In Shining Armo(u)r


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In a letter to Miss [Rhona] Beare, of 14 October, 1958, JRRT wrote to answer what was clearly a question about dress in The Lord of the Rings:

“Question 4.  I do not know the detail of clothing.  I visualize with great clarity and detail scenery and ‘natural’ objects, but not artefacts.  Pauline Baynes drew her inspiration for F. Giles largely from medieval MS drawings—except for the knights (who are a bit ‘King-Arthurish’)* the style seems to fit well enough.” (Letters, 280)

To which he adds this footnote:

“*Sc. [= “Know/understand”] belong to our ‘mythological’ Middle-Ages which blends unhistorically styles and details ranging over 500 years, and most of which did not of course exist in the Dark Ages of c. 500 A.D.”

In the next paragraph he adds:

“The Rohirrim were not ‘mediaeval’, in our sense.  The styles of the Bayeux Tapestry (made in England) fit them well enough, if one remembers that the kind of tennis-nets [the] soldiers seem to have on are only a clumsy conventional sign for chain-mail of small rings.” (Letters, 280-281)

The Bayeux Tapestry (which should really be called the “Bayeux Embroidery”, since it’s actually a long piece of cloth with hundreds of figures and details stitched on to it, rather than woven into it) presents us with a detailed history of the invasion of England in 1066AD.  The soldiers Tolkien is talking about look like this:


You can see what he means by “tennis-nets”—which should really look like this:


That chain-mail, then, looks like this:


And, at the bottom of this next illustration, you can see how it’s made:


We know, then, how JRRT envisaged the Rohirrim in its eoreds, marching towards Minas Tirith, but how did he imagine other soldiers, we’ve asked ourselves, and, in particular, the knights of Dol Amroth—the only soldiers specifically described as such in The Lord of the Rings?


JRRT writes of them as they enter Minas Tirith:

“And last and proudest, Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, kinsman of the Lord, with gilded banners bearing his token of the Ship and the Silver Swan, and a company of knights in full harness riding grey horses…”(The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

“Full harness” means “complete armor”.  When we think of the term, we think of something later than the Normans, who are, after all, just wearing a kind of very long ringed shirt.  Here’s a useful chart to give you of an idea of what we mean.


So, since “full harness” doesn’t look like the Rohirrim, how might it look?

In Jackson’s films, we don’t believe that we ever see those knights singled out, as we see the Rohirrim.  The best we could find was this picture of Faramir’s men about to mount a cavalry charge against what appears to be Osgiliath.  (We’ve talked about this in a much earlier posting—one of the most unbelievable moments in the whole of Jackson’s work.)


This is a big picture, but the details, unfortunately, aren’t very clear.  There are a few things, however, which we found rather odd:

  1. although there appear to be a few lances with penons among them, most seem to be armed only with swords—a close-up weapon—which is why actual knights also carried lances—heavy cavalry came crashing down on infantry or slamming into enemy mounted men—or intended to—spearing right and left and then drawing swords (or using maces or battle axes)
  2. a minor detail, but everyone seems to be wearing his sword on the right-hand side, which would have made it very hard to draw, unless all were left-handed men!
  3. the helmets and armor seem very standardized, and we would believe that budgetary considerations probably influenced this uniformity—50 identical helmets were probably cheaper to make than 50 different ones—but such sameness reminds us more of Roman imperial troops than of any western medieval army we can think of.


We assume, then, that this is the film’s view of soldiers at least like Imrahil’s men, but when Tolkien wrote “a company of knights in full harness”:  what might he have had in mind?  We think there is a clue in that adjective “King-Arthurish”, which he uses of Pauline Bayne’s illustrations and in his footnote, where he refers to “our ‘mythological Middle-Ages”. What does he mean?

JRRT would have been about ten when Howard Pyle published his The Story of King Arthur and His Knights in 1903.


Here is how Pyle saw Arthur’s knights.


Could this have inspired Tolkien’s view of Imrahil’s men?  (Judge for yourself by following this LINK.)

Tolkien would have been nearly 30 when The Boy’s King Arthur, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, was published in 1922,

Image result for the boy's king arthur

but, if this were in among his children’s books, perhaps these illustrations might have given him ideas.  (And here’s a LINK to your own copy, from the Internet Archive.)


These are two well-known sets of illustrations of Arthurian figures, both available in Tolkien’s early lifetime.  If Arthur was real, of course, he would have lived, as JRRT was well aware, in what is called the “sub-Roman period”, c.500AD—at the beginning of the so-called “Dark Ages”– and he and his men would actually have looked like this:


But this is where “our ‘mythological’ Middle-Ages” comes in—little would have been known, when JRRT was writing The Lord of the Rings, of what such warriors would have looked like, although the spectacular Sutton Hoo find of 1939, with its splendid helmet, would have given an inkling, once restored.




Because such knowledge was lacking, however, the historical Arthur (if there was one) had been moved to the Middle-Ages and re-equipped as a military figure of a much later era, and we believe that, when Tolkien wrote “Arthurish” and “knights”, this is what he meant—and how we’ve always seen Arthur, not only from books (and lots of films) but also from the armor galleries in a number of museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York


to the Higgins Armory in Massachusetts


to the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts


to the Tower of London.


And, as we’ve discussed before, Prince Valiant, has been an influence from childhood (talk about ‘mythological’ Middle-Ages!).


And so, in turn, we imagine—and we think that JRRT did, too–the “company of knights in full harness” to have been individuals, brightly clothed in heraldic colors, their armor that, perhaps, of Crecy, in 1346—


or Agincourt, in 1415.


And you, dear readers, what do you think?

Thanks, as ever, for reading!




I Think That I Shall Never See…


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In a letter to his aunt, Jane, dated 8-9 September, 1962, JRRT wrote:

“Every tree has its enemy, few have an advocate.” (Letters, 321)

We know, from his letters and from interviews, just how passionate he was about trees,


but we were immediately caught by just how very Treebeardish he sounded:

“I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me…” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)


Trees almost seemed to be people to Tolkien—in fact, we know that Treebeard was based in part upon a person—his friend, CS Lewis—at least his voice and manner of speaking.


As near-people, then, to Tolkien, their destruction would have been a kind of murder.  With that in mind, we thought of our last posting, in which we quoted Farmer Cotton talking about Sharkey’s regime in the Shire, including “They cut down trees and leave ‘em lie.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”).  And we wondered whether, behind this, JRRT was talking not only about the orcs’ wanton devastation of trees,


but also reliving the Battle of the Somme, in 1916, and seeing once more the acres of unburied dead (60,000 British casualties alone on the first day, 1 July, 1916).


Certainly Treebeard saw this as murder, as he says to Merry and Pippin about Saruman

“He and his foul folk are making havoc now.  Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees.  Some of the trees they just cut down and left to rot—orc-mischief that; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc…Curse him root and branch!  Many of those trees were my friends, creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost for ever now.  And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

Saruman, a person with “a mind of metal and wheels”, who was “plotting to become a Power”,


has turned Isengard into a vast factory, where “there is always a smoke rising”.


Thus, just as JRRT may have been recalling the Battle of the Somme, so perhaps he was also suggesting  the industrialization which had been in full swing when he was born and which he disliked intensely and which was reducing much of the part of England in which he grew up to the smoking wasteland Sharkey tried to make the Shire


as we see in this Alan Lee depiction.


Of course the deforestation went back long before the Industrial Revolution began.  Once upon a time, great forests covered much of the northern European world and humans lived in the midst of miles and miles of trees in clearings which they cut for themselves.



And we still have a distant memory of these, we would suggest, in some of our fairy tales.  If you think about the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of “Haensel and Gretel”, for example,




you’ll remember that, not only did the children live in the middle of such forest, as did the witch, but their father was a woodcutter, someone who would have been involved in that very deforestation, if in a very small way.


This memory, collected by the Grimms and others in folktale form in the early 19th century, also provided inspiration for the German Romantics—as you can see in this painting by one of their greatest painters, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).


To those Romantics, the forest was scary—but fascinating, as well—and disappearing, as the industrialism which JRRT disliked swallowed it.


Wood was, however, the plastic of the world for many generations, with infinite uses, from home heating to ship-building, and, wherever humans settled, wood was eaten up.  Here is a telling chart for Britain of the contrast between 2000BC and 1990AD.


It is no surprise, then, that, during the 17th century colonization of what is called New England in the US, a major attraction was the availability of wood and the colonists took full advantage of that availability, as this chart shows—


The forest which Treebeard shepherds is, in fact, rather like the forest depicted in that chart of Britain, as Aragorn says:

“Yes, it is old…as old as the forest by the Barrow-downs, and it is far greater.  Elrond says that the two are akin, the last strongholds of the mighty woods of the Elder Days, in which the Firstborn roamed while Men still slept.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

But what would have happened to it had Saruman not lost Isengard to the very trees he was destroying?


In thinking about this, we were reminded of another woodcutter in a children’s story.


Or, if you prefer the film—


He lives in the still-wooded land of Oz


where there are even talking trees (although a lot less friendly than Treebeard).


Dorothy, however, lives in a Kansas seemingly blighted by the so-called “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s.



Would this have been Fangorn’s fate?  We have only to look at Mordor to believe it might have been, when all the trees fell silent.


As ever, thanks for reading.




In 1939, a Russian children’s author, Alexander Volkov, published The Wizard of the Emerald City.  When one compares it with a certain American book of about 40 years before, striking similarities appear, starting with the title character.  And the illustrations, by Leonid Vladimirsky, also have something familiar about them…


There was one very practical change, however:  the Tin Woodman became the “Iron Lumberjack”, which rectifies a mistake in the original.  When Dorothy discovers the Woodman, he has rusted in place, but tin can’t rust!

Mirror Image


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

In English, we have the expression “upon reflection”, meaning something like “I’ve looked back at something and have considered (or reconsidered)”.  When we look at the word “reflection”, we see its Latin origin, re “back/again” and flection, from the verb flecto, flectere, flexi, flexum “to bend/turn/bow” (we show all four of what are called the “principal parts” of the verb so that you can see where words like “flexible”—and, together with that re—“reflex” come from) and can imagine that, originally, it was almost a physical act—as if a person were believed literally to have turned back to a thought, event, action, to think about it again.

But that made us wonder about a reflection in a different sense—when an image is repeated, in water, say.


(And here we provide a YouTube LINK for a beautiful piece of music “Reflets dans L’eau”—“Reflections in the Water” by Claude Debussy—1862-1918, from the set entitled, Images, Book One—1905.)

Or in a mirror.


(This haunting painting is by Georges de la Tour, 1593-1652—known for his chiaroscuro—shadow-versus-light effects—style.)

Fancifully, we might ask: does a “reflection” in this sense suggest that the image in the mirror was turning back to look at the viewer?  More realistically, we might say that the image is bent/turned back upon the viewer—but we also wonder if the Latin word from which our word mirror comes might give a certain flavor of the uncanny about it.  Miror, mirari, miratus sum in Latin means “to wonder/be amazed at something” (Put the Latin preposition ad– on the front of this and you’re looking at English “admire”—originally “to wonder at something”—our modern sense of this has lost something of the wide-eyed nature implied in the original, but that’s how language works—sharp things, like knives, become dull with use.  In Spanish, for example, mirar comes to mean “to look at/watch/observe”.)

Certainly, folktales and folk customs once preserved something eerie about mirrors.  Think of the wicked queen’s magic mirror in Snow White.


If you know the Disney version of Snow White, you probably expected us to show this image.


But this so creeped us out as children that it was not our first choice!

In various western European countries, looking into a mirror on New Year’s Eve (lots of extra things to do:  while combing hair, eating an apple, taking a bath first so that the mirror is steamy) will show you the image of your intended spouse.  And breaking a mirror can mean seven years of bad luck.


For Egyptians,








and western Medieval people, as well,


mirrors were not very breakable, however, being commonly made of a piece of polished bronze (although there were attempts, apparently, from late classical times on to do something with glass and a metal backing).  Artists in the classical world, rarely missing a chance to do something more, used the backs of mirrors as surfaces for decoration, as well.  Here’s a very interesting Etruscan mirror back, including an inscription (it’s the story of Icarus and Daedalus).


Mirrors with a silvered back and glass cover, the direct ancestors of modern mirrors, appeared during the Renaissance.


This is a little joke—a self-portrait of the painter—which has been included in Quentin Matsys’ (1466-1530) painting “Portrait of the Money-Lender and His Wife” (1514).


(And, speaking of Renaissance paintings with mirrors, we couldn’t resist including this famous little painting by Parmigianino (1503-1540), a self-portrait painted on a mirror-shaped convex panel.)



If silver-backed, glass-covered mirrors only appeared in the Renaissance, however, what can we say about this object on the left house wall in this picture?


We can tell it’s meant to be a mirror as, looking closely, you can just make out the reflection of a tree which is outside to the right of the open door on its surface.  And is that another mirror, on the piece of furniture in the foreground on the left?  If so, it fits the kind of thing called a “hall stand” which one might see in a later-Victorian house—like this piece from the 1870s.


This makes us wonder once again:  how much of this entryway depicts a Middle-earth based not upon the Middle Ages, but upon the memory of houses JRRT grew up in or perhaps furnishings from his own homes in North Oxford or Headington as an adult?



But we’ll save what appears to be a Gothic Revival chair there on the right for another day…

In the meantime, thanks, as ever, for reading!




We would like to take a moment and turn to the west to thank the Valar for the full recovery of our dear friend and fellow Tolkien enthusiast, EMH, from a serious operation.  Get even well-er soon!



If you enjoyed the Debussy in the link above, perhaps you might also enjoy Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937) Miroirs (1906)—here’s a LINK.



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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Although we think we might have another post or two on things in Bilbo’s hall, we thought it would be fun to take a break and look elsewhere in Middle-earth.

In a posting long ago now, we looked at Saruman and his attempt to ruin the Shire.  Cutting down trees was certainly part of his plan, as Farmer Cotton tells the hobbits:  “They cut down trees and let ‘em lie” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8)  There was much worse, however, as he continues:

“Take Sandyman’s mill now.  Pimple knocked it down, almost as soon as he came to Bag End.  Then he brought in a lot o’ dirty-looking men to build a bigger one and fill it full o’ wheels and outlandish contraptions.”

“Wheels” made us think of two things:

  1. Fangorn’s description of Saruman himself: “He has a mind of metal and wheels” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)
  2. and, secondly, just what level of technology Middle-earth actually has

JRRT himself wrote of Hobbits, in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings:

“They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools.”

As far as authentic depictions, we have one, by Tolkien himself, in this picture of Hobbiton.


Presumably, that’s the Sandyman mill in the foreground.  You can see in the left middleground what appear to be hay stacks (also called “haymows”) which rather resemble these from a painting by Caillebotte (whose work appeared in our posting on umbrellas) and are where the material saved from the growing/reaping cycle is stored.


The whole process for what eventually gets to the mill begins with plowing the land and sowing the seed (and keeping off the birds, if possible).


Then, when the grain is ripe, it is reaped and stacked.


At this point, the grain is still on the stalk and needs to be detached.  This is done by flailing it.


At that point, however, it’s still in its beard


and the kernels of wheat need to be shaken free by the process called winnowing.  This can be done by a number of methods, but the easiest includes using the air currents to help remove the hull (the chaff—and, if you know the expression “to separate the wheat from the chaff”, now you also know where it comes from).


Now, when you finally have the pure grain, the next step is to grind it to a powder.  The most ancient method (still used for crushing grain in some parts of the world) is this—


But the Romans sped this up with a kind of early machine, both slave-driven and animal-propelled—



The flour (pretty coarse and gritty, we understand—which wore down people’s teeth) was then mixed with water and baked


and sold as this.image12.jpg

(This is real Roman bread—abandoned in an oven when Vesuvius exploded and found many centuries later, still in the oven.)  Some bakers liked to label their bread, as you can see, with a special name stamp.


In time, some clever Roman got the idea that there might be a more efficient method than slaves and animals and harnessed water as a power source and even occasionally harnessed it more than once, as here, at Barbegal, in southern France.


This technology does not appear to have been lost along with so much else of the Roman world and continued to be used in later centuries.


As you can see from this illustration, the basic idea is simple:  the water is channeled to pour over the paddles of the wheel, thus turning it.  The turning motion is then conveyed through a series of gears until it spins the upper stone of the two millstones, thus grinding the grain.


There are several types of wheel:  overshot, breast, undershot, and pitchback.


Our research suggests that the overshot is the most powerful—but, as you can see in JRRT’s illustration, the Hobbiton mill is of the undershot variety.


Tolkien’s model for this is assumed to have been the Sarehole Mill, in the village of Sarehole, south of Birmingham, where his mother took him and his brother to live, for about 4 years in the late 1890s, in this house.


From its front door, he could look across and see this mill—here’s a 1905 postcard of the mill.


After a certain amount of searching, we still can’t tell what kind of wheel Sarehole had in Tolkien’s day, but there are certainly some other strong differences visible between it and the Hobbiton mill.  First, of course, there’s that chimney on Sarehole, which was installed in 1852 as part of the addition of a steam engine to the mill’s older water-driven system.  (Is this one of the “outlandish contraptions” Farmer Cotton complains about?)  But perhaps this suggested the tower on the left of the Hobbiton mill?  Second, and a little stranger, might be those round windows—although we might see these as a quiet joke:  just as an older Hobbit hole, like Bag End, had such windows, so it might be fitting for a Hobbit mill to have them, too?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




Here’s a LINK, by the way, to a 1966 interview with JRRT about his early years in Sarehole.

Throwing Shade


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Welcome, dear readers, as always and, if you’re in the US, we hope you’ve had a happy and not over-stuffed Thanksgiving.

Just when we think we’ve exhausted a topic, we return and, well, here we are.


Just to the left of the door and below what we now see as a barometer, there’s a tall tube-like structure, something once common—we wouldn’t be surprised if there was one in every house in which JRRT ever lived:  an umbrella stand.image2aumbrellastand.jpeg

As a child, one of us was fascinated by having once seen an umbrella stand made out of an elephant’s lower leg and foot—or at least the skin.


The couple we’ve seen are all identified as “Victorian”, so, as we are very fond of pachyderms, we hope that such a use is now long in the past!

Umbrellas, at least as sunshades, appear to have been around since at least before 200BC in China, as this ceramic chariot—with large umbrella—from part of the tomb complex of the Emperor Ch’in Shihuang demonstrates.


The Assyrians had them.


The Persians had them.



The Greeks had them.


As did the Romans.


And so on for centuries, although it seems that the first modern references to them in England date from the early 17th century and appear, by the latter part of the century and into the 18th as part of “ladies’ apparel”, used as much for sun as rain as this 1623 portrait by van Dyck of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi shows us.


A center for the manufacture of umbrellas was Paris, and the inventor of the modern collapsible model may have been Jean Marius, who received a 5-year monopoly on his invention in 1710.  Here is a later (1772) advertisement for his business


and here is a model, identified by the Palais Galleria in Paris as post-1715 because it has no Marius markings.


If there was a prejudice against men carrying them, being a combination of the association with “feminine things” and perhaps also a long-standing prejudice against the French, how did that so change that, by the 20th century, the umbrella, along with the bowler hat, became the marks of the “city gent” in London,


caricatured in the 20th century by Monty Python in skits like “The Ministry of Silly Walks”?


This change is said to stem from the behavior of one rather eccentric man, Jonas Hanway


who, sometime in the 1750s, began to appear on London streets carrying an open umbrella.


As you, sharp-eyed reader, can tell from our verbs and constructions like “seems”, “appears” and “is said to”, this, like other items of fashion and its changes, hasn’t the firmest of scholarly foundations, but, considering how many illustrations (often mocking cartoons) begin to appear by the 1770s, something happened to alter men’s behavior. Just look at these three, from 1772, 1782, and 1790.




All of this is very interesting, you may ask, but what does it have to do with Bilbo, or with JRRT?  There are, in fact, a couple of references in The Lord of the Rings to umbrellas.  First, there is one of Bilbo’s mocking gifts:

“For Adelard Took, for his very own, from Bilbo; on an umbrella.  Adelard had carried off many unlabeled ones”.  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Then there are two to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.  The first is suggestive of her suspicious behavior at the near-auction of Bilbo’s property at the end of The Hobbit (you’ll remember that some spoons never reappeared):

“He [Bilbo] escorted her [Lobelia] firmly off the premises, after he had relieved her of several small (but rather valuable) articles that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

The second reference is actually rather pathetic.  Once “Sharkey” and his thugs take over the Shire, they evict Lobelia from Bag End and, because she resists, they drag her off to the Lockholes, as young Tom Cotton tells Merry and the others:

“She comes down the lane with her old umbrella…”

When told that “Sharkey” gave the order for her eviction (and the building of sheds at Bag End):

“ ‘I’ll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!’ says she, and ups with her umbrella and goes for the leader, near twice her size.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

Here’s a little illustration of a defiant Lobelia by John Howe.


By the later 19th century, men with umbrellas seem quite common—even to the point of providing material for social commentary in the public press—


But, in the 20th century, we who love children’s literature see them in a completely different way, either as a mode of transportation


or as part of the origin of a favorite story, when CS Lewis, at 16, had a recurring image of “a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood” (from It All Began with/as a Picture). (We’ve seen the title cited both ways.)


But we want to end this posting not with literature, but with pure art.  There are lots of paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries with umbrellas, but here is what may be our favorite, by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894).  Although he is grouped with the Impressionists, this painting in particular shows the artist’s interest in the hard-edged world of early photography (“Un Jour:  Paris sous la Pluie”—“A Day:  Paris In the Rain”)


Stay dry, dear readers, and thanks, as ever for reading!





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Welcome, as always, dear reader.

The anachronisms in the 1937 Hobbit are well known:  “cold chicken and tomatoes”, “like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel”, etc.  We ourselves have contributed to the commentary in several past postings and here we are again.

This time, we were caught by something Gandalf says to Bilbo in Chapter 1:

“It is not like you, Bilbo, to keep friends waiting on the mat, and then open the door like a pop-gun” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

So, “pop-gun”?

Just previously, Bilbo was described as pulling open “the door with a jerk” (and in tumble 4 dwarves), which suggests what the pop-gun sounds like, as well as how sudden the motion.

How is that sound made?  Here’s an example of such a gun.


As you can see, it’s just a tube.  Inside is a kind of plunger—a rod with a flattened end which faces towards the muzzle (the opening at the left).  You pull back the rod and it draws air into the barrel.  If you stick a cork in the muzzle, so that it makes a seal, when the rod is pushed up the barrel, the flattened rod end pushes the air in front of it, compressing it.  The compressed air then forces out the cork, which shoots out with a POP!

For all that it uses air to propel the cork, this is, as its name implies, a kind of gun.  Although there may be gunpowder in Middle-earth (see our earlier posting on the use of explosives at Helm’s Deep and the gate area of the Rammas Echor), it seems to be employed as the equivalent of dynamite,


and never as the propulsive force in what medieval people in our world called a “hand gonne”.



And thus it falls into that category of anachronisms.  The idea of air guns, however, makes us think of the Daisy Air Rifle one of us had as a child.


The air was pulled in when the lever underneath the trigger was pulled down and then pushed back, to make it ready to fire.  The illustration fires bbs, but ours was more peaceful, firing cork balls.

But a very unpeaceful version appears in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s


“The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903).  Here’s the first page of the manuscript, housed at the Rosenbach Library, in Philadelphia.  (And here’s a LINK to their excellent on-line magazine.)


Sherlock Holmes had disappeared after his combat with Professor Moriarity at the Reichenbach Falls


in Switzerland in 1891 (although the story in which this happens was published in The Strand Magazine in December, 1893).


For financial reasons, Conan Doyle brought Holmes back—first in the novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901,


but this story was supposed to have taken place in 1889, two years before Holmes’ disappearance.  It was only with “The Adventure of the Empty House” that Holmes reappeared in contemporary London.  Here, it was revealed that Holmes had not fallen to his death with Moriarity, but had survived and had lived in disguise for some years, traveling the world and avoiding the vengeance of Moriarity’s men and, in particular, his chief lieutenant, Colonel Sebastian Moran, who had actually seen Holmes escape the clutches (literally) of Moriarity and had tried unsuccessfully to kill him with a fall of rock.

Back in London, Holmes appears to Watson and enlists his aid in trapping Moran, which Holmes does by placing a wax bust of himself in outline in the window of 221B Baker Street as a lure.  Holmes and Watson then wait across the street in an empty house (hence the title of the story), Holmes thinking that Moran will try to assassinate him from the street.  Instead, Moran climbs to the very room where the two are concealed and, opening a window, uses an air rifle to attempt to kill Holmes—before he’s tackled by the pair and subdued, with the aid of several policemen summoned from hiding nearby.


Moran, Holmes explains, was thought to be the best shot in India, where he had been stationed for some years, so it’s not surprising that he would attempt the long-distance murder of Holmes, but why an air gun?  (This is from the Granada television series of the 1980s, with the brilliant Jeremy Brett as Holmes.)


Air guns had first begun to appear in the 16th century, but, by the later 19th century could be either a toy, or a useful weapon for snipers, mainly because of its propulsion method.  Until the 1890s, the main propellant was gunpowder which, when fired, produced a loud bang and a cloud of white smoke.


Imagine, instead, a weapon which made much less noise—or a noise very unlike a gun’s BANG! (Conan Doyle has Watson describe the sound as “a strange loud whiz”)– and no smoke at all.  Perfect for a nighttime assassination, as Colonel Moran has planned it, never realizing that Holmes is well aware of his plan and foils it neatly (as Holmes almost always does).

In the 21st century, smokeless powder is the norm and air guns are now used for target shooting (including an Olympic event), and pop-guns?  Still for sale—just google “toy pop guns” at


or E-Bay and see what you find—something Bilbo never could!

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




If you’d like to know more about air guns, here’s a LINK for a great source, “Trev’s Air Gun Scrapbook”.



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Welcome, dear readers, once more to our blog.  In this installment, we are returning to our inspection of Bilbo’s entryway.


So far, we’ve examined the barometer, the clock, the umbrella stand, and that hat in the left foreground—intentionally misread as a sugar loaf.  Now we want to examine the floor, which looks to be a pretty complicated place, asking ourselves, as we always do, where does this come from and how much of the medieval—so often the foundation of Middle-earth—does it contain?

The Shire clearly has social levels.  Bilbo, Frodo, and Merry and Pippin (contrary to P Jackson—who violated JRRT’s wishes on the subject of the latter two), for example, all speak (in translation, of course)  what is called “Received Standard English”.  In contrast, Sam, the Gaffer, and the Cottons speak what would appear to be a rural dialect and Sam even thinks of Frodo as “Mister Frodo” and even “Master”.   We do not know where these class distinctions came from, but we know of Bilbo that:

  1. he is called “a very well-to-do hobbit “ at the very beginning of The Hobbit (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
  2. he has distinguished forebears in the Tooks—his mother was “the famous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)
  3. he lives in an extensive, rambling burrow: “a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted…The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill…bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

And the entryway certainly shows some elements of a wealthier lifestyle, with its paneled (US spelling) walls—but we intend to devote a later posting to the walls and support structure of Bag End, so let’s turn to what is said next:  “floors tiled and carpeted”.  Looking at JRRT’s drawing, we can see both—and more.


Before we had gone back to this passage, we were a little puzzled as to the basic floor.  As you can see in Tolkien’s illustration, it’s in a checkered pattern and, at first, we wondered if this might be an example of what’s called “parquetry”.  In this method of flooring, different strips or blocks of wood are laid into designs of all sorts.  Here are a couple of fancy examples from the 17th-century English Ham House.




Parquetry appears to have been developed in France, as an alternative to marble floors (much less weight to support by the floor beams and equally pretty, we’d guess).  Here’s an example from Louis XIV’s Versailles.


But the description in The Hobbit says “floors tiled”– here’s an exterior tile pattern from Ham house.


and an indoor one.


So, although Bilbo appears well enough off to afford parquetry, there is no mention of it in JRRT’s description and it is a decorative detail from the 17th century and beyond, which rather goes against our usual “Middle-earth is (more or less) medieval” idea.  The text of The Hobbit clinches the fact that it’s tile, of course, but the tile we then see in JRRT’s illustration strikes us as even plainer than the late-19th, early 20th century hallway tile we’ve seen, as in this restoration picture, and with which Tolkien would have been familiar on a daily basis.


Medieval tiles, in fact, can be even more elaborate, first appearing in England in the 13th century, mainly in ecclesiastical buildings.  Here’s one from the Lady Chapel (completed in 1373) in York Minster.


Much medieval tiling has disappeared over the centuries and here’s a useful link which explains why.  And to see an amazing example of such work, here’s a link to the restored Cosmati paving in Westminster Abbey.

image12cosmati floor.jpg

Over this tile, Tolkien has laid a carpet (as his description has said, the floors are “carpeted”).


It’s faint, but what one can make out appears to be a solid-colored center with what appear to be wreaths and what are called “swags”—long chains made to imitate garlands of ribbons, fruit, and flowers used to decorate classical altars.



So far, we haven’t located anything which closely resembles the carpet at Bag End, but here’s an 18th-century French example to provide a kind of general idea.image13french.jpg

There are two more items on the floor, both just below the door.


The first looks to be perhaps a stone block, used as a sill. (Our illustration is actually of a mistake—the central block here has fallen out of position, but it gives you the idea of such a block in use.)


The other item appears to us to be a rush door mat (dog—“Bo”–optional).



Rushes (genus Typha) grow all over the world and can be used, it seems, for almost anything.  Here’s the English rush weaver, Felicity Irons, busy harvesting.


Rushes, however, bring us back to the subject of English medieval flooring.  Our research suggests that the houses of farmers and lower-level townspeople would have been of natural substances, like clay pressed to make a hard surface.  Richer people would have had wooden or even, in a few cases, tile floors (more such floors after the commercial business took off in the 15th/16th centuries).  Carpets appear to be much later (most weaving was hung on walls, to keep down drafts, it seems).  Our sources for what people laid on top of their floors are very sketchy and some modern writers have depended upon a quotation from the Dutch scholar, Erasmus (1469-1536),


who visited England and spent some years there around 1500.  He tells us that the English covered their floors with rushes, but that they only added more to the top, without cleaning out the lower levels, which became full of refuse and caused bad smells (which to a person of Erasmus’ time represented the danger of “miasma”—bad air which could cause disease—something believed as scientifically true even throughout the first half of the 19th century).  Some modern commentators have questioned this, proposing the difficulty of moving about on a weedy floor in a long gown, as women and, in time, men, wore during the later Middle Ages.  At least one of those questioners even suggests that rushes meant rush mats—see above.

Bilbo’s hall has only one of these, meant, from its position, to be used as a modern would, as a doormat.

Taken altogether, we would suggest that Bilbo’s floor, just like his clock and barometer and umbrella stand, would appear to belong not to the medieval world which lies underneath Middle-earth, but rather to the late 19th-20th century world of the author.  And we’re not alone in our opinion.  Here’s John Howe’s version of that hallway—compare it with JRRT’s and see what’s been erased.


image23jrrthall.jpgAnd here’s the film version–


There are more differences, too–for fun, see how many you can find.

And thanks, as always, for reading!





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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In our last, we discussed less familiar characters in The Lord of the Rings, the Corsairs of Umbar, and what we imagine they could look like.

In this posting, we want to look at much more familiar characters, Orcs—but from the viewpoint of Fangorn.


He says of them:

“Maybe you have heard of Trolls?  They are mighty strong.  But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

We’ve always been a bit puzzled by this.  “Counterfeit” makes us think, immediately, of counterfeit money.  Here are a pair of US 10-dollar bills:  can you tell the counterfeit (from Old French via a Latin compound, contra, “against” + facere, “make/do”—in Medieval Latin a contrafactio is a thing put against another, something in contrast, thus “imitation”)?


To be a successful counterfeit, normally, it’s necessary that the imitation be as close to the original as possible, as in the case of these two tens.  The US Treasury Department goes to a lot of time and expense to make counterfeiting as difficult as possible


but, if a counterfeiter is successful, he stands to make (in two senses) a lot of money.  He can also cause a great deal of financial damage, breeding distrust in a government’s ability to coin money and to stand behind it.  The more counterfeit money in the system, the more money the government has to back, which, in time, could lead to what is called hyperinflation and can bring a currency to collapse.  When a government does this itself it can cause havoc with a country’s economy, as happened in the Weimar Republic in 1921-1924.  At that time, for complex reasons having to do with paying off the German Empire’s war debts, the government began producing too much paper money and too rapidly.  This caused the money to lose value very quickly, rendering it almost worthless.


It’s no wonder that the penalty for counterfeiting was usually the most severe possible.


Treebeard’s use of the word “counterfeit”, then, would suggest that what Sauron was doing was trying to make nearly-exact copies of something, either Ents or Elves, in his creation of Trolls and Orcs.  So what do we find when we first see a description of Orcs?

“There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands.”

(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)

That’s not much to go on:

  1. “greater stature” would suggest that most Orcs were short
  2. “swart” means “dark-complexioned” (a term Sam uses to describe men from Harad, whom he calls “Swertings”—The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed”)
  3. “slant-eyed”—for contemporary people this is a tricky term, even a racial slur, but JRRT probably meant no more than that these Orcs had epicanthic folds to their eyelids, which is not uncommon among many of the world’s peoples.


  1. “with thick legs and large hands” suggests very stocky builds—like the “Trolls turned to stone” in JRRT’s illustration of the scene in The Hobbit.


This is a start, but will our next view help?  Pippin and Merry are the prisoners of the Orcs and Pippin is listening to a quarrel between those of Saruman and those of Sauron:

“In the twilight he saw a large black Orc, probably Ugluk, standing facing Grishnakh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3. “The Uruk-hai”)

Counterfeit Elves?  Of course we know—also from Fangorn—that perhaps Saruman was up to something more, as Fangorn says of him:

“He has taken up with foul folk, with the Orcs.  Brm, hoom!  Worse than that:  he has been doing something to them; something dangerous.  For these Isengarders are more like wicked Men.  It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it.  I wonder what he has done?  Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men?  That would be a black evil!” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

This might account for the size of the Uruk-hai, as well as for their ability to endure daylight, but what about the crook-leggedness and “long arms that hung almost to the ground”?

Perhaps here we should remember the end of Fangorn’s description:  “…in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.”

Hmm.  Trolls certainly don’t look much like Ents—



Is this the “mockery”?  It’s certainly not counterfeiting in the usual sense!

Should we understand the same for Orcs vs Elves?  Here are illustrations of Galadriel and Legolas (both by the Hildebrandts):



Set those against any modern artist’s view of Orcs and, again, it’s not counterfeiting, in the strictest sense, so we suppose that we have to assume “mockery”—but with the added assumption that Sauron had a very twisted sense of humor.  (There’s also that nasty half-suggestion of Fangorn’s that, since Saruman’s Orcs are behaving more like men, Saruman has been performing genetic experiments, something even Fangorn doesn’t want to think about.)




Looking at all of these illustrations, by the way, we were struck by where we’d seen creatures like this before.  Could it be in the works of those strange Flemish/Dutch painters like Brueghel and Bosch?


Or Arthur Rackham?


Or the early 20th-century Swedish painter, John Bauer, who, in his depiction of forests was an influence upon JRRT?


And, more recently, considering P. Jackson’s Orcs,



their skin color and general look:  is there a suggestion here of the so-called “Bog People” (about whom we wrote a posting some time ago)—a whole series of bodies, at least one dating from the 4th century bc


who have been discovered buried in peat bogs (a great preservative) in northern Europe?


And, in their color and oozy look–not to mention that they seem to move in scuttly groups–is there something cockroachy about them?


But, just as there is a place Fangorn doesn’t want to go, it’s true for us as well!

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




You probably spotted this (we have very intelligent readers), but it’s the top 10-dollar bill which is the counterfeit.


It has also occurred to us that JRRT more than once discussed the fact that Sauron, as a lesser deity-figure, could never originate, only copy and “subcreate”—perhaps suggesting another reason for making “mockeries”:  his anger at his inability to do original work?

A Pirate’s Life…


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In a previous posting, we mentioned the Corsairs of Umbar.

If you google “corsair” in images, the first thing which appears is this:


It’s a US Navy WW2 fighter—but hardly what was sweeping to attack the south coast of Gondor in Sauron’s massive campaign.

Change that to “corsair pirate” and you see things like


which is definitely a bit better, but he looks so 18th-century.  As we have discussed in many of our postings, Middle-earth is Middle Ages (more or less), even if it mixes High Medieval (things like the plate armor of the Prince of Dol Amroth) with Anglo-Saxon (the Rohirrim).  So “corsair pirate” is too late in time.  Another word (with a much-discussed origin) for “pirate” is “buccaneer”, so, how about “corsair buccaneer”?


Ooops!  Okay—clearly that doesn’t work!

So what will—and what are we really looking for?  Well, what do these corsairs look like according to JRRT?

They have black sails:

For Anduin, from the bend at the Harlond, so flowed that[,]from the City[,] men could look down it lengthwise for some leagues, and the far-sighted could see any ships that approached.  And looking thither they cried in dismay; for black against the glittering stream they beheld a fleet borne up on the wind:  dromunds, and ships of great draught with many oars, and with black sails bellying in the breeze.

‘The Corsairs of Umbar!’ men shouted.  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

Anything more?

In The Lord of the Rings, unfortunately not.

Umbar is in Harad,


however, and there is a little about the Haradrim.  Our first view of them is Sam’s:

Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them.  He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar.  His scarlet robes were tattered, his corselet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood.  His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword. (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”)

Other details?

Just before Sam speaks, Gollum has reported seeing:

‘Dark faces.  We have not seen Men like these before, no, Smeagol has not.  They are fierce.  They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold.  And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have found shields, yellow and black with big spikes.  Not nice; very cruel wicked Men they look.  Almost as bad as Orcs, and much bigger.’ (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed.”)

“cruel and tall” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

They have cavalry and they are armed with scimitars. (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

These would seem to be people from Near Harad (that is, near to Gondor).  The men to the south of them differ:

“…Southrons [men from Near Harad] in scarlet and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

But all of this to us suggested a model from our own world (as always):  the Barbary Pirates.  So how about the search terms “corsair barbary”?


Ah.  That’s a bit more like it, we think.  He has to lose his gunpowder weapons, though—the only gunpowder in Middle-earth appears to be something in the hands of Saruman and Sauron’s orcs, as we see at Helm’s Deep


and the wall of the Pelennor, the Ramas Echor.

We would imagine those corsairs, then, as looking like the infamous “Barbary Pirates”.

They certainly fill the bill geographically—they’re southern (at least in relation to JRRT’s England)–their hangouts being on the coast of North Africa


and, if you wanted a big port city, as Umbar was supposed to be, here’s Algiers.


What about ships—that is, “dromunds and ships of great draught with many oars”?

“Dromund” is a medieval form of the Byzantine Greek dromon, literally a “runner”—a word you’d recognize from the English word “hippodrome”—the “place where horses run”.  This was the common larger Byzantine warship.


Here’s a Renaissance-era engraving of a Turkish galley.


There’s a difficulty with “ships of great draft with many oars”, however.  Draught (also spelled “draft”) is the distance between the waterline and the bottom of the keel, as in this diagram.


Ships with many oars are, commonly, galleys,


and galleys commonly have a shallow draft—both to allow for maneuver in shallow waters and to allow for the oars to do their job most efficiently.  So, we presume that all of the Corsairs’ vessels were actually galleys of various sizes.


Jackson’s Corsair ships have something of the look of JRRT’s description, but his


depiction of the Corsairs, unlike that of Rohan and the Rohirrim, is not even close to the little we have learned so far from the text.


The Barbary Pirates, to us, not only match point of origin and vessels, but are much more exotic and colorful, whereas those in the film look to us more like dingy Vikings.



And here’s a portrait


of the Moroccan ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I (notice that, in the caption he’s called Legatus Regis Barbariae, “deputy of the King of Barbary”—a splendid figure with a splendid name:  Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun—imagine him facing Aragorn from the deck of a galley—we think that the Oath-breakers would have had little fear for him, even as they overwhelmed him and his crew.


So, as always, we ask you, readers, what do you think?

And thanks, as always, for reading.




Just a thought, but, if Sauron, as one of the Maiar, was virtually immortal and had the kind of power which is displayed in the forging of the Ring, why did he need vast fortresses and armies and fleets?  Something to think about in a future posting!

Sugar and Oliphaunts


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In our last posting, through a piece of “creative misreading” we saw a hat on Bilbo’s hallway table as a sugar loaf


and, before you knew it, we were thinking about where the sugar behind the cakes, seed cakes, and tarts in his pantry came from.

Sugar cane is a tropical plant


so, logically, we began to consider where, on the Middle-earth maps we have, tropical might be.


In our world, that would be south, of course, and, looking as far south as we can go, we reach Harad, a name which actually means “south” in Sindarin.  It consists of two big regions, Near Harad and Far Harad.

As far as we can find, JRRT has left us no detailed geographic information about this region.  On page 413 of The War of the Ring, we are given the clue that, when the Corsairs of Umbar are driven back,

“all the enemy that were not slain or drowned were gone flying over the [?borders] into the desert that lies north of Harad.”

This would suggest that at least Near (as in “near to Gondor”, as we presume that our cartographers were Gondorians) Harad might be imagined as being like our world’s North Africa—


with some fertile coastline, backed by the Sahara.  And we can’t resist including this view of the Sahara from space here.


And, just as in our world, the whole south can’t be desert, since people from Harad are associated with elephants—or “oliphaunts”, as Sam says:

“But I’ve heard tales of the big folk down away in the Sunlands.  Swertings we call ‘em in our tales; and they ride on oliphaunts backs and all, and the oliphaunts throw rocks and trees at one another.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 3, “The Black Gate is Closed”)

The Mûmak of Harad, by Ted Nasmith

This would suggest more fertile land south of the northern desert, a savanna, or region of great, grassy plains.  Such an area forms one of two habitats for elephants in our Africa.


South of the African savanna lies the rain forest—the other African elephant habitat.


Sugar cane, a little research tells us, can grow in savanna lands


as well as in rain forest (which, in our world, is being destroyed to provide more space for growing it—here’s a LINK about that).  Thus, we imagine that this must be the point of origin for Bilbo’s sugar.  From its growing and processing point (for something about those things in our world, please see the previous posting), it might then be shipped to the city of Umbar and from there to Gondor.

As to how it reaches Bilbo, well, we know that there must have been some trade up and down the old North-South Road/Greenway, as Saruman has a supply of pipe-weed from the South Farthing, with “the Hornblower brandmarks on the barrels” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 9, “Flotsam and Jetsam”), which takes us as far as Isengard.  From Gondor to Isengard?  Packhorse up the Greenway to Bree?  Butterbur tells Frodo & Co that “”There’s a party that came up the Greenway from down South last night” (Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)—though he then says that “that was strange enough to begin with”.

As we said in our last, this is all based upon a “creative misreading”, so we admit that there are some gaps here and there–just as there is a gap in the North-South Road at the Swanfleet, where the great bridge at Tharbad is down, but that’s what we get with such a “creative misreading” of a hat!

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




But another thought—not based upon a “misreading”, but rather upon The Lord of the Rings, so, at the posting’s end we can have at least something a little less speculative.

There is another medieval spelling of “oliphaunt”—“Olifant/oliphant”, with its own specific meaning:  a horn made from an elephant’s tusk, like this one, which is just over a thousand years old and is in the treasury of York Minster.




This is a drinking horn, but such horns could also be used for signaling, the most famous being that of Roland, the hero of the later-11th-century Old French epic poem, the Chanson de Roland. Here is a page from the oldest known ms, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.


(Here are links to two translations in English, one in prose, one in verse.)  If you don’t know the poem, its main action is a rear guard defense of a pass by a group of Carolingian soldiers commanded by Roland.  He has an olifant and can use it to call for help, but refuses to do so until the last moment because, in his view, asking for reinforcements would be cowardly.  As a consequence, the Carolingians, including Roland, do not survive the battle, as Roland blows the horn only at the last moment (and blows it so hard that he bursts his brains in the process—there would be those who might argue that someone who sacrifices his troops on a point of honor doesn’t have much in the way of brains to begin with!).


Warriors and horn-blowing immediately make us think of Boromir.

Tolkien, Nasmith, painting, illustration, Lord of the Rings, Silmarillion, Hobbit, Middle-earth

His horn is just called a “war-horn” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”), with no further description, but, as medieval horns in our world can be made of elephant tusk, why mightn’t Boromir’s be made of the equivalent, mumak tusk?