Tolkien fact 39 – The Distance Dilemma

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As one can imagine, creating a perfect imaginary world is not the easiest thing to do. Being human, an author is bound to overlook contradictions and errors in their work unfortunately, and Professor Tolkien was no different. He was a brilliant man and meticulous, especially when it came to his personal work, so such errors are few and small. An example of this is the problem of the distance from Bucklebury Ferry to the Brandywine Bridge. The following is a map of the Shire with the area of interest within the red box:

shire_map_red_box

(click to enlarge)

In the box, you can see the main black line representing the Brandywine River on the edge of the Shire. At the top of the box is the Brandywine Bridge, the main way of crossing the river into Buckland and beyond to the East. At the bottom of the box is where the Withywindle River feeds into the Brandywine. From the Bridge all the way to the meeting of the two rivers (near Haysend) there is a hedge that was built by the hobbits of Buckland (simply called the High Hay, in hobbit fashion). It can be seen in the map as the lumpy line on the right inside the box. In The Fellowship of the Ring, in the chapter “A Conspiracy Unmasked,” it is said of the hedge:

“It ran all the way from Brandywine Bridge…to Haysend…well over twenty miles from end to end.”

Another look at the map (and story) reveals that the Bucklebury Ferry, where the hobbits crossed the Brandywine in both the movie and book, is roughly half-way between the Bridge and Haysend, maybe a little less.This is interesting as it is said by Merry when asked if horses can cross the river:

“They can go twenty miles north to Brandywine Bridge…”

This is also mentioned in the movie when he answers Frodo’s question of “How far to the nearest crossing?”

Brandywine Bridge: twenty miles.”

So, obviously, if the estimate of “over twenty miles” is anywhere near correct about the hedge then Merry must be wrong about the much shorter distance from the Ferry to the Bridge. I don’t suspect a hobbit, especially one that lived in Buckland around the Brandywine, would simply not know how far these simple distances are. We have a contradiction on our hands. 

In a copy of The Fellowship with the latest copyright date of 1994 this distance is still given. However, in the more up-to-date digital version, from 2002, the distance is emended to ten miles. This would make sense chronologically seeing as how the incorrect number is used in the movie released in 2001.

This inconsistency is likely explained by the fact that, as the story progressed and grew, the maps also changed around to better fit with the events happening. At some point, the map of the shire was larger and had been shrunken down a considerable amount, and obviously the distance in the text was overlooked.

In his History of Middle-earth series, Christopher Tolkien mentions this enigma:

“Barbara Strachey (Journeys of Frodo, Map 6) points out this difficulty, and assumes that Merry ‘meant 20 miles in all – 10 miles north to the Bridge and 10 miles south on the other side’; but this is to strain the language: Merry did not mean that. It is in fact an error which my father never observed: when the length of Buckland from north to south was reduced, Merry’s estimate of the distance from the Bridge to the Ferry should have been changed commensurately.”

It’s nothing to lose sleep over and is easily overlooked, but it is interesting nonetheless.

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