Orcs, Eat More Fish!

(February 21st, 2014) British researchers had fun performing a 'systematic textual analysis' of Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ to find a reason why good always seems to triumph over evil. The answer is more obvious than you think.

Almost since its original publication, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth has attracted a variety of analytical minds from the world of science, not only those who focus on the realms of literature, philosophy or politics. A new thesis reveals an intriguing influence in the eternal conflict good vs. evil, which hitherto had been overlooked, namely the characters’ nutritional and lifestyle habits.

Vitamin D, also called the “sunshine vitamin”, is produced in the skin and its precursor can be consumed through foods like oily fish, cheese, beef and some mushrooms. A deficiency of the vitamin is associated with rickets, osteomalacia, lung function decline and, most importantly, skeletal muscle weakness. So, the authors of the new study, Joseph and Nicholas Hopkinson from Imperial College London, wondered whether “evil” figures like orcs and trolls, who are famous for their “aversion to sunlight and unwholesome diet” might be weakened by a vitamin D deficiency. This could tip the scale in the battle between good and evil in favour of the “good”.

To find evidence for their hypothesis, the Hopkinsons systematically extracted data on the “dietary habits, moral attributes and martial prowess” of various inhabitants of Middle Earth from J. R. R. Tolkien's novel ‘The Hobbit’. They scored goodness and ‘victoriousness’ of characters with binary scales (yes/no) as well as dietary intake and habitual sun exposure: “Sun exposure was scored from 3 (lots) to 0 (none at all) and diet was scored as 1 or 0 depending on whether any vitamin D-containing item was mentioned. These were summed to give a vitamin D score (range 0–4), and this score was related to victoriousness by unpaired t tests,” the authors inform us.

And indeed, their results revealed a significantly higher vitamin D score among the good and victorious characters (mean 3.4, SD 0.5) than the evil and defeated ones (mean 0.2, SD 0.4, P < 0.001). Bilbo Baggins, for example, lives in a house with windows and has a very varied hobbit diet, including cake, tea, raspberry jam, mince pies, chicken, and apple tart. Also the dwarves, despite preferably dwelling in caves, get a lot of sunlight “during the initial pony ride in June that begins their trip to the Lonely Mountain”. In contrast, trolls “shun the sunlight to avoid petrification (…) and live on an exclusively mutton diet” (vitamin D score: 0).

Confirming their initial hypothesis, the authors conclude: “Further work is needed to see if these pilot results can be extrapolated to other fantastic situations and whether randomised intervention trials need to be imagined.” Whether the researchers intend to carry out future investigations on the wider Tolkien corpus or whether they plan to tackle another topic they already mentioned in this paper - namely the association of pipe weed smoking and skeletal muscle dysfunction, with hobbits, dwarves and wizards as potential target groups - remains to be seen.

There is another very interesting aspect to be discovered in this paper: Gollum scores slightly higher than the other evil creatures. The authors attribute this to his fish diet. What would have been the fate of Middle Earth if orcs had eaten more fish? Or had adopted a more vegetarian lifestyle, like Beorn? Well, this has to remain a matter of (literary) speculation.

Klaudia Weber

Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures

Last Changes: 04.01.2014