In Chapter XVIII - The Return Journey of the book 'The Hobbit', Tolkien uses the word "guns".

'The roar of his voice was like drums and guns; and he tossed wolves and goblins from his path like straws and feathers'

As far as I know, guns are not used as a weapon in Middle-earth, and I don't remember them being mentioned neither in The Hobbit nor in LotR.

Was this a mistake on Tolkien's part or is there another explanation?

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    I haven't found some real proof yet, but I think it could theoretically be possible for guns to have existed. My point: The Uruk-Hai used a (probably) gunpowder bomb to breach Helms Deep. So it might be possible that they are mentioned somewhere or at least exist. Dec 22, 2014 at 7:28
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    "Then there was a crash and a flash of flame and smoke. The waters of the Deeping-stream poured out hissing and foaming: they were choked no longer, a gaping hole was blasted in the wall. A host of dark shapes poured in. 'Devilry of Saruman!' cried Aragorn. 'They have crept in the culvert again, while we talked, and they have lit the fire of Orthanc beneath our feet.'"
    – Foo Bar
    Dec 22, 2014 at 13:02
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    The obvious explanation is that Tolkien was writing for a modern audience and he just used terminology that his modern audience would understand; it doesn't have to be taken as literally meaning that there were guns in Middle-earth.
    – user8719
    Dec 22, 2014 at 13:08
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    Since the books are translated from middle earth langauges into english by someone of our world, I would say this is a freedom of the translator to use a fitting word from our world for a thing that exists only in their world that we would not know.
    – PlasmaHH
    Dec 22, 2014 at 13:16
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    Tolkien is not saying that guns existed in Middle Earth, he is only describing a noise made by one of its characters as sounding like drums or guns (i.e. he is using a description familiar to the reader); he is not saying that the noise was made by drums and guns.
    – Ed999
    Jul 18, 2020 at 15:22

6 Answers 6


In-universe, the explanation is simple: The Hobbit was Tolkien's translation into English of the original material from Common Speech, since the plot device is that both The Hobbit and LOTR are the writings of Frodo and Bilbo, that he (Tolkien) had access to and translated.

The Common Speech, as the language of the Hobbits and their narratives, has inevitably been turned into modern English. In the process the difference between the varieties observable in the use of the Westron has been lessened. Some attempt has been made to represent these varieties by variations in the kind of English used ... (LOTR: The Return of the King, Appendix F, "II. On Translation")

As such, it's a common thing with the translators to employ idiomatic translations instead of literal - and as a linguist, Tolkien surely was familiar with translation techniques.

As other answers noted, both Tolkien himself, as well as his intended audience (English speaking people of 20th century) knew what "like drums and guns" sounded - probably a lot better than whatever idiom was used by Bilbo in the Common language. So, this is a very valid approach to the text.

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    I can think of another out-of-character quote: “If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch, you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration applied to any hobbit, even to Old Took's great-granduncle Bullroarer, who was so huge (for a hobbit) that he could ride a horse. He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfibul's head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf was invented at the same moment.” Dec 24, 2014 at 2:50
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    @LeonardoHerrera or possibly the existence of a game called "golf" involving hitting a ball into a hall occurs spontaneously in many universes, just as The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy observes that 85% of world have a drink whose name sounds like "gin and tonic": hitchhikersguidequotes.tumblr.com/post/17319713714/…
    – glenatron
    Dec 24, 2014 at 10:28
  • Tolkien was also a translator: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beowulf:_A_Translation_and_Commentary
    – PM 2Ring
    Oct 2, 2022 at 22:16

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, foreword to The Lord of the Rings

Even though it was a translation from the original, I am pretty sure this was only an image of speaking to make the modern people imagine how the roar really sounded like in his mind.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s service in the British Army during World War I may have influenced his fiction.

More here: JRR Tolkien and World War I

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J.R.R. Tolkien in uniform, 1916.

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    @BobbyAlexander - there are actually many; see mathom.hubpages.com/hub/…
    – user8719
    Dec 22, 2014 at 7:46
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    I think of it this way: Supposing that the book is a translation/adaptation of the one Bilbo himself wrote, the person adapting it (Tolkien) is trying to make a modern reader understand, not a contemporary of Bilbo.
    – George T
    Dec 22, 2014 at 9:44
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    A lot of the "anachronisms" in that post are understandable. Waistcoats, clarinets, clocks, umbrellas, golf, even telescopes and pop-guns... they don't feel out of place. Only the similes involving firearms (because only Saruman is meant to know the secret of gunpowder) and express-trains seem like they have to be "translation" artifacts.
    – Rawling
    Dec 22, 2014 at 12:15
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    @BobbyAlexander He has no say over how other people choose to interpret it.
    – TylerH
    Dec 23, 2014 at 4:13
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    @TylerH - just because you choose to interpret it as one doesn't mean that it is one. Also, I suggest that you re-read the paragraph starting with "The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion" in the foreword.
    – user8719
    Dec 24, 2014 at 10:56

I doubt this is what Tolkien had in mind, but the OED gives several obsolete meanings of "gun" which would make sense in a world with no firearms but does possess "blasting fire". The first is used to describe any large engine of war.

1689 R. Milward Selden's Table-talk 30 The word Gun was in use in England for an Engine to cast a thing from a man, long before there was any Gun-powder found out.

This would cover the tossing part, but not the roar. A better fit is used to describe a blasting device.

1753 Chambers's Cycl. Suppl. Gun is also a name given by the miners, to an instrument used in cleaving rocks with gunpowder. It is an iron cylinder..having..a hole drilled through it to communicate with the inside of the hole in the rock.

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    The second example seems circular. What came first, the use of gun as explosive or gunpowder that it uses?
    – user16696
    Dec 28, 2014 at 5:32
  • @user16696 OED says gunpowder is gun n. + powder n. Gun came first.
    – Schwern
    Nov 24, 2018 at 23:05

A etymology search shows gun to come from gunne meaning war.

mid-14c., gunne "an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles," probably a shortening of woman's name Gunilda, found in Middle English gonnilde "cannon" and in an Anglo-Latin reference to a specific gun from a 1330 munitions inventory of Windsor Castle ("...una magna balista de cornu quae Domina Gunilda ..."), from Old NorseGunnhildr, woman's name, from gunnr + hildr, both meaning "war, battle." First element from PIE *gwhen- "to strike, kill" (see bane); for second, see Hilda.

  A key meaning is siege engine, aka catapult, ballista, or trebuchet, whose munitions produce a large roar or crash on impact, and would be recognizable to middle earth inhabitants.

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    I would bet that whoever nicknamed a firearm Gunnhilda did not know that gunnr once meant ‘war’. Oct 9, 2018 at 3:42

Gunpowder hadn't really taken hold in ME at this point but it was used at Helm's Deep by the forces of Saruman to breach the wall. This is opinion based of course but one could reasonably suspect that the word was used for the readers benefit in describing Beorn's assault on the platoon of Bolg.


'The Hobbit' is written in a very different style to LotR. When he was writing 'The Hobbit', Tolkien didn't yet have the details of Middle-Earth and its history worked out, nor had he yet adopted the flowing, almost archaic style of writing that still characterises fantasy literature to this day. He probably used the word because it was what came to his mind as a good description, without thinking about whether it fitted with the sort of world he was creating.

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    "When he was writing 'The Hobbit', Tolkien didn't yet have the details of Middle-Earth and its history worked out, nor had he yet adopted the flowing, almost archaic style of writing that still characterises fantasy literature to this day" - actually he did and he had. The Silmarillion and the Annals were already in existence by that time, the Fall of Numenor and the Last Alliance had come in before the Hobbit was published, and most of the history was quite fixed (although certain details were changed and expanded in subsequent years).
    – user8719
    Dec 22, 2014 at 13:12
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    And none of that means that he hadn't got things worked out by the time he was writing the Hobbit. All of the evidence is there in the HoMe books and that trumps a Wikipedia claim any day.
    – user8719
    Dec 22, 2014 at 13:16
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    @DarthSatan Tolkien had already worked out a lot of Middle-earth when he started work on The Hobbit. But The Hobbit was originally not intended to take place on Middle-earth. It was The Lord of the Rings that retroactively set TH to happen in the future of the world of the Silmarillion and other then-unpublished material, because Tolkien wanted to publish the Silmarillion but his editor wanted “more hobbits” so he wrote a new tale that mixed the two — LOTR.
    – user56
    Dec 22, 2014 at 14:10
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    @Gilles - it's important to realise though that Tolkien added elements from his mythology to The Hobbit. The Necromancer, the three Elven kindreds, the character of Elrond, Gondolin, etc - none of these were new inventions; they already existed in his Silmarillion writings.
    – user8719
    Dec 22, 2014 at 14:14
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    The point is that Tolkien made it pretty clear that he did not originally conceive of The Hobbit as fitting into his existing mythology, so to some extent it doesn't matter how much of that mythology had been worked out when he wrote The Hobbit. Dec 23, 2014 at 16:48

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