Ring Composition

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Looking back, I’m always interested in where the ideas for postings come from.  Sometimes, it’s from something I’ve read, a line in a Tolkien letter, something CS Lewis wrote in an essay.  Sometimes, it’s from something I’ve seen, a fantasy or science fiction film, or an illustration which really caught my attention.  Sometimes it just seems to come out of the air.

This posting began with a surprise remark, a song , and a nursery rhyme.

The song is one that I’ve had in my head for years.  It’s from 1909 and first appeared in an early musical, The Midnight Sons.  Here’s a sheet music cover for it—

The song is called “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers” and was popularized by a period entertainer named, appropriately enough, Blanche Ring (1871-1961).

In the song, an Irishman, Jim O’Shea, is shipwrecked on an “Indian isle” and proves so popular with the locals that he’s soon “the nabob of them all”.  He explains this to his sweetheart from home, Rose McGee, in a letter and the chorus sums it up:

“Sure, I’ve got rings on my fingers,

Bells on my toes.

Elephants to ride upon,

My little Irish rose.

Come to your nabob

And on next Patrick’s Day

Be Mistress Mumbo Jumbo Jijiboo J. O’Shea.”

Warning:  it’s a very catchy chorus and it’s no wonder that the song was originally a hit.

So that you can have it stuck in your head, here’s a modern performance (1974), by the American mezzo-soprano, Joan Morris (accompanied by the distinguished composer—and her husband—William Bolcolm)–

And here’s Blanche Ring’s original from 1909–

That “Rings on my fingers/bells on my toes” is obviously a link to something much earlier, a version of which you may know.  It’s from a nursery rhyme, the lyrics of which have a certain number of variants.  I learned it as:

“Ride a cock horse

To Banbury Cross

To see a fine lady

Upon a white horse.

Rings on her fingers,

Bells on her toes,

She shall have music

Wherever she goes.”

To see various variants, follow this LINK:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ride_a_cock_horse_to_Banbury_Cross

There has been scholarly discussion about the origins of this rhyme, as with so many nursery rhymes:  why Banbury (a town about 30 miles north of Oxford)?  It has a lovely statue of the lady, by the way, made in 2005—

Just who is the lady?  And where/why is she riding?

Bells—on the horse, rather than the lady–made me think first of the description of the horse of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in whose mane

195þer mony bellez ful bry3t of brende golde rungen

“where many very bright bells of refined gold rang”

(I took my text from the Representative Poetry Online—RPO—site at:  https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/content/sir-gawain-and-green-knight  which has the Middle English text along with interspersed modern English translations.  For the Tolkien/Gordon Middle English text, see:   http://www.maldura.unipd.it/dllags/brunetti/ME/index_gaw.php?poe=gaw&lingua=eng )

And then of the elf lady who carries off Thomas Rhymer in Child Ballad #37:

At ilka tett of her horse’s mane

                    Hung fifty silver bells and nine.

“At every tuft of her horse’s mane

Hung fifty-nine silver bells.”

(For a number of texts with variant lines of this, see:   https://sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm    To hear one variant—a favorite of mine—sung by Ewan MacColl, see:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYyJ8pRdfYs  )

And those bells, in turn, led to the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Strider and the rest of the company freeze in place when they hear what they believe is an unwelcome sound:  “the noise of hoofs behind them” , but:

“Then faintly, as if it was blown away from them by the breeze, they seemed to catch a dim ringing, as of small bells tinkling.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 12, “Flight to the Ford”)

Instead of the Nazgul they were fearing, however, it was the Elf-lord Glorfindel, sent to find them. 

But it’s those rings, of course, which really caught my attention—after all, there were once:

“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

The use of those bells, from Sir Gawaine to “Thomas Rhymer” to Glorfindel, just like the slave’s theft of a golden cup from the unnamed dragon’s hoard in Beowulf,

which reappears in Bilbo’s theft of a similar cup from Smaug,

reminds us that JRRT’s mind was full of echoes from earlier literature, whether he actively borrowed, which must be the case with the cup, or simply had something float up.  He could be quite defensive about this, if not downright prickly, as in the case of Moria and the fairy tale “Soria Moria Castle” (see the draft of a letter to a “Mr. Rang”, Letters, 384). 

In the same draft, however, he has the very opposite reaction and this, to me, rather surprising statement formed part of the inspiration for this posting: 

nazg:  the word for ‘ring’ in the Black Speech…Though actual congruences (of form + sense) occur in unrelated real languages, and it is impossible in constructing imaginary languages from a limited number of component sounds to avoid such resemblances (if one tries to—I do not), it remains remarkable that nasc is the word for ring in Gaelic (Irish:  in Scottish usually written nasg)…I have no liking at all for Gaelic from Old Irish downwards…[but] I have at various times studied it…It is thus probable that nazg is actually derived from it…”

When I think of rings in Old Irish (“Irish” is now used for the Celtic language of Ireland and “Gaelic” is used for its Scots descendant) stories, that which stands out for me is the ordnasc, that is, “thumb ring”, in the Tain Bo Fraich (The Cattle Raid of Froech)

It is given to the hero, Froech, by Findabair, the daughter of the Queen of the province of Connacht, Medb, and her husband, Ailill.  Although initially Medb (the real power in Connacht, Ailill being a bit like Menelaus in the Helen story) looks upon him with favor, she then changes her mind.  Not wanting him to marry Findabair, at the first opportunity, Ailill steals the ring and tosses it into a river where a salmon swallows it.  The salmon is eventually retrieved, opened, and the ring reappears.  The story is actually much more complicated, full of vivid description which, with rhythmic and sound patterns in Irish, must have been a treat for the imagination and the ear.  English translations will at least give you the plot, however, and here’s a 1905 one, by A.H. Leahy, with which to start:  https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/fraech.html

(This is from the second volume of Leahy’s Heroic Romances of Ireland and, if you’d like to read more, here’s a LINK to the book:   https://archive.org/details/heroicromancesof02leah/page/n5/mode/2up )

A ring which disappears into water and a fish is involved?  This is what is called, by folklorists, a “Tale Type” and this particular type, in the standard work by Aarne-Thompson-Uther, is catalogued as ATU736A, under the title “Polycrates’ Ring”.  The pattern of the story is apparently common, but Polycrates himself was a real person, the ruler of the island of Samos in the 6th century BC.  Much of what we know of him comes from the 5th-century historian, Herodotus.

Herodotus can sometimes employ what appear to be folk tales as if they were reality in his history and his story about the ring certainly sounds like it.

In brief, it goes like this:

1. Polycrates has a close friend, the Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose II (reigned 570-526BC—called “Amasis” in the Greek text).

2. Ahmose is worried about Polycrates’ seeming constant good luck and advises him to choose the most valuable thing he owns and get rid of it for good (because the gods might become jealous—best never to be too fortunate!).

3. Polycrates decides that it’s a ring and he has himself rowed out into the sea, then throws it overboard, breathing a sigh of relief.

4. Then, one day, a fisherman brings him the biggest fish he’s ever caught.

5. I think that you can guess the rest:  yes, the fish is cut open and, well, eventually Polycrates does not end well, being crucified by the Persians, who have already seized the mainland.

(If you’d like to read this story for yourself, here’s a LINK to Herodotus’ Histories, Book Three, Sections 40 and following:  https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh3040.htm )

The title of this posting comes from a literary concept in which material somehow circles back on itself, making a ring, like the ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail (or, in this case, tale) in alchemy, among other sources.

So how will we circle back? 

I said that Tolkien’s surprise remark, that Black Speech nazg was derived from Irish nasc , was part of the initial inspiration for this posting, and that nasc made me think of an Old Irish story in which such a nasc—and a fish—played an important role.  There is another story with a ring and a fish, however:

“…but Deagol sat in the boat and fished.  Suddenly a great fish took his hook, and before he knew where he was, he was dragged out and down into the water, to the bottom.  Then he let go of his line, for he thought he saw something shining in the river-bed; and holding his breath he grabbed at it.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Beware of strange Rings:  they may be fishy,

And know that, as always,




Marching Into Mordor

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

If you read/watch fantasy, you won’t have escaped some version of this meme—

(It’s interesting, by the way, to read something about the speech behind this, which is from the film, but doesn’t exist in the text of The Fellowship of the Ring:   https://www.newsweek.com/lord-rings-meme-boromir-one-does-not-simply-walk-mordor-fellowship-sean-bean-1507844#:~:text=%22One%20does%20not%20simply%20walk,great%20eye%20is%20ever%20watchful. )

In this posting, I intend to walk briefly into the place, not to drop off a Ring,

but to try to understand something beyond its geography.  Is there something more which adds menace to the place beyond that geography?

It’s not as if the geography isn’t menacing, of course. 

(This is from Karen Wynn Fonstad’s wonderful  The Atlas of Middle-earth 1981/1991

From the Ered Lithui across the plateau of Gorgoroth to the Ephel Duath, this is depicted as a kind of volcanic landscape,

with, in fact, an active volcano, Orodruin, which seems to be smoking most of the time, like a Middle-earth Etna,

set just above the center of that plateau,

(This is a Tolkien sketch.)

its northern entrance blocked by elaborate gates, the Morannon,

its western entrance by Minas Morgul and the Tower of Cirith Ungol,

and, rising just below the volcano, the capital of the place, the Barad-dur, the Dark Tower.

Although I called the Barad-dur a “capital”, it might be better termed a command center, as the northern part of Mordor isn’t really a land with farms and villages, as we see in Gondor and even in Rohan, but a vast military installation, agriculture being located to the south—“great slave-worked farms away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen”.   Instead, as Tolkien describes it through the eyes of Frodo and Sam:

“As far as their eyes could reach, along the skirts of the Morgai and away southward, there were camps, some of tents,

some ordered like small towns.  One of the largest of these was right below them.  Barely a mile out into the plain it clustered like some huge nest of insects, with straight dreary streets of huts and long low drab buildings.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)

(These illustrations are of army camps from the Great War and here I agree with John Garth’s suggestion, in his latest book, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien,

that JRRT was probably thinking of the camps he himself had stayed in during his military service in France in 1916.)

Such camps—along with the “mines and forges” mentioned by the narrator as located in that region—would have produced an endless smog of cooking and industrial fires

to which would have been added volcanic leaks from the ground itself:  “There smokes trailed on the ground and lurked in hollows, and fumes leaked from fissures in the earth.”

(I suspect that, for JRRT, this image would have been a combination of his understanding of the instability of land around an active volcano

and his memories of Great War poison gasses, some of which were heavier than air and would, once loosed towards the enemy, linger in trenches and shell holes, still dangerous to the unwary.)

If the actual air is poisonous, so is the emotional atmosphere of Mordor.  Although the plain itself may be barren, except for the area just below the Ephel Duath, called the Morgai, the area around the camp below Frodo and Sam is teaming with life:

“About it the ground was busy with folk going to and fro; a wide road ran from it south-east to join the Morgul-way, and along it many lines of small black shapes were hurrying.”

Those lines are hurrying because they are columns of troops and it seems that they are being spurred on not by a passionate loyalty to Sauron, but by other means, as Sam and Frodo encounter it:

“The leading orcs came loping along, panting, holding their heads down.  They were a gang of the smaller breeds being driven unwilling to their Dark Lord’s wars; all they cared for was to get the march over and escape the whip.  Beside them, running up and down the line, went two of the large fierce uruks, cracking lashes and shouting.” 

This appears to be the norm in Mordor, as we see again and again reflected in the behavior of its many servants.  Emotionally, Mordor is immersed in an atmosphere of fear, in which everyone is constantly watching everyone else for reportable misbehavior and possible dire punishment, as Grishnakh threatens Ugluk in their attempt to escape the Rohirrim and bring Merry and Pippin to Isengard:

“ You have spoken more than enough, Ugluk…I wonder how they would like it in Lugburz.  They might think that Ugluk’s shoulders need relieving of a swollen head.  They might ask where his strange ideas came from.  Did they come from Saruman, perhaps?” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

This is struggle between two leaders, but this attitude extends down to the common foot soldiers.  Frodo and Sam ducked behind a bush and overheard this conversation between two of them, a soldier and a tracker:

“  ‘You come back,’ shouted the soldier, ‘or I’ll report you!’

‘Who to?  Not to your precious Shagrat.  He won’t be captain any more.’

‘I’ll give your name and number to the Nazgul,’ said the soldier, lowering his voice to a hiss.  ‘One of them’s in charge at the Tower now.’ “  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 2, “The Land of Shadow”)

(“Name and number” sound like another of JRRT’s memories of the Great War.  All British soldiers were issue with regimental service numbers when they joined the army and Tolkien would have worn around his neck something like this:  two identity discs with his name, that number, the title of his unit, and his religion.  On a grim note, if he had been killed and his body recovered—many bodies on both sides never were—the red tag would have been collected by his recoverers, the green tag would have been left for the burial party.)

Above the soldiery—sometimes literally—were those Nazgul and, by Grishnakh’s reaction, in talking with Ugluk, they contributed one more element to this generally fear-filled world:

“ ‘Nazgul, Nazgul,’ said Grishnakh, shivering and licking his lips, as if the word had a foul taste that he savoured painfully.  ‘You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams, Ugluk…’ “(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

I’ve never really believed in the original film text of the remark the meme captures:

“One does not simply walk into Mordor. Its black gates are guarded by more than just orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. The great eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly.”

This, to me, doesn’t sound in the least like Boromir, the Captain of Gondor, who dies valiantly cutting down squads of orcs,

but more like a script-writer’s attempt to add tension to the long scene in the film derived from “The Council of Elrond”, foreshadowing the actual place which Frodo and Sam eventually confront and putting it into the mouth of someone we later know does not believe in Frodo’s mission.  The description certainly covers the physical situation, and even mentions Sauron obliquely, but upon this unstable landscape of “fire, ash, and dust” lies an entire world of unstable servants, fearful creatures who constantl y mutter and squabble amongst themselves and must be held to their tasks by whips and the threat of being reported to something which gives even orc chieftains the shivers.  I don’t know if any script writer could capture this in a single speech, but, when we walk into Mordor, we should be well aware that there is more unsleeping evil there than Boromir can tell.

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

Keep one eye out for Nazgul in flight,

And know that, as always, there’s



What You Eat

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Perhaps I’m of what Victorians might call “a morbid disposition”, but I can never watch the Star Wars films, especially IV-VI, without seeing storm trooper helmets

as having the suggestion of a skull about them.

 This, in turn, has led me to pay closer attention, in Star Wars VI,

to the Ewok xylophone we see there.

It’s a row of Imperial storm trooper helmets, of course,

and, considering that the Ewoks have just won a major victory over their wearers,

perhaps it’s a sort of trophy, of the sort soldiers have always displayed when they triumph over their enemies.   When the British 14th Light Dragoons , for example,

captured the carriage of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph (1768-1844),

at the battle of Vittoria, in 1813,

among the loot was his silver chamber pot–

a thoughtful gift from his brother, the Emperor Napoleon.  It’s been a proud possession of the regiment—and its  descendants–ever since.

A detail from earlier in the film hints at something else, however.   When Han, Luke, and Chewbacca are captured by a party of Ewoks,

it’s clear that they are not just prisoners, but will form part of an Ewok feast.

That being the case, perhaps that helmet xylophone is meant to suggest another fate for its former wearers?

Certainly, western adventure stories have included the consumption of humans by others from the very beginning.  In Book 9 of the Odyssey, Odysseus and a dozen of his crew face the giant Cyclops, Polyphemus,

and only half of those men (plus Odysseus, of course) survive the Cyclops’ appetite, and, in Book 10, the Laistrygonians destroy eleven of Odysseus’ twelve ships and their crews clearly disappear into the pantries—and stomachs—of the Laistrygonians.

In Beowulf, the monster, Grendel, spends twelve years snacking on the subjects of the Danish king, Hrothgar, before Beowulf  arrives to put an end to his midnight picnicking.

My first encounter with such behavior in literature must have been in Robinson Crusoe (1719),

where I read:

“When I was come down the hill to the shore, as I said above, being the SW. point of the island, I was perfectly confounded and amazed; nor is it possible for me to express the horror of my mind at seeing the shore spread with skulls, hands, feet, and other bones of human bodies; and particularly I observed a place where there had been a fire made, and a circle dug in the earth, like a cockpit, where I supposed the savage wretches had sat down to their human feastings upon the bodies of their fellow-creatures. “ (Robinson Crusoe, Chapter XII, “A Cave Retreat”—if you haven’t read the book, here’s a LINK:                      https://www.gutenberg.org/files/521/521-h/521-h.htm  It’s an amazing story, so full of wonderful details that its original audience believed it to be a true account and some were not pleased to discover that it was a very vivid fictional narrative.)

Real cannibal behavior had appeared in modern western literature as early as 1557, in Hans Staden’s (c.1525-c.1576) comprehensively titled:   Warhaftige Historia und beschreibung eyner Landtschafft der Wilden Nacketen, Grimmigen Menschfresser-Leuthen in der Newenwelt America gelegen ([A] True History and Description of a Country of Wild, Naked, Fierce Cannibals Situated in the New World, America).

Staden, after being shipwrecked, like R. Crusoe, had been taken captive by the Tupinamba of Brazil and spent time among them, combining observation of their occasional diet

with striving to keep himself from becoming part of it. (If you’d like to read about this for yourself, here’s the LINK to a later Victorian translation:  https://archive.org/details/captivityhansst00burtgoog )

Such behavior turns up in more recent literature in two places extremely familiar here.  In the first of these, the protagonist finds himself deep under a mountain, facing a peculiar character who speaks his language and even recognizes certain of his customs,

but who has plans to eat said protagonist, even while promising to maintain the social norms understood in his agreement to abide by the rules of a riddling game:

“Gollum did mean to come back.  He was angry now and hungry.  And he was a miserable wicked creature, and already he had a plan…He had a ring, a golden ring, a precious ring…He wanted it because it was a ring of power, and if you slipped that ring on your finger, you were invisible…’Quite safe, yes,’ he whispered to himself.  ‘It won’t see us, and its nassty little sword will be useless, yes quite.’ “  (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)

And then there’s this from The Lord of the Rings:

“We are the fighting Uruk-hai!   We slew the great warrior.  We took the prisoners.  We are the servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand:  the Hand that gives us man’s-flesh to eat.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

It’s no wonder, then, that, even though starving, Pippin has this reaction:

“An Orc stooped over him, and flung him some bread and a strip of raw dried flesh.  He ate the stale grey bread hungrily, but not the meat.  He was famished but not yet so famished as to eat flesh flung to him by an Orc…”

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

When buying luncheon meat, always read the label carefully,

And remember that, as ever, there’s



Ding-dong the Witch Isn’t Dead?

When teaching adventure/fantasy, which I do regularly, one thing I always say to students as a general concept is that there is, “No fiction without friction”, meaning that a story happens when someone pushes or is pushed by something or someone into taking action.  Without the coming of Billy Bones to Jim Hawkins’ mother’s remote inn, for example, with his hidden map and his ex-fellow pirates pursuing him,

there would be no Treasure Island.

(This is my favorite edition, from 1911, illustrated by NC Wyeth.)

Jim Hawkins and his friends defeat Long John Silver and his band of ex-pirates

and the novel has a happy ending with the friction gone.

But what if that friction returns?  Perhaps persistent evil has its advantages…

It must have been a real shock for the Munchkins in the MGM film of The Wizard of Oz, having seen their original oppressor flattened by a flying house,

and celebrating her demise on a grand scale,

suddenly to see another witch appear—and a vengeful sister, at that.

(It’s made much more dramatic in the film, however.  In the original book, although the Wicked Witch of the West is mentioned as a menace from Chapter II, and turns up in speech in further chapters, usually tagged with something like”if you go into her country, she will enchant you and make you a slave”, she makes no initially violent appearance to threaten Dorothy.   Nor, in fact, does she actually appear until Chapter XII—nor does she claim the Wicked Witch of the East as her sister.  As you can see, the screen writers have fashioned a very different villain from that in the book—although they did keep the flying monkeys.  In case you don’t have your own copy of the original, here’s a LINK:  https://archive.org/details/wonderfulwizardo00baumiala  )

And this isn’t the only time a witch seems to have been vanquished, of course, only to resurface in a new form.  The White Witch of Narnia

is killed by Aslan in The Lion,The Witch and The Wardrobe,

but seems about to reappear in Prince Caspian,

where it is suggested that, although Aslan is said to have killed her, “…whoever heard of a witch that really died?  You can always get them back.”  (Prince Caspian, Chapter XII, “Sorcery and Sudden Vengeance”)

And though she isn’t revived then, she will reappear in The Silver Chair,

as the Lady of the Green Kirtle.

(A “kirtle”, by the way, looks like this, if you’re not a follower of medieval/Renaissance fashion.)

In fact, in her original form, as Jadis,

she is the large and terrifying figure in the prequel, The Magician’s Nephew.

(This is an interesting choice for the witch’s name, by the way.  It’s simply the French, jadis, from Latin jam, “already” + dies, “day”, meaning “formerly”.  Lewis can suggest by this that:  1. Jadis was a power in the past; 2. but, because of Aslan, will become a former power.)

This idea of persistent evil  forms a major feature  in the work of Lewis’ friend and fellow Inkling, Tolkien, rather as it does in the 1939 MGM film.

First, there is Melkor (later Morgoth, a kind of nickname), the rebel Vala, perhaps a kind of archangel, close kin to Milton’s Satan

 in Paradise Lost,

with his explanation of why he rebelled against God:

“Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down
Warring in Heav’n against Heav’ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard.
What could be less then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov’d ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
I sdeind subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest, and in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome, still paying, still to ow…”

 (Paradise Lost, Book IV, Lines 40-53, 1667 edition.  If you’d like to see what 1667 looked like–versus Milton’s 1674 second edition—here’s a LINK to a modern transcription:   https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/767/lost.pdf?sequence=1 )

After his ultimate defeat by his fellow Valar and his exile through the Door of Night, Melkor/Morgoth’s place is taken by one of what we might think of a lesser angel, a Maia, named, initially, Gorthaur, Melkor/Morgoth’s chief lieutenant.   As Annatar, and later as Sauron,

he appears and reappears in the Second and Third Ages until, with his Ring destroyed, he vanishes from Middle-earth.

For MGM’s script writers, having a second witch appear to avenge the first (as well as to covet those ruby slippers), produced extremely useful friction.   At every turn of the story, we see that witch seeking to harm Dorothy and her companions.

Not only does that build tension, but her end then produces the climax of the story,

after which the giving out of rewards

and Dorothy’s final difficulty of getting home

seem almost afterthoughts in comparison.

The White Witch almost returns in one novel, definitely appears, in a new guise in another, and has a major role in the prequel which sets up the whole idea of Narnia to begin with.  And even Long John Silver escapes his captors, although Stevenson never wrote a sequel.  (There is a prequel, however, in Arthur D Howden Smith’s 1924 Porto Bello Gold, for which Smith received permission from Robert Louis Stevenson’s stepson and heir, Lloyd Osbourne.

If you’d like to read it, here’s a LINK:  https://archive.org/details/portobellogold0000unse/page/n1/mode/2up )

And then there’s JRRT.  Certainly the reappearances of Melkor to trouble the Valar, as well as Sauron’s to stir up difficulties throughout the Second and Third Ages produces no end of friction for generations of those on Middle-earth and beyond.  It’s interesting, however, that, after all those manifestations of evil, Tolkien himself seems to have felt that there had to come an end—as if all that friction had finally worn the long story smooth.  As he says in a 1964 letter to Colin Bailey:

“I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall [of Mordor], but it proved both sinister and depressing.  Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature:  their quick satiety with good.  So that the people of Gondor in time of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless—while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors—like Denethor or worse.  I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going round doing damage.  I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow—but it would be just that.  Not worth doing.” (Letters, 344)

And so perhaps the witch was finally dead?

Thanks for reading, as always,

Stay well,

Be sure that your witch is an only child,

Turn your calendar to a new year,

And remember that, as ever, there will be



In the Third Chapter

As ever, welcome, dear readers.

The Russian dramatist and short- story writer, Anton Chekov  (1860-1904),

is recorded as remarking—more than once, in fact—that, if you mention a loaded rifle or pistol hanging on a wall early in a story or play, you should either use it later (in the second or third chapter, he says, of a story) or get rid of it as a distraction.  (There’s a useful little WIKI article citing all three times Chekov said this in various forms:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun   The American writer, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), having read this, dismissed it in an unpublished essay entitled “The Art of the Short Story”.  For an introduction to that essay and the essay itself:  http://www.pfgpowell.plus.com/Pages%201/Resources/Art%20of%20the%20Short%20Story.pdf )

I’ve always felt this way about a scene from The Lord of the Rings which I discussed in a recent posting.  This is the moment when the Lord of the Nazgul is about to strike the brave Eowyn down with his mace, having just shattered her shield. 

Just as he swings his weapon:

“…suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground.  Merry’s sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

Eowyn  then destroys the Nazgul by running her sword through what would have been his head, had anything been visible but his eyes.  Her sword is an ordinary one, but  s aided by the fact that she is a woman  just after the Witch King has announced that “No living man may hinder me!” (For more on this, see the posting “Echoes”) 

Merry’s is a different matter—and here’s Chekov’s loaded pistol.

Various adapters of The Lord of the Rings have had trouble over the years dealing with Tom Bombadil. 

He enters the story early, rescuing Frodo and his friends twice, once from Old Man Willow,

and a second time from a barrow wight. 

Most adapters have made what might appear to be an easy decision:  they’ve cut him out entirely.  I say “appear” because, in the process, they also remove that loaded pistol.  Not literally, of course—although it appears that gunpowder is available, at least for Orcs and their masters (it seems to be used at Helm’s Deep and again at the Rammas Echor, the great wall which surrounds the Pelennor)—the major missile weapon in Middle-earth is the bow.

It’s Merry’s sword.  After Tom and Frodo carry Sam, Merry, and Pippin out of the barrow,

Tom goes back in and brings out all sorts of treasures, including:

“For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold.

[This is what “damasked”—also called “damascened”– looks like.]

They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones.  Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.

‘Old knives are long enough as swords for hobbit-people,’ he said.   ‘Sharp blades are good to have, if Shire-folk go walking, east, south, or far away into dark and danger.’  Then he told them that these blades were forged many 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”)

It’s important to understand that last fact:  the “evil king of Carn Dum” is, in fact, the Witch King of Angmar, aka The Lord of the Nazgul.  Merry’s sword, then, was fashioned long before for a distinct purpose:  to deal with the forces of an ancient evil.  And, unlike its original owner, it has survived the final fall of the kingdom of Arnor. 

One of the great powers of The Lord of the Rings is that it is not a kind of one-off adventure, but set into a very long history.  The Ring itself is extremely old, Aragorn’s remade sword, Anduril, was actually the sword of Elendil, a shard of which Isildur used to cut the ring from the defeated Sauron’s hand centuries and centuries earlier.  Like Anduril, Merry’s sword was created to fit into the history of those wars which will finally end only with the destruction of the Ring.  In its own way, it is in the story for a purpose.

There is a moment, however, when it looks like it may disappear from that story.  When Merry and Pippin are captured by the Orcs,

it was seized, along with Pippin’s:

“ ‘Well!’ said Merry.  ‘I never expected to see those again!  I marked a few orcs with mine; but Ugluk took them from us  How he glared!  At first I thought that he was going to stab me, but he threw the things away as if they burned him.’ “ (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

But was it actually gone for good?

When the two hobbits are reunited with the surviving members of the Fellowship, Aragorn says to them:

“ ‘Here are some treasures that you let fall…You will be glad to have them back.’ He loosened his belt from under his cloak, and took from it the two sheathed knives.”

And Merry still has the sword when he climbs onto Dernhelm’s horse to join in Theoden’s last ride;

“ ‘No mail have we to fit you,’ said Eowyn, ‘nor any time for the forging of such a hauberk, but here is also a stout jerkin of leather, a belt, and a knife  A sword you have.’ “ (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 3, “The Muster of Rohan”)

Tolkien doesn’t mention the sword’s pedigree in the scene between Eowyn and the Nazgul, but its effect, we can presume, is that for which its makers had designed it long ago, wounding the seemingly unwoundable, crippling him so that Eowyn can then bring him down:

“Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her.  The sword broke sparkling into many shards.  The crown rolled away with a clang.  Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe.  But lo! the mantle and hauberk were empty.  Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled, and a cry went up into the shuddering air, and faded to a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

As I’ve said, most adapters have removed Tom Bombadil and thus the barrow wight and thus the power of Merry’s sword, but, when Peter Jackson’s Aragorn simply dumps a sack of swords on the hobbits,

saying something like “You’ll need these”, we have not only lost what Tom Bombadil himself may have  brought to the story, but we lose something more:  that sense which runs throughout the novel that, although things change over time, much is never lost, but remains to fulfill its historical purpose–and the loaded gun will go off.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Examine your blade closely for runes,

And remember that there’s always



A Picture is Worth…

As always, dear readers, welcome.

I’ve never polled anyone on this, but I’m willing to bet that most people are visually-oriented.  Certainly, in my experience, students always learn better when they have lots of images to go on and I know that this is true for me, as well.   It’s one thing, for example, to read Jonathan Harker’s description in Dracula of what he observed below him:

“What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.”  (Dracula, Chapter III)

It’s another to see it visualized in this Marvel Classics comic book—

or, even better done, I think, by Fritz Schwimbeck (1889-1972) in this early-20th century depiction.

(If you don’t have a copy of Dracula, Project Gutenberg has one of the original 1897 American edition at:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/345/345-h/345-h.htm .  If you would like to see more of Schwimbeck’s definitely odd work, the wonderfully-named Monster Brains has a selection:  https://monsterbrains.blogspot.com/2021/02/fritz-schwimbeck-1889-1972.html  )

Illustrations of Tolkien’s work interest me in particular.  There’s a huge amount of it—rather like fan fiction—with everything on-line from amateur drawings inspired by the Jackson films, some very skillfully done, to professional art.   Using last week’s posting, where I talked about two possible influences from earlier literary works on the scene between Eowyn and the chief Nazgul, as a basis, I thought that I would examine a few such depictions, thinking out loud about the artists’ choices of focus and elements to include in their presentation.

We should begin, as those artists did, with the scene as painted by the author.  There’s a lot to take in, so I’ll try to stick to the most important points, as I see them, from the standpoint of illustration.  So that I don’t need to repeat the references, with the exception of the depiction of the original lighting (from the end of The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”), all the rest of the detail is from Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”.

First, there’s the general setting:

“Theoden…had reached the road from the Gate to the River, and he turned towards the City that was now less than a mile distant…Ahead nearer the walls Elfhelm’s men were among the siege-engines…”

So, as a backdrop, there, potentially, are the walls of Minas Tirith.  What about the lighting?  Initially, it was this:

“For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed…”

But, suddenly:

“The new morning was blotted from the sky.”

This is the arrival of the chief of the Nazgul, who kills Snowmane, Theoden’s horse, and Theoden is pinned underneath him.  That chief is riding a very peculiar mount:

“…it was a winged creature:  if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers…Down, down it came…and settled upon the body of Snowmane, digging in its claws, stooping its long naked neck.”

Its rider is all menace:

“Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening.  A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes…A great black mace he wielded.”

At first, we might think that Theoden is alone, trapped under his horse:

“The knights of his house lay slain about him, or else mastered by the madness of their steeds were borne far away.”

But there is one survivor:  “Yet one stood there still:  Dernhelm…”

And there is another: 

“Right through the charge Merry had been borne unharmed behind him, until the Shadow came; and then Windfola had thrown them in his terror, and now ran wild upon the plain.  Merry crawled on all fours like a dazed beast…”

Now the scene is set for the action to come:

“There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgul Lord…A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm.  But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders…A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.”

Merry isn’t long at center stage:  “Slowly, slowly he began to crawl aside…”

There is a brief pause, then:

“Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings…Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Eowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.”

This turns out to be an ill-judged move as:

“A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly.  The outstretched neck she clover asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone.  Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth, and with its fall the shadow passed away.  A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise.”


“Out of the wreck rose the Black Rider, tall and threatening, towering above her.  With a cry of hatred…he let fall his mace.  Her shield was shivered in many pieces, and her arm was broken; she stumbled to her knees.  He bent over her like a cloud, and his eyes glittered; he raised his mace to kill.”

And reenter the unnoticed Merry:

“But suddenly he too stumbled forward with a cry of bitter pain, and his stroke went wide, driving into the ground.  Merry’s sword had stabbed him from behind, shearing through the black mantle, and passing up beneath the hauberk had pierced the sinew behind his mighty knee.”

When Eowyn completes his downfall:

“Then tottering, struggling up, with her last strength she drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her.  The sword broke sparkling into many shards.  The crown rolled away with a clang.  Eowyn fell forward upon her fallen foe.  But lo! The mantle and hauberk were empty.  Shapeless they lay now on the ground, torn and tumbled…”

This is obviously too much to incorporate in one picture (it takes two minutes and twenty-three seconds in the Jackson film version), but here could be the major elements of such an image:

1. the mile-away city as a backdrop

2. Theoden under his horse

3. the Nazgul on his beast

4. Eowyn standing in front of him

5. Merry lurking to one side

What choices, then, will a selection of artists make and which part of the action will they portray?

There are, in fact, heaps of illustrations to choose from, but, in the interests of space—and maybe sanity—I’ve narrowed it down to about a half-dozen, which I’ve selected as a mixture of mostly early and later depictions and all but one of which I believe to be among the most convincing.   As is my usual policy, rather than criticize (there is much too much of that on the internet, so much of it uninformed ranting), I just want to observe and comment.

Let’s begin with this, which I’d guess is the oldest, by the Hildebrandts.

As you can see, it’s the moment when Eowyn is about to remove the flying beast from the scene.  In terms of the setting, it’s missing Theoden under Snowmane, as well as the city in the distance, and Merry isn’t visible, everything being focused upon the bravery of Eowyn—but you’ll notice that the light has already reappeared, when the text specifically says that it only did after the beheading of the beast.

Our second image, and probably the second oldest, is by Frank Frazetta, known now mainly for his depictions of very lush women.  I almost didn’t add this, fearing that some of my readers might think it a bit over the top, but, as I was determined to employ a number of professional artists, it seemed important to include it.

This seems to me one of the most basic depictions, focusing entirely on only two figures, Eowyn and the Nazgul, who has had his crown replaced with a helmet, and leaving out any background, Theoden under Snowmane, the beast, and Merry.  Eowyn is dressed in very impractical armor and is still wearing her (equally impractical) helmet.  In contrast to the Hildebrants’ heroic view, this appears to show a defeated Eowyn, which, to me, misses the main point of the scene as the author presented it.

A third early illustration is by Angus McBride, who was primarily a military artist with a strong interest in ancient and medieval wars and armies.  Here’s his depiction of a Celtic chieftain in his chariot, for example.

And here’s his version of our scene.

If we count up the elements—Theoden under Snowmane, the Nazgul on his beast, a helmetless Eowyn (with the most convincing armor and shield—a proper mail hauberk and the white horse of Rohan on that shield), and Merry crawling in the foreground—not to mention Eowyn’s defiant pose—this strikes me as one of the images which is most faithful to the text.

We are lucky to have not one, but two illustrations by Ted Nasmith.

It’s always the case with Nasmith’s work that he is a very careful reader of Tolkien and both of these illustrations show the care with which he approaches a scene.  Although Theoden isn’t visible in the first, or the city, you’ll see both in the second and in both the Nazgul with beast, alive or dead, a defiant Eowyn, and Merry, sword in hand, in the foreground, just in sight.

As I’ve said, there are numerous versions of this scene, but I’ll include two more.  The first is by Donato Giancola and fits very nicely into the same careful  approach as those of McBride and Nasmith.

Here we see the walls, Theoden and Snowmane, the Nazgul and dead beast, the helmetless Eowyn, and a small Merry poised to deliver his deadly blow. 

The last is by the prolific Russian illustrator, Denis Gordeev.

No Minas Tirith, no Theoden and Snowmane, but definitely the Nazgul and part of the beast, Merry slipping up behind and what I suspect was, for the artist, the point of his depiction:  the defiant, helmetless Eowyn. 

So, dear readers, which of these is—or are—most memorable for you?

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

Strike skilled and deadly strokes,

And know that, as always, there’s




As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In my last posting, which was about goblins,  I quoted a stanza from a poem which my grandmother used to recite, James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” (1885).  Riley wanted to sound like someone from rural Ohio, so the poem is written in late 19th-century Midwestern US dialect:

“An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin

An’ make fun of ever’one, an’ all her blood an’ kin;

An’ onc’t, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks was there,

She mocked ‘em an’ shocked ‘em, an’ said she didn’t care!

An’ jist as she kicked up her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,

They was two great Black Things a-standin’ by her side,

An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed  what she’s about!

An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you

Ef you




(If you don’t know the poem, here’s a LINK to the whole text:  https://poets.org/poem/little-orphant-annie )

It was, for a small person, a fairly disturbing poem, and this stanza in particular, haunted me (pun definitely intended).   I was used to monsters of all types and sizes, from Frankenstein

to Godzilla,

to fairy tale dragons,

but somehow these goblins were especially troubling because, unlike those other creatures, who all had a distinctive look, these had no shape, being described as just “two great Black Things”. 

I forgot all about them, however—except for that warning at the end of the stanza—“And the Gobble-uns’ll  git ef you don’t watch out!” (always good to be watchful about the supernatural), until I was in grad school and I met this in Milton’s Paradise Lost:

“The other shape,

If shape it might be call’d that shape had none

Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb,

Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,

For each seem’d either;  black it stood as Night,

Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,

And shook a dreadful Dart; what seem’d his head

The likeness of a Kingly Crown had on.”

(Paradise Lost, Book II, 666-673)

It was a description of Death and there was that shapelessness again.  But there was another  shapeless something  in my life by then—and, I suspect for you, dear readers, as well:

“Upon it sat a shape, black-mantled, huge and threatening.  A crown of steel he bore, but between rim and robe naught was there to see, save only a deadly gleam of eyes:  the Lord of the Nazgul.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

(A wonderful image by Donato Giancola)

JRRT could be a little touchy about influences—see, for instance, this from a surviving draft of a letter to a “Mr. Drang”:

“As in the case with Moria.  In fact this first appeared in The Hobbit chap.1.  It was there, as I remember, a casual ‘echo’ of Soria Moria Castle in one of the Scandinavian tales translated by Dasent.  (The tale had no interest for me:  I had already forgotten it and have never since looked at it.  It was thus merely the source of the sound-sequence …”  (Letters, 384)

(Tolkien mentions  “Dasent”—who is actually Sir George W. Dasent—and “Scandinavian tales”—meaning his Popular Tales from the Norse (1859—actually a translation of a Norwegian work by Asbjornsen and Moe, 1843/4—and the two praised Dasent’s translation)—here’s a LINK for you for it:  https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8933/pg8933-images.html –in which said castle appears, but I suspect that it’s more likely that he read it—or probably first had it read to him by his mother—in Andrew Lang’s 1890 The Red Fairy Book.  Here’s a copy for you—https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Red_Fairy_Book )

And there’s only one direct mention of Milton in Letters (see page 344), but Tolkien was a Victorian, if a late one, which meant that, even as a schoolboy, he would have been exposed to what would then have been considered the core of English literature (and, to a degree, morality), poems like Paradise Lost (1667/1674)

(This is the 1674 edition, in which Milton made some changes to the text and redivided it from the original 10 into 12 books, inspired, I suspect, by the Aeneid.  And here’s a LINK to a copy of that edition for you:   https://archive.org/details/ParadiseLost1674CopyB )

and books like John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). 

(If you don’t own a copy, here’s a LINK to an 1878 facsimile of the first edition:   https://archive.org/details/pilgrimsprogress1878buny/page/n15/mode/2up )

There is also another echo, I think, in the same passage, where the Nazgul says to Eowyn:

“ ‘Hinder me?  Thou fool.  No living man may hinder me!’

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest.  It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel.  ‘But no living man am I!  You look upon a woman.  Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter.  You stand between me and my lord and kin.  Begone, if you be not deathless!  For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’ “

(by Ted Nasmith)

In Act IV of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606?),

Macbeth is given a series of prophecies by the same witches who had appeared to him in Act I.

One of these prophecies (delivered by the “Apparition” of a “Bloody Childe”) is:

Be bloody, bold, & resolute:

Laugh to scorne

The powre of man:  For none of woman borne

Shall harme Macbeth.”

(Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1, 1619-1622)

This makes Macbeth quite cocky as he polishes off one opponent, Seyward,  near the end of Act V, sneering at him as “borne of woman”.  But then he meets MacDuff (“MacDuffe” in the spelling of the First Folio (1623), from which my text comes) and to his boast:

“I beare a charmed Life, which must not yield

To one of woman borne.”

MacDuff replies:

“Dispaire thy Charme,

And let the Angell whom thou still hast serv’d

Tell thee, MacDuffe was from his Mother’s womb

Untimely ript.”

(Macbeth, Act V, Scene 7, 2451-6)

Needless to say, “Exeunt fighting”—“they leave [the stage] fighting”, but only MacDuff reenters—carrying Macbeth’s head.

Although Tolkien professes an early dislike of Shakespeare (Letters, 213), there is no doubt that he had read Macbeth, as he expresses his disappointment in Shakespeare’s employment of Birnam Wood.  Speaking of the Ents, he writes:

“Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill’. “

(Letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 212)

So, like it or not, somewhere in the back of JRRT’s capacious mind lay an image from Milton and an idea from Shakespeare, waiting to come together in a new and stirring scene.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Avoid elderly ladies making suspicious stews in public,

And know that, as ever, there’s




But if Shakespeare was “disliked cordially” by JRRT, the present author loves him and perhaps you do, too.  If so, you might enjoy reading him as I do, in the earliest editions, which give you a clearer sense of how “chewy” Shakespeare’s speech was.  Here’s a LINK to the First Folio version of Macbeth so that you can see what I mean:  https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Mac_F1/complete/index.html   And, if you’d like to learn about the reconstructed pronunciation of south-central English in Shakespeare’s time, have a look at this:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gi7IyqOjarA

Where the Goblins Go

“Ding-dong!  The Witch is dead!

Which old Witch?  The Wicked Witch!

Ding-dong!  The Wicked Witch is dead.

Wake up you sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed.

Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead.

She’s gone where the goblins go–

Below, below, below.

Yo-ho, let’s open up and sing and ring the bells out.

Ding-dong the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low.

Let them know the Wicked Witch is dead!”

(E.Y. Harburg, 1939—my additional punctuation where it seems to be needed)

Welcome, as always, dear readers.  This rather blood-thirsty ditty appears, as probably all readers know, after a house lands on an unsuspecting practitioner of magic, the Wicked Witch of the East.

She may be unsuspecting, but she is also an oppressor, having previously subjugated those now singing about her demise, the Munchkins.

(This desire to dominate seems to run in her family, as her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West,

is the terror of the Winkies—who also form her bodyguard.

If this is unfamiliar to you, here’s a map to help—

When I was very little and first saw The Wizard of Oz, something in this song, although one of rejoicing, puzzled me.  I knew what “goblins” were, sort of, from a poem which my grandmother used to recite, Jame Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” (1885).  Those goblins were mentioned at the end of most stanzas, but it was this stanza that stood out for me (it’s written in late 19th-century Midwestern US dialect, which is why some of the spelling might seem a little odd):

“An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin

An’ make fun of ever’one, an’ all her blood an’ kin;

An’ onc’t, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks was there,

She mocked ‘em an’ shocked ‘em, an’ said she didn’t care!

An’ jist as she kicked up her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,

They was two great Black Things a-standin’ by her side,

An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed  what she’s about!

An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you

Ef you




(If you don’t know the poem, here’s a LINK to the whole text:  https://poets.org/poem/little-orphant-annie )

But, if the goblins in the song went somehow “below”, where did those two “Things” come from which took the little girl through the ceiling?  My bedroom was at the top of the house, under the roof, and there were storage spaces tucked into the lower sides, each one closed by a little door,

and, when I went to bed at night, I began to be a little nervous:  did we have goblins in our house?  did the goblins live behind those doors?

We also had a small and very gloomy cellar, however, the dominant object being what seemed to me a gigantic coal furnace (yes, right out of the movie, Home Alone),

but away from its heat and light, there were nothing but dark, cobwebby corners.

I was as reluctant to go down there as I was to peek behind the little doors upstairs.  Was this “below”?

If so, it would certainly fit in with 19th-century depictions of goblins, like those in fairy tales, both folk and literary, which my mother and grandmother read to me—and which I later read to myself– like George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1870/2), illustrated by Arthur Hughes,

where the goblins live in an underground kingdom, but plan to tunnel to the surface to steal the princess of the book’s title and marry her to a goblin prince.  (May the idea of tunneling to the surface have been an inspiration for the gnomes of Underland in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair (1953) and their mistress, the Lady of the Green Kirtle’s, plan to invade the upper world through a tunnel?

The goblins’ underground dwellings, however, were much larger and more elaborate than our little basement and so, as I grew, did my sense of those goblins, so that, by the time I first read The Hobbit, I could easily imagine, when Bilbo and the dwarves have been captured, that:

“…they stumbled into a big cavern.

It was lit by a great red fire in the middle, and by torches along the walls…There in the shadows on a large flat stone sat a tremendous goblin with a huge head, and armed goblins were standing around him carrying the axes and the bent swords that they use.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

Now this was a real “below”—and, just as in the song, the place was full of goblins.

And yet there was always the lingering question, even if “below” could be answered—or at least imagined—why “below” at all? Why didn’t goblins live in villages, or trees, or on beaches?  James Whitcomb Riley, after all, could suggest that some at least used a house’s upper floor (and my small  person fear easily agreed with that).

But I suppose that the answer is really a very basic one.  What was behind those little doors upstairs and what lay in the corners of the cellar was darkness.  As Tolkien described the goblins:

“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted…”

to which Treebeard adds:

“It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun…” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

Above or below, then, the important element was avoiding the day and perhaps it’s instructive that, when I began to worry so much about those little doors that I couldn’t sleep, my mother bought me a flashlight.

As always, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Always carry extra batteries,

And remember that, as ever, there’s




And, if you don’t have a copy of The Princess and the Goblin, here’s a LINK to an edition from 1907, which includes Hughes’ original illustrations:  https://www.gatewaytotheclassics.com/browse/display.php?author=macdonald&book=goblin&story=_front


As ever, dear readers, welcome.

As Gondor musters to defend itself, we can see that Gondor is a feudal state: 

“And so the companies came and were hailed and cheered and passed through the Gate…The men of Ringlo Vale behind the son of their lord…a long line of men of many sorts…scantily equipped save for the household of Golasgil their lord…Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth…and a company of knights in full harness…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

In the early feudal system, a lord got his land from a king and, in return, he owed that king military service, meaning that, not only did he have to show up upon royal command, but he had to bring his own men with him.

In the 20th century, such a system was long gone, replaced in most of Europe in the mid-19th century by a system called conscription.  In this system, laws were passed so that men from about 18 and at least into their early 30s were to be graded as to their suitability to become soldiers, the youngest being selected to serve a certain number of years of active duty

before going into various stages of reserves, who could then be called up in case of war.

The purpose of this was to swell armies, as each increasingly-industrialized state sought to keep its position of power and influence in pre-Great War Europe.

The exception was Britain, which relied entirely upon willing recruits to fill the ranks of its much smaller regular army.

(You can see, by the way, by the wording of this poster, that, even though their army was much smaller, the plan was still to build up reserves.)

Thus, when war actually came in August, 1914, although the other European countries involved called in masses of reservists,

the British government had to depend initially upon volunteers.

This worked surprisingly well in 1914 and into 1915, in part because of native patriotism, but also because of a view of the German enemy projected in popular literature and the popular press.  Here’s the Kaiser, the German emperor Wilhelm II, about to take a big bite out of the world, for example.

Unfortunately, the Germans themselves provided a good deal of ammunition for such a view with their march through neutral Belgium in 1914

and their subsequent occupation.  During their last war with France, in 1870-71, Prussian and their allied troops had occasionally found themselves the victims of what we would call “partisans” or guerrillas, but the French—and the Germans—called them “francs tireurs”, meaning armed men not belonging to a recognized military unit who would try to sabotage Prussian war efforts by everything from train derailments to ambushing individual soldiers.

In 1914, the Germans were convinced that they would face the same thing in Belgium and northern France, and so behaved mercilessly to civilians of those two countries, murdering, by some reports, over 7000 of them as well as destroying public buildings, including the priceless medieval library in Louvain/Leuven.

The destruction of Louvain/Leuven is well documented, but some of the stories about atrocities were undoubtedly simply exaggerations or even complete fictions, but, as we’ve seen in the internet age, rumors are sometimes more powerful than truth and Britain, in need of soldiers, was certainly willing to use any reports, as distorted as they might be, as a recruiting stimulus.  And so the Germans became everything from uniformed, bloated vampires  (the caption reads: “The ferocious beast feels hunger coming on”)

to maddened gorillas,

the Kaiser an ally of the Devil,

and all civilians and their homes everywhere would be endangered by them.

Although the British themselves instituted conscription in early 1916,

the grotesque propaganda continued, as the war ground into 1917 and then through most of 1918.

And the Germans, from the war’s start, projected their own image of the enemy.  A favorite was Britain as a blood-sucking spider, planning to bring all of Europe—

and perhaps beyond–

into its web.  Often in posters and on postcards, German soldiers are depicted as bigger than their enemies, as if they were adults and their adversaries were only little boys in uniform.

(The verses read:  “Strike, Michael/strike strongly/so that the sparks fly/so they have dread and gloom before the German blows”—it’s catchier auf deutsch)

I can never look at such artwork without thinking just how much at least of the English variety Tolkien must have seen.  It’s clear that, although he would have been 21 and over in 1914,

he wasn’t one to rush to a recruiting station as so many did,

so that I can imagine he would have had a skeptical reaction to such stuff, at best.

But, in a “what if” moment, I imagine a Gondor much more like 1914 Britain, where the feudal system has gone and there is general literacy:  can we imagine the posters Denethor’s administration would have turned out?  Orcs looting Osgiliath, Orcs burning the Pelennor, a mounted  Nazgul in the ruined gateway of Minas Tirith with the words,  “Will You Wait Till You See This?”

And, of course, there would be the other side’s propaganda, too—big red, staring eyes everywhere,

like that painted on the replacement for the fallen head of the unnamed king at the crossroads in South Ithilien,

and perhaps posters (to be read aloud by the few literate among the Orcs to the masses of others) like this,

with a slight revision of the words:  “If You Were a Horse Boy Aged 18-50, YOU Would Be Fighting for Theoden!   What Are You Doing for the Eye!”

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Don’t believe all you read,

And know that, as always, there’s



Thirty Days Hath…

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Since Grima attempted to brain Gandalf with something he seems to have randomly picked up in Orthanc,

things have not gone well for Pippin.  Tempted to examine the makeshift weapon, he has suffered an interrogation from Sauron

and now is flying south at great speed on Shadowfax with Gandalf as his companion.

(a drawing by Anna Kulisz)

As they ride, Pippin:

“…heard Gandalf singing softly to himself, murmuring brief snatches  of rhyme in many tongues, as the miles ran under them.  At last the wizard passed into a song of which the hobbit caught the words:  a few lines came clear to his ears through the rushing of the wind:

‘Tall ships and tall kings

Three times three,

What brought they from the foundered land

Over the flowing sea?

Seven stars and seven stones

And one white tree.’

‘What are you saying, Gandalf?’ asked Pippin.

‘I was just running over some of the Rhymes of Lore in my mind,’ answered the wizard.  ‘Hobbits, I suppose, have forgotten them, even those that they ever knew.’

‘No, not all,’ said Pippin.  ‘And we have many of our own, which wouldn’t interest you, perhaps.’ “

(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 11, “The Palantir”)

It’s not only wizards and hobbits who have such lore, however.   Treebeard

also has a stock, as we can see in his conversation with Merry and Pippin:

“  ‘What are you, I wonder?  I cannot place you.  You do not seem to come in the old lists that I learned when I was young.  But that was a long, long time ago, and they may have made new lists.  Let me see!  Let me see!  How did it go?

“Learn now the lore of Living Creatures!

First name the four, the free peoples:

Eldest of all, the elf-children;

Dwarf the delver, dark are his houses;

Ent, the earthborn, old as mountains;

Man the mortal, master of horses;”

Hm, hm, hm.

“Beaver the builder, buck the leaper,

Bear, bee-hunter, boar the fighter;

Hound is hungry, hare is fearful…”

hm, hm.

“Eagle in eyrie, ox in pasture,

Hart horn-crowned; hawk is swiftest,

Swan the whitest, serpent coldest…”

Hoom, hm; hoom, hm, how did it go?  Room tum, room tum, roomty toom tum.  It was a long list.’ “

(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

It’s interesting to note that both Gandalf and Treebeard’s lore is patterned in verse forms, Gandalf’s in a 6-line stanza of a/b/c/b/d/b and Treebeard’s, which has the suggestion of the common Old English four-stress, alliterative line which we see in poems like Beowulf.

Hwaet!  We Gardena    in geardagum

Theodcyninga    thrym gefrunon…

 Silence!  We Spear-Danes    in the so-long past time

Heard of the heroics    of high kings of the people…

(My translation—not strictly accurate, but I want to give the feel of the form.  For the original, as well as a more literal translation, please see one of my favorite Old English sites:  https://heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html   For more on the form, see:   http://oe.langeslag.org/docs/s01c_verse.pdf  )

There’s a telling detail, by the way, in Treebeard’s “ Room tum, room tum, roomty toom tum”.   If we emphasize certain syllables, we can see that he’s trying to stir his memory of the next lines by doing the stresses of the poem:   ROOM tum  ROOM tum   ROOM-ty TOOM tum, as in DWARF the DEL-ver   DARK are his HOUS-es .

Keeping things in your memory is an ancient concern in Western culture, going back to the Greco-Roman world, particularly for public speakers—politicians and lawyers–and the Greeks even had a goddess for memory, Mnemosyne (Mnay-MAH-sih-nee, in modern—American—English pronunciation).

There were various ingenious methods created both for remembering and for developing the memory, some of them quite elaborate, such as that cited in our earliest-surviving Latin rhetorical text, the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium (c.80BC), in which the author explains a complex association system based upon loci, “places” and imagines, “figures/images”.

(Here’s the Latin with an English translation, if you’d like to learn more:  https://archive.org/details/adcherenniumdera00capluoft  You’ll want to turn to Book III, Section XVI and beyond, beginning on page 205.)

As well, just as appears to be the case in Middle-earth, the use of rhythm and/or rhyme is common in Western wisdom literature, even for remembering the most basic things.  In English, for example, with what can sometimes seem like a completely arbitrary spelling system, how do we remember which comes first, I or E in a word?

“I before E,

except after C—

Or, when sounded like AY,

As in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’.

Or the Julio-Gregorian calendar—which months have how many days?

“Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.”

This, unfortunately, leaves out 28-day February, with its extra day, every four years, and so there is a little more:

“All the rest have thirty-one

Save February at twenty-eight,

But leap year, coming once in four,

February then has one day more.”

This starts out with a bounce, but stumbles, doesn’t it, at “Save February at twenty-eight”?  Perhaps if we rewrote it as something like

“Thirty-one the rest—but wait—

February’s twenty-eight

Except in leap year—one in four—

And then that month has one day more.”

(For an article which covers a good deal of ground on the subject of this little useful rhyme see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Days_Hath_September

Mnemosyne was said to have been seduced by Zeus, who appeared to her disguised as a shepherd.

He slept with her over nine days and the fruit of that seduction was the 9 Muses,

who inspired all of the arts, which, although they require creativity to bring into being, also require their mother’s gift of memory to retain what is created.  Several goddesses are involved in the creation of poetry—Calliope,


and Erato–

so I wonder who may have inspired Merry and Pippin to suggest adding to Treebeard’s lore:

“ ‘We always seem to have got left out of the old lists, and the old stories,’ said Merry.  ‘Yet we’ve been about for quite a long time.  We’re hobbits.’

‘Why not make a new line?’ said Pippin.

Half-grown hobbits, the hole-dwellers.

Put us in amongst the four, next to Man (the Big People) and you’ve got it.’ “

As always, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Keep your thoughts in order,

And know that there will always be