As always, dear readers, welcome.

In past years, Orcs have appeared a number of times in CD’s postings, including a study of the appearance of Orcs as Tolkien describes them versus the ways in which artists have depicted them (“Orc Looks”, 13 November, 2019).  Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about something Frodo sees—not through his own eyes but through the Ring, on Amon Hen (appropriately, as it is called “the Hill of the Eye of the Men of Numenor”):

“But everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war.  The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills:  orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 10 , “The Breaking of the Fellowship)

I’ve recently taught The Hobbit again (it never gets old) and the Misty Mountains, of course, appear.

There were no orcs then, just goblins on the way in,

and goblins on the way out.

Others have written about the influence of George MacDonald (1824-1905)

on Tolkien and the title of one of MacDonald’s best-known books suggests one influence:

The Princess and the Goblin (1872).

In the Letters, JRRT twice associates MacDonald with goblins (178, to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April 1954;  185, to Hugh Brogan, 18 September 1954), but another influence besides the word and the idea may lie in where the goblins live.  In The Princess and Curdie, a boy, Curdie, who works in the mines, has broken through into the goblin realm and comes upon a great hall:

“He was at the entrance of a magnificent cavern, of an oval shape, once probably a huge natural reservoir of water, now the great palace hall of the goblins. It rose to a tremendous height, but the roof was composed of such shining materials, and the multitude of torches carried by the goblins who crowded the floor lighted up the place so brilliantly, that Curdie could see to the top quite well. But he had no idea how immense the place was until his eyes had got accustomed to it, which was not for a good many minutes. The rough projections on the walls, and the shadows thrown upwards from them by the torches, made the sides of the chamber look as if they were crowded with statues upon brackets and pedestals, reaching in irregular tiers from floor to roof. The walls themselves were, in many parts, of gloriously shining substances, some of them gorgeously coloured besides, which powerfully contrasted with the shadows…

At the other end of the hall, high above the heads of the multitude, was a terrace-like ledge of considerable height, caused by the receding of the upper part of the cavern-wall. Upon this sat the king and his court: the king on a throne hollowed out of a huge block of green copper ore, and his court upon lower seats around it.” (The Princess and the Goblin, Chapter 9, “The Hall of the Goblin Palace”)

Here is the equivalent in The Hobbit:

“…they stumbled into a big cavern.

It was lit by a great red fire in the middle, and by torches along the wall, and it was full of goblins…

There in the shadows on a large flat stone sat a tremendous  goblin with a huge head, and armed goblins were standing round him carrying the axes and the bent swords they use.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

MacDonald’s goblins have extensive tunnels and are planning to use them both the kidnap the princess of the book’s title and to cause great destruction by employing the tunnels to flood the human mines to which they are adjacent. 

Tolkien’s goblins also have extensive tunnels, as we hear when the news spread about the death of the Great Goblin:

“Messengers had passed to and fro between all their cities, colonies and strongholds…Tidings they had gathered in secret ways; and in all the mountains there was a forging and an arming.  Then they marched and gathered by hill and valley, going ever by tunnel or under dark, until around and beneath [the great mountain Gundabad of the North, where was their capital, a vast host was assembled…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”)

By the time of The Lord of the Rings, it is clear that those Hobbit goblins had metamorphosed into orcs—Tolkien, basically, had decided that “goblin” was too close to the fairy tale world with which he did not want his work too closely associated—and even in the Letters, if you look for references to them in the index, you are referred to orcs (Letters, 470).

Their appearance, goblin or orc, varies.  Take Ugluk and Ghrishnakh, for instance:

“…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 the ones from the North.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)   In an undated letter to Forrest J Ackerman, from June, 1958, Tolkien describes them as:  “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes” (Letters, 274). 

This has, in turn, spawned a wide variety of images, from the early Hildebrandts

and Angus McBride

to the later Alan Lee,

John Howe,

and Ted Nasmith.

In terms of following JRRT’s idea, that, as Trolls were made “in mockery of Ents”, so “Orcs were made of Elves”, I would say that only the Nasmith is close, but what Frodo saw in his vision has suggested a completely different possibility, one which is furthered by something Tolkien wrote in a long letter of 1954 to Peter Hastings.  He has been discussing Morgoth and the orcs:

“I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real being on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodelling and corrupting them, not making them.”

But it’s what appears at the end of the paragraph which caught my attention:

“There might be other ‘makings’ all the same which were more like puppets filled (only at a distance) with their maker’s mind and will, or ant-like operating under direction of a queen-centre.”  (Letters, 195)

This matches, of course, what Frodo saw: 

“The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills:  orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes.”

Orcs as the equivalent of insects who live in holes?  I would add another detail, however.  As Treebeard has said that orcs are a mockery of elves, he has also noticed something else:

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

Insects of varied size and color, but can’t endure the sun.  Might another model for orcs be cockroaches?

With that very creepy thought, I thank you as ever, dear readers, saying

Stay well and be sure that there’s




If you’d like to read The Princess and the Goblin yourself, here’s a LINK:


I recommend it, not only as a (distant) source for JRRT, but as a very interesting and engaging piece of Victorian fantasy.

Banazir and Ranugad

Welcome, as always, dear readers. 

If you are, like me, a compulsive reader of footnotes, endnotes, and appendices, you’ll immediately recognize the names in the title of this posting.  If not, you’ll probably imagine them as locations on a very exotic map, somewhere south of the Kingdom of Prester John.

They are in fact, the original names of Sam

and the Gaffer,

(Seen here giving directions to a tourist.)

from The Lord of the Rings—or, rightfully, Ban and Ran.  As Tolkien explains:

“But Sam and his father Ham were really called Ban and Ran.  These were shortenings of Banazir and Ranugad, originally nicknames, meaning ‘halfwise, simple’ and ‘stay-at-home’; but being words that had fallen out of colloquial use they remained as traditional names in certain families.  I have therefore tried to preserve these features by using Samwise and Hamfast, modernizations of ancient English samwis and hamfast which corresponded closely in meaning.” (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, Part II, “On Translation”)

(“Samwis” , my Old English dictionary tells me, means “stupid/foolish”, and “hamfast” means “resident/homeowner”.)

JRRT’s pains in creating the world of Middle-earth are endlessly surprising and, to me, oddly touching.  He will spend hours or even days adjusting a lunar cycle (as mentioned in a letter to his son, Christopher, on 14 May, 1944, Letters, 80—there’s a very interesting article about this and other lunar sightings here:  https://shire-reckoning.com/moon.html ) and go to such trouble to translate names he has created in a language he has created into an earlier form of the language he has “translated” his story into.

Which brings me to the subject of this posting:  that The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, for that matter), are not written by JRR Tolkien, but “drawn mainly from the Red Book of Westmarch”, and edited and translated by him.  (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, “Note on the Shire Records”)

Claiming to be other than the author is not a new game in English literature.  Horace Walpole (1717-1797),

the author of the early Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764),

(by the date on the title page, I’m presuming that this is a later printing)

provides quite a lot of information on the title page:  “A Story Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of Saint Nicholas at Otranto”.  And he doesn’t stop there, but goes on in the “Preface” to explain that this supposed true story was “found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.  It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529.”  And, if that’s not enough:  “If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the era of the first Crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards.”   So, this was a medieval manuscript which somehow found its way into print in the Renaissance.  All of which is false, of course.  The whole thing was made up by Walpole, the 1529 volume, the manuscript, the Canon—only the castle is real.

Walpole was a wealthy gentleman with a high social position to maintain, being not only the son of a former prime minister of Great Britain, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745),

but would himself become the 4th Earl of Orford.  It would be easy, perhaps, to understand why he would choose to distance himself from his creation, on social grounds alone—but then something happened:  the book was a big success.

This prompted him to write in the “Preface to the Second Edition”:

The favourable manner in which this little piece has been received by the public calls upon the author to explain the grounds on which he composed it. But before he opens those motives, it is fit that he should ask pardon of his readers for having offered his work to them under the borrowed personage of a translator. As diffidence of his own abilities, and the novelty of the attempt, were the sole inducements to assume that disguise, he flatters himself he shall appear excusable. He resigned his performance to the impartial judgment of the public; determined to let it perish in obscurity, if disapproved; nor meaning to avow such a trifle, unless better judges should pronounce that he might own it without a blush.

Clearly, being the author of a book which met with popular favor put a different complexion upon things for Walpole!

But what can we say about Tolkien’s choice?  It’s possible that this was just all part of his project to provide a kind of mythical history for England, as Verlyn Flieger has ably discussed in several books (which I would very much recommend to anyone interested in understanding The Lord of the Rings in a larger context).  Mythology may be collected by someone with an identity, but myth is created before authors—and especially editors—ever exist.

Although a reader of and occasional writer about Tolkien, I am not a Tolkien scholar.  I sometimes happen upon books and articles either by recommendation or by accident, and so I wasn’t aware until recently of this interesting book, published last year by Oxford.

The author points out that Tolkien had long been uncomfortable about his creative work versus his scholarly responsibilities, citing, for example, this, in a 1956 letter to Anne Barrett, of his American publisher, Houghton Mifflin:

“Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is:  ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for twenty years’.”  (Letters, 238)

The above speculation about Tolkien’s distancing may be true, probably is true, but perhaps we might not be totally wrong to wonder whether this pretense at translation also has a subconscious motive?  Did JRRT say to himself, “Author of ‘trivial literature’?  Not at all.  You see, this is really a medieval manuscript, the sort we medievalists deal with all the time, and all I’m doing is exactly what a medievalist might do in preparing a modern edition”?

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

And be assured that there is




If you don’t know The Castle of Otranto, an important work for the history of the Gothic in English literature and as an ancestor of English Romanticism, here’s a LINK to your own copy:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/696/696-h/696-h.htm Be warned, however:  by modern standards, it’s all pretty silly stuff, including the fall of selective pieces of a giant suit of armor at useful moments.

 Walpole was such a highly intelligent and witty man that it’s hard to tell just how seriously to take it all.  Reading his letters makes you wish that he were your correspondent.)


While rewriting this, I realized that, since first reading The Lord of the Rings, many years ago, I had always assumed that the Gaffer was Sam’s grandfather, with “gaffer” being an ancient contraction of “grandfather”.  Because of that assumption, it was only when I reread Tolkien’s explanation of his and Sam’s names that I saw my mistake.  As Holmes says to Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia”:  “You see, but you do not observe.”!

Learned Him His Letters

As always, welcome, dear readers.

Recently, I was overhearing Gaffer Gamgee correcting a wild rumor from “a stranger, a visitor on business from Michel Delving” about Bilbo, his fortune, and about the Gaffer’s grandson, Sam:

“Crazy about stories of the old days, he is, and he listens to all of Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

(Gaffer conversing with a more sinister visitor, one on business from Mordor.)

“Learned him” might strike you as odd—Tolkien himself would have said, “Mr. Bilbo has taught him his letters”.  Tolkien, however, is using what would have been an archaic form still in use in rural areas, “to learn someone something”, to suggest that the Gaffer is himself someone without much learning.

As I listened, I thought about the idea of Bilbo teaching Sam to read.

We learn from Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien that:

“Mabel [Tolkien’s mother] soon began to educate her sons, and they could have had no better teacher—nor she an apter pupil than Ronald, who could read by the time he was four and had soon learnt to write proficiently.”  (Carpenter, 20)

What did she use to teach him? I wondered.  If he had been an American child in 1896, his mother might have used a very standard method employed in US schools into the 20th century, McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader,

created by William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873)

and first published in 1836.

When it came to “learn him his letters”, this was taken literally, as the first thing to which a child was introduced was the alphabet, immediately followed by a first lesson, which included an image and a simple sentence about the image, that first image being a dog.

As the pupil worked his way through the book, sentences gradually become more complex, although the words remain simple, having no more than three letters until Lesson VI. 

(If you would like to see a copy for yourself, follow this LINK:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14640/14640-pdf.pdf )

There were English equivalents—here’s a page from one called The Victoria Primer, though, by the clothing on the children in the illustration, it’s an edition from early in the 19th century.

There is a problem with these, of course.  As different as they look from the kinds of books you and I learned from, dear readers,

they are printed books and, as far as I can tell, the Middle-earth equivalent of Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400-1468)

^BJohannes Gutenberg^b, (c.1398-1468), German inventor. Artwork of Johannes Gutenberg (centre right) examining type printed by his printing press (left). Gutenberg is credited with inventing the both moveable type printing and the mechanical printing press (c.1450).

has yet to appear.  This means that, if Bilbo taught Sam from a book, it was a manuscript, that is, something copied by hand, probably from another book. 

So often, Middle-earth has parallels in our Middle Ages, and, in our Middle Ages, that manuscript would probably have been the product of a scriptorium, a kind of medieval writing center, where books were created and copied.

Such centers were commonly part of monasteries and monasteries and cathedrals, besides being religious centers, were also the site of medieval schools, where most teaching and learning was done.

Study began with learning the letters of the alphabet, then moved on to words and from there to sentences.

Everything was done aloud, it being the custom in general that all reading was done that way.

And lack of attention or mistakes were not treated kindly.

When it came to practicing writing, it was done on a wax tablet, of the very sort which the Romans had used for rough drafts.

(You used the pointy end of the stylus to write, the blunt end to erase, smoothing the wax over with it.  The Roman poet Horace makes a witty remark about its use:  “If you’re going to write things which may be worthy to be read again, turn your stylus over often.”  That is:  “If you’re going to write things worth a second reading, do lots of erasing.”– Saepe stilum vertas, iterum quae digna legi sint scripturus.  Horace, Satires, Book I, X.75 )

Presumably, then, Bilbo began by sitting down with Sam (when Sam wasn’t evesdropping)

and began with the letters of tengwar

Children in the US commonly begin with something called “the alphabet song” (in case you don’t know it, here’s a LINK:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75p-N9YKqNo ) in which all the letters of the writing system used for many Western languages (with some variations) are set to a simple tune.

If you try reciting the tengwar table, it easily (more or less) fits into a rhythmic pattern:

Tinco, parma, calma, quesse,

Ando, umbar, anga, umwe,

Thule, formen, harma, hwesta,

Anto, ampa, anca, unque,

Numen, malta, ngoldo, ngwalme,

Ore, vala, anna, vilya,

Romen, arda, lambe, alda,

Silme, silme nunquerna,

   esse, esse nunquerna,

Hyarma, hwesta sindarinwa,

   yanta, ure

So we perhaps can imagine Sam at work, trimming hedges,

and repeating the letters until he had them down.  Then it would be back to learn to form words and then sentences and then?

The ultimate goal of monastic students would be to study religious texts, but to what use would Sam put his newly-acquired learning?

On the Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam are talking about their journey and Sam, still “crazy about stories”, as the Gaffer has described him, has proposed that they are in such a story themselves—

“Still, I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales.  We’re in one, of course; but I mean:  put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.”

Assuming that Bilbo had books with such stories in his library,

is this the sort of thing which Sam would then have opened and read?

If so, it’s an uncomfortable feeling to remember where they are in light of what the Gaffer had added, “Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.” And to hear Frodo’s reply to Sam’s fantasy:

“ ‘We’re going on a bit too fast.  You and I, Sam, are still stuck in the worst places of the story, and it is all too likely that some will say at this point:  “Shut the book now, dad; we don’t want to read any more.” ‘ “ (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 8, “The Stairs of Cirith Ungol”)

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

And know that there’s



Hey, Guys!

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

It’s time for the annual Halloween/All Saints/Guy Fawkes posting and this may be a particularly sinister one, although it seems to start off innocently enough with an expression you hear all the time, “You guys”—though now being replaced with “dude” in some areas.


A little etymological work gives us “a Norman French name, based upon Germanic ‘Wido’—perhaps through Italian ‘Guido’?” 

And that brings us right to Guy Fawkes, who was also known to call himself, “Guido Fawkes”—and sign his name that way.

There are no known actual images of him, but here’s our favorite Victorian version, an illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth’s (1805-1842) novel, Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason (1840) by George Cruikshank.

(If you’d like to read it, or at least enjoy Cruikshank’s illustrations, see:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/37750/37750-h/37750-h.htm )

If you’re not familiar with Mr Fawkes, he was one of a band of English Catholics with a plan.

(This is from a period illustration, a broadside sheet by Crispijn van de Passe, which I’ve seen both in Latin and German—this one even has a little French at the bottom, as well as a little Latin—but it’s not the equivalent of an actual group photo.)

When Elizabeth I died in 1603,

she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the son of her cousin, Mary, once Queen of Scotland.

James got the job not only because of his kinship with Elizabeth, but because he was a Protestant, and those in charge of England, mostly Protestants, intended to keep the country that way.  This brings us back to Guy/Guido and his band—which was not his band, in fact, as he was brought in as a gunpowder specialist, the actual leader being Robert Catesby.  As a technician, however, Guy was a major figure, as Catesby’s plot involved nothing less than:

1. blowing up the House of Lords

when the King and the Heir, Prince Henry,

were there for the ceremonial opening, while others

2. would kidnap James’ 9-year-old daughter, the Princess Elizabeth,

and put her on the throne, presumably claiming that she was a Catholic.  It all sounds completely unreal—but the conspirators had actually gotten as far as managing to get 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in a basement under the House of Lords. 

There is apparently some scholarly argument as to how the plot came to light, but a major factor was an anonymous letter of warning delivered to someone who planned to attend the ceremony.  The letter was passed on, eventually reaching the King himself, who ordered a search to be made of the basements.  A first search failed to find anything (except for Guy himself, who explained that he was only a servant), but a second search found not only Guy,

who had slow match in his pocket—not matches, which had not been invented yet—but a kind of fuse used in setting off explosions—

and then the 36 barrels, hidden under a pile of firewood and coal. 

Needless to say, after two days of torture, he confessed

and named the other conspirators, 8 of whom, including Guy, being immediately apprehended, were sentenced to the usual punishment for treason:  drawing and quartering.  If you don’t know what this entails, here’s a LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanged,_drawn_and_quartered, but I’ll skip the grisly details (although Guy escaped by jumping off the scaffold and breaking his neck), not only because of their grisliness, but because what happened next takes us back to the opening of this essay.  To celebrate the failure of the plot, people lit bonfires all over England and Parliament soon passed into law “The Observance of 5th November Act 1605”, which was in force until 1859.  This led, in time, to the English tradition of “Guy Fawkes Day”, celebrated on the 5th of November each year.

It’s that word “bonfires” which caught my attention.  It’s really “bonefires”, from Middle English “banefire” and, another name for “Guy Fawkes Day”—or, rather, its evening, is “Bonfire Night”.

No one is sure when the customs surrounding Guy Fawkes Day began.  Traditionally, it became a children’s event, beginning with the creation of a “guy”,

a kind of scarecrow figure, who was carried about the streets

(although this one is labeled “poor joe”—a local joke?),

while children chanted variations on

“Remember, remember

the Fifth of November,

gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason

why gunpowder treason

should ever be forgot.”

Adding “A penny for the old guy!”

The coins collected were then used to buy sweets and fireworks, to be used during the evening when the guy was placed upon a bonefire—bonfire—and burnt.

The scarecrow-like clothing of the guy appears to have produced the early 19th-century definition of a poorly-dressed person as a “guy”, and, somehow, between that time and late in the 19th century, it gradually became a kind of loose generic term for “male person”, eventually, in the 20th century, becoming even more generic and referring, by the later 20th century, to any group of people, as in the “Hey, guys!” of the title of this posting.

But why burn the guy?

I wonder if it doesn’t have to do so much with the actual Guy Fawkes, or any of his fellow conspirators, but with the time of year:  that period when, in the ancient Celtic world, summer, Sam, sat on the edge of winter, Gam, and people celebrated the Samhain (SAH-vuhn in Old Irish, SAH-win in more modern pronunciation).  If people were worried about the turn of the sun towards winter, then it would be best to encourage it with as big a fire as you could.  And, if you were really nervous, perhaps you might add a little something extra—

This is an illustration based upon a passage in Julius Caesar’s (100-44BC)

De Bello Gallico (“About the War In Gaul”), in which he describes a human sacrifice by the Gauls in which

“Others have sacrifices with an image of immense size, the limbs of which, woven from twigs, they fill with living people.  When those limbs have been set alight, the people, surrounded by flame, are killed.”

(Alii immani magnitudine simulacra [sacrificia] habent, 4 quorum contexta viminibus membra vivis hominibus complent; quibus succensis circumventi flamma exanimantur homines.)

A reason for this sacrifice Caesar has earlier explained as:

“unless the life of a person is paid for with the life of a person, they think that they can’t appease the divine will of the immortal gods.”

(pro vita hominis nisi hominis vita reddatur, 3 non posse deorum immortalium numen placari arbitrantur,)

What better way to continue an ancient tradition than to add the guy to the pyre?

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well,

Happy:  Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, All Saints,

And be sure that there’s




If you would like to see the effect those 36 barrels would have had if they had been touched off, follow this LINK:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2G8k7zXhkI

Gambol Upon Gossamer

“Why she was invaluable to me! Who taught me to curl myself inside a buttercup? Iolanthe! Who taught me to swing upon a cobweb? Iolanthe! Who taught me to dive into a dewdrop—to nestle in a nutshell—to gambol upon gossamer? Iolanthe!”  (WS Gilbert, Iolanthe, Act I)

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In 1882, dramatist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan

produced what they called “An Entirely Original Fairy Opera In Two Acts Entitled Iolanthe; or The Peer and the Peri”.

The “Peer” in this case, is the Lord Chancellor,

described in the Wiki article as “the highest-ranking among the Great Officers of State who are appointed regularly in the United Kingdom, nominally outranking the Prime Minister”. 

The “Peri”—from the Persian word “pari”, a kind of angelic being and standing in here (for alliterative purposes) for “fairy”—is the title character, Iolanthe.

The person speaking about her in the quotation above is the Queen of the Fairies,

(looking suspiciously like someone escaped from Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen)

who has banished Iolanthe years before for the crime of marrying a mortal (in fact the man who will become the Lord Chancellor).  A running joke in the play is that, although the fairies are meant to be tiny—as in the description above of the activities of the Queen of the Fairies—on stage, they are the same size as the mortals. And this is still true today, of course, when you see a revival.

 A second joke is that the Queen, beginning with the original actress, Alice Barnett (in the photograph above), has a deep voice, being a contralto, and is of ample size (Barnett was 5 feet 10 inches—177cm tall).

Gilbert, who was a very subtle man, chose to draw no direct attention to the potential problem of difference in scale, but, to any Victorian who considered it, the joke would have been obvious, as fairies had been thought of as tiny beings since at least Shakespeare’s time, when, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania, that Queen of the Fairies’, attendants are named “Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed”. 

(And perhaps even earlier than Shakespeare, if the 12th-century priest, Giraldus Cambrensis’ , story of the boyhood adventure of the Welsh priest, Elidorus, in his The Itinerary and Description of Wales—it’s in Book I of the Itinerarium Kambriae, in Chapter 8– is referring to fairies.  For an English translation of the relevant passage, see:                                                            

https://archive.org/details/itinerarythroug00girauoft/page/68/mode/2up )

This tiny tradition was carried on into the 17th century by Michael Drayton (1563-1631)

in his poem, Nymphidia (1627), with passages such as this (lines 41-48, describing the fairy palace):

“The walls of spiders’ legs are made

Well mortised and finely laid;

He was the master of his trade

     It curiously had builded;

The windows of the eyes of cats,

And for a roof, instead of slats,

Is covered with the skin of bats,

     With moonshine that are gilded.”

(for more, see:  http://www.luminarium.org/editions/nymphidia.htm )

In the essay “On Fairy Stories” (1939/1947), Tolkien expresses his intense dislike of this sort of thing:

“Drayton’s Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in turn detested.” 

And, citing the above passage in particular, he continues:

“Drayton’s Nymphidia is, considered as a fairy-story (a story about fairies), one of the worst ever written.”

JRRT’s very negative reaction comes at the end of a long tradition of the miniaturized world he disliked. The Elizabethan/Jacobean fancies of Shakespeare and Drayton inspired 19th-century English artists from Landseer (1802-1873),

Richard Dadd (1817-1886),

 and Robert Huskisson (1820-1861),

to Richard Doyle (1824-1883)—perhaps the most famous fairy painter–

and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

And then there were the photographs.

In The Strand Christmas issue for December, 1920, there appeared these two very odd pictures–

Here are larger versions:

These were followed, in time, by three more—

To our 21st century eyes, these look impossibly faked.  The children are three-dimensional, but the “fairies” in four of the photos and the “gnome” in the other have the appearance of colored cardboard cut-outs—which is exactly what they are, some actually modeled upon an illustration in a popular book of the period, Princess Mary’s Gift Book (1914).

(Here’s a LINK so that you can have your own copy:  https://archive.org/details/princessmarysgif00mary

The illustration, one of several, accompanies a poem, “A Spell for a Fairy” by the once well-known poet, Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) and can be seen on page 102.  This is actually quite a remarkable book, seeming to have contributions by every prominent author of the period, in particular adventure writers like the Baroness Orczy and H. Rider Haggard, and even a poem by Rudyard Kipling.)

“Spirit photography” had been around since the 1860s, when a Boston photographer, William Mumler (1832-1884) began to add faint extra exposures to actual portrait photos.  If you’re at all familiar with this kind of cheap trickery, you’ll recognize this of Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of Abraham Lincoln, with a ghostly (literally) President Lincoln behind her.

Mumler was exposed as a fraudster in 1869, but that didn’t stop some from continuing to believe that the spirit world was desperate for a “Kodak moment” with the living.  And among those was a surprising figure, the creator of the original sceptical detective,

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).  His name was on that 1920 Strand article and, soon after, Sir Arthur published both The Coming of the Fairies

and The Case for Spirit Photography in 1922.  (If you’re interested, here are LINKS to both: 



https://archive.org/details/1923DoyleTheCaseForSpiritPhotography  )

Conan Doyle was already in the “Spiritualist” movement.  As early as 1887, he had published an article on a séance (a meeting in which a “medium”—that is, a person supposedly sensitive to the spirit world—and a group of interested people attempt to contact the dead) he had attended.  And, in 1917, he delivered his first public lecture on the subject. 

He was predisposed, then, to believe what he saw, almost as if he were hearing Holmes, in his head, saying, “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” (The Sign of the Four, 1890)

In fact, considering what was the truth, he should have been hearing:

“Let me run over the principal steps. We approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage. We had formed no theories. We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.”  (The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, 1893)

But perhaps the same spirit—no pun intended—which keeps us from thinking too hard about the scale of the characters in Iolanthe was behind Conan Doyle’s firm assertion of the veracity of those photographs.

Or, perhaps it was the same impulse which makes us clap when, in the play Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is dying and our clapping will bring her back:  a basic need, even for the creator of Sherlock Holmes, to believe in fairies?

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

And remember, as always, that there’s




In 1908, Arthur Rackham illustrated perhaps the most beautiful and certainly the most creatively constructed edition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Here’s a LINK so that you can have your own copy of this impressive work:


Hordes (Hoards) of Dragons

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Back in June, 2017, CD published “Hoards of the Things”, a posting mostly about dragons and their hoards, but, thinking a little further, the title—which was meant to be a pun—reminded me that, for years, I had trouble remembering how to spell an English word meaning “a large number of something”.

Was it h-o-a-r-d?  or h-o-r-d-e?

When I thought of “horde”, what came to mind was a swarm of invaders—the so-called “Golden Horde” of Mongols and Turkic peoples who marched west in the mid-13th century to overcome much of what would become Russia and the Ukraine,

destroying western armies in battle,

besieging and conquering cities.

Masses of sword-swinging, bow-shooting tribal warriors were “hordes”, then.

But there was that troubling other spelling, “hoard”.

While resisting rushing to the Oxford English Dictionary—or the quick and useful fix of Etymonline, a kind of OED digest– it occurred to me that my puzzlement came, in part, from the fact that, every few years, someone somewhere in the UK, using some sort of metal detector,

discovers a mass of ancient coins or similarly valuable things and the find is called something like “the Bakerloo Hoard”.

This is the “Frome Hoard”, discovered in a field in southwest England in 2010.  (The nearby town’s name is said “Frume”, by the way.)  In a very large ceramic jar were 52,503 Roman coins.  And this is by no means the only such find.  There are over 1200 known at present—and that’s only from the Romano-British period.  Add in everything from the Neolithic to Later Medieval and Post-Medieval and you have an enormous number—a horde/hoard, in fact, of such hoards/hordes.  (If you’d like to know more about Romano-British deposits, here’s a LINK: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_hoards_in_Great_Britain  For a more general view, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_hoards_in_Great_Britain )

“Hoard” in this context, then, could certainly entail the idea of lots of something, but, also, in this context, maybe it was more specialized, applying not to collections of warriors, say, but to a collection of an inanimate something of value, like pots of coins.  

But what about “hoarders”? 

This is a broad term which covers everything from World War 2 attempts to get around food-rationing

to a serious mental disorder, in which people obsessively acquire and keep things far beyond their use or need, but in which they, if not others, see some value.

As someone who spends a good deal of time in the world of adventure, this image of piles of things quickly brought me to dragons.  Smaug, in The Hobbit,

and an important model for Smaug, the unnamed dragon of Beowulf,

are both in possession of very large collections of valuable things, and yet, as monsters, the only profit they can seem to make of them is to own them—and to be violent at the disturbance of even a single item, as in the cup which an escaped slave steals from the hoard of the dragon in Beowulf (an action  imitated by Bilbo in The Hobbit).

So, reasoning from there, if someone (or thing, in the case of Smaug and the Beowulf dragon?) holds onto large amounts of something she/he/it has accumulated, but can’t use, then that large amount is a “hoard” (although I wouldn’t go so far as to attempt to analyze a dragon’s motive for doing so).   Perhaps, in view of those dragons, and of those whose deposits are located by metal detectorists, however, this needs a bit of modification.

First, In the case of the dragons, they themselves don’t appear to have accumulated what they guard:

1. the Beowulf dragon found his treasure already buried in a mound

2. Smaug, at best, has only added from inside the Lonely Mountain to the wealth already there:  “Behind him where the walls were nearest could dimly be seen coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging; and there in rows stood great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)

Second, in the case of all of those treasures discovered by metal detectorists and others, it’s generally believed that such things, with rare exceptions, weren’t gathered and stored merely to be gathered and stored, but were only meant to be hidden for a time, and then, for unknown reasons, were never retrieved.  In contrast to the dragons, then, such people, according to my running definition above, weren’t “hoarders”, even though their pots and other storage containers held what is called a “hoard”.

Perhaps, then, some other aspect than simple accumulation might be the defining factor?  Even if their collections were meant to be recovered, they were, initially and with intent, concealed.  It might be stretching a point, but Smaug and the Beowulf dragon sit on underground deposits.  World War 2 hoarders were accused of stashing away food.  Could the basic meaning of “hoard”  then be “something of value (at least to the owners) which is hidden”?  (Hoarders of the more obsessive variety might be said, at least, to store up things in numbers, even if they don’t keep them concealed—although sometimes the objects are in such large amounts that they begin to conceal the accumulators.)

If so, then, to keep “hoard” from “horde”, we might look once more at those dragons.

From my experience of them (not personal, which is probably just as well, although I would very much like to meet the poetical beast of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon” ),

though Thorin says that “I know where Mirkwood is, and the Withered Heath where the great dragons bred.” (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

dragons seem to be solitary creatures—certainly the Beowulf dragon appears to have no kin, nor does Smaug (nor, for that matter,  does another of Smaug’s models, the dragon which the Danish king, Frotho I, kills in Book 2 of Saxo Grammaticus’ early 13th-century Gesta Danorum, “Deeds of the Danes”).  In contrast, dragons in the East may flock—see this wonderful 13th-century painting by Chen Rong, “The Scroll of the Nine Dragons”—

and, on the model of the Mongols, appear in hordes, but western dragons always seem to appear by themselves, never in hordes, but sitting obsessively on their hoards.

As ever, thanks for reading,

Stay well, and be sure that there’s




Several years ago, CD recommended a quiet comic series about metal-detecting in England, The Detectorists (2014-2017), written and directed by the brilliant Mackenzie Crook.  This is set in and around the imaginary English village of “Danebury”, where we see two rather bumbly but hopeful men with metal detectors search for what they’re convinced will be a hoard.  Since then, the series has been completed and I now want to re-recommend it as a whole.

To find out more, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detectorists


Although discovery by metal detector is common, other finds are simply accidents, often at building sites, like the Fishpool Hoard, found in 1966 (see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fishpool_Hoard ) or even by someone simply plowing, as in the case of the Mildenhall Treasure, turned up in a field in 1942 (see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mildenhall_Treasure –this is Mildenhall, in Suffolk, and, just to make things complicated, there is another Mildenhall—said MY-al by the locals—in Wiltshire, all the way across southern England, where another treasure was found in 1978—see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cunetio_Hoard ).


If you, too, would like to meet the poetical beast of Grahame’s story, follow this LINK:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1288/1288-h/1288-h.htm

With a Little Help from My (Very Little) Friends

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

The other day, I was making pesto.  Because readers of this blog come from all over the globe, perhaps I should explain. 

Pesto is this:

It can be made with a number of different ingredients, but this recipe uses basil leaves, olive oil, and a touch of garlic.  You can mix it with any number of different things, but a favorite is with pasta and chicken.  It may originally be Italian, as certainly the word is, being a contraction of pestato, “crushed”, indicating how it’s made.  And, since we’re talking etymology, here’s a word you may know, from the same Latin root—pins- — “to grind/crush”.  Move from that to the crushing tool in Latin, pistillum, then through Old French to English and you get “pestle”—which goes with the object in which you grind things, a “mortar”—

and, because it’s impossible not to make the association, this is also the preferred flying vehicle for the Russian witch, Babayaga.

(If you’d like to know more about this really interesting folktale character—“witch” is only one possibility of what she is—you can read about her in this 1916 English translation of Afanasyev’s  Russian Folk Tales:


 Just one interesting detail about her:  she lives in a house on chicken legs, and it’s always moving so that it’s very difficult for anyone to get inside without her permission.)

But the difficulty with pesto using basil

is that it takes a lot of leaves to make a decent batch

and it’s more than a little time-consuming to pluck enough leaves, after you’ve uprooted the stalks.

So—lest you think that you’ve fallen into a cooking website by one of those strange left turns search engines sometimes make– I was plucking the leaves, but, at the same time, I was thinking about animal helpers in folktales and wishing that I had some of my own.  Animals in folktales can act as guides and interpreters and protectors, but what I really needed was someone interested in tiny detail work.  The first who came to mind were from a weird but really interesting literary work from the 2nd century AD, Apuleius’

Lucius Apuleius Ad 123-5 To C Ad 180 Platonic Philosopher Rhetorician And Author Frontspiece To The Book The Story Of Cupid And Psyche By Lucius Apuleius Published 1903. Medallion From An Illuminated Page Of The First Edition Published In 1469.

(There’s no actual known portrait—this is an idealized 3rd-century medallion)

 novel (sort of) The Metamorphoses.

(This is the 1639 edition of Richard Adlington’s 1566 English translation.  Unusually, I haven’t been able to locate an image of any earlier printing.)

I wrote “sort of” novel because it’s almost more a kind of short story collection with the stories embedded in a loose narrative of the adventures of one Lucius, who, in attempting to practice magic to turn himself into a bird, ends up as a donkey,

and spends a good deal of time in that shape before finally being turned back into a man through the aid of the goddess Isis.

Among the short stories embedded, is a long one about a human woman, Psyche, who falls in love with Eros/Cupid, the son of the goddess Venus.

Venus is not pleased with this and assigns Psyche a series of impossible tasks to punish her for daring to love her son.  For her first task, Venus dumps in front of her a huge pile of mixed legumes and seeds—as the Latin says:   “et hordeo et milio et papavere et cicere et lente et faba commixtisque acervatim confusis in unum grumulum”—“both barley and millet and poppy seed and chick pea and lentil and broad bean and mixed every which way poured together into one little hill”. 

Psyche has until the evening to complete the task.  It’s impossible, of course, just like spinning straw into gold in the story of “Rumpelstiltskin”.

Or—closer to home—a similar task from the other version of “Cinderella”—not the Perrault one, in the 1697 Histoires or Contes du temps passe,

but from Kinder und Hausmaerchen (1812) of the Grimms, where the girl is known as “Aschenputtel”.

Here, before she can even think of going to the ball with her stepmother and her evil stepsisters,

her stepmother tells her:  “Da habe ich dir eine Schüssel Linsen in die Asche geschüttet, wenn du die Linsen in zwei Stunden wieder ausgelesen hast, so sollst du mitgehen.”—“I have spilled a bowl of lentils into the ashes for you.  If, in two hours, you have sorted out the lentils again, then you shall go with us.”

The same impossible task—although perhaps a little easier, without all of those mixed beans!  Then again, ash can be grey—and so can lentils.

Aschenputtel is fortunate, however, in that she has the aid of, first, two white doves, then turtledoves, then birds of all kinds who flock in to help her.

Luckily, they follow her directions (which, in a little couplet, sound almost like a magic spell):

“Die guten ins Töpfchen,

Die schlechten ins Kröpfchen.”

“The good ones in the little pot,

The poor ones in the little crop.”

(the crop being part of a bird’s throat).

Aschenputtel (with a little feathered assistance) then finishes the job—but, as we all know, is still not allowed to go to the ball.  And the same disappointment will happen to Psyche.  Her helpers, however, are much smaller—and generally more organized—than birds—

The formiculae—“tiny ants/antlets” come rushing in waves:  “summoque studio singulae granatim totum digerunt acervum separatimque distributis dissitisque generibus e conspectu perniciter abeunt.”

“and, with the greatest eagerness, each separated the whole heap grain by grain and, when the kinds were divided and arranged separately, they quickly disappeared from sight.”

Which leaves me to ponder two possibilities:

a. can I attract some eager ants for myself?  (usually, not difficult—but how do you convince them to “e conspectu perniciter abire” (“to quickly disappear from sight”) afterwards?)

b. or is there still time before dinner to go to the store and invest in a jar of this–

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Stay well,

Bon appetit,

And know that, as ever, there’s




If you are regular readers, you will have noticed a slight change in format.  The D of CD having gone on to other projects, the C remains, under his own title, Ollamh, to entertain you, he hopes, as CD did for so long.


If you are interested in reading more about Cinderella, back in June/July of 2018, CD did a 5-part series on Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty through many different forms.  The series was called “Theme and Variations” and we recommend it (modestly) to you for your enjoyment.

Talk to the Animals?

“The cat walked stiffly round a leg of the table with tail on high.


—O, there you are, Mr Bloom said, turning from the fire.

The cat mewed in answer and stalked again stiffly round a leg of the table, mewing. Just how she stalks over my writingtable. Prr. Scratch my head. Prr.

Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.

—Milk for the pussens, he said.

—Mrkgnao! the cat cried.

They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to.”  (James Joyce, Ulysses, Chapter 4)

As always, dear readers, welcome.

We were chatting with our cat this morning.

(this is a google image—Minerva is opposed to being photographed, something to do with magic, we believe—but she is a Siberian, like this one)

Well, not deep in conversation, as, unfortunately, our vocabulary is rather limited and what we know is based upon a number of years of trial and error, rather than serious linguistic analysis.  We do know that something like “Mrr-ANG!” (M + trill, ending with a sound sort of like the dessert, meringue, said mer-RANG!)

appears to mean “I need food and water, please!”

Being trainable, we respond to that and she seems pleased when the requested items appear in her bowls.  Whether this is because she sees that, dim as we are, we understand a little of her language, or she’s just happy to get food and water, we can’t tell for sure, but she’s pretty consistent with the sound, so it’s probably a good guess that that sound means what we think it does.

Beyond that, we’re still in the initial stages of discovery.  This would be easier, of course, if we had a kind of cat Rosetta Stone.

Found in northern Egypt in 1798, it’s a bi-lingual inscription.  The top two parts were in two forms of ancient Egyptian writing, Hieroglyphics and Demotic, which were, at the time of its discovery, unreadable, but the bottom inscription was in classical Greek, a well-known ancient language.

Imagine such a stone on which the top was Feline (as we’ll call it)—but perhaps in only one form—and, below, an ancient but known language, like Latin, say.  We could then guess, as the main decipherer, Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) guessed of the Egyptian writing on the Rosetta Stone,

that what he saw was, in fact, the same message, written in 2 different languages, Egyptian and Greek.  With that in mind, he began to try to make the equivalents between what he saw on that top line with what he saw of the Greek below.  He had no idea how to pronounce it, of course, and we still don’t, in part because the writing system didn’t include vowels.  Champollion, however, had learned ancient Egyptian’s final linguistic form, Coptic, once still spoken in modern Egypt, along with the dominant language, Arabic, and he found this useful in his work.  (If you’d like to hear a little more about spoken ancient Egyptian, see this LINK by Egyptonerd:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_7ZVSHV2tU We highly recommend this site as Egyptonerd is both very learned in things Egyptian and just fun to watch and listen to—and all from what looks like his attic/loft.)

So, here would be the stone, with a sample of Feline above and Latin below.


|   MRRNKGIAO RRRAHNIAH URRNAHNIAP GNAPNAPNAP  NAOIAO NRAH  |                                                                                                              

|                                                                                                                                    |                                                                     

|                                                                                                                                    |


|     OMNES SCIUNT FELES ORBI TERRARUM IMPERARE                                    |                                                                                                          

|                                                                                                                                    |

|                                                                                                                                    |


There would be all sorts of things to sort out along the way.  An immediate problem would be the word order.  Suppose that Feline is what is called a SVO language—that is, a Subject Verb Object language, like English:  we love dogs.  But Latin is commonly an SOV language, a Subject Object Verb language:  we dogs love.  This means that, although the ideas may match, the way the words are set down won’t necessarily.  And that’s only one difficulty!

It’s easy to see why, then, that, in stories with talking animals, the animals always seem to speak the language of the main characters.  And talking animals are everywhere, from fairy tales, like “Puss in Boots” (first appearing in Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités, 1697—here’s the first English translation, from 1729)

to children’s stories, like The Jungle Book (1894),

L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900),

and C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy (1954—although a number of the Narnia books feature talking animals—beginning with Aslan).

For this posting, however, we want to conclude with a series of books with a very different approach, one which goes back to our (Cat) Rosetta (Rosecatta?) Stone idea.

In 1920, Hugh Lofting (1886-1947)    

published The Story of Doctor Doolittle.  The book had begun as a series of stories which Lofting, in the trenches of France in the Great War, wrote home to his children.  In the first volume in the series, he begins his study of animal speech when his parrot, Polynesia,

 informs him that all animals have their languages.  The Doctor then goes on to a long series of adventures with animals through 15 books (several published posthumously).  For modern people, more aware of the dangers in casual racism, there is an element of that racism which would hardly have been noticed when at least most of the books had been published, but stands out now.  Considering how humane the Doctor—and his author—were, it’s sad to be reminded that even in past children’s books using stereotypes and certain words was thought to be perfectly acceptable.  We offer you a LINK to the first book, however, suggesting that, for the ideas about human/animal communication and for the quiet humor which often turns up, you might try it, skipping over those parts which we now would question:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/501/501-h/501-h.htm

And, more cheerfully—and more characteristic of so much of the Doctor—we include this, from the 1967 film, starring Rex Harrison as the Doctor.

It’s the song the Doctor sings when Polynesia reveals to him that all animals have their own languages and he’s excited at the potential for interspecies communication.

(Chorus 1)
If I could talk to the animals, just imagine it
Chatting to a chimp in Chimpanzee
Imagine talking to a tiger, chatting to a cheetah
What a neat achievement that would be!

If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages
Maybe take an animal degree
I’d study Elephant and Eagle, Buffalo and Beagle
Alligator, Guinea Pig, and Flea

I would converse in Polar Bear and Python
And I would curse in fluent Kangaroo
If people ask me, “Can you speak Rhinoceros?”
I’d say, “Of course-ros
Can’t you?”

I’d confer with our furry friends and animals
Think of the amazing repartee!
If I could walk with the animals, talk with the animals
Grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals
And they could talk to me

(Chorus 2)
If I consulted with quadrupeds, think what fun we’d have
Asking over crocodiles for tea
Or maybe lunch with two or three lions, walruses or sea lions
What a lovely place the world would be

If I spoke slang to an orangutan, the advantages
Any fool on Earth could plainly see
Discussing Eastern art and dramas with intellectual llamas
That’s a big step forward, you’ll agree

I’d learn to speak in Antelope and Turtle
My Pekinese would be extremely good
If I were asked to sing Hippopotamus
I’d say “Why not-amus?”
And would

If I could parley with pachyderms, it’s a fairy tale
Worthy of Hans Andersen or Grimm
A man who walks with the animals, talks with the animals
Grunts and squeaks and squawks with the animals

(Chorus 3)
A man can talk to the animals. It’s a miracle!
In a year from now, I guarantee
I’ll be the marvel of the mammals, playing chess with camels
No more just a boring old M.D

I’ll study every living creature’s language
So I can speak to all of them on sight
If friends say, “Can he talk in Crab or Pelican?”
You’ll say, “Like hell he can.”
And you’ll be right

And if you just stop to think of it, there’s no doubt of it
I shall win a place in history
I can walk with the animals, talk with the animals
Grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals
And they can squeak and squawk and speak and talk to me!

And here’s Harrison singing—well, speaking it:

Now we hear our cat calling:  if we hurry, we might pick up a new vocabulary word!

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And remember that there is always



With Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without the words—

And never stops at all—

As always, dear readers, welcome.  If you don’t recognize our quotation, it’s from a poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886),

Number 254 or 314, depending upon the edition, written, it is thought, in 1861.  Here’s the manuscript—

We don’t know about you, but we really like to read the manuscripts of works we’re fond of, especially if they’ve got things crossed out or replaced or added to.  Then, it’s as if you’re actually looking over the writer’s shoulder as she/he works.  Here, for instance, is the first page of John Keats’ (1795-1821) “Ode to the Nightingale”, written one spring day in 1819.  You can see Keats changing his mind as he writes.  (The title was changed, too, in the days between writing and printing, and we now know it as “Ode to A Nightingale”, which somehow makes it less personal to us.

But this posting is neither about nightingales or hope, but about feathers:  in particular, white ones.

In 1902, the adventure novelist AEW Mason (1865-1948),

published a new novel, entitled The Four Feathers.

It was set in the 1880s, when Britain had newly conquered Egypt,

taking it from the government of Ahmed ‘Urabi (1841-1911, whom the British called “Araby Pasha”),

ARABI PASHA (1841?-1911). Egyptian revolutionist. Wood engraving from an English newspaper of 1882.

an Egyptian army officer who had led a successful revolt to detach Egypt from the fading Ottoman empire.  As he was a nationalist, the government in London was anxious that he might threaten their control of the Suez Canal, and so an expedition was sent in 1882 to assert British dominance. 

Unfortunately for their rule, there arose to the south, in Egyptian-ruled Sudan, an Islamic revivalist movement, led by Muhammad Ahmad (1844-1885), called the Mahdi, “the rightly-guided one”.

Under his leadership, the Anglo-Egyptian government was driven from the Sudan and the Egyptian governor, Charles Gordon (1833-1885), a well-known British soldier,

was killed in January, 1885, as the Mahdi’s men captured the capital, Khartoum.

The Mahdi died soon after, but his movement was continued by Abdallah ibn Muhammad (1845-1899), who called himself the Khalifa, “the successor”.  Initially successful, he was eventually defeated just north of Khartoum, at Omdurman in September, 1898, by an Anglo-Egyptian army under HH Kitchener, pursued, and killed.

With this violent era as the background, the story is about Harry Feversham, a young British army officer, who, just before the 1882 attack on Egypt, resigns his commission, and finds himself attacked as a coward by three fellow officers and his own fiancée.  To show their opinion of him, each presents Harry with a white feather, a traditional symbol in Britain since at least the 18th century of cowardice.  The rest of the story concerns Harry’s eventually successful redemption, including going disguised to the Sudan and rescuing one of those officers who sent him a feather.  By the end of the novel, one of the other officers is dead, but two of them, and his fiancée, now convinced of his courage, take back their feathers.  (If you’d like your own copy to read, here’s a LINK:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18883/18883-h/18883-h.htm )

This was not only a very successful novel (it’s still in print, over 100 years later), but was the source of an entire series of films, from the first—an American production—in 1915 (a silent, of course)

to a second, in 1921 (a British production, for which we can’t seem to locate a poster), to a third, in 1929,

which could have been an early “talkie”, but, instead, had a musical score soundtrack, but no dialogue.

After this came the one which we have always thought the best, that of 1939, which was filmed on location and was, for us, the most convincing, although, like a number of the others, it picked and chose what it wanted from the novel and moved the period from the 1880s to the mid-to-late 1890s, including a depiction of the battle of Omdurman. 

Films didn’t stop there, however, as there were further adaptations, in 1955 (entitled Storm Over the Nile),

in 1978,

and, most recently, in 2002.

When you read the original, you know that you’re in the late Victorian/Edwardian world, where “manhood” and “courage” are all about men in red coats

 (or khaki)

proving themselves by being involved in what, to people in the 21st century, would seem like brutal colonialism.  Within its own time, however, this was seen as being a story about a man full of doubts about who he was within his society, making a decision which prejudiced those he cared about against him, and who then, through taking great personal risks, found a surer sense of himself and regained the respect and affection of those who mattered to him.  And that’s why, we think, not only has the novel survived, but why people keep using it as the basis of films. 

But what about those white feathers as symbols? 

 The current theory is that the idea of cowardice is derived from the once-popular sport of cockfighting.

Supposedly, roosters with same-patterned/colored tails were better fighters, while those whose tails included white feathers were weaker.   As far as we know (we’re not chicken experts), this has not been scientifically proven.

The idea of cowardice, and its symbol, however, was one which one of our favorite authors would have faced before he became a second lieutenant in 1916. 

From August, 1914, members of “The Order of the White Feather” would stop a young man not in uniform in any public place in Britain and, by handing him such a little present, try to shame him into joining the army.

Considering what could have happened to anyone who, having taken that feather and then enlisted, we might disagree with Ms Dickinson about there being much hope involved.

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And remember there’s




As always, dear readers, welcome.  If you read us regularly, you know that we love epics of all sorts and periods and cultures.  We have also been dictionary readers since we were children.  So, when, recently, we heard someone say that something was an “epic fail”, it caught our ear in both an epic and lexicographic (what a great word!) way.  Consequently, we thought that it might be fun to do a little investigating and thinking out loud a little about the use of “epic” in that expression

We began by asking ourselves:  what is an epic that it can be (silently) compared to something else, in this case, a kind of disaster?

Examples of epics immediately came to mind:  the Iliad,

and the Odyssey,

and the Aeneid

all long stories in verse.  And we quickly added Beowulf,


and Mahabharata,

all also long poems in verse, the Mahabharata being said to be the longest of all epics, 200,000 verses long (in contrast, the Iliad has 15,693, while the Aeneid has only 9,896 lines). 

The word “epic” itself is from Greek epos, which has a number of possible translations, but, at base, means “something spoken”.  This can easily be understood as “something told” and could refer to the work of the first Greek singers, the aoidoi (ah-oy-DOY).

 In Homer, we often see the word in the plural, as part of the phrase  epea pteroenta, literally “words with wings”.  This is used when people speak a lot and/or rapidly, which seems sensible, especially if you’re making a reply or trying to persuade someone of something.  There may also be a small poetic  joke here, as well, as epea can also mean “lines of verse”, so a character might be said to be speaking in “winged verses” in Homer, at the same time as “winged words”.

“Epic” is an adjective formed from epos, and appears to have become part of the English language during the Elizabethan era.  The first known citation comes from George Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589), where Puttenham calls John Hardyng (1378-1465), who wrote a rhymed chronicle of the history of England, “a Poet Epicke or Historicall” (Puttenham, Part I, Chapter 31).  We’ve sampled a manuscript version of Hardyng’s chronicle in the very useful edition of Simpson and Peverley (and you can, too, at this LINK:  https://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/simpson-pevereley-hardyng-chronicle )  but, although it has the length of a shorter epic (7,042 lines), we would be reluctant to say that Hardyng would ever have the popularity of Homer or Vergil or Valmiki, the poet of the Ramayana.

Still, if you go to the always-handy Etymonline, you’ll find “epic” defined (digesting a longer definition in The Oxford English Dictionary) as, “pertaining to or constituting a lengthy heroic poem.”

And “lengthy”, as you can see, would certainly would fit all of the epics mentioned above, including Puttenham’s Hardyng.  So, on the one hand, “epic” in “epic fail” could mean something gone wrong on a scale as big as an epic is long:  after all, the war at Troy has been going on for 9 years when the Iliad takes place, and Beowulf covers the full extent of the hero’s life. 

But then there’s that word “heroic”. 

If we follow that definition, is an “epic fail”, which we’re assuming is something rather grand, also somehow heroic?

We don’t have any more information about our original quotation:  it was probably just something which zoomed past our eyes on the internet, or we heard someone say in passing on the radio.  Applying a text from our list of epics, we thought about Hector, the son of Priam, the king of Troy, and the main hero on the Trojan side.  The Iliad doesn’t have much to say about him for the previous 9 years, but he’s active in the current one although, even as the chief warrior on the Trojan side, he never appears to have faced the chief Greek warrior, Achilles, until their confrontation in Book 22.  Here, Hector is ashamed to retreat, but acts as a kind of rear guard for the Trojans until he’s facing Achilles by himself.

And then everything goes wrong for him:  he loses his nerve and Achilles chases him three times around the walls of Troy; he throws his spear, which bounces off Achilles’ shield; he thinks that his brother, Deiphobus, has come to help him, but it’s actually a hostile Athena masquerading; sword drawn, he charges and Achilles stabs him at the base of his throat; when he begs for a decent burial, Achilles says that the dogs and birds will eat his body.  And, after he dies, all of the other Greeks gather around to stab his corpse (now they’re brave), then Achilles puts holes in Hector’s feet, runs a line through the holes, ties the line to the back of his chariot, and drags him around the walls of Troy while Hector’s wife and parents look on in horror.

If anything could be described as an “epic fail”, we would propose that it would be the combat with Achilles and the death of Hector.  But was the comment we overheard or read about such a grim and dramatic event as to merit such a comparison?

And this is where another source comes in.  The Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1857, when it comes to richness of source material, is a wonderful thing—we used it to find that reference to Puttenham.  At the same time, to keep up-to-date on what’s going on in contemporary English, we often dip into Urban Dictionary.  If you know this source, you know that some of those who contribute are often less than enthusiastic about other people’s word choices.  So, to gain another viewpoint, we consulted Urban Dictionary and found, among other references:

“Epic Fail -A mistake of such monumental proportions that it requires its own term in order to successfully point out the unfathomable shortcomings of an individual or group.”

Not quite Homeric, but okay. 

Then again, there was this:

“A word that used to be used to describe a book, a movie or other work as timeless, great, and meaningful. Is now used by [unprintable word:  substitute “the less intelligent”] who combine it with “win” or “fail” to describe everyday things…

[unprintable word–substitute “speaker”] #1: I forgot my wallet so I had to go home and get it.
[same unprintable word:  substitute “speaker] #2: EPIC FAIL!”

So, was what we saw or overheard, by its use of the expression, its own epic fail?

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

And know that




We found the reference to Puttenham in the Oxford English Dictionary (upon which JRRT was once engaged, in 1919-1920—here’s the LINK to a really interesting article on his work there:  https://public.oed.com/blog/jrr-tolkien-and-the-oed/ ).  If you’d like to see the Puttenham for yourself, here’s a LINK:


If nothing else, it’s very interesting to see just how much earlier English literature Puttenham had available to him in the 1580s.