The Hobbit is supposedly set waaay back in our world. Yet, Beorn refers to "jack-in-the-box" as in the toy, when the dwarves show up in pairs.

How can this be? How can anyone in that world/era, let alone this half-bear recluse, know about a mechanical invention that was first invented (according to Wikipedia) in the early 1500s for exclusive royalties, and only became reasonably common in the 1800s?

The more well-crafted and thought-through something is, the more these kinds of apparent errors stand out to me.

Also, it cannot be explained by the narrator being "modern day", because it's a direct quote by the character.

(Yes, this is what I find strange. Not that animals and monsters can speak.)

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    Very little in the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings is a direct quote or transcription. All the English language (including quotes) has been translated to English.
    – Ziggy
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 23:38
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    Hi, welcome to SF&F. Since The Hobbit was (I believe) translated into English from Westron, perhaps it's just a recognizable idiom that was picked by the translator?
    – DavidW
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 23:38
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    Tolkien uses a lot of words and concepts that are specifically from our world - including weekday names and months, as well as 'umbrella' (I believe Lobelia branshishes one). They are most likely nok meant to describe those exact things, but are meant to convey similar things without having to go into details. The same is probably true for jack-in-the-box. There is probably a similar toy existing in Middle Earth, with perhaps an orc or troll doll jumping from the box, but it would take too much space to explain this, and "jack-in-the-box" gets the meaning across. Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 13:21
  • For what it's worth, in Norwegian these are called a "troll in a box", so it is very plausible @KlausÆ.Mogensen Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 17:11
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    @htmlcoderexe: In Danish, too: "trold i en æske" Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 19:16

3 Answers 3


Clocks exist in Middle-earth. Sufficiently miniaturised clockwork would easily allow for the invention of the Jack-in-the-box, although in this case it's likely that Tolkien is idiomatically translating a Westron expression that means

"people who've unexpectedly appeared, apparently from nowhere"

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    Mechanical devices existed in classical times in the West and East in real life. It seems like characterizing technology of middle earth as medieval is about right. the dwarves had some mechanization that we saw in their underground city used for refining ore and casting coins I guess.
    – releseabe
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 15:14
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    @releseabe Something as complex as the Antikythera existed in the Hellenistic period. Middle Earth might not be far off from that.
    – doneal24
    Commented Mar 21, 2022 at 19:09

Everything is translated.

What you describe is actually a common problem in translation, especially when dealing with artificial or unspecified source languages. The original word cannot be exactly translated, because there is no exact equivalent in the target language, and the original from the source language cannot be used without breaking immersion because it would require explanation as to what it is, be that by modifying the prose or by adding a footnote with an explanation.

In some cases that disruption is considered acceptable. For example, the comprehensive English translations I have of 西遊記 (Journey to the West) and El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha both have numerous examples of use of original terms or direct translations of original terms with associated footnotes explaining them in context. This makes sense for those particular translations of those books, as they are intended to be translations for students of linguistics and historical literature and not simply telling a story.

However, for cases like what Tolkien is trying for with his various works about Middle Earth though, the goal is to tell the story, so he ‘translates’ with the intent to preserve understanding, not exact meaning. So instead of using original wording (and having to invent such words) and then explaining it, he just picks words that convey a meaning that would be intuitively understood by his target audience.

Given that some of the early iterations were stories for his children, the use of ‘jack-in-the-box’ as part of an idiom talking about unexpected guests actually makes a lot of sense. We can infer that either something similar did exist in Middle Earth (clockwork did exist, because clocks precise enough to track time down to the minute existed, and a jack-in-the-box needs only very rudimentary clockwork), or that some other idiom is being used in the source language which would not make sense to those the translation is being made for.

This is generally known as idiomatic translation, and it is very common. In fact, outside of purely academic or technical settings, this type of translation is the norm because literal translation often results in nonsensical sounding phrasing in the target language, or simply cannot be done without losing some meaning or using a huge number of extra words. The Wikipedia page on untranslatability has some good examples for translating to English, but also see things such as the Swedish ‘fika’, Hebrew ‘פירגון’ (firgun), Japanese ‘粋’ (iki), or Sanskrit ‘Dharma’.


The Tolkien Legendarium doesn't neatly fit into real history

There are many things about the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings universe that don't fit well into any real-life historical period, even ignoring the more magical aspects. For a place that is geographically patterned after Europe, there are some anachronisms such as potatoes and tobacco (assuming that's what pipeweed is), which only reached Europe after contact between Europeans and Native Americans after 1492. The technology is rather advanced in some respects (metallurgy, construction), but certain technologies appear missing, such as crossbows (which are actually a rather old technology in our timeline).

This has been covered in answers to other questions as well.

So one possible answer is that this is fantasy world and you just have to accept that it doesn't align well with actual human history.

Perhaps jack-in-boxes exist in Middle Earth. There is no good reason to believe they do not.

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    There are also umbrellas.
    – Mary
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 1:50

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