Eyeing Robots

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Recently, I’ve rewatched Rogue One

and Solo

and, among other things, was interested this time to observe the two droid characters, K2SO, in the former,

and L3-37 in the latter.

Droids, of course, have appeared in Star Wars films all the way back to 1, where the small Anakin is building what will become C3PO.

Mechanical people in fiction go back much farther, however.  You can meet several in the stories of the German Romantic, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822),

where they are all extremely disturbing, from the Talking Turk in the short story, “The Automata” (Die Automate, 1814/1819—you can read a translation of it here:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31820/31820-h/31820-h.htm ) to the automaton Olympia in “The Sandman” (Der Sandmann, 1816, which you can read a translation of here:  https://germanstories.vcu.edu/hoffmann/sand_e.html ).

In the US, a rather remarkable novella about one such appeared in 1868, under the title, The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies, by Edward Ellis.

(And you can read it here:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7506/7506-h/7506-h.htm

It was, in fact, based upon a real invention in 1868 by Zadoc P. Dederick (yes—that’s his real name) of a steam-powered automaton.  Here’s a photograph–)

In 1907, L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), added a mechanical man, the Tik-Tok,

to his growing gallery of Ozians in Ozma of Oz

and gave him his own book, Tik-Tok of Oz, in 1914.

(You can have your own copy of Ozma at:  https://ia800206.us.archive.org/9/items/ozmaofozrecordof00baum/ozmaofozrecordof00baum.pdf

and Tik-Tok at:  https://archive.org/details/tiktokofozfrank00baumrich

The Tik-Tok, by the way, makes a memorable appearance in Walter Murch;s 1985  Return to Oz,

where he is called “The Army of Oz”.

This is a film which was poorly received when it was first released, but I’ve always enjoyed it for its look-Kansas prairie really is Kansas prairie and not an elegant stage set– its visual effects—rocks as spies, with faces which come and go across the surface of the stone–and for the darker story it tells, although in blending incidents from several Oz books, it takes liberties with the stories which, if you were an Oz purist, might upset you.)

And then, in 1920/1 appeared the first real android—a combination of machine and humanlike tissue, and the first robot–in the Czech writer Karel Capek’s (1890-1938)

play, R.U.R. (for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”).

Capek (CHAH-pek) gave us the word robot, based upon the Czech verb, robotiti, “to work” (perhaps with a darker sense, as the noun robota can mean “forced labor”), and the robots in his play gradually become as menacing as those in the stories of Hoffmann, as they revolt and practically polish off the human race.  (You can read the first English translation, from 1923, here:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/59112/59112-h/59112-h.htm )

This is a far cry from that most familiar Star Wars duo, C3PO and RTD2,

who are the closest mechanical equivalent to the early screen team of Laurel and Hardy I can imagine

and reviewers since the first film in 1977 have agreed.

(You’ll notice, by the way, that, in this first poster, by the Hildebrandts, whose Tolkien illustrations I often use in this blog, Luke and Leia are rather vaguely portrayed, but, in the background, the two droids are pretty accurately depicted.)

For all that they’re made of metal and supposedly only capable of reacting as their programming dictates, C3PO and R2D2 clearly have personalities, C3PO being the pessimist and R2D2 the optimist, and that contrast provides a constant level of comedy throughout 4-6, a constant which relieves the tension in what is basically a serious adventure narrative. 

Although gradually the pair make an appearance in 1-3, they are not given the same role (although in 2, C3PO briefly and comically loses his head, but not his identity, in the droid factory on Geonosis)

and, for me, this gives these three films a darker cast, not lightened in 1 by the much-attacked Jar Jar,

who has almost disappeared by 2.

As I want to focus on the two semi-independent films, I’m going to bypass 7-9, although there are flashes not only of the duo, but of another droid, one much less developed, Bb8,

and perhaps, if one wants to criticize 7-9, one approach might be that, without the comic potential, they may fall into the same category as 1-3—perhaps having lost the lighter touch of 4-6?  (For more on the structure of the whole 9 episodes, please see the four-part “Three Times Three” series which I posted from January 8 to 31, 2020.)

It’s clear that C3PO and R2D2 were never replaced in their original role, so what of the two main droid characters we see in these films?

K2SO in Rogue One, brings some very interesting baggage, being an ex-Imperial security droid.

In structure, he seems more basic, like one of the Separatist battle droids,

rather than like someone dressed in a suit of gilded armor, like C3PO,

which, to me, along with his height and hulking stance, gives him an odd sense of menace and reinforces his initial hostility to Jyn Erso.

C3PO, as I said, is clearly a pessimist, with lines like “We seem to be made to suffer.  It’s our lot in life.”  In contrast, K2SO is often given sarcastic lines, like “Jyn, I’ll be there for you.  Cassian said I had to.” and “There were a lot of explosions for two people blending in.”  (For a short list of such lines, see:  https://www.bustle.com/p/11-k-2so-quotes-from-rogue-one-that-prove-the-droid-was-the-films-breakout-star-25352 )  I’m guessing that what was planned here was to produce a character with something of the sceptical repartee which made Han Solo such a memorable—and important part—of 4-6, which would certainly be a departure from any previous droid.

And the same could be said of L3-37 in Solo,

although here the writers have taken the character in a completely different—and rather surprising– direction.  Rather like the robots in R.U.R., this droid is an advocate for droid liberation, which considering how many droids must exist in the entire Star Wars galaxy, would, if carried out, bring the entire galaxy to a standstill.  We only see L3-37 sporadically throughout the film, so it’s never really explained why it thinks this way, as well as why, it being something programmed (or so we would normally assume), it could have romantic ideas about its partner, the young Lando Calrissian.

The writers, in interviews, have said that the droid had reprogrammed itself, although I’m not sure how this would have created the activist and potentially romantic character with which we’re presented, but, for me, it’s more important that there is a playfulness here, a willingness in the construction of both characters to go beyond what we’ve been given and have accepted as droids in earlier Star Wars films.  Perhaps we might think that future films in this galaxy might have droids more like the replicants in Blade Runner, self-aware—and very dangerous when opposed.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well and think of snappy dialogue lines

And know that, as always, there’s



Ex Machina

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

When I was little, I was always a bit disappointed by the end of the film of The Wizard of Oz.

First, Dorothy had so proved herself:  a little girl with some picturesque friends

had defeated that really terrifying woman with her green face

and her flying monkeys,

not to mention those men with the green faces and the catchy tune,

but, instead of finding her own way home, there’s the Wizard, now revealed as a fake, with a balloon. 

When that doesn’t work, it turns out that her sparkly footwear

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 435946C )Dorothy’s ruby slippers,’THE WIZARD OF OZ’ FILM STILLS – 1939

could have taken her there at any time, if only she’d known—and the person who tells her this, Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, herself had known that fact all the time.

Of course, if Glinda had told Dorothy that detail when she removed the slippers from the feet of the recently-deceased Wicked Witch of the East,

it would have been a very short film, but, as the text of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900),

makes clear, there would have been other consequences if Dorothy had immediately tapped those heels together:

“Your Silver Shoes will carry you over the desert,” replied Glinda. “If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country.”

 “But then I should not have had my wonderful brains!” cried the Scarecrow, “I might have passed my whole life in the farmer’s cornfield.”

“And I should not have had my lovely heart,” said the Tin Woodman. “I might have stood and rusted in the forest till the end of the world.”

“And I should have lived a coward forever,” declared the Lion, “and no beast in all the forest would have had a good word to say to me.”

 “This is all true,” said Dorothy, ” and I am glad I was of use to these good friends. But now that each of them has had what he most desired, and each is happy in having a kingdom to rule beside, I think I should like to go back to Kansas.”  (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, 257)

Reading the original as a grown-up, I realized that the script writers for the film, attempting to simplify things, had actually confused the reason why Dorothy initially wasn’t made aware, inadvertently leaving the audience with the idea that the Good Witch of the North wasn’t such a good witch, after all.

In the novel, when Dorothy’s house, whirled by the cyclone,

landed on what we would find out was the Wicked Witch of the East, the Good Witch of the North (later called “Locasta” by the author) had appeared,

but this was not Glinda, who was, in fact, the Good Witch of the South, and Glinda, with her news about the shoes, only turns up in the next-to-last chapter of the story.

 If you’ve only seen the film or haven’t read the book, here’s a map of Oz to make this a little clearer.

It seems that it was known among the Munchkins (slaves of the Wicked Witch of the East until her unfortunate collision with falling real estate) that there was something magical about the shoes, but not exactly what that was and so, when the Good Witch of the North, aka Locasta, gave Dorothy the slippers, she did so without herself fully understanding their potential.  (If you don’t have your own copy with the original Denslow illustrations, here’s one for you:   https://archive.org/details/wond_wiz_oz  )

Balloon or shoes, I was disappointed, but the image of the balloon floating off without Dorothy

finally landed when I first learned the term deus ex machina, literally “a god from out of a device”.  This is now used to mean an ending which looks (at least faintly) contrived, but, originally, it was a theatrical term from Greco-Roman theatre.

 Imagine that you’re in the audience at a performance of, for example, Euripides’ (c480-c408BC)

tragedy, Orestes.  This is a crazy play (here’s a modern translation, in case you’d like to see for yourself:  https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Orestes.php ), which seems about to end with the title character, Orestes, along with his sister, Electra, and his BF, Pylades, trapped in a palace which they threaten to burn down—oh, and they have a hostage, Orestes’ cousin, Hermione, only daughter of Orestes’ uncle, Menelaus, and his aunt, Helen. 

Then, when it looks like things are just impossible, the god Apollo

appears—literally—out of the air.  He stops the action dead and snips all of the knots which the plot had twisted itself into.

Apollo appeared thanks to a device—in Greek, mekane (MAY-kahn-AY)–we use the Latin form, machina (MAH-keen-ah), which, if the audience closed its eyes a little, allowed a divinity to seem to float into view over the stage.

Thus, even an ancient Greek play can have, in Apollo, a deus ex machina, both in the ancient and modern senses, and perhaps, when I was little, the balloon and the slippers both seemed too much like such an artificial resolution to be satisfying.

Such a device, however, turns up all the time in fiction, mostly when writers are having trouble resolving plot problems, or finding closure.  There are those who think, for example, that the death of Daenerys in the finale of A Game of Thrones was such.

(If you’d like to see someone’s view of recent film deus ex machinas, see:  https://whatculture.com/film/10-movies-that-relied-on-deus-ex-machina )

For me, the combination of being airborne and deus ex machina brought up the possibility that we may be seeing the use of one in The Hobbit

and The Lord of the Rings,

in the form of the eagles. 

These appear, after all, just as a deus ex machina would:  when the dramatic situation seems especially unsolvable, but are they really such weaknesses in the narrative or the author’s art?

We first see them in Chapter 6 of The Hobbit, “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire”, where they rescue the treed dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf from the attack of the Wargs, the more-than-wolves.

The justification for this lies in these two paragraphs in that chapter:

“ ‘What is all this uproar in the forest tonight?’ said the Lord of the Eagles.  He was sitting, black in the moonlight, on the top of a lonely pinnacle of rock at the eastern edge of the mountains.  ‘I hear wolves’ voices!  Are the goblins at mischief in the woods?’ …

Eagles are not kindly birds…They did not love goblins, or fear them.  When they took any notice of them at all…they swooped on them and drove them shrieking back to their caves, and stopped whatever wickedness they were doing.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 6, “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire”)

The eagles’ intervention, then, is initially depicted as simply a reaction to a repeated annoyance, which seems fair enough, if we accept that the eagles find goblins annoying, but why rescue Gandalf and Co.?  And here JRRT provides an explanation more grounded in the past:

“The wizard and the eagle-lord appeared to know one another slightly and even to be on friendly terms.  As a matter of fact Gandalf, who had often been in the mountains, had once rendered service to the eagles and healed their lord from an arrow-wound.”

With this in mind, perhaps the eagles’ reappearance just in the nick of time in Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”, would seem equally justified, because of the earlier explanation of their hatred of goblins? 

Certainly that seems more likely than the sudden eruption of Beorn into the battle.  Even the author, having introduced him, seems to throw up his hands, saying only

“But even with the Eagles they were still outnumbered.  In that last hour Beorn himself appeared—no one knew how and from where.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 18, “The Return Journey”)

But we’re interested in the eagles and their return in The Lord of the Rings, so I’ll leave this problem, saying like Tolkien, I also have no idea how Beorn appeared—although, as one who is so in touch with the natural world, perhaps Beorn had gotten word earlier from elements in that world about the death of Smaug and the gathering of the goblins?

Back in December, 2015, CD, the founders of doubtfulsea.com, had posted a piece about the rescue of Gandalf from Orthanc

(a Ted Nasmith image—and a really beautiful one!)

(“Plot or Blot?” 23 December, 2015), in which we expressed puzzlement about how the Jackson film had depicted the event.  In the film, Gandalf seems to have a conversation with a moth

and then an eagle just appears, like an airborne Uber driver, which leaves about as much unanswered as JRRT’s lack of explanation for the appearance of Beorn at the battle.  In fact, Gandalf has a very logical explanation.  Earlier, he had met Radagast, a fellow wizard, and, upon hearing news from him of the reappearance of the Nazgul in Middle-earth, had requested:

“ Send out messages to all of the beasts and birds that are your friends.  Tell them to bring news of anything that bears on this matter to Saruman and Gandalf.  Let messages be sent to Orthanc…

And the Eagles of the Mountains went far and wide, and they saw many things:  the gathering of wolves and the mustering of Orcs; and the Nine Riders going hither and thither in the lands; and they heard news of the escape of Gollum.  And they sent a messenger to bring these tidings to me.

So it was that when summer waned, there came a night of moon, and Gwaihir the Windlord, swiftest of the Great Eagles, came unlooked-for to Orthanc; and he found me standing on the pinnacle.  Then I spoke to him and he bore me away, before Saruman was aware.  I was far from Isengard, ere the wolves and orcs issued from the gate to pursue me.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

Gandalf’s initial friendship with the lord of the eagles in The Hobbit had just sufficed, I think, as a justification for rescue, but this explanation, better grounded in the story, is a much stronger one, which also suggests JRRT’s growth as a story-teller.

It’s interesting, however, that the second appearance of the eagles, repeating, at the Morannon, their attack on the goblins in The Hobbit, is aborted as, just when they begin their swoop downwards, the hosts of Mordor waver, turn, and then suddenly everything collapses:

“…the earth rocked beneath their feet.  Then rising swiftly up, far above the Towers of the Black Gate, high above the mountains, a vast soaring darkness sprang into the sky, flickering with fire.  The earth groaned and quaked.  The Towers of the Teeth swayed, tottered, and fell down; the mighty rampart crumbled, the Black Gate was hurled in ruin; and from far away, now dim, now growing, now mounting to the clouds, there came a drumming rumble, a roar, a long echoing roll of ruinous noise.”

(The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”)

(Another Ted Nasmith—and all I can say is Wow!)

The arrival of the eagles, however, leads to their final use:  a second rescue, that of Frodo and Sam, organized by Gandalf:

“And so it was that Gwaihir saw them with his keen far-seeing eyes, as down the wild wind he came, and daring the great peril of the skies he circled in the air:  two small dark figures, forlorn, hand in hand upon a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near.  And even as he espied them and came swooping down, he saw them fall, worn out, or choked with fumes and heat, or stricken down by despair at last, hiding their eyes from death.

Side by side they lay; and down swept Gwaihir, and down came Landroval and Meneldor the swift; and in a dream, not knowing what fate had befallen them, the wanderers were lifted up and borne far away out of the darkness and the fire.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”)

A final deus ex machina?  Gandalf—and we—know that the Ring has been destroyed, as it’s clear that Sauron and his kingdom have crumbled, which would only occur if the Ring was gone.  He is also well aware of where that destruction had to happen.  That location is a good distance away, at the foot of Orodruin. 

Gandalf is only presuming, of course, that Frodo and Sam somehow have survived the destruction, but is willing to try to find them.  Considering the distance, as well as the level of destruction which Mordor is undergoing, logically speaking, the eagles, who were already at the Morannon, seem like a logical choice for a rescue attempt.  As well, since we have seen Gwaihir rescue Gandalf earlier from Orthanc (and a second time, from Gandalf’s description, when he returns to life after his duel with the Balrog), the possibility of a third rescue has been set up all the way back in Book Two.  Thus, for me, this is as believable as that first rescue, and not something created simply to allow the author to escape from a dramatic situation he would be unable otherwise to resolve—not a deus ex machina, but aquilae e nubibus—eagles from the clouds.

Thanks, for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Keep an eagle eye out for goblins,

And know that, as always, there’s




If you’d like to see the first surviving film of The Wizard of Oz, here it is, from 1910:


It’s silent and less than 15 minutes long, but how interesting to see what film makers at the very beginning of their craft will make of such a story.


As always, dear readers, welcome.

In a posting from three years ago (“Wormy”, 21 February, 2018), the question was asked:  “Do worms have tongues?”

If you do a little hunting on the internet, you soon find out that, no, they don’t—although they have a thing called a “stylet”, which is used to help suck nourishment out of plants.

That posting wasn’t really about worms, however, but about traitors, like Grima (aka “Wormtongue”), who, by the use of their tongues, poison things around them.

What effect this has had on Theoden, King of Rohan, is clear:

“At the far end of the house, beyond the hearth and facing north towards the doors, was a dais with three steps; and in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair.  Upon it sat a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf…” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6)

Grima’s work will be swept away as Gandalf commands him:

“ ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Grima son of Galmod.  A witless worm have you become.  Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth.  I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls!’ “

And, with Grima silenced, there is an immediate change in Theoden:

“From the king’s hand the black staff fell clattering on the stones.  He drew himself up, slowly, as a man that is stiff from long bending over some dull toil.  Now tall and straight he stood, and his eyes were blue as he looked into the opening sky.”

“Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth”, Gandalf has said and here, knowing now that worms have no tongues—and certainly not forked ones, we are reminded of a very early forked tongue liar, one which Tolkien would have known well, first from Bible stories his mother had read or told him:

“Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.  And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden.

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die…”

(Genesis, Chapter 3, 1-4, King James edition)

And, being immediately persuaded by the serpent, “the woman”—that is, Eve—not only tries the fruit herself but then shares it with her husband, Adam, and, well, things really go downhill from there.

As “worm”—as in Grima’s nickname—can mean “snake/serpent”, it was also once used for a much bigger reptile:  a dragon, a “wyrm”, and perhaps another early influence on JRRT was from a book which he had known from childhood, Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890).

One obvious influence on Smaug, in The Hobbit,

had been the dragon in Beowulf, particularly when Bilbo steals a cup, which then so enrages Smaug that he roars out to destroy the countryside. 

Exactly the same thing happens in the Anglo-Saxon poem, when an escaped slave steals a cup from a dragon in a tumulus.

That dragon, however, besides being nameless, is mute.  In “The Story of Sigurd”, however, the last tale in The Red Fairy Book, Fafnir, a dragon, who has a vast golden hoard, not only can speak, but can curse, as he does when Sigurd kills him, saying “Whoever thou art who hast slain me this gold shall be thy ruin, and the ruin of all who own it.” (“The Story of Sigurd”, 360—for your own copy of The Red Fairy Book, follow this LINK:  https://ia802608.us.archive.org/35/items/redfairybook00langiala/redfairybook00langiala.pdf )

Perhaps Smaug has gained speech in this way?  Certainly, that speech has the quality of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, as Bilbo learns when Smaug begins to plant doubt in his mind about his allies:

“ ‘I don’t know if it has occurred to you that, even if you could steal the gold bit by bit—a matter of a hundred years or so—you could not get it very far?  Not much use on the mountain-side?  Not much use in the forest?  Bless me!  Had you never thought of the catch?  A fourteenth share, I suppose, or something like it, those were the terms, eh?  But what about delivery?  What about cartage?  What about armed guards and tolls?’…

You will hardly believe it, but poor Bilbo was really very taken aback.  So far all his thoughts and energies had been concentrated on getting to the Mountain and finding the entrance.  He had never bothered to wonder how the treasure was to be removed, certainly never how any part of it that might fall to his share was to be brought back all the way to Bag-End Under-Hill.

Now a nasty suspicion began to grow in his mind—had the dwarves forgotten this important point too, or were they laughing in their sleeves at him all the time?  That is the effect that dragon-talk has on the inexperienced.  Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

But worm tongues are not only in the mouths of serpents or dragons—seductive speech in The Lord of the Rings belongs primarily to a human(-like) villain, who lives in a tower,

but, at the time of this quotation, his plans for extending his power beyond his local environs have gone awry, thanks to Ents and hobbits.

“…Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment.  Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them.  Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves.  When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.  For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it.  For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them.  But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.” (The Tower Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”)

Smaug, for all of his cunning, had his weakness:  an unprotected spot on his underside.  Saruman’s weakness is an emotional one:  he is arrogant, and, in his arrogance, he believes that he can rival Sauron.  Through the Palantir at Orthanc into which he has looked, however, it’s clear that this belief has been fostered by Sauron,

who, it appears, has ways even more subtle than Saruman’s, seducing him into an overconfidence which brings about his downfall, as Gandalf says:

“Then I gave him a last choice and a fair one:  to renounce both Mordor and his private schemes, and make amends by helping us in our need  He knows our need, none better.  Great service he could have rendered.  But he has chosen to withhold it, and keep the power of Orthanc.  He will not serve, only command.  He lives now in terror of the shadow of Morder, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm.  Unhappy fool!  He will be devoured, if the power of the East stretches out its arms to Isengard.  We cannot destroy Orthanc from without, but Sauron—who knows what he can do?”

Ironically, it is not Sauron who deals with Saruman, but Grima, finally weary of being abused by the master whom he had served by betraying his real master, Theoden:

“Saruman laughed.  ‘You do what Sharkey says, always, don’t you, Worm?  Well, now he says:  follow!’  He kicked Wormtongue in the face as he grovellled, and turned and made off.  But at that something snapped:  suddenly Wormtongue rose up, drawing a hidden knife, and then with a snarl like a dog he sprang on Saruman’s back, jerked his head back, cut his throat, and with a yell ran off down the lane.”

(The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

Wyrms—dragons—are killed by heroes like Beowulf (with a little help from Wiglaf)

and Sigurd

and Bard,

but it seems that a worm-tongue will die when a worm turns—on him.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well, avoid crystal balls,

And know that, as always, there’s




Welcome, as ever, dear readers. 

In certain parts of the world, this is a holiday—especially in Boston, Massachusetts.  This holiday, however, has an odd name attached in Boston, “Evacuation Day”.  What is this and why celebrate it?

Things were not going well for the British army.  Ever since the arrival of the first troops in Boston in 1768,

sent to deal with New Englanders angered at attempts by the London government to tax them without their say-so, there was trouble.  At first, there was the problem of where to house them, as there were no barracks.

People didn’t want them in their homes and it had been a struggle to find enough empty accommodations for them.  And then they seemed to be everywhere in the small city (population about 16,000 in 1773).

As the rebellion against taxation continued, the government in London’s solution:  more or different taxes, and definitely more troops.

Eventually, this led to scuffles between the soldiers and the locals, the most famous being the so-called “Boston Massacre” of 5 March, 1770, when a gathering mob threatened a sentry and things ended with five locals killed and 6 wounded.  This is probably what it looked like in reality—

But a local Bostonian silversmith and rabble-rouser, Paul Revere (1734-1818),

turned it into this—

This was really bad press and it got worse as this engraving was copied and recopied and circulated throughout the 13 colonies, making the government’s troops look like murdering monsters.

And worse yet, when, in December, 1773, a mob attacked three ships in Boston harbor and destroyed 342 chests of tea—the “Boston Tea Party”–

(Although, the mob being thrifty Bostonians, probably carried away most of it, dumping only a token into the water.)

the London government, angered by this, closed the port of Boston the next year

and put a military man, Thomas Gage, in charge of Massachusetts.

Gage soon began to use the excuse of “exercising the troops” to send parties out into the countryside beyond Boston, but really in an attempt to frighten the locals and, if possible, confiscate any military supplies.  There was a tense moment in February, 1775, north of the city, when the people of Salem turned out to block such a party, but it was turned back without violence.

In mid-April, however, another such expedition was a bloody disaster.  After killing or wounding a number of local militia at Lexington, west of Boston,

the regulars marched on to Concord, even farther west, intent upon destroying military supplies.

 In the process, they suffered a small defeat at a bridge over a local river,

and then were shot at from behind trees, stone walls, and buildings, all the way back to Boston.

suffering about 250 casualties in the process (to about 90 on the local side).

Soon after arriving back in Boston, the British found themselves hemmed in by an increasingly-large army of men from all over New England

and, although they won a local (and bloody) victory at Bunker Hill,

(This picture is full of inaccuracies, but I’ve loved it since childhood and it does capture the landscape and the determination of the regulars.  Here’s a good brief article which discusses the painting vs the event:  https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/09/battle-bunker-hill-howard-pyle/ )

they made no real attempt to break out and, when the army outside finally managed to obtain heavy artillery (from Fort Ticonderoga, at the head of Lake Champlain

—made easier by dragging the guns on sledges through the snow),

the British high command decided to evacuate the city, which they did in March, 1776.

 The day celebrated in Boston to commemorate this is March 17th.  Something else goes on in Boston on this day, however.  People wear green clothing and celebrate a saint.

What’s going on here? 

As I said earlier, thrifty Bostonians probably made most of those 342 chests of tea simply disappear in 1773, and, at the beginning of the 20th century, clever Irish Bostonians created a religious holiday without creating a religious holiday, that which is known elsewhere as “Saint Patrick’s Day”.  The laws of Massachusetts wouldn’t allow a state holiday to commemorate a religious figure, but it could certainly celebrate the withdrawal from Boston of the British army and so, in 1901, March 17th was officially recognized as “Evacuation Day” in the eastern Massachusetts county of Suffolk, which includes Boston and its many families descended from Irish immigrants.

So, if you want to think patriotically, you can remember this as the day an army of local New England militia drove an army of trained regulars out of Boston.

But, if you’re Irish-inclined, you can toast a saint, even while doing your patriotic duty.

(Yes, that beer is green.  Best not to ask!)

Thanks, as always for reading,

Stay well,

And know that, as ever, there’s



The (In)Human Fly

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Fads are really weird things, coming and going with little, if any, explanation.

Early in the 20th century, when the invention of the modern elevator, in the early 1890s,

allowed for taller and taller buildings to be erected,

there suddenly appeared a craze for climbing them.  The most famous of these climbers, who used nothing but his climbing skill and his fingers and toes, was Harry H. Gardiner (1871-1933?), called “the Human Fly”. 

During the first few decades of the twentieth century, he put his skills to a number of such places, including this imposing structure, the Park Row Building in New York City, 26 stories, plus two four-story towers at the front corners, which he scaled in 1918.

(There’s a really interesting story about the construction of this building at this LINK:  https://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-1899-park-row-bldg-no-15-park-row.html )

Such crazy stunts soon produced a comedy, one of my favorite silent comedies, Harold Lloyd’s (1893-1971)

Safety Last (1923)

In this film, Lloyd is a young man from Great Bend, Kansas, who seeks his fortune in The Big City.  When that doesn’t work out as he would wish, he decides to imitate the Human Fly by climbing a 12-story building, which produced one of the most famous images from early comedy—

The plot is much more complicated, but, lucky for us, a first-class print of the film is available at the wonderful Internet Archive to see at:  https://archive.org/details/SafetyLastHaroldLloyd1923.FullMovieexcellentQuality

You may be wondering, at this point, where this posting is leading.  Will it take us off a cliff, making it a literal cliff-hanger?

I’m about to be teaching Dracula again, a novel so popular that it has never been out of print since its original publication in 1897.

Each time I teach something for the second and more times, I’m always surprised that something new will always pop out.  It may come from a student question or remark, or it can just appear, as it did this time.

If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s set mainly in Transylvania and England in the 1890s and begins with the journey of a law clerk, Jonathan Harker, to visit one of his employer’s clients, a count who lives at the far eastern edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It is a strange trip and made even stranger when Harker arrives at a castle

(This is Bran Castle, in Romania, and has been suggested as an inspiration for Dracula’s castle.)

 and meets the owner, who is a fluent English-speaker with a large library of English books.  He also shows no reflection in mirrors, and, as Harker soon learns, has another peculiarity, as well:

“I looked out over the beautiful expanse, bathed in soft yellow moonlight till it was almost as light as day. In the soft light the distant hills became melted, and the shadows in the valleys and gorges of velvety blackness. The mere beauty seemed to cheer me; there was peace and comfort in every breath I drew. As I leaned from the window my eye was caught by something moving a storey below me, and somewhat to my left, where I imagined, from the order of the rooms, that the windows of the Count’s own room would look out. The window at which I stood was tall and deep, stone-mullioned, and though weatherworn, was still complete; but it was evidently many a day since the case had been there. I drew back behind the stonework, and looked carefully out.

What I saw was the Count’s head coming out from the window. I did not see the face, but I knew the man by the neck and the movement of his back and arms. In any case I could not mistake the hands which I had had so many opportunities of studying. I was at first interested and somewhat amused, for it is wonderful how small a matter will interest and amuse a man when he is a prisoner. But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings. At first I could not believe my eyes. I thought it was some trick of the moonlight, some weird effect of shadow; but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion. I saw the fingers and toes grasp the corners of the stones, worn clear of the mortar by the stress of years, and by thus using every projection and inequality move downwards with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall.

What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear—in awful fear—and there is no escape for me; I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of….”

It’s interesting that, although Harker likens the descent of the Count to a lizard,

he also likens the movement of his cloak to wings,

suggesting another creature, and one into which Dracula turns more than once later in the novel.

But this scene, from Stoker’s novel, suddenly made a new connection for me.  Frodo and Sam have been struggling through the rugged terrain of the Emyn Muil,

but, pausing in their struggles, they see behind them:

“Down the face of a precipice, sheer and almost smooth it seemed in the pale moonlight, a small black shape was moving with its thin limbs splayed out.  Maybe its soft clinging hands and toes were finding crevices and holds that no hobbit could ever have seen or used, but it looked as if it was just creeping down on sticky pads, like some large prowling thing of insect-kind.  And it was coming down head first, as if it was smelling its way.  Now and again it lifted its head slowly, turning it right back on its long, skinny neck, and the hobbits caught a glimpse of two small pale gleaming lights, its eyes that blinked at the moon for a moment and then were quickly lidded again.” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 1, “The Taming of Smeagol”)

Tolkien may liken Gollum to “some large prowling thing of insect-kind”, but Gollum’s manner of descent sounds so much like that of the terrifying Count that it has made me wonder:  did JRRT once read Dracula?  And should Gollum, then, be more batlike than I, at least, have imagined?

Thanks, for reading, as ever,

Stay well,

Maintain your sense of balance,

And know that, as always, there’s




Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In my last posting, I had imagined that the shock at his father’s sudden death and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle had pushed Hamlet into a moment of temporary insanity.  In his disturbed state, he had fantasized a plot by that uncle and he himself then brought on the terrible violence of the play:  his gf, her father, her brother, his uncle and mother, and two more-or-less innocent bystanders with the memorable names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all dead, by the end of Act V, with Hamlet himself as a final victim.

That’s just a prince and a few members of the court caught up in madness.  What would happen if an entire city went mad?

This is Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870)

view of the ordinary people of Paris in the midst of the Revolution of 1789-94 as portrayed in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities:

“A moment afterwards, and a throng of people came pouring round the corner by the prison wall, in the midst of whom was the wood-sawyer hand in hand with The Vengeance. There could not be fewer than five hundred people, and they were dancing like five thousand demons. There was no other music than their own singing. They danced to the popular Revolution song, keeping a ferocious time that was like a gnashing of teeth in unison. Men and women danced together, women danced together, men danced together, as hazard had brought them together. At first, they were a mere storm of coarse red caps and coarse woollen rags; but, as they filled the place, and stopped to dance about Lucie, some ghastly apparition of a dance-figure gone raving mad arose among them. They advanced, retreated, struck at one another’s hands, clutched at one another’s heads, spun round alone, caught one another and spun round in pairs, until many of them dropped. While those were down, the rest linked hand in hand, and all spun round together: then the ring broke, and in separate rings of two and four they turned and turned until they all stopped at once, began again, struck, clutched, and tore, and then reversed the spin, and all spun round another way. Suddenly they stopped again, paused, struck out the time afresh, formed into lines the width of the public way, and, with their heads low down and their hands high up, swooped screaming off. No fight could have been half so terrible as this dance. It was so emphatically a fallen sport—a something, once innocent, delivered over to all devilry—a healthy pastime changed into a means of angering the blood, bewildering the senses, and steeling the heart. Such grace as was visible in it, made it the uglier, showing how warped and perverted all things good by nature were become. The maidenly bosom bared to this, the pretty almost-child’s head thus distracted, the delicate foot mincing in this slough of blood and dirt, were types of the disjointed time.

This was the Carmagnole. “

(Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Book III, Chapter V, “The Wood-Sawyer”)

Dickens is certainly not unsympathetic to the life of ordinary people before the Revolution, spending a certain amount of his text describing it, but, even with Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881)

ground-breaking and highly-dramatic The French Revolution (1837) under his arm (the story was that he carried it with him everywhere—as it was in three volumes, this must have been a bit of a juggling act),

he still doesn’t seem to understand just how bitter people’s anger was.

The problem began with the fact that France, unlike England, was still almost a feudal society.   The population, of about 28,000,000 was divided among three groups, called “Estates”, the First Estate being the clergy, the Second, the nobility, the Third being everyone else.

This is a nice picture of the Third Estate, as a kind of bourgeois—a representative of the slowly-growing middle class.  In reality, we should probably imagine this as a more accurate view—

When it came to taxation, the First and Second Estates almost escaped, leaving the bill for the 27,000,000 in the Third Estate to pay, as this chart shows.

Such behavior led to resentment, as this cartoon vividly demonstrates.

(Guess which is the Third Estate?)

It also led France closer and closer to bankruptcy, as the poverty-stricken populace, barely scraping along, was squeezed for every penny which could be gotten out of it—and there were fewer and fewer of those pennies to be had, threatening the country as a whole, as more and more of the state income had to go to pay interest on all of the loans it was forced to take out to keep the state afloat at all.  In the 1770s alone, the interest came to about 30% of that income—and 10%  more went to the royal court, which, in contrast to the 27,000,000, still seemed to be doing pretty well.  This is the king, Louis XVI, who doesn’t appear to have missed a meal recently.

And so, when things finally fell apart, in the summer of 1789,

a different kind of cartoon began to appear—

(“The Third Estate Wakes Up”)

(“Now This Time Justice is on the Side of the Stronger”)

The violence grew and anger was focused not only upon the First and Second Estates,

but gradually became a way of simply expressing the idea of revolution,

leading to the death of the King, in January, 1793,

the Queen, in October,

and culminating in the murder of as many as 40,000 French citizens during what is known in English as the “Reign of Terror”, 1793-94.

As the Revolution progressed, this was the image which crossed the Channel and produced, in turn, English cartoons like this—

And such cartoons and their view of the Revolution as insanely savage then inspired Dickens’ depiction of the dance called “La Carmagnole” as an expression of that insanity—

There is a very interesting 20th-century view of this same idea and, unlike Dickens’ depiction of Parisians running mad, this confines the action to what might then seem the most appropriate place for this behavior:  an asylum.  This is Peter Weiss’ (1916-1982)

1963 play, Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes zu Charenton unter Anleitung des Herrn de Sade, “The Persecution and Murder of Jean Paul Marat Portrayed by the Theatrical Troupe of the Hospital of Charenton Under the Direction of M. de Sade”, usually referred to simply as “Marat/Sade”.

Much of what is placed on stage is based upon historical fact, beginning with Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793),

a complex figure who became an active voice in the most violent stage of the Revolution with his newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple (“The People’s Friend”).

Suffering from a terrible skin condition, he was murdered in his bath by a young French woman, Charlotte Corday.

(The inscription reads, “Not having been able to corrupt me, they have assassinated me”)

The M(onsieur) de Sade of the title is, indeed, the notorious Marquis de Sade (1740-1814),

who was actually kept, at one point, in the Hospital at Charenton, an insane asylum.

The director of the asylum at the time was the Abbe de Coulmiers (1741-1818),

an extremely humane and intelligent man, who encouraged the patients to use drama to help them with their afflictions. 

So far, everything is authentic—but then we come to the cast members and we’re back to where we started:  unlike my imaginary mad Hamlet in a sane court, everyone in the play, from Marat to the people who act as a kind of Revolutionary chorus, is insane. 

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well—physically and mentally—

And know that, always, there’s




In case you’re interested to know more about the Carmagnole, here are LINKS to:

a. the words—with a sometimes rather odd English translation


b. the music (warning:  it’s catchy!)

c. a very peaceful performance

We’re All Mad…Here?

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

This posting is a kind of P.S. to the previous belated-Valentine’s Day piece.

After using a Valentine quotation from Chaucer’s The Parlement of Foules (c.1380), I had thought that I would move on to a Renaissance reference, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1600).  The posting was a fairly jolly one, however, and the quotation I was going to use was certainly not.  In modern editions, it’s from Act IV, Scene 5, when Ophelia drifts in

and talks and sings in a strange mixture, but, through it all, makes some very pointed references to the death of her father and to her BF, Hamlet’s, treatment of her, as in:

“To morrow is saint Valentines day,

All in the morning betime,

And a maide at your window,

To be your Valentine:

The yong man rose, and dan’d his clothes,

And dupt the chamber doore,

Let in the maide, that out a maide

Neuer departed more.

Nay I pray marke now,

By gisse, and by saint Charitie,

Away, and fie for shame:

Yong men will doo’t when they come too’t

By cocke they are too blame.

Quoth she, before you tumbled me,

You promised me to wed.

So would I a done, by yonder Sunne,

If thou hadst not come to my bed.”

(Hamlet, 1ST Quarto, modern lines 2790-2804)

Because I prefer Elizabethan spelling, I’ve chosen to use the 1st Quarto, the first publication of the play, from 1603.

This is also the so-called “Bad Quarto”, named that because, in contrast to the 2nd Quarto, of 1604, and the Folio, of 1623, it is not only shorter, but has all sorts of quirks, including Polonius being renamed “Corambis”, and a rather different version of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, beginning:

“To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,

To Die, to sleepe, is that all?  I all.”

I find it a very interesting text in its changes (Hamlet’s mother becomes convinced that her new husband is a murderer, for instance), as much as it’s fun to watch scholars muster arguments this way and that, many of them quite ingenious, about what, exactly, this Quarto is:  an early draft?  the equivalent of a bootleg?  the victim of a mad printer’s devil?

If the latter, then it certainly fits with Ophelia’s behavior—but then Hamlet himself pretends to be mad—

and, as the story progresses, he certainly seems, at times, to be skating at the edge of less-than-calmly-sane reactions himself.  In fact, if it weren’t that others had also seen the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father at the play’s opening,

I’ve sometimes thought about a different play, one in which Hamlet, upset at his father’s sudden death and his mother’s somewhat hasty remarriage to her brother-in-law, has imagined the whole thing and, in his madness, has caused all of the calamities which then happen:  the deaths of Ophelia, her father, and her brother and of his uncle and mother, not to mention that of the real stars of the show, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–

and of Hamlet, himself, of course.

Ophelia’s behavior has been parodied, perhaps most famously by W.S Gilbert (1836-1911)

of Gilbert & Sullivan fame,

in the person of “Mad Margaret”

in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore (originally Ruddygore) of 1887.

She, like Ophelia, has been driven mad through misfortune and her strange dress is matched by her odd speech:

“MAR. You pity me? Then be my mother! The squirrel had a mother; but she drank and the squirrel fled! Hush! They sing a brave song in our parts – it runs somewhat thus: (sings)“The cat and the dog and the little puppee Sat down in a – down in a – in a –” I forget what they sat down in, but so the song goes!”

 (WS Gilbert, Ruddigore, Act I)

(If you don’t know this operetta, you’ll be happy to learn that, after a startling revelation at the end of Act I, she is reunited with the man who jilted her and the two become sober members of society—with certain zany lapses on her part.  If you would like to read the text, here’s a LINK:   https://gsarchive.net/ruddigore/libretto.pdf   )

As Ophelia appears to have an overabundance of flowers, (each with its own significance, as she points out) as a sign of her distracted state—and which, in fact, will lead to her death,

so one element of Margaret’s dress—the straws sticking out of her hair—

Is supposed to suggest that, in her madness, she’s been a wanderer in body, as in mind.  Those straws as a mark of mental instability are, in fact, older than Ruddigore.  In 1865, 22 years before the operetta, we see them mixed in with the hair—of a hare.

In that year, an odd book appeared, entitled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In Chapter VII, the Alice of the title happens upon a peculiar outdoor tea party, whose hosts are this hare and a man in an oversized hat. 

She has already had them identified by, of all things, a talking cat

who seems to be able to appear and disappear at will,

and who says of the two:

“In that direction…lives a Hatter:  and in that direction lives a March Hare.”

(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VI)

Alice is aware of the folk belief that, in March, hares are supposed to be mad (something to do with the mating season, it was thought), saying:

“I’ve seen hatters before…the March Hare will be much the more interesting, and perhaps, as this is May, it wo’n’t be raving mad—at least not so mad as it was in March.” 

It’s clear, however, that she doesn’t know that the mercury used in the preparation of hats, when inhaled, as it would have been in workshops in 1865, had terrible effects upon those working there, including everything from delirium to personality change and memory loss.  From such reactions, the expression “mad as a hatter” had entered the language—and the story.  (As usual, by the way, there is argument over the real derivation of the expression, but it appears to me that there may be a confusion over the word “mad”, with its secondary meaning of “angry”.  For a rather confused article on the subject, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_as_a_hatter )

When she arrives at the party, it’s evident that this is not a standard Victorian tea,

and, by the end of it, as Alice slips away, the hare and the hatter appear to be trying to drown another guest, a dormouse, in the pot. 

Perhaps Alice would have been wise to have listened more carefully to all of what the talking cat had said about her hosts:

“ ‘Visit either you like:  they’re both mad.’

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat:  we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’ “

It’s a pity no one had said that to Ophelia.

So, as always, thanks for reading.

Stay well and avoid men with oversized hats and poor table manners

And know that, as ever, there’s




In case you’d like to read that rather different Hamlet, here’s a LINK:  https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/Ham_Q1/scene/1/


And here’s an Alice text with the original Tenniel illustrations in place:  https://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/wp-content/uploads/alice-in-wonderland.pdf

Would You Be Mine

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Although the title of this posting refers to Valentine’s Day messages (this is a belated Valentine for you, readers),

the words remind me of something which, if you grew up watching US children’s television from 1966 to 2001 (and from 1964, if you lived in Canada), you would have heard sung every week:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/tvthemes/mrrogersneighborhoodlyrics.html

This was the theme song for “Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood”, starring—surprise!—Mr Rogers.

If you don’t know it, here’s a link:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jqzgaL3n_c  If you do know it, take a moment to admire his neat use of enjambment (a poetic term meaning running the meaning of one line into the next) in his first rhyme:

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor

Would you be mine?

Notice, also, that, instead of using the simple indicative—“will you”, he’s employed the past tense of “will”–“would”–which, in English, has a potential conditional feeling, as if he wants you to, but he’s leaving it up to you (and that “could” in the next line makes it even tentative—“is it physically possible?” which, as Mr Rogers was behind a television screen, wasn’t possible, except metaphorically—or, as Mr R might have put it, spiritually)

Although not a major poet, Mr Rogers has become a sort of secular saint, which is not surprising, given his gentle, but persistent message encouraging children to be kind to and tolerant of all those around them.

And this brings up back to St Valentine.  And his day.  Or not.

As I began this posting, I thought that I had remembered that the Vatican had had a kind of purge of the liturgical calendar in 1969, and popular saints, like St Christopher

and St Valentine

were removed because there simply was so little evidence about them.  In fact, they weren’t actually removed, permanently, but, rather, they were gently nudged to one side and their feast days could still be celebrated, St Valentine’s being 14 February.  So far, so good, but then, when one plunges into the backstory, well, the Vatican was right:  not only so little evidence, but much of it based upon conjecture and myth-making.

What little that can be said of him is that:

a. there may be two of him

   1. Valentinus of Rome

   2. Valentinus of Terni (Roman Interamna)

(there is a ghostly third Valentinus, but he doesn’t appear to be in the running)

b. someone named Valentinus was supposedly martyred in Rome in the 3rd century AD during the administration of an emperor named “Claudius”—there being a problem with this in that the only 3rd-century emperor of that name

was a soldier who spent almost the entirety of his short reign (268-270AD) defending the borders of the empire, far from Rome

c. he was buried by the Flaminian gate, on the north side of Rome

and a church, holding his relics, including his skull

was built upon the spot—which seems to have disappeared, and that skull is actually in an 8th-12th-century Byzantine church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in another part of Rome.  (How it got there and why it’s identified with Valentine is its own mystery.  There are relics of this blurry saint in other locations, in fact, even in Dublin.)

d. he may have cured someone of blindness and someone else of an odd crippling condition, although these stories are fairly common, it seems, in the history of saints in general (called hagiography)

e. he doesn’t appear in the earliest list of Christian martyrs, the Chronography of 354, but makes an appearance in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, put together between 460 and 544AD, reportedly drawn from earlier sources

All pretty shaky, I’m afraid.  But what about his association with lovers, which is the basis of a whole candy, flowers, card industry?  Again—it appears to be myth-making, some of it possibly the work of one G Chaucer (c1340s-1400),

a bit more of a poet than Mr F Rogers. In his 699-line “dream vision”, The Parlement of Foules” (c.1380?), the poet moves from reading Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” (Somnium Scipionis, a philosophic dialogue by the Roman orator, Cicero, 106-43BC) to a dream world which includes this:

“And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;”

(The Parlement of Foules, 302-311)

That is:

“And in a land was set upon a hill of flowers

The noble goddess, Nature.  Her halls and bowers

Were made of branches, fashioned after their craft

  and dimensions.

There was no bird which exists

That wasn’t pressed to attend her,

To take her judgment and listen to her.

For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,

When every bird of every kind that men think there is

Comes there to choose his mate.”

(My translation—and forgive me, Chaucer scholars for giving it a little modern color here and there.  For a very useful Middle English text with glossing, see:   http://www.librarius.com/parliamentfs.htm   )

Chaucer’s lines have been used to explain the saint’s connection with lovers, associating bird mating with (potential) human mating and reminding me of these lines from Cole Porter’s song, from his 1928 musical, Paris, “Let’s Do It”:

“And that’s why birds do it, bees do it,

Even educated fleas do it

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”

(Here’s Cole Porter himself singing it, to his own accompaniment:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMk4a3uUVv0 )

So, with almost no actual saint, what are we to make of this day?  We began with a song, so perhaps it’s best to end as Chaucer does, with another song, to St Valentine, as sung by the birds:

“Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte

Thus singen smale foules for thy sake—

Now welcome somer, with thy sonne sonne,

That hast this wintres weders over-shake.”

(The Parlement of Foules, 683-686)

Thanks, as always for reading,

Stay warm while we wait for Chaucer’s somer,

And know that, as ever, there will be




I imagine that the birds’ song is clear, but, if not:

“Saint Valentine, you who are high above,

Little birds sing like this for your sake—

Now welcome, summer, with your sunny sun,

Which has overthrown this winter’s weather.”


Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

At the beginning of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, some fairies are discussing the banishment of one of their number, Iolanthe,

when they are interrupted by the Queen of the fairies,

 who explains:

Queen.  No, because your Queen, who loved her with a surpassing love, commuted her sentence to penal servitude for life, on condition that she left her husband and never communicated with him again!

Leila.  That sentence of penal servitude she is now working out, on her head, at the bottom of that stream!

Queen.  Yes, but when I banished her, I gave her all the pleasant places of the earth to dwell in.  I’m sure I never intended that she should go and live at the bottom of a stream!  It makes me perfectly wretched to think of the discomfort she must have undergone!

Leila.  Think of the damp!  And her chest was always delicate.

Queen.  And the frogs!  Ugh!  I never shall enjoy any peace of mind until I know why Iolanthe went to live among the frogs!   (W.S. Gilbert, Iolanthe, Act I)

This piece of dialogue made me wonder about damp living conditions in a few literary works, and, because I’ve recently taught Beowulf, I immediately thought of Grendel and his mother,

(An Alan Lee illustration.)

whose habitation was in a pool, in the midst of a moor.   The poem describes Grendel:

“wæs se grimma gaést      Grendel háten this ghastly demon was      named Grendel,
maére mearcstapa      sé þe móras héold infamous stalker in the marches,      he who held the moors,
fen ond fæsten·      fífelcynnes eard fen and desolate strong-hold;      the land of marsh-monsters,
wonsaélí wer      weardode hwíle10the wretched creature      ruled for a time”  

I would normally try to translate this myself, but, this time, I want to use this passage to point to a really useful site:https://heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-text.html  which, as you can see, has both the original text and a translation, plus extensive notes.  There are several Beowulf translations on-line and, along with this one, I would recommend that by Dick Ringler, which you can find at:  https://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/Literature/Literature-idx?type=header&id=Literature.RinglBeowulf&pview=hide 

Ringler’s translation, which, like the above, has lots of useful background information, is designed for oral delivery, and so has a very up-to-date feel to it. 

If you thought that Grendel’s neighborhood was bad, the pool in which he and his mother live was so terrifying that, as the text says:

“ofer þaém hongiað      hrímge bearwas·  1363over it hangs      frost-covered groves,
wudu wyrtum fæst      wæter oferhelmað· tree held fast by its roots      overshadows the water;
þaér mæg nihta gehwaém      níðwundor séon there one may every night      a horrible marvel see:
fýr on flóde·      nó þæs fród leofað fire on the water;      not even the wise of them lives,
gumena bearna      þæt þone grund wite. of men’s sons,      that knows the bottom.
Ðéah þe haéðstapa      hundum geswenced  1368Though the heath-stepper      harrassed by hounds,
heorot hornum trum      holtwudu séce the hart with strong horns,      seeks the forest,
feorran geflýmed·      aér hé feorh seleð put to flight from far,      first he will give up his life,
aldor on ófre      aér hé in wille existence on the shore,      before he will (leap) in
hafelan helan·      nis þæt héoru stów· to hide his head;      it is not a pleasant place;”

Iolanthe’s place of exile brought on thoughts of Beowulf.  In turn, the half-line fyr on flode, “fire upon water”, will remind The Lord of the Ring readers of:

“Presently it grew altogether dark:  the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe.  When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes:  he thought his head was going queer  He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after:  some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands…

At last Sam could bear it no longer.  ‘What’s all this, Gollum?’ he said in a whisper.  ‘These lights?  They’re all round us now.  Are we trapped?  Who are they?’

Gollum looked up.  A dark water was before him, and he was crawling on the ground, this way and that, doubtful of the way.  ‘The tricksy lights.  Candles of corpses, yes, yes.  Don’t you heed them!  Don’t look!  Don’t follow them!”  (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 2, “The Passage of the Marshes”)

I’ve always found this one of the most unsettling moments in Frodo and Sam’s long journey to Mt Doom, I think because of this:

“Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock.  He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere.  There was a faint hss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled.  For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering.  Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry.  ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror.  ‘Dead faces!’”   

In a letter to Prof L.W. Forster, 31 December, 1960, JRRT suggested an inspiration for such a place:

“The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” (Letters, 303)

As the Great War progressed, the landscape of northern France/southern Belgium became permanently pock-marked from the endless fall of artillery shells.

As you can see, whenever it rained, these shell-holes filled with water and, during attacks, it was possible for advancing soldiers to fall in and drown.  I think that this is what Tolkien is suggesting was one idea behind the Dead Marshes.

Iolanthe is pardoned by the Fairy Queen

and leaves the stream for good, but I can do better than that.  In the musical Once Upon a Mattress,

Princess Winifred (her nickname?  “Fred”), while waiting to see what Queen Agravaine has in store for her in the way of a contest, (as in the original Andersen fairy tale, the princess must pass a test to gain the prince, Dauntless—but it’s his mother she has to satisfy, not the prince), she is asked by her (temporary, as far as the queen’s concerned) maids to describe her homeland, which she does:

Winnifred: I come from the land of the foggy, foggy dew ooh-ooh-ooh!
Ooh-ooh-ooh! Ooh-ooh-ooh!
Where walking through the meadow in the morning is like walking through glue!
The swamps of home are brushed with green and gold at break of day.

Dauntless: At break of day.
Winnifred: The swamps of home are lovely to behold from far away.
Dauntless: From far away.
Winnifred: In my soul is the beauty of the bog, in my memory the magic of the mud.
I know that blood is thicker than water but the swamps of home are thicker than blood.
Dauntless: Blo-o-od!
Winnifred: Where e’er I roam my heart grows dank and cold,
my face grows gray when shadows fall and I hear the call…
of the swamps of home.
Ladies: Ah…
Winnifred: I hear them calling me now, calling me back, calling me Winnifred,
Winnifred, Winnifred, Winnifred, who do you think you are?
Girl of the swamp,
Ladies: Winnifred, Winnifred
Winnifred: You’ve gone to far!
Maid of the marshland, give up the struggle!
Listen to the voice of the swamp;
Ladies: gluggle-uggle-uggle.
Winnifred: Where e’er I roam. The whips of fate may smart, but deep down in my heart
Ladies: ooh…
Winnifred: One thought will abide and will ne’er be forgotten,
though I search far and wide there is no land as rotten…
Ladies: Rotten, rotten, rotten, Rotten, rotten, rotten, Rotten, rotten, rotten…
Winnifred: As the swamps of home.
Winnifred, Dauntless & Ladies: The swamps of home!

(source: https://www.lyricsondemand.com/soundtracks/o/onceuponamattresslyrics/swampsofhomelyrics.html )

Carol Burnett was the original Princess Fred

and you can hear her singing about her sort-of-happy homeland here:

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

I normally end by saying “Stay well”, these days, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say

Stay dry,

And remember that there is always




“Bog-trotter” is thought to have originally been a slur on Irish country people.  As some of my ancestors were probably the very people slurred, I use the term to show that it can suggest something other than Celtic swamp monsters.


I apologize for the weird bracketing around the quotations from Beowulf. I don’t know what produces them, but I suspect that it might be connected to the magic spells which the poem says protect Grendel from weapons!

In the Sky, a Spy

Aragorn is uneasy. 

“Flocks of birds, flying at great speed, were wheeling and circling, and traversing all the land as if they were searching for something; and they were steadily drawing nearer…

‘Lie flat and still!’ hissed Aragorn, pulling Sam down into the shade of a holly-bush; for a whole regiment of birds had broken away suddenly from the main host, and came, flying low, straight towards the ridge…

Not until they had dwindled into the distance, north and west, and the sky was again clear would Aragorn rise.  Then he sprang up and went and wakened Gandalf.

‘Regiments of black crows are flying over all the land between the Mountains and the Greyflood…I think that they are spying out the land.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

As always, welcome, dear readers.  I’ve often written about the relation between Tolkien’s experiences in our world and events in Middle-earth and, in this posting, instead of looking at the earth, we’ll be looking up, as Aragorn did and as Second Lieutenant Tolkien

 would have done in 1916, scanning the clouds for German scouts.

Both sides had begun to include aircraft in their practice warfare—maneuvers—from 1911 on.  The British had employed both airplanes and airships,

and, in the first weeks of war in 1914, it had been British scouting planes

which had spotted the masses of German troops

marching to outflank the British and French armies in what was called the Schlieffen Plan,

allowing the relatively small British Expeditionary Force to escape the trap set for them, although it took hard fighting

and hard marching to do it.

What gave the British the advantage in 1914 was something which had been imagined and wished for for centuries, at least from the days in which Leonardo da Vinci, as early as the 1490s, made intricate drawings of flying machines.

Nothing came of this until the late 18th century, when the Montgolfier brothers

first demonstrated their hot-air balloon in 1783. 

When the Revolution came and French armies were pressed to deal with a huge coalition of hostile European powers, a French balloon surveyed the scene at the Battle of Fleurus, 26 June, 1794

and served at a few other actions before being disbanded in 1799.

It doesn’t appear that much of anything military was done with what, if nothing else, would provide a superior (in more than one sense) observation platform until the American Civil War, where Thaddeus Lowe

a balloon enthusiast, took the Intrepid along on McClellan’s 1862 attempt to capture Richmond.

Although McClellan’s nerve failed him and the attempt in turn failed, Lowe’s balloon allowed observers to see what his army never did:  Richmond.

Lowe’s balloon saw very little service after the failed expedition and military ballooning seems to have been, with very limited exceptions, put on hold until the turn of the century, when the US Army took a balloon along on its expedition to Cuba, in the summer of 1898.

Although it did some service in observing the Spanish lines outside Santiago, it produced an unfortunate side-effect:  the balloon clearly indicated the presence of US troops and Spanish artillery shells quickly began to burst around its position.

And here we see a real difficulty with such balloons.  They may have made good observation posts, but they were immobile, once raised, and, even as they spied on the enemy, they could reveal their own army’s position at the same time. 

It was only with the advent of the airplane, at the very beginning of the 20th century,

that a more flexible method of spying from the air came to be employed and, with the movements of massive armies and then the construction of nearly 500 miles of trenches, from Switzerland to the North Sea in late 1914, into 1915,

it became imperative to have better ways of surveying those movements, as well as the many lines of fortifications both sides rapidly constructed.  The demands of a vast war accelerated creation and employment of such ways and soon aircraft were crisscrossing the sky, their cameras photographing everything on the ground below.

From such photos

elaborate maps were made,

allowing attack plans to be more sophisticated than ever before.  This, in fact, is the Schwaben Feste, the Schwaben Redoubt, which Tolkien’s own unit, the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers attacked during the terrible battle of the Somme, at the beginning of July, 1916. 

Flights of enemy aircraft overhead, then, might signal reconnaissance which would lead to attack. 

Suspecting that “regiments of crows”, as Aragorn says to Gandalf, are “spying out the land”, convinced Gandalf that they must be more careful in their movements:  we can be sure that hearing the sound of enemy aircraft overhead must have done the same for Second Lieutenant Tolkien.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Keep your heads down,

And know that, as always, there’s