Heil, Sharkey!


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As ever, welcome, dear readers.

Some time ago, we did a posting on The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”.


At that time, our emphasis was upon its reflection of JRRT’s dislike for the effects of the Industrial Revolution on rural England



and the importance of the chapter to closure in The Lord of the Rings.

In this posting, we want to look at it from another direction and to view Sharkey’s Shire as a kind of proto-fascist state.

Although the word “fascist” is now used pretty loosely as a verbal attack on politicians and political parties with a rightward-lean, it had a more specific meaning in the 1920s and 1930s.  Then, fascists were believers in a kind of militarized state, in which the economy might be in the hands of the government, and the government in the hands of a few (a kind of oligarchy) or even of one, a dictator.  (Here’s a LINK if you want to know more.)

Benito Mussolini


was the first of these who actually succeeded in coming to power.  In Italy, in 1922, he organized a march on the capital, Rome, which would lead to his becoming the head of state (although Italy remained a monarchy, the monarch, Vittorio Immanuele III, was brought out for state occasions only).



Mussolini, to make his power look like a natural historical progression, began using ancient Roman symbols.  One of these was the mark of the escorts to Roman magistrates, the fascis, a bundle of birch rods with an axe in the middle, the sign that a magistrate had the power to inflict not only corporal punishment—the rods—but even death—the axe—on citizens.  This bundle was carried by a lictor, a minor officer of state.  The number of these lictors who marched in front of the magistrate signaled just how important the magistrate was.


Mussolini had his bullyboys, the “Blackshirts”


To emphasize this connection with the imperial past, he went so far as to impress the old initials of ancient Rome, SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus—“the Roman Senate and People”) on everything public in sight—even manhole covers (they’re still there to this day).


And his use of the symbol of the fascis was the basis of the term fascism—they’re even all around his tomb.



Mussolini might have been the first of these leaders—or would-be leaders—during this pre-war era, but there were plenty more.  There was Eoin O’Duffy in Ireland, leading his thugs, called “Blueshirts”,


to Vidkun Quisling, with his Nasjonal Samling (“National Party”), who, after the Nazis conquered Norway, actually became leader there,


to Francisco Franco, in Spain,


to Hitler, in Germany,


whose original goon/enforcers were the SA—Sturm Abteilung (“Storm Detachment”) or “Brownshirts”.


In England, Tolkien would have been well aware of Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.


Hitler had been mocked by the famous silent film comedian, Charlie Chaplin, in his 1940, The Great Dictator,


but, closer to home, Mosley had become a figure of fun in the comic novels of PG Wodehouse


as “Sir Roderick Spode”.  Here he is, memorably portrayed in the 1990-1993 television adaptation, Jeeves and Wooster, by John Turner—much of whose posture was a direct imitation of Mussolini,



even down to his pathetic followers, the “Black Shorts”.


His first appearance was in Wodehouse’s 1938 novel, The Code of the Woosters,


where he is described as:

“About seven feet in height, and swathed in a plaid ulster which made him look about six feet across, he caught the eye and arrested it. It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment…

“I don’t know if you have ever seen those pictures in the papers of Dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes, inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of the opening of a new skittle alley, but that was what he reminded me of.”  (The Code of the Woosters, Chapter One)

(Here’s a LINK to a free edition of the book, in case you’d like to read it—and why wouldn’t you?  And this is a “plaid ulster” in case you’ve never seen one.)


Everything in the “Scouring” chapter, from the “great spiked gate” on the bridge over the Brandywine, to the “Chief’s Men”—who should be wearing brown tunics—to the very name “Chief”, instead of the old Shire title, “Mayor”, reeks of fascism, and, combined with:

“The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds  Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank.  An avenue of trees had stood there.  They were all gone.  And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance.  It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.”

links that political movement to the despoliation of the old natural world by the Industrial Revolution.

Behavior in this new Shire is based upon “orders” and here we really see the hand of Sharkey, who is, of course, Saruman.  Here’s what he says to try to seduce Gandalf into joining him:

“A new Power is rising…As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow…We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose:  Knowledge, Rule, Order…”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

And the most important element in that purpose is “Order”.  It’s no wonder that Saruman is murdered.


Thanks, as always, for reading and





On Time.3


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Once upon a time, dear readers (and welcome, as always), this series began with this:


As you can see, it’s a reproduction of the first page of a draft of JRRT’s The Lord of the Rings chronology, which we found in a display case in Reading Adventureland at the marvelous Strong National Museum of Play, in Rochester, NY (the original is in the Tolkien papers at Marquette University).



We had seen the eventual complete version of this long ago in Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings, in the section entitled “The Great Years”, but, as with everything original, there’s a special thrill to seeing something much closer to the author than the printed page–like this, a leaf from a draft of what would become The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”, illustrated by Tolkien.  If you compare it with the final text, it’s very interesting to see all of the kinds of changes JRRT made between it and that which we now read.


(We found this on a site called Biblioklept.  As this means “book thief”, we were a little hesitant, at first, but it turned out to be a very interesting place—here’s a LINK to it so that you can see for yourself.)

The Hobbit (about which we wrote in parts 1 and 2 of this little series) was quite simple in its chronology.  It’s all of a piece, the narrative being focused solely on Bilbo and the dwarves until Smaug flies off to devastate Lake-town (Chapter 14, “Fire and Water”).  Even Gandalf’s disappearance in Chapter 7 (“Queer Lodgings”) is never really gone into.  The opposite is true in The Lord of the Rings.  In the opening chapters of Book One alone, Gandalf appears, Bilbo disappears, years pass and Gandalf reappears and disappears, and it’s only in Book Two that both reappear and we are told by Gandalf what happened between his last disappearance and his present reappearance (“The Council of Elrond”), even though some of what happened to him was occurring at the same time as Frodo’s packing up and leaving the Shire.  Here’s a useful chronology from something called “scifi.stackexchange.com” (and here’s a LINK to it).


It’s not surprising, then, that JRRT needed to make very careful notes of who went where and when.

This didn’t always work out, however, as has been pointed out more than once, in the matter of phases of the moon.  This is a complicated story (here’s a LINK to help), but, basically, JRRT, as meticulous as he always was, based the moon phases on a calendar from 1941-2


and mistook the marker for “new moon” to mean “the second day of the new moon”, which would have allowed for just the faintest of crescents in the sky, rather than the astronomical definition, “the full dark of the moon”.

Here’s a moon phase chart to help.


We know from a note in Christopher Tolkien’s The Treason of Isengard that JRRT was working from such a calendar (or almanac) because:

“Either while the making of Time-scheme I was in progress or at some later point my father wrote at the head of the first page of it:  Moons are after 1941-2 + 6 days.  (p. 369—if you happen to consult the Tolkien Gateway:  User:  Gamling/Hobbitdates on the subject, you will be puzzled at its footnote 2, which cites this volume, and, within it, “The Great River”, note 23, as note 23 says nothing about this)

For us, to focus upon such a detail is to miss the bigger point, however, which was, in fact, encapsulated in W. H. Auden’s review of The Fellowship of the Ring


in 1954:

”Of any imaginary world the reader demands that it seem real, and the standard of realism demanded today is much stricter than in the time, say, of Malory. Mr. Tolkien is fortunate in possessing an amazing gift for naming and a wonderfully exact eye for description; by the time one has finished his book one knows the histories of Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves and the landscape they inhabit as well as one knows one’s own childhood.”  (The New York Times, October 31, 1954)

Where does such sense of reality come from?

We once read that, before science-fiction authors SM Stirling


and David Drake


began their 5-volume series of the adventures of Raj Whitehall, The General, in 1991 (see LINK—and here’s the first volume book cover),


they created a many-page description of the world, Bellevue, upon which those adventures are set.  We thought that that was a great idea and it certainly made Bellevue and all of its events more believable and the narrative more engrossing.

On a much more massive scale, there are the 13 volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s


publication of his father’s papers and his own notes (this is obviously just a few of the books).


For us, however, there is a small, but equally revealing image of what lies behind JRRT’s work.


This is another item from that display case at the Strong Museum (and the original is also from the Tolkien collection at Marquette).  As you can see, it’s a menu card, for a formal dinner, and we don’t know whether an always-paper-hungry Tolkien tucked it into a coat pocket to use at a later date, or whether it was a very boring dinner and he whiled away the time till the “cheese straws” by creating a neat little measurement system based upon hobbit physiognomy (we hope it was the latter).

What particularly catches our attention is the detail that “6 toes = 1 foot” (odd—do hobbits have six toes, like certain cats?)—but added to that, in a gloss to the right, is the translation into English measure that this hobbit “foot” equals 9 inches.  The standard English measure of a foot is 12 inches, but in the days before the English conquest of Wales in the 13th century, (under Edward I, 1239-1307), something called the “Venedotian Code” provided the measurement system in northern Wales, and, in that system, the foot was 9 inches—could it be that JRRT thought of the hobbits as Welsh?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Over the River…


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Two postings ago, we had been discussing how time is marked in The Hobbit.  After a one-post interlude—a book review—we were intending to extend our discussion (as our original plan was) to The Lord of the Rings, but something caught our attention and, in this posting, we’re still interluding—although it is about The Hobbit.

We had just set off from Bag End with Bilbo and the dwarves and noticed this:

“At first they had passed through hobbit-lands, a wide respectable country inhabited by decent folk, with good roads, an inn or two, and now and then a dwarf or a farmer ambling by on business.  Then they came to lands where people spoke strangely, and sang songs Bilbo had never heard before.  Now they had gone on far into the Lone-lands, where there were no people left, no inns, and the roads grew steadily worse.  Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees.  On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 2, “Roast Mutton”)

The company passes over an ancient bridge:

“Somewhere behind the grey clouds the sun must have gone down, for it began to get dark as they went down into a deep valley with a river at the bottom.  Wind got up, and willows along its banks bent and sighed.  Fortunately the road went over an ancient stone bridge, for the river, swollen with the rains, came rushing down from the hills and mountains in the north.”

They go on till Bilbo and the dwarves reach the trolls.



(drawings by JRRT)

Here, though, we want to pause for a moment and look back, and, like any careful—and curious—traveler, consult a map.


First—and this is something we noted in that previous post—there is really no hard evidence for just how long this leg of the trip took.  All we are given are  “At first”, “now and then”, “Then”, and “Now”, and the sense of distance comes to us as much through landscape changes as from those vague words:  from “hobbit-lands” to “lands where people spoke strangely…” then “Now they had gone far into the Lone-lands”.

Second, looking at that map, there are certain puzzling words in that description of travel.  The description twice says “roads”, at first “good roads”, then, as the journey goes eastwards, “the roads grew steadily worse”.  Our map, however, shows only one road, the East or East/West Road, the history of which goes far into the history of Middle-earth and which we have always imagined that JRRT modeled on the remains of Roman roads one could still walk in England in his time—and even today.


(Here’s a LINK to a very good basic article on constructing roads in Roman Britain.)

And then there is this:

“Not far ahead were dreary hills, rising higher and higher, dark with trees.  On some of them were old castles with an evil look, as if they had been built by wicked people.”

As far as we know, there are no “castles” in Middle-earth—the East Road does skirt Weathertop.  As Aragorn says:

“The Old Road, which we have left far away on our right, runs to the south of it and passes not far from its foot.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)

And perhaps his description might—very roughly—fit a (ruined) castle:

“…in the first days of the North Kingdom, they built a great watch-tower on Weathertop, Amon Sul they called it.  It was burned and broken, and nothing remains of it now but a tumbled ring, like a rough crown on the old hill’s head.”

As it was destroyed in the conflict against the Witch King of Angmar, we would certainly agree that “wicked people” had once been involved in its history.

Our puzzlement is not just about what appears in the text, however.  There is also what’s missing (most of it shown on the map):

  1. the bridge over the Brandywine which appears in the first paragraph of “The Scouring of the Shire”
  2. any mention of the Greenway, which crosses the East Road at Bree
  3. and then there is Bree itself

Of course, this is back-reading.  We are looking at a map which is descended from one which JRRT gradually built up over time in the years after The Hobbit, when Middle-earth continued to grow and grow in his imagination and hence in his fiction.  (For an extensive view of his work as a world-creator, see this intelligent and extremely useful volume by Karen Wynn Fonstad,


which deals with the whole history of Middle-earth in chronological order.  For The Lord of the Rings, we would recommend this, by Barbara Strachey,


which has been our guide on a number of trips along Frodo’s route.)

As well, it’s good to remember that, for the most part, the company in The Hobbit is traveling at its own speed, a speed determined primarily by the countryside they cross and their trip seems—if occasionally miserable—almost leisurely, especially in comparison with The Lord of the Rings, in which so much of the first volume in particular lays out a route along which several of the main protagonists are driven by evil pursuers.  The journey itself, in the latter, becomes, day by day, the focus of the narrative as they attempt to escape the Nazgul and that day-by-day quality is intensified after the wounding of Frodo on Weathertop, as he begins to fade and his friends are desperate to reach Rivendell.


The contrast between the two stories is especially striking here, as Bilbo and company are mocked and sung to by invisible elves in The Hobbit (Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”) as they ride down into the valley, whereas, in The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 12, “Flight to the Ford”), we see this (by the excellent Ted Nasmith)—


This change in the narrative emphasis, from discrete events along a route in The Hobbit, to an emphasis upon the journey itself, will bring us back to our original discussion on the marking of time—moving now from the earlier book to The Lord of the Rings in our next posting.

Thanks, as always, for reading and





We would guess, by the way, that that “ancient stone bridge” mentioned above is the so-called “Last Bridge”, which Glorifindel  calls “the Bridge of Mitheithel” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 12, “Flight to the Ford”) and which crosses the River Hoarwell (“Mitheithel” to the elves) on the East Road.


If you grew up, as we did, hearing the song we hinted at in our title, you might want to learn more at this LINK

Roses—War of, Cranes—Mon


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

If you read us regularly, you know that, in general, we tend to write about the past—a lot of the past, including not only our own historical past and the past of Middle-earth, but also about past authors, as well.  Today, we’re doing something slightly different in that we are writing a review of a novel, The Rose and the Crane (2017)


by someone who is definitely of the present, Clint Dohnen, although his book is set in the period 1483-1485.


Like our own Across the Doubtful Sea (2015)


this is a self-published book, available at Amazon.com, and we found it as an Amazon recommendation.

The title interested us immediately for its juxtaposition of two things one would normally not think of at the same time:




That cover, however, with its crossing of medieval sword and katana, suggested that those two things weren’t plant and bird, but something heraldic, as in the Tudor rose


and the badge (mon) of the Mori clan of Japan.


That rose was, in fact, a piece of political symbolism, being the combination of two separate house badges, the white rose of York


and the red rose of Lancaster,


which noble houses, along with their allies, fought an on-again off-again civil war mostly through central England from 1455 to 1487.  This struggle later came to be known as “The Wars of the Roses” because of those two flowers.


The protagonist of this novel is Simon Lang, a young refugee from that conflict as, at the beginning of the novel, in 1483, his family’s side, the Lancastrians, have suffered what apparently had been a decisive defeat at Tewkesbury, 4 May, 1471 and the heavy hand of the Yorkist government had been upon them since.


(This is by Graham Turner, who has done a whole series of dramatic paintings of battles of the Wars of the Roses for Osprey, one of our favorite publishers of military history.)

Simon has become an exile, currently working on a Venetian trading ship off the coast of Japan.  (We were a little puzzled by this, we must admit, as, to our knowledge, the first Renaissance ships in that part of the world would only appear–after a strenuous trip around Africa—under Vasco da Gama in 1499—but, once the novel got under weigh, we put this puzzlement aside and let the plot carry us away.)  This ship is armed with cannon, which might seem a little surprising in 1483, but the first known use of guns on European ships actually dates all the way back to the battle of Arnemuiden, 23 September, 1338.


When we think of early ships’ guns, however, we always think of those of the Mary Rose,


which sank, with virtually all hands, during a naval battle with the French, on 19 July, 1545, was rediscovered in the late 20th century, raised, and now is on display in Portsmouth, England.


As you can see, about half the ship has survived and, with it, an enormous quantity of wonderfully-preserved artefacts, including a number of its guns.


It’s while on board this ship that the Rose, so to speak, meets the Crane, the samurai Kojiro Takeda


in the time in Japanese history known as Sengoku Jidai, the “Era of the Warring States” (1467-1600), when the country went through its own complex period of civil wars before the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867) brought repression and peace simultaneously.

Takeda is rescued, along with a friend, from the ship of an enemy family and the first part of the novel deals with adventures in Japan (including a battle to defend the village of Takeda’s friend, which is very clearly and convincingly described—as are all the battles in the book—and there are several of them).

The merchant ship is on a trading venture, however, and the second major episode involves the main characters in an expedition south from Japan to the Molucca Islands (now known as the Maluku), a group which is situated between New Guinea and Borneo.


There—this is an adventure novel after all—they are attacked by cannibal headhunters.  These headhunters are not given a name, but, from the description, we imagine that they could be Sea Dayaks from Borneo,


known for collecting heads.

M0005506 Punan's heads taken by Sea Dayaks

From there, it’s back to Venice—but this is not a breather because there is another plot—a meanwhile.

After the death of the Yorkist king, Edward IV, in 1483,


the crown should have passed to his two sons, but, instead, Edward’s younger brother, at first regent for the two boys, then takes the crown, the two boys are declared illegitimate—and, well, never seen again.


Much of what was thought to be known of this younger brother, who became Richard III,

The Richard III Society Reveal A Facial Reconstruction Of Richard III

originally came from sources employed by his enemy and eventual replacement, Henry Tudor, aka Henry VII,


but, over the years, the image of the hunch-backed monster of Shakespeare


has gradually been changed to that of a successful administrator and more-than-competent king and soldier, but this is an adventure novel with both a young late-medieval knight and a ronin (masterless samurai) as main characters, so Richard is put back into his old role—and even more so, being clearly a psychopath.


Simon is distantly related—half of noble England seemed to be—to the heads of the Lancastrian family and Richard is determined to remove any possible threat to his position as king, so Simon is a marked man—a situation which will continue to be the case till the very end of the book, when, in one final battle scene, Simon and his friends fight in the army of Henry Tudor at Bosworth, 22 August, 1485.


Richard III is killed in the struggle

King Richard III in battle: Was Richard Really Evil?

and, in the aftermath, Henry—now Henry VII—returns Simon’s ancestral lands to him and suitably rewards the samurai and the other members of Simon’s fellowship (a familiar scene from the end of Star Wars IV, to “The Field of Cormallen” in The Return of the King).

We hope that you can tell from our summary that this is a fine example of just what we enjoy:  a wild adventure set in an actual historical era which the author has taken pains to reconstruct, with the kinds of characters one would hope for:  exiles with murderous talents, cheerfully making their way through hair-raising situations.  We would add to this three more items:

  1. the descriptions of scenery and actions are clear, precise, and persuasive
  2. the language barrier—after all, in the space of the book, characters move from England to Venice to Japan to the Moluccas and back—is handled with some care—if we have to suspend our disbelief, we only have to do so briefly and some games are played with language throughout
  3. which leads us to our third point—this is—we’ll use an old-fashioned word here—a rollicking book—it’s just plain fun and, like all of the best adventure stories, could easily be read more than once

We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.

Thanks, as ever, for reading and,




That image of Richard III has its own interesting story.  After Richard was killed at Bosworth, his body was quickly buried in a religious installation—Greyfriars Priory–in the city of Leicester.  Over the years from 1485 to the early 2000s, the Priory had long disappeared and the body with it (although there was another tradition that the bones had been dumped into the local river and lost).  In August, 2015, however, a joint project of the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council not only located the site, but almost immediately found the skeleton of a man of the right age who seemed to have suffered a battlefield death.  Subsequent DNA matching with descendants, plus the site itself, confirmed that the bones were that of the last Yorkist king and, before he was interred in Leicester Cathedral, measurements were taken and this image made.  Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to learn more.

On Time (2)


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

Some years ago, we visited the Strong National Museum of Play, in Rochester, New York.  (Highly recommended!)


There, we had found this in one of the display cases–


It’s a reproduction of the first page of a chronology of The Lord of the Rings by JRRT, covering the end of September and the beginning of October of SR1418, from the Marquette University collection.  Looking closely we could see just how detailed it was and, recently, we looked at the page again and it made us wonder just how visible such detailing was in the actual work:  do we really see each day portrayed?  Are there moments when days—or more—go by unmarked?  If so, when?  And why?

To answer our questions, we turned first to The Hobbit, as a kind of test case, and, in our last posting, had, by the end, reached the western edge of Mirkwood.


This, as the caption says, is a work by Ted Nasmith, one of our favorite Tolkien illustrators, but here’s JRRT’s version.


(As we’ve pointed out some time ago, Tolkien’s version would appear to owe something to the work of the early-20th-century Swedish illustrator, John Bauer (1882-1918).)


As Gandalf waves a good-bye and shouts a final warning, the company plunges in—and immediately time seems to blur:

“All this went on for what seemed to the hobbit ages upon ages…days followed days, and still the forest seemed just the same…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 8, “Flies and Spiders”)

They reach a dangerous stream, one of their company falls in—and immediately drops into a deep sleep, forcing them to carry him as they move away from the stream and, although their journeying continues to seem endless:

“About four days from the enchanted stream they came to a part where most of the trees were beeches…A few leaves came rustling down to remind them that outside autumn was coming on…Two days later they found their path going downwards.”

Soon after that, Bilbo is sent up a tree to see where they are—and, it appears the next day they are tormented by visions of feasting elves.  The next morning?  the scattered dwarves and Bilbo are attacked by outsized spiders.


As we said, this is all rather blurry—not many time words are used and, like the forest itself, the passage of time appears almost featureless.  In the confusion around the elvish torment and the spiders, however, Thorin has disappeared, only to be made captive by those very elves and taken to the palace of their king.


And then time moves forward—a little:  “The day after the battle with the spiders Bilbo and the dwarves made one last despairing effort to find a way out before they died of hunger and thirst…Such day as there ever was in the forest was fading once more into the blackness of night, when suddenly out sprang the light of many torches all round them…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond”)

The other dwarves are captured by the elves, but Bilbo, using his ring, escapes–and then manages to slip into the elves’ underground world—and into what appears to be another nearly-timeless place:

“Poor Mr. Baggins—it was a weary long time that he lived in that place all alone…Eventually, after a week or two of this sneaking sort of life, by watching and following the guards and taking what chances he could, he managed to find out where each dwarf was kept.

He found all their twelve cells in different parts of the palace, and after a time he got to know his way about very well.”

The chance discovery of the use of an underground stream as a method of shipping goods—and wine in particular—provides Bilbo with the final means to escape the elves, but how long does all of this, from the capture of the dwarves to that escape, take?

“For some time Bilbo sat and thought about this water-gate, and wondered if it could be used for the escape of his friends, and at last he had the desperate beginnings of a plan.”

If you are familiar with the story, you know that the plan entails escaping in barrels,


bobbing and rolling all night down the river till they were snagged and collected and, the next morning, moved on towards Lake-town, which they reached in the evening (“The sun had set when turning with another sweep towards the East the forest-river rushed into the Long Lake.”).


(This reminds us to mention crannogs—lake houses—of which there is a very convincing reconstruction on Loch Tay, in Scotland.  Here’s a LINK if you’d like to know more.)


The dwarves and Bilbo had stayed in Lake-town two weeks when:  “At the end of a fortnight Thorin began to think of departure.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 10, “A Warm Welcome”)  When they actually departed, however, is unclear:  “So one day, although autumn was now getting far on, and winds were cold, and leaves were falling fast, three large boats left Lake-town, laden with rowers, dwarves, Mr. Baggins, and many provisions.”

They land “On the Doorstep” (the title of Chapter 11) of the Lonely Mountain.  It has taken them three days to get there by boat.  (“In two days going they rowed right up the Long Lake and passed out into the River Running…At the end of the third day, some miles up the river, they drew in to the left or western bank and disembarked.”   The Hobbit, Chapter 11, “On the Doorstep”)


But how long do they spend on that doorstep?

We know, from Elrond’s reading of the moon runes on Thror’s map, that there is a kind of deadline:

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks…and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

Thorin himself is hard-pressed to say exactly what day this is, but the dwarves and hobbit continue their journey to find the hidden back door.

After camping where their supplies have been left, they begin their actual explorations the next day.  (“They spent a cold and lonely night…The next day they set out again.”)  Bilbo and several of the dwarves make a brief expedition to the front door and back, seemingly within a day.

We now enter into another blurry period, for, as the dwarves and Bilbo search for the hidden door, all we read is “day by day they came back to their camp without success” until:  “ ‘Tomorrow begins the last week of autumn,’ said Thorin one day.”  And the next day—which is, in fact, the Durin’s Day of the map—they find and open the door.


Thorin sends Bilbo down into the dark, which, we presume takes some time because we are told that “It was midnight and clouds had covered the stars” when Balin carried him out. (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)  He has taken a cup from Smaug’s hoard, however, and this rouses the dragon, forcing the dwarves to take shelter in the tunnel within the hidden door where they remain as Bilbo returns a second time—the next day—to visit Smaug again. (“The sun was shining as he started…”)  That same day, they take shelter within the tunnel and Smaug seals them in.

How long they are sealed in isn’t initially clear:  “They could not count the passing of time…At last after days and days of waiting” Chapter 13 begins, but, with the addition of “as it seemed”, suggesting that not much time—perhaps even only hours—had actually passed.  (The Hobbit, Chapter 13, “Not at Home”).  This is made clearer, however, when we are told:  “As a matter of fact two nights and the day between had gone by…since the dragon smashed the magic door…”).    After Bilbo makes another foray—followed by the others—down into Smaug’s lair, they find it empty, press beyond it, and, eventually, the same day, move their camp to an old watchpost on the southwest corner of the mountain.


(We presume that the post is at the left-hand edge of this JRRT illustration.)

Smaug, of course, has gone off to destroy Lake-town and is killed there


and soon a combined force of forest elves and men from the ruined Lake-town set off for the Lonely Mountain (“It was thus that in eleven days from the ruin of the town the head of their host passed the rock-gates at the end of the lake and came into the desolate lands.”  The Hobbit, Chapter 14, “Fire and Water”)

The narrative then moves back once more to the dwarves, who, by means of an ancient raven, have heard what is approaching and begin to fortify the main door of the Mountain when:  “There came a night when suddenly there were many lights as of fires and torches away south in Dale before them.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 15, “The Gathering of the Clouds”)  Presumably, this is some days after the invaders have reached the desolate lands, though how many is not said, but, “The next morning early a company of spearmen was seen crossing the river…”

Thus begins the last big event in The Hobbit:  the siege of the Mountain by elves and men and the following Battle of the Five Armies.  With the arrival of the besiegers and the stalemate caused by Thorin’s stubbornness, time is blurred once more:  “Now the days passed slowly and wearily.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 16, “A Thief in the Night”)  It is suddenly marked, however, by news:

“Things had gone on like this for some time, when the ravens brought news that Dain and more than five hundred dwarves…were now about two days’ march of Dale…”

This sparks Bilbo into attempting to use the Arkenstone as a bargaining chip and “Next day trumpets rang early in the camp” (The Hobbit, Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”) as the allies try to deal with Thorin and here we see time, from being blurred, begins to be more clearly stated:  after the “for some time”, we see “the next morning” and then, with the parley discouraged by dwarvish arrows, “That day passed and then the night” and, that following day, everything falls apart:  Goblins and Wild Wolves appear and the allies, Dain and his Iron Mountain dwarves, and Thorin & Co, are all involved in a massive struggle which only ends when the Eagles arrive—and Beorn–, Bilbo is knocked unconscious, and Thorin is mortally wounded.


(This is by Justin Gerard—here’s a LINK to a really interesting website dedicated to fantasy illustration where we found it.)

The story hasn’t ended, however, though time goes back into its biggest blur yet.  The dragon dead, the Mountain recovered by the dwarves, Bilbo “started on his long road home” .  Long it is, as “by mid-winter Gandalf and Bilbo had come all the way back…to the doors of Beorn’s house: and there for a while they both stayed…It was spring, and a fair one with mild weathers and a bright sun, before Bilbo and Gandalf took their leave at last of Beorn…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 18, “The Return Journey”)  We see them reach Elrond’s Last Homely House “on May the First”, though “after a week…[Bilbo and Gandalf] said farewell to Elrond” (The Hobbit, Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”).  It is June, however, while the two are still on their journey (“for now June brought summer”) and, in fact, we are told that it is precisely the 22nd of June that they arrive at Bag End, as, on that day, “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes” are about to auction off “the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins, Esquire”.

The book goes on a little further, into Bilbo’s future, but this seems like a good place for us to end this posting.  What have we discovered with our investigation?  We guess we would say that, in The Hobbit, time comes in two forms:

  1. there is passing time—those blurs when people are traveling or waiting—this can be simply marked as time passing, or it may be described in weeks
  2. there is slowed time—this is around important events in the narrative and is always specific to days

And, unless one keeps a very detailed journal


perhaps this can be seen as a kind of imitation of everyone’s life:  long stretches of just “doing things” broken up by short patches of intense, memorable activity.  What do you think, readers?

And, while you’re thinking, thanks for reading.



On Time (1)


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Our last two postings were all about calendars of various sorts and, as we thought about those, it brought us back to something we’d seen some years ago at the wonderful Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.


In the part of the museum called “Reading Adventureland”,


there was a small exhibit on JRRT, and, in the middle, was this:



This is a reproduction of the first page (from the collection of JRRT’s papers at Marquette University) of a highly-detailed chronology of Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring, covering, day by day, the movements of major characters from the end of September, SR1418, through the first half of October.

It doesn’t surprise us that there would be such a thing—considering how many names there are:  Frodo, Tom Bombadil, Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, and Glorfindel (not to mention the Nazgul)—and all are potentially in play in this short time, something almost like a train schedule would seem necessary.


This made us wonder if, when reading the text, we’re always as aware of time passing as the author.  Are there moments when we can almost literally hear the clock ticking (there’s one on Bilbo’s wall—but I don’t think we ever see another)?


Are there times/places where it seems to move at a different speed or we forget time completely?

And what about The Hobbit?  Is there the same sense of time there as in The Lord of the Rings?

On the very first page of the latter, we’re given a date:

“Bilbo and Frodo happened to have the same birthday, September 22.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

And this date then forms a central point in that first chapter.  In contrast, The Hobbit presents us with:

“By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

So how is time then marked, say, from that moment


to the first real incident on the way to the Lonely Mountain, the adventure with the trolls?


To begin with, Gandalf gives us a hint at least as to the month Bilbo left the Shire with the Dwarves, saying to Thorin:

“And Thrain your father went away on the twenty-first of April, a hundred years ago last Thursday…”

It is the end of April, then.  The next suggestion of a date comes as they are about to come upon those trolls, when Bilbo says to himself, “To think that it will soon be June!” (The Hobbit, Chapter Two, “Roast Mutton”).  This makes us think that they’ve been traveling east for about a month.  How long, then, from there to their first stop, Rivendell?

Here, things become vague.  The next chapter, “A Short Rest”, begins:

“They did not sing or tell stories that day, even though the weather improved; nor the next day, nor the day after.”

And then the text says, “One morning”, though no day or month is specified.  Presumably, they are now at the beginning of June.  It seems that, that same day, “Morning passed, afternoon came…”, then “Tea-time had long gone by, and it seemed supper-time would soon do the same.  There were moths fluttering about, and the light became very dim, for the moon had not risen.”  At this point, Gandalf discovers the way down to Rivendell.


In a mocking song which the elves sing to Bilbo and his companions, they confirm that it’s June:

“No knowing, no knowing

What brings Mister Baggins

And Balin and Dwalin

Down into the valley

In June…”

How long do the travelers stay in Rivendell, now that they’ve reached it?  Here we have a bit more concrete information:

“They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least…”

And we also know when their stay ended:

“So the time came to midsummer eve, and they were to go on again with the early sun on midsummer morning.”

In Tolkien’s England Midsummer’s Day is the 24th of June, so we now know that Bilbo and the Dwarves have been on the road at least a month and a half.

On Midsummer’s Eve, we are given a more fixed point to their journey when Elrond reads the “Moon-letters” on Thorin’s map.

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks…and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

This would mean that, at the end of the expedition to the Lonely Mountain, the Dwarves, to enter the back door, must be at a specific location at a specific time.  Unfortunately, though Thorin can identify what “Durin’s Day” is, he then says, “But this will not help us much, I fear, for it passes our skill in these days to guess when such a time will come again.”

Without that knowledge, they still set out on Midsummer’s Day and we wonder if we will be told how long it will take to reach their next adventure, capture by the goblins?


Unfortunately not.  Instead, we are only told:

“Long days after they had climbed out of the valley and left the Last Homely House miles behind, they were still going up and up and up.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

We know that the summer is passing, however, because Bilbo says to himself, “The summer is getting on down below…and haymaking is going on…They will be harvesting and blackberrying…”

This is a little uncertain.  Wheat planted in September, our sources tell us, is usually harvested in August of the following year and blackberrying in England begins in August.  If the travelers have set out from Rivendell on 24 June (Midsummer’s Day), have they been climbing into the Misty Mountains for a whole month?

Our first bit of concrete data for this part of the journey comes from Gandalf, who tells them, as they stand on the far side of the Misty Mountains:

“You lose track of time inside goblin-tunnels.  Today’s Thursday, and it was Monday night or Tuesday morning that we were captured.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter Six, “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire”)

Thus, although their flight from the goblins has been “miles and miles” and they’ve come out on the eastern side of the Mountains, they’ve taken between two and three days to do so—but we still don’t know what month we’re now in.

From their current location, it seems like a quick trip to Beorn’s house.


Rescued from goblins and Wargs by eagles, they have an overnight stay in the eagles’ nests before being dropped at the Carrock, a huge rock set in the river Anduin.image11carrock.jpg

It appears to be no more than a day’s walk from there to Beorn’s, so the question is, how long do they stay?  Counting by wakings and meals, it appears that they were at the shape-shifter’s house, basically two days and left on the morning of the third, then, when leaving, they traveled for three days to the edge of Mirkwood:

“That third evening they were so eager to press on, for Beorn had said that they should reach the forest-gate early on the fourth-day, that they rode still forward after dark and into the night beneath the moon.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Seven, “Queer Lodgings”).

They camp overnight at the edge of the forest and we’ll camp here, too, before continuing to investigate the measurement of time further in the second part of this posting, next week.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Thirty Days Hath…


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Our last posting, which involved, among other things, the French Revolution, made us think of calendars.

The traditional Western calendar has been with us a long time, beginning with the Romans.


They believed that the calendar had originally been devised by the founder of Rome, Romulus.


(Romulus is the one on the right.  If you don’t know Roman mythology, this is part of the legend of Romulus and his twin, Remus, who were, at one time, raised by a she wolf.  Romulus eventually clashed with Remus and killed him.)


Romulus produced a yearly calendar divided into 10 months and it was his successor, Numa Pompilius, who revised it by adding two months.  Romulus and the rulers who followed him were traditionally believed to be seven in number (like the seven hills Rome was built on—or maybe just because 7 has been thought of as a magic number—to read more—maybe too much!—on this, see this LINK).


(If you’d like to improve your knowledge of early Rome—at least as the Romans believed it–here’s a neat way to remember these mythological kings in order.)


When the last of these kings, Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquinius the Arrogant”) was overthrown in 509BC (as always, according to Roman tradition), he was replaced by two consuls, who were elected annually.


Because of the annual nature of their election, the consuls in time became the marker for each year—the year being designated in documents by their names.  In Latin, this was written as, for example, “L. Sulpicio et M. Canonico consulibus”—“Lucius Sulpicius and Marcus Canonicus being the consuls”—that is, “in the year during which LS and MC were the consuls”.

In time, two events complicated this time-keeping to the point where it was a mess.

First, this calendar was based upon the lunar year of 355 days.  Set against the 365 ¼ days of the solar year, there was always a gap and so the months and the seasons could begin to separate.  To close this gap, an intercalary month of 27 or 28 days was sometimes inserted, but, seemingly, without the strict regularity the marking of time really needed.  Second, the chief priest of Rome, the Pontifex Maximus, with his assistants, the College of Pontiffs, had the legal (and religious) right to change the calendar and, if you think about this in political terms (and the Romans did), you can see what a less-than-neutral Pontifex could do:  add days to the term of consuls he favored and subtract days from those he didn’t, potentially making the synchronization of lunar, solar, and consular years fall apart completely.

When Julius Caesar (100-44BC)


came to power, he ordered the reformation of the calendar, but retained the old lunar calendar of 355 days, dividing the year into 8 months of 29 days and 4 of 31, plus adding an intercalary month of 27 or 28 days every two years.  This meant that, every 4 years, the total number of days, divided by 4, would come to 366 ¼–which meant more regularity, but trouble to come, in time (literally), especially because the College of Pontiffs was still in charge of maintaining things, which it doesn’t seem to have done with the necessary diligence.

In fact, the story is more complicated yet than this, but this at least gives us the so-called “Julian Calendar”, which was in use in the West from Caesar’s time until the Renaissance.  In 1582, by the direction of Pope Gregory XIII,


to correct the seasonal drift which had gradually occurred over the centuries, the Julian calendar was reformatted, adding a full day to the month of February (February 29th) every fourth year.  The first year with such an addition to February was the next year, 1583, but, to help the calendar and actual year rejoin, Gregory ordered the addition of 11 days to October of 1582, so that October 4th became October 15th.  We hope that all of this is clear?

For people who grew up with all of this adding here, changing there, it’s left us with a sort-of rhyme to remember what months now have how many days:

“Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

All the rest have thirty-one—”

And then the thing breaks down into something like “Except February, which has twenty-eight, except every fourth year, when it has twenty-nine.”

So, why did the French Revolution remind us of calendars?

One of the main bases of the French Revolution, the thinkers of the Revolution would say, was the idea of REASON.  In fact, for a short time, some revolutionaries attempted to replace Christianity with the worship of a goddess by that name.


Reason brought about the initial attempt to convert France by law to the metric system in 1795.  Even before that, however, there had been a program to decimalize everything possible, including the currency and the time of day—here’s a watch from 1795 with both kinds of time marked on it.


Of course, the calendar would be a target and, between 1793 and 1805, France would mark its years by it in 12 months of 30 days each, each month divided into 3 decades.  To keep the balance between months and seasons, five or six extra days were added to the end of the year.  To remove any trace of the old royal (and religious) past, the new months were renamed—here’s the calendar.  As you can see, the renaming was meant to reflect seasonal weather.


The committee (one major feature of the Revolution was that seemingly everything was created by a committee) even came up with the names for every day, the names being something ordinary to which the day was devoted.


If you look at the column marked “Nivose”, you can see that the first four days are “neige/glace/miel/cire”—“snow/ice/honey/wax” (although those first two make perfect sense in a month called “Snowy”, we’re a little unclear about “honey” and “wax”).

Napoleon participated in a coup which ended revolutionary government in 1799 (18 Brumaire, Year VIII-9 November, 1799).


He tolerated the revolutionary calendar for the next 5 years, but, after he made himself emperor, 11 Frimaire, Year XIII–2 December, 1804,


a decree was issued that, beginning 1 January, 1806, the old Gregorian calendar would be reinstated.

During the days of the Terror


and the Scarlet Pimpernel, however,


when Sir Percy Blakeney put down a rescue date on his calendar in Paris, he would have written January 1, 1794 as “day 2 of the second decade of Snowy, year II, “ a day devoted to “Argile”—“Clay”.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Death, Within 24 Hours


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As always, dear readers, welcome—and please forgive the rather forbidding title!

It’s just that, recently, we’ve been rereading Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870)


novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which first appeared in serial form in Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round


before being published in book form the same year.


Dickens was inspired in part by Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881)


three-volume History of the French Revolution (1837, second edition 1857).


What Carlyle wrote about and Dickens novelized was a very complex event.  France, before the beginning of the Revolution in 1789, was in desperate straits, beginning with its social system.  All of French society was divided into three “estates”.  Here’s a “nice” picture of them.


Here’s a chart to show you what these divisions meant in terms of the economic structure.


And it’s easy to see, from this, why such caricatures as these typified, at the time, the truth of how the estates system worked for the benefit of the top two and very much against that of the third.



(The labeling of the rock in this last image points to some of the elements of the heavy financial burden on the Third Estate.  Taille is a land tax levied upon all land-holding non-nobles.  Impots might be translated as “income tax”, but more complicated (if possible!).  Corvee went back to feudal times and was a system of unpaid labor for a certain number of days per year, to the state and to lords who rented land to tenants.)

This meant that a great deal of the Third Estate, both in towns and in the country, was desperately poor and often on the edge of starvation.


A major problem was that such a tax base, though broad, was always being squeezed beyond its limits, meaning that the royal government (in 1789, this meant Louis XVI–1754-1793) was always struggling to find the money both to pay off back debts and to keep itself in funds in the present.  Then, when there were added expenses—such as the American War for Independence (1775-1783), in which the French played a major role from 1778 to the end—


new loans and new debts were created.

And the expenses didn’t stop there as the French, anxious about the power of the British Navy


and the closeness of many of its ports to Britain,


embarked upon a building campaign to further strengthen its harbor defenses.


(We’ve cheated a little with this last image—it and the previous one are actually from a series of paintings of the major ports of France by Claude-Joseph Vernet—1714-1789–commissioned by Louis XV, the grandfather of Louis XVI, and done between 1753 and 1765, but it gives you the idea of busy French ports in the 18th century.)

(And an interesting little sidelight—if you read us regularly, you know we can never resist these—this Vernet may be a direct ancestor of Sherlock Holmes, who tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”–1893 —“My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class. But, none the less, my turn that way is in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”)

Finally, in the 1780s, the whole system began to collapse.  Louis’ government (meaning the King and its ministers—there was no elected element in the royal government) tried to call a meeting of representatives of the Three Estates, the Estates General, in the late spring/summer, 1789,


but it was a flop.  Louis had the Third Estate locked out and, instead of going home, they, with a few members of the First and Second, went down the street to an indoor tennis court and founded their own government, the National Assembly.


They soon produced a document, entitled “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”,


their second step towards changing the whole government and social structure of France.

Meanwhile, the people of Paris carried out their own form of changing things, assaulting the King’s fortress on the eastern side of Paris’ defenses, the Bastille.


You can tell that things are really crumbling when you realize that the men in blue coats and fuzzy hats in the center are actually members of the one of the units of the King’s bodyguard, the Garde Francaise.


Events quickly begin to speed up:  the King gradually lost his royal powers and became “Citizen King”,


wearing the “liberty cap” patriots wore


and drinking toasts straight out of the bottle—like any good “Sans-culotte”.  Culottes were the knee britches worn by people on the rise—


whereas “honest men” wore workman’s clothes with long trousers and, if they could obtain one, that red cap.


As time roared by, it became clearer and clearer that the previous administration was gone for good and that the Third Estate was now in charge.


Louis, terrified, tried to run away with his family, but was caught,


brought back to Paris basically under arrest and, before he knew it, on trial for his life.


The trial lasted most of December, 1792, and the King was executed in January, 1793,


followed by his wife, Marie Antoinette


in October.


But this was only the beginning of a wave of government bloodshed, now called “The Reign of Terror”, (“La Terreur” in French), in which a part of the state—the “Committee of Public Safety”, under Maximilien Robespierre,


sent thousands of people to their deaths, mainly but not entirely by guillotine, a medieval invention revived and used across France.


People who had done nothing or, at most, had made a passing remark critical of the Revolution could be swept up into a court


in which there was little or no defense and the usual sentence, if arrested, was “Death within twenty-four hours”.


One can see that, in England, with its Parliament and increasing wealth and stability, what went on in France, which many in England originally saw in its first—non-violent—stages as a positive thing, soon became nothing but a hideous cannibal feast.


And it’s into this world that Dickens, in the latter part of his novel, moves his main characters, in a story of family revenge entangled in the bloody days of the Terror.

Dickens is not alone in seeing this as a great opportunity for a novelist.  A long time ago, we wrote a post which included the Baroness Orczy (1865-1947)—say that OR-tsee–


who, beginning with a short story, and then a play (1903)


and then the first of a whole series of novels, beginning in 1905,


created the first wimp-who’s-really-a-superhero in Sir Percy Blakeney, AKA, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.  In London, Sir Percy is an overdressed, drawling clown, but, in France, he is a daring rescuer of endangered noblefolk.  As early film gradually became more sophisticated, the first Pimpernel version appeared in 1917,


followed by what many believe was the classic version in 1934, starring Leslie Howard.


Although we enjoy that one, our particular favorite may be the 1982 version, with Anthony Andrews as the Pimpernel.


The casting for this film actually takes us back to Tolkien in a funny way.  The villain is an agent of the Terror, named “Citizen Chauvelin”.


Put a long white beard on him and age him many years and who is he?


Thanks, as always, for reading!





If you would like to know more about the French Revolution, we can’t recommend highly enough Simon Schama’s Citizens (1990).


It’s a fat book full of all kinds of histories—cultural, political, social—and, with this volume in hand, you can quickly get a good basic grasp of a very large and complicated—and endlessly fascinating—subject.  (And, if you enjoy history, it’s a page-turner.)


And, if you’d like to know more about the Pimpernel, here’s a LINK to the website.



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As always, dear readers, welcome.

The war around Troy was a very complicated thing, with traditions stretching in all directions.  In one, the Greeks actually sailed to Troy twice, the first time missing it entirely and landing in Mysia, to the east of Troy.


There, the Greeks were met by local defenders under their king, Telephus, who was wounded by Achilles


before the Greeks realized their mistake and withdrew.

After they’d gone, Telephus’ wound simply wouldn’t heal, but, after consulting oracles, he was told that there was a cure:  rust from the spear which had wounded him.  The Greeks had gone back to Greece to regroup and to try again, so Telephus went after them to request that Achilles treat the wound which he had made.  For some reason, Achilles refused, so Telephus grabbed the High King Agamemnon’s baby son, Orestes, and threatened to kill him if Achilles didn’t grant his request.


(This  scene bordered on the edge of hilarious to the Greeks and was the subject of parodies in ancient times—here’s a pot with one, Orestes being replaced by a wineskin.)


The threat worked and Achilles healed Telephus.


This isn’t the only example of the wound which won’t heal to be found in the Trojan material.  Philoctetes, who had inherited Heracles’ bow (given to him by Heracles because he helped with Heracles’ funeral pyre), was on his way with the other Greeks to Troy when he was bitten by a snake.  The wound wouldn’t heal and smelled so bad that the Greeks left him—and the bow—behind (this is one version—there are others).


Later in the story, however, a prophecy told the Greeks that they wouldn’t take Troy without the bow.  (By late in the Troy tradition, there had piled up  a number of these conditions—rather like the horcruxes in the Harry Potter books—all to keep the story going.)  Odysseus and Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, went off to persuade—or steal—the bow (in one version—there are lots of others) and eventually persuaded Philoctetes to come to Troy with the bow, where he was healed and used the bow to aid the Greeks.


The theme of the unhealing wound reappears in western medieval literature in several places.  In the story of Tristan and Iseult,


Tristan is wounded fighting an Irish giant


and, as in the Greek stories of Telephus and Philoctetes, the wound won’t heal.  The theme appears again in the story of the Holy Grail—and like the Troy tradition, it has many versions.  In some, the last guardian of the Grail is a wounded king (sometimes called the “Fisher King”) .


But, if you’re a regular reader, you know where this is leading.  On Weathertop, Frodo is attacked by the Nazgul.


He is wounded with a morgul knife


and the tip of the blade not only remains in the wound, but begins to travel towards Frodo’s heart.  He is saved by Elrond’s healing powers, but, somehow, things are never quite the same and, some time after the hobbits return to the Shire–

“One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange.  He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.

‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.

‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”)

We began with Greeks and the complex epic of Troy, then passed through a pair of medieval stories to The Lord of the Rings, but something in all of these tales interested us in what seemed a common theme:  protecting something, keeping something, can bring long-lasting harm to the protector/keeper, even if done for the best of reasons.  It’s less clear if this pertains to Philoctetes, but Telephus was defending his country, as was Tristan in fatally wounding the Irish giant, who was leading an invasion force to Cornwall, where Tristan lived.  The Fisher King is the guardian of the Grail.

Frodo clearly has come to understand this and, when the time comes, he goes with Bilbo and Gandalf and others to the Grey Havens and beyond, saying to Sam:

“…But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam.  I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.  It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger:  some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”image13grey.jpg


(These are two very different versions of the leave-taking at the Grey Havens—first, the Hildebrandts’, second, Alan Lee’s.)

Thanks, as always, for reading.



On the Horns


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Our friend, Erik, once said that one of his very favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings began with this:  “And as if in answer there came from far away another note.  Horns, horns, horns.  In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed.  Great horns of the North, wildly blowing.  Rohan had come at last.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

Of course this brings on the charge of the Rohirrim, one of our own favorite moments in the Jackson films.


And what is more exciting than a cavalry charge (as long as you don’t think too hard about the fate of the horses)?


Those horns begin blowing because Theoden:

“…seized a great horn from Guthlaf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder.  And straightaway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)

A number of images immediately come into our minds when reading this.

First, when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli initially come to Edoras and enter Meduseld,


(This is a particularly fine possible Meduseld by Inger Edelfeldt.)

they look up to see:

“Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade.  But upon one form the sunlight fell:  a young man upon a white horse.  He was blowing a great horn, and his yellow hair was flying in the wind.  The horse’s head was lifted, and its nostrils were wide and red as it neighed, smelling battle afar.  Foaming water, green and white, rushed and curled about its knees.

‘Behold Eorl the Young!’ said Aragorn.  ‘Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.’”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)


Thus, we’re reminded of an earlier rescue, when Eorl brought the Rohirrim out of the north in TA2510 to aid Gondor in defeating a combined army of orcs and Easterlings.

Second, anyone interested in Western medieval literature would be reminded of the early French poem, the Chanson de Roland (c1000AD),


in which Roland, a young warrior and leader of the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, refuses to blow his horn for reinforcements when his men are ambushed in a pass, saying that to do so would be cowardice.


Rather than his horn exploding, Roland’s head does, from the exertion, but the broken horn makes us think of Boromir’s last stand, where he blows his horn, but no help comes until it’s too late.


All that we know of the horn which Theoden blew was that it was “great”—that is, big—but perhaps it looked like Boromir’s?

“On a baldric he worn a great horn tipped with silver that was now laid upon his knees.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)  Here’s a medieval one from the British Museum.


It should be remembered, of all of these horns, that they have a military use, both in Middle-earth and in our world, as a method of transferring commands from officers to soldiers, both in and out of battle, and what Theoden is actually doing is the musical equivalent of shouting CHARGE! to his 6000-man eored.  Nowhere is the military use of horns made clearer for earlier warfare than in the writing of the late Roman (4th c. AD) author, Vegetius.  In Book II of his De Re Militari (“Concerning Military Affairs”) he describes the use of such instruments:

“The music of the legion consists of trumpets, cornets and buccinae. The trumpet sounds the charge and the retreat. The cornets are used only to regulate the motions of the colors; the trumpets serve when the soldiers are ordered out to any work without the colors; but in time of action, the trumpets and cornets sound together. The classicum, which is a particular sound of the buccina or horn, is appropriated to the commander-in-chief and is used in the presence of the general, or at the execution of a soldier, as a mark of its being done by his authority. The ordinary guards and outposts are always mounted and relieved by the sound of trumpet, which also directs the motions of the soldiers on working parties and on field days. The cornets sound whenever the colors are to be struck or planted. These rules must be punctually observed in all exercises and reviews so that the soldiers may be ready to obey them in action without hesitation according to the general’s orders either to charge or halt, to pursue the enemy or to retire. F or reason will convince us that what is necessary to be performed in the heat of action should constantly be practiced in the leisure of peace.” (This is taken from a 1944 digest of the 1767 translation by John Clarke—if you would like to see the Latin original, here’s a LINK to a text.  The relevant passage is:  “XXII. Quid inter tubicines et cornicines et classicum intersit.”)

The three Latin terms translated as “trumpets, cornets and buccinae” are actually, “tubicines cornicines bucinatores”, meaning “players of tubae, players of cornua, players of buccinae”.   In this ancient relief, we can see, on the left, tuba-players, and, in the center, either players of cornu, or the buccina, as the instruments appear to be rather hard to distinguish in shape.


And here’s a modern reconstruction, by Peter Connolly.


We live in a world of such rapid electronic communication


that it might be easy to forget that, for centuries, any order beyond the sound of a general’s voice had to be transferred by other means.  Like Greek trumpeters,


or Roman


or medieval mounted messengers (the Latin says “messengers of William”).


Drums might be used—


and the early 18th-century British general, the Duke of Marlborough even had his own foot-messenger squad, wearing distinctive clothing (one, in blue, with a jockey cap, is just to the left of the Duke in this tapestry).


But what, we asked above, is more exciting than a cavalry charge (we once did a posting devoted specifically to them)—and what makes that more exciting than the trumpeter at the front, sounding the charge?



Thanks, as always, for reading.