Literary Pasta

How many cans of SpaghettiOs would you need to purchase to be able to write the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in their noodley alphabet?

What, you’ve never pondered that quandary? Well, now that the question has been posed, you may as well learn the answer.

The purveyor of this revelation is an online personality who analyzed the ratio of letters in cans of the SpaghettiOs A to Zs. He then devised a computer “program that converts books to SpaghettiOs.” [An inarguably valuable pursuit.]

It involved identifying the typical shapes of the pasta fonts.

Ah, to the solution to the puzzle. An individual seeking to replicate the Lord of the Rings would require 8,795 cans. The price would be slightly more than $2,000 and as a bonus, you would be left with more than eight million characters to devour.

Having labored to create the complex algorithms in his computer program, he has applied the versatile tool to other publications.

The King James Bible, for example, would demand 51, 214,669 cans to reproduce. At a price of approximately seventy-one billion dollars. [Editor’s note: the cost would probably be prohibitive, so don’t expect to see a physical attempt made in the near future.]

J.R.R. Tolkien was an extraordinary philologist. He loved languages, and he actually created more than one.

The creator of Middle Earth actually fashioned an alphabet for his Elven tongues. I have had my own name (by virtue of its meaning) rendered in Tengwar alphabet here.

Nevertheless, as inspired by linguistics and alphabets as he was, I doubt Tolkien would have been the least bit impressed by the canned pasta research.

In a 1956 letter, Tolkien described the process of completing his masterpiece for publication. I share the letter now, due to its reference to alphabets. However, due to its illuminating insight into the broader subject, I offer here a more extended rendition.

As ‘research students’ always discover, however long they are allowed, and careful their work and notes, there is always a rush at the end, when the last date suddenly approaches on which their thesis must be presented.

So it was with this book, and the maps. I had to call in the help of my son – the C.T. or C.J.R.T. of the modest initials on the maps – an accredited student of hobbit-lore. And neither of us had an entirely free hand.

I remember that when it became apparent that the ‘general map’ would not suffice for the final Book, or sufficiently reveal the courses of Frodo, the Rohirrim, and Aragorn, I had to devote many days, the last three virtually without food or bed, to drawing re-scaling and adjusting a large map, at which he then worked for 24 hours (6 a.m. to 6 a.m. without bed) in re-drawing just in time.

Inconsistencies of spelling are due to me. It was only in the last stages that (in spite of my son’s protests: he still holds that no one will ever pronounce Cirith right, it appears as Kirith in his map, as formerly also in the text) I decided to be ‘consistent’ and spell Elvish names and words throughout without k. There are no doubt other variations. . . .

I am, however, primarily a philologist and to some extent a calligrapher (though this letter may make that difficult to believe). And my son after me. To us far and away the most absorbing interest is the Elvish tongues, and the nomenclature based on them; and the alphabets.

My plans for the ‘specialist volume’ were largely linguistic. An index of names was to be produced, which by etymological interpretation would also provide quite a large Elvish vocabulary; this is of course a first requirement. I worked at it for months, and indexed the first two vols. (it was the chief cause of the delay of Vol iii) until it became clear that size and cost were ruinous.

Back to the noodle font. I doubt it Tolkien would have been impressed. What about his fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis? What might he have said about the quantity of pasta-based “moveable type” required to reproduce Tolkien’s trilogy?

Allow me to take two simple words (out of context) from a letter he wrote in 1956. I think the Oxbridge don would have labeled the effort (and today’s post itself) “infinitely unimportant.”

Please forgive me if this sojourn into current trivia wasted your time. (But I hope, at least, that you enjoyed learning more about Tolkien’s linguistic and cartographic expertise.)

8 thoughts on “Literary Pasta

  1. Not a waste of time at all but a delightful whimsy and a fascinating insight into Tolkien’s approach to language!!
    Coincidentally, over Christmas, I saw the movie Tolkien and would recommend it! I had avoided it before now but that was my loss!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Maggie. Your posts about your travels — and the grand photography that accompanies them — are quite inspiring.

      Alphagetti… didn’t know that, but makes more sense than adding “As to Zs” to a can of mixed letters you’re still referring to as “Os.” Of course, trademark and copyright laws are quite confusing to navigate.

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