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Welcome, dear readers, as always—and don’t be weirded-out by the hyperliterary title.  We’ve been thinking about an odd moment in The Lord of the Rings, a moment when two of the main characters seem to possess the ability, at least for that moment, to step away from the story, and to see themselves as characters, which is one way in which metatextuality, meaning “outside the text”, works.  (For a useful definition, see this LINK.)

It’s a passage in The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”.  Sam and Frodo are pausing before Gollum leads them through a passageway which will bring them into Mordor.  They have a meal, then talk about where they’re about to go and Sam says:

“…And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started.  But I suppose it’s often that way.  The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo:  adventures, as I used to call them.  I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say.”

Because Tolkien was writing this after the Great War, we might imagine that, at one level, he’s reflecting upon the war fever which captured Great Britain in the early days of the conflict, with its recruiting posters and popular art depictions like these—




and its masses of volunteers crowding recruitment offices.


This was all before the grim reality of trench warfare


and casualties beyond anyone’s pre-war comprehension


dampened that early enthusiasm, leading to a realistic cynicism mostly quietly expressed,


although soldiers could sometimes express their opinion of the war vocally—see this LINK for some of that vocalizing.

What Sam says next seems to agree with this:

“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind.  Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it.”

So, “adventures” now, to Sam, are no longer “a kind of sport” which “wonderful folk” seek out, but rather something which just happens to people—in fact, people like Sam and Frodo.  And, just like Sam and Frodo, “…I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”

The consequences of rejecting those chances are obvious:  “And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten.  We hear about those as just went on…”

And Sam’s sense of the consequences of “just going on” is very realistic:  “—and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.  You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same—like old Mr. Bilbo.  But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in!”

So far, then, we might see this as the clear thinking of someone who believed in those 1914 posters and came to learn otherwise.  Sam continues, however, and here’s where that metatextuality comes in:

“I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”

We know that Sam has long been fascinated by tales of elves and dragons.  As Gaffer Gamgee says:

“Crazy about stories of the old days, he is, and he listens to all of Mr. Bilbo’s tales.  Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters…”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

The Gaffer’s last remark suggests that not only has Sam heard tales, but he may even have read them.  We think that it should be no surprise, then, that, when put into a situation far beyond the usual, Sam might believe that it’s not just daily life, but, in fact, a “tale”.  And so he asks, “…what sort…?”

To which Frodo replies:

“I wonder…But I don’t know.  And that’s the way of a real tale.  Take any one that you’re fond of.  You may know, or guess, what kind of tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know.  And you don’t want them to.”

In Sam and Frodo’s case, they clearly don’t and can’t know, but, although they don’t know their fate (although we think that Frodo has an idea, saying “Our part will end later—or sooner.”), they both believe that they are in a tale, as Sam says:

“Still I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales.  We’re in one, of course; but I mean put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.”

This is ironic, of course, as we know that this very story is drawn as Tolkien-as-editor says in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, from The Red Book of Westmarch (see “Note on the Shire Records”), a volume jointly written by Bilbo and Frodo and perhaps completed by Sam himself (see The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”).

There is also, to our minds, as we said, something odd about this view of themselves and their situation.  In general, characters in epic stories—just as Frodo says—are unaware that they are in them.  Achilles never turns to Patroclus in the Iliad and asks, “I wonder how this epic will end?” nor does Beowulf spend time discussing just what sort of tale he and Wiglaf have gotten themselves into.   (You can see a touch of metatextuality in the Game of Thrones series, however, when one of its evilest characters, Ramsay Bolton, can say, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”)

Frodo takes the idea of their being characters one step farther when he then suggests indirectly that their story is actually in the hands of its readers:

“…We’re going on a bit too fast.  You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point:  ‘Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.’ “

As in his earlier remark, that “Our part will end later—or sooner”, we see that Frodo imagines that they’re already in such a bad place that a young audience will want to stop the story.

This then leads us to a question as odd to us as their view of themselves as already-fictional characters in a tale:   if dad listens and agrees, closing the book, what will happen to Frodo and Sam then?


Thanks, as ever, for reading and




See, the Conquering Hero?


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

With Star Wars IX to appear in mid-December, completing the series, we’ve been going back through all of the previous episodes, from I (The Phantom Menace)


through VIII (The Last Jedi).


It’s a remarkable achievement and we’re very grateful to George Lucas,


for bringing it so far, even if his strong sense of the story seems to have been abandoned after VI (Return of the Jedi).

Because there are now so many films (including all of the offshoots, like the animated features, as well as Rogue One and Solo), it’s sometimes hard to remember that, once upon a time, there was only Star Wars (only later A New Hope), with its triumphant conclusion—mass formations of troops, Princess Leia in an actual princess outfit, and medals all around.


The next film—now V (The Empire Strikes Back) had a much less secure ending, with Darth Vader and the Emperor appearing to win and Han Solo a prisoner, on his way to Jaba the Hutt,


but VI (The Return of the Jedi) is once more triumphant, both in its original ending, on the forest moon of Endor,


and in the later revised version, where we see galaxy-wide celebrations.


Among the other films, we’ve seen another celebration, on Naboo, at the end of I (The Phantom Menace),


a secret marriage in II (Attack of the Clones),


and a complex web of plot, including the construction of the Death Star, the separation of the babies—Leia to Alderan, Luke to Tatooine—and the funeral of Padme in III (The Revenge of the Sith).


VII (The Force Awakens) had a mysterious ending:  Rey having gone to what appears the far end of the galaxy to find—


while VIII (The Last Jedi) seemed vaguely hopeful, with an unnamed stable boy showing signs of having the Force within him, as Anakin did in I.


With such a build-up, we’ve been wondering how IX (The Rise of Skywalker) will end.  As it’s supposedly the final episode, we assume that it will not conclude up in the air, like V, but will it have a mass celebration, like I, IV, and VI?

Or will it, like III, have multiple endings?  As we’ve thought about it, you could really see that as the case with The Lord of the Rings.

First, like I, IV, and VI, there are celebrations:  of Frodo and Sam at the field of Cormallen, in The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”.


Then, in Chapter 5, “The Steward and the King”, we have the crowning of Aragorn


followed by the wedding of Arwen and Aragorn.


After that, we have the return of the hobbits to the Shire and the defeat and death of Saruman in Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”.  The Shire has been badly damaged by Saruman and his henchmen, however, so that, although they are gone, the healing will take many years.


And the story doesn’t conclude there.  Only a little time goes by and then there is another ending:  the trip to the Grey Havens and beyond in Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”.


And then the story finally ends—or does it?  We’ve seen in Star Wars VIII, when the stable boy seems to use the Force, though only for a moment,


the implication that perhaps the title, The Last Jedi, is more of a puzzle than it would first appear.  The very last line of The Lord of the Rings, spoken by Sam, is “Well, I’m back…”  and it’s true, as far as Sam won’t go off on another adventure.  Before this, however, Frodo has been busy writing:

“There was a big book with plain red leather covers; its tall pages were now almost filled.  At the beginning there were many leaves covered with Bilbo’s thin wavering hand, but most of it was written in Frodo’s firm flowing script.  It was divided into chapters but Chapter 80 was unfinished, and after that were some blank leaves…

‘Why, you have nearly finished it, Mr. Frodo!’ Sam exclaimed.  ‘Well, you have kept at it, I must say.’

‘I have quite finished, Sam,’ said Frodo.  ‘The last pages are for you.’”

But what does this imply?  We have no idea what Sam may have added, but the volume Frodo gave him was the origin of The Red Book of Westmarch, the basis not only for The Lord of the Rings, but for The Hobbit, as well.  Are we being told that writing about adventure is an adventure in itself, and almost as important?


Thanks, as always, for reading.

MTCIDC, of course!



When we think of music in triumphs, the first piece which pops into our minds (after the Gungan march, of course) was one written by Haendel (1685-1759), “See, the Conquering Hero Comes”.



It was originally intended for his oratorio, Joshua (1747), but it fit his earlier piece, Judas Maccabaeus (1746) so well that he transferred it to the score of that oratorio.  Judas Maccabaeus was composed as a tribute to the second son of George II of England, William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland,



after he had decisively beaten the attempt to overthrow his father and replace him with the son of the former monarch, James II, at the battle of Culloden.


Here’s a LINK to a stirring performance.

In 1796, the young Beethoven (1770-1827)


wrote a series of 12 variations on the theme for cello and fortepiano.  It’s a lot of fun to hear what Beethoven can do with Haendel’s tune, so we give you a LINK here.

Light on Their Feet


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Recently, someone asked us about the Light Brigade—that is, the collection of regiments of British cavalry who fought in the Crimean War (1854-56).


These are the troopers who mistakenly charged Russian artillery in the series of battles fought on 25 October, 1854, called, collectively, Balaclava.


The question was, “Why was it called ‘the Light Brigade’?  Were the soldiers thin?  And was there a Heavy Brigade, where they were all fat?”

It seemed to us a very reasonable question and our answer began, “Over many centuries, cavalry has had a number of uses, but they could probably be broken down into two groups by those uses:  1. raids, skirmishes, scouting, and pursuit; 2. attacking enemy cavalry and infantry formations—and pursuit.  The former (#1) is the job of light cavalry, the latter (#2) of heavy cavalry.”

The Romans, who themselves only produced cavalry early in their history, quickly preferring to hire the job out, might, for example, use North Africans as light cavalry.


If heavy cavalry were needed, then the task might go to Spanish or Gallic soldiers.



And this would be true throughout military history—Renaissance cavalry might have heavily-armored gendarmes


to break up an enemy unit (or more) with the weight of its charge, but would also use lightly-armed jinetes



to find out the enemy’s positions, or attack their supply routes.

In the 18th century, most cavalry were heavy—although armor had almost disappeared.


The Austrians and then the French added to those heavies light cavalry originally from the Hungarian world, hussars.


Not to be outdone, the English fleshed out their heavy cavalry


not with hussars, but something they called “light dragoons”.


Dragoons had originally been mounted infantrymen, who rode to battle on horseback, then dismounted to fight,


but, by the mid-18th century, dragoons were just heavy cavalry—bigger men on bigger horses—and light dragoons were smaller men on smaller horses, with mostly different functions.

By the end of the century and just beyond, during the Napoleonic era, the French, in particular, had developed a whole series of light cavalry types—hussars,


chasseurs a cheval (literally, “hunters on horseback”),


and lancers, as well.


The English, to match the French, converted some regiments to hussars,


but only after 1820, when Napoleon was in his second and final exile on St. Helena, did they convert several other regiments to lancers.


(You can see that they borrowed their style of dress from that of Polish lancers in Napoleon’s armies.)


These lancers


along with hussars


and light dragoons


made up the famous Light Brigade of Alfred Tennyson’s (1809-1892)



1854 poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.


This, in turn, inspired one of our favorite adventure movies, the 1936 The Charge of the Light Brigade.


(We wonder how different children must have been in 1936—we loved that movie as kids!)

And this film, in turn, inspired a 20th-century adventure writer, George Macdonald Fraser (1925-2008),


who wrote a series of 12 books detailing the life of one Harry Flashman, beginning with Flashman (1969).


In part, these are a parody of the life of a typical Victorian officer, who eventually becomes General Sir Harry Flashman.  He appears at many of the famous military events in mid-Victorian British history, from the First Afghan War (1839-1842) to the Zulu War (1879), along with appearances at later events, including a cameo appearance at the British declaration of war against Germany on 4 August, 1914.  The joke is, although he wins all sorts of honors, including that knighthood, he is, in fact, a complete coward and it’s only amazing luck that he manages to survive as long and as well as he does.  And there is a second joke within the first:  Flashman is actually the school bully in a very famous earlier novel, Tom Brown’s School Days (1857),


by Thomas Hughes (1822-1896), a book which is the ancestor not only of many later such novels and short stories, but also of the Harry Potter books.


The fourth novel in the Flashman series, entitled Flashman at the Charge (1973),


gives us Fraser’s hero as actually leading that famous attack by accident, an accident which leads to his capture by the Russians—and many further adventures.

So, our answer to the original question is:  “No.  The Light Brigade wasn’t skinny, but was called that because it was smaller men on smaller horses with very specific jobs which required rapid movement and greater flexibility than heavy cavalry.”

And, with that answer, we say thank you for reading and




There was, in fact, a Heavy Brigade,


who made their own equally-heroic, but more successful, attack on the same day as the more famous Light Brigade charge.  Bigger men on bigger horses, they drove advancing Russian cavalry out of the Heavy Brigade camp.


Terrible as an Army with Banners


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Our title comes from the Hebrew Bible, in the book entitled The Song of Solomon, Chapter 6, verses 4 and 10, where the speaker’s beloved’s beauty is likened to an army with banners.  Growing up, we always wondered about that word “terrible”.  We didn’t see why someone’s good looks could be frightening, but we could certainly see how an army with its flags could be scary.



On the subject of banners, recently, we’ve been writing about 2nd Lieutenant JRR Tolkien.


In an earlier posting, in fact, we mentioned that that rank of 2nd Lieutenant was a replacement for the earlier rank of “ensign”.  “Lieutenant” is just the English version of a French compound for “place-holder” (lieu + tenant), in this case meaning the person who will step into the captain’s shoes if necessary.  Instead of a compound with its implication of replacement, “ensign” is actually a job description.  An “ensign” is a flag (a “color”, if infantry, “standard”, if cavalry) and an “ensign” is also the person who carried it.

By 1916, when Tolkien became a 2nd Lieutenant, colors were no longer carried in battle, but only on parade, as this early-20th-century illustration demonstrates—


and is still the case for the famous “Trooping of the Colour” for the Queen of England’s birthday parade, where her splendid footguards march with one of their colo(u)rs.


This is clearly all about show, now, but, once upon a time, colors—and their ensigns—had an important role in warfare.  Earlier colors were much bigger—in the 18th century, they were 6 feet by 6 feet square (1.82 metres by 1.82).


And here are some modern reenactors to help you to see just how big that really is.


The reasons for such a size (on a 9-foot pole, or “pike”—that’s 2.74m) are:

  1. units in earlier times (pre-late-19th-century, more or less) fought in long lines and, if you put the colors in the middle, everyone in a unit had a kind of fixed point to help them know where they—and their unit—were


  1. as well, earlier firearms, which used black powder, put out enormous clouds of (white) smoke—



If colors were big and tall, they could still be made out in the midst of those clouds.


They could also act as a rallying point.  When lines came apart and the order was Charge!  (Or when things were falling apart and the call was for Retreat!)


In time, colors came to be thought of as almost the physical representative of the spirit of a unit and being called upon to surrender them was looked upon as the worst disgrace.  This portrait of George Washington would have been thought particularly nasty by his British and German enemies because all around him are their colors, captured in two battles, Trenton and Princeton.  (His own headquarters flag—13 stars in a circle on a blue background—is in the upper right of the picture.)


To escape surrendering their colors, soldiers would strip them from the poles/pikes and hide them in their clothes or, in real desperation, burn them, as the French did in 1760 when forced to surrender to the British at Montreal, in Canada (then New France).


In earlier centuries, before gunpowder came to dominate battlefields, colors were already used as rallying points,


but also, in the days before uniforms, colors—big or little—indicated who was fighting.  If you saw a figure bearing a flag with a white, angled cross (a “saltire” in heraldic terms) on a blue field (background), for example, you knew that the King of Scotland was on the battlefield.


Thus, although 2nd Lieutenant Tolkien would no longer carry one of his unit’s colors into battle, as previous ensigns had, he would have known the importance of their role—and especially of the role of what they carried, which is why, for example, we see that, when it comes to battle in Middie-earth, nearly everyone seems to have a distinctive flag:

  1. the Rohirrim have their running horse


(which we think JRRT may have borrowed either from the chalk cutting known as the “White Horse of Uffington”


or possibly from an emblem long-related to the British monarchy, the white horse of Hannover—as we can see on this 18th-century grenadier cap).


  1. Gondor has its tree and stars


  1. and, when Aragorn marches out of Minas Tirith,



it’s under his version of that banner–


which also boldly states his claim to be the rightful king—without actually coming out and saying it—compare the two banners–

  1. and the Prince of Dol Amroth has his flag, with “his token of the Ship and the Silver Swan” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”).


As for their opponents, we see Saruman’s white hand on armor,


so we can presume, we think, that any banners carried would bear the same insignia and the same is true for Sauron’s orcs, which would have borne the lidless eye.


(We might also note that Southrons in the service of Mordor appear to carry red banners—as Gollum reports to Frodo and Sam in The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed”.)

All of which made us wonder if Solomon would have been so eager to describe his beloved as he did if the army he saw looked like this?



As ever, thanks for reading and







In an odd but fortunate use of a color, in 1842, during the First Afghan War, a Captain Souter was saved because he had hidden one of his regiment’s colors by wrapping it around his waist.  As the last members of his unit fell around him, his Afghan opponents saw what they believed to be a fancy waistcoat/vest and took him prisoner, hoping for a rich ransom.


Nodding Off


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

In our last, we began with a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson


from his 1885 collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses.


There’s another poem from that collection which has haunted us for years—here it is:


From breakfast on through all the day

At home among my friends I stay,

But every night I go abroad

Afar into the Land of Nod.


All by myself I have to go,

With none to tell me what to do—

All alone beside the streams

And up the mountain-side of dreams.


The strangest things are there for me,

Both things to eat and things to see,

And many frightening sights abroad

Till morning in the Land of Nod.


Try as I like to find the way,

I never can get back by day,

Nor can remember plain and clear

The curious music that I hear.

As a poem for children, it seems to contain a certain amount of menace:  “All by myself I have to go”, “many frightening sights”.  At the same time, there is a certain fascination—after all, the speaker seems to want to return there.  In other words, it’s a weird, but somehow interesting place, which reminds us of Little Red Riding Hood’s song from Stephen Sondheim’s modern fairy tale musical, Into the Woods (1987), in which she describes her experience with the wolf:

Mother said,
“Straight ahead,
Not to delay
or be misled.”
I should have heeded
Her advice…
But he seemed so nice.
And he showed me things
Many beautiful things,
That I hadn’t thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful,
I never had cared
And he made me feel excited-
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, “Come in!”
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared-
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know
And when everything familiar seems to disappear forever
At the end of the path was granny once again
So we lay in the dark till you came and set us free
And you brought us to the light
And we’re back at the start

And I know things now,
Many valuable things,
That I hadn’t known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.
Now I know:
Don’t be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.
Isn’t it nice to know a lot!
And a little bit…not.”


Perhaps it’s that “curious music that I hear” which lures the speaker back?  For us, we’re immediately reminded of the Otherworld music which calls mortals into Faerie in Celtic folk literature.  Here’s a well-known tune with a lyric in Irish and English, which is the lament of a mortal woman who has been pulled into that world against her will, entitled Port na bPucai, “Song of the Pooka” (a kind of Otherworld spirit who plays malevolent tricks on mortals), which can illustrate the kind of music humans believed the Otherworlders used:

Is bean ón slua sí mé, do tháinig thar toinn

I am a woman from the fairy host who traveled over the seas

Is do goideadh san oíche me tamall thar lear

I was stolen in the night and taken beyond the sea

Is go bhfuilim as ríocht seo fé gheas’ mná sídhe

And I am held hostage in the kingdom by the fairy women

Is ní bheidh ar an saol seo ach go nglaofaidh an coileach

And I can only be in this world until the moment the cock crows

Is caitheadsa féin tabhairt fá’n deis isteach

I know I have tasks to do here

Ni thaithneamh liom é ach caithfead tabhairt fé

Which I do not like but must comply with

Is caitheadsa féin tabhairt fén lios isteach

I must return to the fort and do not have anything to do

Is ná déinig aon ní leis an dream thíos sa leas

With this body of fairy people down in the fairy mound.


And here’s a LINK so that you can hear that music sung.

On one level, then, this Land of Nod is simply the land of dreams—and here that land is, disturbingly illustrated by Charles Robinson for an 1895 edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses.


And we see this again in another late-19th-century poem, by the American poet, Eugene Field (1850-1895), where Nod has become a character who, along with two boating friends (Wynken and Blynken), personifies a child going to sleep:

Dutch Lullabye

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
sailed off in a wooden shoe —
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
the old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
that live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
said Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
as they rocked in the wooden shoe,
And the wind that sped them all night long
ruffled the waves of dew.
The little stars were the herring fish
that lived in that beautiful sea —
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish —
never afraid are we”;
So cried the stars to the fishermen three:
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
to the stars in the twinkling foam —
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
bringing the fishermen home;
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
as if it could not be,
And some folks thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed
of sailing that beautiful sea —
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
and Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
is a wee one’s trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
as you rock in the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

For a 1904 edition of a selection of Field’s poems, Poems of Childhood, Maxfield Parrish provided the following illustration—


(A “trundle bed”, by the way, is a low bed built to slide out from under a taller one and commonly was used in the past to accommodate children.  Here’s an image of one.)



On another level, the reference to music might remind us of the Celtic Otherworld, to which unsuspecting humans are lured away.


This is an illustration of Child Ballad 39A, “Tam Lin”.  Tam (Tom) is a mortal who has been taken by the elves (another name here for fairies) and is eventually rescued by a mortal woman.  Here’s a LINK to more on the ballad.

We have one more possibility for the Land of Nod—perhaps that which inspired Stevenson initially.  “To nod off” is an expression meaning “to fall asleep”, as we see in a traditional Scots song, “We’re a’ nodding”.  Here’s the first verse and the chorus as edited by Robert Burns and published in Volume 6 of The Scots Musical Museum (1803):

Gudeen to you kimmer
And how do you do?
Hiccup, quo’ kimmer,
The better that I’m fou.

We’re a’ noddin, nid nid nodding,
We’re a’ nodding at our house at hame,
We’re a’ noddin, nid nid nodding,
We’re a’ nodding at our house at hame.


“Good evening to you, old gossip,

And how are you?

Hiccup! Said the old gossip,

Much better because I’m full. [a local usage, meaning “drunk”]


We’re all nodding, nid, nid, nodding,

We’re all nodding at our house at home.

We’re all nodding, nid, nid, nodding,

We’re all nodding at our house at home.”)

But, besides this meaning, there is also, from “Genesis” in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the twin sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Able.  After Cain murders Able:

“And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.” (“Genesis”, Chapter 4, Verse 16)


A little research suggests that the name “Nod” comes from a Hebrew root for the verb “to wander”, so Cain, we may be being told, was a wanderer.  That brings us back to our original Stevenson poem, where the speaker tells us that

“…every night I go abroad

Afar into the Land of Nod.


All by myself I have to go,

With none to tell me what to do—

All alone beside the streams

And up the mountain-side of dreams.”


Pleasant—or pleasanter—dreams, dear readers, and







Our information on the Hebrew Land of Nod comes from this LINK.



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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

We were practicing our sortes tolkienses (one way of finding a topic—by simply slipping a finger into The Lord of the Rings and opening it at that page—it’s not 100% useful, but sometimes…) and came upon the title of Chapter 2 of Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring:  “The Shadow of the Past”.

In the context of the chapter, we see that that shadow is cast by the history of the Ring itself and also by its maker, Sauron.  That, in turn, set us off on thinking about literary shadows…

In 1885, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)


published a collection of poems.


Poem #19 (if you count the dedication, which is, in fact, a poem) begins:

“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.”

[If you would like your own copy of this volume, follow this LINK.]

In fact, in literature, its use is both visible—and invisible.

In psychology, the shadow is metaphorical, being used to symbolize an unconscious part of the personality.  [For more on this, see this LINK.]

And, visibly—but also invisibly—the shadow as physical object can represent something more, as we find in perhaps the first modern literary use of the shadow in Adelbert von Chamisso’s (1781-1838)


novella (a short novel), Peter Schlemihls Wundersame Geschichte (1814), “Peter Schlemihl’s Amazing Story”.


Here’s the first English translation, from 1824.


In the story, the protagonist, Peter Schlemihl, meets a strange man, who can pull anything out of his pocket—and we mean anything.  As Schlemihl reports:

“If my mind was confused, nay terrified, with these proceedings, how was I overpowered when the next-breathed wish brought from his pocket three riding horses.  I tell you, three great and noble steeds, with saddles and appurtenances!  Imagine for a moment, I pray you, three saddled horses from the same pocket which had before produced a pocket-book, a telescope, an ornamented carpet twenty paces long and ten broad, a pleasure-tent of the same size, with bars and iron-work!”

(This is from the 3rd edition (1861) of that first English translation.)

Impressed, Schlemihl is quickly persuaded to make a trade.  The strange man offers him a magic purse, which he calls “Fortunatus’ fortune-bag”.  This object is based on an old story which seems to appear for the first time in 1509 as Ausgabe des Fortunatus (the “Edition/Issue of Fortunatus”?), in which Fortunatus (as you’ll probably guess, the name means “Lucky”) has both a wishing cap and this bag.  Here’s the title page of that first edition.



[If you would like to read one version of the Fortunatus story, here is a link to it from Andrew Lang’s The Grey Fairy Book (1900).]

The purse will always produce ten gold coins when one puts a hand inside, guaranteeing a steady means of wealth for the owner.  In return for this, Schlemihl hands over–his shadow.


This seems an odd trade, but having a magic bag which acts as an endless bank account is certainly no less strange.  Not to be too literal-minded, but beyond the idea that a shadow is a tradable item, it makes us wonder, however:  what could a shadow be made of that it can be removed and collected?

At the beginning of Peter Pan (1904), Peter has lost his shadow and Wendy reattaches it by sewing it on, as if it were simply mobile black cloth and perhaps this is how we might think about it as a physical object, at least for shadow stories.


Although he is pleased with the money, Schlemihl soon realizes the real price he has paid:  when people see that he has no shadow, they avoid him in anything from disgust to horror, which ruins his ability to live anywhere and even to marry the girl he wishes.  The shadow, then, is more than cloth:  it is part of a person’s identity.  If you cast no shadow, you are not quite human.  The real price of the shadow is even higher, however, as Schlemihl learns when the strange man (who is obviously Satan in human form) returns to offer a second bargain:  the Devil will return his shadow in return for his soul.

It’s clear that here Schlemihl has learned his lesson, refusing this offer several times and finally throwing away the “fortune-bag”.  Although he may believe that he is done with magic, magic is not yet done with him, however.  With some of the few coins remaining to him, by accident (or so it seems), he buys a pair of seven-league boots.  (A “league”, classically, is about three miles, so, when he puts them on, each step he takes is at least twenty-one miles.)



This element of the story, in turn, is also based on something in another older story, which appears in Charles Perrault’s (1628-1703)


1697 collection, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe,


“Le Petit Poucet” (maybe “Thumblet”?).  In this story, a character steals a pair of these boots from a pursuing ogre, allowing the thief to cover great distances with every stride.

[If you’d like to read this story, here’s a LINK from a 1901 translation.]

With these boots, Schlemihl never regains his shadow, but eventually gains a peaceful existence studying the natural world (which, in fact, von Chamisso did, as well, becoming a well-known naturalist later in life).

[Here’s a LINK to a translation of the story by Michael Haldane.]

More than a century later, the early modern fantasy writer, Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)


reused the idea of buying or trading shadows in his 1926 novel, The Charwoman’s Shadow.


A charwoman, or, simply, “char” (“char” is the same as “chore”, meaning “a task”), in the UK means a kind of cleaning woman.


When it comes to fantasies, the idea that this may be about the shadow not of a princess, or at least a lady in distress, but of an ordinary cleaning lady, is immediately intriguing, but the charwoman isn’t really the main character.  That’s Ramon, the son of an impoverished Spanish nobleman.

To earn money for his sister’s dowry, as well as to find a profession, Ramon apprentices himself to a wizard who deals, among other things, in shadows.  As payment for his learning, Ramon uses his shadow—but, just like Peter Schlemihl before him, quickly comes to regret it.  The charwoman works in the wizard’s house and, as Ramon slowly learns spells, he also learns her story and what has happened to her since she traded away her shadow long before.

In a moment of chivalry (the story takes place in Spain in what’s called the Siglo de Oro, the “Golden Century”—the early 16th to the later 17th centuries–when wealth from the New World made Spain a world power, as well as a leader in the arts), Ramon promises to rescue the Charwoman’s shadow for her.  In the house of a wizard, you can imagine that this won’t be easy, but, eventually, and through ingenuity, he does so, only to discover that—but you should really read the story for yourself.

[Unfortunately, as this book was published in 1926, it’s still under copyright here in the US, so we can’t offer our usual LINK, but we can offer you Peter and Wendy (1911), the novel version of Barrie’s 1904 play—LINK.]

In contrast to shadows which can be traded or lost, what’s interesting to us about Sauron’s shadow is that it’s no more than a suggestion of the appearance of its owner, who, although he casts that shadow over all of Middle-earth, never appears physically in the novel.  The Nazgul—shadowy figures themselves—represent him, but Sauron himself is never more than a shadow and, in fact, when he is eventually destroyed, it’s his shadow we see broken and swept away:

“And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky.  Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent:  for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”)

That “little shadow”, then, certainly has more uses than the child in Stevenson’s poem will ever see.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Helm (2)


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In our last, we focused upon the helmets worn by Tolkien and other European and US soldiers in the Great War, the French


the German,


and the British (US troops eventually settled on the British pattern).


The British helmet, we said, has produced the common comment that it looks like it was inspired by the medieval “kettle helm” (the second image being from the 13th-century Maciejowski Bible—but these helmets were clearly so practical that they continued to be used well beyond that time).



“inspired by medieval” is the way we commonly see JRRT’s Middle-earth, and it made us wonder about the kinds of helmets we would meet in The Lord of the Rings.  Unfortunately, if there were a concordance (that is, a book dedicated to listing all the times various words are used within a text, like this concordance for Homer’s Odyssey)


for Tolkien’s work, we are betting that perhaps the only word we would find there would be “helm”, which is generic, unless one adds “great”, which produces a more specific kind of head protection, looking like these, in use from the late 12th to the mid-14th centuries—



With only “helm” to go on, what clues might help us better to visualize what warriors are wearing?

We’ve suggested before that one possible visual resource for JRRT’s images of medieval warfare was the work of the American illustrator, Howard Pyle (1853-1911), in books like The Story of King Arthur and His Knights (1903), which Tolkien could have read as a boy.


And here’s a well-known illustration—with a knight in a great helm, in fact.


But what did Pyle use for models?

In Pyle’s time, the collection and classification of armor was still at its very beginnings (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York only instituted an Arms and Armor Department in 1912, for example).  We can only assume, then, that he thought “knights = medieval” and so any armor might do.  (If Arthur were real—there’s been argument about this for many years—he would have lived centuries before the medieval period and so would have had neither knights nor the military equipment of later days anyway.  As myth, Arthur can live at any time, of course.  We think of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, where, at one moment, we’re facing Huns and, at the next moment, Vikings.)

If Pyle were one of JRRT’s sources, then, “helm” can easily stand for any kind of protective headgear made of metal and vaguely medieval.  We think that there is more to be said on this, however, and we’ll go into a bit more detail about helmets in The Lord of the Rings in the third part of this little series, but, for now, we want to concentrate on one helmet in particular.

Normally, one thinks of helmets as protection, but, in the novel, we see one also used as a disguise, as Eowyn becomes “Dernhelm” (Old English dirne, “hidden/secret” + helm “head covering/helmet”, so, something like “a helm which hides”?).

What kind of helmet, we asked ourselves, would Eowyn be wearing which would:

  1. keep her identity hidden
  2. blend in with the helmets of other Rohirrim?

We began by looking at modern illustrations of Eowyn but, unfortunately, a cursory survey shows us that almost all modern illustrators appear to have chosen the same scene:  the moment when Eowyn has removed her helmet when facing the Witch King.


So far, we’ve found only a few artists who capture the previous moment:

  1. whose name so far has eluded us, but who shows a rear view of something which looks rather like a French Great War helmet.



  1. the second, another anonymous (to us), again shows Eowyn from behind, but with a style of helmet which appears to owe more to fantasy than to any medieval reality—


and perhaps a little something to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.


  1. the third is Christian Schwager, based in New Zealand.

image16schwager.jpg Her armor is full plate, which, in our world, is later medieval.  As for the helmet, it somewhat resembles a visored sallet, but only vaguely.


And that plume and its placement strike us as problematic, at best.

  1. the last is the well-known fantasy illustrator, Frank Frazetta, and although we enjoy some of his work, this illustration suggests to us that the artist doesn’t appear to have taken the scene–or Eowyn– seriously—or practically.


As we wrote in a post some time ago, the basis of the Rohirrim is Anglo-Saxon, men who wore long mail shirts and conical spangenhelm,


making them look very much like dismounted versions of their Norman opponents, both being shown in the following panel from the Bayeux Tapestry.


A characteristic feature of the spangenhelm is that nasal—the bar which comes down to protect the wearer’s nose.


Potentially, this and the helmet’s brim might shade the eyes and make the face less visible.



So, with the need for disguise and blending-in being crucial, and only “helm” to go on in the text, we asked ourselves what did the two artists who acted as inspiration for Jackson’s films, Alan Lee and John Howe, choose to do? Here’s a picture of the battlefield confrontation by Lee—



Eowyn is, as in the case  of other illustrators, here depicted as having removed her helmet, and, even under magnification, it’s difficult to make much out.  Howe, however, has given us a very detailed picture.


It’s clear, however, that, in choosing to emphasize the dirne in “Dernhelm”, he’s stepped away from the world of knights entirely and into a slightly older world, that of the Vikings, as his helmet more closely resembles the so-called “spectacle helmets”, of which a few examples survive from Viking burials, like this, reconstructed from a discovery at Gjermundbu, in Norway.  (For a very useful view of Viking helmets in general, follow this LINK.)


In turn, Jackson’s designers have followed Lee—


This certainly gives us the “hidden/secret” part of “Dernhelm”, but what about the idea of blending in?  Looking at a group shot of Rohirrim, we find a little surprise.


Instead of looking like Anglo-Saxons, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, Jackson’s Rohirrim look more like Vikings—and so Eowyn’s helmet blends right in (in fact, in this picture, you can see at least one other warrior with a spectacled helmet), almost as if her helmet and its secrecy requirement have been the basis for all of the warriors of Rohan.

There are lots of other helmets to pursue, however, which we’ll do in our next, so, with thanks to you, dear readers, for reading this, we’ll say



Helm (but not deep)


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Welcome once more, dear readers.

In our last, we talked about Tolkien as a very junior officer in 1916-17.


We discussed much of the detail of his kit, including this very important item, first introduced to the British army on the Western Front in 1916.


The war had begun in 1914, however, and the British soldiers of 1914


although they had shed their red coats for anything but parades,


having learned in many colonial wars that khaki was more practical on campaign,


were still, at heart, ready for the kind of open-battlefield fighting which their ancestors had practiced at Waterloo, a century before.


Infantry might not fight in long solid lines any longer,

Battle of The Alma


And might even seize upon temporary cover,


but battle would still be a sort of stand-up affair with artillery in support


and cavalry ready to charge even enemy artillery,



just as they had at Balaclava, 60 years before.



The British were not alone in imagining modern war as being like this.  Across the Channel, the French were still wearing the same red trousers they had first put on in the 1830s, while discussing attacks made solely with the bayonet.


And the Germans, although more sensibly dressed in grey, could still see themselves as pounding across the battlefield like medieval knights, lances lowered.


Unfortunately for such dreams, weapons technology in 1914 had far outstripped fashion and tradition, with machine guns having firing rates of as much as 600 rounds per minute


and increasingly heavy artillery.



Soldiers on both sides, therefore, instinctively began to seek more shelter.


And more shelter.


What happened next was a kind of military retrograde motion:  what was planned as open-field warfare turned into a giant, 500-mile-long siege.


There had, of course, been sieges forever.  The ancient Neo-Assyrians were fierce proponents.


In 332bc, Alexander the Great, frustrated by the defiance of the city of Tyre, conducted a famous siege across open water to make the Tyrians submit.


Julius Caesar had crushed Celtic power in Gaul in part by besieging their major settlement at Alesia in 52bc.


During the western Middle Ages, sieges were more common than pitched battles.


By the 14th century, however, big siege weapons, like the massive stone-throwing trebuchet,


were fated to be replaced by a new and more effective weapon, the bombard, or cannon.


And, with the expansion of the use of artillery to pound enemy defenses, siege warfare became that much more deadly—as in the relatively short time (53 days) it took for the guns of Mehmet II to knock holes in the ancient but massive walls of Constantinople in 1453.


Over time, the practice of siege craft became an art, as did that of fortification, and, for western armies, the theoretician was Louis XIV’s military engineer, Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707).


Vauban designed fortresses to resist sieges, but he also said that every fortress could be taken in time and proved it by directing methodical attacks upon a number of them.  Step one was to gradually move trenches—and guns—closer and closer to the enemy fortress or town, attempting to make a hole in its walls.  Then, when the hole was judged big enough to provide entry into that town or fortress, infantry would be sent in to try to break through.


Vauban’s method, with its lines of moving trenches and gun emplacements, became the standard and older soldiers in 1914 and those who read military history would have seen that method in the later 19th century, when the Prussians and their allies besieged Paris in late 1870,


or when the Russians laid siege to the Turkish garrison of Plevna in 1877,


or, more recently, when the Japanese besieged the Russians at Port Arthur in 1904-5.


Thus, there was a long tradition for such things for the armies of western Europe to follow in 1914, but the difference lay in those modern weapons, which made the life of besiegers—and, in this war, both sides were really besieging each other simultaneously—that much more dangerous.  If the basis of that tradition was bombardment followed by a successful infantry assault, then the generals of 1914 would follow that pattern.



If the enemy used machine guns and heavy artillery to stop the attackers,




it took some time before those generals realized that old-fashioned methods usually produced huge numbers of casualties


and little success.

Change took time, but one element was to improve soldiers’ chances to survive in the trenches and that meant reviving something from the medieval world, the metal helmet.


The French were the first to replace the soldiers’ kepi


with a metal helmet, in 1915.


(The kepi picture, by the way, isn’t colorized, but is an actual early color photograph, using what was called “autochrome”.)

The Germans replaced their leather helmets, called pickelhalben,




with their own version of a steel helmet, in 1916.


Also, in 1916, the British replaced the service dress cap


with the very piece of kit with which JRRT would have been equipped, and with which we began.


Thanks, as ever, for reading




Holding Place


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Our title is actually a translation of a French compound, lieutenant, which, by itself, is an adjective, but, if you add a definite (le) or indefinite (un) article, you have a noun—and a military rank, a rank which Tolkien held in 1916.  Anyone who knows anything about JRRT is aware of this and has probably seen this photo of a very serious young officer.  In this posting, we’d like to take a closer look at this photo and what it once represented—and, as you’ll see, there’s a great deal!


In 1914, JRRT had made a difficult decision:  to finish his degree and not to join up along with the passionate thousands who did


and, a young man still in civilian dress, to risk the public humiliation of having a young woman—or group of young women—come up to him in the street and offer him a white feather as a marker of his cowardice in not enlisting immediately.


While finishing, he had been a member of the OTC, the Officer Training Corps at Oxford,


which had helped him to gain a (temporary—for the duration of the war) commission as a second lieutenant in the British Army in July, 1915.


The title of second lieutenant was relatively new in 1915, having only been introduced in 1877, as a permanent replacement for the much older title of “ensign” (“cornet” in the cavalry).  Originally, an ensign’s job had been to carry an ensign—that is, a flag—


which could be a very hazardous job, as a flag (a “colour”, in the infantry, a “standard” in the cavalry), was not only a rallying point, but also the equivalent of a very large sign shouting “Shoot this one first!”

By 1915, British units hadn’t carried their colours into battle for about 35 years (the last known instance being at Laing’s Neck, during the First Boer War, in 1881),

so a second lieutenant would be given other roles in the regiment to which he belonged, such as commanding a platoon, a smaller part of a larger company, or in JRRT’s case, being in charge of communications—a subject which we’ve discussed in a previous posting.

Although enlisted men were issued uniforms, equipment, and weapons,


(This wonderfully-detailed illustration is by Mike Chappell, one of our favorite modern illustrators of the British Army.)

officers, as “gentlemen”, were expected to supply everything themselves.


This included not only uniform,


but revolver (this is JRRT’s actual .455 Webley, now in the Imperial War Museum collections)


and sword,


along with the belts on which to carry them,


plus all the other necessary items to join an army on campaign.

Taken altogether, it would have been very expensive for a new graduate, like JRRT, and so the government began issuing a stipend to help “temporary officers” (the Army sometimes had uglier terms for them) to kit themselves out like this.


And we’ve forgotten one essential, by 1916, something no soldier in the front lines would ever have been without—and here’s why.


As people always interested in the medieval, we can say that we’ve seen this pattern before—here are examples from the 13th-century Maciejowski Bible,


where such a thing might have been called a “kettle helm”.

With all of the above in mind, let’s return for a moment to a larger version of that very familiar picture of JRRT in uniform.


First off, you can see that, for this rather formal portrait, although he’s in uniform, he is wearing neither revolver nor sword, but he is wearing the distinctive belting (named after the general who invented the pattern a “Sam Browne”).  As well, if you look at his left cuff, you can see the mark of his second-lieutenancy, what soldiers commonly called a “pip”, but which formally was called a “Bath star”.  One of these on each cuff indicated the rank of second lieutenant.  When Tolkien was promoted, in January, 1918, to First Lieutenant, he would have added a second star.  Here’s a table of rank markers to help you.


If the image were as clear as that of this reenactor, we could see that his uniform bore more than his rank—older regiments, in particular, had special, distinctive markings


Note the badges on this reenactor’s cap and on his collar tabs.  These are the markings of the West Yorkshire Regiment.


Tolkien belonged to the Lancashire Fusiliers, whose badge looked like this:


You’ll see that the outer layer is the image of a flaming bomb or grenade.  This was an old symbol for fusiliers in general in the British Army.  In the 17th-century, soldiers with firearms used mainly matchlock weapons.


This was fired by applying a piece of specially-prepared cord to gunpowder.  If you wanted a guard for your artillery or powder supply, burning cord was the last thing you would want so, instead, such guards were armed with much safer flintlock fusils—hence the term fusilier.


The Lancashire Fusiliers claimed such a unit as ancestors and, as one of the units which had served in the British force which had captured Egypt from the French in 1801 (as the 20th Foot—meaning “infantry regiment”),


they had been entitled to add “Egypt” to their regimental colours and to their badges.


JRRT’s collar tabs and buttons would have been slightly different, displaying the sphinx inside a laurel wreath.



Contemplating this carefully-combed and trimmed young man in his formal uniform,


it might be difficult to imagine him as the man who, in time, could create Mordor and all within it—until you contrast it with images like these, the sorts of things which he would have seen daily in summer and early fall, 1916–


and, suddenly, orcs


are no surprise.


Thanks, as always, for reading and





May we recommend to you this excellent book, if you would like to know more about Tolkien and his experiences, 1914-1918?



Never That Willow


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

In our last post, we had:

  1. begun with a willow tree


  1. moved to the English Renaissance association between willows and melancholy


  1. and, in particular, the play Hamlet (1599-1601), in which a disturbed girl, Ophelia, falls from a willow into a stream and drowns


  1. as well as Desdemona, in Shakespeare’s Othello (1604), who sings a song with “Willow” as a kind of lamenting chorus—just before she’s murdered by her jealous (and misled) husband.


Melancholy comes from an imbalance of the humors, so medieval and Renaissance people thought, from those substances which control the body and its moods.


Too much black bile and you might be plunged into a depression.


(Although his posture suggests that he’s grieving, this young man’s armor says that he’s involved in a medieval sport that certain Tudor noblemen still engaged in, jousting.  Perhaps he just lost?)

As this was considered a serious problem, English Renaissance authors created texts which analyzed the condition, like Timothy Bright, a physician, who published his treatise in 1586,


(if you’d like to see what was believed medically in 1586, here’s a LINK to the work.)

or Robert Burton, a philosopher, who published his in 1621.


One way of dealing with that imbalance was by bleeding—the idea being that, since the humors influenced the blood, by opening up a blood vessel and letting some of the blood pour out it might act as a kind of safety valve.


Another treatment was playing or listening to music.


This therapeutic idea led to the title of one of the first great collections of Renaissance and post-Renaissance lyrics and tunes, Thomas D’Urfey’s, Wit and Mirthe, or Pills to Purge Melancholy (1698-1720).


(The National Library of Scotland has a complete edition of all six volumes of this.  Here’s a LINK, so that you can download them for yourself.)

Melancholy and willows became even more bound together in the early 19th century, when the tree, along with other images, such as urns, was used as a symbol of mourning on tombstones.


Willows, then, have moved from being associated with an Elizabethan ailment to an expression of grief at the death of a loved one, which could certainly bring on melancholy.


For us, willows have another association, however, but one which includes death–and the Elizabethan use of music as a cure.  In The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and his friends try to cut through the Old Forest to escape the pursuing Nazgul,


they are confused by the hostile wood and eventually brought to the bank of the Withywindle, where Old Man Willow


sings a spell:

“They shut their eyes, and then it seemed that they could almost hear words, cool words, saying something about water and sleep.  They gave themselves up to the spell and fell fast asleep at the foot of the great grey willow.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”)

This was more than just a sleepy-spell, however, as the tree attempts to drown Frodo, swallows Pippin, and half-swallows Merry (his upper half).

When Sam and Frodo (whom Sam has rescued) threaten the tree with fire, it threatens to kill Merry and Pippin and it looks like a standoff until Frodo simply runs off, shouting for help, and the very odd figure of Tom Bombadil appears.


He has a very distinctive look—

“there appeared above the reeds an old battered hat with a tall crown and a long blue feather stuck to the band…there came into view a man…stumping along with great yellow boots…He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”

As well, he has distinctive speech and this is where music as cure reappears.  Commonly, Tom’s speech is either actual song or short declarative sentences, which fall into a metrical pattern reminiscent of song:

“What’s the matter here then?  Do you know who I am?  I’m Tom Bombadil.  Tell me what’s your trouble!”

DUM-tee-DUM-tee-DUM-DUM.  DUM-tee-DUM-tee-DUM-DUM.  DUM-DUM-DUM-tee-DUM.  DUM-tee-DUM-tee-DUM-DUM.

He shows no fear of the fearsome willow, breaking off one of its branches and smacking the tree with it while employing this characteristic chanting—

“You let them out again, Old Man Willow!…What be you a-thinking of?  You should not be waking.  Eat earth!  Dig deep!  Drink water!  Go to sleep!  Bombadil is talking!”

Who this figure is, is only ever explained in the vaguest way.  His companion, Goldberry,


says of him simply, “Tom Bombadil is master.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 7, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”)  And, when he receives the Ring from Frodo, even when he puts it on, it has no effect upon him.


As a character in the book, he has proved awkward both for audio adapters and P Jackson and his writers, virtually all of whom have tended, over the years, simply to leave him out of their versions of the story.  This leaves a gap, of course, especially when it comes to Tom’s second rescue of the hobbits, from a barrow-wight (illustration by one of our favorite Tolkien artists, Ted Nasmith),


not only because it’s a wonderfully spooky part of the story, but because Tom ransacks the barrow and gives the hobbits short swords “forged long years ago by Men of Westernesse:  they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dum in the Land of Angmar”” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”).   With one of these swords, because of where and when it’s from, Merry is able to wound the chief of the Nazgul who is, in fact, that evil king of Angmar mentioned by Tom Bombadil, allowing Eowyn to finish him off.

Tolkien himself was less than concrete in his explanation of Tom, writing to Naomi Mitchison in April, 1954:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative.  I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’.  I mean, I do not really write like that:  he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933 [1934]), and represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely.” (Letters, 178)

Considering our theme of melancholy and, later, death, associated with willows, as well as the Elizabethan idea that music might cure or at least ameliorate that melancholy, our feeling is that Tom, in the first book of The Lord of the Rings, is a counterbalance, with his singing and chanting, to all of the darkness we’re gradually being shown.  As JRRT says in that same paragraph to Naomi Mitchison:

“I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.  I might put it this way.  The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side…”

Tom, then, in our view, is not only on the good side, but the antidote to the bad, twice, dealing not only with a living tree, but with a dead and murderous wight.  In both cases, he uses song, making him rather like an Elizabethan cure for the melancholy associated with willows—and, in the 19th-century, willows associated with death–brought to life.  It’s no wonder that, when Sauron is defeated and Middle-earth is beginning to heal, Gandalf tells the hobbits:

“…I am turning aside soon.  I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil:  such a talk as I have not had in all my time.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 7, “Homeward Bound”)

For Gandalf, Tom is the humors back in balance.

As ever, thanks for reading and




For another willow, you might try George Lucas’ fantasy film, Willow (1988).  It has a complicated plot, all about an abducted infant who will fulfill a prophecy, a valiant dwarf, white and black magic, and a rather ragged warrior.  Here’s the LINK for the first trailer (there’s a second, as well).

Although not quite, for us, of the same level as The Princess Bride, being perhaps more like Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal or Time Bandits, like all of those, it has its moments of fun.