Fantasy villains suffer from vitamin D deficiency

By LabOnline Staff
Monday, 06 January, 2014


Researchers have noted that the villains of fantasy literature have a tendency to dwell in darkness and eat a poor diet. From this, they theorise that the creatures are left lacking in vitamin D, which is produced in the skin when it is exposed to ultraviolet light and can also be obtained from foods such as oily fish, egg yolks and cheese. This deficiency could lead to muscle weakness and undermine performance in battle, leading to the triumph of the story’s protagonists.

Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia, Dr Nicholas Hopkinson of Imperial College London and his son Joseph stated that vitamin D has “a well-described role in calcium metabolism, with deficiency resulting in rickets and osteomalacia. Vitamin D also has immune-modulating roles with potential effects on susceptibility to conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis to tuberculosis and accelerated lung-function decline. Skeletal muscle weakness is known to be a feature of vitamin D deficiency”. 

To test their theory, the researchers scoured JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit for references to characters’ living conditions. Goodness and victoriousness of characters were scored with binary scales, and dietary intake and habitual sun exposure were used to calculate a vitamin D score in the range of 0-4.

The titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, lives in a hole in the ground but with windows, and he is often known to sit in the sun overlooking his garden. He is able to offer a variety of food to the visiting dwarves, including cheese. The dwarves themselves show evidence of a mixed diet and, although they are said to like the dark, they spend much time above ground, especially during their quest to the Lonely Mountain.

In contrast, the villains spend most of their time in darkness. The trolls shun the sunlight to avoid being turned to stone, and have been living on an exclusively mutton diet. Gollum lives deep in the Misty Mountains and, although he eats fish, it is not clear whether they are an oily kind.

The goblins occasionally eat fish as well, taking trips to Gollum’s lake at the behest of the Great Goblin. The researchers here speculate that the Great Goblin’s “enhanced diet may have helped him to achieve his pre-eminent position within goblin society”. However, during the Battle of Five Armies, the strongest goblins are defeated by Beorn, a vegetarian who spends much time outdoors.

The researchers noted that they did not discriminate “between creatures that can be considered, broadly speaking, to be mammalian and those that are not and whose physiology is more obscure”. These include the spiders who dwell in the dark and seem to eat caught-prey exclusively, and the dragon Smaug, who comes out at night to eat people.

With this is mind, the researchers found that the victorious characters had a mean vitamin D score of 3.4, compared to the non-victorious with a mean of 0.2. “However,” they noted, “the absolute concordance between goodness and victoriousness precludes an assessment of this as an independent effect.”

They concluded, “More research would be needed to establish whether the results of the current pilot investigation are representative of the wider Tolkien corpus and, indeed, of fantastic literature in general, although this will need to be balanced against the problems of proportionality of effort.”

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