A Policeman’s Lot, or, Guards! Guards!

As always, welcome, dear readers.

It’s clear that, before the advent of Sharkey and his “big men”, the Shire had little need of law enforcement:

“The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbits gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent that they possessed.  They had, of course, no uniforms (such things being quite unknown), only a feather in their caps; and they were in practice haywards than policemen, more concerned with the strayings of beasts than of people.  There were in the Shire only twelve of them, three in each Farthing, for Inside Work.  A rather large body, varying at need, was employed to ‘beat the bounds’, and to see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 3)

That Sharkey and his thugs were able not only to take over the Shire, but reorganize and expand these Shirriffs into their own hobbit enforcers, suggests how nearly useless they could be—unlike the body which we suspect they may have been modeled upon, Hitler’s notorious private police force, the SA (SturmAbteilung—“Storm(trooper)Detachment”).


The consequence occurs when Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam return to the Shire (a wonderfully atmospheric depiction by Allen Lee)


and their fearlessness so shakes this ersatz-SA that they quickly collapse, leaving only those “big men” to deal with an improvised army of angry hobbits.

A Tolkien illustration by Ted Nasmith

(by Ted Nasmith—always one of our favorite illustrators)

If the subsequent violence weren’t there to darken the picture (along with the deaths of Sharkey/Saruman and Grima), the plight of the Shirriffs would be almost silly, as the hobbits they attempt to take prisoner turn the tables, almost making the Shirriffs into prisoners:

“It was rather a comic cavalcade that left the village, though the few folk that came out to stare at the ‘get-up’ of the travelers did not seem quite sure whether laughing was allowed.  A dozen Shirriffs march in front, while Frodo and his friends rode behind.  Merry, Pippin, and Sam sat at their ease laughing and talking and singing, while the Shirriffs stumped along trying to look stern and important.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

These Shirriffs in their haplessness (you can see “Shire”—from Old English scir—said “sheer”—here, combined with gerefa—something like “yeh-REH-fuh”—“official”) reminded us of the Ank-Morpork City Watch in the novels of Terry Pratchett (1948-2015),


and, if you’re a fan, as we are, you’ll immediately recognize our subtitle as a borrowing from his 1989 novel.


The City Watch are the police


of the city of Ankh-Morpork, on Discworld, Pratchett’s personal planet.


As the City Watch, they are not actually guards, but, rather, what, in our world, would be early policemen.


In their general look and behavior, however, they’re not like the City Watch of King’s Landing,


but a bit more simple-minded, like the Keystone Cops (1912-1917) of silent film.


Comedy and the constabulary go back a very long time.  Ancient Athens employed mercenaries from north of the Black Sea, the Scythians, as the muscle in their police force.


The Athenian comic dramatist, Aristophanes (c446-c386), saw the comedy in such foreigners who seemed not too bright—mostly because they spoke Greek badly—and yet represented the state.

There was a kind of combined watch and fire department, called the Cohorts of the Watch (Cohortes Vigilum), in Rome, but we don’t know of anything in surviving Roman literature which portrays them as figures of fun.  Shakespeare, however, has given us a constable, Dogberry, whose name alone is ridiculous.  He is head of the Watch in the town of Messina in Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9?)


and his instructions to his men will give you an idea of how Shakespeare wants us to view this officer of the law:


You shall also make no noise in
the streets; for, for the watch to babble and to
talk is most tolerable and not to be endured.


We will rather sleep than talk: we know what
belongs to a watch. 


Why, you speak like an ancient and most quiet
watchman; for I cannot see how sleeping should
offend: only, have a care that your bills be not
stolen. Well, you are to call at all the
ale-houses, and bid those that are drunk get them to bed.


How if they will not?


Why, then, let them alone till they are sober: if
they make you not then the better answer, you may
say they are not the men you took them for.


Well, sir.


If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue
of your office, to be no true man; and, for such
kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them,
why the more is for your honesty.


If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay
hands on him?


Truly, by your office, you may; but I think they
that touch pitch will be defiled: the most peaceable
way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him
show himself what he is and steal out of your company.

(Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene 3)

Here we see a combination of kinds of comedy:

  1. misuse of words (these are called “malapropisms” from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in WB Sheridan’s The Rivals, 1775, who constantly garbles meanings—“malaprop” is from French mal a propos, “inappropriate”)—as when Dogberry says “to talk is most tolerable and not to be endured”, where Dogberry means intolerable
  2. opposite meaning—when the unnamed watchman says “We will rather sleep than talk: we know what belongs to a watch.”—one of the meanings of “to watch” is “to stay awake”! And Dogberry agrees with him:  “for I cannot see how sleeping could offend.”
  3. giving oneself away—the tasks of the Watch are clearly to include enforcing curfew hours for taverns and catching thieves and Dogberry’s response to questions about drunks (“let them along till they are sober”) and thieves (“the less you meddle or make with them, why the more is for your honesty”), where “meddle or make” means “have to do with them” give us the picture of an officer who will sleep on duty and avoid his duties when awake. (We would also point out that line about sleeping on duty: “only, have a care that your bills be not stolen”.  “Bills”, here, doesn’t mean records of debt, but a medieval weapon, a billhook,


suggesting that these constables are so inept that, not only will they be sleeping on duty, but also they will be in danger of losing their weapons while doing so.)

Constables, competent or note, were the norm in the Renaissance and beyond, policemen in the modern sense being an early modern invention.  For us, with our interest in the Victorian world, this means the London Metropolitan Police, founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 (and hence, in slang, called “bobbies” or “peelers”).


With their distinctive uniforms and, in time, helmets, as well as their truncheons (clubs), rather than firearms, they quickly became familiar figures in 19th-century Britain, so much so that it was easy for WS Gilbert to introduce them as comic opponents for his pirates in his and Arthur Sullivan’s 1879/80 operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.


Like Dogberry and his watchmen, they are depicted as timid, but Gilbert does something more:  he makes them sentimental, as the sergeant


tells us:

WHEN a felon’s not engaged in his employment,
  Or maturing his felonious little plans,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
  Is just as great as any honest man’s.
Our feelings we with difficulty smother         5
  When constabulary duty’s to be done:
Ah, take one consideration with another,
  A policeman’s lot is not a happy one!
When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling,
  When the cut-throat isn’t occupied in crime,         10
He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling,
  And listen to the merry village chime.
When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother,
  He loves to lie a-basking in the sun:
Ah, take one consideration with another,         15
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one!  

(We have no idea why there is this bracketing around our quotation, but, when we tried to get rid of it, it stubbornly remained.  Rather than struggle with it, since it has given us the quotation, we decided to leave it, with apologies for our rather primitive computer skills!  A “coster”, by the way, is, basically, a city pushcart salesman.  The word is short for “costermonger” = “apple seller”.)

Costermonger's barrow purchased by Lord Shaftesbury when he was enrolled as a costermonger, 1875

You can see what will happen when such constables attempt to subdue anyone, let alone pirates.


This brings us back to those Shirriffs, and we leave you with the idea that, although the sergeant in The Pirates of Penzance sings that a policeman’s lot is not a happy one, in literature, from Aristophanes to Tolkien, it is sometimes a comic one.

As ever, thanks for reading, with


of course,

and stay well!


The Word

“In the beginning was the Word…”

John, I, 1.

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Although we begin with what is the opening of the Christian New Testament’s Book of John, the word here stands not for anything religious, although it might be spiritual.  Rather, it is the approach we want to take for something we’ve been thinking about for some time and which we’ve chosen as the theme for this, our 300th posting.

In May, 2019, Fox Searchlight released Tolkien, a film about the early life of JRRT.  Reviews were very mixed.  Some people saw it as a rather over-fanciful depiction, and criticized it as such.  A few were very negative.  And some praised certain aspects of it.  We are in the latter category, in that we saw it as an honest attempt to do something very difficult:  to tell the external story of a complex, highly-creative man while, at the same time, suggesting something of his internal story.

We are always interested in movie posters and here are three which suggest to us different approaches with which the writers and director tried to present to us thematic material which would both hold the story together and hold our attention, as well.

The first


shows us Nicholas Hoult, who played Tolkien, as a rather serious young man in his 20s.  The likeness between him and JRRT is not particularly strong,


but that, to us, was of no matter:  what we wanted to see was how he acted, not who the actor was.  What really caught our eye was the scene just below his image.  It’s small, but it appears to be of two medievalish mounted figures who look like they’re about to engage in combat.  All right, we thought—a suggestion of the medieval world of Middle-earth, but, at the moment, more medieval than Middle-earth, which could suggest the world in which Tolkien would spend his academic life, once he realized that Classics was not for him.  Telling, however, is the background to this small scene:  blasted trees.  And we know where we’ve seen this—


So—in this approach, we see a young Tolkien set above a world which combines knights and the No Man’s Land of his experience in the Great War.


Our second poster


retains the image of Tolkien, and of those medievalish figures, but includes two more elements.  Within a picture frame are, first, four schoolboys, and we know, from the film, that they represent JRRT’s best friends at King Edward’s School in Manchester, which he attended from 1900-1902 and 1903-1911.


Their position in Tolkien’s early life is underlined by the slogan above the frame:  “A Life of Love, Courage & Fellowship”.  Love certainly existed among Tolkien and his friends, but the other figure within the frame signifies another kind of love, the romantic variety, in the form of Lily Collins, who plays Edith Bratt, Tolkien’s one-time sweetheart and eventual wife.


Here, we think that the director came closer to a resemblance, if we put the two together.




So, in this approach, we retain the suggestion of the medieval and the Great War, but add to it Tolkien’s early friendship (with the suggestion, at least in the poster, of “fellowship”), and his romantic life.

The third poster tries to bring this all together,


suggesting, perhaps, that all these parts:  friendship, love, medievalism, and the Great War, swirl around inside JRRT’s head.  Although Tolkien himself fought shy on a regular basis of the idea that works like The Lord of the Rings were somehow cloaked versions of actual events in some way, all writers carry their experiences with them and those experiences may inspire creative work, even if somewhat indirectly.  Thinking of Tolkien’s long separation from Edith, for example, might we see a suggestion of the many years in which Arwen and Aragorn waited for each other?

So far, then, we see the film using the actual events of JRRT’s life, more or less in their historical order, with a certain amount of embellishment, presumably to give that life a bit more “drama”.  But this isn’t all which the film attempts and, for us, this extra—but crucial–level is the most interesting—and the most daring.  Tolkien is known for having written that:  “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.  To me a name comes first and the story follows.”  (Letters, 219)

There are two moments when the director and writers try to include this idea that language is key and, for us, they are our favorite moments in the film.  The first involves a statement taken from a 1955 lecture, “English and Welsh”, in which Tolken writes:  “Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). “ (JRR Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, Hammersmith:  HarperCollins, 2006, 190)

Its sense, for JRRT, would probably have been something like this—


By “its spelling”, we wonder if what he actually means is its pronunciation.  In certain areas of England, the Rs at the end of both words would be pronounced as the alphabetic sound R, a bit of a growl in the back of the throat, but in what is called RS—“received standard” (British) English, those Rs almost disappear, making the words sound more like “selladaw” (this is a bit crude as a key to pronunciation—but we have a better way of demonstrating it which will appear in just a moment).

In the film, this remark is brought to life in an interesting way.  Tolkien and Edith are at tea in a rather swanky place and she challenges him to tell her a story, using “selladaw”.  He takes up the challenge, groping for meaning, and quickly changes her suggestion—that it’s a person—to it being a place name.  Here’s the LINK to a clip:   https://annasmol.net/2019/04/13/tolkiens-cellar-door/

which we found on a website we encourage you to visit at:  https://annasmol.net/

In the clip, you’ll hear the RS pronunciation, as well as see something the director and writers also wanted to bring out:  that Edith sparked something poetic in Tolkien, truly being Luthien to his Beren.  (If this story is unfamiliar to you, it’s in the Silmarillion, and also might have been suggested, in part, by Tolkien’s long waiting for Edith.  Here’s a LINK to the Wiki article on the subject, which is very useful:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beren_and_L%C3%BAthien   )

The second moment is not so dramatic (or romantic), but it tries to provide some sense of that pure love of language, its history and creation, which was so vital to what stood behind Tolkien’s massive world of Middle-earth, but it’s not something which Tolkien says.  Rather, it’s spoken by one of Tolkien’s professors, Joseph Wright (1855-1930), at Oxford.


Wright was a remarkable man in himself, having risen from poverty in Yorkshire, where he began by leading donkey carts at mines,


then worked changing the bobbins of thread in a factory,


all the while teaching himself to become a scholar, which, eventually he did, his specialty being Germanic languages—as in this volume on one of the ancestors of such languages, Gothic.


(If you’d like your own copy of this work, here’s a LINK:  https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.272068 )

In the film, he’s played by the wonderful English actor, Derrick Jacobi,


and, at one point, he is walking with Tolkien and they pass a tree.  Wright/Jacobi then speaks:

“A child points,

and is taught a word.


Later, he learns

to distinguish this tree

from all the others.

He learns its particular name.

He plays under the tree.

He dances around it.

Stands beneath its branches,

for shade or shelter.

He kisses under it,

he sleeps under it,
he weds under it.

He marches past it

on his way to war,and

limps back past it

on his journey home.

A king is said to have

hidden in this tree.

A spirit may dwell

within its bark.

Its distinctive leaves

are carved onto the tombs and

monuments of his landlords.

Its wood might have built

the galleons

that saved his ancestors

from invasion.

And all this,

the general and the specific,

the national and the personal,

all this,

he knows,

and feels,

and summons, somehow,

however faintly,

with the utterance

of a single sound.


(Here’s a LINK to the text, if you’d like to read more:
https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=tolkien )

So what would we say, ultimately, about this film?  Being people who teach and write about Tolkien, we were predisposed to like it, if nothing else because it was, as we said, an honest attempt to show us something of the life of a person we much admire.  If it takes liberties here and there as to how to tell that story, we never feel that it falsifies Tolkien’s life as old-fashioned so-called “biopics” usually did.  As well, it gave us moments—like the two we’ve discussed above—where we saw a bit more and thought a bit more about JRRT, his life, and his work and that is certainly a gift for which director and writers should be thanked.

And thank you, for reading, as always.  With our next posting, number 301, we’ll be close to finishing our 6th year of publishing, which will be #312.  So, as we always write,




There is another famous Joseph Wright, an amazing 18th-century English painter (usually called “Joseph Wright of Derby”, 1734-1797).  Here are two of his works—he paints a wide variety of subjects, including early scientific and industrial themes.  Google Images will give you more—and we recommend that you have a look.



Here’s a LINK to a museum specializing in his work:  https://www.derbymuseums.org/joseph-wright-derby

Swords and Symbols

Your father’s lightsaber.  This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight.  Not as clumsy or random as a blaster.  An elegant weapon…for a more civilized age.”

Welcome, dear readers, as always.  We’ve had a few rather grim postings recently, so we thought that we would lighten up a bit with a positive one…

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know what we’ve just quoted above and where it comes from:  Obi-Wan has just handed Luke something about whose owner he will tell less than the truth.


On one level, it is what he says it is—it’s a lightsaber, of which we see many, handled not only by the Jedi, but also by their opponents, the Sith.


By his emphasis upon “the weapon of a Jedi Knight”, and contrasting it with a blaster, however, Obi-wan is offering it as more than a weapon, but as a symbol:  making us wonder, without one, is a Jedi really a Jedi?

A few months ago, we posted a piece about “Sting”, the weapon which Bilbo acquired from the lair of the trolls in The Hobbit:  “…Bilbo took a knife in a leather sheath.  It would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 2, “Roast Mutton”)

It stood Bilbo in good stead several times, both in keeping Gollum at a respectful distance


and also in dealing with the Mirkwood spiders.


(A very interesting illustration by Toby Carr–we’d like to see more of his work.)

Bilbo passes it on to Frodo, but, beyond stabbing a goblin in the foot with it and threatening Gollum, Frodo never really employs it—although Sam does good service with it when he stabs Shelob.


It’s clear, however, that Frodo has no real interest in using it and, by the end of The Lord of the Rings, has become very wary of violence in general:

“Frodo had been in the battle, but he had not drawn sword, and his chief part had been to prevent the hobbits in their wrath at their losses, from slaying those of their enemies who threw down their weapons.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

For Bilbo, Sting had been a useful tool (even though made in Gondolin, like Orcrist and Glamdring, probably for a higher purpose).  For Frodo, it ultimately appears to be something to discard.  For neither is it a symbol of something greater, as Narsil/Anduril is, for Aragorn.

Here, we see a very ancient sword, made in the First Age, but which passes in time to Elendil, who uses and loses it in the battle on the slopes of Orodruin, in the Second Age, when it breaks under him during his final struggle with Sauron.  His son, Isildur, uses the sherd of the sword to cut the Ring from Sauron’s hand.  Though broken, the sword remains in Isildur’s family, until finally inherited by Aragorn, in the Third Age.  Through age and use, then, this has become a symbol of the original Numenorean kingship which will eventually be restored, at the final defeat of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, as the prophecy quoted by Gandalf in his letter to Frodo predicts:

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,

A light from the shadows shall spring;

Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless again shall be king.”

 (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 10, “Strider”)

The fact that the sword is mentioned—and that it will be reforged, meaning that it, too, will be restored–shows its importance to that restoration, to which we would add:  and also to the ultimate overthrow of Sauron, this time perhaps not as a sword which will harm him physically, but as a reminder of his previous defeat, as well as a threat of what is to come.  Aragorn has used the palantir which Saruman lost and which Gandalf has put into Aragorn’s care, as he reports:

“The eyes of Orthanc did not see through the armour of Theoden; but Sauron has not forgotten Isildur and the sword of Elendil.  Now in the very hour of his great designs the heir of Isildur and Sword are revealed; for I showed the blade re-forged to him.  He is not so mighty yet that he is above fear; nay, doubt ever gnaws him.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”)

Thus, with the reforged sword, Aragorn shows both himself and a prophesied symbol of kingship and of Aragorn’s right to that kingship, as he asserts when he receives that same palantir from Gandalf:

“There is one who may claim it by right.  For this assuredly is the palantir of Orthanc from the treasury of Elendil, set here by the Kings of Gondor.  Now my hour draws near.  I will take it.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 11, “The Palantir”)

This idea of symbol brings us back to the question of Luke and his father’s lightsaber.

[And a footnote here—

Actually, a saber, perhaps originally a Turkic weapon, but which comes into the West from Hungary,


looks like this:


It belongs to a variety of weapon called a “backsword” meaning a kind of sword which is sharpened along only one side.  It may have a sharpened point for stabbing—as this 1907 saber exercise shows—


but its main job is for slashing—


Originally, we are told, the lightsaber was called a “laser sword”, which is more accurate, in terms of how it looks and how it’s used—more like a rapier, which has both sharpened blade and point—


but, somehow, “laser sword” sounds just, well, clunky.]

The importance of the lightsaber for Luke is underlined by the fact that, after he’s lost his father’s (as well as his hand) in his first duel with…his father,


he makes another, which is, in fact, one stage from padawan to Jedi Knight in the Jedi tradition.


When Luke surrenders to Darth Vader in The Return of the Jedi,


Vader comments upon this:

“Vader looks down from Luke to the lightsaber in his own black-gloved hand. He seems to ponder Luke’s words.

VADER (indicating lightsaber)

I see you have constructed a new lightsaber.

Vader ignites the lightsaber and holds it to examine its humming, brilliant blade.


Your skills are complete.  Indeed, you are powerful, as the Emperor has foreseen.”

 What the Emperor has not foreseen, however, is what use Luke makes of this weapon.  Although he fights a second duel with his father and actually defeats him, cutting off his right hand in a mirror of what had happened to him in his first duel,


when told by the Emperor to kill his father,


Luke refuses, throwing his lightsaber aside.


And what he says then suggests that perhaps the lightsaber may be a symbol of being a Jedi, but, unlike Anduril, its symbolic power may not be so great:


Good!  Your hate has made you powerful.  Now fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place at my side!

Luke looks at his father’s mechanical hand, then to his own mechanical, black-gloved hand, and realizes how much he is becoming like his father.  He makes a decision for which he has spent a lifetime in preparation.  Luke steps back and hurls his lightsaber away.


Never!  I’ll never turn to the dark side.  You’ve failed, Your Highness.  I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

And this, in turn, answers our earlier question:  is a Jedi a Jedi without a lightsaber?   As Obi-wan has said, when he symbolically offers a Jedi’s life to Luke, it is the weapon of a Jedi Knight.  When Luke casts his aside, defying the Emperor and inviting his own death, we see that, although a lightsaber is part of what makes a Jedi, what really makes him one is more complex, something which the Emperor, who killed his own master, Darth Plagueis, in his sleep, could never understand and this lack of understanding leads to his own destruction (well, temporary destruction, as he’ll reappear in Star Wars IX).


Thanks, as always, for reading and, as ever,




In fact, even Obi-wan himself finds a blaster more useful, at least once.  When confronting General Grievous, who has four lightsabers,


on Utapau, he loses his own, finds a handgun and



But Obi-wan has a final comment–

“The JEDI fires several blasts in the stomach area of the alien Droid, and he EXPLODES from the inside out.  The smoldering Droid falls to the ground.  OBI-WAN has killed GENERAL GRIEVOUS.  He pulls himself up onto the platform and walks by the destroyed carcass.

OBI-WAN:  So uncivilized . . .”


We apologize for the use of italic throughout–something happened in the copying of quotations process and we don’t seem to be able to fix it.  It’s an elegant typeface, however, and perhaps it fits the lightsaber idea?

Kalevala, Further

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In our last, we had been talking about trochaic tetrameter, which, at the time, we thought sounded like the name for an exotic plant—or, possibly, an extinct bird—but is, in fact a rhythmic pattern like this:

DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da

where a single DUM da is called a “trochee” (from 16th-century French and ultimately from Greek trecho, “to run”—so a trochee is a kind of runner)

The most familiar place to find this in English is in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha (1855), the opening line of which is:

“Should you ask me, whence these legends?”

Broken down, this can give you:

SHOULD you    ASK me    WHENCE these   LEG ends

Although this was a poem based upon Native American legends, this meter isn’t Native American.  It can be found in many places in the world, but Longfellow borrowed it from a German translation of Elias Loennrot’s compilation of Finnish folksongs, a collection which he called the Kalevala (which we are informed means something like “Herosland”).

We had first heard of the Kalevala not through literature, but through music, specifically that of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957).


Sibelius is the national composer of Finland and was inspired by his reading of the collection, at first planning an opera based upon some of the stories he found there, but, instead, composing four separate pieces brought together into an orchestral suite, named after a major character in the Kalevala, Lemminkainen (pronounced, roughly, LEH-min-KY-nen), the Lemminkainen Suite, Opus 22.

In this suite are musically depicted four moments from the adventures of Lemminkainen and the one which immediately caught our attention when we first heard it was the third:  “The Swan of Tuonela” (pronounced TOO-uh-ne-la—in Finnish, this is Tuonelan Joutsen—TOO-uh-ne-lan YOHT-sen).


Lemminkainen is depicted in the collection as a womanizer and, to win the daughter of a powerful sorceress, Louhi, he must complete several tasks.  First,he must hunt the Elk of Hiisi.


Then he had to tame the Gelding of Hiisi


(This is a painting by the contemporary artist, Michel Tamer, who, like Sibelius, has been inspired by the Kalevala.  We especially like his landscapes and you might, too, at this LINK:  https://micheltamerartist.com/catalog/ )

His third and final task is to shoot the Swan which swims in the river which surrounds the island of the dead, Tuonela (TOO-un-ne-la—“the land of Tuoni”, who, along with his wife, Tuonetar, are the local rulers).


And this is where Sibelius’ composition comes in, using an English horn to represent the song of the Swan.


(Oddly, an English horn isn’t a horn at all, but a woodwind instrument.  Here’s a LINK so that you can hear this beautiful piece:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X3_H5YlgKFU )

Unfortunately, instead of killing the Swan, Lemminkainen is killed himself and cut into pieces which are scattered into the river.  Luckily for him, his mother is alerted to what has happened by her son’s magic comb/brush, which, she has been told, will bleed if he’s in trouble.  It does, and she goes in search of him, first demanding what has happened to her son from Louhi, who eventually tells her.  Her quest continues until the sun pinpoints the location where Lemminkainen was killed.  Getting a special rake from the famous craftsman, Ilmarinen (ILL-ma-ri-nen), she proceeds to the river and gathers up the bits of Lemminkainen’s body, then painstakingly puts him back together, finally using a drop of honey from the gods to bring him back to life.


This painting, as well as that of Lemminkainen and the Swan—and that of a very young Sibelius, are all the work of the Finnish artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931),


who, among other subjects, painted a series of works based on the Kalevala.  Along with Lemminkainen, and Ilmarinen, the other main male figures are Vainamoinen (VAY-neh-moy-nen) and Kullervo (KOO-ler-voh).  Vainamoinen is a very interesting figure, being the first man, as well as a magician, and a singer, and also the first to use the kantele (KAHN-teh-leh), the traditional folk instrument of Finland.


This is a kind of lap harp or zither and here’s a LINK so that you can enjoy it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sC0lUR3LoOg

Besides the back-and-forth rocking and matching verses style of performing the songs from which the Kalevala came (see our last posting for more on this),


songs could also be sung or recited to the kantele, so it’s fitting that perhaps the first illustration of the Kalevala, by R. W. Ekman (1808-1873),


is of Vainamoinen playing the kantele.


Kullervo is a different sort of character entirely, being perhaps the unluckiest man in the whole Kalevala.  As a child, he is seemingly the only survivor of the massacre of his family, enslaved, tormented by the wife of his owner, murderer, seducer (although unknowingly) of his own sister and the cause of her death—it seems like there’s nothing in his life worth living for.


It’s interesting that Tolkien, while an Oxford undergraduate, in 1914-1915, decided to do a version of this story, which was only published in 2010.  It would have been a grim time, with the Great War going on and JRRT struggling with his original field of study, Classics, and being drawn to Germanic languages—perhaps he was drawn also to a gloomy story because he himself felt that way?


As we’re sure you can tell, there’s a great deal more to be said about the Kalevala, but we hope that we’ve given you a bit more to add to what we wrote in our last posting and we’ll close with another Gallen-Kallela painting.  Vainamoinen, after many adventures, decides to leave it all behind, but he also leaves behind the kantele—so that others could then sing about him and the other heroes and villains in the story.


Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,






Gallen-Kallela was a really remarkable artist, who traveled to and lived in Africa and the US, as well as in his native Finland, painting wherever he went.  Here’s a LINK where you can learn more about him:  https://www.gallen-kallela.fi/en/ –It’s the site for his house in Finland, which looks to be both beautiful and quirky.

And here’s a painting from his time living in Taos, New Mexico.


“Should you ask me, whence these stories?”

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Everybody who reads beyond The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings probably knows this passage from a 1955 letter to the poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) :


“I mentioned Finnish, because that set the rocket off in its story.  I was immensely attracted by something in the air of the Kalevala, even in Kirby’s poor translation. I never learned  Finnish well enough to do more than plod through a bit of the original, like a schoolboy with Ovid; being mostly taken up with its effect on ‘my language’.” (Letters, 214)

Those same people will also know that the Kalevala is a collection of traditional Finnish mythological stories in verse stitched together into a sort of long epic-like thing by Elias Loennrot, (1802-1884)


a first version being published in 1835, but the longer and standard version in 1849.


Loennrot was, by profession, a doctor, but his hobby was collecting folklore and folksong, a pastime taken up by educated enthusiasts throughout western Europe during the Romantic Era. His informants were mainly country people, both in his district in Finland, then part of the Russian Empire as the Grand Duchy of Finland, and from rural areas which he would visit during his holidays.

One method of performing these songs was for two men to sit on a bench facing each other, to join crossed hands, and to recite back and forth.


There was a basic metre, called by metricists, trochaic tetrameter, which might sound like the Latin name for an exotic plant, but, if we take it apart we have:  tetrameter = four beats in a line; trochaic = having a troche = a foot which can be written like this:  DUM dum.

So, a line of trochaic tetrameter would look like this:  DUM dum DUM dum DUM dum DUM dum.

In Finnish folkverse, this could have a number of little variations, although there was a big one, as well:  sometimes there could be a break (metricists called this a “caesura”—from the Latin verb caedo, “to cut”) between the second and third feet, giving you: DUM dum DUM dum    DUM dum DUM dum.  If you would like to learn more, here’s a LINK which has some useful information about the verse of the poem: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalevala

We first met this verse form not in the Kalevala, but in a poem in English, by the famous 19th-century American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882).


Longfellow was the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard from 1836 to 1854, when he retired to focus on his writing. His command of languages was impressive, including Latin (from boyhood), Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Danish, Icelandic, and Finnish. He was always in search of subjects, often choosing, for his longer works, North American ones. In 1855, he published Hiawatha,


based upon Native American mythology. (Say it “HEE-uh-wah-thuh”, by the way, as Longfellow explained in a letter.)  The metre wasn’t Native American, however, but Finnish.  Although he had some knowledge of the language, Longfellow had actually read a German translation, by Franz Anton Schiefner (1817-1879)


published in 1852. This translation kept the metre of the original and Longfellow clearly found that it suited his narrative purposes. Here are the opening lines—from which we took the title of this posting:

“Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?”

It’s interesting, then, that the Kalevala, which so enchanted the young Tolkien that he almost lost his scholarship at Oxford because of it (Letters, 87, 214-215), and which was “the original germ of the Silmarillion” (Letters, 86), provided metrical inspiration for Longfellow in one of his most famous works.

And Hiawatha was, in turn, the inspiration for another poem, by another famous (English) Victorian author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, “Lewis Carroll” (1832-1898),.


the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865),


among other works.

Besides being a professor of mathematics and fantasy creator, Dodgson was also a keen amateur photographer.  Here’s his image of another poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).


In 1869, he published Phantasmagoria and Other Poems, including a poem entitled “Hiawatha’s Photographing”—and you can see what he’s done, can’t you? In 1883, he republished it in another collection, Rhyme? And Reason?, with the poem illustrated by Arthur B Frost.  Following our theme of  Kalevala influences, we thought that, rather than summarize, we’d simply reprint it here—without the illustrations, which we don’t seem to be able to copy–in hopes to bring a little cheer to what is a pretty grim time.  This is from the 1884 American edition, the LINK to which is right here (where you can see the illustrations for yourself):  https://ia800209.us.archive.org/5/items/cu31924013341049/cu31924013341049.pdf

(Don’t skip the intro!)

Hiawatha’s Photographing Poem

[In an age of imitation, I can claim no special merit for this slight attempt at doing what is known to be so easy. Any fairly practised writer, with the slightest ear for rhythm, could compose, for hours together, in the easy running metre of ‘The Song of Hiawatha.’ Having, then, distinctly stated that I challenge no attention in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle, I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism to its treatment of the subject.]

From his shoulder Hiawatha

Took the camera of rosewood,

Made of sliding, folding rosewood;

Neatly put it all together.

In its case it lay compactly,

Folded into nearly nothing;

But he opened out the hinges,

Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,

Till it looked all squares and oblongs,

Like a complicated figure

In the Second Book of Euclid.


The camera

This he perched upon a tripod—

Crouched beneath its dusky cover—

Stretched his hand, enforcing silence—

Said, “Be motionless, I beg you!”

Mystic, awful was the process.

All the family in order

Sat before him for their pictures:

Each in turn, as he was taken,

Volunteered his own suggestions,

His ingenious suggestions.

First the Governor, the Father:

He suggested velvet curtains

Looped about a massy pillar;

And the corner of a table,

Of a rosewood dining-table.

He would hold a scroll of something,

Hold it firmly in his left-hand;

He would keep his right-hand buried

(Like Napoleon) in his waistcoat;

He would contemplate the distance

With a look of pensive meaning,

As of ducks that die in tempests.

Grand, heroic was the notion:

Yet the picture failed entirely:

Failed, because he moved a little,

Moved, because he couldn’t help it.


Next, his better half took courage;

She would have her picture taken.

She came dressed beyond description,

Dressed in jewels and in satin

Far too gorgeous for an empress.

Gracefully she sat down sideways,

With a simper scarcely human,

Holding in her hand a bouquet

Rather larger than a cabbage.

All the while that she was sitting,

Still the lady chattered, chattered,

Like a monkey in the forest.

“Am I sitting still?” she asked him.

“Is my face enough in profile?

Shall I hold the bouquet higher?

Will it come into the picture?”

And the picture failed completely.


Next the Son, the Stunning-Cantab:

He suggested curves of beauty,

Curves pervading all his figure,

Which the eye might follow onward,

Till they centered in the breast-pin,

Centered in the golden breast-pin.

He had learnt it all from Ruskin

(Author of ‘The Stones of Venice,’

‘Seven Lamps of Architecture,’

‘Modern Painters,’ and some others);

And perhaps he had not fully

Understood his author’s meaning;

But, whatever was the reason,

All was fruitless, as the picture

Ended in an utter failure.


Next to him the eldest daughter:

She suggested very little,

Only asked if he would take her

With her look of ‘passive beauty.’

Her idea of passive beauty

Was a squinting of the left-eye,

Was a drooping of the right-eye,

Was a smile that went up sideways

To the corner of the nostrils.

Hiawatha, when she asked him,

Took no notice of the question,

Looked as if he hadn’t heard it;

But, when pointedly appealed to,

Smiled in his peculiar manner,

Coughed and said it ‘didn’t matter,’

Bit his lip and changed the subject.

Nor in this was he mistaken,

As the picture failed completely.

So in turn the other sisters.


Last, the youngest son was taken:

Very rough and thick his hair was,

Very round and red his face was,

Very dusty was his jacket,

Very fidgety his manner.

And his overbearing sisters

Called him names he disapproved of:

Called him Johnny, ‘Daddy’s Darling,’

Called him Jacky, ‘Scrubby School-boy.’

And, so awful was the picture,

In comparison the others

Seemed, to one’s bewildered fancy,

To have partially succeeded.

Finally my Hiawatha

Tumbled all the tribe together,

(‘Grouped’ is not the right expression),

And, as happy chance would have it

Did at last obtain a picture

Where the faces all succeeded:

Each came out a perfect likeness.

Then they joined and all abused it,

Unrestrainedly abused it,

As the worst and ugliest picture

They could possibly have dreamed of.

‘Giving one such strange expressions—

Sullen, stupid, pert expressions.

Really any one would take us

(Any one that did not know us)

For the most unpleasant people!’

(Hiawatha seemed to think so,

Seemed to think it not unlikely).

All together rang their voices,

Angry, loud, discordant voices,

As of dogs that howl in concert,

As of cats that wail in chorus.

But my Hiawatha’s patience,

His politeness and his patience,

Unaccountably had vanished,

And he left that happy party.

Neither did he leave them slowly,

With the calm deliberation,

The intense deliberation

Of a photographic artist:

But he left them in a hurry,

Left them in a mighty hurry,

Stating that he would not stand it,

Stating in emphatic language

What he’d be before he’d stand it.

Hurriedly he packed his boxes:

Hurriedly the porter trundled

On a barrow all his boxes:

Hurriedly he took his ticket:

Hurriedly the train received him:

Thus departed Hiawatha.


Thanks for reading, as ever, stay well, and



“Get Up and Bar the Door!”

No, dear readers, that’s not directed at you—although, at the current moment in the world’s health, you could easily be forgiven if you thought that it was!

Instead, it’s the title of a well-known Child Ballad—Number 275.  (We occasionally mention these, from the giant collection (305 ballads with variants) by Professor FJ Child, entitled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in five volumes, published from 1882-1898—in ten parts.)


And we chose the title because this is a post which actually originally began with a look back at a recent, serious posting, in which we found ourselves in the mines of Moria, in the Chamber of Mazarbul, defending ourselves from an orc attack—

“Heavy feet were heard in the corridor.  Boromir flung himself against the door and heaved it to; he wedged it with broken sword-blades and splinters of wood.  The Company retreated to the other side of the chamber.  But they had no chance to fly yet.  There was a blow on the door that made it quiver; and then it began to grind slowly open, driving back the wedges.  A huge arm and shoulder with a dark skin of greenish scales, was thrust through the widening gap.  Then a great flat, toeless foot was forced through below.  There was a dead silence outside…

There was a crash on the door, followed by crash after crash.  Rams and hammers were beating against it.  It cracked and staggered back, and the opening grew suddenly wide.  Arrows came whistling in, but struck the northern wall, and fell harmlessly to the floor.  There was a horn-blast and a rush of feet, and orcs one after another leaped into the chamber.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)


We wondered, as we read this, whether somewhere in the back of Tolkien’s head there was another scene of people trapped in a room under attack?

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886), the hero, David Balfour, is trapped in the cabin of a ship with a Scottish office in the service of France, Alan Breck Stewart.  They are heavily outnumbered, but they have seized the ship’s small supply of weapons and are about to defend themselves from an attack by the ship’s crew.

“It came all of a sudden when it did, with a rush of feet and a roar, and then a shout from Alan, and a sound of blows and some one crying out as if hurt. I looked back over my shoulder, and saw Mr. Shuan in the doorway, crossing blades with Alan.

“That’s him that killed the boy!” I cried.

“Look to your window!” said Alan; and as I turned back to my place, I saw him pass his sword through the mate’s body.

It was none too soon for me to look to my own part; for my head was scarce back at the window, before five men, carrying a spare yard for a battering-ram, ran past me and took post to drive the door in. I had never fired with a pistol in my life, and not often with a gun; far less against a fellow-creature. But it was now or never; and just as they swang the yard, I cried out: “Take that!” and shot into their midst.

I must have hit one of them, for he sang out and gave back a step, and the rest stopped as if a little disconcerted. Before they had time to recover, I sent another ball over their heads; and at my third shot (which went as wide as the second) the whole party threw down the yard and ran for it.

Then I looked round again into the deck-house. The whole place was full of the smoke of my own firing, just as my ears seemed to be burst with the noise of the shots. But there was Alan, standing as before; only now his sword was running blood to the hilt, and himself so swelled with triumph and fallen into so fine an attitude, that he looked to be invincible. Right before him on the floor was Mr. Shuan, on his hands and knees; the blood was pouring from his mouth, and he was sinking slowly lower, with a terrible, white face; and just as I looked, some of those from behind caught hold of him by the heels and dragged him bodily out of the round-house. I believe he died as they were doing it.” (Kidnapped, Chapter X, “The Siege of the Round-House”)


(This is an illustration by NC Wyeth, from his 1913 edition of the story.)


At present, we don’t find ourselves besieged by orcs or sailors, or even by boredom or “cabin fever”—the latter of which always makes us think of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), when his starving cabin mate begins to imagine him as a giant chicken—


and we hope that, by reading this and our other postings, we can help you to fight off boredom and “cabin fever”, too, if not orcs and sailors.

But what about the ballad?

It’s a simple story.  A farmwife is making puddings


when her husband tells her to get up and bar the door.


She refuses, saying that, as he seems to have the leisure, he should do it.  He refuses and a quarrel breaks out


which only ends when they agree that the next person who speaks will be obliged to do it.  They sit in silence so long that two thieves quietly slip in and proceed to rob the house—and neither husband nor wife says a word.  Finally, when one of the thieves proposes to kiss the wife, the husband loudly objects—thus being the first to speak and his wife then tells him:  “So, you get up and bar the door!”


A silly little song and perhaps just the thing for a such a time, when many of us are stuck indoors.  Here are three versions of the ballad, if you’re not familiar with it:

275A: Get Up and Bar the Door


275A.1  IT fell about the Martinmas time,

And a gay time it was then,

When our goodwife got puddings to make,

And she’s boild them in the pan.

275A.2  The wind sae cauld blew south and north,

And blew into the floor;

Quoth our goodman to our goodwife,

‘Gae out and bar the door.’

275A.3  hand is in my hussyfskap,

Goodman, as ye may see;

An it shoud nae be barrd this hundred year,

It’s no be barrd for me.’

275A.4  y made a paction tween them twa,

They made it firm and sure,

That the first word whaeer shoud speak,

Shoud rise and bar the door.

275A.5  Then by there came two gentlemen,

At twelve o clock at night,

And they could neither see house nor hall,

Nor coal nor candle-light.

275A.6  ‘Now whether is this a rich man’s house,

Or whether is it a poor?’

But neer a word wad ane o them speak,

For barring of the door.

275A.7  And first they ate the white puddings,

And then they ate the black;

Tho muckle thought the goodwife to hersel,

Yet neer a word she spake.

275A.8  Then said the one unto the other,

‘Here, man, tak ye my knife;

Do ye tak aff the auld man’s beard,

And I’ll kiss the goodwife.’

275A.9  ‘But there’s nae water in the house,

And what shall we do than?’

‘What ails ye at the pudding-broo,

That boils into the pan?’

275A.10 O up then started our goodman,

An angry man was he:

‘Will ye kiss my wife before my een,

And scad me wi pudding-bree?’

275A.11 Then up and started our goodwife,

Gied three skips on the floor:

‘Goodman, you’ve spoken the foremost word,

Get up and bar the door.’



275B: Get Up and Bar the Door


275B.1  THERE leeved a wee man at the fit o yon hill,

John Blunt it was his name, O

And he selld liquor and ale o the best,

And bears a wondrous fame. O

Tal lara ta lilt, tal lare a lilt,

Tal lara ta lilt, tal lara

275B.2  The wind it blew frae north to south,

It blew into the floor;

Says auld John Blunt to Janet the wife,

Ye maun rise up and bar the door.

275B.3  ‘My hans are in my husseyskep,

I canna weel get them free,

And if ye dinna bar it yersel

It’ll never be barred by me.’

275B.4  They made it up atween them twa,

They made it unco sure,

That the ane that spoke the foremost word

Was to rise and bar the door.

275B.5  There was twa travellers travelling late,

Was travelling cross the muir,

And they cam unto wee John Blunt’s,

Just by the light o the door.

275B.6  ‘O whether is this a rich man’s house,

Or whether is it a puir?’

But never a word would the auld bodies speak,

For the barring o the door.

275B.7  First they bad good een to them,

And syne they bad good morrow;

But never a word would the auld bodies speak,

For the barring o the door, O.

275B.8  First they ate the white puddin,

And syne they ate the black,

And aye the auld wife said to hersel,

May the deil slip down wi that!

275B.9  And next they drank o the liquor sea strong,

And syne they drank o the yill:

‘And since we hae got a house o our ain

I’m sure we may tak our fill.’

275B.10 It’s says the ane unto the ither,

Here, man, tak ye my knife,

An ye’ll scrape aff the auld man’s beard,

While I kiss the gudewife.

275B.11 ‘Ye hae eaten my meat, ye hae drucken my drink,

Ye’d make my auld wife a whore!’

‘John Blunt, ye hae spoken the foremost word,

Ye maun rise up and bar the door.’



275C: Get Up and Bar the Door


275C.1  THERE livd a man in yonder glen,

And John Blunt was his name; O

He maks gude maut and he brews gude ale,

And he bears a wondrous fame. O

275C.2  The wind blew in the hallan ae night,

Fu snell out oer the moor;

‘Rise up, rise up, auld Luckie,’ he says,

‘Rise up, and bar the door.’

275C.3  They made a paction tween them twa,

They made it firm and sure,

Whaeer sud speak the foremost word

Should rise and bar the door.

275C.4  Three travellers that had tint their gate,

As thro the hills they foor,

They airted by the line o light

Fu straught to Johnie Blunt’s door.

275C.5  They haurld auld Luckie out o her bed

And laid her on the floor,

But never a word auld Luckie wad say,

For barrin o the door.

275C.6  ‘Ye’ve eaten my bread, ye hae druken my ale,

And ye’ll mak my auld wife a whore!’

‘A ha, Johnie Blunt! ye hae spoke the first word,

Get up and bar the door.’



Thanks, as ever, for reading, stay well, and know that, barring (yep, a bad pun) unforeseen circumstances,






In case you don’t have your own copy of Kidnapped, here’s a LINK to an early American edition:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/421/421-h/421-h.htm

A great read for all of us stay-at-homes!


Not So Dry As Tinder?

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.  We hope that you are well and happy in what, unless we make it otherwise, can be a gloomy time.

Our title this time is a kind of hope, based upon our subject, which is about one of our favorite fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805-1875)


“The Tinderbox” (Fyrtoget, in Danish, which looks like it actually means “fire tinder”—more about “tinder” below).

(This image of HCA comes from a very interesting website, which we’ve just recently discovered.  Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to investigate it for yourself:  https://www.terriwindling.com/)

If you, like us, grew up in a world of safety matches,


(We have no idea why these are called “Double Happiness”, by the way—perhaps because, 1. when you strike them against the box, they actually light; 2. when you try to light a fire with them, they don’t simply wink out immediately, as we have often had happen to us?)

a “tinderbox” is something from the very far past.  After all, friction matches have been with us since their invention, by John Walker, in 1826.  Before such became common—and probably, in much of the world long after—the way to light a fire was to strike a piece of flint with a piece of steel,


causing a spark.


For handy carrying purposes, these two could be carried in a box, and, so that you always had something for the spark to set alight (and it could be any number of things, from moss to bits of fabric), you stuffed such things, called “tinder” (from the Old English verb tendan, “to kindle/alight/set alight”) into the box along with the flight and steel—and there was a “tinderbox”.



In the Andersen story, first published in 1836, when tinderboxes were still the method for lighting fires, the tinderbox is actually a magical one, as a soldier discovers, after he acquires one.  When he strikes a light once, twice, or three times, bigger and bigger dogs with bigger and bigger eyes appear and will fetch him anything he may wish.


The soldier has discovered this wonderful device when he was lowered into a hollow tree by a witch—but, in this posting, we’re not going to discuss the story as story, rather, when we did a little image-searching, what caught our attention was the soldier himself—how he was dressed.  If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that, along with the many other things we’ve taught and teach, we currently run a “History of Western Warfare” course and the look of soldiers through the ages interests us (as does dress in general).  We collected about two dozen images of the soldier hero from various tellings of the story and were interested to see the choices made for how he would be depicted.

First, however, how did the original author portray him?  What clues does he give us?  If we wanted a perfect picture, we would be disappointed, we’re afraid, as the details are few.  In the first paragraph, we are told that the soldier has a pack (tornyster) and a sabre (sabel).  A few paragraphs later, we are told that he fills his pockets (lommen) and then his kaskett, which, in modern Danish, means “hat/cap”, but we suspect, from the original French word, that, in 1836, this meant “shako”, a kind of tall, cylindrical military headgear, as the look of a Danish soldier then would have been something like this–


He also fills his boots (stovler).

So—HCA has told us that our soldier has (probably) a shako, a pack, something with pockets, boots, and he’s armed with a sabre.  As he has a pack, and he’s been walking along a country road, not riding, we assume that he’s an infantryman, and so that “sabre” is actually an infantry short sword (in French, sabre-briquet), which was rapidly disappearing from an infantryman’s weaponry by the time the story would have been written, but it would have looked like this—as still worn by a Danish Footguard today.


Now, let’s look at some images.  We thought that we would classify them not by publication date, but by period of dress, and the first one would be this—


Here, we’re looking at a later-medieval infantryman, a bit like this one—


wearing a breastplate and the distinctive “kettle helmet”.  No shako, pack, pockets, short sword, or boots.  It almost makes us wonder if the illustrator had actually read the story!

Here’s another—


By his clothing, we’ve moved forward a couple of centuries, this being an early-16th-century landsknecht,


Again—everything the author mentions seems to be missing.  We admire the art of it, but, again, has the artist spent any time with the text?

Our next illustration just seems very odd—the soldier appears to have turned into an early-17th-century musketeer—or perhaps it’s puss-in-boots?




We certainly don’t want to suggest in our little review that there is only one way to illustrate a story.  When it comes to Tolkien, for instance, we admire a wide variety of artists, from the first great illustrators, the Hildebrandts,


to Michael Hague


to the wonderful work of Ted Nasmith


to many others, including Lee, Howe, and Gordeev—and there are, indeed, many, and who knows who else is out there?  Our personal preference—and maybe this makes us a little old-fashioned—is for those illustrations which stick closest to what we understand Tolkien was presenting to us and we feel the same about HCA’s (fragmentary) description.  For example, here’s what appears, by its style, to be a later-19th-century depiction of the first meeting of the witch and the soldier—


Here you see the shako, the pack, and, in this case, what appears to be a literal (cavalry) sabre.   Even more convincing—and we’ll stress, to us—is this 2007 view.  (This is Stephen Mitchell’s version, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline)


As we said, we found about two dozen different illustrations, and those were just of the soldier and the witch.  For fun, go to your usual image search engine and see what you find that pleases you:  hopefully, we have kindled a little flame of interest with this posting?

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,




If you don’t have a copy of “The Tinderbox” at hand, here’s a LINK to a translation:  https://www.andersenstories.com/en/andersen_fairy-tales/the_tinderbox

The same site gave us the Danish original and we apologize to any Danish reader for any mistakes made, being only beginners in that excellent language!

Messages of Doom

Messages of Doom


As always, welcome, dear readers.  We are optimists by nature and we want to assure you that, in this time of world turbulence, our title was not meant to cast a shadow—rather, we hope to distract you with several of what we think are slightly spooky stories from the past, both historical and fictional, so read on and see.

When we were little, we once read a brief article about something called “the Lost Colony”.

In 1587, a small English colony was established on Roanoke Island on the coast of what is now North Carolina.


It wasn’t the first attempt to do this, but those earlier attempts had been unsuccessful and, as this version wasn’t doing very well, the governor, John White, sailed back to England the same year, hoping to speed up further supplies and drum up more support.  Unfortunately, the war with Spain, which led to the attempt by the Spanish to invade England the next year,


delayed him until 1590 and, when he finally managed to return, he found the place empty, with only a single word “Croatoan” carved on one of the posts of the little fort the colonists had built.


White assumed that this meant that, for some reason, the colonists had moved to the island of Croatoan (also the name of a local Native American tribe), farther south, but, after some tentative investigating, White’s ship—on which he was only an important passenger—set sail for the Caribbean, the promise being that it would return the next year.  Storms drove the ship off course and, eventually White found himself once more in England.  There were several failed attempts to mount a search expedition in the years following, and a number of English settlers to the north, in modern Virginia, heard garbled stories, but no one was ever seen or heard from again and that single word, “Croatoan”, has remained to haunt people ever since.

It has certainly haunted us and it has made us think of other haunting messages.  One of these is this, sent on June 25, 1876—


In case the handwriting/s is/are a little difficult (there are two of them), it says:  “Benteen.  Come on.  Big village.  Be quick.  Bring packs.  P.S. Bring packs.  W.W. Cook.”

The “Benteen” referred to was Captain Frederick Benteen (1834-1898),


the “Big village” was the combined village of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and their families being sought in the summer of 1876 by various units of the US Army,


the “packs” were containers of spare ammunition being carried on pack mules,


and “W.W. Cook” was what the army called an “adjutant”, an officer-assistant to a superior officer.


In this case, the superior officer was Lt. Colonel George Custer (1839-1876),


a one-time hero in the US Civil War,


where he rose to a very high rank.  After the war, when the Army was drastically cut, Custer stayed on, but at a much lower rank, moving from the command of a division of cavalry (many units) to the command of a single unit, the Seventh Cavalry.  Now, in the summer of 1876, Custer was in charge of one arm of a much bigger push to deal with the two most powerful tribes on the northern plains, the Lakota and the Cheyenne.  He had been ordered to search for them and had just found them.  To aid in that search, Custer had divided his command into three elements and now, having spotted what he believed was an enemy camp, he was trying to pull the third element, in the form of Benteen’s command, to join the other two, along with the mules carrying the spare ammunition.  Instead, the second element was driven off and the first element, led by Custer himself, went down to defeat

image10custer (2).jpg

at the hands of a superior number of Lakota and Cheyenne, when the camp turned out to be much larger than Custer had anticipated.


Although that note reached Benteen, he did not immediately follow orders, but advanced slowly, missed being killed with Custer and his whole detachment of over 200 men, and saved that note—another haunting message of doom:  like a letter asking for help sealed in a bottle which never floated to shore.

This bring us to our third.  The previous two were historical, this third came from the mind of a man about whom we often write—


Gandalf has led the Fellowship


to the mines of Moria


Now, deep within, they come to a chamber




which appears to be strewn with wreckage, including a tomb and the remains of a book.  The inscription on the tomb reads:  “Balin son of Fundin Lord of Moria”, indicating that an important dwarf, and an old friend of Bilbo, lay there, but wondering why set the Fellowship to searching “for anything that would give them tidings of Balin’s fate, or show what had become of his folk.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)  A quick look-round revealed to them, “…many recesses cut in the rock of the walls, and in them were large, iron-bound chests of wood.  All had been broken and plundered; but beside the shattered lid of one there lay the remains of a book.  It had been slashed and stabbed and partly burned, and it was so stained with black and other dark marks like old blood that little of it could be read.”


Gandalf can still make out things here and there, however:  “It seems to be a record of the fortunes of Balin’s folk…I guess that it began with their coming to Dimrill Dale nigh on thirty years ago… “

He continues until we see this:

“It is grim reading…I fear their end was cruel.  Listen! ‘We cannot get out.  We cannot get out…They have taken the Bridge and the second hall..We cannot get out.  The end comes,’ and then ‘drums, drums in the deep.’  I wonder what that means.  The last thing written is in a trailing scrawl of elf-letters:  ‘They are coming.’ “

In the case of the Lost Colony, there is simply a single word and an end, at least until archaeological research may point in new directions.  Neither Benteen nor packs came to Custer, and we certainly know his and his men’s fate.


For the Fellowship, however, the past will now repeat itself:

“Gandalf had hardly spoken these words, when there came a great noise:  a rolling Boom that seemed to come from depts far below, and to tremble in the stone at their feet…Then there came an echoing blast:  a great horn was blown in the hall, and answering horns and harsh cries were heard further off.  There was a hurrying sound of many feet.

‘They are coming!’ cried Legolas.

‘We cannot get out,’ said Gimli.”

And now, trapped in the Chamber of Mazarbul, those words come back not only to haunt us readers, but the very characters we’re reading about, who are about to have a life-and-death struggle on their hands.


With a small shiver, we thank you, as ever, for reading.  Stay well, and, as we always say



Going Underground

Welcome, dear readers, as always, but, although the title of this posting might suggest taking cover during this time of worldwide illness, we persist in staying calm and remaining aboveground and writing more about subjects we—and, we hope you—find interesting.

We are about to teach The Hobbit again—although this time, not being sitting in a classroom with about 20 students, talking about what we’ve been reading, but somehow on-line, which is not very happy-making, as we really enjoy the always-intriguing reactions and questions which come from in-class discussion.

One observation from last term’s Hobbit reading has stuck with us:  just how much of the dramatic action takes place underground—and there are also a number of like scenes, also very dramatic scenes, in The Lord of the Rings, as well.

We started adding them up and found, in The Hobbit:

  1. the world of the goblins under the Misty Mountains, where Gandalf kills the goblin king


and Bilbo finds the Ring and meets Gollum.


  1. in Mirkwood, the caves where the dwarves are kept prisoner by Thranduil, the king of the Forest Elves


until Bilbo frees them with his barrel-riding.


  1. the tunnels under the Lonely Mountain


where Bilbo and the dwarves must deal with Smaug.


In The Lord of the Rings, we find:

  1. Moria, with its mysterious western door,


the chamber of Mazarbul,


and the Balrog.


  1. the Pathways of the Dead


  1. and the area around Cirith Ungol, where Shelob has her lair.


Darkness, often narrow or treacherous places, full of fear–it might be supposed that Tolkien was a claustrophobe–


until you read this letter from 1940, in which he tells us of having made several visits—one in 1916—to some very famous caves (in this letter, he’s replying to someone who has asked about the caverns at Helm’s Deep):

“It may interest you to know that the passage was based upon the caves in Cheddar Gorge and was written just after I had revisited these in 1940 but was still coloured by my memory of them much early before they became so commercialized.  I had been there during my honeymoon nearly 30 years before.”  (Letters, 407)

Cheddar Gorge is in Somerset, in southwest England and is famous for its caves–


as well as its cheese.


We can deduce, then, that, in fact, JRRT was interested in caves and enjoyed them.

Scary caves go back farther in his life, however.  We would suggest from childhood, when he read, one, and possibly two, stories by the once-popular Victorian children’s author, George MacDonald (1824-1905).


These books, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)


and The Princess and Curdy (1883),


as the titles suggest, have to do with the adventures of a princess, her friend, Curdy, and the swarms of goblins who live in a warren of caves below the palace.  JRRT himself confessed, in a 1938 letter published in The Observer, to MacDonald’s influence:

“As for the rest of the tale it is…derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story—not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George Macdonald [sic] is the chief exception.”

(Letters, 31)

For later dark underground influences, we might add two spots in Beowulf:   the lair of Grendel, which is not only underground, but underwater,


and the tumulus in which the (unnamed) dragon lives, the slaying of which causes the death of Beowulf.


Perhaps the most traumatic influence might be what was a traumatic experience for many more than JRRT.

In the summer of 1916, Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien


arrived at the Western Front, a subterranean land of trenches which cut up the world into endless crisscrosses of deep, often elaborate ditches with thickets of barbed wire in front of them,


protecting soldiers on both sides from the effects of heavy artillery


and machine guns,


in a crooked line which stretched for nearly 500 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea.


When he arrived, he was just in time to take part in a massive attack on a portion of the German lines in an assault which is now called the Battle of the Somme.  This was a tremendous effort which cost the British on the first day alone a total of over 57,000 casualties.


To soften up the enemy lines, the British had dug tunnels below them at various points,


filled them with explosives, called “mines”, and set them off just before the attacks.


Tolkien, as a signals officer—someone who dealt with communications after the first wave of attackers—


wouldn’t have been involved in mines or the initial assault, but would have followed behind, climbing into the enemy’s trenches to set up communication facilities after the attack had moved forward.  He would certainly have seen these underground burrows, some of them extremely elaborate,



and perhaps childhood reading, the Cheddar gorge, and the experience of the Great War were all in his head when he began his first novel by placing his hero in a hole in the ground, then putting him back underground again and again?


Thanks, as ever, for reading.  Stay well, dear readers, with




Following the Signs

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

This posting started with a signpost.  In the UK, this can be called a fingerpost, like


this wooden one, a very old one, where you can see directions and mileage from the point where the post was planted.  Where we began, there is a finger, but:

“Suddenly a tall pillar loomed up before them.  It was black; and set upon it was a great stone carved and painted in the likeness of a long White Hand.  Its finger pointed north.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”)

Gandalf, Denethor, Aragorn, and their company have ridden north from Helm’s Deep, passing into Nan Curunir, “The Wizard’s Vale”:

“After they had ridden for some miles, the highway became a wide street, paved with great flat stones, squared and laid with skill; no blade of grass was seen in any joint.  Deep gutters, filled with trickling water, ran down on either side.”

If we were asked what JRRT had in mind here, we would say at once, “it’s a Roman road, like this one”—


which, if you could see it in cross-section, would look like this—


The Romans had mileposts, too, a bit like signposts.  This is the first one on the oldest Roman road, the Via Appia, and the long inscription tells us who put it up (the Emperor Nerva—96-98AD) and who restored it (the Emperor Vespasian—117-138AD), but also how many (Roman) miles it was from there to the center of Rome:  1.


It’s interesting, then, to see that the fingerpost which Gandalf & Co encounter has no inscription at all, its information seeming to consist only of the indication of a direction, north.   As we thought about it, however, it occurred to us to ask:  are we ever shown any public inscriptions in Middle-earth?  And, if there were any, where are they?   We could think of only two, and neither on a road.  The first was on the western gate of Moria, with the command which puzzled Gandalf–


the other was above the Dark Door, the entrance to the Paths of the Dead (this is a sketch by John Howe)


where we’re only told that “Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read”.

With no more information than a direction, we are led northwards:

“Beneath the mountain’s arm within the Wizard’s Vale through years uncounted had stood that ancient place that Men called Isengard.  Partly it was shaped in the making of the mountains, but mighty works the Men of Westernesse had wrought there of old, and Saruman had dwelt there long and had not been idle.”


Long before Saruman arrived, those Men of Westernesse hadn’t been idle, either:

“A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, rom which it ran and then returned again.”

In trying to picture this, we thought of Iron Age hill forts, like Castle Ring, whose walls were of earth, rather than stone, but extensive, all the same.


“One entrance only was there made in it, a great arch delved in the southern wall.  Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron…One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl, a mile it measured from rim to rim.”

Tunnels like this may be seen in more modern fortresses, like Ehrenbreitstein, in Germany.


But what has Saruman been up to?

“Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake.  But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman.  The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron, joined by heavy chains.”

Here, we think of what are called allees, long walks between rows of trees of the sort you can see in Europe—


which we juxtapose with the Hildebrandt’s portrait of Saruman.


That vast circle is still too green in their depiction, however, as we read on:

“Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunneled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors…The plain, too, was bored and delved.  Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead.”

A very vivid image!


But too peaceful for the activity found there seemingly 24/7:

“Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded.  At night plumes of vapor streamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.”

In a posting some time ago, we likened Mordor to the old industrial area in England, the Black Country, and this description certainly brings that to mind—


But in the center is this:

“There stood a tower of marvelous shape.  It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in black and gleaming hard:  four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives.”

As always, we think about where all of this may have come from.  JRRT was a medievalist, after all, and medieval models must always have been in his mind.  The idea of a circuit of walls with a central citadel says to us a place like Old Sarum


or perhaps the Tower of London—


and the White Tower at the Tower of London, although the wrong color, shares a definite similarity with Orthanc, being square, with four corner towers.


Along with his written description, however, JRRT has left us some small images of what he had in mind, like—


and this drawing, in particular, brought to mind something we suspect he might have rejected, but which, to us, bears a certain resemblance, the unfinished Cathedral of the Holy Family, in Barcelona, Catalunya—


We are still standing at that signpost, however, and something about it suggests is that, for all of the work of the Men of Westernesse and for all of Saruman’s alterations, all may not be right in the Wizard’s Vale:

“Now Gandalf rode to the great pillar of the Hand, and passed it, and as he did so the Riders saw to their wonder that the Hand appeared no longer white.  It was stained as with dried blood; and looking closer they perceived that its nails were red.  Unheeding Gandalf rode on into the mist, and reluctantly they followed him.  All about them now, as if there had been a sudden flood, wide pools of water lay beside the road, filling the hollows, and rills went trickling down among the stones.”

Perhaps, instead of the White Hand, this would have been a better signpost?


Thanks, as ever, for reading and