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.



In a Pukel


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

After their mustering and rapid journey to the aid of Gondor, the Rohirrim


have been stopped:

“Scouts had been sent ahead.  Some had not returned.  Others hastening back had reported that the road was held in force against them.  A host of the enemy was encamped upon it, three [4.8km]] miles west of Amon Din, and some strength of men was already thrusting along the road and was not more than three leagues [about 9 miles/14.5km] away.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)


And so they are camped temporarily in the murk which has fallen over the West—a sign of Sauron on the move.

As they remain there, Merry gradually hears a sound like distant drums and, when Elfhelm, the Marshal of the eored [Rohirrim unit of horsemen] in which Merry and his mysterious companion, Dernhelm, are riding, stumbles over him, Merry asks if it’s the enemy:

“Are those their drums?”

Elfhelm replies:

“You hear the Woses, the Wild Men of the Woods…They still haunt Druadan Foest, it is said…But they have offered their services to Theoden.  Even now one of their headmen is being taken to the king.”

Merry follows Elfhelm and soon sees:

“A large lantern, covered above, was hanging from a bough and cast a pale circle of light below.  There sat Theoden and Eomer, and before them on the ground sat a strange squat shape of a man, gnarled as an old stone, and the hairs of his scanty beard straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss.  He was short-legged and fat-armed, thick and stumpy, and clad only with grass about his waist.”

This, we find out, is Ghan-buri-Ghan, leader of the Wild Men, who, as Elfhelm has said, has come to offer his and his people’s aid to Theoden.


(We note, by the way, that this Hildebrandt illustration has taken certain liberties with the scene as described in the book:  it appears to be daylight—no lantern—if Eomer is there, he isn’t seated, and there is more than one Wild Man–oh, and the Wild Man’s beard has suddenly sprouted.)

What Ghan-buri-Ghan offers Theoden is a long-forgotten road which would provide a way around the soldiers of Sauron who are blocking the direct route to Minas Tirith:   the path through the Stonewain Valley.


What caught our attention here was the connection Merry made between Ghan-buri-Ghan and something he’d encountered only recently:

“Merry felt that he had seen him before somewhere, and suddenly he remembered the Pukel-men of Dunharrow.  Here was one of those old images brought to life, or maybe a creature descended in true line through endless years from the models used by the forgotten craftsmen long ago.”



was a mysterious place—

“…the work of long-forgotten men.  Their name was lost and no song or legend remembered it.  For what purpose they had made this place, as a town or secret temple or a tomb of kings, none in Rohan could say.  Here they labored in the Dark Years, before ever a ship came to the western shores, or Gondor of the Dunedain was built; and now they had vanished, and only the old Pukel-men were left, still sitting at the turnings of the road.

Merry stared at the lines of marching stones:  they were worn and black; some were leaning, some were fallen, some cracked or broken; they looked like rows of old and hungry teeth.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 3, “The Muster of Rohan”)

For a moment, this description reminded us of something one sees in Brittany, on the west coast of France, the so-called “Carnac Stones”, a vast field of Neolithic upright stones, now called menhirs (Breton for “long stone”) in long lines in and around the village of Carnac.



And, just as the use or meaning of Dunharrow is lost, so is that of the elaborate construction of the Carnac Stones.

Once the Carnac Stones—and others like them, both in France and in Great Britain—came into our heads, we were whirled away to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and all of those puzzling outsized heads on less-developed torsos, the moai.


It was not the size or placement of those figures like “rows of old and hungry teeth” however, which made us think further about Ghan-buri-Ghan and his stony cousins, but how the figures were carved:

“At each turn of the road there were great standing stones that had been carved in the likeness of men, huge and clumsy-limbed, squatting cross-legged with their stumpy arms folded on fat bellies.  Some in the wearing of the years had lost all features save the dark holes of their eyes that still stared sadly at the passers-by.  The Riders hardly glanced at them.  The Pukel-men they called them, and heeded them little…”

As the Rohirrim are translated as speaking among themselves a sort of Tolkien-adapted Old English, so “pukel” appears to be derived from “pucel” = “goblin/demon”, which suggests perhaps a quasi-religious or magical use, but, if they once represented spirits, they are now spiritless, with no ability to frighten.  Rather, as the narrator tells us:

“…no power or terror was left in them; but Merry gazed at them with wonder and a feeling almost of pity, as they loomed up mournfully in the dusk.”

The narrator’s elaboration then reminded us of something else:  balbal.



These are carved stone figures with a history probably as long as that of the Pukel-men.  They appear to be the product of Turkic peoples in Central Asia—with even older relatives, perhaps, to the west, as well.  Some may have been tomb guardians or monuments themselves—as with the Pukel-men, their origins and use/s are lost to us.  We ourselves have stolen them for use in our series of novels based in an imaginary medieval fairy tale Russia, called Cherna, “The Black Land”—but please don’t think “Mordor?”  In our case, the reason it’s named that is that it is steppe country with extremely fertile black soil.  So rich, especially as pasture-land, that it’s worth invading and fighting over, which is what the villains of our trilogy, the Vsadniki, modeled on the Mongols, do.


Unlike Pukel-men and menhirs and moai, however, there is no mystery about what the Vsadniki are up to with their stones:  every time they conquer a new land, they set such stones up at their new far-western border to say not only “what’s behind these is ours”, but also “and we’re looking at your lands next”.


Thanks, as always, for reading.




In the Tolkien volume Unfinished Tales, we find further connections between the Wild Men/Woses and carvings.  We use a paperback edition and this has somewhat different pagination from the hardbound, but, should you be interested, you can find it in either form in Part Four, I The Druedain.


Here is a drawing of Ghan-buri-Ghan by Denis Gordeev, who has done a good deal of work illustrating a wide selection of JRRT’s fiction, rather as Ted Nasmith has, along with many other classics as well as modern fantasy fiction.


Gordeev has clearly been trained/trained himself in drawing as people did in that golden age of children’s writing and illustration, the 1880s to 1920s, and, once you get used to his very distinctive style, you may come to like it as we do.  Here’s Gandalf arriving in Hobbiton, fireworks and all, just to give you a taste.


Small Talk


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Sometimes, ideas for posts come from something we’ve seen in a movie theatre or something we’re reading or even from something we’re teaching or studying.  Sometimes we employ the Sortes Tolkienses.  And sometimes things just seem to fall into our hands.  And that’s where this post comes from.

We were moving a bookshelf and something literally dropped into our hands, a boxed set of books by one of our favorite YA authors, Tamora Pierce.


As you can see from our image, the series is called “Protector of the Small” and is about the life of Keladry of Mindelan, who lives in Pierce’s imaginary Tortall, where it is possible—just possible—for a girl to become a knight.  Through the four volumes, Kel gradually works her way from pre-page to knighthood and, is always the case with TP’s books, there are both surprises and interesting and not always predictable difficulties along the way, as well as an ultimate humanity which makes her books such satisfying reading.

It wasn’t the actual books, however, which got us to thinking, but the word “small” in the series title.  How often, in our favorite adventure stories, it’s a case of small versus big


and, very often, the big thinks that that’s all which counts—think of the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” for example.image3ajackgiant.jpg

For all that the giant is huge and menacing in the story, he’s vulnerable as he climbs down the beanstalk and Jack’s quick thought–to cut down the stalk even as the giant descends–makes quick work of the oversized (but perhaps overconfident—and underbrained?) creature.


In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have the Biblical story of David and Goliath.


Goliath is not only huge, but armored, and David is a boy who has only his shepherd’s staff, a sling, and five stones from a river bed, but it’s all he needs.

A sling is an ancient weapon


This is from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom town of Hetep Senwosret, c. 1895BC.  The Assyrians were still using the weapon more than a thousand years later, as this scene from one of the Lachish reliefs (c.700BC) shows.


The Greeks had slingers


as did the Romans


as did medieval westerners.


Slings shouldn’t be confused with slingshots, by the way.  (Or “catapult” if you’re one of our British friends.)


This is the weapon of choice of the cartoon character, Dennis the Menace.


These are a modern invention which requires a large rubber band (an “elastic”) to propel the missile and such rubber bands can only come from the 1840s and beyond, when the process of heat-hardening rubber (“vulcanization”) was patented by Charles Goodyear.


For us, then, the image of Ori in P Jackson’s film armed with a slingshot


goes into our catalogue of anachronisms, like the steam engine whistle, the popgun, and the tomatoes in The Hobbit.

But, as we were saying, small David has no fear of big Goliath, as one of those stones from the riverbed stuns the giant warrior, allowing David to use Goliath’s own sword to cut off his head.


In ancient Greek tradition, Polyphemus the Cyclops obviously thinks his size will allow him to consume all of Odysseus’ men—and then Odysseus, too, saving him for last as a “guest gift”.


Big body, however, doesn’t necessarily mean big brain as Odysseus gets the Cyclops drunk and then blinds him with his own staff.


Then, he uses the Cyclops’ own sheep as escape vehicles for himself and his men.


Small versus big is a major theme in Star Wars, from the fact that the gigantic Death Star has a single ventilator duct which makes it vulnerable


to attack by a single fighter,


to the ferocious Ewoks,


and, of course, Yoda, with his famous question.


And then there are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where the world of the small and tough seems to be everywhere, from the hobbits


to the dwarves


and even to the Woses.


Their opponents are suitably large—trolls,






to the biggest evil in Middle-earth (although it’s not clear, really, how big he is, physically).


But there’s someone even smaller in The Hobbit who, because of that size, perhaps, is left behind, but is crucial to the story:  the elderly thrush


who informs Bard the Bowman just where to fire that black arrow which never fails him—and doesn’t this time, thanks to the bird.


We were sorry that his part was completely removed from The Battle of the Five Armies, but perhaps this was, in fact, one of the few times when the small hero lost to the big–studio.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.





Here’s a LINK to an amazing demonstration of just how accurate the sling can be.

A Power


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Some time ago, we did a post on Saruman as a “Mini-Me” version of Sauron


but, since that time, one of us has used The Hobbit in a class.  Mirkwood


and the Necromancer


came up and we began to think about him again, this time to consider his strategy:  how long has he been planning something and what might be the elements within that plan?


Although there is no hard evidence for just how long Saruman has been at work, it seems like his scheme has been under construction for at least 80 years.  We base that upon Gandalf’s description of the White Council’s meeting on the subject of Sauron and what to do when it’s discovered that he is in Dol Guldur, calling himself the Necromancer:

“Some, too, will remember also that Saruman dissuaded us from open deeds against him, and for long we watched him only.  Yet at last, as his shadow grew, Saruman yielded and the Council put forth its strength and drove the evil out of Mirkwood and that was in the very year of finding this Ring…”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

Almost 80 years before the story of Bilbo and the Ring, then, it appears that one element in Saruman’s plot was shielding Sauron—a fact clearly not lost on Treebeard:

“He was chosen to be the head of the White Council, they say; but that did not turn out too well.  I wonder now if even then Saruman was not turning to evil ways.”

(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

From something Saruman says to Gandalf we might guess the obvious reason for helping Sauron to escape action by the White Council:

“A new Power is rising.  Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all.  There is no hope left in Elves and dying Numenor.  This then is one choice before you, before us.  We may join with that Power.  It would be wise, Gandalf.  There is hope that way.  Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it.”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

But being a lackey to that Power is not quite his ultimate design, as we see:

“As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it.  We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose:  Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish…”

As is well-known, Saruman, as one of the Istari, was sent into Middle-earth as a counter to Sauron, not as an ally, and their purpose was:

“…coming in shapes weak and humble were bidden to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavor to dominate and corrupt.”

(Unfinished Tales, 406)

Knowledge, yes, but Rule and Order?  Emphatically not!  But if that Power (and we note that even Saruman won’t just come out and say “Sauron” at this point, rather like the use of “He Who Must Not Be Named” in the Harry Potter books)



can be used as a tool in Saruman’s hands—which may show us one element in his grand design.

First, however, it would seem that he needed a base.  As Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin:

“He gave up wandering about and minding the affairs of Men and Elves, some time ago—you would call it a very long time ago; and he settled down at Angrenost, or Isengard as the Men of Rohan call it.”

(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)



Saruman even then was already thinking of something, though the purpose was intentionally shrouded:

“There was a time when he was always walking about in my woods.  He was polite in those days, always asking my leave…and always eager to listen.  I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind.  I cannot remember that he ever told me anything.  And he got more like that; his face, as I remember it…became like windows in a stone wall:  windows with shutters inside.”

Although he was powerful, Saruman needed allies—or, rather, servants—and he wasn’t too particular who or what they were:

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

With the help of these servants, Saruman has turned his base into a factory and storehouse for his scheme, as Gandalf says:

“…it had once been green and fair, it was now filled with pits and forges.  Wolves and orcs were housed in Isengard, for Saruman was mustering a great force on his own account, in rivalry of Sauron and not in his service, yet.”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

In fact, it would appear from what Saruman has told Gandalf, that he actually never intends to offer his service to Sauron.

From his base, he has been extending his own power into Rohan, in the south.  In his encounter with Aragon and his companions, Eomer says:

“But at this time our chief concern is with Saruman.  He has claimed lordship over all this land, and there has been war between us for many months.  He has taken Orcs into his service, and Wolf-riders, and evil Men, and he has closed the Gap against us, so that we are likely to be beset both east and west.”

(The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

His attacks aren’t always military and Eomer hints at another possibility:

“His spies slip through every net, and his birds of ill omen are abroad in the sky.  I do not know how it will all end, and my heart misgives me; for it seems to me that his friends do not all dwell in Isengard.  But if you come to the king’s house, you shall see for yourself.”

We know that this is “fifth-column” work—Grima Worm-tongue, who has been slowly poisoning King Theoden with defeatism.


And now we can see, in broad outline, what Saruman is up to:

  1. establish a base
  2. recruit an army
  3. build up an intelligence network (birds, spies, even wandering himself to pick up information)
  4. use your strength to expand power into the next land, Rohan
  5. at the same time undercut the King of Rohan’s ability to resist by subversive methods

So far, so good, as long as all that Saruman wants is to be the ruler of the land south of the Gap of Rohan and north of Gondor, but we’ve already seen that he’s more ambitious yet, suggesting to Gandalf that they—really he, as Gandalf knows—can take over that unnamed Power and use it for their—his– purposes, Knowledge, Rule, Order.  When he sees that Gandalf is unconvinced, Saruman lets slip the capstone of his scheme:

“Well, I see that this wise course does not commend itself to you…Not yet?  Not if some better way can be contrived?…And why not, Gandalf?  Why not?  The Ruling Ring?  It we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”

And here is the real heart of Saruman’s design:  to obtain the One Ring.

He has been searching for it for a long time, even traveling to Minas Tirith to examine ancient records.

“In former days the members of my order had been well received there,” says Gandalf to the Council of Elrond, “but Saruman most of all.  Often he had been for long the guest of the Lords of the City.”

His purpose is now easy to guess.

Gandalf had been aware that Saruman had seemed to know a great deal about the Ring, even to its appearance, as Saruman had said to the White Council:

“The Nine, the Seven, and the Three had each their proper gem.  Not so the One.  It was round and unadorned, as it were one of the lesser rings; but the maker set marks upon it that the skilled, maybe, could still see and read.”

How had Saruman known that since, as Gandalf says, “What those marks were he had not said.  Who now would know?  The maker.  And Saruman?  But great though his lore may be, it must have a source.  What hand save Sauron’s ever held this thing, ere it was lost?  The hand of Isildur alone.”

Gandalf discovers the truth of this in the dusty records of Gondor:

“…there lies in Minas Tirith still, unread, I guess, by any save Saruman and myself since the kings failed, a scroll that Isildur made himself.”

And, with the discovery and reading of that scroll, Gandalf knows not only about much more about the Ring, but how Saruman knew about its appearance and now, in Orthanc, pressed by Saruman to join him, he understands the last element in Saruman’s design—and also why Saruman has summoned him:

“That is in truth why I brought you here.  For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe you know where this precious thing now lies.  Is it not so?  Or why do the Nine ask for the Shire, and what is your business there?”

So here, lacking only one element, the real element under all, is Saruman’s long plan—but lacking “this precious thing” (a telling phrase!), we will see how successful the rest will be.  Treebeard has said of him,

“He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

What will happen when, without the Ring, Saruman will find that growing things, instead of serving him for the moment, might unseat him forever?


As always, thanks for reading!





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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

When Gandalf first arrives at Bilbo’s door “in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green”, Bilbo’s memories of him are hardly those of someone aware who Gandalf really is:

“Gandalf, Gandalf!  Good gracious me!  Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered?  Not the fellow who used to tell such wonderful tales at parties, about dragons and goblins and giants and the rescue of princesses and the unexpected luck of widows’ sons?  Not the man that used to make such particularly excellent fireworks!”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

And it’s the fireworks in particular which made a strong impression:

“I remember those!  Old Took used to have them on Midsummer’s Eve.  Splendid!  They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening!”

[Here, by the way are the three flowers he mentions, in case, like us, you live in a climate where such things won’t appear for months yet!]




And, although he alludes to an edgier side of Gandalf (“Not the Gandalf who was responsible for so many quiet lads and lasses going off into the Blue for mad adventures?”), he concludes as if Gandalf were merely some sort of superior tradesman:

“I beg your pardon, but I had no idea you were still in business!”

Gandalf is patient, however, only replying:

“Where else should I be?… All the same I am pleased to find that you remember something about me.  You seem to remember my fireworks kindly, at any rate, and that is not without hope…”

Perhaps the idea of linking Gandalf and fireworks is pardonable, however, when we see how, after being associated with them at the beginning of The Hobbit, he appears at the opening of The Lord of the Rings actually bringing fireworks to Hobbiton:

“At the end of the second week in September a cart came in through Bywater from the direction of Brandywine Bridge in broad daylight.  An old man was driving it all alone.  He wore a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, and a silver scarf.  He had a long white beard and bushy eyebrows that stuck out beyond the brim of his hat.  Small hobbit-children ran after the cart all through Hobbiton and right up the hill.  It had a cargo of fireworks, as they rightly guessed.  At Bilbo’s front door the old man began to unload:  there were great bundles of fireworks of all sorts and shapes, each labeled with a large red G…and the elf-rune…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party)


(This is from a site called “Llama’s War of the Ring”, which has all sorts of interesting figures and conversions—here’s a LINK.)

Those great bundles turned into spectacular entertainment at the joint birthday party:

“The fireworks were by Gandalf:  they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him.  But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunderclaps.  They were all superb.  The art of Gandalf improved with age.”

We ourselves enjoy fireworks, and, for the sake of our readers who might not be familiar with some of the types mentioned, we add here a few images—although some, like “dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers” no longer seem to be available.

A squib is a small firecracker, like these.


Crackers seem to come in sets.


Backarappers—we don’t have an image, but here’s a definition (and it sounds like the previous image):

“A firework made from multiple firecrackers folded together so that they will explode one after another”.  (from G.F. Northall’s Warwickshire Word-book, 1896)

Sparklers are metal rods or bamboo sticks whose upper part has what is called “pyrotechnic composition”—which means something which shoots out sparks when it’s lit.


Torches may be these—which, when lighted, change color as they burn down (or so the manufacturer’s description says).


Although there are no “dwarf-candles”, there are Roman Candles.  These are built in stages and, as the fire burns down, they shoot out star-patterns—as you can see.


There are no “elf-fountains”, either, but there are fountains and they look like this—


Finally, we can date a “thunderclap”, made by Benwell, back to this advertisement from about 1950,


but we wouldn’t be surprised if Pain’s (not the best name for fireworks, we would say!) carried them, as they have something called “Laburnum Blossoms” in this 1903 listing


Gandalf’s productions were clearly quite spectacular—which was undoubtedly why Bilbo remembers them:

“There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices.  There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke:  their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scene just before they touched their upturned faces.  There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of coloured fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes.”

And then there was the finale.  Pain’s, in that 1903 listing, could make claims to baskets of elaborate pyrotechnics, but this?

“And there was also one last surprise, in honour of Bilbo, and it startled the hobbits exceedingly, as Gandalf intended.  The lights went out.  A great smoke went up.  It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit.  It spouted green and scarlet flames.  Out flew a red-golden dragon—not life-size, but terribly life-like:  fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd.  They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces.  The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.”

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairy king, Oberon, says to his spirit-servant, Puck, these rather mysterious lines:

“My gentle Puck, come hither.  Thou rememberest

Since once I sat upon a promontory

And heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath

That the rude sea grew civil at her song

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres

To hear the mermaid’s music?”

(Act 2, Scene 1)

In 1575, Queen Elizabeth I


visited Kenilworth Castle,image15kenilworth.jpg

the home of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester,


and a close friend (and maybe more).  To entertain her, Dudley spent thousands of pounds.


(This is actually a gold sovereign—worth 20 shillings—that is, a pound, but there were no actual pound coins till after 1583.)

Among the entertainments was a big fireworks display (as well as at least one mermaid—see the LINK here for Robert Langham/Laneham’s contemporary “letter” in which he describes these entertainments in detail) and some scholars have theorized that those falling stars mentioned by Oberon are, in fact, Shakespeare’s boyhood memory of having seen the fireworks display (and the mermaid).  Kenilworth is only 14 miles from Stratford and Shakespeare was 11 and living at home—we presume—at that time, so we can imagine that this is possibility.  We know that JRRT had seen fireworks shows as a boy—as he tells us in a letter to Donald Swann, 29 February, 1968 (Letters, 390)—but we wonder:  did he ever, in those early years, see Goblin-barkers, or a red-golden dragon?

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




We almost forgot–in case you’d like to make your own fireworks (definitely not recommended–and definitely illegal in some places!), here’s an 1878 manual on the subject.