Behind the Dictionary

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A Tolkien Tangle: What Does "The Desolation of Smaug" Mean?

The trend of squeezing multiple movies out of one book, begun with Harry Potter, has continued with Twilight and is in the works for The Hunger Games. Peter Jackson, though, has raised the bar in movie-splitting, by dividing the shortest novel yet into the most pieces, with his three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. The first part, An Unexpected Journey, came out last December; its sequel The Desolation of Smaug was just released today.

Smaug, for those who haven't read the book, seen the first movie, or watched the 1977 TV special, is the dragon who has laid waste to the homeland of a tribe of dwarfs, and has been jealously guarding their hoard of treasure ever since, and whom the hobbit protagonist Bilbo Baggins must face. You can tell from the title that in this movie, someone's going to get desolated, and desolated but good. But who? Does Smaug desolate someone, or does someone desolate Smaug? What does desolate mean, anyway?

Until I started hearing this movie title, I was only familiar with desolate as an adjective, with a reduced vowel in the last syllable. However, it's related to the verb desolate, pronounced with final syllable "late," which comes from the Latin verb dēsolāre, which in turn was derived from the adjective solus "alone," and meant "abandon."

The route from the Latin verb to the English verb was not a straight one, though. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was the past participle dēsolātum that got borrowed in the 1300s, as an adjective referring to things that had been abandoned. From there, phrases like was desolated made it easy for speakers to re-create desolate as a verb via backformation. But like that cat brought back from the pet sematary, the revived desolate came back meaner and scarier, with a meaning of "To devastate, lay waste; to make bare, barren, or unfit for habitation."

So there's our answer, right? I already mentioned Smaug's waste-laying, so we seem to have a clear winner: The desolator is Smaug.

Or is it? Smaug did his desolating many years before the events in Chapter 1 of The Hobbit. (Or if you wish, many years before the events of An Unexpected Journey.) Something else is going on here.

Another reason to question taking Smaug as the desolator has to do with so-called nominalizations: turning verbs, verb phrases, or clauses into nouns. (Incidentally, this makes nominalization an autological word: one that describes itself.) When a verb gets nominalized, what becomes of its subject?

One of two things. For example, take the sentence The trolls turned to stone when the sun rose. Suppose we'd like to nominalize rose, to get rising. Now to put in the sun, one option is to say the rising of the sun: The trolls turned to stone at the rising of the sun. The other option is to use a possessive phrase and say the sun's rise. (Sure, we could also just say sunrise, but don't try to distract me.) With this in mind, we can see the desolation of Smaug as a nominalization of the clause Smaug desolated, with the subject Smaug appearing in the guise of the prepositional phrase of Smaug.

Except for one thing: A sentence like The sun rose is fine, but really, Smaug desolated? Desolated what? You can't just say "Smaug desolated" and leave your audience hanging that way. In other words, rise gets by with only a subject, but desolate needs both a subject and a direct object. In grammar terms, rise is intransitive, but desolate is transitive. And as it happens, transitive verb nominalizations are a little different from intransitive verb nominalizations.

To see how, consider a sentence with the transitive verb find: Bilbo found a ring in the darkness. To nominalize this, we'd take the form finding. However, it turns out that the of-phrase is no longer available to handle subjects. Instead, it can only introduce what would have been the direct object: The finding of a ring. Try to put the subject Bilbo in there, and you'll just confuse people: The finding of Bilbo can only refer to an event in which someone or something found Bilbo. Of course, in book one of The Lord of the Rings, we learn that this is more or less what happened, but let's not go too far astray. If you really want to keep Bilbo in the picture, you can still use a possessive phrase — Bilbo's finding of a ring — or you can use a prepositional phrase starting with by: The finding of a ring by Bilbo.

So now the problem with The Desolation of Smaug becomes clear. On the one hand, if there's any desolating going on, and a dragon is part of it, chances are that the dragon is the one doing the desolating, and the thing being desolated is most likely a place. On the other hand, the syntax of transitive verb nominalizations clearly points to the dragon Smaug getting his scaly hiney desolated.

Time for some textual evidence. In other words, let's stop arguing linguistic theory and just read the book. Here's the relevant passage:

The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair. There was little grass, and before long neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished. They were come to the Desolation of the Dragon, and they were come at the end of the year. (p. 257)

So the answer is: neither of the above! The Desolation of Smaug isn't referring to an event at all: It's referring to a place. This is desolation referring not to an action, but to the thing resulting from that action — "a desolate place; a dreary waste or ruin," in the words of the OED. It's the same way that a word like creation can refer to an action, as in the creation of the world, or a thing, as in Her creation won first prize. The of Smaug part is just an ordinary possessive, showing that this desolate place belongs to Smaug.

Of course, one could argue that the reason this desolation belongs to Smaug is that he created it. And with that, we've come back to where we started, with Smaug as the agent of the desolation. Or as Bilbo might have put it, we've been there and back again.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Friday December 13th 2013, 5:03 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
Someone has read his Tolkien. Probably straight from the Red Book.
Friday December 13th 2013, 11:27 AM
Comment by: C S.
I understand your point sir, but I couldn't help notice, "semetary". Either I haven't seen that word or it is misspelled, reply if you'd. I'm thinking this I a typo.
Friday December 13th 2013, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
C.S.: If I'm not mistaken, "pet sematary" is Neal's allusion to the Stephen King novel with that (intentionally misspelled) title. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pet_Sematary
Friday December 13th 2013, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
Thank you Neil for another interesting article that leads from a reference in popular culture to a rumination on the nuts and bolts of our language! I love this stuff.

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