On Thin Ice

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

This posting is an example of…fan-tasy fiction, I’d guess.  I’ve always thought that it was good for people to admire a writer so much that they wanted to write in her/his style, or use her/his characters in a new adventure.  On the one hand, it can help in the development of a writer’s own style, and, on the other, it can, perhaps, produce something fresh about people I’ve followed through books. For myself, I would certainly like to know how Eowyn was trained as a shield maiden, for example, or what happened to Long John Silver after he escaped from Treasure Island, or why Sherlock Holmes, in retirement, really took up beekeeping! 

It’s becoming real winter here in the northern US, with some snowfall about once a week or so, and, probably from reading too much 19th-century Russian fiction, I always imagine moonlight and wolves at this time of year.

Unfortunately, we don’t actually have local wolves, but we do have coyotes,  a pack of which I heard just the other night,

and snow and coyote calls, brought to mind this detail from “The Ring Goes South”:

“No living hobbit (save Bilbo) could remember the Fell Winter of 1311, when white wolves invaded the Shire over the frozen Brandywine.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3)

So, I thought, the Baranduin can freeze.  And, if it can freeze, but there aren’t any white wolves, what might you do with it?  Clearly some hobbits thought there was fun to be had there in warmer weather—until it went all wrong, as Gaffer Gamgee tells it:

“And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall…and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Although the Gaffer’s Hobbiton audience disapproves, it seems that the “queer folk” along the river thought that “messing about in boats”, as Ratty refers to the sport in the first chapter of The Wind in the Willows,

was a perfectly normal activity.

So, putting together:

a. the river being capable of freezing

b. hobbits having fun on the river,

I wondered:  perhaps they could have winter entertainment on the water, as well?

As far as I currently know, there is no reference in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings to ice skating,

but, as I said at the opening, this is a bit of fan-tasy, so why not?

Because so much of Middle-earth is based upon events and details of our world, and, in particular, of our medieval world, I thought that perhaps I might find historical authority for speeding across the ice here, if I could discover no scriptural authority there.

If, dear readers, you’ve ever learned to skate, you won’t be surprised to learn that what appears to be one of the earliest illustrations of ice skating, which dates from 1498, is this–

from a biography of Saint Lidwine (or Lydwine–you see both spellings), 1380-1433, of Schiedam, in the Netherlands.  (She was actually knocked over by someone else who came barreling up behind her.)

But skating, it turns out, is much older than 1498.  In fact, the earliest skates appear to date from about 1800BC, from Finland.  Although these are a later archaeological discovery, from Viking Dublin, they probably looked something like this—

Certainly nothing like modern ice skates,

and the technique for using them was also very different, as we can see from this 1539 Swedish map.

Instead of using their legs to move them along, as modern skaters do, early skaters poled themselves.  Here’s a LINK to a very interesting article about one man’s experiments in trying to figure out how to fashion such skates and to use them:  http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/ice_skates.htm

The skates themselves were made of horse or cow bones and, rather than cutting into the ice, slid across it. 

The first use of metal blades appears to date from about the 13th century and to come from the area of the Netherlands.  Here’s an illustration from a psalter (collection of psalms) made in Ghent in the 1320-30s.

(This is from Ms.Douce 5,  in the collection of the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  It has many wonderful illustrations—there’s someone sledding on the same page—as you can see for yourself, if you follow this LINK:   https://medieval.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/catalog/manuscript_4476 )

You can see that poor St Lidwine was using these later skates when she had her accident.

Such skates clearly also changed the method of propulsion, from a pole to a leg, and seem to have added another reason for skating from simple movement across icy ponds and down frozen streams to having fun on the ice, as these late-Renaissance Dutch paintings show.

The first book in English on skating was published in 1772:  Robert Jones, A Treatise On Skating, with a number of editions up to the 1850s, but, to look at these two portraits, Gilbert Stuart’s “Portrait of William Grant” (1782)

and Henry Raeburn’s “The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch” (1790’s—and there’s some discussion about Raeburn being the artist—see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Skating_Minister )

skating had become as popular an entertainment in the UK as it had been in the Renaissance Netherlands. 

And so, in my fun-fan-tasy, I’m imagining those rascals, Merry and Pippin, joining others along the frozen Brandywine to slap on their skates—the metal variety—to zoom across the ice, perhaps to the disapproval of the Gaffer and his cronies in The Ivy Bush, when they hear of such behavior among those “queer folk” in Buckland.

Thanks for reading, as always,

Stay well—be sure to test the ice beforehand—

And trust that there will be




I case you haven’t read that last Sherlock Holmes adventure in which he has taken to bee-keeping,

here’s a LINK:  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/His_Last_Bow.-_The_War_Service_of_Sherlock_Holmes

Pigs is Pigs?

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In my last, I began to talk about pigs in early Western literature, from Herakles’ capture of the Erymanthian Boar

to the Kalydonian Boar Hunt,

to the scar on Odysseus’ thigh, which almost got him killed when it was discovered by his old nurse, Eurykleia.

In all of these stories, the pig in question is a wild boar and hunting it down was both an heroic sport and a form of pest-control.

There was so much material, however—much more than I could use in a whole series on pigs—that I thought that I would add a second posting to take the story a bit farther.

If you do your own research—and I hope that you will—you will find that there are all sorts of theories about the importance of the boar in the world of the early Indo-Europeans, and the Celts, in particular, but, practically speaking, the main importance for such people was this—

(For several interesting postings on the subject of boars and symbolism, see:

https://balkancelts.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/merida-cult-add.jpg?w=820   and  https://wordandsilence.com/2017/07/28/dont-be-such-a-boar/  

Apologies, by the way, to any reader who is a vegetarian or vegan, which is why I selected this authentic historical illustration.)

Pigs supplied a major source of protein for anyone who kept them.  The meat was also, as I understand it, easy to preserve, either by smoking

or salting,

and, in a world before refrigeration, such preserved meat would be crucial for surviving winter in northern climates.

(We take salt for granted, but in earlier times, salt was an extremely important and valuable commodity.  One source of power for the early Romans, in fact, was that their settlement, on those seven hills, potentially controlled a ford across the Tiber over which ran the Via Salaria, the Salt Road, which led inland from the salt pans on the west coast of Italy.)

It’s not surprising, then, that pig was the preferred food of heroes.  The warriors carried by the Valkyries to Valhalla were said to be fed by Saehrimnir, a boar who could be killed, consumed, and reborn every day as the main course in feasts.

And, in the Irish world, their heroes could come to all-out warfare over the carving and distribution of Mac Datho’s pig.

(This is a wonderful, weird story—like so many Old Irish stories–and the first one I studied when I began to learn Old Irish.  Here’s a LINK to an early translation by A.H. Leahy (1857-1928) so that you can enjoy it yourself:  https://sejh.pagesperso-orange.fr/keltia/version-en/datho2-en.html  )

By ingesting the boar, we might imagine that heroes believed that they acquired something of its power.  By putting it on their helmets, as is not only mentioned in Beowulf (see lines 1326-1328), but for which we have archaeological evidence,

perhaps Anglo-Saxon (and Celtic) warriors thought that they could add a little of the menace that boars in the wild could convey.

You only have to look at the kind of spear used in hunting them to see what those who did feared—

When a boar attacked, it would continue attacking, even if it ran onto your spear, which is why there is that crosspiece below the head:  to try to stop if from getting any closer!

Pigs might feed heroes, but pigs themselves need feeding.  They are omnivores who, in the wild, spend their days consuming what lies on the ground or digging into it.

In feudal western Europe, one could have pannage, which is the right to graze pigs on common land.

Pigs were turned out in late summer/early autumn, when many of the trees were shedding their fruit, like hazel and acorn.

Here we see two farm workers assisting the trees—and the pigs.

In later autumn, they were rounded up and slaughtered, most of the meat probably being preserved for winter, but a certain amount being put aside for the traditional turn-of-the-season feast, around the end of October—the holiday we still celebrate here in the US as Halloween.

If pigs were that important, both heroically and historically, perhaps pig-keepers were, as well?  Certainly, in the Old Irish story of “The Quarrel of the Two Pig Keepers”, Friuch and Rucht, the two keepers, are not only attached to royal households, but have a knowledge of magical arts, being shape-shifters, who eventually battle each other in various forms until they are finally trapped in the bodies of two bulls.  (To learn more about this, here’s a link to Lady Gregory’s 1902 translation, Cuchulain of Muirthemnehttps://archive.org/details/cuchulainofmuirt00greg_0/page/268/mode/2up   Turn to page 268 and read on.)

Which brings us to the title of this posting:  if pig-keepers aren’t always pig-keepers, at least in the Old Irish story, are pigs necessarily always pigs?  In Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series,

which is based upon Welsh versions of Celtic myth, we have two characters who aren’t quite what they seem.  The first is Taran, a foundling, appointed by his master, Dallben (that’s DATH-ben, with the double ll sounding a bit like a lisp out of the side of your mouth), as Assistant Pig-Keeper.  By the end of the series, we—and Taran—discover that he is, in fact, the heir to the throne of Prydain (sorry for the spoiler, but the books are so good that it hardly matters).  As Assistant Pig-Keeper, Taran has only one pig, Hen Wen (“Old Whitey” from hen, “old” and gwyn, “white”?), who, like Taran, is not what she appears to be but is an “oracular pig”:  that is, a pig who can sense the future, which she conveys using a bundle of letter sticks.

From threat to food source to symbol of power to agent of prophecy—what else might an ambitious pig be or do?

As always, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

And know that, as ever, there is




The first image, of Herakles and the Boar, is a cast bronze by Giambologna (jahm-boh-LOE-nya), actually Jean de Boulogne (1529-1608).

In his time, he was a famous and influential sculptor, but equally known for his work in bronze.  There are lots of images available on-line of his marble work and his bronzes, but my favorites are his wonderful cast bronzes of animals and birds, a group of which I saw in Florence some years ago.   Here’s a particular favorite–

It’s a Boar

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Pigs have had a prominent place in Western literature for many centuries.  In my first encounter with them, they were deeply interested in architectural experimentation and predator control.

One built a house of straw, a second a house of sticks, the third a house of bricks, as in the illustration.  Needless to say, when a wolf with very strong lungs arrived, he blew down the first and second houses, dealt with the residents, but failed against the third.

In case you don’t know this story, commonly called “The Three Little Pigs” in English (and that’s just one name for it—see this LINK for various versions– https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0124.html#halliwell ) here’s a standard telling, from Andrew Lang’s 1892 The Green Fairy Book: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/33571/33571-h/33571-h.htm

Although there are claims that the story is older, the earliest versions I’ve seen so far all date from the 19th century.  There’s a somewhat odd one from 1853, to be found in English Forests and Forest Trees:  Historical, Legendary, and Descriptive, 189-190, in which the three pigs have been replaced by three pixies.  (“Pigsy” is a variant spelling for “pixie”, so perhaps that’s where the confusion came in. Here’s a link to English Forests, in case you’d like to see the story in context:  https://archive.org/details/englishforestsa01unkngoog )

Pigs themselves, however, appear at the very beginnings of Western literature, where we see Herakles dealing with a very large member of the species, the Erymanthian Boar, as one of his Labors.

(The person in the pot is his relative, Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, who has been given the job of devising and supervising the labors of Heracles, which are supposed to be a kind of penance for Herakles’ earlier murder of his first wife and their children–oh—and pulling his house down around them, as well.

Needless to say, he quickly comes to regret his appointment, taking refuge in this pottery bunker whenever word comes to him that Herakles has returned with a new trophy.)

And, in the case of a wild boar, perhaps he was wise to do so.  The modern variety

can weigh over 600 pounds (272kg), is fast on his feet, and is said to be extremely intelligent. 

Here’s the view of a 14th-century AD hunter on the subject:

“. It is the beast of this world that is strongest armed, and can sooner slay a man than any other. Neither is there any beast that he could not slay if they were alone sooner than that other beast could slay him, be they lion or leopard, unless they should leap upon his back, so that he could not turn on them with his teeth. And there is neither lion nor leopard that slayeth a man at one stroke as a boar doth, for they mostly kill with the raising of their claws and through biting, but the wild boar slayeth a man with one stroke as with a knife, and therefore he can slay any other beast sooner than they could slay him.”

(The Master of Game, primarily an early 15th-century English translation by Edward Duke of York of Gaston Phebus’ Livre de Chasse, written in the late 1380s.  For a modern edition and all that is said about boars, see this link:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43452/43452-h/43452-h.htm#CHAPTER_VI)

Besides weight and speed, the killing weapon, as described above, is the tusk—

Our second view of a boar is from the Kalydonian Boar Hunt.

This illustration is from the neck of the well-known early 6th-century BC “Francois Vase” (actually a large volute krater or mixing bowl—Greeks, at least at parties, usually mixed their wine with water).  One of a number of epic stories, like the attack on Troy, which brought in many famous heroes, it all happened because the king of Kalydon in western mainland Greece, neglected to make a sacrifice to Artemis.

(Here she is, with her twin, Apollo.)

In return, Artemis, as the mistress of wild animals,

sent a boar to terrorize the land and destroy the crops.  As boars’ method of grazing rips up the landscape,

this was probably even more serious than the direct threat of porcine violence.  Hunters gathered from all over the ancient Greek world (many of them are named on the vase) and, although the boar was ultimately killed, Artemis’ vengeance continued as a quarrel broke out over who would claim the carcass and this led to a civil war.

It’s no wonder, then, that the proto-Greeks, whom we call the Myceneans, would manufacture a piece of what I would suggest is trophy-armor, a leather cap covered in boars’ tusks.

As teeth dry out and become brittle after leaving the gums, I doubt that this would have provided much protection in battle, but it would certainly have backed up a warrior’s claim to being a more-than-capable hunter.

Odysseus himself, is given one of these in Book 10 of the Iliad

“And Meriones gave to Odysseus a bow and quiver

And sword, and put a cap around his head

Made of hide.  It was pulled tightly inside with many straps

And outside the white tusks of a shining-tooth boar

Were well and skillfully held close together…”

(The Iliad, Book 10, 260-265, my translation)

And Odysseus had good cause for being glad that at least one boar had contributed his tusks:  when Odysseus was a teenager, he had gone on a hunt with his grandfather, Autolykos, and a boar had ripped open his thigh,

leaving a scar which was visible many years later.  This scar provided evidence which was handy in helping to prove that he was Odysseus, when he had secretly returned to Ithaka after 20 years away, but had almost proved the end of his secret—and perhaps of him—when it was identified by his old nurse, Eurykleia, who, in her surprise, was only blocked by Odysseus’ quick reaction from revealing his identity.

In The Odyssey, there is another approach to dealing with swine, however.  Circe the sorceress, who has a menagerie of one-time savage beasts already,

has no need to hunt them when, with a magic drink and a tap of her staff,

she can have as many pigs as she wants, with no risk at all—to herself.

At least at first…

There’s more to be said, but, lest we pig out on the subject (sorry!), I’ll continue this in my next posting, where we’ll move from the Classical world to the medieval.

In the meantime,

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And know that, as always, there’s



Take a Letter!

Welcome, dear readers, as ever and Happy New Year (for those who follow the Gregorian Calendar).

Vlad the Impaler has turned up more than once in this blog.

He does so primarily because he is the wonderfully menacing villain of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.

I’ve now taught this book several times and it always seems to catch student attention—not surprising, even considering the denser language of late Victorian fiction and the sometimes outdated social  attitudes, since the basic story, that the equivalent of a combination of highly-intelligent predator

and virus

has plans to invade England and to use the first-class railway system

to spread his infection, is so well handled that it still seems disturbing even now, 123 years after its initial publication–and further proof of this is that it’s never been out of print in its history.

Each time I teach it, something different always pops out.  This time, it was just how much of Dracula’s ultimate defeat is owed to the daily work of Victorian offices.

This might seem very odd, at first.  Imagine the terrifying Terminator

or the saliva-dripping Alien

destroyed by a color copier.

And it requires more than such work to put an end to the vampire and his designs—stakes

and Bowie knives

a Gurkha kukri,

and even Winchester rifles,

but major weapons in the campaign are this

and this

and this.

The novel begins, in fact, with the first of these.  The first protagonist we meet is Jonathan Harker, a clerk for an English attorney, on his way in a public coach, called a “diligence”,

to meet a client, a nobleman who lives deep in the mountains of Transylvania.

He keeps a journal—in shorthand, a page of which might look like this:

Shorthand has a very long history in the West.  The earliest mention I can find is in Plutarch’s (c46-119AD) life of Cato the Younger ( 95-46BC) , where it is said that the only one of his Senate speeches survives because the Consul, Cicero (106-43BC),

had  stationed shorthand writers in the Senate, who took down the speech as it was spoken (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, Section 23, Paragraph 3—if you’d like to read this for yourself, here’s a LINK to the whole text—just scroll down to the appropriate section:  https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Cato_Minor*.html )

There is, as is so often the case with ancient details, a good deal of discussion, both in the classical world and among later scholars, about how this shorthand came into being.  One possibility was that it came through Cicero’s secretary (and slave), Tiro, and the practice, which included increasingly long lists of symbols, called “Tironian notes”, continued  in one form or other up through the Renaissance. 

The first modern system for English-speakers was created by John Byrom (1692-1763).

Instead of being based upon a huge collection of symbols, Byrom’s system was based upon capturing sounds—here’s a 1730s journal entry by him using his method.

His method became a common one after its posthumous publication in 1767 as The Universal English Short-Hand

with a rival in that of Samuel Taylor’s 1786 An Essay Intended to Establish a Standard for a Universal System of Stenography, or Short-hand Writing, which appears to have overtaken and replaced Byrom’s method.

And I imagine that this was the system which the young Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

taught himself so that he could get his first writing job—as a Parliamentary debate reporter.

In time, however, this method was replaced by that invented by Sir Isaac Pitman (1813-1897)

first published in 1837.

Not only does Jonathan keep a diary in shorthand, but his wife-to-be, Mina, tells us in a letter to her friend, Lucy Westenra, that she has been studying and practicing it as well,  so that

 “When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan, and if I can stenograph well enough I can take down what he wants to say in this way and write it out for him on the typewriter, at which also I am practising very hard.” (Dracula, Chapter V—if you want to follow along, here’s a LINK to the text I’m using—it’s the 1897 American edition, available at Gutenberg:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/345/345-h/345-h.htm )

We see here two of the elements I mentioned earlier, shorthand and the typewriter. 

Unlike shorthand, typewriters were relatively new in 1897.  Although there had been earlier tries at its invention, the first commercially practical machine was patented in 1868

and was first manufactured in 1873.

The third element appears a little later in time as well as in Chapter V, where we meet another major character, Dr Seward, who is the director of an asylum and keeps his diary on what he calls a “phonograph”.

This is what we now call a “Dictaphone” and was the offspring of two remarkable 19th-century inventors, Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

and Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

Although Edison invented sound recording, it was Bell who created the first viable medium, the wax cylinder,

which Bell then employed in the 1880s for a business function:  recording thoughts on such cyclinders—

which could then be listened to and transcribed by a secretary onto paper—with pen or typewriter.

So, knowing a little something about these office weapons, how are they used in the book?

As readers, our first knowledge of Dracula comes from Jonathan Harker’s journal, which, as we’ve seen, was written in shorthand.  We also know that Mina, who will become Harker’s wife, practices shorthand herself, and can type.  After Harker’s eventual escape from the Count’s castle, he hands his journal to Mina, and, eventually, she reads it—and does something more.  When another character, and a very important one, Professor Van Helsing, seeking information, comes to visit Mina and her now-husband, she says to him:

“If you will let me, I shall give you a paper to read. It is long, but I have typewritten it out. It will tell you my trouble and Jonathan’s. It is the copy of his journal when abroad, and all that happened. I dare not say anything of it; you will read for yourself and judge.” (Dracula, Chapter 14)

Mina adds to this a copy of her own diary, kept at the time when she and her friend, Lucy, are at Whitby, on the northeastern English coast, and Lucy is first attacked by Dracula.  In time, she will do something more:  listen to, and transcribe the wax cyclinders of Dr Seward’s diary–

“He accordingly set the phonograph at a slow pace, and I began to typewrite from the beginning of the seventh cylinder. I used manifold, and so took three copies of the diary, just as I had done with all the rest.” (Dracula, Chapter XVII)

Seward had treated Lucy as she fell under Dracula’s influence and, when he was baffled by what was happening to her, called in his former teacher, Professor Van Helsing and, with Mina’s professional skill, what he had seen and experienced then became part of the on-going record of Dracula and his activities.

“Manifold” is what we would call “carbon paper”, a method which allows a typist to make multiple copies simultaneously and which is sometimes still used to make copies of receipts.

This will be especially useful when Dracula enters Dr Seward’s asylum, attacks Mina (again) and tries to destroy all records of himself:

“ ‘All the manuscript had been burned, and the blue flames were flickering amongst the white ashes; the cylinders of your phonograph too were thrown on the fire, and the wax had helped the flames.” Here I interrupted. “Thank God there is the other copy in the safe!’ “ (Dracula, Chapter XXI)

What Mina has done, then, is to provide, through her office skills, as complete a record as can be constructed of Dracula’s aims and actions, not only in England, but through Jonathan’s journal, at his lair, the castle in Transylvania.

Bran Castle illuminated in rural landscape, Bran, Brasov, Romania

(This is Bran castle, which some believe may have been a model for Stoker.)

With it, Van Helsing has learned so much that, as he plans further action against the vampire, he will say of her:

“ “Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart.’ “ (Dracula, Chapter XVIII)

Add to that a typist’s sure fingers.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And know that, as always there’s




As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Back in early November, I wrote a posting which explored the idea of how Bilbo had “learned [Sam] his letters”. 

Because Middle-earth is a place which roughly mirrors the Western Middle Ages, I imagined that Bilbo had begun with the equivalent of the Roman alphabet, Tengwar, and Sam had practiced saying and writing the letters.  In earlier times, just as literate people were many fewer in the West until the 19th century, material for writing was often hard to come by.  Scriptoria (medieval writing centers in ecclesiastical establishments)

used prepared animal skins—parchment–for copying older works and writing new ones.

Our paper, made from wood pulp, is a 19th-century invention, created as a replacement for its predecessor, paper made from rags.  The earlier paper had been invented by the Chinese about 100AD, only reaching the West, via the Islamic world, by the 12th century.

As literacy grew rapidly in the West in the 19th century and printing methods improved, the demand for the older rag paper outpaced supply.  This brought on a shortage and it seems that wood pulp paper was produced as a cheaper and more plentiful substitute.  With our medieval view of Middle-earth, then, we can expect that Bilbo, being wealthy, could afford as much parchment as he wanted, but we can also expect that, like medieval students, as they learned their letters, Sam might have used a cheaper and easily-renewable resource:   a slate and chalk,

or another tool, handed down from the Classical world,

the diptych of wax-covered board and stilus.

We might see another part of what we can imagine was Sam’s education in something he does on the long journey into Mordor:

“Sam stood up, putting his hands behind his back (as he always did when ‘speaking poetry’), and began…”—his poem being that about the “oliphaunt”.  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed”)

Medieval schoolrooms, for all that they were situated in places which often had strict rules about speech and silence, must have been relatively noisy places.  First, because books were copied by hand, which took time, and the materials were somewhat expensive, there would have been few of them–perhaps, in fact, only one copy of the text and that in the hands of the master, who would have read the text to be studied aloud, while the students took notes—like Sam, on slate or tablet.

Second, because, unlike the modern idea of reading:  eyes scanning the page, mouth tightly shut,

Western people all the way back to the Greeks, whose alphabet, derived from the Phoenician, forms the basis of the Roman writing system which, in turn, forms the basis of the system I’m writing this posting in, customarily read everything aloud.  They would begin to do this from their days learning the letters

and continue throughout their lives.

In fact, monastery schools, like that of St Gall in what is now western Switzerland,

taught not only how to make sense of the letters, words and sentences, but how to deliver a text publicly.  This was important in worship services,

but it was also employed during mealtimes, when one of the monks would be given the job of reading some religious work aloud while the others ate.

 There were strict standards for public reading and so early drill was intense and texts might even carry conventional signs to indicate things like correct pronunciation, where it was appropriate to raise or lower the voice, and where and how to end a passage.

A schoolroom, then, would be filled with voices, those of the master reading and commenting and correcting, those of the students reciting and repeating what they’d been taught—just like Sam and his “speaking poetry”. 

It’s not known why people began to read silently, although there is lots of theory and scholarly argument on the subject.  Certainly it seems to be true that, somewhere perhaps in the later 17th century, the custom had changed. 

This isn’t to say that, by the way, that everyone from the beginning had conformed to the custom.  In a famous passage in his autobiography (Book 6, Chapter 3), St Augustine (354-430AD)

 describes his bishop in Milan, St Ambrose (c340-397AD),

as a silent reader.  Scholars have seen this from two directions, depending on what they want to say about the act of reading.  Some say that this suggests that it wasn’t unusual for at least some people to read to themselves.  Others, however, say that St Augustine mentions it because it seems so odd.  For myself, I suspect that it’s the latter, but, not being so well-versed in both texts and arguments as such scholars, I would claim that this is no more than a hunch on my part.

Although there is academic argument over silent versus aloud, I’ve recently been rereading a fantasy novel in which, for some people, it’s actually dangerous for them to read aloud.  This is Inkheart (Tintenherz  in the original German),

published in 2003, and written by Cornelia Funke.        

In time, she has added two more novels to this, Inkspell (Tintenblut—why the title change, I don’t know) 2005, and Inkdeath (Tintentod) 2007.  (She now promises a fourth volume, Die Farbe der RacheThe Color of Revenge—to be published next October.)

These are books all about the love of books and the adventures you can find in them—and the peril if they become too real, a major theme being that there are certain people in the world whose ability to read a book—specifically a novel—is so magical that they can actually bring characters out of books—and send people into them (a sort of literary cosmic balance).

Needless to say, I recommend them to you, along with an earlier novel, Herr der Diebe (The Thief Lord )

published in Germany in 2000 and in an English translation in 2002.

But—at this moment, it’s almost Christmas—or, if you prefer, the Feast of Sol Invictus, or that which Bilbo and Gandalf celebrate with Beorn, Yule, and, while I continue to read, I’m in hopes that someone else has read something of mine and, following that list, is bringing a pile of treats on his epic trip Thursday night flight.  (He can’t be scanning my list—that one’s much too short!)

Because this blog has readers from around the world, perhaps the best wish that I can make is that the new year brings peace and health throughout the world for everyone.

In the meantime,

Thanks, as always for reading, stay well,

And trust that, in the last week of the old year, there will be




I would also recommend the films made from The Thief Lord (2006)

and Inkheart (2008).

Both do a very good job of providing you with a visual context for their respective books, as well as employing actors who do a convincing job of being their characters.

One Amazon Too Many?

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

As I taught The Hobbit again this term, a student’s question from last year came back to me once more:  “Where are the women?”

The answer is, aside from a few words about Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna nee Took (about whom I would love to know so much more—why was Gandalf, not, I would say, someone easily impressed–so taken with her?) and her sisters, the answer is simple:  there really aren’t any.  An author as fruitfully inventive as Tolkien (just look at the pile of volumes of manuscript material published by Christopher Tolkien) could easily have created some, but didn’t.  And, as far as I know, he provided no explanation for this:  it’s simply as much the case as Cinderella has a step-mother with two daughters.

This lack, clearly felt by Jackson & Co in their 3-part adaptation of The Hobbit, led to the stitching-in of “Tauriel”, a warrior elf,

and a subplot which, to me, caused there to be an imbalance in the story, whose original focus was upon Bilbo and his development from a Baggins who flees even from the idea of adventure—

“We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures.  Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things!  Make you late for dinner!  I can’t think what anybody sees in them…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

to someone who, in later chapters, has so changed that Gandalf, seeming to appear out of nowhere, claps him on the back and says, “Well done!  Mr Baggins!…There is always more about you than anyone expects!” (The Hobbit, Chapter 16, “A Thief in the Night”)

The complications of a brief but improbable romance with a dwarf, a conflict with the king of the forest elves, and combat with sinister orcs, all take away from the author’s original intent.  In the novel, Bilbo is always center stage and is meant to be and subplots of any sort can only distort and dilute the author’s intent as embodied in the text.

Women warriors, however, appear almost at the beginnings of western literature.  As one of his labors,Herakles must obtain the zone (that’s “ZOE-nay”), a kind of belt, of the queen of the Amazons, Hippolyte (“hih-poh-LOO-tay”). 

In Book 2 of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Jason, of Golden Fleece fame,

almost encounters the Amazons on his trip eastwards to Colchis (a wind blows the Argo away from their land at the last minute).

And the Athenian hero, Theseus, not only battles the Amazons,

but, in some versions of the story (there are a number of these) marries their queen, Antiope (in Greek, “ahn-tee-AH-pay”, but in English we say “an-TIE-oh-pee”)

Even Achilles is matched against the Amazons when they come to aid the Trojans and, in a dramatic moment in one version of the story, fights their leader, Penthesilea (in Greek, “pen-theh-SEE-lay-ah”, in English, “pen-theh-sih-LAY-a”) and, even as he kills her, falls in love with her.

The idea of Amazons inspired several generations of Greek sculptors and pot-painters, including the famous frieze (a sculptured band of stone) from the 5th-century temple of Apollo at Bassae (modern Greek VAH-seese).

The site was excavated in the early 19th century

and the frieze was sold to the British Museum, where it’s on display to this day.

Although ancient people seemed to believe in their existence, whether there were real Amazons has been debated by scholars for years.  The pot depictions, in particular, often look like, never having seen one, Athenian artists based their depictions upon the wild tribesmen they saw every day in the city, the Skythians, a horse people from north of the Black Sea,

whom the government of Athens used both as policemen and as missile troops in war,

as you can see from this depiction of Amazons fighting Greeks.

New archaeological evidence from southern Russia, however, suggests that perhaps those artists weren’t improvising, as recent finds provide the possibility that, among the Skythians, woman warriors were part of the culture.  (See, for example, this CNN piece from January, 2020:  https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/06/world/scythian-amazon-burial-scn-intl-scli/index.html )

If there was no woman warrior like “Tauriel” in The Hobbit, there is certainly one in The Lord of the Rings and, in fact, there were almost two. 

Those of us who are readers of the text have always known and loved Eowyn and that amazing scene in The Return of the King (Book Five, Chapter 6)—but, pictures are (almost) better than words here—

Somewhere in the scripting of The Lord of the Rings, a combat role had been given to another woman:  Arwen and some scenes were actually filmed.  Here’s a rough image—

As in the case of “Tauriel”, I can understand the temptation:  in the book, Arwen seems a very passive figure, at best sending Aragorn a banner she has sewn for him:

“ ‘It is a gift that I bring you from the Lady of Rivendell,’ answered Halbarad.  ‘She wrought it in secret, and long was its making.’ “ (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”)

(This is a 1911 painting by Sir Edmund Leighton, 1852-1922, which has had various titles, including “Stitching the Banner”.  I’ve used Leighton paintings before, generally classical scenes, for which he was famous, but I was directed to this work from the Wiki entry for “Arwen”, which had this, by Anna Kulisz, which credited its origin to the Leighton.)

And making only a kind of traditional story-book last appearance, to marry him.

The script writers had already changed the text, removing Glorfindel, and putting Arwen on his horse, Asfaloth.

As well, it’s not Frodo alone who crosses the ford of the Bruinen and turns back to defy the Nazgul, it’s Arwen,

who then calls up the water to wash them away, which was done by Elrond and Gandalf in the book (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)

(A powerful illustration by John Howe)

In the second film, this was to be expanded by having her bring the reforged sword, Anduril, to Aragorn at Helm’s Deep and to join in the fighting there, but for reasons I have so far seen no documentary evidence for—possibly a very loud fan revolt?—that idea was scrapped.  And I’m glad that it was, for the same reason that I believe that the introduction of “Tauriel” was not a good choice.  Everything we know up to this point in the story about Eowyn has led us logically to the moment of her confrontation with the Nazgul:  a “Shield-maiden”, frustrated at always being left behind, in despair at the thought of Aragorn’s imagined death on the Paths of the Dead, conspiring with Merry though both have been ordered to stay behind, it seems completely natural that she would face the chief of the Nazgul over her uncle’s body.  To have a parallel in Arwen would be to seriously dilute the impact of that scene, especially in that it’s clear that Eowyn has not planned to return from the relief of Minas Tirith.  As Merry sees her at the moment of facing the Nazgul:

“Eowyn it was, and Dernhelm also.  For into Merry’s mind flashed the memory of the face that he saw at the riding from Dunharrow:  the face of one that goes seeking death, having no hope.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

I know that this relegates Arwen to the lesser position she actually holds in The Lord of the Rings, but I would prefer that to losing the full impact of this—

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

And remember that, as ever, there’s



Have Confidants!

Hamlet is talking to himself again.

“Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt,

Thaw, and resolue it selfe into a Dew:

Or that the Euerlasting had not fixt

His Cannon ‘gainst Selfe-slaughter. O God, O God!

How weary, stale, flat, and vnprofitable

Seemes to me all the vses of this world?”

(from the First Folio, 1623—if you would like to read this play in this early edition:  https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/Texts/Ham/ )

(And welcome, as ever, dear readers.)

Hamlet often does so, his seven soliloquies being among the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s speeches, (for a really interesting essay about these, see:   https://www.shakespeareflix.net/2014/10/accurate-list-of-hamlets-soliloquies.html )

but Hamlet does have a friend from school who has come to attend his father’s funeral, Horatio, and it’s at Horatio’s urging that Hamlet first sees the ghost of his murdered father.

It’s also to Horatio that Hamlet talks about Yorick the jester

and meditates on life and death.

And, when he’s dying, it’s to Horatio that Hamlet entrusts his story, saying, basically, “clear my name”.

Although he talks a good deal to himself, we have a much fuller sense of Hamlet because of his dealings with Horatio.

The older literary term for this kind of character is confidant/confidante, the spelling of which suggests English gets the word from French, as the Latin original is confidens, ”trusting in (someone/something)”.  This was the term for a standard character in French tragedies of the 17th century by authors like Pierre Corneille (1606-1684),

and Jean Racine (1639-1699),

where many major characters have a secondary figure who acts like Horatio—as Oenone the nurse does for Phedre in Racine’s 1677 play.

XIR239567 Phaedra and Oenone, illustration from Act I Scene 3 of ‘Phedre’ by Jean Racine (1639-99) engraved by Raphael Urbain Massard (1775-1843) 1824 (engraving) (b/w photo) by Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, Anne Louis (1767-1824) (after); Bibliotheque de L’Arsenal, Paris, France; (add. info.: daughter of Minos and Pasiphae; inspired by classical Greek and Roman art; revealing her love for Hippolytus); Giraudon; French, out of copyright

In our world, we might call Horatio Hamlet’s BFF, and the idea of a hero having one goes far back into the history of western literature.  Odysseus often seems to be the archetypical loner,

even though, by the end of The Odyssey, his son Telemachus, and several of his serving men help him in dealing with the 100+ suitors and their servants.

Other Greek literary figures, however, are often paired,

Achilles with Patroclus,

Orestes and Pylades,

even Heracles, with his nephew, Iolaus.

In Vergil’s Aeneid, Aeneas has a shadow in Achates

who is even given a repeated adjective which reflects his closeness to his friend, fidus, “faithful”.

There are more of these through the centuries, everyone from Oliver, Roland’s friend in the 11th-century Chanson de Roland

to Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories–

and early mystery stories seem almost to require them, such as the combination of Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter in the novels and short stories of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)

and Albert Campion and Lugg in the novels of Margery Allingham (1904-1966).

Bunter and Lugg are servants, and obviously not of the same social class as their masters, and Lugg is a retired burglar.  His stated goal, however, is to make the seemingly-feckless but obviously upper-class Campion respectable and this provides a second form of confidant:  the comic side.  This parallel of comic with serious is as old as the 5th-century BC dramatist, Aristophanes, whose god, Dionysos, has a slave named Xanthias, in whom he confides in the play, Frogs of 405BC.  

Classic comic confidants would include characters like Sancho Panza in Miguel Cervantes’ (1547-1616) Don Quixote

and Jeeves in PG Wodehouse’s (1881-1975) novels and short stories about the cheerful idiot, Bertie Wooster. 

People like Xanthias and Sancho could easily fit into the purely comic category, but Jeeves, in an odd way, is involved in the comedy, but also steers Bertie out of many of his worst disasters, putting him into a slightly different category and two other figures in this category have, I think, a special resonance for the inspiration of this posting, both from novels by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).  These are Sam Weller, from The Pickwick Papers (1837)

and Mark Tapley, from Martin Chuzzlewit (first published serially in 1842-44).

Both of these are lower class men by their manner of speech, but clever, resourceful, and like Achates, faithful to their masters, Sam to Mr Pickwick and Mark to Martin Chuzzlewit.  And thus it is more than the name of Mr Pickwick’s servant which brought to mind another Sam.

When teaching The Hobbit this fall, I had been struck by the fact that most of what we know about Bilbo comes from the narrator or from Bilbo’s internal monologue:  for all that he’s in the company of a gang of dwarves, he has no real friend among them.  He manages to turn from the timid Baggins of the book’s beginning to the bold Took of later chapters almost completely by himself and our knowledge of that development comes to us almost entirely through the narrator. It’s easy to remember the physical side of Sam, how he grits his teeth and goes on, no matter what, even to carrying Frodo up Mount Doom, but

there is another side to their relationship.  Frodo and Sam are always talking and that back-and-forth often reveals the thoughtful side of Frodo and how his sense of himself and the world changes over the span of the book.  Among other conversations, I think of what may be my favorite between the two, at the end of which Frodo seems to be teasing Sam, who replies:

“ ‘Now, Mr Frodo…you shouldn’t be making fun.  I was serious.’

‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am.  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.” ‘ “

And here is where we learn more about Sam, as well:

“ ‘Maybe,’ said Sam, ‘but I wouldn’t be one to say that.  Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different.’ “ (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)

which makes me want to go back to Hamlet and see what more I can learn about Horatio.

Thanks as always for reading,

Stay well,

And remember that, as ever, there’s




Today is English poet John Milton’s birthday (1608-1674). 

Here’s a LINK to one of his richest descriptive works, “L’Allegro”:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44731/lallegro

and tomorrow is Emily Dickinson’s (1830-1886). 

Here’s poem #1286

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –

Remember them today and tomorrow.

I Dream of Djinni in the Bright Brass Lamp

As ever, welcome, dear readers!  It’s the beginning of December here in the Northern Hemisphere and I wished for snow—and got it.  My wish didn’t come from the following, however–

“ ‘Mr. Aladdin, sir, what will your pleasure be?
Let me take your order, jot it down?’
You ain’t never had friend like me!”

sings a very large, blue spirit in a song which practically bursts off the screen with energy.

(Here it is, if you don’t know it, or if you do and, like me, never get tired of seeing it again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qx91ff77yzM )

This is, of course, from Disney’s Aladdin, which is probably how most younger people know the story—but, in fact, don’t know the story, at least the old story upon which this wonderful adaptation is based, as well as the story of how the story came to us.

I first met the story in the form in which it may have originated:  orally.  Before I could read, like most children, I imagine, I loved being read to and someone (mother or grandmother, I’d guess) had sat me in a lap and read me the story.  I have no recollection from where—probably a children’s storybook, but a more modern one than the one I can imagine JRRT would have heard or read it from, Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (1889).

(We know that he had access to the second in the series, The Red Fairy Book (1890),

because “Soria Moria Castle” and “The Story of Sigurd”, two stories known to be associated with him, are in it, and therefore it seems to me likely that he would have been acquainted with the previous volume.)

Perhaps it was something like this—

Whatever it was, it was a story I loved—and was spooked by, when Aladdin’s “uncle” abandoned him in that underground labyrinth without getting what he wanted, the lamp.

Before we go on, in case you don’t know the story, or need to refresh your memory, here’s an anonymous translation which appears to be taken from Andrew Lang’s The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1898):  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/57/57-h/57-h.htm

I’ll wait in this garden till you finish…

The story itself is old, first appearing in Antoine Galland’s (1646-1715)

French translation from Arabic of a vast collection of stories, which he called, after the title of the manuscript, Les Mille et Une Nuits (“The Thousand and One Nights”) (1704-1717). 

(As you can see, this is a very early Volume 3, but from an edition published in the Netherlands, although claiming to be “following the copy printed in Paris”.)

But the story of how this came to be in Galland’s collection has its own twist:  it’s not from the Syrian manuscript from which Galland worked.  Instead, he had met Antun Yussuf Hanna Diyab, a Syrian whom Galland had met on a visit to Paris, and who told him 14 more stories, one of them being “Aladdin”.  Supposedly, Diyab recited these to Galland from memory, but, in more recent years, some scholars have wondered whether Diyab was himself the source of these stories, as “Aladdin” and another famous story, “Ali Baba”, don’t appear to survive in any other early collection.  (There are also those who believe that Galland himself created them—after all, one of his friends was Charles Perrault, who gave us Mother Goose.)

The first English translation, retitled “The Arabian Nights Entertainment” appeared surprisingly quickly, in 1706 to 1721, even as Galland was still publishing his French translation.  This was the famous “Grub Street edition”.

(This is an early, but not first, edition.  The title on the spine is that of the first translation, but the only known copies are in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Princeton University library and I found this image on E-Bay!)

It was given its odd name because it was an anonymous translation, probably done by one of the many would-be famous authors

 who lived in an edgy area of London (now almost disappeared and what survives has a different name), called—surprise!—Grub Street,

a medieval relic which had somehow survived the Great Fire of 1666,

 but was so run-down that rent was cheap.

Through endless reprints, forms of this translation would have been the standard until Jonathan Scott’s new translation of Galland appeared in 1811

to be replaced by Edward William Lane’s translation of 1839-1841.

Lane’s, however, was not a translation from Galland’s French, as were the Grub Street and the Scott, but a new translation based upon an entirely different manuscript, published in Cairo in the 1830s.  It also has the most wonderfully elaborate illustrations, by William Harvey (and some by Lane, as well).

(I’ve recently seen a first edition copy of the 3-volume set for $1000.00, but you can have a copy for free from an 1840s US 2-volume edition by following these LINKS:    

https://archive.org/details/thousandonenight01lane (volume 1);    https://archive.org/details/thousandonenight02lane (volume 2);  )

Into the 20th century, Lane’s was the standard translation and I can imagine that whatever was read to me was a distant descendant, although perhaps it came through The Blue Fairy Book, or perhaps from Lang’s later Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (1898), which uses the same text.  Lang says that his translation goes back to the French of Galland, in fact, bringing us back in a circle.

But, outside, the snow is already melting.  If I only had a dirty old lamp…

As always, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

And be reassured that, even without a genie or djinni, if you need more than one, there will be




When you read, or reread, the old story from the LINK above, you will interested to see that the authors of the Disney version have done some narrative slight-of-hand with the plot, removing Aladdin’s mother, combining the king’s vizier with the wicked magician who claims to be Aladdin’s “uncle”, turning two genies into one, and even introducing a flying carpet—and a monkey side kick for Aladdin.  At the same time, they have kept the basic story and, if it’s actually based on a folktale, such variants are always possible—after all, in Galland’s original version, the story was set in China.

This is from Edmund Dulac’s illustrations for Laurence Housman’s 1914 Stories from the Arabian Nights—of which your own copy awaits you here:  https://archive.org/details/storiesarabian00housmiss/page/n1/mode/2up

Upon Reflection

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Jonathan Harker is puzzled.  He is in the castle of a Count

and something seems odd about his bedroom:

“The curtains and upholstery of the chairs and sofas and the hangings of my bed are of the costliest and most beautiful fabrics, and must have been of fabulous value when they were made, for they are centuries old, though in excellent order. I saw something like them in Hampton Court, but there they were worn and frayed and moth-eaten. But still in none of the rooms is there a mirror. There is not even a toilet glass on my table, and I had to get the little shaving glass from my bag before I could either shave or brush my hair.”

Although he may not have expected anything as sophisticated as the next image, which he might have encountered in a wealthy house in England (this is the 1890s, after all),

he would have imagined that his bedroom would have been at least equipped with the standard washstand and mirror—

But then things get stranger:

“I only slept a few hours when I went to bed, and feeling that I could not sleep any more, got up.  I had hung my shaving glass by the window, and was just beginning to shave.  Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder, and heard the Count’s voice saying to me, ‘Good-morning.’  I started, for it amazed me that I had not seen him, since the reflection of the glass covered the whole room behind me.  In starting I had cut myself slightly and did not notice it at the moment.  Having answered the Count’s salutation, I turned to the glass again to see how I had been mistaken.  This time there could be no error, for the man was close to me, and I could see him over my shoulder.  But there was no reflection of him in the mirror!  The whole room behind me was displayed; but there was no sign of a man in it, except myself.”

As many times as I’ve read this book or taught it, this, for me, is still a striking moment.  It obviously rattles the narrator, Jonathan Harker, but, what’s equally interesting, it seems to disturb Dracula, as well:

” Then seizing the shaving glass, he went on:  ‘And this is the wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!’ and opening the heavy window with one wrench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass, which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below.” (Dracula, Chapter II, beginning the section dated “8 May”)

We know, of course, that the fact that the Count has no reflection means that he is a vampire—

(this is from The Return of Dracula, 1958)

The ironic fact, however, is that we know it from this book, in which Jonathan will only gradually learn what he has innocently encountered on what was supposed to be a rather exotic business trip.

But mirrors are an odd thing, in general. Within the last few years, animal behavior researchers have found that, while primates of various types will recognize their reflection as their reflection,

dogs will not,

seeming, at best, to see them as other dogs, before losing interest.  (Here’s are some LINKS to articles on the subject which you might enjoy:   https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201107/does-my-dog-recognize-himself-in-mirror  (Psychology Today)https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/dog-spies/what-do-dogs-see-in-mirrors/ (Scientific American), https://tuftoys.com/why-cant-dogs-recognize-themselves-in-the-mirror-10-animals-that-can/ (Tuftoys) )

Babies—human ones—begin to recognize themselves and not to imagine that it’s another baby sometime between 20 and 24 months.

There may be a danger in recognizing yourself, however.  In the Roman poet, Ovid’s, long collection of verse stories about changes, The Metamorphoses, one character, Narcissus, finds his own reflection so fascinating that he stares at himself in a pool

until, about to die, a thoughtful god turns him into a flower, which we aptly call the narcissus.

(It’s in Book 3, lines 339-510—here’s a LINK to a translation:  https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses3.html#5 )

And Alice, on a winter’s day, while talking to a kitten about Looking-glass House, soon finds herself there:

“Now, if you’ll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I’ll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there’s the room you can see through the glass—that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way. I can see all of it when I get upon a chair—all but the bit behind the fireplace. Oh! I do so wish I could see that bit! I want so much to know whether they’ve a fire in the winter: you never can tell, you know, unless our fire smokes, and then smoke comes up in that room too—but that may be only pretence, just to make it look as if they had a fire. Well then, the books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way; I know that, because I’ve held up one of our books to the glass, and then they hold up one in the other room.

‘How would you like to live in Looking-glass House, Kitty? I wonder if they’d give you milk in there? Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink—But oh, Kitty! now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond. Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it, somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through—’ She was up on the chimney-piece while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

In another moment Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-glass room. The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one, blazing away as brightly as the one she had left behind.”  (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter I. “Looking-Glass house”)

Alice is correct, of course, when she says that it “may be quite different”, but it doesn’t require “on beyond”—just look at the contrast between the chimney-piece in her house and its counterpart in Tenniel’s illustration–

the clock has become a clown and the vase for the dried flowers has now become a face for dried flowers.  And this is only the beginning—“quite different” will include Tweedledum and Tweedledee,

Humpty Dumpty,

and the very odd combination of a walrus and a carpenter (at second hand—through Tweedledum and Tweedledee).

And then there is that moment in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933)

when Groucho, in nightshirt and cap, thinks that he sees his mirror image

and yet—https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O_fmUYyWSyE

Perhaps, then, Dracula is right when he calls Jonathan’s mirror “a foul bauble”.  Then again, there’s the Jiangshi, an undead figure from ancient China.

They are animated corpses—greeny-yellow in color, who wear the clothes of the mandarin class of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912),

hiding during the day and coming out at night to attack the living and drink their blood.  They share with Dracula an aversion to mirrors, although they apparently can see themselves—and that’s what can drive them away.   (Here’s a LINK which will give you an entire menu of ways to deal with one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jiangshi )

And maybe this is a clue to Dracula’s reaction:  not that he’s afraid of the mirror, or even that it might suggest something sinister to his soon-to-be-prisoner, Jonathan, but that it’s the fact that arrogant creature that he is, he can no longer, like Narcissus, admire himself. 

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well and, if you’re in a place which celebrates Thanksgiving, may you enjoy the day,

And, as always, know that there’s




If you don’t have your own copy of Dracula, here’s the American edition of 1897:


and, if you don’t have Through the Looking-Glass, here’s a turn-of-the-century edition:



As always, dear readers, welcome.

In past years, Orcs have appeared a number of times in CD’s postings, including a study of the appearance of Orcs as Tolkien describes them versus the ways in which artists have depicted them (“Orc Looks”, 13 November, 2019).  Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about something Frodo sees—not through his own eyes but through the Ring, on Amon Hen (appropriately, as it is called “the Hill of the Eye of the Men of Numenor”):

“But everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war.  The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills:  orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 10 , “The Breaking of the Fellowship)

I’ve recently taught The Hobbit again (it never gets old) and the Misty Mountains, of course, appear.

There were no orcs then, just goblins on the way in,

and goblins on the way out.

Others have written about the influence of George MacDonald (1824-1905)

on Tolkien and the title of one of MacDonald’s best-known books suggests one influence:

The Princess and the Goblin (1872).

In the Letters, JRRT twice associates MacDonald with goblins (178, to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April 1954;  185, to Hugh Brogan, 18 September 1954), but another influence besides the word and the idea may lie in where the goblins live.  In The Princess and Curdie, a boy, Curdie, who works in the mines, has broken through into the goblin realm and comes upon a great hall:

“He was at the entrance of a magnificent cavern, of an oval shape, once probably a huge natural reservoir of water, now the great palace hall of the goblins. It rose to a tremendous height, but the roof was composed of such shining materials, and the multitude of torches carried by the goblins who crowded the floor lighted up the place so brilliantly, that Curdie could see to the top quite well. But he had no idea how immense the place was until his eyes had got accustomed to it, which was not for a good many minutes. The rough projections on the walls, and the shadows thrown upwards from them by the torches, made the sides of the chamber look as if they were crowded with statues upon brackets and pedestals, reaching in irregular tiers from floor to roof. The walls themselves were, in many parts, of gloriously shining substances, some of them gorgeously coloured besides, which powerfully contrasted with the shadows…

At the other end of the hall, high above the heads of the multitude, was a terrace-like ledge of considerable height, caused by the receding of the upper part of the cavern-wall. Upon this sat the king and his court: the king on a throne hollowed out of a huge block of green copper ore, and his court upon lower seats around it.” (The Princess and the Goblin, Chapter 9, “The Hall of the Goblin Palace”)

Here is the equivalent in The Hobbit:

“…they stumbled into a big cavern.

It was lit by a great red fire in the middle, and by torches along the wall, and it was full of goblins…

There in the shadows on a large flat stone sat a tremendous  goblin with a huge head, and armed goblins were standing round him carrying the axes and the bent swords they use.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

MacDonald’s goblins have extensive tunnels and are planning to use them both the kidnap the princess of the book’s title and to cause great destruction by employing the tunnels to flood the human mines to which they are adjacent. 

Tolkien’s goblins also have extensive tunnels, as we hear when the news spread about the death of the Great Goblin:

“Messengers had passed to and fro between all their cities, colonies and strongholds…Tidings they had gathered in secret ways; and in all the mountains there was a forging and an arming.  Then they marched and gathered by hill and valley, going ever by tunnel or under dark, until around and beneath [the great mountain Gundabad of the North, where was their capital, a vast host was assembled…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”)

By the time of The Lord of the Rings, it is clear that those Hobbit goblins had metamorphosed into orcs—Tolkien, basically, had decided that “goblin” was too close to the fairy tale world with which he did not want his work too closely associated—and even in the Letters, if you look for references to them in the index, you are referred to orcs (Letters, 470).

Their appearance, goblin or orc, varies.  Take Ugluk and Ghrishnakh, for instance:

“…a large black Orc, probably Ugluk, standing facing Grishnakh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground.  Round them were many smaller goblins.  Pippin supposed that these were the ones from the North.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)   In an undated letter to Forrest J Ackerman, from June, 1958, Tolkien describes them as:  “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes” (Letters, 274). 

This has, in turn, spawned a wide variety of images, from the early Hildebrandts

and Angus McBride

to the later Alan Lee,

John Howe,

and Ted Nasmith.

In terms of following JRRT’s idea, that, as Trolls were made “in mockery of Ents”, so “Orcs were made of Elves”, I would say that only the Nasmith is close, but what Frodo saw in his vision has suggested a completely different possibility, one which is furthered by something Tolkien wrote in a long letter of 1954 to Peter Hastings.  He has been discussing Morgoth and the orcs:

“I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real being on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodelling and corrupting them, not making them.”

But it’s what appears at the end of the paragraph which caught my attention:

“There might be other ‘makings’ all the same which were more like puppets filled (only at a distance) with their maker’s mind and will, or ant-like operating under direction of a queen-centre.”  (Letters, 195)

This matches, of course, what Frodo saw: 

“The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills:  orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes.”

Orcs as the equivalent of insects who live in holes?  I would add another detail, however.  As Treebeard has said that orcs are a mockery of elves, he has also noticed something else:

“…he has been doing something to them; something dangerous.  For these Isengarders are more like wicked Men.  It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

Insects of varied size and color, but can’t endure the sun.  Might another model for orcs be cockroaches?

With that very creepy thought, I thank you as ever, dear readers, saying

Stay well and be sure that there’s




If you’d like to read The Princess and the Goblin yourself, here’s a LINK:


I recommend it, not only as a (distant) source for JRRT, but as a very interesting and engaging piece of Victorian fantasy.