.se.

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It's a code! Let's decipher it before someone else finds the hidden treasure! –  Kevin Nov 21 '12 at 3:00
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Tolkien was primarily a linguist, with credits including working on the Oxford English Dictionary, and a professorship at Leeds University's Languages department. I'm not sure why he capitalized words the way he did, but I'm certain he had a reason. :) –  Gabe Willard Nov 21 '12 at 4:45
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I understand your motivation for putting the question, but I see it better place in English.Se as it may just come down to an English thing. –  Pureferret Nov 21 '12 at 6:43
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'Man', 'Men of the West' and 'Black Men' are peoples, just like Orcs, Haradrim, Elves, Dúnedain. The Wild, the North and the Gate are specific places. That could possibly be said of the Wide World, Shadow and Twilight too. The Sun and Moon are the names of our sun and moon. That just leaves the Doom of Man, which I think can be compared to Armageddon or the Apocalypse. –  Junuxx Nov 21 '12 at 17:57
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@GabeWillard: No, I don't think it's like that. That's just capitalizing every Noun that you think needs some extra Emphasis. Tolkien was more selective than that. –  Junuxx Nov 21 '12 at 17:59
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2 Answers

up vote 56 down vote accepted

These aren't random capitalizations: Tolkien is capitalizing words that refer to proper nouns or concepts that would unceremoniously get capitalization if expressed directly.

  • Shadow: the personification of Sauron. As described by Anita Miller Bell in "The Lord of the Rings" and the Emerging Generation: A Study of the Message and Medium. J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson:

    [L]et us consider Tolkien's use of the simple of image of shadow to explore the realities of evil. Tolkien often uses simple, everyday images to consider complex and at times paradoxical realities in life. [...] In LOTR, Tolkien often gives substance to the insubstantial reality of shadow by the simple capitalization of "S"; shadow becomes Shadow, the absence of light becomes the personification of Sauron.

  • Twilight: refers to the Undying Lands/Aman/Lands of the West, which were bathed in perpetual twilight.

  • Man: Mankind. As described by Tolkien in the postscript to a letter to C. A. Furth (so-called Letter 20):

    Men with a capital is, I think, used in text when 'human kind' are specifically intended; and man, men with a minuscule are occasionally and loosely used as 'adult male' and 'people'.

  • Doom of Man: This refers to the "gift" Men were given by Eru: mortality (doom in this sense is "fate").

  • Wide World: Arda as a whole.

  • Sun / Moon: we capitalize these in colloquial English as well, but in Tolkien's Legendarium, the Sun and Moon were also maiar.

  • Men of the West / Black Men: correctly capitalized, just as you would capitalize "European". They are, in effect, ethnic groups of Men.

  • North: Refers to Arnor, the northern frontier of the realm of Man in Middle-earth.

  • Wild: Refers to, well, the untamed parts of Middle-earth. It's the proper name people gave to those parts, like in the US with Unorganized Territory.

  • Gate: Refers to the Gate of Moria, which was a Dwarven landmark about as important, if not moreso, than the Statue of Liberty or the Gateway Arch.

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+1 Much more encompassing than my answer. I would suggest however that in the particular example that the OP gives (from The Return of the King) that "Gate" refers to the Black Gate, and not the Gate of Moria. –  NominSim Nov 21 '12 at 18:27
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@NominSim I thought that at first too, but I located the reference and it's actually from the appendices where Tolkien describes the war between Dwarves and Orcs in Moria, at the end of the third section within Appendix A Part III: Durin's Folk. –  user366 Nov 21 '12 at 18:28
    
It could be the Gate of Minas Tirith. I could not find the quote in the OP with a quick text scan to confirm that, though. Alas. I didn't scan the appendices. –  Gabe Willard Nov 21 '12 at 18:28
    
@MarkTrapp My apologies then, I just assumed from it being ROTK and "coming down from [it]...with great fear". –  NominSim Nov 21 '12 at 18:39
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Thank you for a really great answer. I suspected the issue was one of proper nouns, but then I got stuck on "Sun", "Moon", and "Gate". Just to give you a background, I'm currently reading the trilogy and The Hobbit. I've made it partially through ROTK and haven't touched The Hobbit. I've seen the movies a lot, but those obviously aren't canon. So your help is appreciated. Thanks again! :) –  Slytherincess Nov 21 '12 at 19:07
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Sometimes Tolkien used capitalization to add weight of emphasis to objects or places, either as an indirect reference to the proper noun (such as referring to Mount Doom as the Mountain), or as a personification of some greater concept.

He did not use capitalization consistently, so it is fair to assume that much of it depends upon the immediate context of the statement. For example, in the 50th Anniversary Edition, it was noted in the Addenda and Corrigenda that Gondor was titled “City of the Kings” on page 973, but then was called “city of the kings” on page 1062, suggesting that Tolkien chose, in the first instance, to capitalize ‘City’ as a means of denoting special import or majesty to the name.

Most of the races received capitalization when named, but again, this was somewhat inconsistent on Tolkien’s part (“hobbit”, in particular, often went uncapitalized). However, this does explain “Man” and “Black Men” in the quotes provided.

“Wild”, “North”, “Twilight” and “Shadow” all referred to specific geographic regions (“Shadow” can refer to either Sauron himself, or the lands directly under his control), and the capitalizations indicate that they are being used as if they were proper nouns (although this appears to be some poetic license).

“Sun” and “Moon” refer to the personifications of celestial bodies (maia, as Mark Trapp points out).

“Doom of Man” is the title given to Man’s mortality.

The Gate reference is the shortened form of the proper name for the specific gate in question.

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Thanks for a great answer! +1 It certainly makes sense, what you and Mark Trapp have said. For some of the words I could tell it was a proper noun, but, yes, like "Gate", "Wild", "Sun", and "Moon", were confusing to me. Also, thanks for assuming I'm intelligent enough to not need the concept of a proper noun explained to me. Most appreciated! :) –  Slytherincess Nov 22 '12 at 3:11
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