Goofing off one day in the throne room at Barad-dûr, several Wraiths noticed Sauron grimacing into his glowing palantír. There stood a tiny seven-foot-tall Aragorn, waving a tiny sword. Hitting the log-off button angrily, Sauron fumed, “Thinks he’s so funny! How did he know about my feet?!”
In Tolkien’s Middle-earth we encounter nine rather gloomy Ringwraiths and it would be difficult to imagine a more serious bunch of not-quite-dead fellows. Whatever remnant of weird stuff they might be made of, not a single one of those guys could be said to have even the ghost of a decent funny bone.
Sauron’s feet were less like feet, and more like… The paws of a werebeast. In ancient days, escaping the fearsome grip of Huan, his enemy, Sauron’s shape-shifting magic had become fickle. He ever since had to wear tennis shoes around the House of Lamentation to hide the truth about his feet. Aragorn was right, the Dark Lord didn’t need to wear socks since the fur was so thick. Plus, he felt a terrible urge right now to lift one paw and scratch under his chin!
My point is that it can’t be pure coincidence that there are nine occurrences of the word “mirth” in The Lord of the Rings. When I think of this, I always conclude, oh sure, Frodo got the ring to Mount Doom and Gollum took it into the fire. But by the time Frodo found the doorway into Orodruin, he had entirely lost his sense of humor. He stood there at the Crack of Doom unable to recall even a single one of the wisecracks he had come up with, for posterity.
One Wraith turned to another. An eerie whisper floated out of the dark hood, “The boss sure would like to give that Aragorn the finger!” The hood of the other Wraith nodded and hissed, “But he already gave it to Isildur!”
Everyone knows it was Galadriel’s laughter that really saved Middle-earth. I have always liked the way she laughed when Frodo offered her the Ring. A moment later, contemplating the temptation, “suddenly she laughed again” and in so doing she passed her test. You see, the Valar exiled her because she took herself way too seriously and they found it tiresome. Mirth won back her passport to Valinor.
A third Wraith leaned near the first two, “Have you ever noticed how he counts us on his fingers when he does the roll-call at our staff meetings?” The first one shot back, “Yep! And you’re always one of the pinkies!”
There is plenty of warm good humor in the Shire, but we first glimpse “mirth” as a kind of enchantment in the House of Bombadil. It turns out that old Tom has been waiting for millennia for someone to stop by with the One Ring. Rather than fuss nervously about what to do about the fate of Middle-earth, Tom has in mind a fun practical joke. I’d bet that he told Goldberry all about the look on Frodo’s face.
Later that day in the locker room in Barad-dûr, a Wraith came rushing in, his dark hooded cloak flapping. “Didja hear the news?!” He looked around. He wasn’t sure where the other fellow was standing. When a towel and a vial of shampoo lifted up from a nearby bench, he knew where to look. A thin reedy voice quavered, “Uh-huh. We’re all gettin’ promotions!”
Tolkien’s mirth is a weighty matter of magic and wisdom. We observe this truth through Pippin’s eyes in Minas Tirith when he glimpses in Gandalf’s careworn visage “a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.” Galadriel must have known about Gandalf’s penchant for a good gag. She surely rejected the Ring for fear of ending up in Gandalf’s routine down at the local comedy pub in Minas Tirith.
“Garn!” rasped the first Wraith, “I sure didn’t know the Lidless Eye had that many tear ducts! You’d think he just lost another finger, instead of that pompous old No-Dude-Will-Ever-Kill-Me Lord of the Nazgûl!” The Wraith followed the floating towel and vial into the showers. An invisible throat cleared, “Well, the boss did try to give the old dwimmerlaik a few tips about what not to say on a first date!”
Describing Aragorn in the appendices, Tolkien provides us with the ninth and last use of “mirth.” Someday a diligent scholar will find among Tolkien’s scribbled manuscripts the thing that Aragorn said to Sauron while skyping him through the palantír. It’s likely that Aragorn’s jokes were pretty clunky, and on that occasion, rather than chuckle lightly to emphasize the honest effort at humor, Aragorn felt compelled to wave his sword around.
The towel came to rest on a hook and the shower came on. It flowed through empty space. The shampoo vial rested untouched on a ledge. The first Wraith stood watching for a moment and turned away, disappointed. He’d always been curious to see how the others washed their hair. He hadn’t been able to figure that out since he… faded. That’s why he always wore a big ugly cloak with a hoodie – after all these years his hair looked pretty frightful!
I’m certain that Tolkien’s Ringwraiths forgot long ago how to snicker. We can only guess how things might have gone for them if they’d retained even the slightest clue about how to pull off a decent practical joke. With even a modest amount of experience at pranking, they might have had a little warning when the punchline came for them in the end.
The second Wraith watched him leave. They always pulled this joke on that guy. Everyone knew he was desperate to figure out how they washed their hair. And he had no clue about the truth. All eight – uh, seven now – of the other Wraiths were totally bald!