And Then the Dragon Came


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.
One of us is in the midst of creating a course for the fall term. It’s called “Handling Monsters: A Handbook” and several of those monsters are dragons—the “Sleepless Serpent/Dragon” of the ancient Greek literary epic by Apollonius, The Argonautica,
the dragon which Beowulf fights,
(when small, we always imagined this as looking like the one which Sir Gawain, Prince Valiant’s master, fights)
and Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon (by Cressida Cowell—there’s also a movie by that name, which is fun—great flying scenes–but it’s so different from the book that it really should have another title!)
We must confess that we’ve never been big saurian fans, either dinosaurs or dragons, but, as monsters go, they have their uses. Saying that, however, we do have to add that we’ve always loved the “Nine Dragons” scroll, a 13th-century Chinese painting…
[And here’s a LINK to a site at the Center for the Art of East Asia which you can see the whole scroll—well worth the visit—and revisit, if you’re like us and love Chinese painting.]
While putting together this course, we’ve been spending some time gathering dragon images. Sometimes, they seem pretty fantastic—painters with wild imaginations—
And sometimes they look like someone once saw a crocodile.
[Perhaps on an old coin? For example, Octavian—the Emperor Augustus-to-be—after the defeat of Antonius and Cleopatra, issued this coin, which reads “Egypt Taken”,

suggesting that, when a Roman thought of Egypt, it wasn’t the pyramids which came to mind, but a scaly, many-toothed amphibian!]
And the image before the coin reminds us that, in Western medieval/early Renaissance art, a major source of dragon pictures is religious, being depictions of St. George and his dragon-slaying.

We’ve mentioned JRRT and Smaug, but that it only his first dragon story. There is another, Farmer Giles of Ham, written in 1937 and published in 1949.
If you haven’t read it, we recommend it as a look at JRRT at play, more Hobbit than Lord of the Rings. The story is about a very practical, but hardly adventurous farmer, Giles, who, after chasing off a giant from his village, is given the job of dealing with an invading dragon, Chrysophylax (maybe something like “Watchman of the Gold”).
Although the dragon is tricksy, Giles eventually overcomes him with a combination of shrewdness and a famous sword, Caudimordax (“Tailbiter”). In the process, he becomes not only wealthy, but also founds his own kingdom-within-a-kingdom. As well, though JRRT, more than once in his letters, lets us know that he is not an enthusiast for democracy, he provides a very critical view of monarchy and its pretensions. (This may also explain why, although those in the Shire may refer to “the king” and “the rules”, which presumably came with that monarch, their own local form of government is more familial than bureaucratic.)
Chrysophylax is chatty, rather like Smaug, but there is a much lighter touch here, and Chrysophylax reminds us of our favorite dragon after Tolkien’s, the unnamed dragon in Kenneth Grahame’s
short story, “The Reluctant Dragon”, from his 1898 collection, Dream Days.
If you recognize Grahame’s name, you probably know it from his 1908 novel, The Wind in the Willows, with its well-known characters, Toad, Rat, Mole, and Badger—not to mention the wicked weasels!–
first illustrated by E.H. Shepard
whom you may also know as the illustrator of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corners, When We Were Very Young, and Now We are Six.
[Shepard also wrote two volumes of autobiography—which he illustrated, of course—Drawn from Memory (1957) and Drawn from Life (1961)

and, for a picture of a growing up in the later Victorian world, beautifully written and illustrated, we very much recommend both.]
[And a second footnote here: Arthur Rackham—one of our favorite late-19th-early-20th-century illustrators– also illustrated The Wind in the Willows,

his last project before his death in 1939. It was published a year later, in 1940.]
The title gives away a great deal of the plot of Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon”. Instead of being a murderous hoarder, like Beowulf’s dragon, or Smaug, this is dragon-as-pacifist, (as depicted by his original illustrator, Maxfield Parrish):
not in the least interested in plundering and burning, but rather in viewing sunsets and living a peaceful existence—until St. George appears. As to what happens next, we’re not going to issue a spoiler alert here, but rather provide links to three works by Grahame: two collections of stories and essays, The Golden Age (1895), Dream Days (1898), and The Wind in the Willows (1908), inviting you to read for yourself and to enjoy Grahame’s elegant Edwardian prose and gentle approach.
With thanks, dear readers, for…reading.

Walt Disney studios made cartoons of “The Reluctant Dragon” (1941) and “The Wind in the Willows” (1949), which are currently available in Disney collections. They both stray rather far from the original stories, but are fun in themselves (and Eric Blore’s voice is perfect for “the handsome and popular Toad”).
One of us has written what we might immodestly call a very good short story based upon Arthur Rackham’s last days and his determination to finish his illustrations to The Wind in the Willows before his death and we plan to publish it here next week as a kind of “Summer Holidays Extra”. We hope you’ll enjoy it.


Accuracy? Well, Yes, But…


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Today’s post takes us to the question of what we like and why and how such likes may push us—who, we realize, are a little stiff on the subject of accuracy—to accept things which, if our feelings weren’t engaged, we would briskly reject.

We begin by looking at a painting by one of our favorite late Victorian/Edwardian illustrators, Howard Pyle (1853-1911).


If you’re a regular reader (and we hope you are—or will be!), you’ll have seen his work on our pages any number of times, from his King Arthur illustrations (and here’s a LINK to a free 1922 reprint at the Internet Archive)


to his pirates (and here’s a LINK to a later—c.1921—collection of Pyle’s pictures and writings on pirates at Internet Archive).


Pyle also wrote and illustrated original fiction—just look at this haunting picture from a short story, “The Salem Wolf”, which was published in the December, 1909, issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.


(And here’s a LINK to the story at Internet Archive)

Pyle also painted stand-alone historical pictures, such as this of “The Battle of Nashville” (1907).

MN 60

And we’re lucky to have a photograph of the artist at work on this very picture.


Besides American Civil War pictures, Pyle painted several based upon incidents of the American Revolution, such as this, of the assault on the Chew House, at the Battle of Germantown (4 October, 1777).


Another of his pictures of the Revolution is the subject of this post, “The Battle of Bunker Hill” (1897).


We’re not sure when one of us first saw this picture—childhood, we’d guess—but we were immediately bowled over by it. It’s the adventure of it: those long ranks of redcoats stoically marching up the hill, drums beating behind. It’s not a sanitized picture—just look up the hill and all around you can see the wreck of the earlier British attacks—but its emphasis is upon the courage it must take to do what those soldiers did.

This was, in fact, the third battle of the American Revolution. The war had begun in mid-April, 1775, when a raiding party of British troops, ordered to disrupt local preparations for defense, fought two skirmishes with local militia, at Lexington


and Concord,


two rural settlements some twenty miles or so west of Boston.

When the British withdrew into Boston itself, those locals, who had grown in numbers to about 15,000, drawn from all over New England, blockaded the town and there was a period of stalemate, while both sides were reinforced. When it was clear that the locals had seized a nearby hill and were planning to plant artillery there which would then be capable of bombarding Boston, the British were forced to move. Their choice was to attack that hill, which was named “Breed’s Hill” but, through an historical mix-up, the battle was named for the hill to its rear, “Bunker Hill”.


Initially, the British plan was to have part of its force make a feint—a fake attack—against the main part of the hill, where the locals had built an open-backed fortification, called a redoubt, while the real attack was to push through the weaker local left and curve around to hit the locals from the rear.

By underestimating the defense, the British soon suffered over a thousand casualties to the local 450. As the assaults were driven back, the British plan changed and the main attack was to be uphill, straight at the redoubt and this is what is depicted in Pyle’s painting, specifically the advance of the 52nd Foot (“Foot” is 18th-century shorthand for “regiment of infantry”).


This is not the first well-known painting of the battle, however. In the first third of the 19th century, John Trumbull (1756-1843), a prominent American artist, painted several versions of a work entitled, “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775”.


This picture belongs to what we might call both the “heroic school” and the “portrait school”, the former because of a certain flashy quality (look at the way the wind seems to be whipping everything—and where are those flames on the right coming from?), the latter because, not only is the local officer, Joseph Warren depicted, but so are a number of other figures—two of the British generals, two British majors, and a number of more minor participants.

Bunker Hill remained—and remains—a popular subject for historical painters, most of them depicting events from the local side. Here is one version, by the distinguished 20th-century American military artist, H. Charles McBarron (1902-1992).


And here are two by one of our favorite contemporary American Civil War artists, Don Troiani (1949-).



All pictures are not from the viewpoint of the colonists, however. The late-Victorian/Edwardian British military artist, Richard Simkin (1850-1926), gave us this view.


Of all of these images, the Trumbull has drawn upon his memory and upon his sketchbooks, too, we bet, to give a general impression of the look of the soldiers, but, although he was part of the colonial force besieging Boston, he only saw the battle through a telescope. McBarron was a collector of uniforms and equipment, as is Troiani, and their works are painstakingly accurate. Simkin, although he, too, was a collector, came from an earlier time, just at the beginning of serious research on weapons and uniforms of the past, and, therefore, certain elements in his picture—the plumes and cords on his men’s bearskins and those packs (left behind in Boston, in reality), for instance—are not correct. Even so, his picture is far more accurate than Pyle’s, which is full of mistakes, in everything from the uniforms and equipment to those grenadiers (those guys in the fuzzy hats in the center), who shouldn’t be there at all, having been detached to form part of the right wing assault force.

And yet the Pyle is still our favorite depiction of the battle. Why? Because it feels right: it’s a 19th-century image of courage and discipline, and appeals to our romantic souls, even though there are casualties strewn about, which, to us, only serves to emphasize the bravery and stick-to-it-iveness of those solid infantry.

And this is where JRRT comes in. We’ve said before: our favorite part of P. Jackson’s films is anything to do with the Rohirrim.


The fact that, in the books, they live in wide, grassy plains (unavailable in New Zealand) and that their capital, Edoras, does not have “a dike and mighty wall and thorny fence” in the films, along with any other details it would be easy to extract from The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t matter to us in the least. The depiction in the films feels right and we’re content with that, even when there are other parts of the films where we have other reactions. Simple (and perhaps surprising to us) as that.

So, dear readers, do you have similar reactions? And to what? We’d love to hear!

And thanks, as always, for reading.



What If…


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Welcome, readers, as always.

If you are among our excellent regulars, you know that we’re fascinated by history (one of us has taught it for years). One subset of our interest is “what ifs”, two of our favorite scifi/fantasy authors being Harry Turtledove and S.M. Stirling, who have written numerous books exploring all sorts of alternative places and times.

In this posting, we’d like to try a “what if” ourselves: what would happen to Minas Tirith if the Rohirrim and Aragorn had failed to arrive?

Walls collapsing under a rain of boulders, soldiers fleeing from the defenses, the main gate broken in by a giant battering ram—


how was this the place of which its creator had written:

“A strong citadel it was indeed, and not to be taken by a host of enemies, if there were any within that could hold weapons…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

In an earlier posting, we talked about Sauron’s attack on Minas Tirith


and even suggested that one inspiration might have been an episode of the comic strip Prince Valiant and the siege of Andelkrag by the Huns (published in May, 1939). (Footnote: there is a rumor that the writer/illustrator, Hal Foster, intended the Huns to equal the Nazis and therefore annoyed Hitler—a would-be Sauron to Saruman’s Mussolini, as we once also suggested?)


That castle is splendid, but not quite what one would have seen in the 5th century AD, when Attila led the Huns to invade central and western Europe. Andelkrag appears to be a very elaborate late-medieval castle, c.1400 or so, rather like the ones you might see in the Duc de Berry’s Tres Riches Heures (c.1412-16; 1440s; 1485-1489).


More likely, if Andelkrag had been a real fortress, it would have been a repurposed Roman army installation, like this at Caernarfon, called by the Romans, Segontium.


Such forts might then be converted into castles, as at Portchester


but that would hardly have provided the gallant medieval look which Foster gave his comic strip and which, in turn, came from the illustrations of people like Howard Pyle (1853-1911), in the previous generation (and which, we have previously argued, had a strong influence on what JRRT imagined his Middle-earth to look like).



We are told in one of the extra features in the extended film version of The Lord of the Rings that an inspiration for P. Jackson’s Minas Tirith


was the ancient island fort/religious site of Mont Saint Michel, on the western coast of France.



As you can see from the photo and the map, this isn’t just a fort, however, but a little fortified town, reminding us that Minas Tirith isn’t a castle, but a walled city, like the restored medieval town of Carcassonne, in southern France.


Like Mont St. Michel, Minas Tirith is built up a slope.


(This, by the way, is Tolkien’s first sketch.)

But, unlike Mont St. Michel and Carcassonne, it has not one wall, but many:

“For the fashion of Minas Tirith was such that it was built on seven levels, each delved into the hill, and about each was set a wall, and in each wall was a gate.”


Because the city was built on a series of levels, this would mean that each wall would overlook the next lower one, so that the defenders on the upper wall could rain down missiles on attackers below.


This is an ancient practice. The Bronze Age Greek city of Tiryns (yes, there is a bit of a similarity in the name, isn’t there?) is so constructed, for example, that its entryway forces attackers to move to the left, thereby potentially exposing an unshielded side, as well as undergoing a barrage of arrows and rocks from those on the wall above.

Tiryns Reconstruction


In the case of Minas Tirith, there is an added obstacle:

“But the gates were not set in a line: the Great Gate in the City Wall was at the east point of the circuit, but the next faced half south, and the third half north, and so to and fro upwards; so that the paved way that climbed towards the Citadel turned this way and then that across the face of the hill.”


Attackers, then, would not only be at the mercy of those above them, but would, should they break through one gate, be forced to zigzag back and forth as they fought their way upwards, taking more and more casualties as they advanced.


Added to this, at the lowest level, was the main wall:

“…of great height and marvellous thickness, built ere the power and craft of Numenor waned in exile; and its outward face was like to the Tower of Orthanc, hard and dark and smooth, unconquerable by steel or fire, unbreakable except by some convulsion that would rend the very earth on which it stood.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

Unlike so many fortresses—going back at least to Neolithic times—Minas Tirith had no moat. Not only does such a watery ditch slow down attackers by giving them one more puzzle to solve, but it also makes a standard siege practice, undermining, much more difficult. Basically, what undermining does is to hollow out an area underneath a wall and replace the original foundation with a flammable wooden one. Then the miners fill the hollow with burnables, torch them, and wait to see if the new wooden foundation collapses, bringing down the wall on top of it. You can see miners at work in this medieval manuscript illustration.


A wet moat would have forced the miners to dig much deeper, to avoid being flooded out.

For Minas Tirith, the nearest water source for a wet moat would have been the Anduin, some miles away, but dry moats were useful as well. This diorama of the final attack by the British at the siege of Badajoz in 1812 shows how effective such a thing might be. Although the besiegers have managed, through prolonged bombardment, to create a breach in the main wall, they have to struggle through the deep dry moat to reach it—and took large numbers of casualties in doing so.


Against all of these defenses, the head of the Nazgul, as Sauron’s general in the field, has the usual siege weapons: stone throwers, siege towers, even a massive battering ram. He also has a more subtle tool:

“But soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair.”

Even so, under the command of Gandalf, there was still resistance and we can imagine that that resistance would have persisted through all the circles, but the ultimate difficulty, which would have caused the fall of the city, had not the Rohirrim—and then Aragorn—come, was the lack of reserves.

Gondor was, at the time of the siege, in decline, as Pippin noticed when he and Gandalf arrived there:

“Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there.”

When reenforcements came from the south, they were “less than three thousands full told.”

When a city or castle is under siege, it needs not only a force to man its walls, but also a second force, to be sent quickly to any place where an enemy breakthrough is threatened. The force on the walls has two main jobs: 1. to keep the enemy at a distance with missile fire—or, failing that, to cut down the attacking force as it approaches the walls, trimming its numbers and thereby possibly demoralizing it; 2. to fend off the enemy if it actually manages to gain the walls. This illustration from the Prince Valiant Andelkrag siege provides a good image of this double job.


It might be possible, if the enemy made an assault upon a single point, to siphon off men from other parts of the defenses to act as a temporary second force, but, if the enemy attacks more than one place at the same time, this is not a safe thing to do. In the case of the assault on the first wall of Minas Tirith, the enemy commander seems to have had such numbers—and didn’t care in the least about his losses– that he could attack the entire wall:

“Ever since the middle night the great assault had gone on. The drums rolled. To the north and to the south company upon company of the enemy pressed to the walls. There came great beasts, like moving houses in the red and fitful light, the mumakil of the Harad dragging through the lanes amid the fires huge towers and engines. Yet their Captain cared not greatly what they did or how many might be slain: their purpose was only to test the strength of the defence and to keep the men of Gondor busy in many places.”

The weakest place in any strong wall is a gate and that knowledge has guided Sauron’s Captain:

“It was against the Gate that he would throw his heaviest weight. Very strong it might be, wrought of steel and iron, and guarded with towers and bastions of indomitable stone, yet it was the key, the weakest point in all that high and impenetrable wall.”

Thus, with everyone pinned in position by a general assault, and there being no other possible reserve, once the gate is down—but then a cock crows and there are horns and, well, you know what happens next.

But, continuing our “what if”, we look to a different model, the Alamo, a ruined mission turned into a fortress in the so-called “Texas War for Independence” of 1835-36.


Within this mission, some 180plus defenders faced a Mexican army of several thousand, staving them off for a week-and-a-half before finally being overwhelmed by a series of nearly-simultaneous pre-dawn assaults from several directions at once.image21alamoassault

The survivors drew back, still fighting, and made a series of last stands in the rooms of the surviving mission buildings, dying almost to a man because the Mexican general, Santa Anna, had declared that there would be no mercy for any survivors. (There were a handful of prisoners, however, perhaps including the famous American frontiersman, Davy Crockett, but under Santa Anna’s direction, they were then murdered.)

In our grim “what if”, the survivors of the outer wall, led in retreat by Gandalf, are gradually driven back, like the Alamo defenders, until they reach the Citadel—and then—but, can we go on? Are the Rohirrim and Aragorn simply delayed and then appear? Are there eagle-rescues, as in The Hobbit?


What do you think, dear readers?

And thanks, as ever, for reading!




We saw this Lego attack on Minas Tirith and it was just too wonderful not to include!



As we were finishing this, we happened upon a really great website–  –wonderful visuals!



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Welcome, once more, dear readers.

The sources of our postings come from all sorts of places. Sometimes, we are reading something and we have an idea, or we spot an image or see a film. Sometimes, it’s from a friend’s e-mail, or reaction to an earlier posting. Sometimes they come from our sortes tolkienses. If you’ve missed our original posting where we invented this, it’s based upon an ancient fortune-telling method, where one closes one’s eyes, opens an important book, like the Aeneid or the Bible, puts one’s finger on a verse—and hopes that it tells you something about the day or the future. In our case, we use The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit.

And what did we find today? This, from The Lord of the Rings—

“Hand in hand they went back into the City, the last to pass the Gate before it was shut; and as they reached the Lampwrights’ Street all the bells in the towers tolled solemnly.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

These are the “sun-down bells”, as Pippin learns from Bergil, son of Beregond. Bergil is a boy of Minas Tirith and has just given Pippin a tour of the city.

“Sun-down bells” made us think first about the bells of Minas Tirith, and then about bells in Middle-earth in general, and we could easily pick out three kinds.

To begin with, there are the city bells. Or, rather, where are the city bells? The text says “in the towers”. In the medieval world in which we so often find illustrations and parallels to Middle-earth, those bells are commonly in church belfries.




Minas Tirith clearly has towers—and, in fact, is a towering place—literally:

“…the Tower of Echthelion, standing high within the topmost wall, shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze, and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)

Because there are no churches—or even temples—in Minas Tirith, by examining some images of the city, from John Howe’s painting to the model used in the films, we can pick out towers here and there and some of those, we might imagine, could hold bells.


image5mtIn our medieval world, such bells had a number of functions. Not only did they ring the hours of the medieval Christian day, but they could also sound a warning, called the “tocsin”, and signal that the day was over and that fires should be covered for the night, the “curfew”—rather like the “sun-down” bells in Minas Tirith. Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431) said that she could sometimes hear the sound of angelic voices, inspiring her to drive the English out of France, in her village bell.


There are other uses—and places—for bells in Middle-earth, however. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”, they turn up at an impromptu dance:

“Master Everard Took and Miss Melilot Brandybuck got on a table and with bells in their hands began to dance the Springle-ring: a pretty dance, but rather vigorous.”

The wording of this sounds like it came from the “society section” of a newspaper, as not only are the hobbits’ names given, but given with their social titles—“Master” and “Miss”—to show that they are unmarried.

The boisterous dance, being energetic and accompanied by bells, makes us think of traditional English Morris dances, where the dancers not only strap bells to their arms and legs, but occasionally carry sticks with bells attached to them.

image7morrisOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAimage9jinglestick

This also makes us think about medieval music bands, which could include a percussionist who played bells.


A further use is as decoration—and perhaps as something more. When Aragorn is leading the hobbits, with the wounded Frodo, towards Rivendell, they heard “a sound that brought sudden fear back into their hearts: the noise of hoofs behind them.” The fear is, of course, of pursuing Nazgul, depicted here first in an Alan Lee sketch, and then in a painting which we believe is by the Hildebrandts, of one of the Ringwraiths almost riding down Farmer Cotton.


[We are always struck, by the way, how the Nazgul bear a certain resemblance to the “Headless Horseman” from Washington Irving’s (1783-1859) story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820). Walt Disney made a musical version of this in 1949, which was shown on Disney tv programs in later years, around Halloween, and the image of the Horseman could always give us nightmares.]


What Aragorn and the hobbits are actually hearing is the horse of the Elf lord, Glorfindel, Asfaloth—

“The sound of the hoofs drew nearer. They were going fast, with a light clppety-clippety-clip. Then, faintly, as if it was blown away from them by the breeze, they seemed to catch a dim ringing, as of small bells tinkling.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 12, “Flight to the Ford”)


Although Frodo never explains why he says this, he exclaims, “That does not sound like a Black Rider’s horse…” The only difference in sound clearly is coming from the bells, perhaps on Asfaloth’s halter or bridle—or perhaps on his mane, as in the case of what might be a source for those bells, Child ballad 37 (we’re quoting from Variant A). 37 is called “Thomas Rymer” and describes the meeting of the actual 13th-century Thomas of Earlston with the Queen of Elfland. [We include a LINK here to the useful Wiki entry.)


In the ballad, her horse is described as having

“At ilke tett [“every tuft/lock”] of her horse’s mane

Hung fifty silver bells and nine.”

We are always careful never to say, without documentary evidence, that such-and-such is “definitely” the source for something in JRRT, but this particular detail seems to line up so well:

  1. Glorfindel is an Elf
  2. so is the unnamed Queen
  3. each has bells on his/her horse

And these bells suggest—at least to Frodo—something unworldly, but, unlike the Nazgul, something positive. We can add to this another—okay, undeniable—source, and our evidence for this is JRRT himself. In 1925, Tolkien (in collaboration with E.V. Gordon) published an edition of the 14th-century Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


The Green Knight is an enchanted being and part of his magic lies in his greenness and in the elaborate decoration of himself and his horse, including

“Ther mony bellez ful bry3t of brende golde rungen” (line 195)

This is only a preliminary investigation—done out of our heads, rather than from a thorough scouring of the text—so, can you, dear readers, think of other bells in The Lord of the Rings? We could think of two references in The Hobbit—but we leave it to you to guess where they are (and to find more?).

And thanks, as always, for reading.





We include a LINK here to an appropriate poem which uses our title, Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Bells” (1849).

Into Those Woods


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

There is an early-twentieth-century American popular song called “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”, by John Walter Bratton. This was first published, in 1907, as “The Teddy Bears Picnic: A Characteristic Two-Step”,


but in 1932, it acquired both its current title and lyrics, beginning,

“If you go down to the woods today,

You’re sure of a big surprise…”

Here’s a link, if you’d like to read more. And here’s a link to the first recording of the version with its lyrics, from 1932. WARNING: it has a catchy little tune!

This song came to us because we’ve been thinking about forests and their frequency and importance in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Woods have always been spooky places in folktales. Think of Haensel and Gretel, for example,


or Snow White,


or even the story of Odysseus and Circe, as Circe’s house is set deep in a forest.


Among our interests is Romanticism–both in itself because it’s in Romanticism that modern adventure stories really take off (for the supernatural, think Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, 1764; for historical, Sir Walter Scott, Waverly, 1814). The early Romantics were fascinated by the forest, both as a place of beauty and of fear. This is not surprising, for several reasons. First, they were influenced by the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797),


who published a famous essay, “Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” in 1757 (this is a 1770s reprint).


Burke was interested in human reactions to things which, basically, are either awe-inspiring (how about this?)


or beautiful


Awe-inspiring (to which may even be added a little terror– you, sharp-eyed readers have probably already noticed that there are the remains of a crushed ship in the ice in the first picture) is a sort of opposite of the beautiful– we say “sort of” because they can be related, which is why we chose two pictures by the same artist– our favorite early Romantic artist, in fact, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).


This brings us to this Friedrich painting:


There are lots of his paintings in which we are standing behind someone who is looking off into the distance– as in the one we chose for “the beautiful”. As you can see in the above, here we have a man contemplating a path into a snowy wood. (Which reminds us of a poem by the American poet Robert Frost, 1874-1963, and we can’t resist adding it here, just for the pleasure of it:)

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There is menace here (note the crow on the stump in the foreground…), and yet it’s beautiful. And tempting– and that’s part of the sublime, as well.

Besides their interest in Burke, the early Romantics were also deeply interested in folktales. People had been collecting and publishing such things in early modern Europe since at least Straparola in the 16th century, but, from the Romantics, we have the work of these two men, highly-intelligent brother-scholars, the Grimms, Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), whose work, either in itself on in adaptation, is known throughout the whole western world.


The story of Haensel and Gretel comes from them, in fact (as does Snow White). Because of a famous short story by Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853),


“Der Blonde Eckbert” (maybe “Fair-haired Eckbert” in English?), there is a word in German for this fascination for the woods, Waldeinsamkeit, meaning something like “The Sense of Being Alone in the Forest”. Like “sublime”, this word has a wide range of feeling to it, including that sense of aloneness/being alone/loneliness/ mixed with the pleasure of being alone in the forest. In the story, the word is contained in a little poem sung by a strange bird, which begins:


Die mich erfreut

So morgen wie heut

In ewger Zeit

O wie mich freut


“Aloneness in the forest–

That delights me,

As today so tomorrow

In eternal time

Oh how it delights me

Aloneness in the forest!”

In the case of JRRT, however, although he was well known to be quite passionate in his love for trees, forests in his work do not always appear to be places for pleasure. (And how can we not be reminded of that moment in the film, The Princess Bride, when the hero and heroine are at the edge of the Fire Swamp, a kind of haunted wood,


and the hero, Westley, says, “It’s not that bad. I’m not saying that I’d like to build a summer home here, but the trees are actually quite lovely”– and only a moment later the heroine, Buttercup, is attacked by a spurt of flame from the ground itself?)

Out first wood in The Hobbit is the one into which several of the dwarves disappear, captured by three rather dimwitted trolls.


When we look at this and at other JRRT illustrations, we are reminded of the world of the Swedish illustrator, John Bauer (1882-1918), some of whose fairy tale forests bear a certain strong similarity in their regularity.



What’s surprising is that, in northern Europe, there actually appear to be stands of wood which actually look very like this. Here’s Nienhagen, in northern Germany.


It’s a beechwood (one of JRRT’s favorite trees and ours, too– remember this big beech from N.C. Wyeth’s Robin Hood illustrations?


Nienhagen has another name, however, Gespensterwald, “Ghostwood”, and, seeing this next picture and comparing it to Bauer’s paintings, we imagine that you’d agree with us that this is an appropriate nickname.


Across the Misty Mountains, we come to Mirkwood, with its disappearing Elves, sleepy stream, and giant spiders– hardly an inviting place.


The forests of The Lord of the Rings are a bit mixed. There is the Old Forest, which is so hostile that is has to be kept off with cutting, burning, and a hedge and, in its depths, there is Old Man Willow, who almost swallows several unwary hobbits.



Then there is Lorien, a place of safety and healing for the Fellowship.


And, last, there is Fangorn, with its Ents, especially the thoughtful and ultimately sympathetic Treebeard.



These are principal woods– there are also the woodlands of South Ithilien, there Faramir



and his rangers lurk, as well as the unnamed wood where the Woses live, but it’s the people there who are the focus of the story, not the forests.

This sense of a wood being dangerous goes far beyond fairy tales and even JRRT, of course. Shakespeare has several puzzling forests– as in the wood outside Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream


or the traveling Burnham Wood in Macbeth


And there is even the wonderful Steven Sondheim musical, Into the Woods (1986), in which going into the woods has a magical/metaphorical side.


But we’ll leave you where we started– with JRRT– and a single tree…


Thanks, as always, for reading.



Finding a Voice


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Recently, it has been thought that a new picture of Abraham Lincoln


at Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863 has been discovered. Lincoln had been invited as one of the speakers for the dedication of a new National Cemetery to honor the Union dead from the battle fought at Gettysburg on 1-3 July, 1863.

Battle of Gettysburg - Cyclorama - Paul Philippoteaux SAM_1322.JPG

The main speaker, and the one everyone was waiting for, was the famous orator, Edward Everett,


whose speech is now totally forgotten (here’s a link to it—it’s worth reading as a specimen of mid-19th-century American oratory—something Everett was famous for), but, to say that Lincoln’s speech has survived is, for Americans—and for anyone who loves good rhetoric, for that matter–an understatement.


Up until recently, there was one definite photograph of Lincoln on the occasion.


(There is a second picture, supposedly of Lincoln on horseback, but it’s been pointed out that the figure appears to be wearing epaulettes,



And, if so, is therefore more likely to be one of the military dignitaries at the ceremony.)

This new photo, which seems pretty convincing to us, now gives us two illustrations of one of the most famous moments of Lincoln’s presidency.


There are a number of films about Lincoln, at least since the 1915 The Battle Cry of Peace, with Lincoln portrayed by numerous American actors, some of them famous, such as Gregory Peck, from the television series The Blue and the Gray (1982)


with the most recent being two films from 2012, the improbable Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter


and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln


starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Lewis, an actor famous for his strenuous preparations for every role he’s ever played, was sometimes criticized in reviews for his light voice, the impression being that such a deep, thoughtful man should have had a voice to match. In fact, contemporary accounts of Lincoln tell us that his voice was higher—a tenor rather than a baritone—and that his accent was a rural one, mirroring his boyhood years on the Indiana/Kentucky border (his sometimes somewhat phonetic spelling helps here to reconstruct this).

Thus, though his self-presentation—especially his voice–might have seemed to some (especially those who hated him—one of his main generals even referring to him as “the original gorilla”) less than impressive, his words, at least in written form, have endured.

This made us think of the opposite, from JRRT, characters whose words might not matter much, but the way in which they were delivered was persuasive—or almost.

We began with Smaug.

bilbo and smaug.jpg

As we said in our last, Smaug’s voice has a danger for Bilbo in it:

“Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

This dragon-spell has a persuasive power to it.   It’s never explained, but it seems to embody the idea that the tone can bring out the worst in someone:

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

Perhaps this is what gives the “dragon-spell” its power: that it somehow embodies the personality of the spell-caster. As Smaug is evil and corrupt and suspicious, so his spell can cause others to have corrupt and suspicious thoughts, as Bilbo does.

We see this same effect on the inexperienced when Gandalf, the companions, and Theoden visit the defeated Saruman at Orthanc


in the chapter named, appropriately, “The Voice of Saruman”:

“Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment. Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”)

When Gandalf first meets Saruman in Orthanc, Saruman’s “robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

It may be, then, that the power of Saruman’s voice is in the same shimmer—he appears to be not just one, but many and therefore both momentarily persuasive, as well as ultimately insubstantial, since “those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard”. It’s clear, however, that, like the voice of Smaug, the spell within the voice was, potentially, horribly persuasive:

“For some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it. For many the sound of the voice alone was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them.”

And yet—although

“..none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.”

There are those of the party on this visit to Orthanc who are not taken in at all. Gimli appears to be unaffected, saying, “The words of this wizard stand on their heads”, and Eomer calls Saruman “an old liar with honey on his forked tongue”. Theoden even breaks the spell, although he is said to speak “thickly and with effort.” At such resistance, Saruman shows both a degree of control and a losing of it, cajoling and calling names alternately, until “Gandalf laughed.” And “The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke.”

Knowing Saruman’s eventual end, murdered by another whose tongue was persuasive enough to keep Theoden a prisoner once upon a time,


can we see the beginning of that end here? Once the “fantasy” created by Saruman’s voice is broken by Gandalf’s gentle mockery, what is left for him after his grand plans to be (at least) Sauron’s ally but “some mischief still in a small mean way”? (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 6, “Many Partings”)

And, at the end of that mischief, Grima only escapes Saruman and his voice through murder—and his own quick death, following.

Gandalf’s laughter suggests that the source of escape from Saruman’s voice may be detachment: if one can step away from the sound, that sound loses its (literal) charm. It may take effort—as it does for Theoden—but, once away, whatever magic was in the voice vanishes into the smoke it really was.   As well, obvious resistance seems always to shake Saruman’s control and that flattering tongue, which can say, on the one hand,

“Theoden Lord of the Mark of Rohan..declared by your noble devices, and still more by the fair countenance of the House of Eorl. O worthy son of Thengel the Thrice-renowned!”

But, when thwarted, can cry:

“Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs?” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”)

It is striking that, in neither case, are his words to be trusted, any more than his voice—and here we can return to Abraham Lincoln, whose voice may not have impressed, but whose words continue to be remembered.


Thanks, as always, for reading.



Just a Nobuddy


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Welcome once more, dear readers.

“Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”

inquires Smaug. (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)


Earlier in The Hobbit, when asked this indirectly by Gollum, Bilbo had replied directly: “I am Mr.


Bilbo Baggins…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)

This had led him into a deadly game of riddles, but now Bilbo seems more wary—which is just as well, as the narrator tells us when Bilbo answers Smaug’s question indirectly:

“This of course is the way to talk to dragons, if you don’t want to reveal your proper name (which is wise), and don’t want to infuriate them by a flat refusal (which is also very wise).” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

Bilbo’s answer to Smaug’s question about his identity is a series of what we might call “What Have I Got In My Pocket?” names—riddling titles which, just like that absent-minded remark, only Bilbo can understand:

“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number…I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. ..I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

All of these titles are references to events earlier in the story, of course, although a number of them, like “Ringwinner”, also sound like Norse or Old English kennings—that is, poetic names for often ordinary things, like “whale road” for “sea” and “wave’s horse” for “ship” or “sky candle” for “sun”. One which is close to Bilbo’s “Ringwinner“ is “ring-giver”, a kenning for a “lord”. Because they refer to personal experiences, Bilbo—and we readers—must assume that they would mean nothing to Smaug—or almost—

“Ha! Ha! You admit the ‘us’?” laughed Smaug. “Why not say ‘us fourteen’ and be done with it, Mr. Lucky Number?”

A lucky guess? (And interesting that, in Middle-earth, there are such things as “lucky numbers”—we wonder how many more examples of “lucky” vs “unlucky” things we might find?)

The narrator had said that not revealing your proper name is wise and the consequence of Bilbo’s mistake in telling Gollum that he is “Mr. Bilbo Baggins” will appear many years later, in the form of sinister visitors to the Shire, offering money for the location of “Baggins”.


There can be physical danger, then, in properly identifying yourself.

There may be another reason for not doing so and it could entail physical danger not for the protagonist in the story, but a surprise threat for the antagonist.

When Odysseus and his men visit the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemus,


and are trapped there, Odysseus, when asked by Polyphemus, gives a false name: Outis (OO-tis), meaning “No one/nobody” in Greek. His subsequent action would suggest that the reason why he does so is that—as he says himself—he has a reputation (for cleverness) which reaches to the heavens. By providing a false name, he intends to put the Cyclops off his guard before defeating him, which he does by:

  1. getting him drunk


  1. blinding him


  1. slipping himself and his men out of Polyphemus’ cave under the bellies of the Cyclops’ sheep.


Having succeeded, however, Odysseus seems to change his plan—and mind—completely, shouting, as his ship takes him away, his name and address, even as the Cyclops hurls huge rocks at the ship and his men beg him to stop.


In the mind of an Homeric hero, however, Odysseus has no choice.

A major element in the life of such heroes is something called “kleos” (KLAY-oss)—which is somewhat difficult to translate. In the heroic world it means something like “personal name within the larger framework of a family and its reputation”—and that’s only the beginning. Kleos is almost a kind of inheritable object and includes such elements as:

  1. divine/semi-divine parents/ancestors
  2. divine patrons
  3. father’s reputation
  4. own reputation, which includes
  5. famous battles/campaigns participated in
  6. famous enemies killed (and spoils taken)
  7. plunder from cities sacked (includes not only goods, but women)

And #4 could be something to be said for parent or ancestor, as well. Your father or grandfather might have been known as “Sacker of Cities” and this adds to the general kleos.

It’s also possible to lose kleos—divinities pick and choose whom they will help, for example, and, just because your father was the client of a god, doesn’t mean that you will be. It is a definitely positive sign for Odysseus’ family’s continued kleos, for example, when, in Odyssey Books 2 and 3, Athena, disguised as the human Mentor, appears and offers Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, advice.

The Homeric world is a so-called “face” culture. In such a culture, everything is public. In fact, the word kleos comes from the verb kalo (kah-LO), meaning to “to summon/call by name”, that name being, in the case of a warrior, not only your name but where you stand in your family’s reputation, its kleos.

Thus, it’s important, when a warrior defeats a powerful enemy, not only should the enemy warrior know who beat him, but all the bystanders, should there be any, as well.


For Odysseus, then, using a false name might give him an initial advantage over Polyphemus, but his victory is only complete and he can only claim kleos when he reveals to the Cyclops who has defeated him. This will lead to terrible subsequent consequences for Odysseus. Polyphemus’ father is Poseidon, god of the seas


and he will make things very difficult for Odysseus later in the Odyssey,


but, in the world of kleos, Odysseus has no choice but to reveal himself to gain the credit necessary for maintaining it.

Another reason for concealing your name has to do with magic. In many of the world’s older traditional cultures, people might have several names, either in succession, or public versus private. Behind the public versus private stands the idea that you are your name—that is, all that is you is embodied in your name. If someone knows that name, that person can use that name against you, either to curse you—and, using your real name, that curse might stick to it—or to summon you for magical purposes. Once your true name is called, a sorcerer can make you obey, even against your will.

In Odyssey 10, Odysseus and his men land on an island which is the home of the enchantress, Circe.


She has the power to shift the shapes of men into those of animals and vice versa, as a scouting party from Odysseus’ ship soon finds out. She gives them a drink with some sort of magic drugs mixed in and, with a wave of her staff, turns them into pigs (although they retain their human minds).


She then tries this on Odysseus, but, in his case, it doesn’t work, much to her surprise, and he, drawing his sword, quickly forces her surrender.


There is no direct explanation for the failure of her magic in Book 10, but there is, in fact, a clue in the word she uses for Odysseus in her frustration. She calls him “akaletes” (ah-KAH-leh-tehs)—which means “unsummonable/uncallable by name” and is from the same root as kleos and kalo. The implication here is that, for her magic to work, she needs a name—something we might presume Odysseus’ piggy companions must have foolishly given her. That he is unsummonable suggests that he has given her a false name and therefore her magic hasn’t worked.

And is this perhaps the real reason why it was wise that Bilbo didn’t identify himself directly to Smaug?


After all, Smaug, unlike the agents of Sauron, wasn’t likely to roam the countryside, offering gold in return for information about the whereabouts of a certain “Baggins”. He does, however, appear to have a certain persuasive magic:

“Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug’s roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug. In fact he was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

That magic seems to lie in his words and tone—Bilbo, listening, is said to be in peril of “dragon-talk”—and we want to talk more about such magical persuasion in our next posting…

Thanks, as ever, for reading!





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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In this posting, we’re continuing with the theme suggested by our dear friend, EMH, about Middle-earth coinage. If you read our last post, you’ll remember that we cited the price of “Bill”, Sam’s pony, which was “12 silver pennies”. Our pennies here in the US—and modern British ones—are made of copper.




imag1aabrpenny.jpg(As usual with so many old and established things, there is argument over where the word “penny” comes from. Personally, we’ve always imagined that it’s an English diminutive of a Brythonic word—as it exists today in Welsh—“pen” = “head”, the idea being that coins had portrait heads on them. Certainly some pre-Roman British coins had them


and they were the norm for the Roman coins the Celts would have seen.)


Originally—from the 8th century to 1797, all English pennies were silver. Here’s an 8th-century penny.


In 1797, this was replaced by the so-called “cartwheel penny”, made of copper:


For all that the material changed, the same monetary system of 1 pound = 20 shillings, each shilling = 12 pence (pennies), which had been in place since Anglo-Saxon times, remained in place in the UK till decimalization appeared in 1971. (There is evidence that the number of pence per shilling varied early on, however, with a shilling worth anywhere from 4 to 6.)


(For a wonderful but totally perplexing view of this money system in Tudor times, see the Horrible Histories segment here.)

So many of these early coins have all come from “hoards”—that is, from groups of valuable objects which were hidden, presumably with the idea that the one hiding them would return someday to collect them, but, for unknown reasons, never did. (The word, as “hord”, is an Old English/Anglo-Saxon word meaning “treasure/thing of value”.)

As a cache (from French “cacher” = “to hide”—“cache-cache” = the children’s game “hide and seek”) of things someone thought valuable, hoards have been discovered world-wide (just google “hoard”), but some of the most spectacular hoards have come from the UK.

A particularly striking hoard was found by a metal detectorist, Terry Herbert, in 2009. This is the “Staffordshire Hoard”, with over 3500 objects dating from the 7th century AD.


In case “metal detectorist” is new to you, this is a person who spends time using a metal detector


to search what he hopes is a promising area in hopes of finding historical objects. The negative side—and we’ve seen it in the US—is that some slip into historical sites, make finds, never report them, and sell them, thereby destroying them as evidence of moments in history. The positive side—and we’ve seen this in England, particularly after the enlightened “The Treasure Act” of 1996—is that responsible detectorists cover much more ground than archaeological services can and both report finds on their own and work on sites with trained professionals. (If you have discovered the wonderful British series, “Time Team”, you can almost always see some working in the background.) In fact, in 2014, BBC4 released a comedy/drama series, The Detectorists, based upon two rather hapless members of the community, Andy and Lance,


with a second series released in 2015 and a third promised for 2017. As an example of that special brand of quiet, quirky English humor, we very much recommend these.

The Staffordshire Hoard contained a large selection of worked gold and silver pieces and fragments, but, as far as we can read, no coins. A major coin hoard was found at Lenborough in 2014. This was a carefully-buried lead box containing over 5,000 late Anglo-Saxon coins.


And a heap like that immediately makes us think of hoards from myth—the hoard from which a slave steals a cup in Beowulf (just as Bilbo does, in The Hobbit)


to the hoard of the dragon Fafnir


to the hoard of Smaug.


JRRT paints a broad picture of Smaug’s hoard:

“Beneath him…lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and unwrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light…Behind him where the walls were nearest could dimly be seen coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging; and there in rows stood great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

No coins are mentioned—although ponies, unfortunately, are: Smaug says that he’s eaten six of them.

And this brings us back to our original quotation and the price of Sam’s pony:

“Bill Ferny’s price was twelve silver pennies; and that was at least three times the pony’s value in those parts.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 11, “A Knife in the Dark”)

Butterbur the innkeeper at Bree paid for the pony and “offered Merry another eighteen pence as some compensation for the lost animals” (the others driven off by the Nazgul during their night raid on Bree). We have some sense of just how much that meant when the story goes on to say of Butterbur that, “He was an honest man, and well-off as things were reckoned in Bree; but thirty silver pennies was a sore blow to him…”

We had assumed that JRRT, as a scholar of the medieval English world, had based his coinage on the system of the Anglo-Saxon world (which was still, more or less, the system in Britain nearly to JRRT’s death in 1973). A comparison with a very useful chart of period prices, based primarily upon surviving law texts, to be found on the website of the reenactment consortium Regia Anglorum, however, suggests that, although JRRT has silver pennies, just as the AS system does, his price for the pony doesn’t appear to match at all.   If 4 silver pennies would have been a good price in the late Third Age, what would Butterbur have said to the 193.5 pence for a horse on the actual AS list?

Thanks, as ever, for reading!



Spare Change?


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

We are veering a little to the left in this posting inspired by a comment on “Shire Portrait (2)” from our good friend, EMH. It was about currency and coins in Middle-earth and we were a little vague, but E pointed out:

  1. Bilbo giving “a few pennies away” before the party
  2. the price of Bill, the pony: “twelve silver pennies”
  3. Gandalf praising Barliman and saying his news was “worth a gold piece at the least.”

With E in mind, we decided to do another posting on M-e money. Long ago, we did a posting on imagined currency in Middle-earth, but, since then, we’ve thought a bit more about the subject, and, right now, dear readers, we ask you to produce a coin, any coin. As we live in the US, here’s a US coin, a fourth of a dollar, hence, a “quarter”.


This is the front, or “obverse” in coin speech, and we’re going to focus on that and not on the back (the “reverse”).  We use coins all day long every day, so we probably don’t look at them more than to note value when we pay for something or receive change, but let’s look at this one a bit more closely.

It seems pretty simple:

  1. at the top a single word, “Liberty”
  2. then a low relief (that is, cut very shallowly) portrait of the first president, General George Washington
  3. then, to the left, a slogan, “In God We Trust”
  4. at the bottom, the date, 1993

Let’s start with that date—1993. In 1993, the president was Bill Clinton.


Federal law, however, prevents coins—with very special and rare exceptions—to bear the portraits of living people. The first president on a coin was Abraham Lincoln, on a penny first minted to commemorate his 100th birthday, in 1909.


The previous coin, up to 1909, had the idealized head of a Native American,


the pattern for which was first introduced in 1859.


The first coin in western European history is from the late 8th century BC, and comes from Lydia, in Asia Minor.


Classical Greek coins seem to model themselves on Lydian coins like this, having badges–city emblems and religious tokens, like the famous Athenian owl, rather than portraits of humans, like that quarter with George Washington on it.


During the Hellenistic Period (post about 300bc and on), however, the Greek kings, from Greece to Asia Minor to Egypt, all began to issue coins with portraits of themselves. These were, initially, the generals of Alexander the Great, who, at Alexander’s death, had grabbed portions of his empire for themselves. We think of Seleucus, who controlled much of Asia Minor


Or of Ptolemy I,


the founder of a dynasty which ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years until their final descendant, Cleopatra VII, was defeated by the Romans.


Those Romans, we imagine inspired by the Hellenistic Greeks, produced coins by the bushel .(this is an obsolete dry measurement, based upon what you can put into a basket like this:


which was, in fact, made up of four pecks


which could also be divided into two kennings of two pecks apiece.)

Considering that Rome produced coins from the late 4th century bc to late in the 5th century ad, it’s not surprising that there would be so many—and considering the size of the Roman empire, as well.


Earlier Roman coins had been unlike Hellenistic coins, however, in not depicting living people—that is, until Julius Caesar gained power.


This opened the floodgates and it’s easy to see why.

Coins are short-hand wealth, originally standing in for earlier barter items, like flocks and herds.


As Romans spread out beyond farms and local markets, the wealth in animals and agricultural produce, as well as raw materials, was simply not portable enough, as this cartoon shows.


By making tokens which were accepted as a stand- in for that wealth, the agency which did so was asserting its claim to have a strong hand in, if not control of, the economy.

Julius Caesar, who had already forced the Senate to make him “Dictator for Life” (that “S…C” on both sides of his profile stands for “Senatus Consulto”—“by a decree of the Senate”), by putting his face on the currency is implying that he now is the state—and therefore possesses a power which extends to regulating the money economy by which people live and survive or prosper. (There may be a quiet joke here, as well. “SC” was stamped on bronze coins to guarantee their worth—on the back side—to have those letters surrounding Caesar on the front side, the obverse, may suggest a double meaning: he is dictator by Senatorial decree, but his worth is also being guaranteed by that decree.)

It is no surprise, then, that Brutus, one of those who murdered Caesar, would, in turn, issue his own coins—and these are even more heavily symbolic.


On the obverse, there is Brutus, his name above, to our right his title “imp[erator]”—a title given to a general by his soldiers with the implication “You rule!” To our left is an abbreviated form of the name of the moneyer, the man who directed the mint, L[ucius] Plaet[orius] Cest[ianus]. Although we said that we would only examine obverses, we can’t resist the reverse here. At the bottom is the inscription, “eid mar”, standing for “eides Martis”, the “Ides of March”, the 15th of March, the day Caesar was murdered. Above that is a “pilleum”, the kind of cap worn by a slave during the ceremony called “manumission”, in which a he was turned into a “libertus”, or “freedman”.


To both sides of the cap are daggers.


Put all of this together and we see Brutus’ claim: on the 15th of March, we murdered Caesar and, as a consequence, we freed Rome from its slavery.

Coins like Caesar’s and Brutus’ are simple in their claims. Later emperors were less so. Look at this coin of Domitian (81-96ad).


On the rim of the obverse is a pile of information:

Imp[erator] Caes[ar] Domit[ianus] Aug[ustus] Germ[anicus] P[ontifex] M[aximus] Tr[ibunicia P[otestas] VIII

“Emperor Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus, Chief Priest of Rome, Holding the Power of the Representative of the People 8 Times”

In fact, Domitian was sailing under false colors—Caesar, Augustus, and Germanicus all belong to the earlier Julio-Claudian dynasty, of which his family was not a part. As for “Holding the Power of the Representative of the People”, this was an ancient elective office, which allowed a member of the lower class, the Plebeians, special powers in the legislative process. As emperor and son of an emperor most of a century after elections had been abolished, this looked like an honor, but was just an empty title. “Chief Priest” had once been an extremely important position in the state, but, from the time of the first emperor, Augustus, it had simply become another title emperors claimed.

Later European rulers, eager to suggest that they were as powerful as the ancient Romans, used Roman coins as a model. Here’s one from Charlemagne, Frankish king and first Holy Roman Emperor (768-814).


Returning to our George Washington quarter,


let’s look at the comparatively meager inscriptional material. If the coin of Domitian had so much to tell us about how important he was, the inscription on the quarter has a very different message, its focus being upon cultural values: 1.freedom; 2. religion. In our culture, probably everyone would agree with 1, but our ancestor/founders were very adamant on the subject of keeping church and state completely apart, with no influence of either upon the either, so that that 2, “In God We Trust”, shows that there is some confusion about those values. In any case, the plainness might remind us of Caesar’s coin more than Domitian’s, but, in both cases, the point of the artwork and labeling is to put the government’s stamp, whether republic or empire, upon the everyday life of everyone who buys and sells.

There is another message to be read here, as well. The George Washington quarter was first issued on Washington’s 200th birthday, in 1932, and is still on the obverse of the quarter, suggesting the continuity of what he stood for. In the case of monarchs, however, each new emperor/king/queen demands the issuing of new coinage, with the new ruler’s portrait, suggesting not only royal government continuity, but also, in some cases royal family continuity. Here are the first four Hanoverian kings of England, for example, all sons or grandsons, from 1714 to 1830.





image26geo4.jpgSo, When Prince Charles succeeds his mother, Elizabeth II,


new coins will have to be minted.

And this brings us back to Middle-earth and to a puzzle about Gondor. There are certainly coins, as our good friend has thoughtfully pointed out. There has been no king on the throne of Gondor for many centuries, however. If Denethor’s behavior is anything to go by, the Stewards have become kings in everything but title, even though Denethor avoids the royal throne. If everyone from the Hellenistic kings to Elizabeth II has his/her portrait on the coinage, are the Stewards on Gondor’s? And what happens when Aragorn becomes King Aragorn II Elessar?



Bring Back Your Dead!


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In our last posting, we said that we intended to talk about otherworlds and also about one of our favorite YA (“Young Adult”) authors. That author is Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007)



and we thought we’d open our exploration with one aspect of otherworlds: the dead, and with one aspect of them as seen in the second volume of Alexander’s pentalogy, The Chronicles of Prydain (1964-1968),


The Black Cauldron.


Alexander wrote more than forty books, mostly YA.


Some are series, like “Westmark” and “Vesper Holly”, and some are one-offs, like The Iron Ring, and we’ve enjoyed them all, but those we have returned to most often are the books which make up The Chronicles: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King. These are lighter books than their Tolkien cousins, but they are equally serious, with genuinely unhappy moments, and a feel which might, at times, seem like a combination of The Hobbit and “The Grey Havens”, which is why we return to them. The characters can be familiar, like Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper, who is a foundling, but much more, and Dallben the very quiet wizard, but also unusual, like the Princess Eilonwy, a chatterbox with a practical mind, or Gurgi, who is somewhere between human and something else, and who talks in a distinctly rhythmic way, or the would-be minstrel, Fflewddur Fflam, who has trouble with the truth—something which his harp points out on a regular basis.

All of these characters and more have their home in “Prydain”,


which is a kind of imaginary Wales, just as names and story elements in the pentalogy are derived from Welsh mythology and, in particular, from the medieval collection now called The Mabinogi (or Mabinogion—the title being the subject of much discussion). The first complete English translation was that of Lady Charlotte Guest (1838-1845) and it’s available at Sacred Texts. Here’s the link for the second edition of 1877).

In an interview with Scholastic, Alexander tells us that he spent a little time in Wales during World War II and fell in love with it and that the mythological part of the story came from a childhood love of King Arthur. (Here’s a link to the text of the interview—as well as one to the filmed interview, and, as a bonus, a separate film on Alexander.)

The general thread of the stories is derived, in part, from the story of Pwyll. (Yes—it looks unpronounceable, but it’s really not—go to this link from the Celtic Studies Association of North America to hear—for English speakers, that ll at the end would be the hardest—it’s said out of the corner of your mouth as a kind of musical hiss—if you know Sylvester the Pussycat from the old Warner Brothers cartoons,


you can get a rough idea of the sound when he says—as everybody in the 1930s and 1940s appears to have said nearly constantly, if you believe their movies– “Say!”)

Pwyll is a prince who, when out hunting, has an encounter with Arawn (AH-ruhn, more or less), the Lord of Annwn (AH-nuhn), which is the name for the Otherworld. In the Alexander books, Arawn plans to conquer this world and Taran and his friends are brought into combat with his allies and Arawn himself again and again until Arawn’s final defeat.

One element in Arawn’s plans is a magical cauldron,


which can bring back the dead. This is an idea which Alexander borrowed from another of the Mabinogi stories, that of Branwen, here depicted in a 1915 painting by Christopher Williams.


It has been suggested that the use of this cauldron can be seen upon the “Gundestrup Cauldron”, a silver vessel discovered in a peat bog at Gundestrup, Denmark, in 1891.


It’s a mysterious thing with lots of academic argument over who made it, where, and when, with dates between 200bc and 300ad, besides its purpose, but, among its many puzzling scenes is this:


In The Black Cauldron, although Arawn had once controlled it, the vessel really belongs to three mysterious figures—Orddu, Orwen, Orgoch—who live in a hut in the Marshes of Morva. Three haglike figures around a cauldron suggest another such trio—the three weird sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


We believe, in fact, that these (in the play) are the three incarnations of the Irish goddess, the Badb (“Crow”). This image comes from a weird and interesting site called “”.)


She was also known as the Morrigan (“Great Queen”), who was thought to appear on battlefields, before, during, and after conflict.

These hags also remind us of the three figures of fate from the Norse tradition, the Norns (seen here in an especially ghostly picture by Arthur Rackham)


and, beyond those, the Moirai, the three fates of Greco-Roman religion


as well as the Fates from Disney’s Hercules


to go from the serious to the nearly-silly.

In recent years, popular entertainment has used the re-animated, from World War Z


to The Walking Dead,


and can we ever escape zombies?


For us, however, perhaps the most powerful of images lies not in the gross graphics of decaying flesh, but that, in the story of Branwen, the dead can be brought back, but cannot speak. Why is this? It’s a haunting question: is it that death—or rebirth—is so terrible that they are blocked from talking about it? Is it that no one is alive who cannot communicate, in some form or other? What do you think about the mute dead, dear readers?

Thank you, as always, for reading and definitely