As always, dear readers, welcome.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about Gondor’s neighbors—not Mordor, with its hordes of orcs and even-more-unspeakable things, or heroic Rohan, but Harad, whose lands stretch far to the south, off the usual maps, and particularly about the city of Umbar.

Umbar is usually associated with its pirates, or corsairs, which I, in turn, always associate with the Barbary Pirates

(A romanticized view by the Danish artist, Niels Simonsen, 1807-1885.) 

who made the western Mediterranean (and beyond), a dangerous place for merchants and travelers alike from the Middle Ages into the 19th century.

(I got my first taste of them from a children’s book written by, of all people, the author of the Hornblower novels, C.S. Forester.)

I wondered, however:  pirates tend to be parasites, not builders–had Umbar always been a refuge for corsairs, a place whose harbor was always packed with their ships?

Emperor Charles V’s attempt to capture Algiers, home of the Barbary Pirates, 1541. Hand-colored woodcut reproduction of an earlier illustration

A little research was clearly in order.

If we were looking to find out more about a real pirate den, of which there are historical records, we would have libraries with shelves full of books written by numerous authors over several centuries.  Because this is an imaginary place, the creation of a single man, our sources are much more limited, however, and, as I began to try to provide myself—and you, dear readers—with more on Umbar, I found that I really had only three main ones:  the obvious The Lord of the Rings,

but then The Peoples of Middle-earth,

and what I’ve always seen as a kind of odd-book-out, The Silmarillion.

One of the most remarkable elements in Tolkien’s work is the depth of Middle-earth’s history, although often recorded only in the form of either annalistic or chronicalistic entries.  Derived from the Latin word annus, “year”, annals are lists of events, year after year, rather like a kind of basic timeline.   Chronicles, ultimately from the Greek word, chronos, “time”, may be seen as a kind of more developed annal, in which the events can be described in greater detail. 

I find these definitions a bit fuzzy, and JRRT himself uses the word “annals” in the title of Section A of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, although there is so much description that “Chronicles” might be more appropriate.  Annals or Chronicles, the first entry for Umbar appears in Appendix B, “The Tale of Years” under The Second Age:

“[SA]2280 Umbar is made into a great fortress of Numenor”

It is clear, however, from a reference in Appendix F, I, “The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age”, that Umbar is, in fact, older than this fortifying:

(about place names) “A few were of forgotten origin, and descended doubtless from the days before the ships of the Numenoreans sailed the Sea; among these were Umbar, Arnach, and Erech…”

After this reference, things become a little hazy.  Sauron, who always seems to be lurking nearby, was aware that things were not well in Numenor.  Ar-Pharazon had forcibly married his first cousin and taken the throne, so:

“Now Sauron knowing of the dissension in Numenor thought how he might use it to achieve his revenge.  He began therefore to assail the havens and forts of the Numenoreans, and invaded the coast-lands under their dominion.” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, “The Tale of Years of the Second Age”)

Ar-Pharazon, in response:

“…prepared, and at last he himself set sail with a great navy and armament, the greatest that had yet appeared in the world.”

This was not what Sauron had expected:

“And Ar-Pharazon landed at Umbar, and so great was the splendour and might of the Numenoreans at the noon of their glory that at the rumour of them alone all men flocked to their summons and did obeisance; and Sauron’s own servants fled away.”

Slippery as ever, Sauron thinks that, if he can’t obtain what he wants by force, he can do it by trickery, and surrenders to Ar-Pharazon in SA3262. (“The Tale of Years”, The Second Age)

Things go out of focus again for a while as Numenor collapses, but it appears that a kind of subset of the Numenoreans, the Black Numenoreans, continued to hold the city, perhaps with the aid of the local people, the Haradrim.  (For an extended version of how Sauron ruins Numenor from within, see the “Akallabeth” in The Silmarillion.)

Things become clear again early in the Third Age, when the Gondorian king Earnil I, led an expedition to retake Umbar in TA933 (Appendix B, The Third Age).  Having done so, he and much of his fleet were then lost in a storm off the coast (Appendix A, “Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion”), but worse was to come as:

“…the Men of the Harad, led by the lords that had been driven from Umbar, came up with great power against that stronghold, and Ciryandil [Earnil’s son] fell in battle in Haradwaith.”

The subsequent siege of Umbar lasted for 35 years (“The Tale of Years”, The Third Age:  “1015 King Ciryandil slain in the siege of Umbar”; “1050 Hyarmendacil conquers the Harad”), but:

“could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor.” 

In TA1050, Ciryaher, Ciryandil’s son:

“…came down from the north by sea and by land, and crossing the River Harnen his armies utterly defeated the Men of the Harad, and their kings were compelled to acknowledge the overlordship of Gondor.” 

From that time, Umbar was part of Gondor, but, as history in Middle-earth so often seems to have a roller coaster effect,

in TA1432, there begins the civil war called “the Kin-strife”, which continues to TA1448, the losers

“…sailed away, and established themselves at Umbar.  There they made a refuge for all of the enemies of the king, and a lordship independent of his crown.  Umbar remained at war with Gondor for many lives of men, a threat to its coastlands and to all traffic on the sea.  It was never again completely subdued until the days of Elessar; and the region of South Gondor became a debatable land between the Corsairs and the Kings.”

And this answers my question:  the Corsairs of Umbar postdated the fortification, if not the founding, of Umbar by 2609 years.

As I was working on this, I found, as I often do, a suggestion of something which might have influenced JRRT.  Before he was drawn away by Germanic, Celtic, and Finno-Ugric, Tolkien had begun his academic life as a classicist, and those words referring to the 35-year siege of Umbar, that the city “could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor” immediately brought back another city and another long siege.

After the defeat of the invading Persians at the battle of Plataea, in 479BC,

some of the victorious Greek cities, including Athens, wanted to continue the war by carrying it to the Persian-occupied Greek colonies of Asia Minor.  These cities formed a collective called the “Delian League”, from its headquarters on the island of Delos.  After some initial success, the League gradually seemed to lose its purpose and soon the leading state, Athens, had taken over the League, gradually turning it into the Athenian Empire.

There were some cities, however, which became increasingly anxious about Athens’ growing power, the leader among them being Sparta, a military state in southern Greece.  In time, this would lead to a long war, the so-called “Peloponnesian War”, 431-404BC, (named for the southern part of Greece, where some of the fighting took place), Sparta and its allies on one side, Athens and its empire on the other.

In this war, the two sides were both powerful, but their power lay in different directions:  the Spartans were heavy infantry, drilled intensively to fight in a massed formation called a phalanx.

The Athenians, as a nation of merchant/seafarers, were a naval power, possessing a large professional fleet of warships called triremes (meaning having three banks of oars).

As well, although Athens, unlike Umbar, was not situated directly at its port, it had constructed solid fortifications which joined the city with its not one, but three ports.

Each year, in the early years of the long war, the Spartans would send an army to the countryside outside Athens, block entry to the city, and destroy farmlands.  To any other place, this might have been fatal, but Athens, like Umbar, “could not be taken because of the sea-power”, so, as long as that sea-power had no rival, then Sparta, like the Haradrim, could march outside Athens’ walls every summer, yet neither deter the defenders nor penetrate the walls.                            

Gondorian Umbar survived its 35-year siege, being rescued by a king and his armies.  Athens was not so fortunate.  Sparta gave in to Persian influence and Persian money, and built a fleet which destroyed the Athenian fleet at the battle of Aegospotami, in 405BC. 

The next year, Athens, no longer able to guarantee supply by sea with its naval power so reduced, surrendered and, as a token of that surrender, was forced to knock holes in her long walls.  She was allowed to survive, but never owned an empire again.

Stay well,

Lay in plenty of provisions (and arrows),

And remember that, as ever, there’s




Welcome, as ever, dear readers.


Is trying to persuade Gandalf to join him in betraying their trust to the Valar:

“We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose:  Knowledge, Rule, Order…”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

Gandalf doesn’t accept any of this, of course, saying:

“ ‘Saruman…I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant.  I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.’ “

Saruman has not begun this conversation well.  Gandalf has actually come to Isengard at his urging, that urging being delivered by Radagast:

“ ‘And he told me to say that if you feel the need, he will help; but you must seek his aid at once, or it will be too late.’ “

When Gandalf arrives, however, Saruman is less than welcoming, replying to Gandalf’s explanation that he has come for the offered aid:

“ ‘Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey! he scoffed.  ‘For aid?  It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.’ “

Because I’m assuming that we’ve all read beyond this, we know what Saruman is up to, but, if, for a moment, we can forget what we know, let’s see if we can try to understand both his tactics—that is, his immediate actions—and his strategy—his overall plan.

First, Saruman begins by emphasizing part of Gandalf’s common title which, we know from Christopher Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales means more than just the plain color.  There is a hierarchy of the Istari, the so-called “wizards” (from the Old English adjective wis, “experienced/learned/knowledgeable).  Originally 5 in number, they were sent to Middle-earth by the Valar, something like the senior angels in Tolkien’s mythology:

“The first to come was of noble mien [appearance] and bearing, with raven hair, and a fair voice, and he was clad in white; great skill he had in works of hand, and he was regarded by well-nigh all, even by the Eldar, as the head of the Order.  Others there were also:  two clad in sea-blue, and one in earthen brown;  and last came one who seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff.” (Unfinished Tales, 406)

Thus, Saruman has begun by attempting to push Gandalf down the ranks, to the position of the least of the Istari.  Second, he contrasts himself with Gandalf in terms of location:  Saruman and Gandalf are in the tower of Orthanc,

(a rough sketch by JRRT)

in the middle of Isengard, which Saruman had taken possession of (originally in the name of Gondor) about 250 years before (for the date, see The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, II, “The House of Eorl”), while Gandalf appears to have no permanent home.

Third, he suggests that there are matters about which Gandalf should not concern himself, implying that he, Saruman, is master of such things.

To emphasize this, he now makes a rather surprising declaration:

“ ‘For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!’ ”

Although no one would doubt his past displays of wisdom, his other two claims definitely call for investigation. 

First, there’s that ring—Gandalf had noticed it when he first arrived at Isengard:

“But I rode to the foot of Orthanc, and came to the stair of Saruman; and there he met me and led me up to his high chamber.  We wore a ring on his finger.”

Gandalf doesn’t identify this, but I would suggest that we have a clue from Unfinished Tales, where we are told of an incident which occurred when Gandalf had first reached Middle-earth from the West and had met the master of the Grey Havens, Cirdan:

“But Cirdan from their first meeting at the Grey Havens divined in him the greatest spirit and the wisest; and he welcomed him with reverence, and he gave to his keeping the Third Ring, Narya the Red…and the Grey Messenger took the Ring, and kept it ever secret; yet the White Messenger (who was skilled to uncover all secrets) after a time became aware of this gift, and begrudged it, and it was the beginning of the hidden ill-will that he bore to the Grey, which afterwards became manifest.” (Unfinished Tales, 407)

If nothing else, then, we can imagine that Saruman’s ring is an imitation of Gandalf’s, just as he makes Isengard, with its workshops and orcs, a tiny imitation of Mordor.  And we can also better understand his tone:  although he is considered the head of the Istari, Gandalf, the last of the Order, has been given a symbol of power which Saruman has not—Saruman is jealous of Gandalf.

We might also imagine that, by styling himself “Ring-maker”, he is indirectly suggesting another rivalry, one with someone who is much greater than he—but we’ll come back to this and a certain Ring.  Before we do, let’s examine that third claim, “Saruman of Many Colours”.

Saruman, as we know, has been sent by the Valar to Middle-earth as Saruman the White, but, as Gandalf now sees:

“ ‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.’ “

Gandalf, unimpressed by this display, says simply, “I liked white better” to which Saruman replies:

“ ‘White!…It serves as a beginning.  White cloth may be dyed.  The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

In these robes and with these words, Saruman reveals part of his strategy:  he has divorced himself from his original self, the one dispatched from Valinor, recreating himself in a new role, not White Messenger, but Rainbow-colored Other.  But, even in this new form, he appears unsure enough of himself that he attempts to bring the despised Gandalf over to him:

“…but our time is at hand:  the world of Men, which we must rule.  But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see…And listen, Gandalf, my old friend and helper!…I said we, for we it may be, if you will join with me.”

So far, Saruman has addressed Gandalf as a lesser figure, suggesting that he is the least of the Order, homeless, and a busybody.  Now, however, he seems to be trying to enlist him:  why?

“A new Power is rising.  Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all.  There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor.  This then is one choice before you, before us.  We may join with that Power.  It would be wise, Gandalf.  There is hope that way.  Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it.”

So, Saruman may be wise, ring-making, many-colored, but he appears to be saying that there is something more powerful yet—but not so powerful that there won’t be ways, in time, to master it:

“ ‘As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow, and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it.  We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose:  Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.  There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.’ “

And then, as we saw at the opening of this posting, Gandalf rejects this proposal, Saruman comes to his real point:

“ ‘Why not?…The Ruling Ring?  If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.  That is in truth why I brought you here.  For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe that you know where this precious thing lies.”

“Precious” is a frightening word in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, being Gollum’s term for the object he murdered his cousin to obtain and which will eventually bring about his own death.

That Saruman uses it tells us almost as much about him as all the rest of his words and Gandalf’s second rejection—which Saruman claims to have foreseen—sums up the truth under all of his words:  “ ‘Saruman…only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we!”

And, with that, we can see Saruman’s tactics:  reduce Gandalf to a servant, then ask for his help; as well as his strategy:  having enlisted that help, use it to find the Ring and master its true master, Sauron.

In the Athens of the 5th century BC,

there arose a new kind of teacher, who claimed to be able to instruct people in everything from how to understand the world to how to behave within the world.  What they taught was called sophia, coming from the adjective sophos, (so-FOSS) originally meaning “skilled”—and this could be skilled in anything, from carpentry to public speaking.  A teacher of this sort was then called a sophistes (so-fihs-TAYSE).  Among a number of early teachers, perhaps the most prominent was Protagoras (c.490-c.420bc).

In part because they charged money, but also partly because some made big claims, they came to the negative—and influential—attention of Plato (428-348bc)

and then to his pupil, to Aristotle (384-322bc),

and, in time, their reputation had become so blackened that we now use the term “sophistry” to mean something like “an argument which looks convincing—but will be found to be based upon falsity”.

And this is exactly what Saruman is using and which Gandalf sees through.

In comparison with Saruman’s lies, let’s begin with the goals of the Valar in sending the Istari to Middle-earth:

“Emissaries they were from the Lords of the West, the Valar, who still took counsel for the governance of Middle-earth, and when the shadow of Sauron began first to stir again took this means of resisting him.”

Thus, we see immediately that, by proposing to ally himself and Gandalf with Sauron, Saruman is undercutting their original purpose:  as opposition.

Next, there is the method to be used by the Istari:

“…their emissaries were forbidden to reveal themselves in forms of majesty, or to seek to rule the wills of Elves or Men by open display of power, but coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good…”

and their purpose:

“…and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavour to dominate and corrupt.” (Unfinished Tales, 406)

Set this against Saruman’s claim that the Istari “high and ultimate purpose” was “Knowledge, Rule, Order” and you can see that what Saruman really means by this is his knowledge, rule, and order—and add to that his real desire, as he admits to Gandalf:  the Ring and the power it holds, even over Sauron.  And you can see, as well, why Gandalf rejects both his reasoning and his offer, replying:

“ ‘You were head of the Council, but you have unmasked yourself at last.  Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself?  I will take neither.  Have you others to offer?’ “

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

But what has happened to the White Messenger?  Somewhere between his arrival at Isengard in TA 2759 and his encounter with Gandalf in TA3018, he has changed, drastically.  Along with the tower of Orthanc, he has also acquired its palantir:  has one charged to protect others from Sauron’s attempts to dominate and corrupt now himself become dominated and corrupted through it—and its connection with the owner of another? 

Perhaps there is a clue in Gandalf’s description of the opening of Saruman’s proposal:

“ ‘He drew himself up then and began to declaim, as if he were making a speech long rehearsed.’ “

Some sophists taught the art of persuasion—has someone else been instructing Saruman in sophistry?

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Be wary of people who sound too plausible,

And know that, as ever, there’s



Messing About In Boats

“Fear death by water.”

(TS Eliot, The Wasteland, 1922, Section I:  “The Burial of the Dead”)

As always, dear readers, welcome.

In 1908, Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)

already known for The Golden Age (1895)

and Dream Days (1898),

published the book for which he is best remembered, The Wind in the Willows.

If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a group of animal friends, centered around Toad,

an eccentric, who causes no end of trouble to those friends.  The original 1908 edition wasn’t illustrated, but, in time, gained two who are still known for their work, Ernest H. Shepard (1879-1976), who brought Toad and his harassed friends to life in 1931,

and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), whose work was published in 1940, not long after his death.

Two of Toad’s friends are Rat and Mole

and the title of this posting comes from their first adventure together, as Rat invites Mole to go boating:

“This has been a wonderful day!” said he, as the Rat shoved off and took to the sculls again. “Do you know, I’ve never been in a boat before in all my life.”

“What?” cried the Rat, open-mouthed: “Never been in a—you never—well I—what have you been doing, then?”

“Is it so nice as all that?” asked the Mole shyly, though he was quite prepared to believe it as he leant back in his seat and surveyed the cushions, the oars, the rowlocks, and all the fascinating fittings, and felt the boat sway lightly under him.

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leant forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily: “messing—about—in—boats; messing——”

“Look ahead, Rat!” cried the Mole suddenly.

It was too late. The boat struck the bank full tilt. The dreamer, the joyous oarsman, lay on his back at the bottom of the boat, his heels in the air.

“—about in boats—or with boats,” the Rat went on composedly, picking himself up with a pleasant laugh. “In or out of ’em, it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?”

(Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 1908, Chapter 1,”The River Bank”)

This, for all that Rat absentmindedly rams them into the riverbank, is a happy time, but it reminded me of another, less happy, event, as described at 2nd—or 3rd—or 4th-hand in a pub in the Shire—

“ ‘A decent respectable hobbit was Mr. Drogo Baggins; there was never much to tell of him, till he was drownded.’

‘Drownded?’ said several voices. They had heard this and other darker rumours before, of course; but hobbits have a passion for family history, and they were ready to hear it again.

‘Well, so they say,’ said the Gaffer.  ‘You see:  Mr. Drogo, he married poor Miss Primula Brandybuck…And Mr. Drogo was staying at Brandy Hall with his father-in-law, old Master Gorbadoc, as he often did after his marriage…and he went out boating on the Brandywine River; and he and his wife were drownded, and poor Mr. Frodo only a child and all.’

‘I’ve heard they went on the river after dinner in the moonlight,’ said Old Noakes; ‘and it was Drogo’s weight as sunk the boat.’

‘And I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him,’ said Sandyman, the Hobbiton miller.”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party”)

If Rat and Mole’s adventure in the river reminded me of the gossip about Frodo’s parents, the gossip about Frodo’s parents reminded me of a very famous early attempted boat murder—or at least Roman gossip about one.

In 54AD, the emperor Claudius (10BC-54AD)

died (gossip had it that he was poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, 23-59AD), leaving Agrippina’s son, Nero (37-68AD), adopted by Claudius,

to succeed him.  For the first couple of years, mother and son seemed to rule jointly, even appearing on coins together,

but then things went wrong and, soon, Nero was trying to think how he might remove his mother—permanently.  Our sources for this—Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio—provide rather different pictures of his methods, including Nero attempting to poison her on three separate occasions, Agrippina being saved by the fact that she had regularly dosed herself with them to make herself immune, but my favorite is the story of the collapsible boat.

In this version, Nero offers his mother the use of a pleasure boat

perhaps a little less grand than this, but with a terrible secret:  it had been constructed in such a way that, when the time was right, it would come apart and drown Agrippina.

Like his earlier plans, however, this failed, as Agrippina swam safely to shore—only to be later murdered by Nero’s assassins—but she would have been wise, before she accepted the offer of that boat, to listen to the words of the Gaffer in reply to Ted Sandyman:

“ ‘You shouldn’t listen to all you hear, Sandyman,’ said the Gaffer… ‘There isn’t no call to go talking of pushing and pulling.  Boats are quite tricky enough for those that sit still without looking for the cause of trouble.’ “

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Point out the approaching bank early to Ratty,

And know that, as always, there’s




If you don’t have your own copy of The Wind in the Willows, here’s the 1913 Scribner edition:


As always, dear readers, welcome.

The title may seem a little mysterious, being the French word for “duck”.

In English, it has a secondary meaning, something like “baseless story/ rumor”, with a supposed explanation about an old French anecdote about “selling half a duck”.   Of course, the minute I asked myself “Why a duck?” an entire Marx brothers routine appeared.  It’s from their 1929 film, The Cocoanuts

and, in it, Groucho (called “Mr Hammer” here) is trying to explain a map to Chico and, as always when the two hold what appears to be a dialogue, they often seem to be doing so from different dimensions—

Hammer: (pause) … Now, here is a little peninsula, and, uh, here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

Chico:  Why a duck?

Hammer:  I’m alright, how are you?  I say, here is a little peninsula, and here is a viaduct leading over to the mainland.

Chico: Alright, why a duck?

Hammer: (pause) I’m not playing “Ask Me Another,” I say that’s a viaduct.

Chico: Alright! Why a duck? Why that…why a duck? Why a no chicken?

Hammer: Well, I don’t know why a no chicken; I’m a stranger here myself. All I know is that it’s a viaduct. You try to cross over there a chicken and you’ll find out why a duck.

Chico: When I go someplace I just…

Hammer: (interrupts) It’s…It’s deep water, that’s why a duck. It’s deep water.

Chico: That’s why a duck…

Hammer: Look…look, suppose you were out horseback riding and you came to that stream and you wanted to ford over…You couldn’t make it, it’s too deep!

Chico: Well, why do you want with a Ford if you gotta horse?

Hammer: Well, I’m sorry the matter ever came up. All I know is that it’s a viaduct.

Chico: Now look, alright, I catch ona why a horse, why a chicken, why a this, why a that…I no catch ona why a duck.

Hammer: I was only fooling…I was only fooling. They’re gonna build a tunnel there in the morning. Now is that clear to you?

Chico: Yes, everything excepta why a duck.”

(You can see most of this silliness here: )

But—not to duck the subject—“duck” came up because I had, in my last, mentioned Ben Solo in his persona as “Kylo Ren”,

and his mask has always struck me as looking like a duck.

His master, Snoke,

has actually mocked it and ordered him to take it off, which Ben does, and then begins violently attacking it, as if he had just discovered that it looked like a duck.

It’s clear that Ben has a thing about masks, having somehow (it’s never explained how) rescued his grandfather, Darth Vader’s, helmet and turned it into a shrine of evil,

seeming either to ignore or not to know that his grandfather had died just after turning away from the Dark Side through his extermination of Emperor Palpatine (or not, as we find out in 9).

(I must also admit to being a bit puzzled as to how that helmet has remained, since Vader/Anakin, had been cremated in it and I can’t see why his body would have been disposed of in that way if his armor would survive.)

I’m presuming that the goal of the writers in choosing this variation on Vader/Anakin’s wardrobe meant to imply both that Ben considered himself in some way a padawan of his grandfather, as well as suggesting that, by his costume, he was the equivalent of a kind of anti-jedi. 

Vader’s helmet, however,

along with his armor,

was, in fact, a kind of prosthetic device, allowing him to function more or less normally after the horrible wounds he had suffered in his defeat by Obi Wan on Mustafar.

Of course, there was also a deal of menace involved, part of it, I would say, coming from that helmet, with its dead eyes and lower face grill, suggesting predatory teeth,

and the bowl, suggestive of the more threatening samurai helmets, which we know influenced the design.

(For more on the design, see Brandon Alinger’s Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy, which has a discussion of the costume’s development, along with a series of images of concept and details.)

So why a duck?

Considering that Ben Solo has a shrine to a grandfather who was his very opposite at the end of his life, and that he’s wearing a mask which even his master thinks is dumb, perhaps we can redefine canard slightly, not as a “baseless story” told to someone else, but as one which Ben persists in telling himself, only to realize, at the very end of his life that the only person he’s been deceiving is himself.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

When in doubt, duck,

And know that, as always, there will be




For an inspiring music video about ducks, see:


As ever, dear readers, welcome.

There is a common expression in writing classes, attributed to William Faulkner (1897-1962)

but the origin of which comes from a much lesser-known figure, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944).

Sir Arthur, if known at all today, is as the editor for the once-famous The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900,

and for being called something like “the rag and bone man of English poetry”

 by the American poet, Ezra Pound (1885-1972).       

Pound was, of course, trying to redefine the cannon—and insert himself into it–and Sir Arthur was a far more important man in the Victorian/Edwardian literary world than the equivalent of a recycling truck, but what Faulkner is quoted as saying is:  “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

This has been sometimes taken to mean, “Murder your characters”, and that’s how I understood it long ago, when I had only read that quotation from Faulkner, but what Sir Arthur really said, in a lecture at Cambridge in 1913-14 on literary style was this:

“…if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it —whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.‘ “ (On the Art of Writing, 1916—it’s in the chapter entitled “On Style” and here’s a LINK so that you can read it for yourself: )

So his meaning was that fine writing for the sake of fine writing was a mistake—but, for the sake of this posting, I’m returning to what I had originally thought Faulkner had meant—murder your characters—and, in my recent reading and viewing experience, there has been mayhem everywhere, which has made me wonder about darlings.

Recently, I rewatched Star Wars 7, 8, 9 and, this time, I was more pained than before by the death of Han Solo in 7.

Harrison Ford, in interviews, had long said that he had wanted Han removed back in the days of Star Wars 4, 5, and 6, but I’ve always thought that Han was really at the center of those films:  a cheerfully arrogant cynic who brought a certain satiric balance to the otherwise potentially too-serious story of the Force.  Although he might wish Luke “May the Force be with you” just before the attack on the first Death Star,

he was still capable of lines like:  ” A…Jedi Knight? I–I’m out of it for a little while, everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” (The Return of the Jedi, 1983)

When he and Chewie first appeared in The Force Awakens (2015),

I was hoping that we would see something of this in 7-9, but I was quickly disappointed.  It seems, if I understand the plot correctly, that what was intended by Han’s murder was to illustrate graphically just how far down the road to the Dark Side, his son, Ben, in his persona of “Kylo Ren”,

had gone, but, instead, I saw what, for me, was the end of that quietly ironic viewpoint and therefore of part of what gave a special life to the original trilogy.

Polishing off major characters, however, can make a strong dramatic point.  Consider the fate of the decent Ned Stark, played by Sean Bean in A Game of Thrones.

The king’s right-hand man, because of his honesty, is removed from office, charged with treason, forced to lie publically that he committed that treason, and then suddenly beheaded, after being told that, with his confession, his life would be spared.

Coming at the end of the first series, his murder sets off a major element of the plot-to-come:  the efforts by his family to gain revenge,

as well as underlining the increasingly-sadistic nature of the new king, Joffrey.

(Notice, by the way, that Joffrey’s crown is both too small and often worn at an odd angle, as if to suggest, visually, just how unfit and unbalanced he is mentally.)

George RR Martin and the script-writers, only begin with Ned Stark, however, and, by the end of the final series, large numbers of major characters, both sympathetic and not, have encountered poison,

being shot with a crossbow,

and being pushed from a great height,

among other grisly ends. 

At the series’ base is the English “Wars of the Roses” (1455-1485), fought by two large factions, Lancastrians and Yorkists—and, yes, that’s “Lannisters” and “Starks”, isn’t it?

Although lacking in the various religions, cultures, magic, and dragons of A Game of Thrones, it certainly has the violence, particularly in the way major figures, when captured on the battlefield, are simply beheaded there and then, without the bother of trials.

At the same time, we can almost imagine, in A Game of Thrones, that so many of the characters, positive and negative, are like fuel to the plot’s engine:  their deaths spurring that engine onward. 

In contrast, we come to Tolkien and, in particular, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

If we don’t count goblin kings,


and spiders,

and, of course, the destruction of Lake-town,

the only death of a major character is that of Thorin,

but, because of its serious nature, The Lord of the Rings suffers more serious losses among its protagonists, beginning with, it seems, Gandalf,

and including Boromir,

and Theoden,

as well as the mad Denethor.

For a serious book, these are serious deaths:  fighting a balrog, overwhelmed by orcs, falling to the chief of the Nazgul, being consumed in a pyre.  On the other hand, although we see Sauron as a great shadow passing away,

the only major deaths among the antagonists are those of Gollum, through clumsiness, really,

and Saruman, who, as his spirit is swept away by the wind, like his master, seems to crumble to nothing.

In contrast to the deaths of the protagonists, then, these seem small, almost sordid:  a victory dance too close to the lava, a throat cut by a traitorous servant.  And, rather than spurring the plot, these deaths put an end to certain strands:  the question of whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sharkey’s revenge upon the Shire.

Some darlings, it seems, need to be killed.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well—and well back from the edge of volcanoes—

And know that, as ever, there’s




In my looking about for illustrations, I happened upon this very interesting view of the death of Theoden—

which was clearly inspired by this scene from one of my favorite medieval pictorial sources, the so-called “Bayeux Tapestry”, which depicts the death of the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, at the battle of Hastings.

Clever, don’t you think?

Vivat Rex?

As always, dear readers, welcome.          

When economic circumstances forced the reluctant Tolkien to break The Lord of the Rings into three volumes, he entitled the third The Return of the King

and, of course, Strider/Aragorn becomes that king by the end of the volume. 

The last king before Aragorn was Earnur, who had disappeared into Mordor in TA2050, leaving the Stewards to rule until the death of Denethor in TA 3019.

In modern Western history, I can think of two royal restorations, of both of which I’m sure that JRRT was aware:

1. that of the Restoration of 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne of England

after the execution of his father, in 1649,

and that of Louis XVIII in 1814,

after the execution of his older brother, Louis XVI, in 1793 (although Louis XVI had gradually been losing his royal powers since the Revolution began in 1789).

In the first case, this would have been a span of 11 years and, in the second, of 21. 

In the case of the Kings of Gondor, it would have been a span of nearly a 1000.  After such an immense stretch of time, why would anyone want the king back? 

In the Shire, there still existed a kind of ghost of kings:

“There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king at Fornost, or Norbury, as they called it, away north of the Shire.  But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years…Yet the Hobbits still said of wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king.  For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.”  (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue 3, “Of the Ordering of the Shire”)

But why do we readers—or at least I, reader–accept this return, especially as someone who lives in a country which hasn’t had a monarch over it for not quite so long as Gondor, but since 1776, which is 245 years?

Perhaps it has something to do with the traditional story culture we grew up in.  Think of fairy tales:  how many of them are set in kingdoms, with kings and queens

and often marriageable princesses—sometimes in need of rescuing.

Open what was perhaps Tolkien’s first fairy tale book, Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890)

and you’ll see that the first story is called “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and the second story, “Princess Maybloom” begins: 

“ONCE upon a time there lived a King and Queen whose children had all died, first one and then another, until at last only one little daughter remained, and the Queen was at her wits’ end to know where to find a really good nurse who would take care of her, and bring her up.”

For JRRT the medievalist, there was also all the world of Arthurian legend, with earlier stories, dating back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”)

 to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 14th century)

of which Tolkien and his colleague, E.V. Gordon, published a scholarly edition in 1925

and of which Tolkien himself made a translation, published posthumously by his son, Christopher, in 1975.

Then there is the later Le Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory’s collection of Arthurian material, first published by William Caxton (c.1422-c.1491) in 1485.

And, for a late Victorian/Edwardian like Tolkien, there was the poetical work, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s (1809-1892)

The Idylls of the King (1859-1885)

At the center, of course, is Arthur himself, a man born to be king, but who had no idea that that was his fate until he found himself in front of a stone upon which rested an anvil with a sword embedded in it, a story first appearing, it seems, in Robert de Boron’s Merlin, c.1200.

This is sometimes confused in early tellings with Excalibur, Arthur’s other sword, which, in some versions, was given to him by the “Lady of the Lake”.

This confusion is then employed, to wicked effect, in Monty Python’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

where it is used to question the very idea of kingship which I’m puzzling my way through here.

Soon to be on his quest for the Holy Grail, King Arthur approaches some peasants who are grubbing in a muddy field.

“ARTHUR: How do you do, good lady? I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Whose castle is that?

WOMAN: King of the who?

ARTHUR: The Britons.

WOMAN: Who are the Britons?

ARTHUR: Well, we all are. We are all Britons, and I am your king.

WOMAN: I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.”

This is clearly not going to go well

and soon Arthur is shouting:

“ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN: Order, eh? Who does he think he is? Heh.

ARTHUR: I am your king!

WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you.

ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings.

WOMAN: Well, how did you become King, then?”

“ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake,…

[angels sing]

…her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.

[singing stops]

That is why I am your king!”

A second peasant’s response suggests that this is not quite so convincing as Arthur would have them believe:

“DENNIS: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

(Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Scene 3:  “Repression is Nine Tenths of the Law?”)

Arthur’s argument is that he is the rightful king because he was appointed by a spiritual power and this easily ties in with justifications of kingship under the idea of “the divine right of kings”, in which a monarch claimed that he was there because God had appointed him to his position.  It also suggested that, in that position, he was answerable to no one but God—an idea which got Charles the First

of England not only into a civil war, but carried him all the way to his execution, as his opponents asserted that Charles was not himself a kind of god (an idea with which his father, James the First, had actually played in his The True Law of Free Monarchies, 1598, and Basilikon Doron, 1599), but a man responsible to his people and, when, by his actions, he betrayed them, he was as liable as any of his subjects to a charge of treason.

For the medieval Arthur, however, there was a fatal wounding on the battlefield,

or perhaps a kind of rescue by a group of mysterious women, who take him off to “the Isle of Avalon”

where, in some versions of the story, he is to be healed and there await the appropriate moment to sail back to retake his kingdom—the original Return of the King.

This, of course, brings us back to my original question:  why accept that that return is an appropriate part of the ending of The Lord of the Rings?

I think that we can begin with the remark about hobbits, that

“they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.” 

If we look at Middle-earth in TA 3018, much of it is in desperate need of laws which are “both ancient and just”, as

1. Sauron is active in Mordor, raising armies, including those from his alliance with Harad, and sending the Nazgul, his creatures, abroad

2. Saruman, now in the service of Sauron, although believing himself independent, is also building armies and infringing upon Rohan

3. Gondor is gradually growing weaker, its main city, Minas Tirith, largely depopulated, and its steward, Denethor, is being emotionally manipulated by Sauron through his unwise use of a palantir

4. Theoden, king of Rohan, has been taken over by Saruman’s spy, Grima

5. whole areas beyond the Anduin are, at best, unsafe

6. Moria is in the hands of orcs—and worse, in the form of a balrog

(and 7.—to come—the Shire itself will fall into the vengeful hands of the deposed Saruman, now called “Sharkey”, to be turned into a kind of fake socialist industrial state)

With a background in fairy tales and Arthurian legend, it would have seemed natural to JRRT to see this as a world out of balance and in need of a savior—or, in the case of The Lord of the Rings, two:  Frodo and Aragorn.

And there appears to be a kind of divine sanction for both of these in these words which both Boromir and Faramir had heard in dreams, as Boromir tells the Council of Elrond:

“For on the eve of the sudden assault a dream came to my brother in a troubled sleep; and afterwards a like dream came oft to him again, and once to me.

In that dream I thought the eastern sky grew dark and there was a growing thunder, but in the West a pale light lingered, and out of it I heard a voice, remote but clear, crying:

Seek for the Sword that was broken:

In Imladris it dwells;

There shall be counsels taken

Stronger than Morgul-spells.

There shall be shown a token

That Doom is near at hand,

For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,

And the Halfling forth shall stand.”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

The “Sword that was broken” is in the hands of Aragorn, its rightful owner as the direct descendant of its original owner, Elendil, as Gandalf explains to Boromir:

“For the Sword that was Broken is the Sword of Elendil that broke beneath him when he fell.  It has been treasured by his heirs when all other heirlooms were lost; for it was spoken of old among us that it should be made again when the Ring, Isildur’s Bane, was found.”

But then Gandalf continues:

“Now you have seen the sword that you have sought, what would you ask?  Do you wish for the House of Elendil to return to the Land of Gondor?”

Boromir has his doubts, however:

“I was not sent to beg any boon, but to seek only the meaning of a riddle…Yet we are hard pressed, and the Sword of Elendil would be a help beyond our hope—if such a thing could indeed return out of the shadows of the past.”

Aragorn replies—and here we begin to see his street cred:

“If Gondor, Boromir, has been a stalwart tower, we [his people, the Dunedain] have played another part.  Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay…Peace and freedom, do you say?  The North would have known them little but for us.  Fear would have destroyed them.  But when dark things come from the houseless hills, or creep from sunless woods, they fly from us.”

Thus, Aragorn suggests that he’s not only the possessor of an ancient sword which signifies his heritage, but he’s also an experienced soldier, who has continued has family’s role as protectors of the North.  As the story proceeds, Aragorn continues to show proofs of his kingship, laying claim to a palantir and using it to turn the tables on Sauron (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 2, “The Passing of the Grey Company”), traveling the Paths of the Dead to call upon the Oathbreakers finally to fulfil their oath (“The Passing of the Grey Company”), and in his ability to heal those near-death, as Gandalf says:

“ ‘Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent.  Let us enter!  For it is only in the coming of Aragorn that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House.  Thus spake Ioreth, the wise-woman of Gondor:  “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.” ‘ “ (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 8, “The Houses of Healing”)

And we should note two things here:

1. it is Gandalf who quotes Ioreth and who is Gandalf?  One of the 5 Istari, lesser spirits sent by the Valar to counter Sauron in Middle-earth (Unfinished Tales, Part Four, II. The Istari)

2. not “a rightful king”, but “the rightful king”—Gandalf may be thought, then, to be speaking for the Valar to say that Aragorn is, indeed, the King Who Returns

All this may convey a kind of justification for Gandalf’s earlier identification of Aragorn as “Aragorn son of Arathorn, the heir of Kings” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”), although it skates very close to that divine right of kings which got Charles the First into trouble, but it is only when all of the menace in the list above has been dissipated, much of it by the efforts of others, that we see the true nature of the Return of the King:

“In his time the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory; and it was filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets paved with white marble, and the Folk of the Mountain and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there; and all was healed and made good, and the houses were filled with men and women and the laughter of children, and no window was blind nor any courtyard empty; and after the ending of the Third Age of the world into the new age it preserved the memory and the glory of the years that were gone.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 5, “The Steward and the King”)

And it’s not just the sick and the City which Aragorn heals, but a great portion of Middle-earth:

“And embassies came from many lands and peoples, from the East and the South, and from the borders of Mirkwood, and from Dunland in the west.  And the King pardoned the Easterlings that had given themselves up, and sent them away free, and he made peace with the peoples of Harad; and the slaves of Mordor he released and gave them all the lands about Lake Nurnen to be their own.”

I’ve wondered whether being conditioned by fairy tales has had something to do with my acceptance of the Return, and this seems to be a giant fairy tale ending, including the marriage with Arwen (“The Steward and the King”)-

but JRRT is a better story-teller than to take such an easy way out.  The Return of the King has brought peace and will bring prosperity to a world much in need of both, but it isn’t a happy world for everyone. 

When Frodo and his friends return to the Shire, they find destruction, both to the landscape and to the social fabric and it takes the deaths, not only of men, but of hobbits and even of one of the Istari, Saruman, to begin the healing there.  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

And there is another sadness as well:  the departure of Frodo and Bilbo and Gandalf from Middle-earth (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”).

(A real beauty by Ted Nasmith)

So perhaps, beyond fairy tales and the Once and Future King of Arthur, it’s this mixture of joy and sorrow which persuades me to believe in The Return of the King.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Hope for wizards in our world (but not so ambitious and self-deceiving as Saruman)

And know that, as always, there’s




Near the beginning of this piece, there is an illustration of a king and queen which I drew from one of Ernest Shepard’s illustrations for one of my favorite A.A. Milne’s poems, “The King’s Breakfast”.  Here’s a LINK, if you don’t know it:  WARNING:  this has such an infectious rhythm that you will find yourself memorizing it without knowing it!


Dear readers, as always, welcome.

This is posting number 351 and, if you are a regular follower of the blog, you know that, in over 350+ postings, a huge number of images have appeared.  Usually, the writing of the posting inspires the choice of images, but, in this one, it was the other way around, as you’ll see…

The Romans were proud of their state, the Res Publica, “The Business of the People”. 

Rome hadn’t begun as a people’s business, however.  Instead, it had been farmers

and shepherds

who had lived in thatched huts

in little villages on 7 hills, overlooking the Tiber River.

In time, they had come under the control of their northern neighbors, the wealthy and sophisticated Etruscans,

and an Etruscan king, a lucumo, had ruled them.

Then, in 509BC, the Romans overthrew the king and established a new kind of state, that Res Publica.  They retained the former kings’ council of elders, which they called the Senate, after the Latin root sen-, “old”, but, instead of a king, the Romans yearly elected two state officers, the consuls.  Here are the two consuls in a session with the Senate.

Roman society had two big social classes, the Patricians and the Plebeians,

and, for the first century-and-a-half, consuls were always elected from the Patricians, until, in 367BC, a new law was passed, decreeing that one of the two consuls should be a Plebeian.

Consuls held a great deal of power, including acting as generals in time of war, but all of this came to an end when Augustus (63BC-14AD),

the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar (100-44BC),

having won a final civil war, became the sole ruler of Rome and the consuls became more holders of positions of prestige than of power.  They were, at least initially, still elected, but they were nominated by the emperors, who sometimes even nominated themselves.  Because the office had almost 500 years of tradition behind it, however, becoming a consul was to have achieved a lofty position in the state and certain senior state positions were only available to those who had held it.

By late imperial times, however, the office had lost its power and had become ceremonial, which included, at the consul’s installation, a massive celebration, including the Greco-Roman world’s favorite sport, chariot-racing.

Along with elaborate celebrations, there could be the distribution of commemorative gifts, one of which might look like this—

It is called a “consular diptych” (Greek di—“two/double” + ptukhe, “fold”) and consists of two panels, which could be made of wood, ivory, or metal.  This particular one, seemingly the oldest surviving, dates from 406AD, and depicts the late western emperor, Honorius (384-423AD)—who had been consul once, himself—at the age of 2—and was dedicated to him by Anicius Petronius Probus, who was consul in 406.  It’s a very graphic contrast to the power of the consuls of the old Republic that Probus describes himself as the famulus, “household slave” of Honorius.

The form of the diptych descends from a much less exalted object, the usual Roman notebook,

 which consisted of two hollow wooden halves, into which wax was poured to form a surface. 

The writer then used an instrument called a stilus, which had two functions:  the pointy end was used to write on the wax, the other end was a kind of eraser, with which the writer could smooth the wax over what she/he’d written, thus erasing it.

By the first century AD, these apparently could also be used to hold letters of appointment, which I presume is how they became associated with consuls. 

As you can see from the one dedicated to Honorius, the carvings on the outside of these can be wonderfully elaborate, my favorite being this,

which, although it’s a diptych, isn’t actually a consular one, its purpose being unknown.  It has the names of two prominent late Roman families, the Symmachi and the Nichomachi, along the top, however, suggesting that, whatever it was for, it somehow involved them and, in particular, two women of the families, who appear to be acting as religious figures.  (The left-hand panel was badly damaged in a fire, unfortunately.)

This posting came about because, as usual, I was looking for images to illustrate an earlier posting and came across the work of Tom Buggey, and this wood panel of Galadriel—does this form look familiar?

As Dr. Buggey explains, he is an admirer of a pair of my favorite Tolkien illustrators, the Hildebrandts, and this is clearly based upon one of their depictions of the Lady of the Golden Wood.

Although I enjoy Dr. B’s Tolkien work, I also find his other work impressive, as in this

of which I quote his description:

“This is an original composition based on a children’s story I was hoping to write illustrated with a series of carvings – If only I had the time. This carving measures 31″ x 15″. The story goes something like this. Long ago the woodsmen of the north were aided by the city dwellers of the south. The woodsman vowed to aid the city dwellers if ever they were in need. To secure this promise a spell was placed on a series of songs that would awaken future generations to the promise of aid. This carving represents a princess (of course) of the besieged city’s king who travels north with the court musician to garner the assistance of the woodsmen. The first songs are being sung.”  (from the website, lightly edited by me)

There are a number of other carvings at his site:  For myself, I hope that, since he wrote the above, he has continued both the story and the panels, maintaining a sculpting tradition which goes back far beyond consular diptychs, but which includes such wonderful pieces as this—

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well—be careful—those carving tools are sharp!

And know that, as ever, there’s



Greetings and Lamentation!

As always, dear readers, welcome.

If you’re fond of British comedy, you may have come across a famous duo from long ago, Flanders and Swann.

These were (words and commentary) Michael Flanders—the one on the left—(1922-1975) and (composer and accompaniment) Donald Swann—the one on the right (1923-1994).  Once at the same school, they eventually collaborated on two long-running two-man shows, At the Drop of a Hat,

and At the Drop of Another Hat, in which Flanders introduced songs and did comic monologues and he and Swann sang songs, all of their own composition.  Here’s a LINK to one of their numbers:  (This is a very clever use of the final rondo from Mozart’s Horn Concerto #4 in E flat—and here’s the original very beautiful concerto:  Someone has supplied the words on the screen, but makes one mistake, writing “Tricky”, where Flanders actually uses the musical term “tutti”, meaning all of the instruments are supposed to join in at this point.)


however, was, besides being Flanders’ collaborator, a well-known and very active composer, one of his compositions being a little cycle of songs with words taken from the works of a favorite author, JRR Tolkien, which, as an LP, combined the songs with readings/recitings from his work by Tolkien himself, Poems and Songs of Middle Earth (1967).

The score for the songs also appeared as a book, The Road Goes Ever On (1967; 1978; 1993).

One of the settings from this score has been in my head recently, and has prompted this posting.  Number 5 in the cycle of songs, it’s entitled “Namarie”, and is drawn from The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 6, “Farewell to Lorien”.  In fact, the original has no title, being the second of two songs sung by Galadriel as she sends the Fellowship off on their journey once more.  It’s clear that JRRT felt a special love—almost longing—for Lothlorien and he himself appears reluctant to leave it as the farewell is a very elaborate one, almost as operatic as the entrance of Lohengrin, in Wagner’s 1850 opera of the same name.

Once the company has assembled and its ordinary tasks—explaining the boats, giving Sam rope—are completed, Galadriel appears:

“They turned a sharp bend in the river, and there, sailing proudly down the stream towards them, they saw a swan of great size.  The water rippled on either side of the white breast beneath its curving neck.  Its beak shone like burnished gold, and its eyes glinted like jet in yellow stones; its huge white wings were half lifted.”

(Although this isn’t credited, the beautiful attention paid to the natural world makes me think that this is a Ted Nasmith illustration.)

“A music came down the river as it drew nearer; and suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven-skill in the likeness of a bird.  Two elves clad in white steered it with black paddles.  In the midst of the vessel sat Celeborn, and behind him stood Galadriel, tall and white; a circlet of golden flowers was in her hair, and in her hand she held a harp, and she sang…”

(As you can see, this is a loose reading of the text by Denis Gordeev—one steersman and Celeborn is sitting behind Galadriel, but what I find persuasive is Galadriel and her harp.  In general, I really like Gordeev’s style, which looks back to people like Howard Pyle and NC Wyeth, artists from the golden age of book illustrators.  There doesn’t appear to be much information about him readily available, but if you google his name, there is a good deal of his art on-line and he’s illustrated everything from Tolkien to Robert Louis Stevenson.)

Here’s the text:

Ai! laurie lantar lassi surinen,
Yeni unotime ve ramar aldaron!
Yeni ve linte yuldar avanier
mi oromardi lisse-miruvoreva
Andune pella, Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
omaryo airetari-lirinen.

Si man i yulma nin enquantuva?

An si Tintalle Varda Oiolosseo
ve fan yar maryat Elentari ortane
ar ilye tier undulave lumbule;
ar sindanoriello caita mornie
i falmalinnar imbe met, ar hisie
untupa Calaciryo miri oiale.
Si vanwa na, Romello vanwa, Valimar!

Namarie! Nai hiruvalye Valimar.
Nai elye hiruva. Namarie!

And here’s Frodo’s translation (which is in prose form in the book—this is from the Tolkien Gateway site, which includes JRRT reciting the poem: ) :

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind,
long years numberless as the wings of trees!
The years have passed like swift draughts
of the sweet mead in lofty halls beyond the West,
beneath the blue vaults of Varda
wherein the stars tremble in the song of her voice, holy and queenly.

Who now shall refill the cup for me?

For now the Kindler, Varda, the Queen of the Stars,
from Mount Everwhite has uplifted her hands like clouds,
and all paths are drowned deep in shadow;
and out of a grey country darkness
lies on the foaming waves between us,
and mist covers the jewels of Calacirya for ever.
Now lost, lost to those from the East is Valimar!

Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar.
Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!

And here is Donald Swann’s setting, which has stayed with me since I first heard it years ago: –this is the whole LP, but “Namarie” is at 33:43.

There is a special ache in this, in part, as I said, because of JRRT’s own feelings about Lothlorien,

but it is hardly the only lament in The Lord of the Rings.  If you think for a moment, you can add to this (and the previous one):

1. the fragment which Frodo works on in Lothlorien for Gandalf (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)

2. the song which Aragorn and Legolas make for Boromir (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)

3. we might see the chant which Treebeard sings to Merry and Pippin as a kind of grieving for lands he has visited, but which are now gone (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)—Swann set this as well, on the LP at 29:32:

4. the fragment which Aragorn recites when the company reaches Edoras and stands by the grave mounds of the past kings of Rohan (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)

5. “a maker in Rohan said in his song of the Mounds of Mundberg”—a lament for those fallen at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

6. and a possible sixth, with only five lines given, would be the song which the Riders of the King’s House, sang—“a song of Theoden Thengel’s son that Gleowine his minstrel made” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”

Although of a thoughtful nature, I don’t believe that Tolkien was a melancholy man, and all of these clearly have their place in the story:  Galadriel has already said that the world of the elves is doomed to fade, Boromir has died bravely and the urge is to commemorate that, Treebeard understands that, for all his enormous life-span, his people, lacking the Entwives, must also fade, Aragorn and the company can see the green mounds which show the long history of the Rohirrim, Sauron’s initial attack is defeated, but at a terrible cost, and Theoden has died an heroic death.

As well, as a scholar of Old English, JRRT has the strong lament tradition of its surviving literature in his head, which includes poems like “The Ruin”, “Deor”, and “The Wife’s Lament”, with that same feel of grieving over the end of things.  For a very useful website with translations for these and many others, see:

But, for all of the art in laments, they are just that, laments, and, as this has always been a positive blog, let me end with this, which I couldn’t resist.  Having read this posting, you’ll know exactly how I found it.

And you can see more images at:

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

If a swan boat arrives, climb aboard—but expect to be a little sad,

And know that, as always, there’s




Welcome, dear readers, as always.

As I’ve said before, although I don’t write fan fiction, I think that it’s a very useful thing.  If it’s well done, it can be an imaginative, even ingenious, addition to what an author has already devised.  If it’s not so well done, it’s certainly not harmful, and, in any case, trying to imitate the work of an admired creator can be a great way to learn how you want to write.

So, you’re asking, is this the prelude to my first fan fiction?  Well, yes and no.  Recently, I’ve been watching a really engrossing tv series from 1979 titled Danger UXB.

In it, we follow the adventures of Second Lieutenant (with later promotions, Captain) Brian Ash, played extremely well by Anthony Andrews,

who is in charge of a small unit of soldiers

whose job is to defuse and remove bombs dropped by the German air force and which, for various reasons, haven’t exploded (UXB stands for “unexploded bomb”).

This series is based upon various real life experiences of those whose actual job it was to do this, from 1940 to 1945, and there are hair-raising moments, as the real bombs could cause devastating damage, both to people and their surroundings.

At this same time, of course, Tolkien

 was teaching at Pembroke College, Oxford,

and serving as an air raid warden,

as well as working on The Lord of the Rings.

There was a gap, however, in this work, from December, 1938 to August, 1939, and this was a significant time just before the war to come.   In March, 1938, Hitler had sent his army into Austria, adding that to “Greater Germany”.

On September 30th, 1938, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had signed the Munich Pact,

which allowed Hitler to gobble up the Sudetenland, a border territory between Czechoslovakia and Germany.

This was part of the policy of “Appeasement”, the mistaken idea that giving Hitler (and Mussolini) what they demanded would keep Europe out of another terrible war.  When the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned home, he was actually convinced that this was going to stop the German dictator from further demands, proclaiming to people on his doorstep at 10 Downing Street, “It is peace for our time.”

Then, in March, 1939, Hitler’s army invaded the Czech Republic, after Slovakia had broken ties with it.

In April, Mussolini’s troops invaded Albania.

So much for appeasement.

Although JRRT always claimed that his work, if it contained any contemporary influence, would be that of the Great War, Hitler’s constant demands always remind me of this moment from the last chapter of Book 5 of The Return of the King, “The Black Gate Opens”, in which the Mouth of Sauron (I can easily see him in full Nazi uniform) lists the terms his master offers the West:

“The Rabble of Gondor and its deluded allies shall withdraw at once beyond the Anduin, first taking oaths never again to assail Sauron the Great in arms, open or secret.  All lands east of the Anduin shall be Sauron’s for ever, solely.  West of the Anduin as far as the Misty Mountains and the Gap of Rohan shall be tributary to Mordor, and men there shall bear no weapons, but shall have leave to govern their own affairs.  But they shall help to rebuild Isengard which they have wantonly destroyed, and that shall be Sauron’s, and there his lieutenant shall dwell:  not Saruman, but one more worthy of trust.”

Although, as far as I can presently ascertain, Tolkien never explains the gap in his creativity, it gave me a “what if” moment. 

Suppose, in that period from December, 1938 to August, 1939, JRRT was not in Oxford, but, instead, was off on a “There and Back Again” adventure of his own, something which then inspired him to return to his book with new purpose and energy.  Tolkien won’t go alone, however, but be assisted by his old sergeant

(This is actually Sergeant AE Lovejoy of the East Surrey Regiment.)

 from his days as 2nd Lieutenant,

who has been employed (at Tolkien’s earnest recommendation), as the porter—the gatekeeper, an important staff post—of Pembroke College.

(This is, in fact, a portrait by Louise Riley-Smith of two modern-day porters at Cambridge from The Tab, a youth news service.)

Notice a certain similarity to another heroic pair?

But what about the rest of the—shall I say it?—fellowship?

Well, Tolkien would need an elderly counselor, wouldn’t he?  Someone with the ability to communicate and deal with all sorts of others—perhaps Joseph Wright,

who had been one of JRRT’s tutors at Oxford and among whose specialties was the Germanic languages.  If this adventure were to take the fellowship to the Third Reich—perhaps the closest thing to Mordor in the Europe of 1939–Wright, who had studied there, might be a very useful guide.  In our world, Wright had been born in 1855 and died in 1930, but, just how old is Gandalf, really?

Younger companions?  A couple of larky undergraduates of Pembroke would fit that bill easily.

Dwarves and elves would have been in short supply at Oxford in 1939, but, since a specialty of dwarves was engineering, perhaps Tolkien had a friend in the Royal Engineers during the war

and an elf we’ve met was a crack shot with a bow—perhaps Tolkien and his engineer had had a mutual friend who was a sniper?

What about a ranger?  This is an older man, with lots of practical experience and might have been—perhaps still is– a member of Military Intelligence.

And, finally we might add a warrior from a country threatened by another—so, that would suggest someone French, like a number of the others, a veteran of the Great War, come as a guest lecturer to Oxford.

But aren’t we leaving someone out?

We are, indeed—and what we want is someone a bit shifty, with a knowledge of where the fellowship—or at least a part of it—will go, but with his own agenda—a double-agent.

Now, with all of these in place, all we need is a goal.  Are they going somewhere to obtain something?  Or to take it back?  And where are they going to go?  If Hitler is Sauron-to-be,

then Mussolini is a natural for Saruman

and, although Germany lacks active volcanos, there are several in Italy.,,

To be continued?

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

be careful of picking up rings which may cause later difficulties,

and know that, as always, there’s




Part of my inspiration for this posting was a really interesting paper given by Franco Manni and Simone Bonechi at a conference in Birmingham in 2005.  Here’s the LINK: