Pub Crawl


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

After a very disturbing evening with a group of vengeful and determined dwarves,


Bilbo wakes to a wreck of breakfast dishes and, soon after, the appearance of Gandalf, who prompts him to see that he has a note from Thorin (& Co.).  It makes an appointment for 11am that morning at the Green Dragon Inn, in Bywater.


With Gandalf harrying him, Bilbo barely makes it, but, a moment later, the journey eastward of The Hobbit begins.

It is ironic, of course, that a trip which focuses upon removing a dragon


should commence with a place named after one, but, judging by the number of Green Dragon pubs in Britain one might find by googling right now, it may be nothing more than a common name—





although, as Douglas Anderson points out in The Annotated Hobbit, 61, we know that JRRT had been interested in dragons, especially green ones, from childhood, as he wrote to WH Auden:

“I first tried to write a story when I was about seven.  It was about a dragon.  I remember nothing about it except a philological fact.  My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out out one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say, ‘a great green dragon.’  I wondered why, and still do.” (Letters, 214, 7 June, 1955)

The countryside east of the Shire and the story itself are empty of pubs (short for “public houses”, originally meaning simply a place open to the general public, but, in time, it came to mean a place licensed by the government to sell alcoholic beverages) after this, but, until we reach Bree, there are a certain number mentioned in The Lord of the Rings.  We meet the first, The Ivy Bush, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”, where we see a group of hobbits gossiping about Bilbo and Frodo.  In the next chapter,  “The Shadow of the Past”, The Green Dragon makes its second appearance in Tolkien when Sam Gamgee has a verbal tussle with Ted Sandyman on the subject of things seen and unseen, as well as on the sanity, or lack of it, of Bilbo and Frodo, there.

The Ivy Bush will only appear once more, linked with The Green Dragon, in the succeeding chapter, “Three Is Company”, but we will see The Green Dragon (mentioned by Sam in hopes that The Prancing Pony in Bree will measure up to it in Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”) close to the end of The Lord of the Rings.  In The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”, it appears as an emblem of the endless ruin by Sharkey and gang of the old ways of the Shire:  “When they reached The Green Dragon, the last house on the Hobbiton side [of the Water], now lifeless and with broken windows…”

This is in great contrast to The Prancing Pony Sam worried about earlier


as we see it in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”.  At first, the place seems menacing, especially to Sam, who:

“…stared up at the inn with its three storeys and many windows, and felt his heart sink.”

But then—

“As they [the hobbits] hesitated outside in the gloom, someone began singing a merry song inside, and many cheerful voices joined loudly in the chorus.  They listened to this encouraging sound for a moment and then got off their ponies.  The song ended and there was a burst of laughter and clapping.”

Pubs, and their upscale cousins, inns, would have been vital to people traveling before motels, hotels, and b&bs, as we can see in Book One of The Fellowship, and, for most of the rest of the novel, with the exceptions of Rivendell, Lorien, Edoras, and Minas Tirith, accommodation for the night would have meant a blanket on the ground.  For Tolkien and his friends in the writers’ group called The Inklings,


they were vital meeting points—not for the reading of new work, which appears to have been done in one member, C.S. Lewis’, rooms at Oxford,


but for socializing and discussion, which was equally important for such a group of intelligent, educated, and highly-creative men.  (No women, alas!  One of our favorite mystery novelists and Dante-translator, Dorothy Sayers, 1893-1957, was friends with several members but, with the short-sightedness of the 1930s-50s, was never invited to join.)


They met during the week not only at the best-known of their watering holes, the Eagle and Child,


but at The Mitre,


The King’s Arms,


and at The White Horse.


The one which caught our eye in particular is the first, which, as we said, is probably the one most closely associated with Tolkien and his friends.  Here’s its sign—


The explanation of the pub’s name is, to us, a bit murky, supposedly coming from an element of the crest of the Stanley family which portrays an infant stolen by an eagle,


but found alive and unharmed.  (Here’s a LINK so that you can judge for yourself.)

For ourselves, the idea of a child stolen by a raptor makes us think of a really awful 19th-century song, “The Vulture of the Alps”, a poem set to music about 1842 by a famous American vocal group of the 1840s-1870s, the Hutchinson Family Singers.  The title pretty much says it all.


If you’d like to know more, here’s a LINK.

When we think of eagles and Tolkien, however, we remember them as rescuers—of Gandalf, the dwarves, and Bilbo from the goblins and Wargs


and as providers of air assault in The Hobbit.


And, in The Lord of the Rings, rescuer of Gandalf from Saruman,



as allies of the West at the battle at the Morannon,


and as saviors of Frodo and Sam on Mt Doom.


And it may be a crazy idea, but it makes us wonder—although Tolkien had abandoned The Hobbit unfinished in the early 1930s, he had picked it up again in 1936, just about the time the Inklings were meeting regularly (the first documented mention of them, apparently, is in a 1936 letter from CS Lewis to the novelist, Charles Williams, inviting him to join—see The Collected Letters of CS Lewis, Vol.2, 183—in a letter to William Luther White 9/11/67, JRRT dates the origins of the Inklings as “probably mid-thirties”—Letters, 387).  Could he have found his inspiration for these heroic birds and their habit of picking people up from the name of his pub?

As ever, thanks for reading.




If you haven’t read CS Lewis’ wonderful essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, here’s a LINK.


We have no illustration of Tolkien’s Green Dragon, but here’s a Tudor example from Wymondham in Norfolk which we think would do quite well.



Orc Logistics


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In August, 1914, as the German army was pushing through Belgium


in its attempt to sweep to the west of Paris and drive the French armies


eastwards towards the Germans waiting for them there (the so-called Schlieffen Plan),


they were met by the small (70,000 man) BEF, British Expeditionary Force,


a few miles north of the Franco-Belgian border, near the town of Mons, where the British fought a delaying action.


The Germans were in such strength that the British were forced to pull back, retreating southward with the Germans pursuing so closely that the commander of one half of the British army (2nd Corps), Horace Smith-Dorrien,


decided that it was necessary to fight a second delaying action, at Le Cateau.


A major reason to do so was not just that the German pursuit was so close, but that it was necessary to protect the trains.  This doesn’t mean the railways, but the endless lines of wagons


which carried all the food and ammunition for the soldiers and stretched for miles behind them..


It was also primarily horse-drawn and, on narrow roads, mostly unpaved, the trains moved very slowly, which was a major reason why armies in earlier centuries rarely ever campaigned during winter.


This was a problem, all the way back to the Romans.  In the 2nd century BC, the Roman general, Marius, in an attempt to do away with as much of a baggage train as he could,


ordered his men to carry as much of their equipment as possible, thus cutting down on baggage wagons and pack animals.  His men were less than pleased at being so loaded down and began to call themselves “Marius’ mules”.


In the late 18th to early 19th century, when French revolutionary armies swelled beyond the ability to pay to supply them, the order was to travel lightly and to live off the land.  This may have reduced baggage—and even, perhaps, speeded up movement—but it made local people very hostile to the French and, in Spain, the response was to ambush the French whenever possible, which is where the word “guerilla” (originally meaning “little war”) comes from.



This could happen, particularly to Union supply trains,


during the American Civil War.


So, such trains were utterly necessary—if a large army had to cross miles of territory and perhaps fight on the way, they would need everything a train could carry.  At the same time, trains could be both vulnerable and thus draw off numbers of soldiers to protect them when such soldiers might be better employed on the battlefield, as well as cumbersome, because they were slow-moving, forcing armies to march at their speed (and in dry summer weather, the dust they raised could give away the direction of an army’s movements).


In The Lord of the Rings, we see two invasions:  that which attacks Helm’s Deep


and that which attacks Minas Tirith.


The mass of invaders is vividly described:

“For a staring moment the watchers on the walls saw all the space between them and Dike lit with white light:  it was boiling and crawling with black shapes, some squat and broad, some tall and grim, with high helms and sable shields.  Hundreds and hundreds more were pouring over the Dike and through the breach.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”)

“The numbers that had already passed over the River could not be guessed in the darkness, but when morning, or its dim shadow, stole over the plain, it was seen that even fear by night had scarcely over-counted them.  The plain was dark with their marching companies, and as far as eyes could strain in the mirk there sprouted, like a foul fungus-growth, all about the beleaguered city great camps of tents, blac or somber red.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

And yet there is no hint of what will supply them in their assaults and beyond.  We could argue, of course, that, as in so many things, JRRT is interested in the movement of his narrative and its effects:  masses of orcs are much more menacing than long lines of wagons, and we’re sure that this is actually the case, but there is another possibility.  The Great War began in Belgium as a war of movement, huge armies attempting to outflank and block each other like chess players.  For better or worse, those armies needed such baggage trains, as we’ve said.  By the time Tolkien had arrived at the Western Front, in mid-1916, the war had become static, as if both sides had dug trenches and were besieging each other.



Supply was clearly still necessary, but it was a complex combination of ports and ships and railway lines and wagons and mules and even human mules, close to the front.


In a way, the whole business of supply had begun to look like just that:  a business, like importing bananas from the Caribbean, having them arrive in London, then passing them on by train to cities and towns across Britain.


So, instead of being part of long marching columns,image23marching.jpg

their even longer lines of wagons lagging behind, Second Lieutenant Tolkien would have seen long lines of men and animals, lugging endless boxes and cans and bundles—



necessary for war, but hardly dramatic, and so best left to the imagination of certain readers, those who can never see a battle without wondering, “When it’s time for lunch, who feeds all of those soldiers—or orcs (and never mind what certain people might eat)?”


As always, thanks for reading and



Dragon Economics 101


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Here is a postcard of the town of Ypres, in southern Belgium, in the years before the Great War, with its famous Cloth Hall and cathedral.


The Cloth Hall was begun in 1200 and finished in 1304, being a center of the woolen trade in the region.


The cathedral was begun in 1230 and finished in 1370.


Then the Great War began and Ypres was just behind Allied lines.


Artillery had begun in the Middle Ages, as something which looks like a high school science experiment (plus armor).


By 1914, it was much bigger and much more efficient.


(The German says, “Our Growlers!”—perhaps a soldier’s slang word for heavy howitzers like these?)

And, as the war progressed, bigger and more efficient yet.


And even more so—to the point where some guns became so big and heavy that only railways could move them around.


Needless to say, when shells from such guns hit Ypres, the damage they caused was enormous.




And not only to Ypres, but to the whole region—entire villages disappeared, as did forests, landscapes became moonscapes.


For some months in 1916, Second Lieutenant Tolkien walked through, lived through, this devastated world,


which took many years to be repaired.


And, in the meantime, the economies of Europe suffered, with so much damaged or shifted to war work, and governments left with enormous debts, both the victors and the vanquished.

This devastation made us think about another devastation, first described by Thorin in Chapter One of The Hobbit, and, of course we wondered if JRRT thought of the damage caused by the endless, pitiless bombardments as he wrote about the ruin brought by a dragon.

Thorin begins, as we did at the opening of this posting, showing a peaceful, prosperous world:

“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 marvellous and magical toys, the like of which is not to be found in the world now-a-days.  So my grandfather’s halls became full of armour and jewels and carvings and cups, and the toy market of Dale was the wonder of the North.”

But, just as the Great War came to the ridges north of Ypres, so Smaug came down upon the town of Dale just below the Lonely Mountain and to the Mountain, as well:

“Then he came down the slopes and when he reached the woods they all went up in fire.  By that time all the bells were ringing in Dale and the warriors were arming.  The dwarves rushed out of their great gate; but there was the dragon waiting for them.  None escaped that way.  The river rushed up in steam and a fog fell on Dale, and in the fog the dragon came on them and destroyed most of the warriors…Then he went back and crept in through the Front Gate and routed out all the halls, and lanes, and tunnels, alleys, cellars, mansions and passages…Later he used to crawl out of the great gate and come by night to Dale, and carry away people, especially maidens, to eat, until Dale was ruined and all the people dead or gone.  What goes on there now I don’t know for certain, but I don’t suppose any one lives nearer the Mountain than the far edge of the Long Lake now-a-days.”


Thorin is correct about this:  Dale is ruined and abandoned (you can see the remains of the town on the right hand side of this illustration) and the Mountain has only one inhabitant.


When Bilbo disturbs him and steals a cup, Smaug goes on a second rampage, flying as far south as Lake-town:

“Fire leaped from the dragon’s jaws.  He circled for a while high in the air above them lighting all the lake…Fire leaped from the thatched roofs and wooden beam-ends as he hurtled down and past and round again…Flames unquenchable sprang high into the night. “  (The Hobbit, Chapter Fourteen, “Fire and Water”)


And, even when Bard’s arrow brings him down, Smaug causes a final wave of destruction:

“Full on the town he fell.  His last throes splintered it to sparks and gledes.  The lake roared in.  A vast steam leaped up, white in the sudden dark under the moon.  There was a hiss, a gushing whirl, and then silence.  And that was the end of Smaug and Esgaroth…”

Just as certain parts of Europe were destroyed and their economies stunted by the Great War, we can hear, in Thorin’s words, that the same has happened to Dale and the Lonely Mountain:  with no dwarves and no men to make the “armour and jewels and carvings and cups”, not to mention the “most marvellous and magical toys”, the whole economy of the area to the north of the Long Lake was completely destroyed.  Survivors built up Lake-town, but no one dared to revive the trade which had once enriched an entire region.


And, as for the few remaining dwarves:

“After that we went away, and we have had to earn our livings as best we could up and down the lands, often sinking as low as black-smith-work or even coal-mining.” says Thorin.

Although Thorin dies in the struggle to regain what was lost, there is a happy ending of sorts for the dwarves.  With Smaug dead, they can finally return, as can men, and rebuild, just as Europe began to rebuild—Ypres restored both Cloth Hall and cathedral in time.




But the dragon would return and all too soon…

Thanks, as always, for reading and



Out of Touch


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Recently, we were charging our cell/mobile phone and completely forgot it when we walked out of the house.



We were down the road when we realized it and the thought came to us:  how times have changed!  Before people could carry their little, flat phones in their pockets, away from home, if you had an emergency, you looked for a pay phone/call box.



When JRRT was born, in 1893, the main forms of long-distance communication were the post


and the telegram—brought to your house by a specially-uniformed messenger.


The telephone had been invented in 1875, but was still far from common–


London’s first telephone directory, issued in 1880, listed about 300 customers in a city of 5,000,000 and, when the first actual phone book arrived, in 1896, it had 81,000 numbers for the whole of Britain, with a population of perhaps 30,000,000.  (To give you a literary example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1896 and, although telegrams are common in the book, no one ever mentions or uses a telephone.)

When Second Lieutenant Tolkien


became his battalion’s signals officer in 1916, there were, in fact, a surprising number of forms of communication available, although most of them would not have ever appeared in civilian form.

There was the telephone, which, with its miles of wire, could be extremely vulnerable to enemy shellfire.



There was what would be called “wireless telegraphy”, an early form of radio, but not very dependable.



There was actual telegraphy which, again, used miles of wire.


There was the military post—mostly used not to transmit orders, but to maintain contact with home.



And then there were the more specifically military methods.  At the most basic, there was the runner.


Then there was the motorcycle messenger,


the signal lamp,


and even the semaphore.


Beyond the human, there were the messenger dog,


and the messenger pigeon.


So, we asked ourselves, what were Tolkien’s Middle-earth equivalents?  First of all, we see Bilbo in Chapter One of The Hobbit, reading his morning’s mail when Gandalf appears.


This is expanded upon in the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings, where we hear about the post as being one of the few actual public services in the Shire.  (Here’s someone’s wonderful creation of a postal map of the Shire, complete with regional divisions.)


This service clearly doesn’t extend beyond the Shire as Gandalf is forced to leave a letter for Frodo at The Prancing Pony


in Bree, to be given to the first person going westwards.  The innkeeper, Butterbur, completely forgets it, with serious consequences.

Because this is a pre-industrial world, none of the electronic means would be available, of course.  Gondor used mounted messengers, as two are discovered ambushed by the Rohirrim on the road to the Rammas Echor (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5,“The Ride of the Rohirrim”).


(This image is, of course, from the Bayeux Tapestry, the caption saying “Nuntii Wilielmi”, “William’s Messengers”, but the only illustrations of Gondorian mounted men we’ve found are all heavily-armored, something you wouldn’t expect a courier to be, so we’re suggesting this possibility, instead.)

A second method is by the chain of beacon fires along the mountains to the west of Gondor.


As for their opponents, we suppose that one might imagine the Nazgul as the airborne equivalent of mounted messengers, since they seem, when not pursuing Frodo and leading attacks on Gondor, to be couriers for Sauron.


Sauron’s main communication device, however, appears to be the palantir, whereby he controls the actions of Saruman and, to a degree, of Denethor, the Steward.



It’s rather surprising, we suppose, that Gandalf, who is powerful enough to deal with a palantir (although it’s Aragorn who is its rightful owner), can be so easily trapped by Saruman and left on top of Orthanc, completely isolated when he is so needed in the north.


In P. Jackson’s film, he uses what looks like a fancy moth to call for help,


which appears in the form of one of those eagles, so conveniently available when someone really gets into trouble (Bilbo, Gandalf, and the dwarves in The Hobbit, as well as dwarves, elves, and men vs goblins and Wargs, Frodo and Sam on the edge of Mt Doom in The Return of the King).  Suppose, instead, if Gandalf had reached into this robe and pulled out his cell phone–


which he would never have left behind after charging it…

Thanks for reading and




A Tale of Two Swords


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So we were reading this really interesting book, Christopher Tyerman’sngcce How to Plan a Crusade, when, on pages 244-5, we came across this:  “While Louis prayed to the relics of the Passion, Richard had carried the sword Excalibur.”  And we said, “What?  Excalibur?”

Welcome, as always, dear readers.  In this post, we want to talk a bit about two historic—or mythical– swords, inspired, as we were, by that reference and by two kings involved with them.

The “Louis” in the passage above is Louis IX (1214-1270) of France,


aka St Louis, a saint of both the Catholic and Anglican churches, who led several crusades in the mid-13th century, but not very successfully, being taken prisoner during the first (1250) and dying of a fever during the second (1270).

The “Richard” is Richard I of England (1157-1199), also called “Lionheart”.


He was also a crusader, having been one of the dominant figures in the earlier Third Crusade (1189-1192).


But how do we know that Richard had “Excalibur”?  And how did he acquire it?

We begin with the passage from a contemporary of Richard’s, Roger of Howden (?-1201?), who has left us a history known as Gesta Henrici II et Gesta Regis Ricardi, “The Deeds/Acts of Henry II and the Deeds/Acts of King Richard”.  This begins in the 8th century and covers the period up to 1201, which is presumed to be the year of Roger’s death.  Roger went on the Third Crusade with Richard, although he left it early.  He either observed or heard about this event, which took place in 1191:

“Et contra rex Angliae dedit regi Tancredo gladium illum optimum quem Britones Caliburne[m?] vocant qui fuerat gladius Arthuri quondam nobilis regis Angliae.”

“And, in return, the King of England gave to King Tancred that best of swords, which the Britons call ‘Calibern’, which had been the sword of Arthur, the one-time noble king of England.”

(The Latin text comes from page 392 of a collection of earlier English historians, entitled “Rerum Anglicarum Scriptores Post Bedam Praecipui”,–something like, “Writers of/on English Affairs in Particular After Bede”–which was published in London in 1596).

“King Tancred” (1138-1194) was the Norman ruler of Sicily from 1189-1194, just when Richard and his fellow Crusaders had reached that part of the world on their way eastward.


Tancred gave Richard a number of ships to help with transport and we might suppose that this was part of a reciprocal process.  Remarkably for this early time, we have what appears to be concrete evidence not only that King Arthur was a well-known figure in southern Italy, but perhaps known to Tancred himself.

Tancred had been born in 1138 in Lecce (on the right-hand side of the map, just inland)


and just a few miles south is Otranto, with its cathedral (below Lecce on the map).


The main floor of that cathedral is covered by an enormous mosaic, installed between 1163 and 1165.



In that mosaic is a figure labeled “Rex Arturus”.


We’ve answered our first question, sort of:  “How do we know that Richard had Excalibur?”  But, again, how did he acquire it?  Unfortunately, the only reference to Richard and the sword is the one we’ve quoted.

One thought, however.  About 1191, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey


excavated a grave which


supposedly included a lead cross which read:

“Hic jacet sepultus inclytus rex Arthurius in insula avallonia cum Wennevereia uxore sua secunda”

“Here lies buried the renowned king Arthurius on the Avalonian island with Guinevere his second wife”

(Latin text from Giraldus Cambrensis, Speculum Ecclesiae, Chapter IX.)

Giraldus himself had been shown this cross by the Abbot, as he tells us.  (For a more complete version of this story, in an English translation, please see this LINK.)

Modern research suggests that this was a fake, intended to boost the fortunes of a fading religious site, badly damaged by fire in 1184, but suppose that, to increase their patronage, the monks had added another level to their sham and “found” a sword, which they had then sent to Richard, who carried it off on his journey to the East.

(For more on the fakery, see, for example, this LINK.)

Louis IX, as we mentioned, died on campaign in 1270.  His son, Philip, was with him at the time, but sailed back to France after his father’s death and was crowned Philip III in 1271.  Our sources are vague here (they don’t always get the year right, for example), but all report that, for the first time, a special sword was used in the coronation ceremony.  This was the so-called “sword of Charlemagne”, named “Joyeuse” (the “happy one”), which is mentioned in the 11th-century Chanson de Roland:

Si ad vestut sun blanc osberc sasfret,
Laciet sun elme, ki est a or gemmet,
Ceinte Joiuse, unches ne fut sa per,
Ki cascun jur muet.XXX. clartez.”

“[Charlemagne] was wearing his fine white coat of mail and his helmet with gold-studded stones; by his side hung Joyeuse, and never was there a sword to match it; its colour changed thirty times a day.”

(The translator for this was not identified at the site and we would make one small change—“clartez” might be better as “sheen/brightness” instead of “colour”.)


This, one of the few remaining pieces of the royal regalia, is, in fact, a mixture of a number of different periods, all the way up to Charles X (reigned 1824-1830), and experts argue over whether it is actually possible to date any part of it as early as Charlemagne’s time (see this LINK for more).

What isn’t questioned is that some version of this sword, at least, was used as part of the crowning ritual of French kings for centuries and its association with Charlemagne was as important for French history as linking something to King Arthur for English.

We haven’t managed to locate any medieval manuscript illustration which depicts a French coronation with the sword in place, but, when it comes to “The Sun King”, that is, Louis XIV, you can see that’s its hanging from his left side.


The same is true for Louis XV


and for that most unwarlike monarch, Louis XVI.


The French Revolution brought the crowning of kings to a halt, of course,


but Napoleon, all too aware both of the past and of his need to establish himself as the legitimate heir to the previous kings, brought it back, as you can see in this really over the top portrait.


When the younger brothers of the executed Louis XVI, Louis XVIII (1755-1824)


and Charles X (1757-1836)


became king successively in 1814 and 1824, one can still see the sword—although apparently Napoleon’s craftsmen had fiddled with it, as did those of Charles.   His successor, Louis Philipe (1773-1850), who belonged to a cousin branch of the royal family, broke the tradition for good and the sword disappeared into history—and the Louvre, where it’s now on display.

And this brings us back to Excalibur.  The tradition is a little murky, but the medieval sources are pretty clear that Excalibur had come from “The Lady of the Lake” and, as Arthur lay, gravely, perhaps fatally wounded, he commanded one of his knights, Griflet or Bedivere, according to the tradition, to return it to the Lady, which he finally, and very reluctantly, did.


With this, Excalibur disappears from the story—until Richard is reported giving it to the king of Sicily and our story—briefly—begins again.

Thanks, as always, for reading and



Water Which?


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

Just today, our English friend, Michael, sent us an interesting CD set, “Old English Poems, Prose & Lessons”.  We turned the jewel box over and our eye was immediately caught by #12 of the listings on the back, “Charm Against Waterelf Sickness”.

In Old English, “waterelf sickness” is a compound which can be read two ways:  “waeteraelf-adl” (“water-elf sickness”) or “waeter-aelfadl” (something like “watery elf-sickness”).  Alaric Hall, in his extremely informative dissertation, “The Meaning of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England” (2005), 116, leans towards the second possibility, but, with our western classical background, we immediately imagined a “water elf” and, from there, we thought of naiads—female water spirits–in fresh water, like streams and pools.  (If you would like a comprehensive listing of all the subvarieties of such spirits, here’s a LINK to an article on the subject.)

Probably the most famous story about such creatures appears in Apollonius of Rhodes’ 3rd-c. BC, Argonautica, the story of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece.


Two of Jason’s crew on the Argo are Heracles (seen here dealing with the Nemean Lion)


and his companion, Hylas (seen here about to get into trouble).


Ancient travel in the Mediterranean often meant coasting, with frequent stops for water, and, in Apollonius’ story, Hylas had gone ashore and found a pool, but was ambushed by a group of naiads, who pulled him under.


(This is John William Waterhouse’s famous 1896 painting of the scene.)

We meet woman waterfolk in much of western folk tradition—and this is excluding those on salt water, including mermaids,


selkies/silkies (who are shape-changers, between seals and humans),


and even sirens.


For fresh water, we had those naiads, but also swan-maidens, often enchanted into water bird forms.


(Here’s a LINK to a whole little collection of stories about such creatures.)

As well, we have the Rhine Maidens,


who, in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, guard the Rhine gold, deep under the river, but who lose it to the craftsman dwarf, Alberich, with whom they flirted—with evil consequences.


We mentioned mermaids as salt water creatures and, in Hans Christian Andersen’s (1805-1875)


“The Little Mermaid” (1837), we have the story of the mermaid who falls in love with a handsome prince and trades her voice for human form.



(This is the first page of Andersen’s original manuscript.)

There had been an earlier Romantic version of the water spirit and the human (in this case, a knight) in Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s (1777-1843) novella, Undine (1811).



This, in turn, became an early Romantic opera, Undine (1816), the text by the author, the music by another famous Romantic author, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822).



The theme which runs through all of these meetings of water spirit and human is the uneasy relationship which seems the only possibility for them, virtually always leading to unhappiness, and this is true of our last water spirit, Rusalka, the subject of an opera, Rusalka, (1901) by the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)


Like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, the water spirit (“rusalka” can mean “water spirit” in Czech) falls in love with a prince, trading her immortality for human love.


(This is an image of the original Rusalka, Ruzena Maturova.)

If we said “leading to unhappiness” is the usual conclusion to such romances, Rusalka is even worse.  When she is betrayed by the prince, Rusalka becomes a water demon, luring people to their deaths in her pool—a far cry from the happy ending of the Disney movie!


So, what about our charm against waeteraelfadl?  Here’s a translation:

“If a man is in the water elf disease [waeter aelfadle], then the nails of his hand are dark and the eyes teary, and he will look down. Give him this as medicine [laecedome]: everthroat, hassock, the lower part of fane, yewberry, lupin, helenium, marshmallow head, fen mint, dill, lily, attorlathe, pulegium, marrubium, dock, elder, fel terre, wormwood, strawberry leaves, consolde. Soak with ale; add holy water to it. Sing this gealdor over it thrice:

I have bound on the wounds the best of war bandages, so the wounds neither burn nor burst, nor go further, nor spread, nor jump, nor the wounds increase [waco sian?], nor sores deepen. But may he himself keep in a healthy way [halewaege?]. May it not ache you more than it aches earth in ear [eare?].

Sing this many times, “May earth bear on you with all her might and main.” These galdor a man may sing over a wound.”

(translation from Karen Louise Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996)

Unfortunately, this looks more like a cure for a skin disease than for an ill-fated affair between water spirit and human!

Thanks, as always, for reading and, also as always,




You can find Alaric Hall’s dissertation (now a book) at:


Child Ballad 113, “The Great Silkie of Sul Skerry” is about the male version of such a creature.  For a haunting performance of this, with a modern tune, sung by Judy Collins (with Tommy Makem on pennywhistle), here’s a LINK.


The most famous aria from Dvorak’s opera is a song sung to the moon by Rusalka, “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém“, and we find it one of the most beautiful arias we know.  Here’s a LINK so that you can hear it, too.

pppps (we think that this is a record, even for us)

In 1909, the publisher Heinemann released a translation of de la Motte Fouque’s Undine with illustrations by Arthur Rackham.  Here’s a LINK so that you can download it and add it to your library.




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If you had never seen a ghost and probably didn’t believe in them, what would convince you?  How about a ghost cat?


In Peter Beagle’s


Tamsin (1999),


13-year-old Jenny Gluckstein encounters one and it’s only the beginning of a wonderfully rich and, this being a novel by Peter Beagle, a little melancholy, ghost story.

We don’t do spoilers, but what we’d like to do—oh, and, by the way, Welcome, dear readers, as ever!—is, first, to recommend this novel, which begins in New York City, but is mainly set in Dorset,


in the southwest of England.  If you’re interested in spooks and spirits of all kinds, England is a wonderful place to explore, and the southwest is especially haunted (if you believe in such things—we’re neutral, ourselves, but love a good ghost story).  Just look at this massive Iron Age hill fort near Dorchester, called locally, “Maiden Castle”—what lives there at night?


[And speaking of good ghost stories, some of our favorites are by M.R. James (1862-1936) and Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951).  Click on the names to access the links so that you can sample their work for yourself, if you don’t know them already.]

Jenny is transplanted from New York to Dorset because her mother’s second husband is an English agricultural specialist who is hired to rebuild a 350-year-old farm in Dorset.  Jenny is, initially, very unhappy with the move—especially when her closest friend, Mr. Cat, must spend 6 months quarantined before being allowed into England.  Things slowly begin to change, however, as she makes friends with her two new stepbrothers and finds that the ancient house holds more than her new family, including a boggart, the billyblind, and four ghosts (including that cat).

The ghosts are ectoplasmic survivors of a tragic period in the history of southwest England which all begins with Charles II (1630-1685).


After his father, Charles I, had been executed in London in January, 1649,


his son, Charles, had led an exile’s life until, in 1660, he was invited to return to Britain and reign as Charles II.


Unfortunately for the country, although Charles was married to the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705),


they produced no heirs.  Charles also had a long string of mistresses, including the most famous, Nell Gwynn (1650-1687),


and one of them, Lucy Walter (c1630-1658)


gave him a son, James (1649-1685),


whom Charles not only acknowledged, but made, among other things, the Duke of Monmouth.


This James had somehow come to believe that his father, Charles, had secretly married his mother, thereby making him the legitimate heir to the throne of England.  His uncle, also named James (1633-1701),


asserting that his older brother, Charles, appeared to have no legitimate heir, claimed the throne for himself upon his brother’s death.  This did not please the Duke of Monmouth, who, believing that he had support in the southwest of England, raised a rebellion there against his uncle.  He had only very limited resources, and much of his little army was armed with improvised weapons, many of them repurposed farm equipment.


Opposing these was a detachment of the Royal Army,


trained professional soldiers.  The only battle of this brief campaign occurred not in Dorset, but in the shire to the northwest, Somerset,


which, in itself is a rather spooky place.  After all, in the 12th century, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed that they had happened upon the grave of King Arthur


and they had a lead cross (from the coffin) to prove it.


Even if it’s not spooky, Glastonbury is an impressive place—just look at Glastonbury Tor, with the remains of the 14th-century church of St Michael atop it.


Monmouth knew that, to have any chance of raising more support, he would have to deal with that detachment of redcoats sent to stop him, but, with his own army’s limitations, the best way to even the odds was to attempt a night attack, one of the most difficult maneuvers possible.  Unfortunately, although the Royal Army was initially surprised, the mist which covered the battlefield, along with an uncertain knowledge of the terrain, and the lack of discipline among Monmouth’s troops,


as well as the steadiness of the King’s soldiers,


led to a complete defeat of Monmouth’s army, which immediately disintegrated, while Monmouth and his chief followers fled for their lives.

Monmouth was soon captured and brought before his uncle, James, who was less than avuncular in his reaction


and, very soon afterward, Monmouth was beheaded.


Not content with ending the rebellion, James sent a five-man commission of judges to the region to rout out all opposition to his reign.  This commission was headed by the Lord Chief Justice, George Jeffreys, First Baron Jeffreys (1645-1689).


Jeffreys, from the records, was a very thorough man, but a very biased one, as well, and several hundred people across the region were executed after brief trials,


others being shipped as virtual slaves to the Caribbean.  (The swashbuckling adventure film, Captain Blood (1935), with Errol Flynn, is about one of the latter—a doctor who helps a wounded escapee from Sedgemoor and suffers for it.)


Jeffreys then becomes the villain of Tamsin, having developed a passion for Tamsin Willoughby, whose family farm is the one which Jenny’s stepfather is hired to restore, during the period now known as the “Bloody Assizes”.  Tamsin and Jeffreys and Tamsin’s lover, Edric, are trapped in a kind of terrible time warp and it’s Jenny who—but wait—we said no spoilers, and we mean it!

This is a book to read and reread and now, with a little historical background from us, we hope you enjoy it as much as we have.




If you would like to know more about the Battle of Sedgemoor, the Two Men in a Trench team of Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver have a fun battlefield archaeology program on it.  Here’s the LINK.


Pieces of Eight!


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In 1881-1882, a new serial appeared in the British children’s newspaper, Young Folks.  Its author was Captain George North and the story was entitled, “Treasure Island or, the Mutiny of the Hispaniola”.  In 1883, Cassell and Company published this in book form


as Treasure Island, and its author’s name was right below the title:  Robert Louis Stevenson.


The story had come about because Stevenson had seen his stepson, Lloyd, drawing a map.  Stevenson joined him and that map became the map.


The book became a number of movies over the years, including one by the Muppets (1996),


but our favorite is that made by the Disney studio in 1950.


This version has Robert Newton as Long John Silver, the man whose twitches and vocal mannerisms have been passed down now as “the way pirates talk” (including—and especially on—“International Talk Like a Pirate Day”, September 19).



You’ll notice that parrot (as far as we know, there’s no “International Talk Like a Parrot Day”, unfortunately) on his shoulder.  We can trace this back to the original novel and identify him as “Captain Flint”, Silver’s pet.  Here he is in a picture from our favorite illustrated version, that of NC Wyeth, from 1911.


(If you’d like your own early edition, with Wyeth’s illustrations—not his only pirate pictures, by the way—here’s a LINK to the 1913 printing.)

Among other parrotings, Captain Flint is given to calling “pieces of eight!” and, when we were little, we wondered “pieces of eight what?” and perhaps you did, too.  The story begins much earlier than the novel—about 1500.  It starts with this early Spanish silver coin called a “real” (14th century).


About 1500, a new coin appeared, worth 8 reales,


and this is a “piece of eight”.

It shouldn’t be confused with another coin Captain Flint might have exclaimed over, the doubloon.


The doubloon (from Spanish  “doblon”—“double”) was gold, rather than silver, and was probably called “double” because it was worth two of the coins below, an escudo.


Spanish silver supplies mushroomed after 1519, when a small expedition, led by Hernan Cortez (1485-1547)


landed on the coast of Mexico.  The expedition was armed with European weapons and armor of the period.


As they marched inland, they found an empire, with a capital set in the middle of a lake, with public buildings made of stone blocks.



They also found that the local warriors were still living in the Neolithic Era and, though they were fierce, were no match for modern (early 16th-century) weapons.


Farther south, other Spanish invaders found the same thing along the west coast of South America,



and soon, they had enslaved the local populations and turned them to work in the silver mines, like that at San Luis Potosi, in Mexico.




Their labor then produced vast quantities of precious metal, which was left in bars, or turned into coins—pieces of eight and others.  This was loaded on ships and sent back to Spain.


Such riches didn’t escape the attention of Spain’s enemies, however, and soon such ships had to travel in convoys, with merchant ships being shepherded by warships.


This didn’t prevent attacks completely, a famous leader of those attacks being Sir Francis Drake, from the days of Elizabeth I.


Although the Spanish referred to Drake as a “pirate”, while England was at war with Spain (as it was for much of Drake’s later lifetime), to the English he was a “privateer”—a private naval commander holding a kind of license from Elizabeth I, which permitted him to attack enemy shipping at will (and to share the profits with the Queen’s government).  Because he wasn’t one of the government’s official officers, this created a kind of grey area, one which many sailors from western nations, as late as the Napoleonic wars, would take advantage of, slipping between government service and something which, even with that license, could look like piracy.  Such men included the notorious, like Captain Kidd


(of whom there is no portrait—we inserted this just for fun)

and Edward Teach, “Blackbeard”.


(His beard isn’t really on fire, by the way.  He wove bits of matchcord—used to fire ships’ guns and touch off handgrenades—into it to give himself a fiendish aspect.)



Rather than sharing it with governments, both men were said to have taken much of their loot ashore and buried it in now-lost locations—


which brings us back to the map and Captain Flint squawking, “Pieces of eight!”


D31MWE Long John Silver. Image shot 1954. Exact date unknown.

Thanks, as always, for reading, and definitely

MTCIDC (matey!)



The most famous of Blackbeard’s ships, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, has been located off the coast of North Carolina, here in the US.  Here’s a LINK to the site which talks all about the discovery and the ongoing archaeology.

It’s a Long Way…


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Perhaps because we’re writing this on May the 4th, we’ve been in a musical mood—after all, there’s such a catchy tune involved with it—


And we wondered if there were words to it?  Certainly soldiers have been singing songs seemingly forever.  Greek hoplites sang a hymn to Apollo before battle.


(They are accompanied by an aulos player here.  “Aulos” is sometimes mistranslated “flute”, but it’s not a kind of recorder.  Instead, it’s a member of the oboe family.)

Julius Caesar’s (100-44bc)


soldiers, marching behind his chariot when he celebrated his triumph (formal victory parade) in Rome


sang an unprintable song about his sex life.  There’s only a fragment surviving and we’ll print it here—but in Latin—a typical Victorian thing to do.

“Urbani, servate uxores: moechum calvom adducimus.
Aurum in Gallia effutuisti, hic sumpsisti mutuum.”

(Here’s a LINK which we would recommend about reconstructing Roman soldiers’ songs.)

There’s a stirring piece by Walter von der Vogelweide (c.1170-c.1230),


called the “Palestine Song”, supposedly sung by a crusader after reaching the Holy Land.  We can imagine later Crusaders singing it as they marched


As in the case of the Caesar fragment, however, we won’t print the text—we aren’t enthusiastic about crusades, especially the medieval ones, believing them to have been the drawn-out attempt at a massive landgrab of places already long-inhabited.

On long, monotonous marches, we imagine soldiers always sang.  The American Civil War was fought over hundreds of miles and, with the rare exception when trains could be used,


soldiers walked everywhere.


That being the case, it’s no wonder that so many of their favorite songs had the word “marching” in the title.


Marching Through Georgia Music and Lyrics


(And that last one’s chorus begins, “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching…”)

Russian soldiers appear to have had designated regimental singers, who, when called, hurried up to the front of the column and broke into choruses to keep up the men’s spirits on long journeys.


(We apologize that these Russians aren’t singing—but this is, in fact, a film of the last czar, Nicholas II, reviewing his guards just before the Great War, so, at least, they’re marching.)

Which brings us to the Great War and our own officer in it, JRRT.


Certainly, the soldiers in his battalion (13th, Lancashire Fusiliers)


would have sung—here are two popular favorites—



There were other songs, too, but not cheery at all, and officers were instructed to discourage their singing.  The words of one, sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”,  expressed the terrible monotonous nature of trench warfare, being only “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here”.  A second, “Hangin’ On the Old Barbed Wire”, as it was called, had a mocking little tune, like something from a music hall, but described the whereabouts of soldiers who, for various reasons, were out of the firing line—until it came to the last verse:

“If you want the old battalion,

I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are

If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,

They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,

I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.

I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.



Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to hear an abbreviated version.  In this , the group, Chumbawamba, uses an alternative line, “If you want to find the private”, but both versions are grim—and we presume that Tolkien knew all of these songs and many more, some, like the song about Julius Caesar, completely unprintable!

(Our image, by the way, is of a wiring party from the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers.  Those curly things, called “screw pickets”,  you see resting on the front man’s right shoulder are the stakes which were twisted into the ground and then barbed wire was run through them and wrapped around them.   Here’s  an early US WW2 picture of a soldier working with the upper loops of one.)


As we’ve often discussed before, things from JRRT’s real life sometimes have a way of seeping into his fiction, and we can certainly see it here.

Although they’ve been silent on the march, on their way to the attack, the Rohirrim, for example, are far from that:


“And then all of the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)

Unfortunately, we have no idea what their songs might have been like—perhaps they would have resembled Theoden’s cry to the Rohirrim:

“Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!

Fell deeds awake:  fire and slaughter!

Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,

A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!

Ride now, ride now!  Ride to Gondor!”

Oddly, we do have two of what might be called Goblin marching songs,


both from The Hobbit.  The first is sung right after the dwarves are captured in a cave in which they’ve taken shelter in the Misty Mountains.

“Clap! Snap! the black crack!
Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!
And down down to Goblin-town
You go, my lad!

Clash, crash! Crush, smash!
Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs!
Pound, pound, far underground!
Ho, ho! my lad!

Swish, smack! Whip crack!
Batter and beat! Yammer and bleat!
Work, work! Nor dare to shirk,
While Goblins quaff, and Goblins laugh,
Round and round far underground
Below, my lad!”

(Chapter Four, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

The second appears two chapters later, when the company is trapped in the pines and the Goblins and Wargs are below:

“Burn, burn tree and fern!
Shrivel and scorch! A fizzling torch
To light the night for our delight
Ya hey!

Bake and toast ’em, fry and roast ’em!
till beards blaze, and eyes glaze;
till hair smells and skins crack,
fat melts, and bones black
in cinders lie
beneath the sky!
So dwarves shall die,
and light the night for our delight,
Ya hey!
Ya hoy!”

(Chapter Six, “Out of the Frying-pan Into the Fire”)

We notice that the opening of the second bears a certain resemblance to another song sung in a wild location—by wild people:

“First Witch
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.

Double, double, toil and trouble; (10)
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

(Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 1)


In  The Lord of the Rings, JRRT blurs Goblins and orcs and, considering that we almost always see orcs as moving in companies, we’ll see them that way, too, marching across Rohan or on the stone roads of Mordor, and we’d like to imagine that they, too, have songs to make the way shorter.  But what do they sing about?  And, judging by the Goblin’s songs, do we want to know?


Thanks, as always, for reading and





Another Great War soldiers’ song was more melancholy than sarcastic, although it still suggested marching,


and, when you read the chorus, you’ll see why.


Here’s a LINK of it sung by a famous tenor of that time, John McCormack (1884-1945) and here are soldiers at a happier moment and we hope that Tolkien sometimes saw them this way, too.





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As always, dear readers, welcome.

Recently, we’ve been examining anachronisms in The Hobbit.  These are always such minor things that JRRT, before its initial publication in 1937,


doesn’t appear even to have noticed them (see our recent postings for more on them) and only corrected some in succeeding editions.

In our last, it was “guns”, but, in this, our last, at least for the present, it’s this:

“After some time he felt for his pipe…Then he felt for his pouch…Then he felt for matches…”

(The Hobbit, Chapter Five, “Riddles in the Dark”)

Others have noticed this before—Anderson in his invaluable The Annotated Hobbit even has a footnote on it (page 116), adding the detail from Chapter Six that “…Oin and Gloin had lost their tinder-boxes.  (Dwarves have never taken to matches even yet.)”

Why are matches an anachronism?  Tolkien, a life-long pipe smoker,


would have used them without thinking—perhaps these, “Swan Vestas”, long sold as “the smoker’s match”.


(The name “Vesta” comes from the Roman goddess of the hearth,


a fragment of whose temple still stands in the Roman Forum in Rome.


Inside was a hearth—a fire pit—which symbolized all of the hearths in Rome.)


Matches, however, are a nineteenth-century invention, with a complicated history—and, at the beginning, a complicated ignition.  For example, these, from 1828, had a tip of sulphur which burst into flame when dipped into a container of phosphorus.


This was hardly a practical way to strike a light and soon matches were made by which friction could be used to light them.  After 1830, the tips of these were coated with white phosphorus, which was rather unstable and could be set off by everything from rubbing against each other to strong sunlight.  They were made by the millions in factories (many employing young women and girls)



and sold on street corners everywhere, commonly by children and the very poor.


Considering this made us think of a Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)


story we can’t bear to read.  In English, it’s called “The Little Match Girl” and was first published in 1845.  Here’s an illustration for it by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859), Andersen’s favorite illustrator.


(If you would like to read it—we’ve warned you!– here’s the LINK to a very rich site, which has all of Andersen’s fairy tales both in the original Danish and translated into English, along with all of the rest of Andersen’s extensive literary work.)

But, if Bilbo lives in a sort of medieval world, where, presumably, matches wouldn’t be available, then what can he use?  The answer, of course, is what Oin and Gloin have lost (and Sam will have in The Lord of the Rings–see The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”):  a tinder box.


Such a box would contain three basic items:  a dry material in which to catch a spark (bark, dry moss, linen rags), a piece of steel and a piece of flint to make sparks.


And here’s how it works—


Long before the invention of matches, this was the common way in the western world to strike a light (literally) with “flint and steel”, as it was called—and it’s what the dwarves use in The Hobbit.

It’s also the title of another Hans Christian Andersen story, but a jollier one, called, in English, “The Tinder Box”, first published in 1835—and here’s another Pedersen illustration.


In this story, a soldier on the way home from war is stopped by an old lady on the side of the road.


She tells him that there’s treasure below a tree and, if he will climb in, he can take all that he wants and all that she wants in return is a little tinder box to be found there.


He climbs in and discovers rooms full of riches, as well as three dogs of increasingly enormous size.


The tinder box is, of course, not a little nothing, but the key to the dogs and to the magic beyond, although the soldier doesn’t know that at the time.  When he climbs out of the tree, and the old woman (a witch, of course), demands the box, however, he grows suspicious and, instead of handing her the box, the soldier hands her her head.


(We said that this was a jollier story—but clearly not if you’re a witch.)

We refer you to the LINK we mentioned earlier for the rest of the story—SPOILER ALERT:  it does have a happy ending.  As does The Hobbit, except for goblins and wargs, of course.  Oh, and Thorin.


And then there’s Smaug, whose fire goes out—dare we say it?—like a burnt match.


Thanks, as always, for reading and, as ever,