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


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

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

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

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


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




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


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


and an indoor one.


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


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


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

image12cosmati floor.jpg

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


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



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

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


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


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



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


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


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

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

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


image23jrrthall.jpgAnd here’s the film version–


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

And thanks, as always, for reading!






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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

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

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


He says of them:

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

That’s not much to go on:

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



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




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


Or Arthur Rackham?


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


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



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


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


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


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

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




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


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

A Pirate’s Life…


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

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

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


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

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


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


Ooops!  Okay—clearly that doesn’t work!

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

They have black sails:

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

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

Anything more?

In The Lord of the Rings, unfortunately not.

Umbar is in Harad,


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

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

Other details?

Just before Sam speaks, Gollum has reported seeing:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


and the wall of the Pelennor, the Ramas Echor.

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


Ships with many oars are, commonly, galleys,


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


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


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


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



And here’s a portrait


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


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

And thanks, as always, for reading.




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

Sugar and Oliphaunts


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

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


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

Sugar cane is a tropical plant


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

The Mûmak of Harad, by Ted Nasmith

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


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


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


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

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

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

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




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

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




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


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


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

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

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








Sugar Is Sweet, And…


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

As we continue to explore Bilbo’s entryway, we feel a little like Bilbo himself watching as all of those dwarves gradually pile in until they almost overwhelm their surprised host.

Unlike our earlier postings on barometers and clocks, which are really on the walls, in this posting, we confess to what is called in literary criticism a “creative misread”.  Take a look at the far left of the illustration.


There is a kind of entryway table, with a mirror and hooks—probably for hats—and those should have tipped us off—but a preconceived notion overwhelmed us, inspired (well, we suppose you could call it that) by how we initially interpreted the object on the right hand corner.

It’s a hat—you can just make out the brim.  It’s a kind of 15th-century hat called a “sugarloaf”, however, because of the crown.


(There is a 13th-14th century helmet given that nickname, as well.


In fact, perhaps there’s a certain similarity with the phase 1 clone helmet, if you add a sort of flange to the lower edge—and a ridge piece?


If so, it certainly wouldn’t be the only medieval-influenced helmet in Star Wars—just look at the Death Star gunners


and compare it with a 15th-century sallet with its bevor


Although Darth Vader’s helmet is a bit more samurai-ish.



All of these came to the screen through the work of uniform historian and costume designer John Mollo,


who died on 25 October, 2017, at the age of 86.  His work included not only science fiction costuming



but also the text for works on the history of uniforms.  For our first novel, Across the Doubtful Sea, he and his illustrator for Uniforms of the American Revolution in Color (1975),


provided us with an accurate view of the uniforms of the British and French navies of the period.




But—as we began to say—the crown of that hat bears that nickname because it looks like sugar as it used to be formed, shipped, and sold.

Today, we see sugar in bags


or in little packets in fast food restaurants


or even in cubes.


In earlier centuries, sugar came in a very different form:


and, to use it, you had special tools to snip off or scrape off pieces when you needed them.



Sugar came like this because of the process by which sugar was extracted from a very tall plant,


the sugar being inside the plant.


The first step was to cut the plant down.


This and some of the following illustrations are drawn from a series of colored engravings published in 1823 and entitled Ten Views in the Island of Antigua.


And, as you can see from the subtitle, the collection is devoted to the sugar-production industry, which was an extremely profitable one.  (And it should always be remembered that the great majority of the workers in these images are slaves.)

Cutting, however, is just the first stage in the process.  In the next step, the cane has to be crushed to get the pulp out.


(We note the mistake in the caption—this isn’t a painting, but a colored engraving.)

The pulp then has to be boiled and sieved until it’s a pure liquid.


Then—initially—it was dried, forming a coarse brown powder, as you can see on the right hand side of this illustration.

This was then packed into huge barrels, called “hogsheads”,


and shipped.


When it reached its final destination, it was turned back into a liquid and further refined until poured into molds, which is how it was commonly sold, even into the 20th century, apparently.


It is estimated that the average person consumes 53 pounds (24kg) of sugar a year, partly because sugar is mixed in with a huge variety of products where you would have to read the label before you realized that it was even an ingredient.

But what about Bilbo?  So far, as there is no concordance to the complete works of JRRT, as there is for something like the Iliad.


(A concordance is a complete collection of all the words, in their various forms, in a work, listed alphabetically, with reference to where they may be found.)

Our research, then, is completely casual—we paged through The Hobbit and, although we found no mention of the word “sugar” per se, we did find, particularly in Chapter One, a number of references to baked goods (“cake”, “seed cake”, and “tarts”).  We might suppose that, as in our medieval times, Bilbo employed honey in his recipes,


but, for the sake of our sugar loaf misread, we’re going to imagine that sugar is the ingredient.  (After all, there are “taters” and tobacco/pipeweed and, in the first edition of The Hobbit, even tomatoes mentioned, so why not?)

The next question, of course, is where this sugar came from.  Sugar is native to Southeast Asia, growing in tropical regions.  As far as we understand it, the Shire appears to be rather like southern England for climate, which means grains and things like hops, for beer, and perhaps even tobacco (in the United States, tobacco is grown as far north as Massachusetts), but nothing which requires a warmer, moister climate.


Europe first began to receive its sugar (after tiny and very expensive exotic imports) in the 16th century from plants descended from cuttings from the Canary Islands and planted in the Caribbean by the agents of Christopher Columbus.  (The Portuguese did something similar in Brazil.)

Looking south on the map of Middle-earth, where would the climate allow for the growth of such plants?


Our best guess is to look as far south as we can—which is why, in our next posting, we want visit Harad and chat with those Corsairs of Umbar…

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Peace! Count the Clock!


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In our last, we puzzled over something in the entryway to Bag End.


It’s that thing to the left of the door.   It looks rather like a clock (which is what we thought before examining it more closely), but it is, in fact, a barometer—and a very puzzling thing for Bilbo to have, as we suggested.

On the right hand wall, however, there is another puzzling object:  an actual clock.

In our world, of course, this is no puzzle at all, clocks being so common.  In fact, our major way of indicating time in English is to say, “It’s 11 o’clock”, where “o’clock” is a contracted form of “of the clock”.  Even if, like many in our world, you get your time from your phone, you’ll still say this, won’t you?


This has been the case since the 16th century, as we can see in Shakespeare’s plays—including moments when characters who live in times before clocks still talk about them, as in Macbeth, Act II, Scene 4, where Macbeth’s cousin, Ross, says to an Old Man, “By th’clock ‘tis day”, when the historical Macbeth lived in the 11th century AD, perhaps 200 and more years before clocks began to appear in western Europe.

Although we’ve seen it regularly cited that Pope Sylvester II


invented the first mechanical clock in the 990s AD, we have yet to see anything in the way of concrete evidence that this is so.  Rather, we see the first clocks to have appeared in the later 14th century, including the Salisbury Cathedral clock, which perhaps dates from 1386.


Likewise there is the clock of Wells Cathedral, tentatively dated to about the same time


or the Gros Horloge in Rouen, in Normandy, whose internal workings date from 1389.


And the pendulum clock—which is what is visible on the right hand wall of Bag End—is an even later invention, credited to the Dutch scientist of the mid-17th century, Christian Huygens.





Long before such devices, people marked time by such things as hour glasses (possibly medieval? Lots of discussion about this, but there is documentation that medieval ships’ captains began to use them)


and water clocks (used in Athenian court rooms to control speeches—when citations of established law were read in court, the order was to “stop the clock”, as reading law as evidence clearly wasn’t considered to be part of a speech)


and even put the sun to work, using its moving shadow to tell the time.  (This is the earliest sundial we’ve seen—it’s Egyptian, from the 13th century BC)


(And just a linguistic footnote on “telling time” as a sort of pun.  On the one hand, we read time off a device—and, if asked, aloud—so that we are “telling—that is reciting—the time”.  At the same time, an older usage of the verb “to tell” was “to count”.  This is preserved in the “teller” in a bank, by someone “telling” a rosary, and by “tolling” a bell.  It can also be seen in other Germanic languages, like Danish, which has the verb “taelle”, “to count”, and German, “zaehlen”.  So, when you “tell” time, you’re both deciphering the information from a device—possibly aloud—and doing so by counting.)

All of which leads us back to Bilbo’s clock, on a wall in the Shire.

As far as we can tell, at the end of the Third Age, the Shire was primarily a non-feudal medieval agricultural world.


Such worlds are, considering how much the sun is involved in growing things like grain,


governed by daylight, which is, on the whole, easy to mark and measure.  (A difficulty for sundials, of course, is that the sun changes position throughout the year and the hours of daylight can vary greatly.  Perhaps this is why there is a famous sundial motto:  “Horas non numero nisi serenas”—“I count only the fair—that is, sunny—hours”.)


So why is there a pendulum clock on that wall?

A partial answer might be the same as that for the barometer:  JRRT is recreating something from his own past, or even from his present—the big dial looks later to us than the 1890s.  Just as in the case of that reference to Bilbo shrieking “like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel” (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”), it mirrors Tolkien’s own world—a world in which railways in Britain were a major influence on changes in marking time.

Railways had begun to appear in 1830, with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.


(And here, by the way, is an engineering marvel of the time—the 1.25-mile long Wapping tunnel, dug to allow the railway’s passage into Liverpool and the first such tunnel to be constructed under a city.  Seeing this 1831 illustration, it’s easy to imagine what kind of shriek Bilbo must have made!)


By 1840, building and traffic had increased dramatically and, as the rail lines stretched across England, an awkwardness appeared:  there was no uniform time standard.  Towns close to each other might share the same time, but those between London and Liverpool, say, had their own methods of marking time and so attempting to produce a dependable schedule for a train’s journey was nearly an impossibility along the 178 miles (287km) between the two cities.


Those in charge of the early railways quickly saw the difficulty and began, as early as 1840, to standardize the measurement of time along their routes.  By the late 1850s, standardization had been mainly achieved—although it was only in the 1880s that the government stepped in to complete the progress.

This regularizing of time produced, on the one hand, standard railway timetable books, like Bradshaw’s Railway Companion



(first published in 1839 and often consulted by Watson and Holmes on their extra-London adventures) and The ABC Alphabetical Railway Guide



(first published in 1853 and the basis of Agatha Christie’s 1936 novel, The ABC Murders).  On the other hand, it also produced standardized time in general, eventually going global, something which the industrial revolution increasingly demanded as part of its production cycle and now so deeply ingrained that virtually everything we do is influenced by it and we even incorporate it into our bodies, either tying it to our wrists


or wear it as part of our clothing.


Work, school, even fun (movies begin on time schedules, television is one long schedule, as well as certain elements of the internet—although the internet does offer the subversive possibility of doing things “on your own time”), all of it moves to the measured tick of time.   In 1937, the year after Agatha Christie’s novel based upon railway timetables was published, JRRT would have felt it, from his lecture schedule to the evening radio broadcasts of the BBC.

Almost as if it were a gathering force of the MODERN WORLD, then, the measurement and standardization of time has crept up, from the later medieval world on.  We can see that Shakespeare was influenced by it—in Julius Caesar (1599?), Act II, the jumpy Brutus and Cassius listen to the sound of a clock striking three—in a world where there would be no clocks to strike for almost 1400 years (but providing us with the title of this post).  Is it any wonder, then, that clocks could have slipped into Middle-earth?  And, besides, they do have a use for Bilbo—how else could he shout to the dwarves as he left them, “If ever you are passing my way…don’t wait to knock!  Tea is at four…” (The Hobbit, Chapter Eighteen, “The Return Journey”)?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



About That PS


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In a PS to our last posting, we showed this illustration


and asked you if you saw something peculiar about it.

In fact, there are two peculiar things about it.  Look to the left of the door.  What is that?   At first, we were inclined to imagine that it was a clock of a style known as a “banjo clock”.


But there was also a clock on the right hand wall, and, unless Bag End was like a stock exchange, with clocks showing various times around the world,


(image the one on the left being “Shire Time”, while the one on the right is “Mordor Time”!)

why would Bilbo have two clocks?

There’s also the technical problem:  banjo clocks—maybe all clocks?—which have pendulums need to use gravity to help in their swing.  If the object on Bilbo’s wall is a clock, it’s upside down and therefore—

and so, after lots of searching to see if we could match it somehow, we were scratching our collective heads when we realized that it wasn’t a clock at all, but a barometer—and a distinctively Victorian one, which fits in with our suggestion in a recent posting that JRRT was using his memories of his Victorian/Edwardian childhood as the basis of Bag End.


So, what’s a barometer and why might Bilbo have one?

The simplest answer to the first of those is that a barometer measures atmospheric pressure.  That measurement, in turn, can tell you about changes in weather:  low pressure, it’s more likely to rain, high pressure, not.  Here’s a basic chart to explain.


One odd thing about Bilbo’s is that, commonly, barometers are combined with thermometers in patterns of the sort you see on the Bag End wall, whereas this one appears to be by itself.


The really odd thing, however, is that he has one to begin with.  The first barometers date from the 1640s, being an offshoot of trying to understand the concept of a vacuum.


It was only in the 1840s that someone (Lucien Vidie) postulated that air pressure changes—measurable by this device– could signal weather changes.  For Bilbo to have such a thing in a Middle-earth which appears to be almost entirely devoid both of science as we understand it and of mechanical technology, is a puzzle at best.   Who made it?  How did he obtain it?  And last—and hardest—what did he do with it?

Of course, as we have discussed in past postings, there are whole areas of knowledge about Middle-earth about which we have little or no information and it’s been fun for us to try to reconstruct things using parallels from our own world, combined with the little we do know.  That first barometer was, we presume, handmade by Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647).



It appears to have been, basically, a long glass tube, attached to a piece of wood by white metal fittings.  The hobbits have glass windows, so the art of glass-blowing exists in their world.  The wood and metal could be used in many other settings.  Once the concept was understood, it would be easy to see someone taking already available techniques and materials and creating the object.

But who made it?  When it came to ingenuity in craft, JRRT suggests the dwarves—with the men of Dale as fellow-workers or perhaps as middlemen.  As Thorin says of the past:

“Altogether those were good days for us, and the poorest of us had money to spend and to lend, and leisure to make beautiful things just for the fun of it, not to speak of the most marvelous and magical toys, the like of which is not to be found in the world now-a-days…the toy market of Dale was the wonder of the North.” (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

How did Bilbo acquire it?  He had come to be known in Hobbiton as unlike other hobbits—his mother, after all, was the famous Belladonna Took (for her history—or, rather, her mystery–see The Hobbit, Chapter 1) and, after his travels, “he took to writing poetry and visiting elves”.  Perhaps the barometer came from one of his trips?  Or had it been sent to him?

If we take the preparations for the famous joint-birthday-party at the opening of The Lord of the Rings as a clue, there must have been at least a small degree of commerce between the Shire and the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and the rebuilt town of Dale:

“On this occasion the presents were unusually good…There were toys the like of which they had never seen before, all beautiful and some obviously magical.  Many of them had indeed been ordered a year before, and had come all the way from the Mountain and from Dale, and were of real dwarf-make.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party).

But then there is that third question:  what did he do with it?  As far as we can currently determine from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, neither Bilbo nor Frodo nor even Gandalf ever mentions a barometric reading, or is concerned that the pressure is dropping.

So what are we to make of this?

For all that JRRT was increasingly careful about this, there a few anachronisms in his work.  In The Hobbit, there is the well-known one of Bilbo’s reaction to Thorin’s explanation of the dangers of future burglary:

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

Although JRRT himself considered changing this for the 1966 revision, Douglas Anderson, in The Annotated Hobbit, 47-48, argues that this doesn’t have to be an anachronism at all:

“…for Tolkien as narrator was telling this story to his children in the early 1930s, and they lived in a world where railway trains were a very important feature of life.”

In fact, built in 1844, the first railway station in Oxford was almost a century old when The Hobbit was published in 1937.


(And we can’t resist this quotation from Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 15 June, 1844, which describes the arrival of the first train as “one of those rampageous, dragonnading fire-devils”.  Clearly, dragons and railroads have a long history together!)

So, is this just a slip on JRRT’s part?  Perhaps he had a barometer in his past, next to a door, and, in his urge to fill up the wall space of Bag End, he simply filled in what he already knew?  We can only shrug—and, in our next, wonder about that clock on the wall to the right:  what’s it doing in Middle-earth?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.



Are You Sitting Down?.2 (Some Thrones, but No Games)


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In our last, we were talking about furniture in Middle-earth—in that post our subject was The Hobbit.  We continue with The Lord of the Rings and conclude with one specialized piece of furniture.

We begin where we began last time, with Bag End.


With all of its rooms and the stuff in them, we suggested then that what JRRT was really doing was depicting the kind of overcrowded place later Victorians and Edwardians—the people with whom he, born 1893, would have grown up around—would have preferred.


[Note, by the way, the table in the middle of the entryway in Tolkien’s picture of Bag end, and compare it with this “monopodium” table with claw feet, which could be seen in such a parlor.]


Once the three Hobbits leave Bag End for their journey to Crick Hollow,


having sent “two covered carts…to Buckland, conveying the goods and furniture…” (and the next day sending off another) (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 3, “Three is Company), they will spend a great deal of time walking (and paddling and riding), but will enter few buildings.  Here, by the way, is a cart—we imagine “covered” simply means that a blanket of some tough coarse fabric, like canvas, (called a “tilt”) would have been pulled over the load.


Our chances of getting much furniture detail are not high, then, but let’s see what we find.

Beyond Buckland, the first indoors for the hobbits is Tom Bombadil’s house.  As the hobbits enter, they are in:

“…a long low room, filled with the light of lamps swinging from the beams in the roof; and on the table of dark polished wood stood many candles, tall and yellow, burning brightly.

In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 7, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”)


The hobbits are given “low rush-seated chairs”.


And, shortly, are shown their bedroom:

“They came to a low room with a sloping roof…There were four deep mattresses…laid on the floor along one side.  Against the opposite wall was a long bench laden with wide earthenware basins, and beside it stood brown ewers filled with water…”

Not much to go on here.  We’ll presume that the bench is wooden and plain, and the basins and ewers (a big pitcher—ultimately from Latin aquarius, “having to do with water”) are of the kind one would have seen in a Victorian bedroom, when indoor bathrooms were still only a wish—or were only in the homes of the extremely wealthy.


[Victorians, by the way, could have specialized places for such pitcher/basin combinations.  They’re called “washstands” and here’s a simple but functional one.]


Next on their journey (we won’t count the barrow—although the Wight does mention a “stony bed”) is the Prancing Pony.


Again—what we have is functional.  The hobbits are initially led to what the landlord, Barliman Butterbur, calls “a nice little parlour” where “There was a bit of bright fire burning on the hearth, and in front of it were some low and comfortable chairs” and “a round table, already spread with a white cloth”. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”)

This sounds like a small, private room, found in some UK pubs, and called a “snug” (etymology unclear—but used to mean “comfy” as early as the 1620s).  Here’s one, in fact, from an Irish pub.  (We don’t advertise—this was simply the image which fit best with both our impression and the book.  And “fit best” does a double duty here, as “snug” can also mean “fitting tightly”.)


The same will be true of the bedroom the hobbits don’t use—and just as well!—plain and nondescript.

So when, if ever, are we given something with more detail?  If not in Bree, perhaps in Rivendell?


Frodo comes to in a generic bed, but the “hall of Elrond’s house” is a bit more promising:

“Elrond, as was his custom, sat in a great chair at the end of a long table upon a dais…In the middle of the table there was a chair under a canopy…” The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)

A “dais” is a raised platform.  If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll remember it at “High Table” (as it’s called in English schools), where the students of the four different colleges meet to dine and the faculty sit on such a platform.


This is a left-over medieval custom, when royalty/nobles sat on a kind of stage, above the lesser folk, for formal meals.


(Oh—and don’t ask about the horse—but it wasn’t required.  Horse and rider do appear at a banquet, of course, in the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”—which JRRT once edited.)


And that “chair under a canopy” reminds us of thrones with canopies, like this at the Palace of St. James, in London.


Which brings us to the subject of thrones, in general.  After Rivendell, indoors will consist of Lothlorien


for the fellowship, then nothing for Sam and Frodo till Faramir’s cave hide-out and, beyond, the Tower of Cirith Ungol


Hardly places to find any furniture beyond the functional!

For the others, we have Edoras


and Minas Tirith.


And here we want to conclude by discussing a similar piece of furnishing in each—those thrones.

These days, when we say or write “thrones”, well, what comes immediately?  A Game of Thrones and the Iron Throne of Westeros.


The thrones of Rohan and Gondor are a bit less complicated.

Theoden’s is described simply as “a great gilded chair” on a “dais with three steps”.  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”).

Here’s Allen Lee’s interpretation


and here is the Hildebrandts’.


The throne of Gondor is just a tiny bit more elaborate:

“At the far end upon a dais of many steps was set a high throne under a canopy of marble shaped like a crowned helm…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

Here’s an image from the film.


But wait—there’s no one on it.  Let’s look lower:

“At the foot of the dais, upon the lowest step which was broad and deep, there was a stone chair, black and unadorned, and on it sat an old man gazing at his lap.”image19ddenethor.jpg

During his lifetime, JRRT would have seen the coronation of five British monarchs:

Edward VII


George V


Edward VIII


George VI


and the current monarch, Elizabeth II.


You’ll notice that, in every case, the throne is the same.


This is the so-called “Coronation Chair”, built between 1297 and 1300 and used since for crowning English monarchs.  It was especially commissioned so that it could hold the “Stone of Scone” (pronounced “skoon”—not like the pastry).  This was an ancient piece of Scottish royal history which Edward I,


in an effort to control Scotland, had stolen from its place on Moot Hill, near the Abbey of Scone.


Supposedly, it was a stone used in the crowning of Scottish kings back to the time of the first one, or that it was even older, having been lugged from Tara, in Ireland, where, under the name “Lia Fail”, “the Stone of Destiny” it was used in coronation ceremonies there.  Its purpose was confirmation:  tradition had it that, when the true king bestrode it (a great old verb form), it gave a great shout.


As far as we know, no shouting has been reported, over the centuries—perhaps because it’s being used for English kings and therefore the stone is holding its tongue till it’s taken back to wear it belongs?

What do you think, dear readers?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




And did you notice something(s) out of place in JRRT’s drawing of Bag End?  We’ll talk about it in our next…



Are You Sitting Down.1?


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Several times, Monty Python skits included the pattern, “Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.”


It was clear, when we first heard it, that, like so much of Python material, it was one of those references which an audience in Britain in the early 1970s would have understood immediately and chuckled at, but it was only with the advent of the all-knowing Wikipedia that the reference came clear to us.  (Here’s a LINK, so that, if you don’t know it already, you, too, can be suitably enlightened.)

But it made us think—not everything does, we promise!—of Tolkien and what must sound like a very odd subject—furniture.


Consider Bilbo’s Bag End:

“The Door opened on to a tube-shape hall like a tunnel:  a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats…The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.  No going upstairs for the hobbit:  bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…” (The Annotated Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

Here is JRRT’s version of the entryway–with Bilbo—or is that JRRT himself?  There appears to be a strong resemblance…



As the narrator tells us, “This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit…”, but, at the same time, we could easily see this description (ignoring the fact that it’s about a hole, albeit “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole…nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole…it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort”) applied to the kinds of late-Victorian/Edwardian interiors with which Tolkien was familiar.


People of this world—middle-class England—seem to have loved to live among piles of possessions—heavy furniture, thick carpets, heavy drapes, and knickknacks galore.


(Oh–and swords, apparently.)

To us, this has a slightly claustrophobic effect—and we imagine that it may be why Alice in Through the Looking-Glass (1871) attempts to escape it–


only to find herself in a distorted version of the same room on the other side of the mirror.


[Here’s the actual mirror, from the childhood home of the real Alice, which is said to have inspired Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll to write a sequel to the first Alice book.]


What about other Middle-earth interiors, beginning in The Hobbit?

Surprisingly, there is really nothing before the Dwarves and Co. reach Beorn’s house.  There is no description of any inside in Rivendell and, beyond that, the only “indoors” we see before Beorn is the main cave of the goblins and the only “furniture” is this:

“There in the shadows on a large flat stone sat a tremendous goblin…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4. “Over Hill and Under Hill”)


Beorn’s house, as we see in Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit (170-171), appears to be based upon an illustration to be found in E.V. Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse (1927) (with an older history yet—see Anderson, 171).


The Hildebrandts saw Beorn’s house as rather like a giant log cabin,


but we imagine the outside of Beorn’s house to look rather more like this view of an Iron Age farmhouse


And here’s a reconstruction of a Norse house interior which is a little more “lived-in”, to give you the idea of what Beorn’s house might look like day-to-day (without the magic animals, unfortunately).


As Tolkien’s illustration shows, however, this is hardly based upon a Victorian parlor!  As the narrator describes it (with magic animals as the kitchen staff):

“Quickly they got out boards and trestles from the side walls and set them up near the fire…Beside them a pony pushed two low-seated benches with wide rush-bottoms and little short thick legs for Gandalf and Thorin, while at the far end he put Beorn’s big black chair of the same sort…These were all the chairs he had in his hall…What did the rest sit on?…The other ponies came in rolling round drum-shaped sections of logs, smoothed and polished, and low enough even for Bilbo…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 7, “Queer Lodgings”)

Beyond Beorn’s house, there is mention that the Elvenking sat “on a chair of carven wood” (The Hobbit, Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond”) and the Master of Laketown has a “great chair” (The Hobbit, Chapter 10, “A Warm Welcome”), but we have come deeper into the Middle-earth/medieval world, it seems, where furniture (at least in the narrator’s view) is sparse and we will only begin to see more abundance, at least in a general way, when we return to the Shire and the unwelcome event of the auction of Bilbo’s possessions on June 22nd:

“The legal bother, indeed, lasted for years…and in the end to save time Bilbo had to buy back quite a lot of his own furniture.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”)

“Furniture” is, unfortunately, a vague word, mentioned just previously in relation to the Sackville-Bagginses who were “busy measuring his [Bilbo’s] rooms to see if their own furniture would fit.”  We’ll have to make do here with our original idea of Bilbo the Middle-earth Victorian’s house,


but, in our next, we’ll have a look at households (and palaces) in The Lord of the Rings, to see what we may find (and we have a hunch the inventory will include a quantity of thrones…)

Thanks, as ever, for reading!



The Nazgul Brothers?


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Imagine a world where there were no airports, no contrails, no roar of engines, no small silver objects crossing the skies, the sound of their flight trailed behind them.  The only flying things would be birds and those in different seasons, some permanent, some migratory (or used to be—where we live in North America the Canada Geese, whose great chevrons across our skies used to be powerful signs of winter to come or spring soon to appear, now squat here year round).


This would have been England in 1892, the year JRRT was born.  There were early airships—basically big balloons of various sorts, but they were primarily stationary and used for (limited) military intelligence.


Then came the Wright brothers


who, in December, 1903, produced the first engine-propelled, manned flight in their enlarged kite.


Thereafter, flight would, literally, take off, but the Wrights, who were idealistically inclined, believed that such an invention would actually end war by making it too terrible.

The British army thought differently, however, and there were soon aerial observation units attached to military formations.  In fact, Sir James Grierson


tactically outfoxed his rival, Sir Douglas Haig,


not only by his skillful use of aircraft for observation, but also by his keen understanding of how to conceal his own movements from Haig’s aircraft


in the army manoeuvres of 1912.



The Great War, when it came, two years later, would then be the proving ground for all sorts of aerial experimentation.

First, it was just observation.


A British aviator, flying north of the army, first spotted the massive German columns which were designed to outflank the British and French armies and capture Paris in the Schlieffen Plan of 1914.


Because observation was their task, the earliest aircraft were unarmed, but this changed and soon there was aerial combat, the so-called “dog fights”, the popular images being “knights of the sky” who jousted with manoeuvres and machine guns, rather than with lances, maces, and swords.



Next came the use of aircraft to disrupt enemy formations and their movements, bombing and strafing, sometimes as part of major attacks, the whole idea being to dominate the sky over the enemy’s trenches, while protecting your own.


And this is where we imagine 2nd Lieutenant JRR Tolkien


in the summer of 1916, standing in such a trench,


looking up, and thinking…

We can also imagine him imagining—not seeing flying machines, but something much earlier.  After all, with his education, background, and interests, it would have been difficult not to think of classical harpies


or Hermes


or Bellerophon, mounted on Pegasus.


And, with his Norse passion, there would also, of course, be dragons…


And, perhaps a combination:  a Bellerophon mounted on a miniature dragon?


In the world of the trenches, there were two defences against aircraft:  friendly aircraft in the air


and anti-aircraft guns on the ground.


But the war ended fairly quickly for the scholarly lieutenant, laid low by a more primitive enemy than Industrial Age Germans with bombs:  lice.


JRRT became sick with what was then called “trench fever”, an illness conveyed, like typhus, by the bite of the tiny insects who colonized the clothing and bodies of soldiers in every dugout in Europe.  Wracked with recurring fevers, headaches, and complete exhaustion, among other complaints, men ill with trench fever were brought to base hospitals and, if sick enough, were sent home, as there was no cure, to recover as best they could.  Tolkien spent the rest of the war in the hospital or in garrison in England and thus escaped the last and perhaps worst years of the war in the trenches.

At home, he became Professor Tolkien, taught his classes, fathered four children, and then a second war came, one in which the primitive air war of the first war was intensified by more sophisticated aircraft, more powerful explosives, and plans to bomb Britain into ruin and submission in what was called “The Blitz”.



JRRT went back into service, this time as an air raid warden, even as two of his sons were more directly involved in the war.


Night after night, the bombers came,


to be met with the same weapons as the previous war:  aircraft,


anti-aircraft guns


and, because the enemy began to attack at night,



And this brings us back to our imaginings.  Working on The Lord of the Rings, staring into the night sky, listening for enemy bombers, would Tolkien have thought of danger to Middle-earth in the form of flying things, not machines but terrible figures mounted on even more loathsome creatures—and what could be done about them?  Magic, perhaps?


Thanks, as always, for reading!