Theme and Variations.5


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

In this post, we come to the end of our series on other ways of presenting fairy tales, in which we have taken two by the author who is usually cited as beginning the modern Western tradition, Charles Perrault (1628-1703).


In 1697, Perrault had published this,


entitled Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe (“Stories or Tales of/from Past Time”), with a kind of subtitle, Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye (“Tales of My Mother Goose”).

The volume contained only 8 stories, with two being “La Belle au Bois Dormant” (“The Beautiful Girl in the Sleeping Wood”)


and “Cendrillon” (“Cinderella”), which we chose to be the basis of our posts.


So far in these posts, we’ve looked at “Sleeping Beauty” in everything from ballet to Disney and “Cinderella” in early operas and silent films.  In this final post of the series, we want to begin by saying, as we did in our first post, that “Cinderella” exists in two basic forms, that of Perrault, from 1697, and that of the Brothers Grimm,


from 1812.


In this version of the story, the fairy godmother is removed and replaced by birds seemingly sent by Cinderella’s dead mother.


We mention this because this is the version followed by our next creator, Charlotte (Lotte) Reiniger (1899-1981)


in her 1922 film, Aschenputtel (“Cinderella”)


This is a silent film in which delicately-cut paper figures through stop-motion photography are manipulated to tell the story.


Here’s a LINK so that you can enjoy the short (about 13 minutes) film.  And, if you enjoy that, there are more of Reiniger’s works on YouTube for you to see.

To us, her work very much resembles wayang kulit, the traditional shadow plays of Bali,



as well as the Ombres Chinoises, (“Chinese Shadows”—Chinese shadow puppets) brought to France in the 18th century.


It also closely resembles two works illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939),


his Cinderella (1919)


and The Sleeping Beauty (1920).


In each of these, Rackham employs silhouettes to tell the story (in versions by CS Evans), giving both the look of stories told by moonlight.


We could easily show you all of the illustrations, marveling at them right here, but, instead, we give you a LINK to an on-line version of The Sleeping Beauty (with apologies for not being able to locate an on-line Cinderella).

In one of our previous posts in the series, we discussed Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Sleeping Beauty, now we add to this Cinderella (Zolushka) by the Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953),


premiered in 1945.  Here’s a LINK to a suite of music from it, along with two sheets of costume designs from the original production, suggesting what a sumptuous spectacle it must have been.



Prokofiev and his collaborators followed Perrault and the fairy godmother was back.  Here’s the pumpkin coach from a more modern—but still Russian—production.


And this coach brings us to our next and next-to-last item.


We grew up with this image of the story in our heads, as well as its music.


This is the 1950 Disney version, which stuck fairly closely to the Perrault, but, along with the fairy godmother, kept the helpful birds (changing their color)


and added a gang of equally helpful mice.


To which we add our final piece.  In 1957, the well-known composer/lyricist team of Rodgers and Hammerstein created a first, a made-for-television musical production of Perrault’s version, starring someone who was already becoming a star by appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady, Julie Andrews.



In five postings, we’ve traveled from 1697 to 1957 and visited a number of places in between, all of which was based upon two traditional stories recreated in new tellings by Charles Perrault.  Is it any wonder, then, that in 1910, this bust was erected to his memory in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris?


Thanks, as always, for reading.




Theme and Variations.4


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

This is the next-to-last in a little series on several of the fairy tales of Charles Perrault (1628-1703) from his 1697 collection, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe (“Stories or Tales of Past Time”), better known by a kind of subtitle, Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye (“Tales of My Mother Goose”).


So far, we’ve devoted two posts to “Sleeping Beauty” (actually called by Perrault “La Belle au Bois Dormant”—“The Beautiful Girl in the Sleeping Wood”), covering everything from 19th-century theatrical performances to book illustrations to Disney.


In the third post, we began to look at “Cinderella”, more specifically in opera, from Isouard’s 1810 Cendrillon to Viardot’s 1904 Cendrillon.

Now, in this post, we want to look at “Cinderella” in film, beginning with the 1899 work of Georges Melies (1861-1938)


whom you may know from the 2011 film Hugo


based upon Brian Selznick’s 2007 wonderfully inventive novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.


Even if you aren’t familiar with Melies, you may recognize his work in this image


from his 1902 science fiction film, Le Voyage dans La Lune (“The Trip to the Moon”), thought by scholars to be the first science fiction film (or at least first surviving such film.  Silent film historians estimate that only about 10% of all silent films made are still available to us.  Here’s a LINK to the film so that you can enjoy it for yourself).

Cendrillon was Melies’ most elaborate film to date and was a commercial success, even though only just under 6 minutes long—which says something for the expectations of the movie-going public of 1899.


As it is so short, it has only a couple of scenes—the kitchen in Cinderella’s house, the palace ballroom, Cinderella’s room, and what appears to be the outside of the palace—and very much depends upon the viewer already knowing the basic story (it begins, for example, with a very fancily-dressed woman leaving the kitchen and the sudden appearance of the Fairy Godmother, with no introduction at all).  Its greatest strength, for us, is in its transformation scenes (a Melies’ specialty), particularly the change of rats/mice into coachmen and footmen. (And here’s a LINK to the film, see if you agree with the 1899 audience.)


Our second film is from 1911 and is nearly 15 minutes long, meaning that it actually has time to tell the story, if not in a leisurely fashion, at least in a more complete one than the Melies.  This is a US version of the story, starring an early popular favorite, Florence La Badie (or Labadie).


Forgotten except by silent film enthusiasts, La Badie was a hardworking dare-devil, appearing in nearly 200 films between 1909 and her death in 1917, and doing most of her own stunts.  She was also someone who personified a new look for young women in the years leading up to the Great War—as this portrait (and there are more like it) shows.



If you follow this LINK, you can see not only the actress, but a “Cinderella” which has almost everything we would expect from the Perrault original.

Florence La Badie had gotten into films through the suggestion of an acting friend, Mary Pickford,



who starred in our next Cinderella, in 1914.


Two things strike us about this:

  1. it’s over 50 minutes long—a great advance from the 1911 15 minutes
  2. the advertising seems to suggest that the audience of 1914 was expected to visit the theatre to see Mary Pickford in Cinderella, rather than Cinderella in which Mary Pickford plays the title role. For us, this foreshadows the obsession with film celebrities which is still with us today.


This version, with its almost luxurious length, has plenty of time not only to tell the Perrault story, but to makes two additions to the plot:  Cinderella actually meets the prince before the ball, near her home and they fall in love—but are then separated; the stepsisters visit a fortune-teller, who informs them cryptically that one of their family will be successful at the ball.  (Here’s a LINK so that you can enjoy this more elaborate version.)

In the midst of these US versions, Georges Melies issued a second one himself.  At about 24 minutes long, it is much grander than his 1899 production, spending nearly a quarter of its length on the transformation of Cinderella from kitchen maid to grand lady alone.  The contrast between the 1899 pumpkin coach and the 1913 one illustrates this nicely.



It did not enjoy the success of the 1899 original, perhaps because, the weight of production values was simply too heavy for the little story inside, which was smothered by all of the plumed hats and sweeping bows.  We admit that we find this version a little slow, but the creation of the pumpkin coach is still as impressive to us as it must have been in 1913.  Here’s a LINK so that you can judge for yourself. It’s dated 1912, by the way, when the film was made, but it premiered in 1913, so we are sticking to the later date.

It has been suggested that Melies, in the look of this later take on the story, was influenced by the work of Gustave Dore (Do-RAY) (1832-1883).


In 1867, Dore—a well-known illustrator–among other things–published Les Contes de Perrault, dessins par Gustave Dore. image15contes

Here’s one of the three illustrations done for the story.


To us, however, Melies thinks of the story taking place in the time of Louis XIII (reigned 1610-1643), when Dumas’ “Musketeers” novels are set (with a little 18th-century addition here and there).


Dore would appear to be setting it earlier, in the time of Louis’ father, Henri IV (reigned 1589-1610).


One of our very favorite illustrators, Arthur Rackham (1867-1939),


tackled both “Cinderella” in 1919 and “Sleeping Beauty” in 1920, with retellings by Charles S. Evans.  Always original and surprising in his approach, Rackham here has produced what we believe to be two of his most inspired works—we’ll talk about them, as well as more versions of “Cinderella”, in our next.

But we’ll finish this post with one more image—as a teaser…


And thank you, as ever, for reading.



Theme and Variations.3


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As always, dear readers, welcome!

In this posting, we’re continuing the little series we began on the fairy tales of Charles Perrault and what other creators have done with those stories over the centuries.

In 1697, Perrault (1628-1703) published Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe (“Stories or Tales of Past Time”).


This little collection (which also came to be known by a secondary title as Contes de Ma Mere L’Oye–“Tales of My Mother Goose”)–contained, among other stories, “Sleeping Beauty”—which we’ve discussed in the first two posts of this series—and “Cinderella”.  (The original 1697 version is available from the BnF—the Bibliotheque nationale de France—here’s a LINK.)


If you’d like to read the closest one might get to Perrault’s late-17th-century French, you might try the translation by James Robinson Planche, the dramatist/costume-designer/etcetc, whom we mentioned in the first post in this series.  He had conscientiously searched for a first edition of Perrault’s collection, but had to make do with a second, as he tells us, but he strove to recreate in his English the feel of the French original.  Here’s a LINK to Planche’s 1858 Four and Twenty Fairy Tales.  Selected from Those of Perrault, and Other Popular Artists.



This is an illustration for that story by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953)


from Edmund Dulac’s Picture-Book for the French Red Cross (1916)—with a LINK to it here.  (It’s an especially interesting book, not only for the beautiful illustrations, but also for the wide range of stories, including a version of the famous Persian/Arabic story of “Majnun and Layla”.)

“Cinderella” has been a favorite subject for opera composers, at least back to 1810, when Nicolo Isouard’s (1773-1818)


version, Cendrillon, was a  hit in Paris—and then internationally.  Here’s a LINK to a recording of its overture so you can see what pleased Europe in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars.

Isouard’s opera’s popularity was quickly overtaken by Giacomo Rossini’s (1792-1868)


version in 1817, La Cenerentola.  Here’s an early Italian playbill for it.


And here’s a LINK to the overture. (If you like it, there is at least one complete performance available on YouTube—you can easily find it when you follow this link.)

What’s interesting about these versions is that the Fairy Godmother of the original story has been replaced by a human—in Isouard’s version, with some magical powers, in Rossini’s, with native wit.  There’s no explanation for this—it’s simply the case and, for us, it somehow diminishes the story.  It’s like the Troy movie of 2004, from which the gods had been removed.


Perhaps we’ve always wanted a fairy godmother?


(An image by William Henry Margetson, 1861-1940.)

Our third opera comes from the very end of the 19th century:  Jules Massenet’s (1842-1912)




Unlike Isouard and Rossini, the fairy godmother, plus assorted fairies, are present and active in this very elaborate telling.  Here’s a LINK to some of the ballet music to give you an idea of the sound of the opera.

Our last opera is the very opposite of Massenet’s, being a chamber opera with only a piano for an orchestra.  It is by a woman composer who began her career as a famous mezzo-soprano, Pauline Viardot (1821-1910).


Not only was she a brilliant singer, with an enormous range, but she was also a pianist so good that she regularly played duets with her friend, Frederic Chopin,


as well as speaking half-a-dozen languages fluently.  When her voice began to fail her, she moved to teaching and composition, as well as keeping a salon in which many of the most famous and influential creators of the second half of the 19th century spent their evenings.

Her version of the Cinderella story, Cendrillon, was first performed in 1904.


As we suggested, it’s the very opposite of the very sumptuous Massenet opera:  7 singers, no chorus, piano for accompaniment, but it’s musically very rich—and includes the fairy godmother—and the pumpkin, etc., although these are all off-stage.  It is not often performed—there’s one recording—


which we heartily recommend, as it’s beautifully sung.  And here’s a LINK to a production on YouTube, if you’d like to see it.

We’re going to close this posting, take a deep breath, and start writing the last in this little series:  Cinderella on film, beginning, in a surprisingly-early (if brief) version by Georges Melies—from 1899.

But thanks, as always, for reading and definitely




If you read us, you know us—we can never resist a PS—and this is just a visual.  In our survey of Cinderella images, we found this.  Need we say more?


Theme and Variations.2


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.
In our last, we began talking about the fairy tales of Charles Perrault (1628-1703), originally published under the rather vague title, Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe, (“Stories or Tales of the Past”) in 1697.
Among his stories was one entitled “La Belle au Bois Dormant”—literally “The Beautiful Girl in the Sleeping Woods”, which we English-speakers call “Sleeping Beauty”. We had said that we thought it would be interesting to look at various treatments of that story over time and, so far, we’ve discussed James Robinson Planche’s (plawn-SHAY) two works, an 1840 “extravaganza” (a kind of very early musical comedy) and his 1868 story-in-verse version (here’s the first edition).
Planche could read the French original, but those whose knowledge of French was confined to menus could find English translations dating all the way back to the first, that of Robert Samber, in 1729.
(This image, by the way, explains not only why English-speakers call this story “Sleeping Beauty”, but also why we call the stories as a group “Mother Goose Tales/Stories”. Please see our previous posting for where Mother Goose came from in Perrault.)
In the early 19th-century, a competitor to Perrault appeared. In 1812, two German scholars, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863, 1786-1859,)
began publication of a work which they would enlarge numerous times through the first half of the 19th century, Kinder und Hausmaerchen (something like “Children’s and Domestic Wondertales”), the first volume of which first appeared in 1812.
“Sleeping Beauty” appears as #50, under the title Dornroeschen, “Little Briar-Rose”. This is like the Perrault story, but not the same, providing an alternate version of the tale. For those without German, an English translation was published in 1823.
Although their names aren’t on the title page, this is a collaboration between Edgar Taylor (1793-1839), translator,
and George Cruikshank (1792-1878), illustrator.
Of the two, Cruikshank is the better-known. Originally, he was famous as what we now call an “editorial cartoonist”, creating images critical of politicians and political events of his time. Here is his 1823 caricature of Louis XVIII of France (reigned 1814-1824 with a little gap in 1815 when Napoleon came back briefly from exile on Elba).
His public relations people wanted Louis to look like this:
to remind them that he was the direct descendant of Louis XIV, the famous “Sun King”, a grand and heroic figure in recent French history.
In reality, Louis was old and fat and looked more like this—
It wasn’t about Louis per se, weak and temporary monarch though he was, so much as the long-standing English/French rivalry/hostility, which went back for centuries and which had intensified during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, stretching almost without a break from 1792 to 1815. Napoleon, as representative of what the English of the time saw as revolution-which-led-to-chaos-and-worse, was a regular target from the later 1790s on and Cruikshank certainly aimed his pen and brush at him—as in this mocking depiction of the fate of Bonaparte after his first abdication in April, 1814.
Political commentary aside, Cruikshank, as we see in his illustrations for the Brothers Grimm (and isn’t it odd that we never say, in English “the Grimm Brothers”—which sounds either like a menacing secret society or perhaps an old, established firm of teakwood importers), was involved in all sorts of illustrating, including a second volume of the Grimms, in 1826. This is the 1868 reprint which the editor says duplicates in one volume the text and illustrations of the original two. (We include a LINK so that you can download your own copy.)
As well, he illustrated the original serialized version of Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) Oliver Twist (1837-1839). This is a famous scene near the end of the novel, where the main villain, Fagin, is in the condemned cell, awaiting dawn and his execution. Dickens was famous for his performance of this.
On a more cheerful note, here’s Cruikshank’s sketch of Dickens himself from 1836.
The Grimms’ version of the “Sleeping Beauty” story is combined with that of Perrault in our next example. It’s the 1920 The Sleeping Beauty,
text by Charles S. Evans (1883-1944), of whom we have found no picture, and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) of whom this may be our favorite picture.
The year before, Evans and Rackham had collaborated on a version of Perrault’s “Cinderella”—and we’ll talk about that in our next. The Sleeping Beauty is anything but sleepy—its illustrations practically dance off the page. (Here’s a LINK for your own copy.)


And dance itself is the basis of our last example.
In 1888, Pyotr/Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)


was offered a commission for a ballet. Originally, the subject was to be a famous early German Romantic novella, Undine (un-DEE-neh), written by the Baron Friedrich de la Motte Fouque (foo-KAY) (1777-1843),
and published in 1811. It’s the story of a knight and a water spirit and shares the basic plot of HC Andersen’s later “The Little Mermaid”. Here’s an illustration from Rackham’s 1909 version.
As things developed, however, this story was replaced by the Perrault/Grimms’ “The Sleeping Beauty”, which first appeared at the Mariinski Theatre
in St Petersburg in January, 1890. We are lucky to have a number of photos of the original production and cast.


And here’s a LINK to a suite (selection) of music from the ballet—but the full ballet is available on YouTube and we hope that you like this suite so much that you’ll try the whole thing.
In our next, we’ll move on to a second Perrault story, “Cinderella”.
Thanks, as always, for reading.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that we can rarely resist adding something more. In fact, in this ps, we add two somethings more.
First, before Undine was proposed for a ballet, it was the subject of an opera by the strange and wonderful German Romantic author and composer ETA Hoffmann (1776-1822).
Here’s a LINK to the overture. In a future post, we’ll have more to say about Hoffmann…
Second, as people who grew up on Disney, we can’t close without mentioning Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty, with its attempt at a new style of visual presentation—as well as its use of Tchaikovsky’s music as the basis of its score. If you haven’t seen it, we certainly recommend it, especially for its combination of elements of the older look of such films as Cinderella (1950) with a newer, simplified one.

Theme and Variations.1


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

For a current writing project, we’ve gone back into our fairy tale collection (we recommend, by the way, the wonderful Sur La Lune site to help you to build yours—here’s a LINK) to reread the fairy tales of Charles Perrault (1628-1703)–


although he wasn’t the person who first called them that—that was his contemporary, Madame d’Aulnoy (1650/1-1705),


who called her stories contes des fees—“stories of fairies”.


In 1695, Perrault had circulated an illustrated manuscript of such tales, calling it Contes de ma Mere l’Oye—“Tales of My Mother Goose”.


In  February, 1696, he published one of them, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”—“The Beautiful Girl in the Sleeping Wood” in an early magazine, the Mercure Galant (maybe in English something like “The Courier of Style”).


(If you’d like to read the story in French as it was first published, here’s a LINK to the BnF, the Bibliotheque nationale Francaise, where it is available on-line, which we think is just magical.)

Then, the following year, the collection was published under the title Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passe (“Stories or Tales from the Past”).


The term “contes de ma mere l’Oye” appears to have been known in literary circles from at least the 1650s and indicated rustic/countryside stories—in a sense, folktales—and Perrault had used traditional material, some of which had first appeared in print in Italian in the 16th century and could be found in the folktale collections of people like Gianfrancesco Straparola (1485?—1558) and Giambattista Basile (1566-1632).

Perrault’s stories, which include what we call “Sleeping Beauty” (you can see that that’s a mistranslation) and “Cinderella”, first appeared in English in London in 1729, translated by Robert Samber, its title being identical with the 1697 French.


In this post and (at least) two following, we thought that we would choose two of these fairy tales and see in what different forms they’ve been presented since first appearing in 1697.

Because it was the first to be published, we’ll begin with “Sleeping Beauty.  (This is a Pre-Raphaelite version by Edward Burne-Jones, 1833-1898.  It is one of a set of four and has a very interesting history—here’s a LINK so that you may found out more, if you wish.)


Our first work, entitled surprisingly enough, The Sleeping Beauty, is what its author, James Robinson Planche (plahn-SHAY), 1796-1880,


would call an “extravaganza”, meaning, in this case, something like a modern musical comedy.  First produced in 1840, it combined dialogue in rhyming iambic (more or less) couplets with songs set to already existing tunes.   Based upon Perrault, it used spectacle, everyday references which a London audience would have immediately picked up on, and gentle political/cultural satire to entertain.  Unfortunately we don’t have any images of this production, but here’s a LINK to volume 2 of Planche’s “extravaganzas” so that you can form your own impression.  If you know the works of the Victorian dramatist/composer team of WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, you will see that Planche is their direct ancestor.

For many years, beginning in the early 1800s and continuing into the 1860s, Planche was Mr Theatre, in London, writing or co-writing at least 175 shows of various sorts.  These works, like Planche himself, have faded away, but he did leave one mark.  In 1823, Planche had had a conversation with a famous actor, Charles Kemble (1775-1854),


in which he suggested that, whereas money was always being spent in the theatre on spectacles, almost nothing was done for the plays of Shakespeare.   In fact, Shakespeare’s plays had always been costumed in the clothing of the period of the actors, rather than the dress of the time of the events.  Here’s a print of the well-known 18th-century actor, David Garrick (1717-1779) in four of the roles for which he was famous:  Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, and Hamlet—by dress and props alone, perhaps we could guess that the actor with the two daggers was someone playing Macbeth (or perhaps an assassin from the 1760 version of Game of Thrones), but otherwise?


Kemble, in turn, told Planche that he would willingly put on an historically-accurate production of several Shakespeare plays, beginning with King John, if Planche would do the necessary research and design.  Planche agreed and here’s a playbill of the result.


Reading the fine print, it’s even possible to see that Planche cited at least some of his sources—everything from funerary statuary to manuscript illustrations.  Whereas we don’t, unfortunately, have any illustrations to show for The Sleeping Beauty, we can show you what a difference Planche made to attempting to make Shakespeare appear in period dress.  Here’s Kemble playing Faulconbridge, a major character in King John, in 1819.


The historical John lived from 1166 to 1216—why would he be dressed as a sort of cosplay Roman legionnaire?  And here is an engraving made from Planche’s 1823 design, with Kemble again in the role of Faulconbridge.


The Kemble/Planche look caught on—and is with us, in some form, to this day.   (The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, owns a set of the 1823 colored engravings—here’s a LINK so that you can see other costumes for the production.)

Even as his life in the dramatic world was fading, Planche continued to be a literary figure—as well as a literary recycler.  In 1868, he collaborated with a prominent British illustrator, Richard “Dicky” Doyle (1824-1883),


on a verse version of “Sleeping Beauty”:  An Old Fairy Tale The Sleeping Beauty.


Doyle was, in fact, a very versatile artist, having, for instance, worked for the satirical magazine Punch,  but his lasting fame lies in his fairy/fairy tale illustrations.


Doyle’s work was prized, but his work ethic was, apparently not:  commissions came and went, sometimes filled, sometimes not, and it seems that he never quite completed the illustrations to the Planche, (perhaps why Planche’s introduction is dated 1865 and the publication date is 1868?), but here’s a sample to show what he could do, when focused.  (And here’s a LINK to the book, so that you can see all of the illustrations for yourself, as well as read Planche’s text.)


So as not to overwhelm you, dear readers, we’re going to pause here, but we’ll continue in our next by looking at other forms—opera, ballet, and animated feature—which Perrault’s story has inspired, taking our story from 1890 to 1959.

In the meantime, thanks, as ever, for reading.



Do What I Say, Not What I Speak


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Ever since we heard the story of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in childhood, we’ve been interested in doors and passwords.

Near the story’s beginning, Ali Baba, a poor woodcutter, happens to observe a group of bandits returning to their cave from a raid.  As he watches, the head of the bandits uses a secret phrase, “Open, sesame!” which opens the cave’s secret door.

[We include a LINK here to the whole story, if you don’t know it.]

Since then, we believe that we’ve had three major examples of the pattern:  door as barrier passed with difficulty.

The first was on a very different level altogether from “Ali Baba”.

After the US passed a law against alcohol just after the Great War, the tumultuous era called Prohibition began.

(The date is 1919 on the newspaper, but the law came into force in 1920.)

For all that the legislatures of various states approved it (“ratified” is the formal word), there were many who did not approve of it.

Because it was national law, however, police everywhere were required to enforce it.

To get around the law, secret bars began to appear.  These received the nickname “speakeasy” because it was a place to relax and drink in (what was hoped would be) safety and privacy.

Such places were made anonymous as possible:  a blank door—with a peephole.

To get in, a potential drinker had to be known—or know the secret password.

This went on until 1933, when the new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, worked to have the law repealed.

In 1932, the comedy team of the Marx Brothers

included a speakeasy scene in their latest film, Horse Feathers.

This is an almost indescribable scene in which one of the Marx Brothers (Chico—said “CHIK-o”) is on the inside and another (Groucho) is on the outside and then the fun begins—here’s a LINK so you can watch it for yourself.

The upshot (sorry for the spoiler!)—as you’ll see—is that both end up on the outside.  (We told you that this was on a different level!)

Our next example had no secret password, but, instead, it had a door guard and a very silly one, too!

In 1939, MGM released The Wizard of Oz,

based upon L. Frank Baum’s 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

We doubt that we have to explain the plot to anyone who would read our blog, so we’ll just remind you of the moment when Dorothy and her friends—Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Lion—and Toto, too—have reached the Emerald City and have come to the door of the Wizard.

The guard (who bears a suspicious resemblance to certain other characters in the film) at first refuses them entry, saying the now-famous line that the Wizard won’t see:  “Not nobody!  Not nohow!” but eventually crumbles when Dorothy explains her quest and he begins to sympathize with her, finally allowing her and her friends to enter—although what they learn there is not the best news.

Finally, there is this door.

And, with this door, we are back to “Ali Baba”, it seems (if not to Horse Feathers).  When Gandalf and the Fellowship arrive, however, there appears to be no door there at all, just a pair of immense holly trees (probably English holly, ilex aquifolium), overshadowing a blank wall.

As the narrator describes them:

“But close under the cliff there stood, still strong and living, two tall trees, larger than any trees of hilly that Frodo had ever seen or imagined.  Their great roots spread from the wall to the water.  Under the looming cliffs they had looked like mere bushes, when seen far off from the top of the Stair; but now they towered overhead, stiff, dark, and silent, throwing deep night-shadows about their feet, standing like sentinel pillars at the end of the road.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 4, “A Journey in the Dark”)

It is only when Gandalf puts his hands on the rock face and murmurs what appears to be some sort of summoning spell that the doors appear:

“The Moon now shone upon the grey face of the rock; but they could see nothing else for a while.  Then slowly on the surface, where the wizard’s hands had passed, faint lines appeared, like slender veins of silver running in the stone.  At first, they were no more than pale gossamer-threads, so fine that they only twinkled fitfully where the Moon caught them, but steadily they grew broader and clearer, until their design could be guessed.”

As the pattern becomes more visible, so, too, becomes an inscription which reads, in part:

“The Doors of Durin, Lord of Moria.  Speak, friend, and enter.”

And trying to make sense of what it means now turns into a very awkward scene in which Gandalf struggles to find the password he believes is requested in that inscription, while the rest of the company gradually becomes more and more impatient (and it doesn’t help that wolves begin to howl in the distance and that there is something about a pool standing opposite the gate which makes them increasingly uneasy).

Finally, Gandalf realizes that what has stopped him depends upon his understanding of a single word in Elvish, a word which clearly has two meanings—and a little more punctuation might have helped!

As it’s inscribed, the vital part of the wording is:

Pedo Mellon a Minno.

As Gandalf originally translated this, it was “Speak, friend, and enter.”  After a good deal of frustration, Gandalf realizes that he has not only mistranslated—slightly—but mispunctuated—or, rather, overpunctuated– as well.  “Speak” and “say” in English are closely related, but there is a difference—for instance, one can “speak English”, but, idiomatically, one would never “say English”.  Thus, no one would ever give the command to someone else, “Say English”, but, rather would say to someone “Speak English”.  The same must be true in Elvish, where, in fact, it appears that “speak/say” is potentially one verb, whose singular imperative (command) is pedo. At first, Gandalf thought that he was being directed to “speak”—but what he was being told to speak he thought was somehow lost or forgotten.  This caused him to overpunctuate:  “Speak, friend, and enter”, where what he was actually being told was “Say [the word] ‘friend’ and enter”.  He finally does so, and the gates open.

In the case of Ali Baba, inside the thieves’ cave are riches, with some of which he quietly makes off.  Groucho and Chico eventually get into the speakeasy and Dorothy and her friends see the Wizard, all of them leaving the problematic entryway behind.  In the case of the doors to Moria, however, what is left behind refuses to stay that way:

“Frodo felt something seize him by the ankle, and he fell with a cry…Out from the water a long, sinuous tentacle had crawled; it was pale-green and luminous and wet…Twenty other arms came rippling out.  The dark water boiled, and there was a hideous stench.”

And this reminded us of something and made us wonder if JRRT had once read the same book we had (there’s nothing in the Letters, unfortunately).  In 1873, the first English translation of a novel by the French science fiction author, Jules Verne (1828-1905),

appeared, slightly mistitled Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Like the title, the rest of the book was filled with mistranslations (it should be Seas) and big cuts.  We hope, in fact, that, if Tolkien read the book (and we would be surprised if he hadn’t, it being the typical Victorian “boys’ adventure tale” of the period), we hope that he read the 1892 version, which cleaned up the errors.

If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of a French scientist who is invited by the US government to investigate a sea monster who is attacking world shipping in the later 1860s.  As the professor discovers, this isn’t a monster at all, but an early submarine, the Nautilus, invented and piloted by a man who calls himself “Captain Nemo” (nemo being Latin for “no one”) and who has a grudge against the imperialist nations of the world, against which he uses his submarine.  The professor, his assistant, and a third man, a harpooner, Ned Land, are taken aboard the Nautilus and, at one point, are involved in a combat against a pack of giant squid—each with 8 arms and two longer tentacles, one of which almost drags Nemo to his death until he’s saved by Ned.  Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?

Our favorite version of the story is that done by Disney in 1954.

There is only one squid here, but, as the poster shows, that seems plenty!  It’s a well-told version (simplified, but not too much so) and has a really splendid Nautilus in a high-Victorian design (steampunk long before steampunk?).

As we began this post with an opening, it seems appropriate to end with a closing:

“Gandalf turned and paused.  If he was considering what word would close the gate again from within, there was no need.  Many coiling arms seized the doors on either side, and with horrible strength, swung them round.  With a shattering echo they slammed, and all light was lost.  A noise of rending and crashing came dully through the ponderous stone.”

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




Can you, our readers, think of other doors and passwords?  We’ve intentionally left one out here, although, when the thrush knocks…

Eternally Yours, or Do You Believe in Magic?


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

In our last, we spent some time thinking about immortality and Middle-earth.  Our main focus was upon the puzzle of Saruman’s seeming dissolution after his murder by Grima.


As one of the Maiar, it would seem that Saruman was, at least potentially, immortal, but his melancholy disappearance would suggest otherwise—perhaps because of his gradual betrayal of the trust the Valar had put in him to be an opponent of Sauron?

We had begun, however, with Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912)


1897 vampire classic, Dracula, and this has made us consider what appears to have been a popular theme in the late-Victorian-to-Edwardian literature we imagine JRRT read, growing up:  immortality (or at least lengthened life-span) through, for want of a better word, magic, and several instances immediately spring to mind.


As for Dracula, we know that he was based upon a real late-15th-century eastern European border lord, Vlad, nicknamed “Tepes” (said TSE-pesh), “impaler”, who lived from about 1428 to 1477, when he was murdered.


Stoker’s character has somehow avoided that death and has lived on for a further 500 years—how?  By being “un-dead”, a condition whose origin is never really explained, but in which a dead person continues to exist—and even flourish—if able to feed upon the blood of living people.  As this is not scientifically possible—dead is dead and actual vampire bats, after all, are alive, even if they drink blood.


All that we can say, then, is that, for all of one of the protagonists’, Dr. van Helsing’s, talk of science, we have no idea what gives Dracula his extended life–though here’s Christopher Lee, as Dracula,


from the 1958 film, Dracula (in the US, Horror of Dracula), with the basis of his continued existence fresh on his lips.


Considering our last post, by the way, it’s an odd coincidence that, in 1958, Lee could play Dracula and in 2001-2003, he would play Saruman.


A few years before Stoker’s novel, in 1889, the young WB Yeats (1865-1939)


had published The Wanderings of Oisin (AW-shin).


This is the story in verse based upon material from the “Fenian Cycle”,  the third series of tales about early Ireland preserved by medieval monks.  Yeats’ poem deals with an ancient Irish hero who traveled to the Otherworld, spent years there without knowing that it’s a place where time works differently, and returned, only to find that he’d been gone for 300 years and, once he’d actually touched Irish soil, he immediately changed from a vigorous young man to someone 3 centuries old.  The place to which Oisin traveled, called Tir na nOg, “the Land of Youth”, is, unfortunately, not found on any ancient map, so, like Dracula’s vampirism, it is simply accepted.

This time-warp also makes us think of the 1819 story of Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving (1783-1859).


Rip Van Winkle goes off to hunt in the mountains, the Catskills, to the west of the Hudson River before the American Revolution.

(Here’s an 1864 painting of those mountains by AB Durand (1796-1886), who belonged to the first great group of American landscape painters, called the “Hudson River School”.)


While out hunting, Rip bumps into a group of troll-like creatures, who turn out to be the enchanted members of Henry Hudson’s crew


from his ship, the Half Moon—this is an image of the 1989 recreation of the ship—


with which he explored the Hudson River in 1609.


(We see here Edward Moran’s 1892 painting of Hudson’s ship entering New York harbor.)

Rip drinks and bowls with them,



then falls asleep, only to awaken over twenty years later to find himself old and now a citizen of the new United States.


(If you follow us regularly—and we hope you do!—then you know of our great affection for late-19th-early-20th-century illustrators and, when it comes to this story, we’re very lucky in that Arthur Rackham illustrated it in 1905


and NC Wyeth in 1921.)


Another late-Victorian story with the theme of the supernatural and long life is Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900)


The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in book form in 1891.


The picture here is a sinister one:  all of that which would age the protagonist, Dorian—who has an increasingly dark, secret life—is transferred to the image on canvas, so that the sitter for the portrait never seems to age.  We can see what that would look like from this image—as well as the tinted version, which is even worse,



from the 1945 film.


How the picture acts as a sponge for all of the worst of Dorian is, like vampirism, never explained—Dorian promises his life if he will never age, but we never see, for example, a satanic figure, standing to one side, nod in agreement.

We want to end, however, with a happier story—well, sort of.  In 1902, the Scots novelist and dramatist, JM Barrie (1860-1937),


published a novel, The Little White Bird.


In it appeared for the first a seemingly-deathless character, Peter Pan.


Unlike Oisin, who has gone to a magical place, or Dorian Gray, who has his enchanted portrait, Peter just seems to be suspended in time—originally at the age of 7—days—old.


When Barrie returned to the character, in 1904, however, he made Peter grow up–slightly.  His age isn’t exactly clear, but we know from the 1911 novelized version, Peter and Wendy,


that he still has his first set of teeth.  [Footnote:  not a very exact clue—children can begin shedding baby teeth beginning at 6 and continue till 12.]   This is the Peter of Barrie’s famous play, Peter Pan,


about a boy who lives on an island in Neverland


and, on a visit to London, loses his shadow while eavesdropping on the three Darling children, whose oldest sibling, Wendy, tells stories about him, which she had learned from her mother.


Peter is able to fly and, with the help of a fairy, Tinkerbell, he takes the Darling children back to Neverland with him, where they have all sorts of adventures.

The original Peter—like so many Peters over a century to come—was a woman, Nina Boucicault.


We are lucky to have her costume, which differs a good deal from the Peter Pan everyone knows now from the 1954 Disney film.



The villain of the piece, Captain Hook, however, has maintained his general outline from 1904.


This is Gerald du Maurier, the original Captain.


Although Barrie himself suggested that Hook should look like someone from the time of Charles II (1660-1685),


to us, he appears to be modeled on the fashions of the late 17th century—note the long coat with the big cuffs, not to mention the big wig.


And here is Disney’s 1954 Hook.


(A footnote:  in 1904, Barrie had planned to have different actors play Mr. Darling, the children’s father, and Captain Hook, but du Maurier persuaded him to allow du Maurier to play both roles, which is still the tradition.)

The subtitle of Peter Pan is Or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and here we see, for the first time on our little tour, an explanation for the immortality in which the mortal is an active agent:  unlike Dracula or Oisin or Dorian Gray, Peter defies time simply by refusing to acknowledge its effects.  He won’t age because he doesn’t want to.

We said that we wanted to end on a “sort of” happy story and Peter’s stubborn immortality might fit that, but Barrie later added a kind of epilogue, a one-act play first performed in 1908.  In it, Wendy Darling, the oldest of the Darling children, has now grown up and gotten married, and had a daughter, Jane.  One night, while Wendy is putting Jane to bed in the same nursery from which the earlier adventures began, Peter appears.


At first, he simply refuses to believe that Wendy has grown up, and wants her to return to Neverland with him, although she has lost the ability to fly.  When she tries gently to explain that she can’t go with him because she has now become an adult, he collapses in tears and she runs from the room, leaving Jane asleep in her bed.  Jane wakes up and soon Peter invites her to fly to Neverland with him.  When Wendy reappears, she is quickly convinced and off the two go, leaving Wendy behind, but with the hope that Jane will have a daughter and she, in turn, will be taken to Neverland in an endless succession of daughters—perhaps immortality of a different sort?  (Here’s a LINK to the play, if you would like to read it for yourself.)

This has been a long posting, but we can’t resist a brief ps.  In 1757, Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia (1712-1786), was losing the battle of Kolin.  Desperate to win, he tried to rally his men for a counterattack, shouting, “You rascals!  Do you want to live forever?”


Virtually no one followed him, so we guess that most did.

Thanks, as always, for reading.




And another ps—in 1924, the first film version of Peter Pan appeared.


It was much praised at the time and here’s a LINK so that you can see it for yourself.

All Thin, Sort of Stretched


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

Once before, we wrote about the Scouring of the Shire and about the queer events after Saruman’s death, but, recently, we’ve come across something which might suggest an explanation.

This past term/semester, one of us taught Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, for the first time (and it seemed to be a big hit, we might add), as we’ve also mentioned before.


In the book, Professor Van Helsing tells the protagonists that Dracula:

“…must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkey-land.” (Dracula, Chapter XVIII)


If indeed true, this would mean that the Un-dead figure in the novel, who, historically, had been born about 1430, would, at the time of the novel, be about 467 years old.  Van Helsing explains this longevity:

“The vampire live on, and cannot die by mere passing of the time; he can flourish when that he can fatten on the blood of the living.”


“Even more, we have seen amongst us that he can even grow younger; that his vital faculties grow strenuous, and seem as though they refresh themselves when his special pabulum is plenty.” [pabulum is a little odd here, to us, as it’s an early word for “baby food”—perhaps Van Helsing is being sarcastic?]

We were easily, as always, prompted back to JRRT here and something Bilbo says to Gandalf when he is about to leave Bag End in the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings:

“I am old, Gandalf.  I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts.  Well-preserved indeed!…Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean:  like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)



Hobbits are, in comparison to humans in our current world and among non-Numenoreans in Middle-earth, a long-lived race, Bilbo’s family in particular being perhaps an extreme example, his grandfather, Gerontius (a small academic joke—geron in Greek means “old man”), living to be 130—and Bilbo will even surpass him, if only briefly.

“Stretched”, however, suggests something else—and we know, as Gandalf does, what that is–the Ring:

“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.  And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades:  he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the Dark Power that rules the Rings.  Yes, sooner or later—later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last—sooner or later the Dark Power will devour him.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

And so, Bilbo would have felt more and more “stretched”, had he not given it up, even as he continued to go on existing–Gollum, after all, is nearly 600 when he meets Bilbo for the riddling game.


As we’ve mentioned, the descendants of the Numenoreans had a naturally-extended life.  Aragorn, for instance, is 87 at the time of The Lord of the Rings, and 210 at his death in FA120.


Others in Middle-earth, however, have simply been given what would seem to be life spans practically without limit.  The elves, like Galadriel, are, in effect, immortal.  Likewise are the Istari—the “wizards”, like Gandalf.


This should extend to Saruman, as well.


And yet, something seems to have gone wrong here, as we wrote about some time ago.  Once Grima has cut his throat:

“To the dismay of those that stood by, about the body of Saruman a grey mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill.  For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.”


This isn’t the end, however.

“Frodo looked down at the body with pity and horror, for as he looked it seemed that long years of death were suddenly revealed in it, and it shrank, and the shriveled face became rags of skin upon a hideous skull.  Lifting up the skirt of the dirty cloak that sprawled beside it, he covered it over, and turned away.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

It’s never explained why the—for lack of a better word—spirit of Saruman disappears as it does.  The fact that it looks to the West—towards Valinor—and a cold wind blows from there suggests that, somehow, the Valar are punishing Saruman for betraying their trust and forbidding him from returning to them, as the living Gandalf will in the final chapter of the book (and for a second time, it seems, Gandalf having been “sent back” after his apparent death fighting the Balrog).

What Frodo sees in the sprawled body, however, suggests something more:  “long years of death were suddenly revealed in it”.  Here’s Stoker’s description of the end of Dracula:

“As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.

But, on the instant, came the sweep and flash of Jonathan’s great knife.  I shrieked as I saw it shear through the throat; whilst at the same moment Mr. Morris’ bowie knife plunged into the heart.

It was like a miracle; but before our very eyes, and almost in the drawing of a breath, the whole body crumble[d] into dust and passed from our sight.”  (Dracula, Chapter XXVII)

Bilbo and Gollum have continued to live because the Ring has given them the power to do so, but at a great cost, at least for Gollum, as Gandalf says.  Dracula has been given nearly 500 years because he has become a parasite on the living, but those years were his with the loss of his soul.  Could it be that Saruman, although given immortality because he is one of the Maiar, has, through his long years of plotting, either to work with Sauron or even to become Sauron, somehow become more like one of the Un-dead, gradually losing life even though immortal?


(This is the end of Count Orlok, the Dracula figure in our favorite vampire movie, FW Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu.  If you’d like to see the film, here’s a LINK to it from the Internet Archive site.)

In which case, his end is much worse than that of Dracula, as one of the protagonists, Mina Harker, writes:

“I shall be glad as long as I live that even in that moment of final dissolution, there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.”



A Celtic Chill Up the Spine


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Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

As we just finished a novel, Bonnie Dundee (1983),


by one of our favorite YA historical authors, Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992), we were snagged by what, at first, seems just an odd little detail—but we’ll come to that.  First, let’s talk about the book in general.


The title refers to a 17th-century Scots nobleman, John Graham, 7th Laird of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (1648-1689), also known as “Bloody Clavers” for his zeal in observing the law in a complicated religious situation (the subject of a Sir Walter Scott novel, Old Mortality, 1816),


and “Bonnie Dundee” from his noble title (and, we presume, his good looks).


In 1689, Dundee was a royal cavalry officer, leading a regiment of mounted infantry, called, at that time, dragoons.


In that same year, a combination of elements of Parliament, the army and navy, and the forces of William, Prince of Orange, Stadtholder of the other provinces of the Netherlands,


and husband of Mary,


the daughter of the King of England, James II, had overthrown James.


William was the son of James’ sister, and so James was both his uncle and his father-in-law—a very tricky situation!

Rather than fight, James had fled, but elements in Ireland and Scotland were still loyal.  One of the main leaders of resistance in Scotland was Bonnie Dundee.


Against him was a Williamite army, led by Hugh Mackay.


The major battle happened at the Pass of Killiecrankie, 27 July, 1689.


The government’s side consisted almost entirely of regular infantry regiments, but a real mixture of raw and experienced soldiers, it seems.


Dundee’s men were primarily Highlanders, untrained in modern battlefield discipline and tactics.


The usual method in period battles was to begin by softening up the enemy with artillery fire in hopes that you could goad him into attacking you or at least you might shake his organization.


Then, if the enemy advanced, you used your firepower to break up his formations


and, if you were lucky, to drive him back, whereupon you might loose your cavalry to drive him off the battlefield.


1689 was a time of transition in European armies, in which the Renaissance weapon, the pike,


which had been increasingly flanked by men with firearms,


was being replaced by the bayonet, turning a musket into a short pike and thus removing the need for pikemen.  The earliest bayonets, however, were simply knives stuck into the muzzle of the musket.


Of course, if you stick a knife into the muzzle, it means that you lose the ability to keep up your volleys and this seems to have been part of the difficulty for MacKay, the Williamite general.  The Highlanders had, as their main weapon, the charge, the goal being to get close to the enemy before he could do much damage with firearms, and cut him to pieces with swords and axes.


Somehow, the Highlanders managed to break up the Williamite regiments—possibly because they were caught between firing and fixing bayonets?—and drive them off—although at the cost of losing Dundee, mortally wounded while attempting to direct the attack.


Sutcliff’s hero, a Scots Lowlander named Hugh Herriot, is first a groom in Dundee’s household and then a trooper in his dragoons, eventually following Dundee to Killiecrankie and his death.  (Dundee was buried nearby just after the battle.)


It is on the march to the battlefield that Hugh sees something which briefly captures his attention at the time, but nothing more, and it was this description which has haunted us, ever since we put the book down:

“Once we came to the place where a cattle-track dipped down from the north, to cross the river by a made ford.  And on the far side, tucked in among the roots of overshadowing hazel and alder trees, looking as twisted and as rooted into the bank as themselves, an old woman in an earth-coloured gown knelt washing a pile of household clothes and linen.

I mind thinking it was late in the year for that; mostly the crofter women fling everything out-of-doors and deal with the bed-bugs and wash all things washable in May.  I mind also noticing that there was something of a dark brownish-red colour among the grey pallor of the unbleached linen; a shawl, maybe; you could not see, in the cave of shadows under the alder branches.

She took no more notice of our passing than if we had not been there at all.  And we marched on, and I thought no more of the thing, for the time being.”  (Bonnie Dundee, Chapter 21, “The Old Woman by the Ford”)

It’s only when later, in camp, Hugh senses that something appears to be worrying the Highlanders that it comes clear that they, too, saw the old woman—and something more, as his Highland friend, Alisdair, explains:

“Did ye see anything—any one, by the cattle ford an hour’s march up-river, as we came by?”

To which Hugh answers:

“An old woman doing her household wash…”

And Alisdair says in return:

“Aye, and you a Lowlander, ye would not be knowing.”


“The Woman of the Sidh—the Washer by the Ford.”

Although a Lowlander, Hugh does know:

“The Washer by the Ford, and she was washing the blood-stained linen, who comes before the death of chiefs and heroes…”


For us, who grew up in the Greco-Roman world, an old woman at a ford has a completely different meaning:  in the story of Jason, his patron-to-be, Hera, disguises herself as an old woman and sits by a ford, testing men by asking to be carried across.  Jason agrees to and loses a sandal in the process, thus fulfilling a divine warning sent to the king of Iolcus about his eventual overthrow (by Jason):  beware the man with one sandal.


This story in the Sutcliff—really, as we said, only a little detail in a much larger story—struck us as not only extremely well told (which we expect from Sutcliff, a very gifted story-teller—we’ll talk more about her in a future post), but well-told because, initially, it does just seem like nothing at all—something idly noticed and nothing more.  Its creepiness comes not from the description, which might be ordinary, but from its Celtic heritage—the Highlanders belong to a world made long before 1689, being a combination of the prehistoric settlers of the north, the Picts,


and the Irish, who began arriving in Scotland in the 5th century AD.


Although the Irish had converted to Christianity early, there were certain older beliefs which lasted throughout many centuries.  The Old Woman at the Ford is clearly one.  In Gaelic, the Irish-based language of Scotland, she is the Bean Nighe, (ben NEE-yeh, “the washer-woman”), or as Alisdair calls her, “the Woman of the Sidh” (sheethe).

“Sidh” has, in fact, several possible translations:  it can mean “peace”, but, as well, it signifies the Neolithic tumuli (like the barrows to the east of the Old Forest in Middle-earth), as well as the People of the Other World (who may either live in tumuli, or use them as doorways into that Other World).


Our English word “banshee” is simply the Irish ben side (ben SHEE-thyeh), “woman of the Sidh” which, as we’ve seen, is just what Alisdair calls the Old Woman at the Ford.

Banshees—who do not necessarily always appear as old women, sometimes visit as young–are a kind of messenger from the Other World, sent to warn family members of an impending death.  Their manner of communicating this can vary—in some parts of tradition, they fulfil the task of old women at traditional funerals, wailing in grief, with a sound which has come into English as “keening”.


To give you an idea of this, here’s a LINK to a clip from the 1959 Disney movie, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, in which we see not only a banshee, but also the next step, the coiste bodhar, [KOH-shte BOW-er] the “silent coach” with its headless coachman, the Dullahan, called in Irish, Gan Ceann,(gan KENN) “Headless”, who carries the dead person…somewhere… [Be warned, by the way:  one of us saw this only once, many years ago, on a Disney program, and has spent many further years trying not to remember it!]

In other parts of the tradition, the banshee stands outside the doomed person’s window and simply says her/his name (which impresses us as especially creepy), or calls out “My wife!” “My husband!” or “My child!”

In Ireland, the banshee is restricted to the pre-Norman-invasion population (pre-the-year 1169, more or less), suggesting that this is a purely Celtic belief, which would make sense of Hugh’s Highland friend, Alisdair’s, fear of the Washer.

It has been suggested that perhaps this figure is descended from a fearful Irish goddess, the Bodbh (BAH-thv),


who has a possible three-part persona and appears before battles and on battlefields, with a raven as her totemic animal.


She is also called Morrigan, meaning “great queen”, which sounds rather like a euphemism.  In Old Irish stories, she is the enemy of the boy hero Cuchulain (Koo HOO lun), and brings about his death through tricking him into destroying his own protective spells (he eats dog, his own totemic animal—his name means “hound of Culann”).  There’s a famous bronze statue of him, with her raven on his shoulder, in the old main Dublin post office.


And here Sutcliff now helps us to complete a kind of grim mythological circle.  Hugh Herriot not only knows who the Washer is, but this further fact:

“The Washer by the Ford, and she was washing the blood-stained linen, who comes before the death of chiefs and heroes—aye, before the death of Cuchulain himself.”

Who is the chief and hero of the novel—and is riding to battle the Williamites?  It’s clear, if one accepts this portent, what is to happen, and yet Hugh tries to deny what he knows to Alisdair—

“Och, away!  Dinna be sae daft!…She was real enough; just an old hen-wife, a wee thing late with her spring washing.  Aye, she was real enough.”

Alisdair’s reply still chills us—as it does Hugh—and explains why what was originally only a passing observation in this novel has stayed with us:

“ ‘She seemed real enough,’ he said, ‘she always does.’ “

Thanks, as always, for reading.



First Make a Map


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As always, welcome, dear readers.

We have just said goodbye to an old friend, E, who stayed all too briefly with us on his way to and from a conference.  E, like us, is a big fan of maps and we had a lot of conversation on the topographical charting of Middle-earth, particularly as seen in The Lord of the Rings.

A map forms the basis of the plot of The Hobbit, of course.


And the need for an accurate depiction of (fictional) geography haunted its author as he expanded his story, as he says in a letter to Rayner Unwin, 11 April, 1953:

“Maps are worrying me.  One at least (which would then have to be rather large) is absolutely essential.  I think three are needed:  1. Of the Shire; 2. Of Gondor; and 3. A general small-scale map of the whole field of action.  They exist, of course; though not in any form fit for reproduction—for of course in such a story one cannot make a map for the narrative, but must first make a map and make the narrative agree.”  (Letters, 168)

(If you would like to see an interesting selection of Tolkien maps, here’s a LINK to the Tolkien Estate website, which has a number of them, including the first map of the Shire.)

The idea of making a map, rather than a story, first reminded us of an earlier author, who once said much the same thing.

In the summer of 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson


was on an extended tour of central and eastern Scotland with his parents, his wife, and his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne.


From early August to late September, they stayed in Braemar


in this cottage.


Then the weather intervened:

“There it blew a good deal and rained in a proportion…and I must consent to pass a good deal of my time between four walls…There was a schoolboy [his stepson, Lloyd]…home from the holidays…He had no thought of literature; it was the art of Raphael that received his fleeing suffrages; and with the aid of pen and ink and a shilling box of water colours, he had soon turned one of the rooms into a picture gallery.  My more immediate duty towards the gallery was to be showman; but I would sometimes unbend a little, join the artist (so to speak) at the easel, and pass the afternoon with him in a generous emulation, making coloured drawings.  On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island’.”  (RL Stevenson, “My First Book:  ‘Treasure Island’”, The Idler, August, 1894)

In fact, as Stevenson writes earlier in this essay, it was not, in fact, his first book, or even his first novel, but it was his first published novel.  After its inspired beginning as a map, it first saw publication not as a novel, but as a serial in 17 installments in a magazine called Young Folks, from 1 Oct, 1881 to 28 Jan, 1882, under a pen name, “Captain George North”.  Its first appearance as a novel was in November, 1883, with the title, Treasure Island, or, The Mutiny of the Hispaniola.


This has produced many subsequent republications over the years, our favorite being the 1911 edition,


with its wonderful, atmospheric illustrations by NC Wyeth.


But what about the map which started it all?

“But the adventures of Treasure Island are not yet quite at an end.  I had written it up to the map.  The map was the chief part of my plot.  For instance, I had called an islet ‘Skeleton Island,’ not knowing what I meant, seeking only for the immediate picturesque, and it was to justify this name that I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe and stole Flint’s pointer [a sprawled skeleton, if you don’t know the book].  And in the same way, it was because I had made two harbours that the Hispaniola was sent on her wanderings with Israel Hands.  The time came when it was decided to republish [that is, from magazine to book form], and I sent in my manuscript, and the map along with it, to Messrs. Cassell.  The proofs came, they were corrected, but I heard nothing of the map.  I wrote and asked; was told it had never been received, and sat aghast.  It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements.  It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the date.  I did it; and the map was drawn again in my father’s office, with embellishments of blowing whales and sailing ships, and my father himself brought into service a knack he had of various writing, and elaborately FORGED the signature of Captain Flint, and the sailing directions of Billy Bones.  But somehow it was never Treasure Island to me.”

So here is that second version.


From his experience, Stevenson drew the same conclusion as JRRT would nearly 60 years later:

“I have said the map was the most of the plot.  I might almost say it was the whole…It is, perhaps, not often that a map figures so largely in a tale, yet it is always important.  The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behavior of the moon, should all be beyond cavil…But it is my contention—my superstition, if you like—that who is faithful to his map, and consults it, and draws from it his inspiration, daily and hourly, gains positive support, and not mere negative immunity from accident.  The tale has a root there; it grows in that soil; it has a spine of its own behind the words.  Better if the country be real, and he has walked every foot of it and knows every milestone.  But even with imaginary places, he will do well in the beginning to provide a map; as he studies it, relations will appear that he had not thought upon; he will discover obvious, though unsuspected, short-cuts and footprints for his messengers; and even when a map is not all the plot, as it was in Treasure Island, it will be found to be a mine of suggestion.”

(If you would like to read this little essay in full—and we recommend it—here’s a LINK.)

We will end here as, inspired, we’re off to redo the map for our imaginary medieval Russia, Cherna.