Welcome, as always, dear readers.

I don’t know why, but I find sometimes that I have a soft spot for villains, well, some villains, in fiction.  It pleases me, for example, that Captain Hook may elude the ticking crocodile

and that Long John Silver

escapes at the end of Treasure Island, even though he’s been the ringleader and inspirer of the mutiny which causes all the trouble.  (It doesn’t bother me in the least that Blind Pew meets his end so early in the book,

or that Jim Hawkins shoots Black Dog right out of the rigging, however.)

(These illustrations come from the 1911 edition, illustrated by one of my favorites, N.C. Wyeth.  Here’s  a copy for you:  https://ia600901.us.archive.org/20/items/treasureisland00stev/treasureisland00stev.pdf )

And so, looking back on a number of earlier postings, I must admit that I have a sneaking fondness for orcs.  Not the ghastly things from Jackson’s films, like the almost-ludicrous “Azog the Defiler” from The Hobbit, with his twig for an arm as if he were attempting to become an Ent on an installment plan, and who should have been called “Azog the Anachronism” as the actual figure had been killed 150 years before Bilbo set out for the Lonely Mountain (for the story of the real Azog—and it’s a harrowing one—see:  The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, III, “Durin’s Folk”),

but the ordinary orcs we see throughout The Lord of the Rings,

and who, I suggested in an earlier posting (“Ugluk Orckins”, 3 November, 2021), were, like Sam Gamgee, a reflection of Tolkien’s experience among the British infantry in the Great War:

“My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war…”  (Carpenter, Tolkien, 91—“batmen” are officers’ servants from the French word “bat”, meaning a pack saddle, suggesting that the servants tended to officers’ baggage horses)

It’s easy, in fact, to hear JRRT bringing these men back to life in the voice of Ugluk the chief of Saruman’s orcs, who sounds like a Great War British sergeant:

“ ‘Don’t stand slavering there!  Get your rabble together!  The other swine are legging it to the forest.  You’d better follow.  You wouldn’t get back to the Great River alive.  Right off the mark!  Now!  I’ll be on your heels.’ “ (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

This is how I always imagine them, although Tolkien, being Tolkien, having made the orcs, couldn’t leave them as Saruman’s

(the Hildebrandts)


(no—not those minions)

or as a main infantry component of Sauron’s armies,

(Alan Lee)

but had to consider them, outside The Lord of the Rings, as moral (or not) beings.  This included thinking about who, in his legendarium had created them and what that might have implied.  Middle-earth was a monotheistic world, as he believed his own world to be (See, for instance, his 2 December, 1953, letter to Robert Murray, Letters, 172), and he reserved the right of creation to Eru Iluvatar, his version of the Judeo-Christian God.  That being understood, he underlined Eru’s possession of this right in the story of the Vala Aule’s making of dwarves:

“The One rebuked Aule, saying that he had tried usurp the Creator’s power; but he could not give independent life to his makings.  He had only one life, his own derived from the One, and could at most only distribute it.”  (see Tolkien’s continuation of a letter to Rhona Beare 14 October, 1958, Letters, 287)

There seems little possibility, then, that anyone other than Eru could have brought the orcs into being and yet, in a letter to Naomi Mitchison of 25 April, 1954, Tolkien writes:

“Orcs…are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin.  But since they are servants of the Dark Power [that is, of Morgoth/Melkor, the rebel Vala], and later of Sauron [Morgoth’s servant, a Maia, one of the lesser divine figures], neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be ‘corruptions’.” (Letters, 178)

And Frodo says of them to Sam:

“The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make:  not real new things of its own.  I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them…” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith-Ungol”)

Treebeard suggests a parallel with Trolls:

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

And Tolkien extends this explanation in the draft of a letter to Peter Hastings of September, 1954:

“Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord ‘created’ Trolls and Orcs.  He says he ‘made’ them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing.  There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements, so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true.  It is not true, actually, of the Orcs—who are fundamentally of ‘rational incarnate’ creatures, though horribly corrupted…” (Letters, 190)

Tolkien, although clear on “make” versus “create”, seems a bit vague on just how this corruption came about, but there is a hint in the same letter to Peter Hastings:

“I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodeling and corrupting them, not making them.  That God would ‘tolerate’ that seems no worse theology than the toleration of the calculated dehumanizing of Men by tyrants that goes on today.” (Letters, 195)

If nothing else, then, almost by definition, if orcs exist, they must be “corrupt”.

To me, however, all of this talk about what orcs might have been previously and how they might have been changed is beside the point,

Instead, I ask myself, what’s to like about these creatures? 

And my answer is:  I believe I like them because they’re corrupt, but seemingly happily so.  They can be rascals:  that is, not black villains, like Sauron, who seems rather overfocused, if not over the top (thank goodness that JRRT had the wisdom to leave him only as a menacing shadow—can you imagine him in person, monologuing, as Saruman does to Gandalf, about his diabolical schemes?), but creatures who take a certain pleasure in being evil.  Captain Hook, for example, certainly has this rascality, as we can see when he’s about to make many of the major characters walk the plank and is positively cheerful about it—

“HOOK (communing with his ego). How still the night is; nothing sounds alive. Now is the hour when children in their homes are a-bed; their lips bright-browned with the good-night chocolate, and their tongues drowsily searching for belated crumbs housed insecurely on their shining cheeks. Compare with them the children on this boat about to walk the plank. Split my infinitives, but ’tis my hour of triumph!”

(J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, Act V, Scene 1)

(costume design for the first production of Peter Pan in 1904)

Can we imagine the Dark Lord exclaiming “Split my infinitives, but ‘tis my hour of triumph!”?

Instead, listen to Gorbag and Shagrat:

“ ‘What d’you say?—if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.’

‘Ah!’ said Shagrat.  ‘Like old times!’” (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”)

Sadly, Gorbag and Shagrat fall out, Shagrat knifing Gorbag before escaping the Tower of Cirith Ungol (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)—even some rascals pay the price for their rascality—but at least :

“Silver was gone…But this was not all.  The sea-cook had not gone empty-handed.  He had cut through a bulkhead unobserved and had removed one of the sacks of coin, worth perhaps three or four hundred guineas, to help him on his further wanderings.”

But I, for one, would not agree with Jim Hawkins, the narrator, that:

“I think we were all pleased to be so cheaply quit of him.” (R.L. Stevenson, Treasure Island, Chapter XXXIV, “And Last”)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Beware of the Nazgul waiting on the other side of the Great River,

And remember that, as always, there’s




As always, welcome, dear readers.

A few weeks ago, I did a posting on a once-influential poem, G.F. Buerger’s (1747-1794) Lenore,

with a line so famous that Bram Stoker (1847-1912) quotes it in Chapter 1 of Dracula, over a century after its original publication:

“Hurrah!  die Todten reiten schnell.”

“Hurrah!  the Dead ride swiftly.”

(For his purpose, Stoker changes the line’s beginning to “Denn die Todten reiten schnell”, which he translates as “For the dead travel fast”.)

But, with Stoker’s work in mind, in this posting I want to discuss how the Undead—specifically, the Nazgul—ride and more so what they ride.

We first see one of their number in early pursuit of Frodo:

“Round the corner came a black horse, no hobbit-pony but a full-sized horse; and on it sat a large man, who seemed to crouch in the saddle, wrapped in a great black cloak and hood, so that only his boots in the high stirrups showed below; his face was shadowed and invisible.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 3, “Three is Company”)

(by John Howe)

And this pursuit is unremitting, following the hobbits to Crickhollow,

(an early illustration by the military artist Angus McBride)

to Bree,

(possibly an Alan Lee?)

to Weathertop,

(Denis Gordeev)

and would undoubtedly have continued but that the waters of the Bruinen swept their horses away,

(by Ted Nasmith)

and, as Gandalf says of the now-united Nazgul:

“It is rash to be too sure, yet I think that we may hope now that the Ringwraiths were scattered, and have been obliged to return as best they could to their Master in Mordor, empty and shapeless.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

Because, later in the story, we see the chief of the Nazgul leaving Minas Morgul on horseback (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)

(an Alan Lee)

and then see him mounted confronting Gandalf at the fallen gate of Minas Tirith (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor),

(another Angus McBride)

we must assume that, having returned to Mordor, he has obtained a new mount there, as Gandalf tells Frodo earlier about such steeds:

“…these horses are born and bred to the service of the Dark Lord in Mordor.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)

The Nazgul chief has another means of transport, however:

“The great shadow descended like a falling cloud.  And behold it was a winged creature:  if bird, then greater than all other birds, and it was naked, and neither quill nor feather did it bear, and its vast pinions were as webs of hide between horned fingers; and it stank.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

Needless to say, this has been a very popular subject for illustrators over the years, from the Hildebrandts

to Angus McBride

to Alan Lee

to John Howe

to Ted Nasmith,

as well as many very good artists, but who have not yet attained the prominence of those I’ve just listed, like Matthew Stewart

and Jake Murray. (I very much like both of these and the Murray has the added attraction that it looks like it could have been an illustration from a work by William Morris.)

JRRT hasn’t given artists a lot to go on, however:

1. featherless

2. leathery wings

3. and, shortly, we have a little more as it attempts to attack Eowyn:

“Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Eowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.”

So far, then, it’s something very large, with a naked body, leathery wings, claws, and a beak.

The various illustrations above all seem to suggest something dragonish to me, although, if we might match them against some of Tolkien’s own illustrations of Smaug,

Tolkien’s dragon seems more like E.H. Shepard’s (1879-1976) illustration of the Reluctant Dragon, from Kenneth Grahame’s (1859-1932) Dream Days (1898) than the destroyer of Dale.

(If you haven’t read “The Reluctant Dragon”, here’s a LINK to the 1902 republication of Dream Days, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35187/35187-h/35187-h.htm   Shepard illustrated a 1930 reprint. )

That being the case, does JRRT give us anything more?

“A creature of an older world maybe it was, whose kind, lingering in forgotten mountains cold beneath the Moon, outstayed their day, and in hideous eyrie bred this last untimely brood, apt to evil.  And the Dark Lord took it, and nursed it with fell meats, until it grew beyond the measure of all other things that fly; and he gave it to his servant to be his steed.”

In 1784, the Italian scientist (although he probably called himself a “natural philosopher”), Cosimo Collini, published the first report on a strange new creature whose skeleton had been discovered in Bavaria, where he was the curator of the natural history collections of the Elector.

There then began intense discussion:  what was this?  A bird?  Mammal?  Lizardish thing?  (For lots more on this see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pterodactylus )

Eventually, it was decided that it was a flying reptile, to be called Pterodactylus (“wing-fingered”).  Other differing flying reptiles began to appear, forming a whole class of pterosaurs (“winged lizards”), many resembling something like this, in which the leathery wings were attached to the claws (hence that “wing-fingered”), this being a Rhamphorynchus (“beak-snout”—for more on them, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhamphorhynchus )

If we consider its look and perhaps the look of the class in general—those wings, that beak, and, of course, the great age (from the Jurassic Period, 200,000,000 to 145,000,000 years ago)—might this have been an inspiration for Tolkien’s creation of whatever this thing—we don’t appear to have any name for it except “foul beast”–upon which the chief Nazgul rode?

Then again, perhaps there is another inspiration, one which Tolkien might have carried about quite unconsciously.  He had been introduced to the Alice books as a child (see Carpenter’s Tolkien, 24) and, among the original illustrations by Tenniel for the second volume is this—

set it against that very familiar scene on the fields of the Pelennor and, minus a Nazgul, is there very much difference?

(by Arkady Roytman)

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Avoid Tulgey Woods,

And know that, as always, there’s



Downs Time (II)

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

It all began with Tom Bombadil,

his being left out of almost all adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, both radio and film, and how, although I believed, as Tolkien suggested, that Tom had a part to play in the story, it was the Barrow-downs I missed because of that omission, as much because I find the chapter in which they play a major role a really well-crafted piece of story-telling—and a chilling one, at that.


(This is an image you can see on various Tolkien websites and, for my taste, although it’s nicely done, it has a few too many standing stones, although, to do the artist justice, he/she is probably modeling it on some spots on Dartmoor, where such things can tend to congregate.)

In the first installment of this posting, we and the hobbits had left Tom’s house with the intent to reach the East Road, which will take us to Bree.

This required a straight line, more or less, due north, skirting the Old Forest to the west (to our left)

and the Barrow-Downs to the east (to our right—an important fact and well worth keeping in mind for what’s to come).

While doing so, we’ve encountered a rather strange earthwork, a so-called “saucer barrow”,

with a single standing stone in its midst (although no barrow).

From the lip of this earthwork, the hobbits believe that they can make out the East Road, not so much farther to the north:

“Then their hearts rose; for it seemed plain that they had come further already than they had expected.  Certainly the distances had now all become hazy and deceptive, but there could be no doubt that the Downs were coming to an end.  A long valley lay below them winding away northwards, until it came to an opening between two steep shoulders.  Beyond, there seemed to be no more hills.  Due north they faintly glimpsed a long dark line.  ‘That is a line of trees,’ said Merry, ‘and that must mark the Road.  All along it for many leagues east of the Bridge there are trees growing.  Some say they were planted in the old days.’ “ (All quotations in this posting are from The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-downs”)

(a Van Gogh pen and ink sketch from 1888.  Such tree-lined roads remind me of long stretches of highways in France—here’s a short history of why they look the way they do:   https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1914/3/1/french-roads-and-their-trees)

And, lulled by what so far seems a mild day, we and the hobbits stop for an impromptu picnic—

“But they were now hungry, and the sun was still at the fearless noon; so they set their backs against the east side of the stone.  It was cool, as if the sun had had no power to warm it; but at that time this seemed pleasant.  There they took food and drink, and made as good a noon-meal under the open sky as anyone could wish; for the food came from ‘down under Hill’.  Tom had provided them with plenty for the comfort of the day.  Their ponies unburdened strayed upon the grass.”

But, although Tom may have provided lunch, he also gave the hobbits a warning:

“Tom reckoned the Sun would shine tomorrow, and it would be a glad morning, and setting out would be hopeful.  But they would do well to start early; for weather in that country was a thing that even Tom could not be sure of for long, and it would change sometimes quicker than he could change his jacket.  ‘I am no weather-master,’ said he, ‘nor is aught that goes on two legs.’”

And now they found that Tom was right:

“Riding over the hills, and eating their fill, the warm sun and the scent of turf, lying a little too long, stretching out their legs and looking at the sky above their noses:  these things are, perhaps, enough to explain what happened.  However that may be:  they woke suddenly and uncomfortably from a sleep they had never meant to take.  The standing stone was cold, and it cast a long pale shadow that stretched eastward over them.  The sun, a pale and watery yellow, was gleaming through the mist just above the west wall of the hollow in which they lay; north, south, and east, beyond the wall the fog was thick, cold and white.  The air was silent, heavy and chill.  Their ponies were standing crowded together with their heads down.”

As they had left Tom Bombadil’s, Goldberry had said to them:  “North with the wind in the left eye and a blessing on your purpose.  Make haste while the Sun shines!”, but now:

“The hobbits sprang to their feet in alarm, and ran to the western rim.  They found that they were upon an island in the fog.  Even as they looked out in dismay towards the setting sun, it sank before their eyes into a white sea, and a cold grey shadow sprang up in the East behind.  The fog rolled up to the walls and rose above them, and as it mounted it bent over their heads until it became a roof:  they were shut in a hall of mist whose central pillar was the standing stone.”

(And I wonder if this last bit of description isn’t a foreshadowing of the inside of the main chamber in a barrow?  Here’s the partially-reconstructed late-Neolithic barrow at Belas Knap for a comparison.)

As I wrote in Part I of this posting, I’m interested in watching the way in which Tolkien entangles both the hobbits and us, the readers, in this ghostly and unstable world.  The hobbits have been lulled into being too leisurely and now the change of weather has begun to ensnare them.  Their route was due north, but, without Goldberry’s sun, how might they know which way was north?

“They felt as if a trap was closing about them; but they did not quite lose heart.  They still remembered the hopeful view that had had of the line of the Road ahead, and they still knew in which direction it lay.”

But did they?

“The valley seemed to stretch on endlessly.  Suddenly Frodo saw a hopeful sign.  On either side ahead a darkness began to loom through the mist; and he guessed that they were at last approaching the gap in the hills, the north-gate of the Barrow-downs.  If they could pass that, they would be free…But his hope soon changed to bewilderment and alarm.  The dark patches grew darker, but they shrank; and suddenly he saw, towering ominous before him and leaning slightly towards one another like the pillars of a headless door, two huge standing stones.  He could not remember having seen any sign of these in the valley, when he looked out from the hill in the morning.”

But he might have seen them, and what they lead to, just not making the immediate connection with his earlier optimistic view of their progress:

“ ‘Splendid!’ said Frodo.  ‘If we make as good going this afternoon as we have done this morning, we shall have left the Downs before the Sun sets and be jogging on in search of a camping place.’ But even as he spoke he turned his glance eastwards, and he saw that on that side the hills were higher and looked down upon them, and all those hills were crowned with green mounds, and on some were standing stones, pointing upwards like jagged teeth out of green gums.”

“…like the pillars of a headless door…”—but a door leading to what?  Here, I’m reminded of the cave now called “Oweynagat” (translated either as “Cave of the Cats”, or, probably more likely, “Cave of the Battles”) at Cruachan Ai (modern Rathcroghan) in Eire, which was believed to be an entrance to the Otherworld…

(although in both Old Irish and Middle Welsh literature, at times it seems that one might step from one world into the other without even knowing it—see, for example, the story of Pwyll here:  https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/mab/mab20.htm#page_339 )

And now, disoriented by the fog and in increasing panic, Frodo makes a mistake—and his pony is well aware of it:

“He had passed between them almost before he was aware:  and even as he did so darkness seemed to fall round him.  His pony reared and snorted, and he fell off.  When he looked back he found that he was alone:  the others had not followed him.”

Frodo runs back between the pillars, but, hearing what he believes to be a distant cry–

“It was away eastward, on his left as he stood under the great stones, staring and straining into the gloom.  He plunged off in the direction of the call, and found himself going steeply uphill.”

Now, looking once more at a map, we see that Frodo, coming to those standing stones, has become completely turned around—east is not to his right, as when the hobbits began their passage of the Barrow-downs, but to his left and Frodo is now running south, back into the Downs—and towards those barrows he had spotted that morning—has he, going between those standing stones, entered another world?  If so, it’s a very menacing one.

And now, as Tom had warned them, the weather changes again:

“The mist was flowing past him now in shreds and tatters.  His breath was smoking, and the darkness was less near and thick.  He looked up and saw with surprise that faint stars were appearing overhead amid the strands of hurrying cloud and fog.  The wind began to hiss over the grass…and even as he went forward the mist was rolled up and thrust aside, and the starry sky was unveiled.”

Where had Frodo come to?

“A glance showed him that he was now facing southwards and was on a round hill-top, which he must have climbed from the north.  Out of the east a biting wind was blowing.  To his right there loomed against the westward stars a dark black shade.  A great barrow stood there.”

We know what happens next—the Barrow-wight seizes the paralyzed Frodo and he wakes up among his friends, about to be sacrificed–until he defends himself

(a Ted Nasmith)

and then calls for Tom Bombadil—who arrives, drives out the Wight, and it’s almost as if we’re back to where we began—although perhaps warier and Merry has that sword with which he wounds the chief of the Nazgul, once the Witch King of Angmar—

“Then he told them that the blades were forged many long years ago by Men of Westernesse:  they were foes of the Dark Lord, but they were overcome by the evil king of Carn Dum in the Land of Angmar.”

Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul, by Ted Nasmith

(another Ted Nasmith)

Peter Jackson, explaining his decision to drop Tom Bombadil, Old Man Willow, and the Barrow-downs is quoted as saying:

“In the plot of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ in our movie, in its most simple form, is Frodo carrying the Ring. Eventually, he has to go to Mordor and destroy the Ring. So, you know, what does Old Man Willow contribute to the story of Frodo carrying the Ring? What does Tom Bombadil ultimately really have to do with the Ring? I know there’s Ring stuff in the Bombadil episode, but it’s not really advancing our story. It’s not really telling us things we need to know.”  (quoted from:  https://www.msn.com/en-us/movies/news/why-peter-jackson-cut-tom-bombadil-from-the-lord-of-the-rings/ar-AAVCAT4 )

Although I understand what Jackson means, for me, “things we need to know” does not necessarily include only the “Ring stuff”, but also the wider, deeper picture which JRRT is at such pains to provide us with, an ancient world, inhabited by ancient good, in the form of Tom Bombadil, but also ancient evil in the Barrow-wight and the Downs which he—and presumably others—haunt.  When I reread The Lord of the Rings, “Fog on the Barrow-downs” is a chapter to which I look forward, both to enjoy the story-telling and to be as haunted as the Downs themselves are, as well.

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Keep the wind in your left eye,

And know, that, as always, there’s



Downs Time (I)

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Adapters of The Lord of the Rings, with rare exceptions, have never liked Tom Bombadil.

(the Hildebrandts)

And Tolkien himself had to find ways to explain his presence in the story, even admitting, in one letter that:

“Tom Bombadil is not an important person—to the narrative.  I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’.  I mean, I do not really write like that:  he is just an invention…and he represents something that I find important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely.  I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function.” (letter to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April, 1954, Letters, 178)

For me, he has a number of functions:

1. he presents a brief slowing-down of the narrative—with the exception of that close encounter with Old Man Willow, of course—

(the Hildebrandts)

from the initial pursuit of the hobbits by the Nazgul–

(a Denis Gordeev)

to their attack on the Hobbits in Bree and their relentless pursuit afterwards.

(a second Gordeev)

2. he represents, as JRRT is always at pains to do, something from an older time on Middle-earth, always suggesting to us that traveling across a Third Age landscape means moving above many earlier layers of history (something which any traveler to the UK today must always feel).

3. he adds an element of mystery to Middle-earth—who is he?  Where is he from?  Why has he such great power that the Ring, which makes even Gandalf nervous, means nothing to him?

4. he also provides a link with an element which, in adaptations, disappears as he disappears:  the Barrow Downs,

which combine that sense of deeper past, the supernatural, and even how the past can help the present, in Merry’s sword, which can pierce the Chief Nazgul, the ancient Witch King of Angmar.

(Ted Nasmith)

(For more on this and on Tom in general, see “Jolly Tom.1”, 9 September, 2015, and “Jolly Tom.2”, 16 September, 2015)

Although I miss the pause, I think that I miss much more those Downs, haunted as they are and the way in which Tolkien’s narrative gradually pulls us into them, just as the hobbits are pulled in.

We are told that the hobbits were already aware of them:

“Even in the Shire the rumour of the Barrow-wights of the Barrow-downs beyond the Forest had been heard.” 

Tom, however, provides a fuller picture:

“Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods…wandering at last up on to the Downs.  They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills…Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over them all.”

Such mounds had appeared in Tolkien’s own literary life from his student days, when he would have read this in Beowulf:

“Through the dark of the night-tide, a drake, to
hold sway,
In a howe high aloft watched over an hoard,
A stone-burg full steep ; thereunder a path sty’d
Unknown unto men…”

(Lines 2211-2214–This is from William Morris’ 1895 translation, with A.J. Wyatt, and, knowing how much Tolkien loved Morris’ work, I imagine that he had read this, along with other translations, before he could read it in the original.  For the complete text, see:  https://ia800501.us.archive.org/25/items/taleofbeowulfsom00morr/taleofbeowulfsom00morr.pdf  You can also see Morris’ proof sheets at:   https://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk/linesofthought/artifacts/beowulf/   Proof sheets, for me, are magical, just like hand-written drafts, as they reveal the author in the process of creation—or correction!  For a list of Beowulf translations, by the way, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_translations_of_Beowulf   )

Beyond the literary, Tolkien could have seen barrows practically everywhere around him in southern England, perhaps the most dramatic one near him at Oxford being West Kennet Long Barrow, which is only about 50 miles (about 80km) southwest,

in countryside which has all sorts of mounds, including the very odd Silbury Hill,

what may have been stone-bordered processional ways,

and at least one surviving stone circle with a ditch and rampart.

When they leave Tom Bombadil, the hobbits ride into a rolling landscape

which, to me, already sounds just this side of mazy:

“Their way wound along the floor of the hollow, and round the green feet of a steep hill into another deeper and broader valley, and then over the shoulders of further hills, and down their long limbs, and up their smooth sides again, up on to new hill-tops and down into new valleys.”

By Tom’s advice,

“…they decided to make nearly due North from his house, over the western and lower slopes of the Downs:  they might hope in that way to strike the East Road in a day’s journey, and avoid the Barrows…”

And here a map might help—

(by Astrogator, from Deviant Art)

It’s not very detailed, when it comes to their trip, so let’s add this one—

(by someone named Don Hitchcock)

Basically, they intended to ride to the west of the Downs as best they could, while holding towards the north—as Goldberry has said to them, “And hold to your purpose!  North with the wind in the left eye…”.  At mid-day, however, they rode into what appears to be, in terms of ancient landscape, what is called a “saucer barrow”,

although, in place of a central mound, there is this:

“In the midst of it there stood a single stone, standing tall under the sun above, and at this hour casting no shadow.”

This almost sounds like the gnomon—that’s the thing which casts a shadow–on a sun dial,

as if, at this moment, the hobbits are standing in the middle of time—but time will pass more quickly than they think and that stone may be more than an ancient monument:

“It was shapeless and yet significant:  like a landmark, or a guarding finger, or more like a warning.”

As we’ll see in Part II of this posting next week.

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

“Make haste while the Sun shines!” as Goldberry reminds us,

(the Hildebrandts)

And know that, as always, there’s



Drilling Down

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

I’m always interested in the intersections between Tolkien’s Middle-earth and our medieval Middle-earth, which is so often his model.  This includes the military element.  There is a moment in Jackson’s The Two Towers, however,which recently caught my attention because—well, I hope you’ll see why.

 We’re at Helm’s Deep,

awaiting Saruman’s

(by the Hildebrandts)

private orc army, when suddenly, there’s a horn call and, at the gateway appears a uniformly-clad detachment of Elf archers,

 led by Haldir, who, in The Fellowship of the Ring, commanded elves who watched the borders of Lorien and intercepted the Fellowship as it fled away from Moria and the fall of Gandalf.  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 6, “Lothlorien”)

I’m not clear, in terms of the narrative, why these elves have been added to the garrison (or even, practically speaking, how they’ve gotten there, as the countryside between their home in Lorien and Helm’s Deep is infested with orcs, as Eomer would be the first to testify) as the author saw no reason to employ them, but what I noticed most of all was the drill-ground precision of their movements, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqIMhrS14B0 .

As someone who had first been introduced to such movements as a member of the King Edward’s School Cadet Corps in 1907,

and then, at Oxford, both as a trooper in King Edward’s Horse

(This is from the very informative website for the long-disbanded regiment:  https://kingedwardshorse.net/ )

and then as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers,

Tolkien would have been very aware of close-order drill of the sort which had become part of the life of any soldier in the British army all the way back to the later-17th century, if not earlier.

The original point of such drill was two-fold.  In the 17th century, infantry units were formed of musketeers and pikemen mixed

and 16-18-foot-long pikes (about 5-5.5m.)

would be dangerous not only to the enemy, but to their own side, if not methodically handled. 

The musketeers’ weapon, both the earlier matchlock

 and the later flintlock,

were very short-range weapons (under 100 yards—about 90m.) and so had to be massed to have much punch and, since they were single-shot weapons, loading and reloading had to be carefully organized, as well.

The pike was replaced by about 1700, all infantry then being armed with muskets, but, otherwise, the drill would have remained the same, and battles would be fought by long lines of carefully-trained men firing at each other through the Napoleonic Wars of the late-18th and into the 19th century.

Even as weapons changed, and, more slowly, tactics, throughout the 19th century, older drill was still practiced, more for learning discipline—to obey commands without question—

by Tolkien’s time than for firepower.

(If you’d like to see the reenactment of actual drill, have a look at:  https://i.ytimg.com/vi/NrwbjzxSIHA/maxresdefault.jpg )

Although there is a hint of something like gunpowder, both at Helm’s Deep and at the Rammas Echor (see, for instance, “Fourth Age—Big Bang Theory” 17 February, 2016), in general, everyone uses sword, axe, lance, and bow, just as western soldiers did before bombards

appeared first at sieges

and hand gonnes

began to appear with any regularity on battlefields.

Such battles as there were in our western medieval world lacked the disciplined structure of later times, as soldiers were more like armed crowds than drilled infantry and cavalry in regular units.

As an easy example, and one which Tolkien would have known well, there’s Agincourt, fought between English and French armies in northwestern France in October, 1415, the third battle in the Hundred Years War in which the English relied upon their firepower to beat the French.

The French were a mainly cavalry-heavy army, although mostly dismounted for the actual engagement.

These would have been various levels of the nobility and their followers, only roughly organized into divisions.

The English, in contrast, were a mostly longbow-armed infantry

with a much smaller contingent of nobles and their followers, also dismounted.

Just like the French, they would mainly be very loosely organized into troops of noblemen’s retainers.

When it came to the actual fighting, the French attacked the English across open, muddy fields in several waves and great numbers were shot down by the English longbowmen before much hand-to-hand combat took place.  When it did, the English had already so punished the French that there wasn’t much fight left in them and they soon left the field to the English, along with great numbers of their dead and wounded.

Warfare in The Lord of the Rings has the two sieges—Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith–both of which are conducted pretty much as one would do in our Middle Ages.  As for battles, if we don’t count the attack of the Rohirrim against the besiegers of Minas Tirith,

(by Denis Gordeev)

or the ambush of the Southrons by Faramir,

(Alan Lee)

there’s really only one–at the Morannon–

(the Hildebrandts)

and, like the sieges, its model in western medieval battles is clearly evident.

We aren’t given much detail, unfortunately, as to dispositions, but here’s what the text says:

“…Aragorn now set the host in such array as could best be contrived; and they were drawn up on two great hills of blasted stone and earth…Little time was left to Aragorn for the ordering of his battle.  Upon the one hill he stood with Gandalf, and there fair and desperate was raised the banner of the Tree and Stars.  Upon the other hill hard by stood the banners of Rohan and Dol Amroth, White Horse and Silver Swan.  And about each hill a ring was made facing all ways, bristling with spear and sword.  But in the front towards Mordor where the bitter assault would come there stood the sons of Elrond on the left with the Dunedain about them, and on the right the Prince Imrahil and the men of Dol Amroth tall and fair, and picked men of the Tower of Guard.”

By this description, I wonder if one medieval model might have been that of it King Harold and his Anglo-Saxons in their last moments on Senlac Hill, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, facing the Norman cavalry.

We’re given much less of the other side, only:

“The orcs hindered by the mires that lay before the hills halted and poured their arrows into the defending ranks.  But through them came striding up, roaring like beasts, a great company of hill-trolls out of Gorgoroth…Reckless they sprang into the pools and waded across, bellowing as they came.  Like a storm they broke upon the line of the men of Gondor, and beat upon helm and head, and arm and shield, as smiths hewing hot iron.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 10, “The Black Gate Opens”)

Even without more description, it’s clear what Tolkien had in mind:  mass meets mass, with a certain amount of previous arrow fire on the part of the orcs, which we can often see in medieval battles, even without the three great English longbow victories of Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415).  The Norman use of bowmen at the aforementioned Battle of Hastings, for example, may even have caused the death of King Harold himself and the subsequent Anglo-Saxon defeat.

(The Latin reads:  “Here King Harold has been killed”.  There is scholarly argument, however, about which figure represents Harold, the warrior holding the arrow or the one being struck down by the Norman cavalryman.   The first written source, which appeared about 4 years after the battle, doesn’t mention the arrow, which only appears in a poem from about 40 years later.)

If there’s no such discipline to be seen in JRRT’s usual models for warfare, what is it—not to mention those elves—doing at Helm’s Deep?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Keep your helmet closed at all times on the battlefield,

And remember that there’s always




Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Early this week, I was lying in the grass, enjoying a late October mackerel sky,

when suddenly a jet flew high overhead and left a contrail (short for “condensation trail”, meaning that those white streaky lines are actually condensed water crystals—the jet’s engines were really acting as a kind of high-powered ice machine).

Without a moment’s thought, I was imagining the Wicked Witch of the West at work

her contrail more menacing, both for its message and for its funereal color.

And, as I lay there, looking up, I began to count just how many flying things appeared from the skies of Oz, first in the 1939 film,

and then the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 1900.

(If you don’t have a copy of this, here’s a LINK to one:  https://archive.org/details/wonderfulwizardo00baumiala )

There is, of course, first of all, Dorothy’s house.

(And, Miss Gulch metamorphosed from the bicycle rider into her real shape in Dorothy’s vision)

Then there’s Glinda’s floating ball.

The Wicked Witch of the West in flight.

The terror of my childhood, those flying monkeys—

And then the Wizard’s balloon, which almost takes Dorothy back to Kansas.

I had seen the film numerous times before I ever opened the book, but, thinking about it now, the contrast between 1900 and 1939 in terms of available air technology really struck me.  In 1900, there were plenty of experiments with manned aircraft

but only balloons

(which dated back to the Montgolfier Brothers in the 1780s)

actually worked.  So, anything in the air, if not natural and not a balloon, would be highly unusual—unless in a fairy tale, of course.

Looking at the book, then, we see that the house is there (with Toto in tow)

as, after all, it was propelled by the natural force of a twister.

Glinda—who is not Glinda in the book, but simply the Witch of the North (the real Glinda appears much later)—rather than floating down from the heavens, does the equivalent of walking onstage (accompanied by Munchkins).

A new flying figure appears, however, in Chapter VIII, a stork, who rescues the Scarecrow from being stuck in the middle of a river (see Chapter VIII, “The Deadly Poppy Field”).

When Dorothy finally encounters the Wicked Witch of the West,

the Witch has no broomstick, but she has, in fact, an arsenal of natural (and unnatural) flying weapons, employing a flock of crows to attack the Scarecrow,

as well as bees to attack Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion,

and finally those flying monkeys,

 who trash the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and make off with the Lion, Dorothy, and Toto, but who later become Dorothy’s allies, through a magic cap (you can see Dorothy wearing it in the illustration).  It might be a puzzle as to how they fly, but they are flying animals, not something in an unworkable mechanical device.

The wizard and his balloon then appear—and disappear, Dorothy-less.

Between 1900 and 1939, successful air flight made its debut,

airships had become available, although not for ordinary people,

and I suspect that, with the terrible explosion of the Hindenburg, in 1937, 

they were already on the way to fading away, as they did, with only small revivals, into the current century.

(Except, of course, for Indiana Jones and his father–)

Transcontinental air travel was in its earliest stages, although it was expensive and most people took the trains.  (In fact, the first transcontinental air service was actually a hybrid of trains and planes—see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcontinental_Air_Transport )

Skywriting (first appearing in 1922) might have inspired the Wicked Witch,

(I found this at a very interesting site you might enjoy:  http://www.terriwangard.com/2017/10/the-worlds-largest-signboard.html?spref=pi )

although brooms have been a vehicle of choice for much longer.

(This is perhaps the earliest depiction of a woman on a broomstick—for more, see:   https://www.history.com/news/why-witches-fly-on-brooms )

And then, thank goodness, the next step which happened with real aircraft—

did not become part of the flying monkeys’ repertoire, who remained no more complex than the idea of monkeys in flight and no more menacing than tearing the stuffing out of a scarecrow.

Imagine what the Emerald City might have looked like, if the Wicked Witch had turned her monkey bombers on it—“Surrender Dorothy” might have been quickly obeyed!

Thanks for reading, as always.

Stay well,

Avoiding spinning houses and swooping simians,

And remember that, as ever, there’s




Welcome, as always, dear readers.

It’s almost Halloween once more and, to honor an ancient (and favorite) holiday, I’m writing on a creepy subject.

(This is pretty spooky, too, I think.  To create one for yourself, see:  https://pinkpixieforest.blogspot.com/2012/09/lawn-ghost-re-post.html#.VFEW0fl4pAU )

Halloween is our version of the Celtic Samain (which, in Old Irish, would be SAH-vin, more or less, modern spelling being Samhain and modern pronunciation SAH-win), the beginning of a celebration which ends summer (Samh) and looks towards winter (Gamh).  It’s also a time when the dead are thought to appear briefly among the living.  (For an entertaining article with lots of detail see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain#Etymology

In this month which borders summer and winter, the dead and their (under)world have appeared several times in my teaching.  First, Herakles, as the last of his Labors, was required by his (distant) cousin, Eurystheus, to go down into that underworld to bring back Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades.

(Eurystheus, although related to Herakles through the hero Perseus, clearly hasn’t inherited an heroic qualities.  Eventually, in one version of the story, he orders Herakles to leave the fruits of his labors at the city gates.)

In another version of tradition, Herakles rescues Theseus (but not his companion, Perithoos) from a botched attempt to kidnap Persephone from the Underworld.

In the class, we went on to the Odyssey, where, in Book 11, Odysseus is told by Circe that he must visit the Land of the Dead, to learn something important from the seer Tireisias,

but also meets a recently-dead crewman, Elpenor,

as well as his mother, and the hero Achilles, killed at Troy.

(That’s Achilles on the left, Ajax on the right, playing a game with numbers—perhaps a board game?, as Achilles is saying “Tesara”, “Four” and Ajax is saying “Tria”, “Three”.)

Near the end of the poem, we return to the Underworld where we see everyone from the ghost of the murdered Agamemnon

to the crowd of suitors killed by Odysseus and his son, Telemachos, with the aid of a pair of faithful slaves, Eumaios and Philoitios.

After Herakles and Odysseus, perhaps the most famous visit to the Underworld occurs when Orpheus attempts to rescue his wife, Eurydice,

which is also the subject of two of my favorite operas, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) L’Orfeo, 1607,

(its first printing, two years later)

which you can see here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mD16EVxNOM

and C.W. Gluck’s (1714-1787) Orfeo ed Euridice

Gluck produced several different versions of this—this which you can see here is the original 1762 Vienna version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUpZ1Npj23M

There is also Offenbach’s (1819-1880) comic version Orfee aux Enfers, Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858, revised version, 1874—of which this is the cover of the 1874 score–

and you can watch a very well-sung modern performance of the 1858 version here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKjaT1GV9gg )

In all of these stories, the main character goes to the Otherworld to bring back someone (or something, if you consider Cerberus an “it”).  Recently, I’ve been re-listening to a beautiful and sometimes eerie symphony by J.J. Raff (1822-1882) based upon a once-famous ballad, “Lenore”, by Gottfried August Buerger (1747-1794),

in which the opposite takes place:  a visitor comes from the Otherworld to bring someone there, instead. 

(I’m guessing that this is the earliest published illustration, by Daniel Chodowiecki, 1726-1801, which appears in Gedichte von Gottfried August Buerger Mit 8 Kupfern von Chodowiecki—“Poetry of G.A. Buerger with 8 Copperplate Engravings by Chodowiecki”–Goettingen, 1778.  This and other Chodowiecki illustrations may be found at:  https://www.gottfried-august-buerger-molmerswende.de/Burger_und_sein_Museum/Rund_um_Burger/Illustrationen/illu2/body_illu2.html )

Buerger’s ballad, which was first published in the Goettinger Musenalmanach for 1774 (here’s your copy:  https://www.gottfried-august-buerger-molmerswende.de/musenalmanach_1774.pdf   See pages 214-226 for the poem), has a very simple plot:

1. Lenore is engaged to Wilhelm, a cavalryman in the army of Frederick the Great during the Seven Years War (1756-1763)

2. The war over, others return, but not Wilhelm

3. Lenore becomes increasingly distraught and, eventually, curses God for what she sees as Wilhelm’s (and her) undeserved fate

4. One night, there is a knock at the door and it appears to be the missing Wilhelm, who asks Lenore to mount up behind him and ride to their marriage bed

5. Their ride through the night is at a breakneck speed and around them the landscape becomes increasingly disquieting, to say the least

6. Finally, they arrive—at a cemetery gate–and, riding in, they come to an open grave—Wilhelm’s—and Wilhelm turns into Death himself, informing Lenore that one does not quarrel with God and the poem ends with her marriage bed being the grave (although there is an faint implication that perhaps Lenore’s soul will be saved)

In 1774, intellectual currents in the German states (no “Germany” as a whole will exist till 1871) were flowing towards what would become Romanticism, and the poem was an immediate success, combining prevailing early Romantic favorite themes:  death, the supernatural, and history—with a little morality thrown in.   It took about twenty years for this poem to reach a similar popularity in England, but, when it first appeared, in multiple translations—or, considering how they differ from the original, better to say “versions”—in 1796, the same current began at least to trickle into English literary thought.  (For a very full treatment of the Englishing of “Lenore”, see:   https://archive.org/details/earliestenglish00emergoog/page/n2/mode/2up?view=theater )

Needless to say, after that initial flood of versions, literary people through the 19th century continued to try their hand at translating—or adapting—Buerger’s original poem.  I think my favorite is an early attempt by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828-1882, which you can read here:  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lenore_(Rossetti)

Raff’s symphony, first publically performed in 1873, was, like Buerger’s poem, an immediate success, being a big later Romantic piece, which begins with the depiction of passionate love, moves to Wilhelm’s march off to war (watch out—that march is very catchy), then to Lenore’s anguish, the wild ride, but then a less terrible ending, entitled, in the score, “Wiedervereinigung in Tode”—“Reuniting in Death”, which is quite peaceful.  Here’s the first modern recording of it so that you can see what you think:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h77-FLvJ3sM .

In the meantime, thanks, as ever for reading (and perhaps I should also say listening),

Stay well,

If, on 31 October, you leave your outside light on, be prepared for goblins,

And know that, as always, there’s




Buerger’s poem has had many illustrators over the years.  Here are the works of a few as (I hope) a little extra Halloween treat.

(by William Blake, 1757-1821, of all people—but then his good friend, Heinrich Fuessli/Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825, painted that bizarre “The Nightmare”, 1781)

(by J.D. Schubert, 1761-1822)

(by Frank Kirchbach, 1859-1912)


I’ve always loved Halloween, but there was one tradition which turned up each year and which always really frightened me as a child—Disney’s Headless Horseman. 

Even though I quickly learned that it was only a bully’s trick to scare off a potential suitor, the setting is so skillfully done in the Disney version that my knowledge of what was behind that frightening figure never really helped.  If you don’t know the story, here it is, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., first published in book form in 1824 (this is an 1864 illustrated text of the author’s revised edition):   https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2048/pg2048-images.html

Through a Rough Bough

As always, dear readers, welcome.

Some years ago, an Italian friend of mine decided to take a French course.  By the second week, he was complaining about pronunciation:  “In Italian, 100 percent of everything written is said.  In French,” he continued, his eyebrows raised, “almost nothing is!”

This is, for an English speaker, a standard complaint—and only one of two, not only those silent letters on the end of words, but also that, even when something is pronounced, the same letters can stand for different sounds, which is what gave this posting its title, three similarly spelled English words—and yet:  through is said “throo”, rough is said “ruff”, and bough is said “bow”—but that looks like the word we pronounce as “boe”—although, in this case, it’s said as b + ow!  as in ouch!—or is that ooch?  Or uhch?

All this comes from something called the Great Vowel Shift, first named that by Otto Jesperson (1860-1943)

 in his extensive A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (7 volumes, 1909-1949), where the term shows up in Volume 1, “Part I Sounds and Spellings”.  Here, he described an odd change in English pronunciation from the medieval period

through Shakespeare’s time

and beyond. 

The explanation for this is complicated, including the Norman conquest of England,

which brought a ruling class

(William the Conqueror with his half-brothers, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, Count of Mortain)

which spoke one kind of French (which itself must have had elements of Norse, as the Normans’ direct ancestors had been Vikings who had so colonized one area of western  France that it came to be called “Norsemanland”—Normandy).

Although the rulers spoke French, the ruled continued to speak Anglo-Saxon (also and now commonly called Old English),

which must have made for no end of difficulties, at least initially, although, when it came to things like seizing local land and demanding taxes, the Normans appear to have had little trouble making their demands known.

(This is a page from the “Winchester Book”, known colloquially as “the Domesday Book”.  Written in Latin, this was the attempt, in 1086, by William’s agents, to catalogue all land-holding in England and part of Wales in great detail.  For more, see:  https://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/ )

Writing in Old English appears to have continued, in some areas, into the mid-12th century, but then fades away, although the spoken language remained and, combined with a second wave of northern French, formed the basis of what is called Middle English, which people usually refer to as “the language of Chaucer”.

(This is from the early 15th-century Ellesmere Manuscript, which is a beautifully illustrated copy of the “Canterbury Tales”.   To see more about it, go to:  https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll7/id/2360  As Chaucer died in 1400, it’s possible that this is an actual portrait.  Unfortunately, we have no information about his horse.  It is interesting, however, that Chaucer’s last name is not English, but French,  meaning “shoemaker” , while his first name, “Geoffrey” seems to be derived from a Germanic compound which appears in the Old English name “Godfrith” and in the Norman French name,  “Geoffrei”, meaning something like “God’s peace/protection”.     See:   https://ia904506.us.archive.org/34/items/ancestryofchauce00kern/ancestryofchauce00kern.pdf for much more on the subject of Chaucer’s last name.)

Tolkien, however, would have been the first to tell you that Middle English began some time before Chaucer had been born and that Chaucer’s English was just one form, from one area of England.   Tolkien himself had published an edition of Ancrene Wisse, an early 13th century handbook for anchoresses (a kind of medieval female hermit—see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anchorite ), written in a dialect very different from that of Chaucer,

as well as, with E.V. Gordon, an edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which, although written by an author who lived in the same era as Chaucer, spoke a Middle English which showed significant differences from that of the author of “The Canterbury Tales.

Throw into this mix the fact that, when printed texts began to appear in the late 15th century,

early printers were influenced by the English which they spoke, there not being  a “common English”, either in speech or in writing. William Caxton (c.1422-c. 1491), who is believed to have introduced the printing press to England in the 1470s, came from Kent and was well aware that his English was not the English spoken elsewhere and that even the English of his own childhood was changing.  (See this brief article for more on this:  https://www.bl.uk/treasures/caxton/english.html  and for a very interesting monograph on Caxton’s prologues and epilogues, see this: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.233974/page/n245/mode/2up  )

Putting all of this together, we arrive at the bizarre word GHOTI, first mentioned  in a letter from  the publisher Charles Ollier to Leigh Hunt in 1855, in which the  spelling of the word is explained as:

1.  the GH is the F sound in “enough”

2.  the O is the IH sound in “women”

3. and the TI is the  SH in “mention”

so GHOTI is actually an alternate spelling of FISH.  (See:  https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=81 with its wonderful attached comments), and the Great Vowel Shift is—or perhaps should be—to blame.

(For more on the Shift, see this very jolly explanation:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOOAb7erAmE  )

Needless to say, then, when my Italian friend had complained about French, he turned to me and said, “And then there’s English…” (which he, in fact, spoke extremely well) and I had to admit, English has its orthographic difficulties.  This was a sort of personal  nostra culpa (which I’ve seen translated in the singular as “my bad”, but, since I’m at the other end of many generations of English speakers/writers, it seemed more appropriate to write “our bad”) for the quirks in my native tongue.  At the same time, another Latin phrase came to mind, usually written tu quoque, which should probably be translated in a childish tone, “you do it, too!” and I point at one of our Germanic cousins, Danish.  There’s a common example of “well, it’s spelled like this, but said like that”:  rodgrod med flode (which requires that the O’s all have the slash through them which indicates a sound like—hmm, go to:  https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/danish-alphabet to see all of the ways in which it can be pronounced (and already I imagine that you understand where I’m going with this).  Here’s a native speaker saying it:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasgdhN7S48   (For an entertaining little lecture on why Danish sounds the way it does—and I myself think that it’s actually pretty cool, in fact—see:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eI5DPt3Ge_s )

It’s clear that we English-speakers are not alone.

Thanks for reading,

Stay well,

Remember:  “I before E—except after C—or—when sounded like AY, as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’ “,

And know that, as always, there’s




Here’s an intelligent and fun historical explanation of why French frustrated mio amico italiano (in whose home language every letter is pronounced):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2TWBBxwhbU

Metal and Wheels

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

When Frodo and his companions meet what appear to be two beggars on the road home to the Shire, they are in for an unpleasant surprise.

(a splendid Ted Nasmith, who often chooses moments in Tolkien which no one else seems to have thought of)

“ ‘Well Saruman!’ said Gandalf. ‘Where are you going?’”

Saruman’s response is just what one would expect:  self-pitying and spiteful, attacking Galadriel in particular:

“…You have doomed yourselves, and you know it.  And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine.”

He also has words for the Hobbits:

“…Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like…” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”)

Sam is, of course, right to say “And I didn’t like the sound of what he said about the Southfarthing” as the hobbits discover when they reach the Brandywine and the edge of the Shire:

“It was after nightfall when, wet and tired, the travelers came at last to the Brandywine, and they found the way barred.  At either end of the Bridge there was a great spiked gate; and on the further side of the river they could see that some new houses had been built; two-storeyed with narrow straight-sided windows, bare and dimly lit and all very gloomy and un-Shirelike.”

It only gets worse from there, with hints of a kind of brutal communist-like regime

“It’s all those ‘gatherers” and ‘sharers”, I reckon, going round counting and measuring and taking off to storage.  They do more gathering, and we never see most of the stuff again,” says Hob Hayward, who is, in fact, a servant of this new regime.

And, instead of an elected mayor, there is “the Chief” and, behind him, “Sharkey”, who turns out to be Sam’s foreboding personified:  Saruman.

(by Inger Edelfeldt)

Saruman has been busy in the Shire:

“…’if they’re such fools, I will get ahead of them and teach them a lesson.  One ill turn deserves another.’  It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men.  Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives.  And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries.”

Besides reorganizing the Shire socially and politically, Saruman has been busy turning the countryside into an equivalent of early Industrial Revolution England—Tolkien’s own nightmare of what was happening before and in his own time:

“Still there seemed an unusual amount of burning going on, and smoke rose from many points round about.  A great cloud of it was going up far away in the direction of the Woody End…

…they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock…there was a whole line of ugly new houses along Pool Side…An avenue of trees had stood there.  They were all gone.  And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance.  It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter , “The Scouring of the Shire”)

Because of Saruman’s words, it’s possible to see this as simply a complex act of revenge, a payback by him for the loss of Isengard and his position as head of the Istari

(by those Tolkien illustrator pioneers, the Hildebrandts)

Frodo, however, sees it as one part of something much larger and much worse:

“ ‘This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam…

“ ‘Yes, this is Mordor,’ said Frodo.  ‘Just one of its works.  Saruman was doing its work all the time, even when he thought he was working for himself…’ “

This is a theme which we can trace all the way back to Gandalf’s description of his conversation with Saruman in “The Council of Elrond”, where Saruman has tried to enlist Gandalf on his side for the conquest of Gondor he anticipates:

“ ‘…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.  Victory is at hand; there will be rich reward for those that aided 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…’

‘Saruman,’ I said, ‘I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant…’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

As we learn, Saruman has unwisely believed that, in handling a palantir, his communications with Sauron have been simply an exchange of views between two sovereign powers.

 (another Hildebrandt)

This has led him to produce his own Mordor in miniature at Isengard, with its imitation of Mordor’s industrial power—

“But Saruman had slowly shaped it to his shifting purposes, and made it better, as he thought, being deceived—for all those arts and subtle devices, for which he forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor; so that what he made was naught, only a little copy, a child’s model or a slave’s flattery, of that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dur, the Dark Tower, which suffered no rival and laughed at flattery, biding its time, secure in its pride and its immeasurable strength.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “The Road to Isengard”)

Something which appears in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, however, has led me to imagine that Saruman could be doing all of this not just for the sake of vengeance, but for a larger purpose, now that Sauron and Mordor are no more:  making a comeback.  Very early in that text, the narrator says of the Hobbits:

“They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful with tools.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue I “Concerning Hobbits”)

England, in the mid-18th century, was suffering an economic crisis.  From the Middle Ages, it had long been a producer of wool and woolen goods for Europe.

This had always been a piece-work industry, in which everything had been done by hand.

With England’s rise to a dominant position in trade and shipping at the time of the Seven Years War, however, demand had begun rapidly to exceed supply.   And the means to reorganize supply were the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  The slowness of supply came from having to depend upon spinners (called “spinsters”)

and weavers,

the usual formula being that it took at least five spinsters to keep a weaver in thread.  And here we see the “hand-loom” which the Hobbits understood.

The means of changing this came in the form of machines, which began to appear in the 1760s with James Hargreaves’ (1721-1778) “spinning jenny”,

which allowed one operator, turning a crank, to produce 24 bobbins of thread at once. 

Since the Romans, people had used water power to grind wheat and other grains into flour—this is the “water-mill” which the Hobbits also understood.  And JRRT provides us with a picture of one.

It was easy, then, for an ingenious engineer, Richard Arkwright (1732-1792),

to take the next step and figure out a way to hook a thread-producing machine to water power, thus removing the person turning the crank entirely and producing something which, in theory, could work seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.  And it was a simple jump from there to factories with water-powered looms mechanically producing yard after yard of cloth.

Water power had its disadvantages:  drought and winter freezes could stop the process, so the further step was to replace the water with the magic power of the 18th and early 19th centuries:  steam.  Here, the brilliant James Watt,

who, I suspect, thought that virtually everything could be powered by it, enters the picture.

 And so were created steam-powered mills, with their smokey stacks—just the sort of thing which Frodo and Sam see with such dismay on their way to Bag End.

In time, however, mills of this sort could have other uses including producing standardized weapons.  Although the idea of making muskets with interchangeable parts

dates to the later 18th century and possibly France, it would appear that a leader in the industry was the American, Eli Whitney (1765-1825),

and we see here his steam-powered arms factory, near New Haven, Connecticut, in 1827.

No one in the Third Age had firearms (although Saruman and Sauron both appear to have gunpowder—see “Fourth Age—Big Bang Theory”, 17 February, 2016), but the machines which might have stamped out musket parts could just as well have used the same power for stamping out swords and shields and and whatever clothing Saruman’s orcs wore could easily have been turned out in factories just like the one which appalls the Hobbits.

We are told that Saruman, in imitation of Sauron, had turned Isengard into a vast production site to further his plans of conquest:  can we also imagine that he might have had it in mind to do the same to the Shire, with his mind “of metal and wheels” to try to replace Sauron at last?

Thanks for reading, as always.

Stay well,

Imagine driving a Stanley Steamer,

And know that, as ever, there’s



The War(s) of the Worlds

As always, dear readers, welcome.

   I have just finished John Christopher’s (one of a number of pen names for Samuel Youd, 1922-2012)

1960s tetrology about the tripods,

originally a trilogy, to which the author added a fourth volume as a “prequel”.

  The tripods are the vehicles—and emblems—of an alien race , which at an earlier time, had invaded the earth.  If you know H.G. Wells’ work, and, if you read this blog, that’s probably a sure bet, you’ll recognize where Christopher got the idea, both for the invasion and the tripods—

   Europe, in the late 19th century, when Wells came up with his idea, was an increasingly large armed camp.  Industrialization had promoted more and bigger armaments and larger populations had encouraged national conscription (except for Britain, which maintained only a small—especially in comparison–volunteer army).

With heightened awareness of the possibilities of imminent war somewhere, and perhaps soon, British fiction writers began to turn out books like William Le Queux’ (1864-1927) 

1894 what-if novel, The Great War in England 1897,

(Here’s your copy:  https://archive.org/details/greatwarinengla00queugoog/page/n8/mode/2up

in which French and Russian forces combine to invade Britain.

Invasions don’t have to come from the continent, however, and, in 1897, Wells (1866-1946), began

publishing a serial in Pearson’s Magazine entitled  The War of the Worlds,

following that with the story in book form in 1898.

(If you’d like to see it in its original magazine form, here it is, beginning with this:  Pearson’s Magazine, Vol.III, April, 1897, No.16

For the complete text, look here: https://archive.org/details/h-g-wells_the-war-of-the-worlds  )

   In Wells’ narrative, Earth is attacked by a series of cylinders, fired like giant bullets, from Mars, which oddly presages Georges Melies’  (1861-1938) 1902 comic silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Trip to the Moon), in which a group of Earthmen are shot to the moon by a giant cannon.

(And you can see it here:  https://archive.org/details/VoyageDansLaLune  The Internet Archive has over 200 silent films and is a wonderful resource for enjoying an art form which precedes later film, but has its own life and isn’t simply black and white movies without sound.)

   Inside the cylinders are the Martians, few in number, but equipped with weapons far beyond anything available on earth.  And so Wells’ story is the very opposite of a comedy, the Martians being so advanced that, even with a few losses, they, with their superior technology, quickly devastate not only the area around London, but the people around London as well with a combination of what Wells’ calls a “heat ray” and this:

“Each of the Martians, standing in the great crescent I have described, had discharged, by means of the gunlike tube he carried, a huge canister over whatever hill, copse, cluster of houses, or other possible cover for guns, chanced to be in front of him. Some fired only one of these, some two—as in the case of the one we had seen; the one at Ripley is said to have discharged no fewer than five at that time. These canisters smashed on striking the ground—they did not explode—and incontinently disengaged an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathes.”  (The War of the Worlds, Book 1, Chapter XV)

which horribly prefigures this, which appeared only a few years later on the battlefields of the Great War—

The Martians were mostly represented by their “war machines”, huge metal monsters with three legs,

(There are many images of these things on-line, but this seems to me to come closest to Wells’ original description, although this, from the 2005 Tom Cruise film doesn’t seem so far off. )

but the anonymous main character manages to see some Martians outside their machines and here’s his description:

“They were, I now saw, the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive. They were huge round bodies—or, rather, heads—about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face. This face had no nostrils—indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell, but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body—I scarcely know how to speak of it—was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our dense air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whiplike tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each. These bunches have since been named rather aptly, by that distinguished anatomist, Professor Howes, the hands. Even as I saw these Martians for the first time they seemed to be endeavouring to raise themselves on these hands, but of course, with the increased weight of terrestrial conditions, this was impossible. There is reason to suppose that on Mars they may have progressed upon them with some facility.

The internal anatomy, I may remark here, as dissection has since shown, was almost equally simple. The greater part of the structure was the brain, sending enormous nerves to the eyes, ear, and tactile tentacles. Besides this were the bulky lungs, into which the mouth opened, and the heart and its vessels. The pulmonary distress caused by the denser atmosphere and greater gravitational attraction was only too evident in the convulsive movements of the outer skin.

And this was the sum of the Martian organs. Strange as it may seem to a human being, all the complex apparatus of digestion, which makes up the bulk of our bodies, did not exist in the Martians. They were heads—merely heads. Entrails they had none. They did not eat, much less digest. Instead, they took the fresh, living blood of other creatures, and injected it into their own veins. I have myself seen this being done, as I shall mention in its place. But, squeamish as I may seem, I cannot bring myself to describe what I could not endure even to continue watching. Let it suffice to say, blood obtained from a still living animal, in most cases from a human being, was run directly by means of a little pipette into the recipient canal. . . “(War, Book 2, Chapter II)

Probably the end of this story is familiar to you:  although the Martians have advanced technology, they lack immune systems which will fight off terrestrial diseases and, just when it looks like they are about to march on the rest of the UK, they quickly succumb to infections.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to dramatize Wells’ story, from the famous Orson Welles (no relation, as far as I know) radio adaptation of 1938,

which caused a certain amount of panic among listeners in the US,

(You can read about it here: 


and listen to it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9q7tN7MhQ4I )

to the perhaps equally well-known George Pal film from 1953,

in which the story is moved to the early 1950s and southern California and the Martians’ war machines become sleek aircraft,

(for more, see a very interesting and thorough article here: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds_(1953_film) )

to the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg movie of 2005, in which events take place in the present, on the east coast of the US. 

(about which you can read more here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_the_Worlds_(2005_film) and for more adaptations of the Wells’ story, see:   https://www.imdb.com/list/ls058900268/ )

Unlike those who have written scripts which follow, sometimes more, sometimes less, closely Wells’ text, Christopher takes a completely different approach.  To begin, the aliens are not Martians, but come from a distant galaxy and successfully conquer the majority of Earth.  Although their tripods have the destructive power of Wells’ war machines, they conquer in a completely different manner:  through brainwashing.  They take over television and use it to convince most Earthlings that they are not hostile invaders, but beneficent beings and Earth would be far better off with them in control.  This we learn in the first book, or “prequel”, When the Tripods Came.

Once they had achieved their conquest, they erect three huge dome-cities across the northern hemispheres and maintain control by placing a kind of webbing, called “the cap” on the heads of all humans past puberty.  This mesh is dug into the skull and transmits electronic waves which convey the orders of the aliens.  In the subsequent books, which take place some time later, we follow Will, an English boy who, with his difficult cousin, Henry, escapes England ahead of capping and manages to reach what has become a center of resistance to the aliens in The White Mountains.

In the third volume, Will and another boy, to gain intelligence, penetrate one of the three dome cities of the aliens in The City of Gold and Lead,

and, in the fourth and final book, The Pool of Fire, Will and others finally defeat the aliens by breaking open the domes of all three cities, allowing Earth’s atmosphere in, which then poisons all of the aliens.

One might see this as fairly standard science fiction of a certain sort, all about a willful but intelligent boy who has to learn first how to survive and then to take action in a hostile world.  It moves along at a good pace and there is a certain amount of friction and character development, but, for me, the most interesting parts are about the aliens, beginning with Christopher’s description of them:

“…They stood much taller than a man, nearly twice as tall, and were broad in proportion.   Their bodies were wider at the bottom than at the top, four or five feet around I thought, but tapered upward to something like a foot in circumference at the head.  If it was the head, for there was no break in the continuity, no sign of a neck.  The next thing I noticed was that their bodies were supported not on two legs but three, these being thick but short.  They had, matching them, three arms, or rather tentacles, issuing from a point about halfway up their bodies.  And their eyes—I saw that there were three of those, too, set in a flattened triangle, one above and between the other two, and a foot or so below the crown.  In color the creatures were green, though I saw that the shades differed, some being dark, the green tinged with brown, and others quite pallid.  That, and the fact that their heights varied to some extent, appeared to be the only means of telling one from another… (The City of Gold and Lead, 125-126)

It’s no wonder, then, that the aliens use tripod vehicles—they are tripods themselves.

The dome city is, in fact, a kind of eco-dome, which replicates not only their home world’s atmosphere, but also its heat and heavy gravity.  They use young human males as slaves and so wearing is life in such a different climate, even when wearing an oxygen mask, which is a necessity, that it seems that 6 months are the usual life expectancy.  The humans are so conditioned, however, that, when they feel too worn out, they willingly betake themselves to “the Place of Happy Release” to be exterminated.

A striking fact about the aliens is that they seem almost solitary, perhaps because reproduction is by budding and therefore there is little need for the kind of socializing which goes on in human society.  As well, they are aesthetes, seeking or making what they believe to be beautiful—including preserving what they consider fine specimens of young female humans in collections which echo rows on butterflies on pins.  Altogether, I feel that Christopher has produced a distinct race, intelligent, capable, but ultimately alien in every sense.

The idea of the Martian invasion first caught my attention when I read it in comic book form in childhood,

and I’ve read and reread the novel more than once—and even once wrote a blog posting about it (One World, Two Wars, 19 February, 2020), but, reading it this time for this posting, I found a connection—perhaps only the suggestion of a connection—with Tolkien.

   This appears in a footnote by JRRT in one of his letters.  A couple, Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, had interviewed him for The Daily Telegraph Magazine in the later 1960s and though seemingly kind and well-meaning, had either misunderstood or simply recreated parts of the interview, a draft of which they then sent to JRRT.  Tolkien then, very patiently, wrote to correct a number of points and, in the process, added:

“I was greatly taken by the book that was (I believe) the runner-up when The L.R.was given the Fantasy Award:  [The] Death of Grass.  (letter to Mr. and Mrs. Plimmer, 8 February, 1967, Letters, 377)

The Death of Grass is a 1956 science fiction novel by John Christopher. 

If Tolkien knew and enjoyed that earlier novel by Christopher, perhaps he had read about tripods, too?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.

Stay well,

Avoid hair nets,

And know that, as always, there’s




If you would like to know more about the tripods and their world, have a look at:  



There is a very interesting 2013 pseudo-documentary about a Martian invasion called The Great Martian War, 1913-1917, in which the Great War of 1914-1918 is replaced with an alternative:  the great powers of Europe and North America, instead of fighting each other during this period, are allied in a war against exterrestrial invaders.  You can read about it here: 


and see it here:  https://archive.org/details/TheGreatMartianWar19131917.Mister.X   It cleverly mixes real period film with altered or imitation film, giving it a surprisingly authentic look.