Three Times Three (2)

Welcome, dear readers, as we continue our slow-motion review of Star Wars IX:  The Rise of Skywalker.


As we said in our last, we thought that it might be useful, and we hope, interesting, to review it by seeing it as we imagine the creators did, as the final installment of something which began almost as “long ago” as that well-known subtitle says the story took place.

We begin with the idea of trilogies.

In Western story-telling, three is a kind of magic number—almost an embodiment of the English proverb, “Third time pays for all”, where the third of three things completes something.   Fairy tales, for instance often involve three wishes.  Sometimes that third wish is a corrective, when the first two take the story in a bad direction.  In the story of “The Fisherman’s wife”, one of the tales in the Grimm Brothers’ collection of German fairy tales, the greedy fisherman’s wife even asks for a fourth wish–and loses everything the first three have given her.  (If you don’t know this story, here’s a LINK to the 1868 edition of the first English translation (1823) of it, by Edgar Taylor:

When we think of books written to be read in a three, we might think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games,


or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials


(if you’ve read these in the US, you’ll know that first volume, Northern Lights, by another title, The Golden Compass)

or, of course, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings


(although it was never designed to be such—early 1950s British printing demands broke what was thought of as a single work into three).

In the case of Star Wars, however, there is not one trilogy, but three.


(actually 2 and 2/3s—IX is not yet commercially available, but here it is for completeness).


Reading about the problems the original director/main writer, George Lucas,


faced in gradually developing the story, we learn that, for a time, his plans kept changing until he finally settled on beginning the big story not with I, but with IV.


Instead of returning to I after that, however, he went on to make his first trilogy of IV, V, and VI.


Ultimately, the two main characters of this trilogy are Luke Skywalker and his antagonist, Darth Vader.


In this second trilogy—although really the first in the series—Lucas had set his audiences what seemed to be several puzzles:

  1. who was Darth Vader—and why/how does he turn out to be (no spoiler alert here, we’re pretty sure!) Luke’s father? (and, we’d add, “Who’s his mother?”)
  2. what is the more general context—among other things, there’s talk of a republic and its senate, of “Jedi”, and then of the galaxy being ruled by an evil emperor who, when we see him, employs powers he derives from the “dark side” of “The Force”—so where does all of this come from?

And so, in this first trilogy (shown here with the second, as images of the first trilogy seem hard to find),


not only has the author given us several puzzles, but he’s seemingly set himself what might prove to be a very difficult task.  If he tells the story of Darth Vader in the first set of three films, Vader has already appeared as such a monster that it might be impossible to generate any sympathy for him, making him simply a two-dimensional villain of the sort the emperor appears to be in the second trilogy, and any films in which he is a main, if not the main, character, could be mostly just a series of repetitions of his evil behavior.  Instead, Star Wars I


begins with two of those Jedi, a master (as he’s called by the other), and an apprentice (called a “padawan”), Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.


During their adventures, they encounter the Queen of Naboo, Padme,


and what appears to be a kind of child prodigy, Anakin.


Qui-Gon decides that Anakin is something called “the Chosen One”, who is to “bring balance to the Force” and proposes to adopt him as his next padawan/apprentice.  The difficulty with this, as we are told in time, is that Jedi:

  1. must be without fear or anger
  2. must renounce all attachments

Anakin, still a little boy, must leave his mother, Shmi (short for Lakshmi, after the Hindu goddess of good fortune?)


and is obviously troubled about this:  a possible serious flaw in his becoming a Jedi, let alone “the Chosen One”.

Qui-Gon is killed in a duel with a mysterious figure called “Darth Maul”,


who is, in turn, cut in two by Obi-Wan,


and, at the conclusion of this first film, Obi-Wan, now a Jedi himself, pledges to become Anakin’s master,


much against the will of a senior Jedi, Yoda, who has examined the boy and seen very clearly that flaw, along with his possibilities.


So far, then, the story is about promise, that Anakin will grow into a Jedi, but also a threat:  will Yoda’s doubts be proved correct?  And who was Darth Maul and why was he despatched on what looks like an assassination attempt?  We are briefly told that he was a “Sith” and the equivalent of a padawan, with the addition that, where there is one Sith, there is always one more…

The second film, Attack of the Clones,


seems to take place about 10 years later:  Obi-Wan is now a settled Jedi (with a beard) and Anakin is a sort of senior apprentice, who nurses a growing sense of resentment that he’s never recognized as he believes he should be for his abilities.


At this point, Padme, now a member of the Galactic Senate, reappears,


having just survived an assassination attempt.  Anakin confesses his attraction for her and, added to his anger, we see the very beginnings of what Yoda has always feared.


This is only intensified when Anakin discovers that his mother has been captured on his home planet of Tatooine by Sand People and, basically, tortured to death.


Beyond the personal, we see that the Republic is falling apart:  a number of planetary systems within the Galaxy are struggling to separate themselves.  The current Supreme Chancellor is forced to step down and, in his place, another senator from Naboo, Palpatine, is his replacement.  We saw Palpatine briefly in the first film and we see him again here and he seems like a sympathetic, if minor, figure.  Fatherless himself, and increasingly estranged from Obi-Wan, Anakin is drawn to him.

By the end of the second film, developments have come in quick succession:  the rebellion of the Separatists is being fueled by a one-time Jedi, Count Dooku; to defend itself, the remaining members of the Senate vote to form an army—only to find that there already is one, an army of clones; and Padme has fallen in love with Anakin and they secretly marry.


We now come to the last of this first trilogy with Revenge of the Sith.


In a way, the title says it all:  Senator Palpatine is revealed as the Sith lord, Darth Sidious, and Anakin, corrupted by his fears for Padme’s death in childbirth and Sidious’ suggestion that, as a Sith, he knows ways to deal with death, joins him as his apprentice, Darth Vader, as Sidious activates Order 66.  It seems that, behind that mysterious clone army is Sidious himself, who has also been behind the Separatists, all to overthrow the Republic and become Galactic emperor.  This, however, is only one of two goals.  The other is the complete destruction of the Jedi order and Order 66 is the command, implanted in the clones, to murder all of the Jedi without question.




This then leads to the climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin/Darth Vader,


in which Obi-Wan reluctantly defends himself but eventually defeats Anakin, who is left sprawled and mutilated, while Obi-Wan escapes with Padme, whom a jealous Anakin has nearly murdered.  She dies, however, just as Anakin feared, in childbirth, leaving behind twins, Luke and Leia, who, to protect them from the murderous Darth Sidious, are to be raised on separate planets, Leia on Alderan and Luke on Tatooine.


Meanwhile, the dying Anakin is rescued by Sidious and reconstructed within the black armor in which we know Darth Vader, Sidious assuring him that he has killed Padme in his rage.


Yoda and Obi-Wan, two of the very few surviving Jedi, both disappear into exile, and we are left with the image of baby Luke in the arms of his foster parents, Beru and Owen, initiating a scene we will view again in the first film of the second trilogy.


So, in the three films of this first trilogy, we see:

  1. the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Sith Darth Sidious as Galactic emperor
  2. the destruction of the Jedi, with two notable exceptions
  3. the failure of Anakin as “the Chosen One” and his rebirth as the apprentice of the greatest enemy of the Jedi
  4. and yet we also see Anakin’s children, who will reappear in the fourth film, perhaps optimistically titled A New Hope?

We shall see in our next, even as we thank you for reading this posting, with a promise, rather than a hope, that




Three Times Three (1)

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Recently, we saw Star Wars IX:  The Rise of Skywalker


and we’d like to talk with you a bit about it.  If you follow this complex world, you’ve probably read reviews and even seen the film, as we have.  If so, you know that the reviews have been a wild mixture, although the tone among many has been dismissive and disappointed.

For us, the feelings were much more complicated.  After all, our first view of this world was with Star Wars IV:  A New Hope,


the subtitle of which, to us, who loved adventure stories—especially long, complex ones—was true.  Suddenly, we were in “a galaxy far, far away” in a time “long, long ago”:  phrases which sounded as traditional as “once upon a time” or “a king there was upon Ireland”, but phrases which indicated a hope for many new stories about new characters in new places.

And that hope has been fulfilled, over and over–




And not just with the slow but steady building of the main story, but with stories around the edges, from animated features like the Clone Wars


and Rebels


to Rogue One



to Solo.


And this is not to mention all of the novels, comic books, graphic novels, games, costumes, toys—some of the toys being our favorites…





as well as the bits of dialogue like:


“She’s rich.”


“Rich, powerful.  Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be…”


“Well, more wealth than you can imagine!”

“I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.”



“Do or do not.  There is no try.”

Thinking of all of those things and much more and how they all began with one film, made us think of the long, complex history of the story of Troy.  Unlike Star Wars, this didn’t begin with one identifiable man,


but with an oral tradition of singers, aoidoi, in Greek,


who gradually spread and embellished upon what was probably once a song about a raid


but which, as it grew, included not only Greek adventures, like the homecoming of Odysseus,


but even Roman, with the escape from the collapsing city of the Trojan prince, Aeneas, who then, in Italy, will begin the process which will lead, in time, to the founding of Rome.


The same could be said for the King Arthur story, which may have begun with a tale about a kind of vague post-Roman historical figure,


and became, in western Europe, the center of a web of medieval stories and spin-offs


up to the present (and who can forget Monty Python and the Holy Grail?).


Here’s a LINK to some—and it’s only some—of those treatments and spin-offs:

Because the story is so complicated and because our reactions to IX are also so complicated, we thought that we’d tackle our review a little like the original, by moving in three postings, one to cover each trilogy, leading up, at the end of the third, to our reaction—reactions, really—to the final episode (with a spoiler alert:  we will not grumble, complain, or condemn IX, only try to understand what it is trying to do and what we are feeling about what we understand, with a huge amount of gratitude for all that the series has given us along the way).

So, thanks for reading, as always, and definitely




If you haven’t seen it, we definitely recommend the Camelot Project sponsored by the University of Rochester (the US one) at this LINK:




As All Should Know?

“ ‘Then what is Durin’s Day?’ asked Elrond.

‘The first day of the dwarves’ New Year,’ said Thorin, ‘is as all should know the first day of the last moon of Autumn on the threshold of Winter.’ “ (The Hobbit, Chapter Three, “A Short Rest”)

Welcome, dear readers, to our end-of-the-year posting.  It will be posted on January 1, 2020—which is hardly Durin’s Day.

But when is Durin’s Day?

It seems that that is as much a puzzle for Thorin as it might be for us, as he says:

“ ‘We call it Durin’s Day when the last moon of Auturm and the sun are in the sky together.  But this will not help us much, I fear, for it passes our skill in these days to guess when such a time will come again.’ “

Thorin and Gandalf have consulted Elrond over the map of the Lonely Mountain made by (or for) Thror, Thorin’s grandfather, and Elrond has discovered that the map has more to tell than would first appear.

image1map.jpgAs, in the light of a crescent moon, Elrond

“held up the map and the white light shone through it.  ‘What is this?’ he said.  ‘There are moon-letters here, beside the plain runes…’ “

Those briefly-readable lunar runes (highlighted in white on our image), say:

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks…and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.”

Like the first day of the dwarves’ New Year, the first day of the Western New Year has been a bit of a mystery over the centuries, too.

Ultimately, our calendar comes from the Roman calendar and that calendar, at its beginnings, was already in trouble, and all because of that same moon which illuminates Thror’s map.


Roman tradition said that this calendar had been edited by the founder of Rome, Romulus, here depicted murdering his twin brother, Remus, before introducing


his ten-month lunar calendar.  His successor, Numa Pompilius,


attempting to combine a solar with a lunar calendar, added two months, but was forced to add another, shorter, month, every two years so that the seasons and the calendar didn’t drift too far apart.  As this still caused difficulties, Julius Caesar, many centuries later,


recently made “Dictator for Life” by the Senate, consulted an Alexandrian astronomer, Sosigenes, and redesigned the calendar with 12 months with a total of 365 ¼ days, an extra day being added every four years to fill out that ¼ day—that is, more or less, a solar year.  There are a lot of complications in this which we ourselves would roll our eyes over, so, if you would like more information, here’s the WIKI LINK:

The difficulty with this, as we understand it, is that that ¼ day is fractionally longer than a quarter and that, over many years, the seasons and the calendar still managed to drift apart, so that, by the early 1580s, there was a 10-day gap.  This was adjusted by a new calendar, authorized by Pope Gregory XIII, in 1582, which recalibrated things in such a way that we’re still using that system in 2019.


But what about the first day of the Western New Year?

Originally, Romans, with a ten-month calendar (which is why we the names “Septem-ber, Octo-ber, Novem-ber, and Decem-ber”, even though, now, those names/numbers can no longer be correlated with the modern 12-month variety), marked the beginning of the New Year as late in March, at the time of the vernal equinox.   This was one of two days a year when day and night are approximately equal (the other is on the autumnal equinox, which, as the name suggests, is in the fall).  In 2020, that will be on March 20th.

Although the Roman Republic had established 1 January as the beginning of the civil year, when their two chief magistrates, the consuls, took office,


that late March date was still being used until, along with his 12-month reform, Caesar permanently moved the beginning of the year to the first day of the extra month named after the god of endings and beginnings, Janus.


This shift also nicely fit in with the season of traditional Roman year-end festivities (which seemed to go on no matter what the calendar might be doing), including the Saturnalia,


and the later addition of the festival of Sol Invictus (the “unconquered sun”), all from mid-to-late December.


This worked until 567AD, when Christian clergy, meeting at the Council of Tours, decreed that 1 January still reeked of paganism and shifted the beginning of the year back to late March—March 25th, in fact, where it remained until Pope Gregory XIII (remember him?) revised the calendar and moved it back to 1 January.  Most of the West adopted this new version of the calendar rather speedily, except for Great Britain, which didn’t make the change until 1752.  (So, when you see that George Washington, for example, was born on 22 February, 1732, until he was about 20, he must have believed that he had been born on 11 February, 1731.)

But what about Durin’s Day? we asked some time ago.

We know that Thorin seems a bit unsure and that would appear to be true for his creator, as well.  The best guess (with the author sort of behind it) would be 19 October, but, if you want to pursue it farther than that, see this LINK:  The author does a very good job of, well, trying to deal with something JRRT once wrote in a note at the top of a page of revisions for the projected 1966 edition of The Hobbit, “Hobbit Time table is not very clear”.

In this world, however, in the West, 1 January remains the beginning of the year and we wish you a happy and prosperous one, no matter when/how you celebrate.

With thanks for reading, as always, and, as always




The traditional New Year’s song in the English-speaking world is Robert Burn’s “Auld Lang Syne” (literally, “Old Long Since”) and our favorite version is that of Leopold Kozeluch (1747-1818).


Here’s a LINK so that you can hear it for yourself:


Real Fantasy

Welcome, as always, dear readers—although we were tempted to say:  “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!”  This is what Dracula says to Jonathan Harker, soon to become the Count’s horrified prisoner in Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912)


1897 novel, Dracula,


which we taught this last term.

Although the novel is the most famous of vampire stories, and the most popular, never being out of print since that original publication, it is not the original vampire story in English.  That honor appears to go to John Polidori (1795-1821),


who published The Vampyre in 1819.


The story behind this is well-known:  Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician and was at the occasion when Shelley and Byron and their circle challenged each other to come up with a horror story.  Mary Shelley (1797-1851),


with a little help from her husband, produced the first version of Frankenstein


in 1818.  The Polidori, published the following year is a novella (a short novel) about a character called “Lord Ruthven”, who somehow returns from the dead and seems to appear and disappear in rather an odd fashion, as well as be involved in a mysterious murder (after which he disappears again).  Although the novella includes a certain amount of travel in what was at that time an exotic locale, Asia Minor and Greece, both in the hands of the Ottoman Empire,


it is set in a contemporary world (c.1818) and London, amidst upper class society, which is depicted in conventional terms of social calls and gossip.


This turned out to be a popular story (in part because there was a rumor that “Lord Ruthven” was actually Lord Byron—and a second rumor that the novella itself was actually written by him) and, from that moment, “vampyre”—respelled as “vampire”– became a useful figure in English literature.  (Here is a LINK if you’d like to read the story for yourself:

At least useful when it came to what were called “penny dreadfuls”, which were stories with sensational violence in them, produced cheaply for the mass market which increasing literacy in Victorian England, as well, as improvements in everything from paper production (from rag to wood pulp) to illustration, encouraged.  In 1845-47, one of these, published in installments, was this–image9varney.jpg

The story of Sir Francis Varney, who was inflicted with vampirism as a kind of curse, it is set in the 18th century—sort of–but also in the 19th and scholars who have written about the text, which is, ultimately 876 double column pages long, have suggested that more than one author was involved in the long period of its initial serial publication, the two names associated with it being James Malcolm Rymer (1814-1884) and Thomas Peckett Prest (1810?-1859), both known for other popular thrillers.  As you may guess, that confusion about time period is only one of a number of confusions in the plot, probably stemming from multiple authorship but perhaps more so from haste in writing—hack writers were commonly paid for volume, after all–as well as the disposable nature of the genre. (If you would like to struggle through this text, here’s a LINK:  This is an edited version.  You can see all three volumes of the ultimate publication at:

Of a higher quality was the next contender for prominence in vampire-lit:  Sheridan le Fanu’s (1814-1873)


Carmilla, first published in serial form in 1871-72 in the magazine The Dark Blue, appearing the next year in a collection of short stories and novellas, In a Glass Darkly.


(This is the 1884 edition as, so far, we’ve been unable to locate an image of the 1872 original.)

Like the Polidori novella, Carmilla is set in the present (1871), in Styria, part of southeast Austria.  The protagonist, Laura, is of English descent, but has lived her whole life abroad, in an ancient castle, perhaps like this one.


Without going into a plot summary (here’s the Wiki LINK if you’d like one:, we would only add that:

  1. Carmilla is actually the Countess Mircalla, a 17th-century vampire, who preys on young women
  2. many elements, including: an ancient castle, Mircalla’s age, her ability to shift shapes, her feeding off young women, her death (stake through the heart, head cut off) foreshadow our last book, and the one with which we began, Dracula.

(Here’s a LINK to Carmilla:, but, we would actually recommend that you try the whole collection:

We entitled this posting “Real Fantasy” and what we meant by that was exactly what, as we’ve taught Stoker’s novel, we’ve seen to be a major feature of this novel.  Our earlier stories here—at least the better ones—Polidori and Le Fanu, have taken place in their own present time, either the early 1800s or the 1870s, but, beyond a few details, their settings, barely sketched in, are like the proscenium arch of a theatre, a kind of frame for the story.


Dracula, set in the 1890s, does more with its own time, making the physical world of 1897 a major part of the book.  One element of this is in the settings.  In his research, Stoker had consulted Emily Gerard’s “Transylvanian Superstitions” (an article in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 18, July-December, 1885) and The Land Beyond the Forest, published in 1888.


Gerard’s (1849-1905) husband had been an Austro-Hungarian officer stationed in Transylvania, where the opening chapters of the novel take place, and Stoker, while not plagiarizing, certainly leans heavily on her texts to help to provide vivid depictions of places where he had never been.

The next major location is the Victorian seaside resort of Whitby, on the northeast English coast.


Unlike his literary-based Transylvania, Stoker had actually spent part of the summer in his first English location in 1890, working in the local library and clearly making careful notes about the town, down to borrowing a name for a minor character from a tombstone in a local cemetery.

For his third major location, London, Stoker had lived and worked there for years and, just as in Whitby, he had kept his eyes open not only to the city, but to its outskirts, where he may have found the house upon which Dracula’s first habitation was based, in Purfleet, down the Thames from the city.


Beyond locations, we see so much of Victorian to late-Victorian technology:

  1. complex railroad networks—Jonathan Harker actually sees Dracula consulting one of the two major railway guides, Bradshaw



  1. the telegraph


3. the telephone


4.  several items from the modern world of the office, including shorthand stenography


5. the dictaphone,


6. and the typewriter.


7. Beyond the office (we hope), the breech-loading, repeating rifle appears


8. and, though gas lighting  is common in towns and cities still (although electric lighting was coming in)


9. there are battery-powered flashlights (called “electric torches” in England).


All of this, combined, gives a remarkable vividness to the text, placing the 15th-century Vlad Tepes


in an up-to-date context, where modern men of science must combine that modernity with ancient folk beliefs


to defeat an enemy far more imposing than Lord Ruthven, or Varney, or Countess Mircalla.

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





If you don’t own a copy of Dracula, here’s the LINK to the 1897 American edition:


As this will be posted on 25 December, we want to wish all of our readers a happy holiday season and a prosperous new year, whatever faith you may follow!




As always, dear readers, welcome.

“On the table in the light of a big lamp with a red shade he spread a piece of parchment rather like a map.  ‘This was made by Thror, your grandfather, Thorin,’ he said in answer to the dwarves’ excited questions.  ‘It is a plan of the Mountain.’ “ (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

We are teaching The Hobbit again and here is Gandalf, spreading out Thror’s map (by Alan Lee).


And here’s that map.



What caught our immediate attention this time was that central label:  “The Desolation of Smaug”.

The narrator describes this:

“The land about them grew bleak and barren, though once, as Thorin told them, it had been green and fair.  There was little grass, and before long there was neither bush nor tree, and only broken and blackened stumps to speak of ones long vanished.” (Chapter 11, “On the Doorstep”)

That last detail, about the stumps, reminded us of another place, one with which Tolkien, in 1916, would have been very familiar—No Man’s Land in that area between the Germans and the Allies during the Great War in the West and



pounded to dust by the heavy artillery of both sides.


Loading a 15-inch howitzer on the Somme, 7 August 1916.

It wasn’t just the landscape which was pounded:  entire villages disappeared under bombardment and bigger towns suffered severe damage, foreshadowing the destruction of Dale:

“they could see in the wide valley shadowed by the Mountain’s arms the grey ruins of ancient houses, towers, and walls.”

Perhaps the most famous ruin was that of the Cloth Hall in Ypres, in southern Belgium.



Here it is in a pre-war image.


Ypres had been at the center of the northern European wool and cloth trade,



which had made its makers and dealers so rich that they had this enormous place built for themselves,


finished in 1304.

But then, in August, 1914, came the German invasion of Belgium.


The Allies—the British and French—were driven back, but, in time, part of their network of defensive trenches was on the northeast side of Ypres.


Unfortunately for the Allies, the Germans held heights above the town and their guns could easily batter their positions and the town of Ypres beyond.  Doubly unfortunate was the fact that the Cloth Hall and the cathedral behind were prominent features on the landscape and therefore excellent targets—which they soon became—and, in a series of photos, the gradual nearly-complete destruction of the Cloth Hall is clearly visible.


It wasn’t just Belgium which suffered, however.  Beginning in January, 1915, the Germans began an air campaign against Britain.  First, airships were employed,


but, as aircraft technology improved, bombers were added to the attacks,


which continued until May, 1918.  The raids only killed or wounded about 2,000, and did minimal physical damage,


but the psychological damage was enormous.  In the past, as long as the Royal Navy was active, no one had ever successfully threatened England, not even Napoleon.


Airpower changed all that and we wonder about how JRRT’s experience of that—from reading newspaper accounts—


combined with his first-hand experience of No Man’s Land,


influenced the way he imagined the land Smaug had invaded and destroyed.


When the Second War came, Tolkien became an Air Raid Warden in Oxford.


German air attacks on England were much more elaborate and intense than in the First War,


causing great loss of life and enormous damage—huge fires could engulf whole sections of cities, as they did in London.


Bombers never attacked Oxford, but the newspapers


and newsreels of the day


would have shown him what the rest of the country was experiencing, and we can easily imagine that Smaug’s


attack on Lake-town


would have somehow mirrored the awful destruction England was enduring,


just as the use of antiaircraft fire


which brought down German aircraft


would suggest the fateful arrow which brings down Smaug.


Tolkien himself resisted all attempts to turn his work into allegories which portrayed the political and military events of his time in veiled terms, but it wouldn’t be hard to see that such earth-shaking events as the First and Second World Wars and his own experiences in them and of them, could certainly influence the way he saw and presented events in his own Middle-earth.

Thanks, as always, for reading and





But we couldn’t leave you with that ruin of a cloth hall.  Over many years, the people of Ypres worked to rebuild and here’s that famous building today.


Ashes, Ashes, All Fall…

Welcome again, dear readers.

In our last, we were thinking out loud about the Dark Tower, the Barad-dur.  This brought us easily to the White Tower of Minas Tirith


but then, almost by Sauron’s power, we were carried beyond it to a shadowy place, as JRRT describes it:

“A strong citadel it was indeed, and not to be taken by a host of enemies…unless some foe could come up behind and scale the lower skirts of Mindolluin, and so come upon the narrow shoulder that joined the Hill of Guard to the mountain mass.  But that shoulder, which rose to the height of the fifth wall, was hedged with great ramparts right up to the precipice that overhung its western end; and in that space stood the houses and domed tombs of bygone kings and lords, for ever silent between the mountain and the tower.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)


“domed tombs” was an interesting detail—and made us think of the huge necropolis (literally “dead city/city of the dead”) near El-Minya, in Egypt.


(This is from a very interesting blog, “” which we recommend that you might take a look at.  If you google “El Minya”, the major images are all from her site—and, as she seems to have traveled almost everywhere short of Mordor, there’s lots more to see and read about.)

The bigger picture, however, was that there was an entire area of the city which had been set aside as a cemetery for “bygone kings and lords”, along a street called Rath Dinen, “Silent Street”, only to be entered by “a door in the rearward wall of the sixth circle, Fen Hollen it was called”.  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)  Fen Hollen means “Closed Door”, and “it was kept ever shut save at times of funeral, and only the Lord of the City might use that way, or those who bore the token of the tombs and tended the houses of the dead”.

It is to this door that a small procession comes, even as the outer walls of Minas Tirith are being attacked by a vast army from Mordor.



Denethor, whose mind has actually been completely taken over by Sauron’s power through his use of a palantir, is about to do something terrible beyond that door, where “Beyond it went a winding road that descended in many curves down to the narrow land under the shadow of Mindolluin’s precipice where stood the mansions of the dead Kings and of their Stewards.”

As we know, Denethor is now convinced that Minas Tirith, and Gondor itself, are about to fall to the Dark Lord, even as he believes that Faramir, wounded in the last defense of the causeway across the Pelennor,


(by Ted Nasmith, always a favorite of ours)

is dying.  In his despair, Denethor is about to rush the process by cremating Faramir and himself alive although this goes against Gondorian tradition—as Denethor says, “No tomb for Denethor and Faramir.  No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed.  We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.”

Denethor orders attendants to pick up Faramir’s bed and “Out from the White Tower they walked, as if to a funeral, out into the darkness…”


To us, two images came immediately to mind and we wondered whether they were models for JRRT:

  1. something Tolkien must have known as a common sight in his time in the trenches in the Great War, the removal of the wounded on stretchersimage7stretchers


  1. all of the funerals of monarchs he would have seen growing up and as an adult writing The Lord of the Rings in photographs in magazines and newspapers and even in newsreels, from Victoria (1901)image8avic


to Edward VII (1910)


to George V (1936)


to George VI (1952).


Huge processions wound


through London’s streets where, since the funeral of Edward VII, the casket bearing the monarch would be carried into Westminster to lie in state for a brief time


before ultimate burial—also since Edward VII—at St George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle.


Here, in fact, is the tomb of George V and his wife, Queen Mary,


modeled on something much earlier and which might turn up in churches not only in England, but in other parts of western Europe, tomb effigies.





And JRRT, having seen such, we’re sure, as they’re fairly common in England, has them appear in “the House of the Stewards”—which is a kind of euphemism, as this is clearly the burial vault for the Stewards:

“There Pippin, staring uneasily about him, saw that he was in a wide vaulted chamber, draped as it were with the great shadows that the little lantern threw upon its shrouded walls.  And dimly to be seen were many rows of tables, carved of marble; and upon each table lay a sleeping form, hands folded, head pillowed upon stone.”

These aren’t tables, of course, but the tops of tombs, like this one:


That Denethor has gone mad is clear to see in his command to his attendants, who have “laid Faramir and his father side by side” on one of these “tables”:

“Here we will wait…But send not for the embalmers.  Bring us wood quick to burn, and lay it all about us, and beneath, and pour oil upon it.  And when I bid you thrust in a torch.”

To the first audience to read this scene, in 1955, just three years after the last state funeral, that of George VI,


that madness would have been underlined by Denethor’s “No tomb for Denethor and Faramir.  No tomb! No long slow sleep of death embalmed.  We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West.”

The Stewards, though not the kings of Gondor, had ruled like kings for 25 generations, and it’s easy to see in “the House of the Stewards” that they treated themselves like kings, even in their burials.  That Denethor would choose a “heathen” end and in the place of formal entombment could only mean that there was little left of the mind of the man who once had ruled Gondor while waiting, at least symbolically, for the return of the King.  The readers of 1955 would have been well aware of how a real monarch was to be laid to rest and not as the Steward was, when “Denethor gave a great cry, and afterwards spoke no more, nor was ever again seen by mortal men.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 7, “The Pyre of Denethor”)

The attempt at a combination murder and suicide, as well as such a violation of custom, so indicative of the overthrow of Denethor’s mind by Sauron, has a fitting aftermath:

“But the servants of the Lord stood gazing as stricken men at the house of the dead; and even as Gandalf came to the end of Rath Dinen there was a great noise.  Looking back they saw the dome of the house crack and smokes issue forth; and then with a rush and rumble of stone it fell in a flurry of fire…”

Denethor has warned of a catastrophe when he replies to Gandalf:

“But soon all shall be burned.  The West has failed.  It shall all go up in a great fire, and all shall be ended.  Ash!  Ash and smoke blown away on the wind.”

With the (literal) fall of the House of the Steward, it is Denethor himself who must be little but ash.


Thanks, as ever, for reading, and




As so often, it might be that something in Tolkien’s own world has either stimulated his imagination or he has borrowed something for his own purposes.  Here’s a domed building at Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera, opened 1749, which JRRT must have passed by perhaps on a daily basis.  Could this be one source for the House of the Stewards on Rath Dinen?



While researching this posting, we discovered this:


a LEGO version of the pyre of Denethor, by Jackson Williams.  You can see more at:

Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower Came


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If you are a reader/watcher of Shakespeare, you’ll immediately recognize the title, dear readers, as coming from King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4, where a character named Edgar, pretending to be mad, babbles (among other things):

“Child Roland to the dark tower came.

His word was still ‘Fie, foh, and fum,

I smell the blood of a British man.’ “

“Child Roland” belongs to a Scots ballad, “Burd Helen”, first cited in detail in Robert Jamieson’s Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (1814), page 397 and following. (“Burd” is an old Scots term for a young woman.) [If you’d like your own Jamieson, here’s the LINK to obtain a free copy:]

That “Fie, foh, and fum” may also be familiar to you from the story of Jack the Giant Killer/Jack and the Bean Stalk, which first appeared in Round about our Coal Fire (1734), in “the story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” on page 45, with the words in a slightly different form:


I smell the Blood of an English-Man;

Whether he be alive or dead,

I’ll grind his Bones to make my Bread.”

[A copy of the whole pamphlet may be had at this LINK:]

It wasn’t about Jack or his beanstalk, that we began writing this, however, but about that “dark tower”.

And, when we write that, we think, at once, of the Barad-dur—although not perhaps as the Hildebrandts saw it—image1hild

or Alan Lee


or John Howe


or Ted Nasmith,


as much as we respect their ideas and enjoy their work. It’s interesting to see how Tolkien imagined it.


Oddly, to us, this doesn’t look like anything western, but rather like a Japanese castle, such as Kumamoto, originally built in the 15th century.


There is no long description of Sauron’s fortress in The Lord of the Rings, but there are a few bits here and there–

“The Dark Tower was broken, but its foundations were not removed, for they were made with the power of the Ring, and while it remains they will endure.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

“Then at last his [Sam’s] gaze was held: wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant, he saw it: Barad-dur, Fortress of Sauron.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 10, “The Breaking of the Fellowship”)

“…that vast fortress, armoury, prison, furnace of great power, Barad-dur, the Dark Tower…” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”)

“…towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant…” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)

The last description, in particular, with its mention of “towers and battlements, round as hills”, makes us think of medieval fictional castles built on rocks, like Andelkrag, from the stories of Prince Valiant,


or historical castles, like “Dracula’s castle”—actually Bran Castle–in Rumania,


or even the mock-medieval Neuschwanstein, built in the 19th century.


All of these have the “towers and battlements” necessary, suggesting that the Barad-dur may be called “the dark tower”, but is, in fact, like many medieval castles, a conglomeration of towers


and therefore perhaps even Hogwarts might be a candidate for a model.


In one respect, however, we agree with the Hildebrandts’ view.


The Barad-dur is built in what is clearly a volcanic world—rather like this—


so what is it built from? The volcanic area we have some experience of is in northern Arizona, a place called Sunset Crater, the site of a volcanic eruption about 1085AD.


It’s obviously a bit overgrown in comparison with our first image, but in the area are the remains of a number of buildings—ancient buildings from a culture called “Puebloan”—which date from after the eruption and they are made of the local sandstone. The most imposing is this—


Imagine, then, a many-towered castle, with a central tower (perhaps darker than the others, and taller?), built of a ruddy local stone, set on a rocky outcropping in a wide volcanic valley and you have our idea of the Barad-dur. What do you think, dear readers?

Thanks, as always, for reading and





While we were thinking and doing a little looking around about this, we happened on two very different views of that 19th-century castle, Neuschwanstein,



and we suddenly wondered whether it hadn’t been an inspiration for Minas Tirith?



By the way, welcome, dear readers!


Into the Trees.2


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In our last, we were examining something which JRRT said in a letter from 1958 discussing a script for a film of The Lord of the Rings.  He was talking about trees and said that “the story is so largely concerned with them.”  (Letters, 275)


That seemed to us rather an odd thing to say, there being so many human (or humanoid) characters and so much plot in which they are actors in the novel.  And yet, as we began to consider it, we found ourselves trying to approach the story as if the trees were a major part of things—or perhaps more than one part?—and to wonder just what role or roles they were playing and whether that suggests that we might need to expand our understanding of the goals of the book in general.

We thought first of Treebeard, who is, of course, a character (here, drawn by Alan Lee) in the plot


and so are the Ents (by Ted Nasmith).


Besides being plot-drivers, though, Treebeard and his people represent an ancient part of Middle-earth which has somehow survived the long years of human occupation, with its own interests and its own memories—and its own tragedy:  the loss of the Entwives.   As Treebeard says:

“I am not altogether on anybody’s side because nobody is altogether on my side…”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

The sentient nature of trees is not only to be found in Treebeard and the Ents, however.  Consider the Old Forest.


As Merry describes it:

“But the Forest is queer.  Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire…I have only once or twice been in here after dark, and then only near the hedge.  I thought all the trees were whispering to each other, passing news and plots along in an unintelligible language…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 6, “The Old Forest”)

Perhaps the words “unintelligible language” say it best.  Merry appears to accept not only that the trees are awake (“more aware”, as he puts it), but also that they have their own complex form of intercommunication (“language”).  At the same time he may believe such things, what it is they are thinking and saying is not comprehensible, at least by him and, we presume, by those of his acquaintance.  In other words, they are part of a world in which he has no part, just as Treebeard and the Ents are apart from those who visit or, in the case of the orcs, attack them.

In the case of Old Man Willow,


the mostly passive hostility of the Old Forest—

“And the trees do not like strangers.  They watch you.  They are usually content merely to watch you, as long as daylight lasts, and don’t do much.  Occasionally the most unfriendly ones may drop a branch, or stick a root out, or grasp at you with a long trailer.”

becomes something more.  The Forest seems to have been guiding the hobbits, funneling them towards the river Withywindle, about which Merry has said:

“We don’t want to go that way!  The Withywindle valley is said to be the queerest part of the whole wood—the centre from which all the queerness comes, as it were.”

And then—

“Suddenly Frodo himself felt sleep overwhelming him.  His head swam.  There now seemed hardly a sound in the air.  The flies had stopped buzzing.  Only a gentle noise on the edge of hearing, a soft fluttering as of a song half whispered, seemed to stir in the boughs above.  He lifted his heavy eyes and saw leaning over him a huge willow-tree, old and hoary.  Enormous it looked, its sprawling branches going up like reaching arms with many long-fingered hands, its knotted and twisted trunk gapping in wide fissures that creaked faintly as the boughs moved.  The leaves fluttering against the bright sky dazzled him, and he toppled over, lying where he fell upon the grass.”

Frodo isn’t alone in succumbing to the seductive nature of the place:

“Merry and Pippin dragged themselves forward and lay down with their backs to the willow-trunk.  Behind them great cracks gaped wide to receive them as the tree swayed and creaked.  They looked up at the grey and yellow leaves, moving softly against the light, and singing.  They shut their eyes, and then it seemed that they could almost hear words, cool words, saying something about water and sleep.  They gave themselves up to the spell and fell fast asleep at the foot of the great grey willow.”

Again, as Merry has said, there is a language here, this time a little more intelligible, but it might just be part of a general hobbit drowsiness on what appears to be a sultry autumn afternoon, unless we worry about those “great cracks” gaping “wide to receive them”—and we should.  One of the hobbits—the only one not seduced into slumber—does:

“Sam sat down and scratched his head, and yawned like a cavern.  He was worried.  The afternoon was getting late, and he thought this sudden sleepiness uncanny.  ‘There’s more behind this than sun and warm air,’ he muttered to himself.  ‘I don’t like this great big tree.  I don’t trust it.  Hark at it singing about sleep now!  This won’t do at all!’ “

As he rouses himself, he quickly discovers what the seductive tree has been planning:  it is trying to drown Frodo and has completely swallowed Pippin and partially swallowed Merry.

They are rescued, of course, by Tom Bombadil, a character who has been left out of virtually every other medium of telling the story of The Lord of the Rings.


And it’s not hard to see why:  he is somehow, truly out of the story, just as he’s unaffected by the Ring:

“It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand.  Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed.  For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold.  Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight.  For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this.  Then they gasped.  There was no sign of Tom disappearing!” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 7, “In the House of Tom Bombadil”)

When it comes to things like the Old Forest and Old Man Willow, however, he is invaluable.

“As they listened, they began to understand the lives of the Forest, apart from themselves, indeed to feel themselves as the strangers where all other things are at home.”

As Tom is apart, and ancient—

“Eldest, that’s what I am.  Mark my words, my friends:  Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn.”

he is distanced, being senior to all living, growing things, and that gives him both greater knowledge and greater perspective, able to know and understand other ancient things, even if less ancient than he:

“Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of the trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning:  destroyers and usurpers.  It was not called the Old Forest without reason, for it was indeed ancient, a survivor of vast forgotten woods; and in it there lived yet, ageing no quicker than the hills, the fathers of the fathers of trees, remembering times when they were lords.”

And here again we see that sense of otherness:  these are living creatures only tangentially—and then, it seems, often negatively—involved with humans (and humanoids).  And they are not just living things, but things with their own interests and purposes.  Taking all of that into account, and adding in the healing nature of the mallorn seed which Galadriel gives to Sam, which replaces the cut-down Party Tree (please see our previous posting on that subject), we would tentatively advance two possible reasons for JRRT’s remark about the major place of trees in The Lord of the Rings.

First, when it comes to the Old Forest and Old Man Willow, as well as Treebeard and the Ents, by having them in the story we are being quietly told that the history of Middle-earth is not just about its two-footed inhabitants.  Although so much of the plot focuses upon them, there is more to the story, a deeper, older context yet, putting them into a frame so much larger than that in which they and their past or even current actions take place.  This gives Gandalf’s words to Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit that much more weight:

“You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”)

Second, in growing things there is a continuity beyond the human world, and not necessarily only an Old Forest malevolence.  The seed may be from a tree in fading Lorien, as Galadriel says when she gives the box containing it and earth from her garden to Sam:

“Then you may remember Galadriel, and catch a glimpse of far off Lorien, that you have seen only in our winter.  For our Spring and our Summer are gone by, and they will never be seen on earth again save in memory.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien”)

Yet, planted in the Shire, the young tree appears at a time when the whole world is being regenerated:

“Altogether 1420 in the Shire was a marvellous year.  Not only was there wonderful sunshine and delicious rain, in due times and perfect measure, but there seemed something more:  an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”)

And, thus, though the magical Lorien may fade and die, something of it will live beyond it in another place and time, linked to, and a reminder of, that other place and time, by a tree which

“In after years, as it grew in grace and beauty,… was known, far and wide, and people would come long journeys to see it:  the only mallorn west of the Mountain and east of the Sea…”


(by the Hildebrandts)

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




Into the Trees.1


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

In the draft of an undated letter from 1958 about a proposed film of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote about the work of the preparer of the draft for the script (whom he calls “Z”):

“I deeply regret this handling of the ‘Treebeard’ chapter, whether necessary or not.  I have already suspected Z of not being interested in trees:  unfortunate, since the story is so largely concerned with them.” (Letters, 275)

“since the story is so largely concerned with them” puzzled us at first.  JRRT himself, of course, had strong feelings for trees, as he says in this letter from three years earlier:

“I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.” (Letters, 220)


“so largely concerned with them”, however, would make them seem almost like characters, or at least major subjects of discussion, within the text.

As far as characters go, there is Treebeard, of course.


(We’re not quite sure about this early version by the Hildebrandts.  Here, he appears to be wearing a coat of Spanish moss


and rather reminds us of Cousin It, from the cartoonist, Charles Addams, 1912-1988,


who created a number of mock-sinister characters, including “Cousin It”.


Here it/It is in the 1991 film



or here it/it is in the new animated feature.


The challenge in illustrating Treebeard is to find a happy balance between human and tree, as we see in this Alan Lee portrayal, on the one hand,



or that of Angus McBride on the other, with much in between–



by Inger Edelfeldt,


by Eugenia Weinstein.)

And there are the Ents, as well, who, like Tolkien, are more than a little upset over the destruction of trees, but, unlike the author, take a very direct approach to stopping it (by Ted Nasmith).


Beyond Treebeard and the Ents, what do we find?

First, there is the so-called “Party Tree”:


“The tents began to go up.  There was a specially large pavilion, so big that the tree that grew in the field was right inside it, and stood proudly at one end, at the head of the chief table.  Lanterns were hung on all its branches.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party”)

Although its first appearance is understated, it clearly has greater significance, as we see when the hobbits return to the Shire and Sam sees one particular piece of completely unnecessary destruction:

“ ‘They’ve cut it down!’ cried Sam.  ‘They’ve cut down the Party Tree!’ He pointed to where the tree had stood under which Bilbo had made his Farewell Speech.  It was lying lopped and dead in the field.  As if this was the last straw Sam burst into tears.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

And this is not the end.  When the Fellowship was leaving Lorien, Galadriel gave each a special gift.  To Sam she said:

“ ‘For you little gardener and lover of trees,’ she said to Sam, ‘I have only a small gift.’  She put into this hand a little box of plain grey wood, unadorned save for a single silver rune upon the lid.  ‘Here is set G for Galadriel,’ she said; ‘but also it may stand for garden in your tongue.  In this box there is earth from my orchard, and such blessing as Galadriel has still to bestow is upon it.  It will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril, but if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you.  Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden.’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien”)

When the hobbits return to the Shire and Sharkey and his henchmen are removed, Sam uses Galadriel’s gift to do exactly as she told him to, to regenerate things.  When he opened the box, he found something extra:

“Inside it was filled with a grey dust, soft and fine, in the middle of which was a seed, like a small nut with a silver shale.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”)

(“Shale” here is an old variation of “shell”.)

Sam chooses a special place for this:

“The little silver nut he planted in the Party Field where the tree had once been; and he wondered what would come of it.  All through the winter he remained as patient as he could, and tried to restrain himself from going round constantly to see if anything was happening.”

From this much build, we know that something just this side of miraculous must be about to happen—and it does:

“Spring surpassed his wildest hopes.  His trees began to sprout and grow, as if time was in a hurry and wished to make one year do for twenty.  In the Party Field a beautiful young sapling leaped up:  it had silver bark and long leaves and burst into golden flowers in April.  It was indeed a mallorn, and it was the wonder of the neighborhood.  In after years, as it grew in grace and beauty, it was known far and wide and people would come long journeys to see it:  the only mallorn west of the Mountains and east of the Sea; and one of the finest in the world.”

It seems that Tolkien so loved trees that he even invented one here.  Mellyrn (the plural of mallorn by the same linguistic process which, in English, turns “foot” into “feet”)  appear to be mostly a beech tree of the type called “Fagus sylvatica” or “European beech” (although there are also actual beech trees in Middle-earth).



Some adaptation has taken place:  European beeches have spreading branches and can grow to as much as 150 feet, but Tolkien’s tree seems even bigger and has “long leaves”—longer than beech?—


and “golden flowers”, which beech trees don’t have, although the silver bark is similar.


So much of Middle-earth is visibly old, sometimes in layers of antiquity, and JRRT is very careful to present a Shire which lives on top of something older, as the East Road, which runs through its middle and had been built by the dwarves and improved upon by the Numenoreans reminds us.  The Party Field, under that name, is almost brand new, however, the party being Bilbo and Frodo’s joint birthday, celebrated at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings.  The original tree just happens to be in the middle of that field.  This replacement, however, is clearly more than just a replacement and we’ll examine its possible significance and more in part 2 of this in our next posting.

In the meantime, thanks, as always for reading and



Orc Looks


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Two postings ago, we were discussing henchmen and, of course, orcs were among them.

While we were discussing, we began to wonder about orcs.  They appear numerous times in The Lord of the Rings, from pursuing the Fellowship in the mines of Moria


to attacking Boromir and capturing Merry and Pippin


to forming the initial assault team on Minas Tirith.


But what do they really look like?

Here’s the first description we’re given, a second-hand one, spoken by Gandalf:

“There are Orcs, very many of them…And some are large and evil:  black Uruks of Mordor.”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)

Our first real view of them comes just paragraphs later:

“…a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot, leaped into the chamber…His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red.”

If this orc-chieftain is representative, then, orcs are smaller than men, with dark skin and broad flat faces.  But is this a consistent description?

We next meet the orcs as casualties after the death of Boromir:

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

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

As we know from other references to “goblins”, Tolkien came to blur the words “goblin” and “orc”, where the earlier Hobbit has only the former.  Thus, that compound “goblin-soldiers” really means “orcs” and we see that word “swart”—“dark/black” (like German schwarz)—again.  To which is added “slant-eyed” and the detail “of greater stature” (than the surrounding dead orcs), emphasizing a second time that many, if not most, orcs are apparently normally small creatures.

So far, then, orcs, in general, seem to be dark-skinned and little, with broad, flat faces.  And their next appearance may add a little more:

“In the twilight he saw a large black Orc, probably Ugluk, standing facing Grishnakh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground.  Round them were many smaller goblins.  Pippin supposed that these were ones from the North…

Ugluk shouted, and a number of other Orcs of nearly his own size ran up.”

(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-Hai”)

This suggests that there, in fact, at least two subspecies of orcs:  smaller ones (possibly from the north) in the service of Sauron, and larger ones, who are the followers of Saruman.

(There are also large orcs in Sauron’s pay, however, as we saw above in Moria.)

And we might add one more detail—at least one has rather menacing teeth:

“He stooped over Pippin, bringing his yellow fangs close to his face.”

With this much information from the text, we turned to illustrations:  how close are they to these bits of description?  There are many images of orcs on the internet and we ourselves have used a certain number of those images over the years, beginning with this from the Hildebrandts, which we believe must be one of the earliest.


These are mostly very piglike, reminding us both of a wild boar (with a close shave)

image2boar.jpgand of a connection which we suggested some time ago with Jabba the Hutt’s Gammorean Guard—


That green skin color, both on the Hildebrandt orcs and the Gammorean Guard, will follow orcs through the work of many artists, like Angus McBride,


and Ted Nasmith–


although not in this image of the wounding of Boromir–


and sometimes in the work of Alan Lee,


as well as that of John Howe.


In place of the piggyness, we see a kind of apelike quality in this illustration by Frank Frazetta


or this, by Alan Lee.


In the Jackson films, the orcs can range from what we think of as rather batlike



to resembling Count Orlok in Murnau’s 1922 film, Nosferatu,



to being grossly human.


And then there’s an outlier in the illustrations of Denis Gordeev, who seems to have read a different version of The Lord of the Rings, as his orcs, whose faces are in the ape category, but who appear to be as shaggy as bears, though definitely “swart”.



Thus, we mostly see images which don’t really match the descriptions in the books, the short (or almost man-height), black-skinned, flat-faced creatures of The Lord of the Rings, have mostly turned green, come in all sizes, and have faces which range from piglike to batlike.

But does JRRT have any more to say about the look of orcs?  In an undated letter from 1958 to Forrest J. Ackerman, he says of them:

“The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men.  They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned with wide mouths and slant eyes:  in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) less lovely Mongol-types.”  (Letters, 274)

The skin color has changed from “swart” to “sallow”, often meaning a kind of yellowish tint, rather like this image of Snape from the Harry Potter films.


Much of this description, however, seems to match, at least roughly, the earlier ones—except for the potentially racist tone of “less lovely Mongol-types”.  (We should always remember, though, that Tolkien was born in 1892, grew up in a world in which Britain controlled 2/5s of the earth’s land mass in colonies, and where a national poet like Kipling could refer to those colonized as “lesser breeds”.  This might at least explain something of his approach to non-Caucasian people, if not excuse it.)

Putting aside that tone for the moment, to try to understand what he had in mind in this description, what we come up with is something like this, from illustrations done for Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant Fights Attila the Hun (1952)—


We admit that this is only a rough guess—Tolkien’s orcs, though supposedly derived from elves and therefore more humanoid than most illustrators make them, are probably smaller and perhaps more caricatured or exaggerated, but, at the same time, these figures suggest, to us, something of the barbaric look we believe that JRRT had in mind.

As we’ve seen, however, Tolkien himself seems to have changed his mind over time, turning his orcs from “swart” to “sallow”, although the general impression of smaller, broad creatures with flat faces remained pretty much the same throughout The Lord of the Rings.  So many of his illustrators, however, appear to have had anything from a slightly different to a very different view, making us wish that we could read their letters to find out just where their ideas came from.

Thanks, as always, for reading and




We do have an idea of where that green skin color came from—perhaps from a misreading of the text, in fact.  In “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”, Gandalf, in the brief initial description of orcs we quoted above, adds “…but there is something else there.  A great cave-troll, I think, or more than one.”

Shortly after that, the Fellowship is attacked and:

“A huge arm and shoulder, with a dark skin of greenish scales, was thrust through the widening gap.  Then a great, flat, toeless foot was forced through below.”

This appears to be one of those “great cave-troll[s]” and perhaps that “skin of greenish scales” has been accidentally transferred to the orcs?