Water Which?


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Just today, our English friend, Michael, sent us an interesting CD set, “Old English Poems, Prose & Lessons”.  We turned the jewel box over and our eye was immediately caught by #12 of the listings on the back, “Charm Against Waterelf Sickness”.

In Old English, “waterelf sickness” is a compound which can be read two ways:  “waeteraelf-adl” (“water-elf sickness”) or “waeter-aelfadl” (something like “watery elf-sickness”).  Alaric Hall, in his extremely informative dissertation, “The Meaning of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England” (2005), 116, leans towards the second possibility, but, with our western classical background, we immediately imagined a “water elf” and, from there, we thought of naiads—female water spirits–in fresh water, like streams and pools.  (If you would like a comprehensive listing of all the subvarieties of such spirits, here’s a LINK to an article on the subject.)

Probably the most famous story about such creatures appears in Apollonius of Rhodes’ 3rd-c. BC, Argonautica, the story of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece.


Two of Jason’s crew on the Argo are Heracles (seen here dealing with the Nemean Lion)


and his companion, Hylas (seen here about to get into trouble).


Ancient travel in the Mediterranean often meant coasting, with frequent stops for water, and, in Apollonius’ story, Hylas had gone ashore and found a pool, but was ambushed by a group of naiads, who pulled him under.


(This is John William Waterhouse’s famous 1896 painting of the scene.)

We meet woman waterfolk in much of western folk tradition—and this is excluding those on salt water, including mermaids,


selkies/silkies (who are shape-changers, between seals and humans),


and even sirens.


For fresh water, we had those naiads, but also swan-maidens, often enchanted into water bird forms.


(Here’s a LINK to a whole little collection of stories about such creatures.)

As well, we have the Rhine Maidens,


who, in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, guard the Rhine gold, deep under the river, but who lose it to the craftsman dwarf, Alberich, with whom they flirted—with evil consequences.


We mentioned mermaids as salt water creatures and, in Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805-1875)


“The Little Mermaid” (1837), we have the story of the mermaid who falls in love with a handsome prince and trades her voice for human form.



(This is the first page of Andersen’s original manuscript.)

There had been an earlier Romantic version of the water spirit and the human (in this case, a knight) in Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s (1777-1843) novella, Undine (1811).



This, in turn, became an early Romantic opera, Undine (1816), the text by the author, the music by another famous Romantic author, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822).



The theme which runs through all of these meetings of water spirit and human is the uneasy relationship which seems the only possibility for them, virtually always leading to unhappiness, and this is true of our last water spirit, Rusalka, the subject of an opera, Rusalka, (1901) by the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)


Like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the water spirit (“rusalka” can mean “water spirit” in Czech) falls in love with a prince, trading her immortality for human love.


(This is an image of the original Rusalka, Ruzena Maturova.)

If we said “leading to unhappiness” is the usual conclusion to such romances, Rusalka is even worse.  When she is betrayed by the prince, Rusalka becomes a water demon, luring people to their deaths in her pool—a far cry from the happy ending of the Disney movie!


So, what about our charm against waeteraelfadl?  Here’s a translation:

“If a man is in the water elf disease [waeter aelfadle], then the nails of his hand are dark and the eyes teary, and he will look down. Give him this as medicine [laecedome]: everthroat, hassock, the lower part of fane, yewberry, lupin, helenium, marshmallow head, fen mint, dill, lily, attorlathe, pulegium, marrubium, dock, elder, fel terre, wormwood, strawberry leaves, consolde. Soak with ale; add holy water to it. Sing this gealdor over it thrice:

I have bound on the wounds the best of war bandages, so the wounds neither burn nor burst, nor go further, nor spread, nor jump, nor the wounds increase [waco sian?], nor sores deepen. But may he himself keep in a healthy way [halewaege?]. May it not ache you more than it aches earth in ear [eare?].

Sing this many times, “May earth bear on you with all her might and main.” These galdor a man may sing over a wound.”

(translation from Karen Louise Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)

Unfortunately, this looks more like a cure for a skin disease than for an ill-fated affair between water spirit and human!

Thanks, as always, for reading and, also as always,




You can find Alaric Hall’s dissertation (now a book) at:  http://www.alarichall.org.uk/phd.php.


Child Ballad 113, “The Great Silkie of Sul Skerry” is about the male version of such a creature.  For a haunting performance of this, with a modern tune, sung by Judy Collins (with Tommy Makem on pennywhistle), here’s a LINK.


The most famous aria from Dvorak’s opera is a song sung to the moon by Rusalka, “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém“, and we find it one of the most beautiful arias we know.  Here’s a LINK so that you can hear it, too.

pppps (we think that this is a record, even for us)

In 1909, the publisher Heinemann released a translation of de la Motte Fouque’s Undine with illustrations by Arthur Rackham.  Here’s a LINK so that you can download it and add it to your library.





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If you had never seen a ghost and probably didn’t believe in them, what would convince you?  How about a ghost cat?


In Peter Beagle’s


Tamsin (1999),


13-year-old Jenny Gluckstein encounters one and it’s only the beginning of a wonderfully rich and, this being a novel by Peter Beagle, a little melancholy, ghost story.

We don’t do spoilers, but what we’d like to do—oh, and, by the way, Welcome, dear readers, as ever!—is, first, to recommend this novel, which begins in New York City, but is mainly set in Dorset,


in the southwest of England.  If you’re interested in spooks and spirits of all kinds, England is a wonderful place to explore, and the southwest is especially haunted (if you believe in such things—we’re neutral, ourselves, but love a good ghost story).  Just look at this massive Iron Age hill fort near Dorchester, called locally, “Maiden Castle”—what lives there at night?


[And speaking of good ghost stories, some of our favorites are by M.R. James (1862-1936) and Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951).  Click on the names to access the links so that you can sample their work for yourself, if you don’t know them already.]

Jenny is transplanted from New York to Dorset because her mother’s second husband is an English agricultural specialist who is hired to rebuild a 350-year-old farm in Dorset.  Jenny is, initially, very unhappy with the move—especially when her closest friend, Mr. Cat, must spend 6 months quarantined before being allowed into England.  Things slowly begin to change, however, as she makes friends with her two new stepbrothers and finds that the ancient house holds more than her new family, including a boggart, the billyblind, and four ghosts (including that cat).

The ghosts are ectoplasmic survivors of a tragic period in the history of southwest England which all begins with Charles II (1630-1685).


After his father, Charles I, had been executed in London in January, 1649,


his son, Charles, had led an exile’s life until, in 1660, he was invited to return to Britain and reign as Charles II.


Unfortunately for the country, although Charles was married to the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705),


they produced no heirs.  Charles also had a long string of mistresses, including the most famous, Nell Gwynn (1650-1687),


and one of them, Lucy Walter (c1630-1658)


gave him a son, James (1649-1685),


whom Charles not only acknowledged, but made, among other things, the Duke of Monmouth.


This James had somehow come to believe that his father, Charles, had secretly married his mother, thereby making him the legitimate heir to the throne of England.  His uncle, also named James (1633-1701),


asserting that his older brother, Charles, appeared to have no legitimate heir, claimed the throne for himself upon his brother’s death.  This did not please the Duke of Monmouth, who, believing that he had support in the southwest of England, raised a rebellion there against his uncle.  He had only very limited resources, and much of his little army was armed with improvised weapons, many of them repurposed farm equipment.


Opposing these was a detachment of the Royal Army,


trained professional soldiers.  The only battle of this brief campaign occurred not in Dorset, but in the shire to the northwest, Somerset,


which, in itself is a rather spooky place.  After all, in the 12th century, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed that they had happened upon the grave of King Arthur


and they had a lead cross (from the coffin) to prove it.


Even if it’s not spooky, Glastonbury is an impressive place—just look at Glastonbury Tor, with the remains of the 14th-century church of St Michael atop it.


Monmouth knew that, to have any chance of raising more support, he would have to deal with that detachment of redcoats sent to stop him, but, with his own army’s limitations, the best way to even the odds was to attempt a night attack, one of the most difficult maneuvers possible.  Unfortunately, although the Royal Army was initially surprised, the mist which covered the battlefield, along with an uncertain knowledge of the terrain, and the lack of discipline among Monmouth’s troops,


as well as the steadiness of the King’s soldiers,


led to a complete defeat of Monmouth’s army, which immediately disintegrated, while Monmouth and his chief followers fled for their lives.

Monmouth was soon captured and brought before his uncle, James, who was less than avuncular in his reaction


and, very soon afterward, Monmouth was beheaded.


Not content with ending the rebellion, James sent a five-man commission of judges to the region to rout out all opposition to his reign.  This commission was headed by the Lord Chief Justice, George Jeffreys, First Baron Jeffreys (1645-1689).


Jeffreys, from the records, was a very thorough man, but a very biased one, as well, and several hundred people across the region were executed after brief trials,


others being shipped as virtual slaves to the Caribbean.  (The swashbuckling adventure film, Captain Blood (1935), with Errol Flynn, is about one of the latter—a doctor who helps a wounded escapee from Sedgemoor and suffers for it.)


Jeffreys then becomes the villain of Tamsin, having developed a passion for Tamsin Willoughby, whose family farm is the one which Jenny’s stepfather is hired to restore, during the period now known as the “Bloody Assizes”.  Tamsin and Jeffreys and Tamsin’s lover, Edric, are trapped in a kind of terrible time warp and it’s Jenny who—but wait—we said no spoilers, and we mean it!

This is a book to read and reread and now, with a little historical background from us, we hope you enjoy it as much as we have.




If you would like to know more about the Battle of Sedgemoor, the Two Men in a Trench team of Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver have a fun battlefield archaeology program on it.  Here’s the LINK.


Pieces of Eight!


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In 1881-1882, a new serial appeared in the British children’s newspaper, Young Folks.  Its author was Captain George North and the story was entitled, “Treasure Island or, the Mutiny of the Hispaniola”.  In 1883, Cassell and Company published this in book form


as Treasure Island, and its author’s name was right below the title:  Robert Louis Stevenson.


The story had come about because Stevenson had seen his stepson, Lloyd, drawing a map.  Stevenson joined him and that map became the map.


The book became a number of movies over the years, including one by the Muppets (1996),


but our favorite is that made by the Disney studio in 1950.


This version has Robert Newton as Long John Silver, the man whose twitches and vocal mannerisms have been passed down now as “the way pirates talk” (including—and especially on—“International Talk Like a Pirate Day”, September 19).



You’ll notice that parrot (as far as we know, there’s no “International Talk Like a Parrot Day”, unfortunately) on his shoulder.  We can trace this back to the original novel and identify him as “Captain Flint”, Silver’s pet.  Here he is in a picture from our favorite illustrated version, that of NC Wyeth, from 1911.


(If you’d like your own early edition, with Wyeth’s illustrations—not his only pirate pictures, by the way—here’s a LINK to the 1913 printing.)

Among other parrotings, Captain Flint is given to calling “pieces of eight!” and, when we were little, we wondered “pieces of eight what?” and perhaps you did, too.  The story begins much earlier than the novel—about 1500.  It starts with this early Spanish silver coin called a “real” (14th century).


About 1500, a new coin appeared, worth 8 reales,


and this is a “piece of eight”.

It shouldn’t be confused with another coin Captain Flint might have exclaimed over, the doubloon.


The doubloon (from Spanish  “doblon”—“double”) was gold, rather than silver, and was probably called “double” because it was worth two of the coins below, an escudo.


Spanish silver supplies mushroomed after 1519, when a small expedition, led by Hernan Cortez (1485-1547)


landed on the coast of Mexico.  The expedition was armed with European weapons and armor of the period.


As they marched inland, they found an empire, with a capital set in the middle of a lake, with public buildings made of stone blocks.



They also found that the local warriors were still living in the Neolithic Era and, though they were fierce, were no match for modern (early 16th-century) weapons.


Farther south, other Spanish invaders found the same thing along the west coast of South America,



and soon, they had enslaved the local populations and turned them to work in the silver mines, like that at San Luis Potosi, in Mexico.




Their labor then produced vast quantities of precious metal, which was left in bars, or turned into coins—pieces of eight and others.  This was loaded on ships and sent back to Spain.


Such riches didn’t escape the attention of Spain’s enemies, however, and soon such ships had to travel in convoys, with merchant ships being shepherded by warships.


This didn’t prevent attacks completely, a famous leader of those attacks being Sir Francis Drake, from the days of Elizabeth I.


Although the Spanish referred to Drake as a “pirate”, while England was at war with Spain (as it was for much of Drake’s later lifetime), to the English he was a “privateer”—a private naval commander holding a kind of license from Elizabeth I, which permitted him to attack enemy shipping at will (and to share the profits with the Queen’s government).  Because he wasn’t one of the government’s official officers, this created a kind of grey area, one which many sailors from western nations, as late as the Napoleonic wars, would take advantage of, slipping between government service and something which, even with that license, could look like piracy.  Such men included the notorious, like Captain Kidd


(of whom there is no portrait—we inserted this just for fun)

and Edward Teach, “Blackbeard”.


(His beard isn’t really on fire, by the way.  He wove bits of matchcord—used to fire ships’ guns and touch off handgrenades—into it to give himself a fiendish aspect.)



Rather than sharing it with governments, both men were said to have taken much of their loot ashore and buried it in now-lost locations—


which brings us back to the map and Captain Flint squawking, “Pieces of eight!”


D31MWE Long John Silver. Image shot 1954. Exact date unknown.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and definitely

MTCIDC (matey!)



The most famous of Blackbeard’s ships, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, has been located off the coast of North Carolina, here in the US.  Here’s a LINK to the site which talks all about the discovery and the ongoing archaeology.

It’s a Long Way…


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Perhaps because we’re writing this on May the 4th, we’ve been in a musical mood—after all, there’s such a catchy tune involved with it—


And we wondered if there were words to it?  Certainly soldiers have been singing songs seemingly forever.  Greek hoplites sang a hymn to Apollo before battle.


(They are accompanied by an aulos player here.  “Aulos” is sometimes mistranslated “flute”, but it’s not a kind of recorder.  Instead, it’s a member of the oboe family.)

Julius Caesar’s (100-44bc)


soldiers, marching behind his chariot when he celebrated his triumph (formal victory parade) in Rome


sang an unprintable song about his sex life.  There’s only a fragment surviving and we’ll print it here—but in Latin—a typical Victorian thing to do.

“Urbani, servate uxores: moechum calvom adducimus.
Aurum in Gallia effutuisti, hic sumpsisti mutuum.”

(Here’s a LINK which we would recommend about reconstructing Roman soldiers’ songs.)

There’s a stirring piece by Walter von der Vogelweide (c.1170-c.1230),


called the “Palestine Song”, supposedly sung by a crusader after reaching the Holy Land.  We can imagine later Crusaders singing it as they marched


As in the case of the Caesar fragment, however, we won’t print the text—we aren’t enthusiastic about crusades, especially the medieval ones, believing them to have been the drawn-out attempt at a massive landgrab of places already long-inhabited.

On long, monotonous marches, we imagine soldiers always sang.  The American Civil War was fought over hundreds of miles and, with the rare exception when trains could be used,


soldiers walked everywhere.


That being the case, it’s no wonder that so many of their favorite songs had the word “marching” in the title.


Marching Through Georgia Music and Lyrics


(And that last one’s chorus begins, “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching…”)

Russian soldiers appear to have had designated regimental singers, who, when called, hurried up to the front of the column and broke into choruses to keep up the men’s spirits on long journeys.


(We apologize that these Russians aren’t singing—but this is, in fact, a film of the last czar, Nicholas II, reviewing his guards just before the Great War, so, at least, they’re marching.)

Which brings us to the Great War and our own officer in it, JRRT.


Certainly, the soldiers in his battalion (13th, Lancashire Fusiliers)


would have sung—here are two popular favorites—



There were other songs, too, but not cheery at all, and officers were instructed to discourage their singing.  The words of one, sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”,  expressed the terrible monotonous nature of trench warfare, being only “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here”.  A second, “Hangin’ On the Old Barbed Wire”, as it was called, had a mocking little tune, like something from a music hall, but described the whereabouts of soldiers who, for various reasons, were out of the firing line—until it came to the last verse:

“If you want the old battalion,

I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are

If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,

They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,

I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.

I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.



Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to hear an abbreviated version.  In this , the group, Chumbawamba, uses an alternative line, “If you want to find the private”, but both versions are grim—and we presume that Tolkien knew all of these songs and many more, some, like the song about Julius Caesar, completely unprintable!

(Our image, by the way, is of a wiring party from the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers.  Those curly things, called “screw pickets”,  you see resting on the front man’s right shoulder are the stakes which were twisted into the ground and then barbed wire was run through them and wrapped around them.   Here’s  an early US WW2 picture of a soldier working with the upper loops of one.)


As we’ve often discussed before, things from JRRT’s real life sometimes have a way of seeping into his fiction, and we can certainly see it here.

Although they’ve been silent on the march, on their way to the attack, the Rohirrim, for example, are far from that:


“And then all of the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)

Unfortunately, we have no idea what their songs might have been like—perhaps they would have resembled Theoden’s cry to the Rohirrim:

“Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!

Fell deeds awake:  fire and slaughter!

Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now, ride now!  Ride to Gondor!”

Oddly, we do have two of what might be called Goblin marching songs,


both from The Hobbit.  The first is sung right after the dwarves are captured in a cave in which they’ve taken shelter in the Misty Mountains.

“Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!

Clash, crash! Crush, smash!
Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs!
Pound, pound, far underground!
Ho, ho! my lad!

Swish, smack! Whip crack!
Batter and beat! Yammer and bleat!
Work, work! Nor dare to shirk,
While Goblins quaff, and Goblins laugh,
Round and round far underground
Below, my lad!”

(Chapter Four, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

The second appears two chapters later, when the company is trapped in the pines and the Goblins and Wargs are below:

“Burn, burn tree and fern!
Shrivel and scorch! A fizzling torch
To light the night for our delight
Ya hey!

Bake and toast ’em, fry and roast ’em!
till beards blaze, and eyes glaze;
till hair smells and skins crack,
fat melts, and bones black
in cinders lie
beneath the sky!
So dwarves shall die,
and light the night for our delight,
Ya hey!
Ya hoy!”

(Chapter Six, “Out of the Frying-pan Into the Fire”)

We notice that the opening of the second bears a certain resemblance to another song sung in a wild location—by wild people:

“First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double, toil and trouble; (10)
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

(Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1)


In  The Lord of the Rings, JRRT blurs Goblins and orcs and, considering that we almost always see orcs as moving in companies, we’ll see them that way, too, marching across Rohan or on the stone roads of Mordor, and we’d like to imagine that they, too, have songs to make the way shorter.  But what do they sing about?  And, judging by the Goblin’s songs, do we want to know?


Thanks, as always, for reading and





Another Great War soldiers’ song was more melancholy than sarcastic, although it still suggested marching,


and, when you read the chorus, you’ll see why.


Here’s a LINK of it sung by a famous tenor of that time, John McCormack (1884-1945) and here are soldiers at a happier moment and we hope that Tolkien sometimes saw them this way, too.





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As always, dear readers, welcome.

Recently, we’ve been examining anachronisms in The Hobbit.  These are always such minor things that JRRT, before its initial publication in 1937,


doesn’t appear even to have noticed them (see our recent postings for more on them) and only corrected some in succeeding editions.

In our last, it was “guns”, but, in this, our last, at least for the present, it’s this:

“After some time he felt for his pipe…Then he felt for his pouch…Then he felt for matches…”

(The Hobbit, Chapter Five, “Riddles in the Dark”)

Others have noticed this before—Anderson in his invaluable The Annotated Hobbit even has a footnote on it (page 116), adding the detail from Chapter Six that “…Oin and Gloin had lost their tinder-boxes.  (Dwarves have never taken to matches even yet.)”

Why are matches an anachronism?  Tolkien, a life-long pipe smoker,


would have used them without thinking—perhaps these, “Swan Vestas”, long sold as “the smoker’s match”.


(The name “Vesta” comes from the Roman goddess of the hearth,


a fragment of whose temple still stands in the Roman Forum in Rome.


Inside was a hearth—a fire pit—which symbolized all of the hearths in Rome.)


Matches, however, are a nineteenth-century invention, with a complicated history—and, at the beginning, a complicated ignition.  For example, these, from 1828, had a tip of sulphur which burst into flame when dipped into a container of phosphorus.


This was hardly a practical way to strike a light and soon matches were made by which friction could be used to light them.  After 1830, the tips of these were coated with white phosphorus, which was rather unstable and could be set off by everything from rubbing against each other to strong sunlight.  They were made by the millions in factories (many employing young women and girls)



and sold on street corners everywhere, commonly by children and the very poor.


Considering this made us think of a Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)


story we can’t bear to read.  In English, it’s called “The Little Match Girl” and was first published in 1845.  Here’s an illustration for it by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859), Andersen’s favorite illustrator.


(If you would like to read it—we’ve warned you!– here’s the LINK to a very rich site, which has all of Andersen’s fairy tales both in the original Danish and translated into English, along with all of the rest of Andersen’s extensive literary work.)

But, if Bilbo lives in a sort of medieval world, where, presumably, matches wouldn’t be available, then what can he use?  The answer, of course, is what Oin and Gloin have lost (and Sam will have in The Lord of the Rings–see The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”):  a tinder box.


Such a box would contain three basic items:  a dry material in which to catch a spark (bark, dry moss, linen rags), a piece of steel and a piece of flint to make sparks.


And here’s how it works—


Long before the invention of matches, this was the common way in the western world to strike a light (literally) with “flint and steel”, as it was called—and it’s what the dwarves use in The Hobbit.

It’s also the title of another Hans Christian Andersen story, but a jollier one, called, in English, “The Tinder Box”, first published in 1835—and here’s another Pedersen illustration.


In this story, a soldier on the way home from war is stopped by an old lady on the side of the road.


She tells him that there’s treasure below a tree and, if he will climb in, he can take all that he wants and all that she wants in return is a little tinder box to be found there.


He climbs in and discovers rooms full of riches, as well as three dogs of increasingly enormous size.


The tinder box is, of course, not a little nothing, but the key to the dogs and to the magic beyond, although the soldier doesn’t know that at the time.  When he climbs out of the tree, and the old woman (a witch, of course), demands the box, however, he grows suspicious and, instead of handing her the box, the soldier hands her her head.


(We said that this was a jollier story—but clearly not if you’re a witch.)

We refer you to the LINK we mentioned earlier for the rest of the story—SPOILER ALERT:  it does have a happy ending.  As does The Hobbit, except for goblins and wargs, of course.  Oh, and Thorin.


And then there’s Smaug, whose fire goes out—dare we say it?—like a burnt match.


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



Gun Control?


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Welcome, dear readers, as always—and with our apology if you googled “gun control” and are a bit puzzled as to what has turned up (this often happens with us, making us wonder how googling images of “Saruman” suddenly produces a picture of sardines).

It’s our last posting which got us into this.  We had spotted another anachronism in The Hobbit (clarinets) and had written about it, but then, as a teaser, had concluded with another, referring to Beorn’s joining the Battle of the Five Armies:  “The roar of his voice was like drums and guns…” (Chapter 18, “The Return Journey”)

“Guns” had, of course, stood out.  Some time ago, we had written about Saruman’s use of some sort of explosive at Helm’s Deep


as well as the destruction by a similar force of portions of the causeway forts of the Rammas Echor, of which no one has seemingly produced an illustration.


Whatever this force was, it only seems to be used in siegework, suggesting things like a petard


an explosive device used to blow holes in gates and doors.

Guns, however, do not appear in any form in Tolkien’s world—except here.  Of course, when one thinks about it, there isn’t much of a step from using a blast to destroy a door to funneling that force to propel a missile—as we first see in the Millemete Manuscript of 1326-1327.


This doesn’t appear to be portable, but the basic object is simply a tube on a stick, easy to make, easy to carry



and certainly late medieval people had them and employed them,


so, presumably, they might have appeared in Middle-earth (we once wrote a “what-if” posting on the subject).  Why not?  As JRRT introduced explosives, that seems to provide an opening, but we wonder if he had seen all too often and all too clearly the effect of thousands upon thousands of gunpowder weapons on real people in 1916 and, somehow, the idea of lances and swords seemed more appealing—or, at least, more “heroic”.



But the quotation was “like drums and guns”.

As we pointed out in our last, drums certainly appear in The Lord of the Rings—there is that disturbing reference to “drums, drums in the deep” in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-dum”, for example.  But what about “the roar of his voice was like drums and guns”?

When we thought about this, we asked ourselves, what would this actually sound like?  A possible answer appeared from 1749.

In 1749, George II of England


had been one of the winners of what would become known as “The War of the Austrian Succession” (1740-1748).


He was definitely in a party mood, so he decided to throw a giant fireworks celebration in London.  To provide the soundtrack, he commissioned George Frederick Haendel (say that “HEN-del”, not as people commonly mispronounce it, “HAHN-del”) (1685-1759).


George was the last English king actually to see battle, at Dettingen, in 1743,


and wasn’t interested in anything sweet and soft, with lots of violins.


Instead, he wanted bangs and booms, starting with kettle drums.


Then he hired someone to design a giant framework for the fireworks,


and threw in 101 cannon, just to make sure that it wasn’t too quiet.


And, on the evening of 27 April, 1749, perhaps as many as 12,000 people (London had perhaps between 600,000 and 700,000 people in 1750) stood around the Green Park to watch.


Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to hear the music (you’ll have to supply your own cannon and fireworks).

But fireworks brings us back to Tolkien, doesn’t it?  When Gandalf first appears to Bilbo in the first chapter of The Hobbit,


it seems that almost all that Bilbo knows about Gandalf is his fireworks:

“Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks!  I remember those!  Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve.  Splendid!  They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening!”  (Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

And, when Gandalf reappears in the Shire, to celebrate Bilbo and Frodo’s joint birthday, what does he bring?


Thanks, as ever, for reading (and listening).



Bilbo’s Clarinet


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Tolkien scholars have long noticed that the 1937 Hobbit has a certain number of anachronisms—as did JRRT himself.


As have we, too, in past postings, including one on popguns


[Gandalf speaking to Bilbo:  “It is not like you, Bilbo, to keep friends waiting on the mat, and the open the door like a pop-gun.”  “An Unexpected Party”)]

and tomatoes


[Gandalf:  “And just bring out the cold chicken and tomatoes!”  “An Unexpected Party”]

and steam engines.


[“At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel.”  “An Unexpected Party”]

In the 1966 edition, Tolkien changed “tomatoes” to “pickles” and considered changing that engine whistle to “like the whee of a rocket going up into the sky” (see Douglas A. Anderson, The Annotated Hobbit, 47, note 35) but decided against it.  And the popgun—remained the popgun.

Recently, we fell upon another:

“Kili and Fili rushed for their bags and brought back little fiddles; Dori, Nori, and Ori brought out flutes from somewhere inside their coats; Bombur produced a drum from the hall; Bifur and Bofur went out too, and came back with clarinets that they had left among the walking-sticks.” (“An Unexpected Party”)


Hmm, we thought.  Well, Middle-earth is more or less a medieval world and medieval musicians played stringed instruments and drums and flutes, both transverse (like a modern flute) and recorders, as well as certain other wind instruments, but clarinets?




When we think of clarinets, the first thing which comes into our minds is the famous 20th-century clarinetist, Benny Goodman (1909-1986)


with his Bflat clarinet,


playing the opening of George Gershwin’s (1898-1937)


Rhapsody in Blue (1924)



in a 1942 recording.  (Here’s a LINK so you can hear that recording for yourself.)  Even if you don’t read music, you can see (and hear) that it begins with a clarinet doing a long trill, then playing a glissando, meaning a slide, up several octaves.  We wonder if Bifur and Bofur could play like that!

(We also recommend a very unusual rendition of the piece.  In 2000, Disney Studios released a film called Fantasia 2000,



which was their modern take on the 1940 Fantasia


which consisted of a series of piece of classical pieces with Disney animation interpretations.  Here’s a famous moment from Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.


The 2000 version features a very lively performance of Rhapsody drawn as if it’s taking place during the Great Depression—and even features a cameo appearance by Gershwin himself.


Here’s a LINK to the scene so that you can enjoy it for yourself.)

But we were wondering about those clarinets, so we did a little research and found this, the ancestor of the clarinet, the chalumeau.


About 1700, it is thought, this man, Johann Christoph Denner, (1655-1707)


a famous wind instrument maker, extended the range of the chalumeau and thus made it a more flexible instrument.


The (presently) first known use of clarinets in an orchestra is in Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741)


1716 oratorio, Juditha Triumphans.


And, with that, we thought:  “Hmm.  Yep.  Another anachronism” and were about to move on when our eye was caught by this about Beorn at the Battle of the Five Armies:

“The roar of his voice was like drums and guns…” (Chapter 18, “The Return Journey”)

Drums—well, of course.  Bombur had one.  And, in The Lord of the Rings, there’s that mention of “drums, drums in the deep”, but…guns?

Thanks, as ever, for reading and—as you can see—



A What?


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“It was a Zombie Jamboree,
Took place in the New York Cemetery.
It was a Zombie Jamboree,
Took place in the New York Cemetery.

Zombies from all parts of the island
Some of them were great calypsonians.
Since the season was carnival,
They got together in bacchanal
HUH! And they were singing:

Back to back, belly to belly
Well I don’t give a damn
‘Cause I’m stone dead already!
Back to back, belly to belly
It’s a Zombie Jamboree.” (Conrad Eugene Mauge, Jr., c.1953)

What in the world are we doing, dear readers? Are we about to launch into a posting about The Walking Dead?


Well, no. Unless we mean the “walking-again dead”, which we do. And how did we get here?

It all began with our last two postings, on see-ers—that is, seers–and so many different ways of telling the future, like oneiromancy (dream interpretation) and cleromancy (using numbers), but, among them, we think the most sinister is necromancy—and this brought it to mind:

“Some here will remember that many years ago I myself dared to pass the doors of the Necromancer in Dol Guldur, and secretly explored his ways and found thus our fears were true: he was none other than Sauron, our Enemy of old, at length taking shape and power again.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

This is Gandalf recounting his adventure in Isengard. What he’s relating here happened somewhat before the action in The Hobbit, followed by the White Council’s attack on Dol Guldur (“The Hill of Dark Sorcery”), in the southern part of Mirkwood.


That was parallel in time to the travels of Bilbo and the dwarves towards the Lonely Mountain.


Here’s how John Howe thought Dol Guldur might have looked.


And here’s how it appears in The Hobbit films


although why it’s a ruin is unclear—Gandalf has said above that Sauron is “taking shape and power again”, and so we would imagine that, just as he’s reconstituting himself, there’s been a rebuilding campaign at his headquarters in the forest. So, rather like Howe, we see the place as more imposing, perhaps like Bran castle, in Romania, which is advertised as “Dracula’s castle” in tourist literature.


Just as cleromancy means “telling the future by lots” (that is, by casting lots—think of throwing dice–giving you a supposed “random” result) and oneiromancy means “telling the future by dreams”, so a necromancer uses the dead to find things out, suggesting something really horrible about someone with that title.

The process of questioning the dead goes back a long way in western literature. In the Odyssey, Circe,


who once turned part of Odysseus’ crew into pigs, tells him that, before he can go home, he must sail south, to the Otherworld, to consult Teiresias, who is a seer (see our last two postings for more on people like this)


for current information about his home on Ithaca and for coaching about his future behavior. To deal with the dead, Circe tells Odysseus in detail how to make a kind of drink offering of animal blood in a pit.


Then, because all of the dead will be drawn to the blood (we’re back to Dracula here, aren’t we?), he is to draw his sword and stand over the pit, only allowing those he would question to sip the blood.

But why would a sword threaten ghosts? one might ask. We think that the answer is that it’s iron and iron, in folklore, is a protection against evil magic. Odysseus has used his sword earlier to threaten Circe, who is a very powerful sorceress. See this LINK for more.



Odysseus is successful in his quest, but King Saul, in First Samuel, in the Hebrew Bible, who has already banished necromancers and magicians from his kingdom, is not. Saul is anxious about a battle to come and, when he is not answered via prayers and cleromancy about its outcome, he consults a kind of witch, who may (scholars argue over this) produce the spirit of the prophet Samuel.


When Samuel appears, his response to Saul is not what Saul had hoped for. Instead, Samuel scolds Saul and gives him a fortune-telling he’d rather not hear, that he will lose the battle, his army, and his life the next day, all of which comes true.

Saul had hoped that he could make Samuel do his bidding, which was less than successful, but what if one might make the dead one’s slaves? This is where our opening comes in. The tradition of zombies is complex, including the word itself. At the moment, the earliest reference to the word in English is found in 1819, in volume 3 of the poet, Robert Southey’s (1774-1843),


History of Brazil, Part the Third, page 24:

They were under the government of an elective Chief, who was chosen for his justice as well as his valour, and held the office for life : all men of experience and good repute had access to him as counsellors : he was obeyed with perfect loyalty; and it is said that no conspiracies or struggles for power had ever been known among them. Perhaps a feeling of religion contributed to this obedience ; for Zombi, the title whereby he was called, is the name for the Deity, in the Angolan tongue.”

The subsequent history of zombies is complex, but a recurrent theme is that they are the dead, brought back to serve the living, usually by an evil magician, called a bokor. Among the possible tasks for such a slave is telling the future, thus making a bokor a necromancer, like Sauron.


We’ve done an extensive image search under “zombie” and the weirdest things turn up, none of which we would put into a posting, so this is the best we can do.


If, however, this is the best a bokor can manage, we can’t imagine what news of the future one of these zombies might possibly give Sauron—and it’s no wonder that he loses the Ring.

But thanks for reading!





If you’d like to see “Zombie Jamboree” performed, here’s a LINK to our favorite version, by Rockapella.





See-r (2)


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Here we are again, dear readers, welcoming you to the second half of that posting with the odd name—or at least the odd spelling.

In the first half of this, we began with questions about Galadriel’s mirror: where did it come from? What was it doing in the text?


We saw that it had begun life in a manuscript note as the mirror of “King Galdaran”, but then became the mirror of “Galadrien” as JRRT smoothed and polished both the scene and the character.   In that earlier note—a kind of shorthand plot summary—it’s stated that, “King Galdaran says the mirror shows past, present, and future, and the skill needed to decide which…”—that is, one needs skill to decide which might be past, present, or future. Such skill, especially to read the future, led us to thinking about the history of attempting to read the future, and we briefly discussed the use of turtle plastrons (the underside of a turtle) and ox shoulder blades, then number patterns, in ancient China, dreams in Egypt, and the insides of certain animals in Babylon.

In this posting, we want to take that history a bit farther.

Just as the Babylonians practiced extispicy—the examination of the intestines of certain animals or birds—so did the Etruscans, whom we think of as Rome’s “big brothers”, as many Roman practices and customs appear to have been borrowed from them. In our last, we showed a Babylonian model of a sheep’s liver,


presumably used as a guide to reading an actual liver. Here’s a bronze Etruscan model, with various areas marked off and labeled.


And here’s a fourth-century bc bronze model of an Etruscan priest, a “haruspex”, the Romans would have called him.


(Sometimes, even though we spend a great deal of time in the classical world, there are things which will always seem a little odd—the hat on this fellow can’t help but remind us of something from Dr Seuss,


just as that on a Roman flamen—a kind of priest—makes us think of a certain propeller helmet…)



Romans borrowed the custom from the Etruscans, it seems, and also read bird-signs. In fact, it was a disagreement over the interpretation of a flight of birds which may have sparked the murder of one of the founders of Rome, Remus, by his twin brother, Romulus.


Besides Etruscan and home-grown methods of trying to find out about the future, the Romans also continued the Greek tradition of visiting prophetic shrines. The most famous were dedicated to Apollo


and were located (see map below—west to east)


at Delphi




and Didyma.


There was also a well-known shrine dedicated to Zeus at Dodona,


but the oracle at Delphi was perhaps the most famous.



It’s not always clear how these places worked. The oracle at Dodona, for example, may have used two methods: sacred doves and the wind in the leaves of the enclosed grove you see in the picture. At Delphi, a pilgrim waited to pose a question to the priestess, called the “Pytho”


and, if she chose to respond, it was in the standard Greek epic metre, dactylic hexameter. Her answers were famously riddling and ambiguous, as when she told Croesus, the king of Lydia that, if he went to war with the Persians, a kingdom would fall (guess whose!).   To interpret such a response correctly would have taken King Galdaran’s response that, to interpret what his mirror told, one must have skill to decide just what the future might be.

When it comes to Galadrien/Galadriel, it’s not skill which she lacks, but rather she practices a kind of caution in interpretation:

“Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal…and to some I can show what they desire to see. But the Mirror will also show things unbidden, and those are often stranger and more profitable than things which we wish to behold. What you will see, if you leave the Mirror free to work, I cannot tell. For it shows things that were, and things that are, and things that may yet be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)

(We can’t resist a footnote here. In the early Greek poem, Theogony, the poet Hesiod tells us that he was a shepherd on a hillside when he was visited by the Muses, who told him that they could say many false things as if they were true, but could also speak the truth when they felt like it. They then gave him a staff and inspired him to make songs about things in the future, as well as things in the past, all of which sounds rather familiar here. Here’s a LINK if you’d like to read the story. And here’s a rather over-the-top painting by Gustave Moreau, (1826-1898.)


What Sam sees he finds deeply disturbing—the industrialization of the Shire—and it so disturbing that he leaps up and shouts that he must go home. What Frodo sees is more complex—perhaps Gandalf, what looks to be the arrival of the Numenorians to found Gondor, and, finally, the Eye, ever restless, ever searching.

So why is the Mirror here? We would suggest, tentatively, for several reasons:

  1. first, because this is a kind of turning point in the story: after the pursuit through Moria and the death of Gandalf (as far as the Fellowship knows), this is the first breathing space which the company has had and it’s a very safe and peaceful one—for the moment. As Celeborn says:

“Now is the time…when those who wish to continue the Quest must harden their hearts to leave this land. Those who no longer wish to go forward may remain here, for a while. But whether they stay or go, none can be sure of peace.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien”)

After so much struggle and the loss of a major figure, it’s clearly a good moment to rest, take stock, and look towards the future.

  1. second, Galadriel had earlier probed each of the company, testing their minds and finding out just who they were—sometimes to their discomfort, if not distress. Now the company is narrowed to just two: the ring-bearer and his servant, and here at her Mirror, she offers them a final test, but we can imagine that, unlike her earlier probing, this is much more free-form and ambiguous, as if she had allowed the two to make up their own tests. For Sam, it’s the possible ruination of what he loves most in the world, the Shire, and he almost fails, until Galadriel gently upbraids him:

“You did not wish to go home without your master before you looked in the Mirror, and yet you knew that evil things might well be happening in the Shire.”

Frodo’s test is less focused upon a place or event. Rather, it was a kind of suggestion of the past (Gondor), with the implication that that past’s continuation depends upon confronting the present danger, which is not to be underestimated. Galadriel’s words to Sam underline this:

“Remember that the Mirror shows many things, and not all have yet come to pass. Some never come to be, unless those that behold the visions turn aside from their path to prevent them.”

Shaken, both pass the test, it seems.

  1. by implying that what Sam and Frodo see might actually happen, the author adds an extra note of urgency to the story, something always to be felt after that moment: the Shire could be in danger, Frodo may have to confront Sauron, directly or indirectly.

But you’ll notice that, taking Galadriel’s lead, we wrote “could be” and “may have to”, rather than “will be” and “must” and here we hear the voice of a wise person from another epic adventure.



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



See-r (1)


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

You’ll notice our odd title.  Which came from a puzzle.  We had been thinking about Galadriel and her mirror:  when did it enter the story and, more important for the narrative, why was the episode there?


In an earlier sketch for the text, JRRT had written:

King Galdaran’s mirror shown to Frodo.  Mirror is of silver filled with fountain water in sun.

Sees Shire far away.  Trees being felled and a tall building being made where the old mill was.  Gaffer Gamgree turned out.  Open trouble, almost war, between Marish and Buckland on one hand—and the West.  Cosimo Sackville-Baggins very rich, buying up land.  (All/Some of this in future.)  King Galdaran says the mirror shows past, present, and future, and skill needed to decide which.  Sees a grey figure like Gandalf [?going along] in twilight but it seems to be clad in white.  Perhaps it is Saruman.

Sees a mountain spouting flame  Sees Gollum?”  (The Treason of Isengard, 249-250)

Interesting to see that the scene we know from The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, was once very different, beginning with the fact that Galadriel’s mirror had no Galadriel—and Sam’s nightmare vision of the Shire was, originally, Frodo’s.  (There was once more potentially more of that nightmare—on a surviving scrap of paper is:  “Cosimo has industrialized it.  Factories and smoke.  The Sandymans have a biscuit factory.  Iron is found.”  Treason, 216.  We wonder, by the way, if, since he lived and worked in Oxford, JRRT’s choice of a biscuit (US:  cookie) factory might have been influenced by the Oxford Biscuits company, founded in Denmark in 1922.)

Galadriel was in the narrative at this time, and she even performs her emotional x-ray on the company (Treason, 248), but it’s in the main draft that she gains the mirror (although her name is “Galadrien” at this stage—reading the various manuscripts, we often see many characters have everything from complete name-changes—the Aragorn-as-ranger figure was once called “Trotter”—to slight adjustments). And, as Christopher Tolkien writes,

“It is seen that it was while my father was writing the ‘Lothlorien’ story ab initio [“from the beginning”] that the Lady of Lothlorien emerged…and it is also seen that the figure of Galadriel (Rhien, Galadrien) as a great power in Middle-earth was deepened and extended as he wrote.”  (Treason, 250)

All of which is true, but doesn’t help us with the second part of our question:  why is the episode there?

Seeking for clues, we looked at that early sketch, in which “King Galdaran says the mirror shows past, present, and future, and the skill needed to decide which…” which then made us think about that skill.  At first, we considered that deciding that an event was in the past would be rather easy—after all, events which had happened leave a history, and often consequences.  Suppose, however, that that history came from another place, or was never written down—after all, this is medieval Middle-earth, not our 21st-century world.  In our own western Middle Ages, literacy was limited, there was almost no long-distance communication, and people lived on rumors.  Would Middle-earth be any different?  The same would be true for the present in Middle-earth:  what would someone in the Shire know of someone in Rohan?

This brought us to the future and, speaking of history, the attempt to understand the future spreads far back into recorded time and perhaps beyond.

Shang Dynasty China (c.1600-1046BC) has provided us with an extensive archaeological record for this in the form of a vast archive of rather unusual objects, the two main ones being bundles of these


and piles of these.


The first of these is the plastron or breastplate of a turtle.


The second is the shoulder blade of a cow.


These were used for a number of spiritual contact purposes, including finding out about the future, but the method was always the same:

  1. once the surface was cleaned, a series of shallow holes was carved or drilled into the surface
  2. blood was applied to the surface (for purification? Or perhaps to attract a spirit?)
  3. questions were written to one side of each hole
  4. a hot iron was applied to the hole
  5. the surface would then crack under the heat
  6. the officiator would interpret the crack, then write his interpretation on the surface, as well

During the next dynasty, the Zhou (1000-221BC), another method was added and, in time, this became more popular.  This used the stalks of a plant of the family Achillea


for the practice of cleromancy, which, basically, means using a series of random numbers to try to understand something about the spiritual world.  This is a very complicated process, as far as we can see, including not only the stalks, but a book called the I Ching.


If you would like to know more, here’s a LINK which explains the practice in 12 steps.

A method of telling the future in ancient Egypt was by interpreting dreams (oneiromancy) and we have a dream manual dated to the time of Ramesses II (1279-1213BC).


This lists common patterns in dreams, identifies whether they are bad or good, then goes on to interpret them.  Because dreams are universal, this is a world-wide method and all one has to do is to google “dream interpretation book” to see just how much is available in English alone.


Babylonians used dreams, among other methods, as well as haruspicy, in which a specially-trained priest examined the entrails of certain animals, birds and sheep being especially useful.  Here’s a model of a sheep’s liver (2050-1750BC) used to help in the process.


The holes were for pegs, to help the priest makes comparisons between the actual liver and the model.

In our next, we’ll discuss a few other early methods of attempting to see the future and, if we play our cards right,


we’ll circle back to Galadriel’s mirror and its place in The Lord of the Rings.


Thanks, as ever, for reading and—this part of the future we can read—