Going Underground

Welcome, dear readers, as always, but, although the title of this posting might suggest taking cover during this time of worldwide illness, we persist in staying calm and remaining aboveground and writing more about subjects we—and, we hope you—find interesting.

We are about to teach The Hobbit again—although this time, not being sitting in a classroom with about 20 students, talking about what we’ve been reading, but somehow on-line, which is not very happy-making, as we really enjoy the always-intriguing reactions and questions which come from in-class discussion.

One observation from last term’s Hobbit reading has stuck with us:  just how much of the dramatic action takes place underground—and there are also a number of like scenes, also very dramatic scenes, in The Lord of the Rings, as well.

We started adding them up and found, in The Hobbit:

  1. the world of the goblins under the Misty Mountains, where Gandalf kills the goblin king


and Bilbo finds the Ring and meets Gollum.


  1. in Mirkwood, the caves where the dwarves are kept prisoner by Thranduil, the king of the Forest Elves


until Bilbo frees them with his barrel-riding.


  1. the tunnels under the Lonely Mountain


where Bilbo and the dwarves must deal with Smaug.


In The Lord of the Rings, we find:

  1. Moria, with its mysterious western door,


the chamber of Mazarbul,


and the Balrog.


  1. the Pathways of the Dead


  1. and the area around Cirith Ungol, where Shelob has her lair.


Darkness, often narrow or treacherous places, full of fear–it might be supposed that Tolkien was a claustrophobe–


until you read this letter from 1940, in which he tells us of having made several visits—one in 1916—to some very famous caves (in this letter, he’s replying to someone who has asked about the caverns at Helm’s Deep):

“It may interest you to know that the passage was based upon the caves in Cheddar Gorge and was written just after I had revisited these in 1940 but was still coloured by my memory of them much early before they became so commercialized.  I had been there during my honeymoon nearly 30 years before.”  (Letters, 407)

Cheddar Gorge is in Somerset, in southwest England and is famous for its caves–


as well as its cheese.


We can deduce, then, that, in fact, JRRT was interested in caves and enjoyed them.

Scary caves go back farther in his life, however.  We would suggest from childhood, when he read, one, and possibly two, stories by the once-popular Victorian children’s author, George MacDonald (1824-1905).


These books, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)


and The Princess and Curdy (1883),


as the titles suggest, have to do with the adventures of a princess, her friend, Curdy, and the swarms of goblins who live in a warren of caves below the palace.  JRRT himself confessed, in a 1938 letter published in The Observer, to MacDonald’s influence:

“As for the rest of the tale it is…derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story—not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George Macdonald [sic] is the chief exception.”

(Letters, 31)

For later dark underground influences, we might add two spots in Beowulf:   the lair of Grendel, which is not only underground, but underwater,


and the tumulus in which the (unnamed) dragon lives, the slaying of which causes the death of Beowulf.


Perhaps the most traumatic influence might be what was a traumatic experience for many more than JRRT.

In the summer of 1916, Second Lieutenant JRR Tolkien


arrived at the Western Front, a subterranean land of trenches which cut up the world into endless crisscrosses of deep, often elaborate ditches with thickets of barbed wire in front of them,


protecting soldiers on both sides from the effects of heavy artillery


and machine guns,


in a crooked line which stretched for nearly 500 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea.


When he arrived, he was just in time to take part in a massive attack on a portion of the German lines in an assault which is now called the Battle of the Somme.  This was a tremendous effort which cost the British on the first day alone a total of over 57,000 casualties.


To soften up the enemy lines, the British had dug tunnels below them at various points,


filled them with explosives, called “mines”, and set them off just before the attacks.


Tolkien, as a signals officer—someone who dealt with communications after the first wave of attackers—


wouldn’t have been involved in mines or the initial assault, but would have followed behind, climbing into the enemy’s trenches to set up communication facilities after the attack had moved forward.  He would certainly have seen these underground burrows, some of them extremely elaborate,



and perhaps childhood reading, the Cheddar gorge, and the experience of the Great War were all in his head when he began his first novel by placing his hero in a hole in the ground, then putting him back underground again and again?


Thanks, as ever, for reading.  Stay well, dear readers, with




Following the Signs

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

This posting started with a signpost.  In the UK, this can be called a fingerpost, like


this wooden one, a very old one, where you can see directions and mileage from the point where the post was planted.  Where we began, there is a finger, but:

“Suddenly a tall pillar loomed up before them.  It was black; and set upon it was a great stone carved and painted in the likeness of a long White Hand.  Its finger pointed north.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 8, “The Road to Isengard”)

Gandalf, Denethor, Aragorn, and their company have ridden north from Helm’s Deep, passing into Nan Curunir, “The Wizard’s Vale”:

“After they had ridden for some miles, the highway became a wide street, paved with great flat stones, squared and laid with skill; no blade of grass was seen in any joint.  Deep gutters, filled with trickling water, ran down on either side.”

If we were asked what JRRT had in mind here, we would say at once, “it’s a Roman road, like this one”—


which, if you could see it in cross-section, would look like this—


The Romans had mileposts, too, a bit like signposts.  This is the first one on the oldest Roman road, the Via Appia, and the long inscription tells us who put it up (the Emperor Nerva—96-98AD) and who restored it (the Emperor Vespasian—117-138AD), but also how many (Roman) miles it was from there to the center of Rome:  1.


It’s interesting, then, to see that the fingerpost which Gandalf & Co encounter has no inscription at all, its information seeming to consist only of the indication of a direction, north.   As we thought about it, however, it occurred to us to ask:  are we ever shown any public inscriptions in Middle-earth?  And, if there were any, where are they?   We could think of only two, and neither on a road.  The first was on the western gate of Moria, with the command which puzzled Gandalf–


the other was above the Dark Door, the entrance to the Paths of the Dead (this is a sketch by John Howe)


where we’re only told that “Signs and figures were carved above its wide arch too dim to read”.

With no more information than a direction, we are led northwards:

“Beneath the mountain’s arm within the Wizard’s Vale through years uncounted had stood that ancient place that Men called Isengard.  Partly it was shaped in the making of the mountains, but mighty works the Men of Westernesse had wrought there of old, and Saruman had dwelt there long and had not been idle.”


Long before Saruman arrived, those Men of Westernesse hadn’t been idle, either:

“A great ring-wall of stone, like towering cliffs, stood out from the shelter of the mountain-side, rom which it ran and then returned again.”

In trying to picture this, we thought of Iron Age hill forts, like Castle Ring, whose walls were of earth, rather than stone, but extensive, all the same.


“One entrance only was there made in it, a great arch delved in the southern wall.  Here through the black rock a long tunnel had been hewn, closed at either end with mighty doors of iron…One who passed in and came at length out of the echoing tunnel, beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed like a vast shallow bowl, a mile it measured from rim to rim.”

Tunnels like this may be seen in more modern fortresses, like Ehrenbreitstein, in Germany.


But what has Saruman been up to?

“Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees, watered by streams that flowed from the mountains to a lake.  But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman.  The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard; and beside their borders instead of trees there marched long lines of pillars, some of marble, some of copper and of iron, joined by heavy chains.”

Here, we think of what are called allees, long walks between rows of trees of the sort you can see in Europe—


which we juxtapose with the Hildebrandt’s portrait of Saruman.


That vast circle is still too green in their depiction, however, as we read on:

“Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunneled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors…The plain, too, was bored and delved.  Shafts were driven deep into the ground; their upper ends were covered by low mounds and domes of stone, so that in the moonlight the Ring of Isengard looked like a graveyard of unquiet dead.”

A very vivid image!


But too peaceful for the activity found there seemingly 24/7:

“Iron wheels revolved there endlessly, and hammers thudded.  At night plumes of vapor streamed from the vents, lit from beneath with red light, or blue, or venomous green.”

In a posting some time ago, we likened Mordor to the old industrial area in England, the Black Country, and this description certainly brings that to mind—


But in the center is this:

“There stood a tower of marvelous shape.  It was fashioned by the builders of old, who smoothed the Ring of Isengard, and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of Men, but riven from the bones of the earth in black and gleaming hard:  four mighty piers of many-sided stone were welded into one, but near the summit they opened into gaping horns, their pinnacles sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knives.”

As always, we think about where all of this may have come from.  JRRT was a medievalist, after all, and medieval models must always have been in his mind.  The idea of a circuit of walls with a central citadel says to us a place like Old Sarum


or perhaps the Tower of London—


and the White Tower at the Tower of London, although the wrong color, shares a definite similarity with Orthanc, being square, with four corner towers.


Along with his written description, however, JRRT has left us some small images of what he had in mind, like—


and this drawing, in particular, brought to mind something we suspect he might have rejected, but which, to us, bears a certain resemblance, the unfinished Cathedral of the Holy Family, in Barcelona, Catalunya—


We are still standing at that signpost, however, and something about it suggests is that, for all of the work of the Men of Westernesse and for all of Saruman’s alterations, all may not be right in the Wizard’s Vale:

“Now Gandalf rode to the great pillar of the Hand, and passed it, and as he did so the Riders saw to their wonder that the Hand appeared no longer white.  It was stained as with dried blood; and looking closer they perceived that its nails were red.  Unheeding Gandalf rode on into the mist, and reluctantly they followed him.  All about them now, as if there had been a sudden flood, wide pools of water lay beside the road, filling the hollows, and rills went trickling down among the stones.”

Perhaps, instead of the White Hand, this would have been a better signpost?


Thanks, as ever, for reading and



Ram’s Gate

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

In our last, we discussed Gandalf’s confrontations with evil, including his meeting with the head of the Nazgul, the Witch King of Angmar, at the main gate of Minas Tirith.  As we think about it, we believe that there’s a bit more to say—but with JRRT, isn’t there always?


In the background of this Ted Nasmith picture, you can see what has broken open the gate:  the giant battering ram, Grond.  Here is an image of it from the Jackson films—


and here is Tolkien’s description—which is, although grim, in a much lower key, we would say:

“Great engines crawled across the field; and in the midst was a huge ram, great as a forest-tree a hundred feet in length, swinging on mighty chains.  Long had it been forging in the dark smithies of Mordor, and its hideous head, founded of black steel, was shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf, on it spells of ruin lay.  Grond they named it, in memory of the Hammer of the Underworld of old.  Great beasts drew it, orcs surrounded it, and behind walked mountain-trolls to wield it.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

At its simplest, a battering ram is just a heavy log used by a gang of men, soldiers or otherwise, to bash a wall


or bash in a gate.


(You’ll notice that the first of these two images has an actual ram’s head on it.  This would give the point of the battering ram a harder surface and probably is a reference to the way two rams will actually fight, butting heads against each other.)

Grond is a more complex ram, however, being suspended on chains so that the weight of the swing of it will increase its force.  Here is a model of the ram from the film, to make it a bit clearer.


And here is an illustration of a medieval ram so that you can see how it works.


Rams as an engine of war have been around a long time.  The Egyptians used a very simple version,


while the Assyrians employed a more complex model.


Both of these, you’ll notice—and you can see it especially in the Assyrian example—aren’t actually attempting to slam into the wall.  Rather, they are working to drive a wedge among the wall’s blocks—probably in both cases of mud brick—so that the upper face of the wall will collapse in their direction and, with any luck, pile up enough fallen material that the besiegers might even be able to scramble up it and into the city.

You’ll notice, too, that the Assyrian ram is covered in something—possibly animal hides?  These would not only protect those inside from missiles shot or thrown from the wall above, but would also (those who constructed it must have hoped) make it somewhat nonflammable.  In fact, here’s another illustration where the besieged are trying to throw torches at it and the besiegers are attempting to keep the covering wet in return.  (JRRT is aware of this—as he says of Grond:  “Upon its housing no fire would catch…”)


The Assyrians also appear to have used an actual battering ram—this image showing one aimed at a gate,


as is Grond.  And this is the Witch King’s target:

“It was against the Gate that he would throw his heaviest weight.  Very strong it might be, wrought of steel and iron, and guarded with towers and bastions of indomitable stone, yet it was the key, the weakest point in all that high and impenetrable wall.”

Tolkien appears to have left us only a few images of Minas Tirith, and the two we’ve seen are very rudimentary (this is the only one we could post), and


probably made to help him to visualize the position of the seven gates.  As far as we know, he has not left us any image of the Gate itself, except the description above.  In the Jackson films, the gate has been elaborated—


The outermost frame is in the style known as Romanesque.  Here is a good example from the church of Santa Maria Seu d’Urgell, in Catalonia.


Just under the arch of the Gate at Minas Tirith is the suggestion of another part of a gate structure, a portcullis.  Ordinarily, this would be a full-size inner gate behind the main gate and would act as a secondary defense.


It would be worked by a system of pulleys and weights, as in this diagram.


As this isn’t mentioned in Tolkien’s description, however, we presume that the Gate of Minas Tirith isn’t backed up by one—and it doesn’t appear in the Jackson films, only this hint of one.

Tolkien says that the Gate itself is made of “steel and iron” and seems to lack any features.  As you can see, the gate of Jackson’s Minas Tirith has figures upon it, like certain elaborate medieval cathedral doors.


Such figures are usually part of the outer structure of the door, being cast bronze, like the famous door leaves from the church of St Michael in Hildesheim, in Germany.


We don’t know who the figures are meant to be on Jackson’s gate, although it’s clear that some are warriors, being in armor, and there is one woman, at least, in the top row.  Founders of Gondor?

Whoever they were meant to be, even if they had been on Tolkien’s Gate, they would have been no defense against what happened next:

“The drums rolled and rattled.  With a vast rush Grond was hurled forward by huge hands.  It reached the Gate.  It swung.  A deep boom rumbled through the City like thunder running in the clouds.  But the doors of iron and posts of steel withstood the stroke.

Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone.”

We have seen earlier—and written earlier—about the use of some sort of explosive device both at Helm’s Deep and at the Rammas Echor, the outward defensive wall of the Pelennor, the far boundary of the fields outside Minas Tirith.  Here, however, something else is at work, magic of some sort.  Grond has had “spells of ruin” laid upon it and now:

“Thrice he cried.  Thrice the great ram boomed.  And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke.  As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder:  there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.”

All of which brings us back to our last posting—

“In rode the Lord of the Nazgul.  A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair.  In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one.”


What an ending—or, really, a beginning.  As we can’t better it, we’ll simply say thanks, as always, for reading and




As ever, dear readers, welcome.

We recently received an e-mail from our dear friend, Erik, which included a new Ted Nasmith illustration of Gandalf opposing the Witch King of Angmar at the ruined main gate of Minas Tirith (see The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”).


As Ted Nasmith is one of our favorite Tolkien artists, this would have been a treat in itself, but Erik included a quotation from the artist, which we present here since, so far, this is the only direct description we’ve seen of such an artist at work–

“I’m pleased to present a newly completed commission, ‘Gandalf Defies the Witch King’. A lot of thought went into this work, and it was more focused and difficult than some. How to capture the intensity of this scene, where the wizard is described as “silent and still”, so I’ve used perspective (seeing from a low angle), and the wizard’s staff alit to evoke his power and steadiness in the face of the onslaught by Sauron’s minions and their Captain.

The riven doors of Minas Tirith were another concern. A blow powerful enough to shatter iron was tricky to depict, and I spent a good deal of effort showing the imagined effect, and recognized that it in itself gave the viewer a perfect metaphor for the destruction and violence the Enemy was bringing to the war.

Pippin is not described in detail at this point, but was present. It is impressed upon us that anyone in the vicinity of the Witch King was seized with intense terror, but I chose that Pippin, a Guard of Minas Tirith in uniform, would need to be at least standing, if frightened, waiting to confront Gandalf with the news he brings so urgently about what was unfolding far above at Rath Dinan, with Faramir and his father Denethor. And yes, I included the rooster which heralds the dawn, and whose crowing is answered by the horns of Rohan.”

Throughout The Lord of the Rings, we see numerous Gandalfs:  the wise counselor of Bilbo and Frodo, in turn, the scholar of the Ring, the hardy traveler in the trip south, the mysterious figure in white seemingly returned from the dead, but a role which he assumes only a few times is that of which he really is, one of the Maiar, spirits sent from Valinor to Middle-earth to combat the influence of Sauron, himself one of them before his corruption by Melkor.  In this role, Gandalf speaks with an authority he rarely uses.  We see this the first time when the Fellowship is desperately trying to escape the Mines of Moria and they are being pursued by orcs and trolls—and something more:

“The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid.  Something was coming up behind them.  What it was could not be seen:  it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.

It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it.  Then with a rush it leaped across the fissure.  The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air.  Its streaming mane kindled, and blazed behind it.  In its right hand was a blade like a stabbing tongue of fire; in its left it held a whip of many thongs.

‘Ai! ai! wailed Legolas.  ‘A Balrog!  A Balrog is come!’ “ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”)

As Gandalf encourages the others to run—“Over the bridge!  Fly!…This is a foe beyond any of you.  I must hold the narrow way.  Fly!”—he himself stands in the middle of the bridge, “leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand Glamdring gleamed, cold and white.”

There are many depictions of this—and here are just a few.  First, by the Hildebrandts,


then a rough sketch by John Howe


and some preliminary work by Alan Lee



image5lee.jpgand finally two complete pictures by Ted Nasmith.


image7tn.jpgIt interests us to see what will be the focus of the illustration.  In JRRT’s complete description of the scene, we see the two figures juxtaposed when Gandalf challenges him:

“The Balrog made no answer  The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew  It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone:  grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.”

In the images we’ve selected, the focus is generally on the physical confrontation, but the first of the two Nasmiths shows a defiant Gandalf, mirroring his actual challenge:

“ ‘You cannot pass,’ he said.  The orcs stood still and a dead silence fell.  ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor.  You cannot pass.  The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun.  Go back to the Shadow!  You cannot pass.’ “

Here, for a moment, Gandalf sheds his pose as an elderly counselor, revealing that he is one of the Maiar, a servant of the divine figure Eru Illuvatar, who had placed that Secret Fire at the heart of Arda, or earth.  The Balrog is itself a Maia, but Gandalf then makes a strong contrast between them.  “Anor” is the sun, the flame of which burns away the shadows.  “Udun” presents two possibilities.  In the present, it’s a valley on the northwest side of Mordor, whose exit is the Black Gate, thus tying the Balrog to Sauron.  In the past, it’s a version of the name of a stronghold of the rebel Vala, Melkor, Utumno.  Thus, Gandalf is implying that, even though a Maia, the Balrog has less power as servant of the “Shadow”, that is, Sauron, who has lost his previous form and only appears as the searching eye or, at his fall, as “a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”) before collapsing and disappearing.

The second time Gandalf reveals himself, it is in the scene with which we began.

“And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke.  As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder; there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.

In rode the Lord of the Nazgul.  A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair.  In rode the Lord of the Nazgul, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.

All save one.  There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax.”

(The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”).

We’ve already seen Nasmith’s illustration, but here are several more.

The first we believe is by the Hildebrandts


and the second is by Angus McBride, mostly known as a military artist, but who also did a series of Tolkien illustrations.


The difference in focus is clear:  the Hildebrandts want us to see Gandalf facing the Witch King, with all of his servants behind and the gate barely there at all.  In the McBride, Gandalf is placed directly on top of the fragments of the gate, sharing the focus, his hand raised to block the King, who is framed in the arch of the gate.  In the Nasmith,


the gate has become much more developed and detailed, being a long passageway, into which the King has ridden, behind him Grond, the ram which has (perhaps along with the power of the King?) destroyed the gate.  The center of the picture is Gandalf and, in contrast to all of that detail—from the elaborate ram in the background to the fragments of the gate and even to the King’s horse’s breastband—he is the picture of simplicity:  Shadowfax has no tack (saddle, saddle cloth, halter, reins) and Gandalf himself is dressed simply in a long, white robe.

Against this are Gandalf’s words, not quite so revealing as those he spoke to the Balrog, but with the same force—here not in sun/flame imagery, but in prophecy:

“ ‘You cannot enter here,’ said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted.  ‘Go back to the abyss prepared for you!  Go back!  Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your master.  Go!’ ”

In return, the Witch King laughs and threatens, but the simple crowing of a cock—and then the sound of distant horns—both reassure us that dawn is coming and the Shadow to which Gandalf presents a contrast:  Witch King black to Gandalf white, will soon be swept away.

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



A Sword Upstairs

When I was young,
I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet Sing it with such airs
That one believed he had a sword upstairs…

WB Yeats “All Things Can Tempt Me” from Responsibilities and Other Poems (1916)

Welcome, dear readers, as always.  In this posting, we want to think out loud about swords—actually, about one in particular, as named by Bilbo Baggins in Chapter Eight of The Hobbit (“Flies and Spiders”), when having killed a giant spider, he says to it “I will give you a name…and I shall call you Sting.”  As it appears in The Hobbit, and then in The Lord of the Rings, we wondered whether we might see its use or abandonment as somehow symbolic of stages of growth in the lives of its owners, defining or redefining those who wield it.

From his childhood and beyond, Tolkien would have been familiar with swords, as they appear in virtually every fairy tale and heroic story he had ever read:  what heroic character would be without one?

There’s the sword “made by giants” which Beowulf pulls down from a wall in Grendel’s lair to put an end to Grendel’s mother.


There’s the sword which Arthur pulled out of a stone/anvil and the very pulling of which proved his right to rule England.


(See here TH White’s wonderful 1938 novel about the young Arthur, The Sword in the Stone,


which, adapted, would later form part of his longer volume The Once and Future King (1958).  There’s also a Disney animated feature based upon the book, but we’ve never found it so good as the book itself.)





And there’s the second Arthurian sword, Excalibur, which comes from a lake and must be returned at Arthur’s death.


(For another view of Arthur’s heritage and power, revealed by his sword, see this LINK, in which characters from another version of the Arthur story have something to say:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2c-X8HiBng )

Then there is the sword Gram, which appears in the story of Sigurd and the dragon, Fafnir, a story which Tolkien probably first encountered in Andrew Lang’s The Red Fairy Book (1890), which we know that he read as a child.


You can have your own copy of this book—from which Tolkien may also have unconsciously gotten the name “Moria”, as well—at this LINK:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/540/540-h/540-h.htm.

As a medievalist, Tolkien could hardly have escaped the story of Tristan and Isolde, in which Tristan wounds an Irish knight and is identified later in the story by the fact that a piece of Tristan’s blade has remained in the knight.


(There are a number of early versions of the Tristan and Isolde story, but a familiar one would be that in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), Volume I, Book VIII.  Here’s a LINK:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1251/1251-h/1251-h.htm)

Even into the age of gunpowder, there are still swords everywhere in literature—in Shakespeare (this is from Romeo and Juliet, c.1595)


and in 19th-century fiction, like The Three Musketeers (1844-45).


and Kidnapped (1886).


Although they were by then antiquated (and then prohibited by regulation from the battlefield), even British Army officers were still required to purchase them in the Great War—this is the model 1897 with which Tolkien in 1916


would have had to outfit himself


so that he would have looked like these officers.


Bilbo’s Sting was acquired in a much more casual way.  After the trolls had been tricked by Gandalf to expose themselves to sunlight and therefore were turned to stone,


Gandalf prodded the dwarves into locating the trolls’ hideout.  Inside, among other things, they found:

“…several swords of various makes, shapes, and sizes…Gandalf and Thorin each took one of these, and Bilbo took a knife in a leather sheath.  It would have made only a tiny pocket-knife for a troll, but it was as good as a short sword for the hobbit.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter Two, “Roast Mutton”)

There is more to this knife, as Bilbo discovers when, after being left behind in the hollows under the mountains, he draws it:

“It shone pale and dim before his eyes.  ‘So it is an elvish blade, too,’ he thought.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”)

As the story continues, Bilbo finds more uses for it—to keep Gollum at a distance


and to deal with the giant spiders of Mirkwood,


and it’s here that we see Bilbo at his boldest physically—which makes it an appropriate moment to give his little sword a fierce little name.

Bilbo has an heroic moment with his weapon in his struggle with the spiders, rescuing the dwarves, but it’s clear that, although heroes in literature traditionally have swords, swords do not make heroes.  In the Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo makes a disappearance, rather than an appearance, and we hear no more of Sting in The Hobbit until, in the last chapter of the book, we learn that, finally returning to Bag End, “His sword he hung over the mantelpiece.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Nineteen, “The Last Stage”)

This is not the end of the story of Sting, however, which will have a second—really third life, as it appears to have been made in Gondolin for the Goblin Wars many years before, since it is associated with Thorin’s (and Gandalf’s) sword, which “had killed hundreds of goblins in its time, when the fair elves of Gondolin hunted them in the hills or did battle before their walls.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Four, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)


(Gondolin by Kenneth Sofia)

This third life, in the hands of Frodo, parallels, to a degree, Bilbo’s experience, but the little sword’s ultimate fate is more complex than the act of simply being hung up at the story’s end.

It begins this life, however, with its previous owner, Bilbo, about to depart from the Shire after his notorious birthday party vanishing act:

“Then he put on quickly some old untidy garments, and fastened round his waist a worn leather belt  On it he hung a short sword in a battered black-leather scabbard.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter One, “A Long-Expected Party”)

Sting, then, will travel to Rivendell with Bilbo, but not remain there.  As the new Fellowship is about to leave Rivendell years later, Bilbo:

“…took from the box a small sword in an old shabby leathern scabbard.  Then he drew it, and its polished and well-tended blade glittered suddenly, cold and bright.  ‘This is Sting,’ he said, and thrust it with little effort deep into a wooden beam.  ‘Take it, if you like.  I shan’t want it again, I expect.’

Frodo accepted it gratefully.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 3, “The Ring Goes South”)

Although he has gladly accepted it, Frodo, like Bilbo before him, will not be a very active fighter with Sting.  He will stab a goblin in the foot (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 5, “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum”), but, otherwise, it will be Sam who will employ it, temporarily defeating and driving off Shelob with it, (The Two Towers, Book Four, Chapter 10, “The Choices of Master Samwise”) then wounding an orc named Snaga, who falls through an open trapdoor to his death. (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”)

Sam continues to carry Sting all the way to Mt Doom, but something has happened to Frodo during that long journey and it reveals itself in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the next-to-last chapter in the story.  Things in the Shire have not gone well in the year Frodo and his friends have been away.  It has been taken over by what Pippin calls “half-orcs and ruffians”, who owe allegiance to someone they call “Sharkey” and all seem bent on turning the place into a miniature fascist state.  And yet, when Pippin says that they’ll have to be fought, Frodo replies:

“Fight?…Well, I suppose it may come to that.  But remember:  there is to be no slaying of hobbits, not even if they have gone over to the other side.  Really gone over, I mean; not just obeying ruffians’ orders because they are frightened.  No hobbit has ever killed another on purpose in the Shire, and it is not to begin now.  And nobody is to be killed at all, if it can be helped.”  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)

Frodo persists in this approach to violence even after “Sharkey” turns out to be Saruman, who then attempts to knife Frodo.  Saruman is thrown to the ground and Sam, drawing his sword (perhaps Sting?  it never appears that he returns it to Frodo), seems to be about to stop him from trying again when Frodo says:

“No, Sam!…Do not kill him even now.  For he has not hurt me.  And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood.  He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against.  He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

We have seen a progression in the life of Sting, from its initial finding by the timid Bilbo, who then becomes the battler of spiders, even if later, involved in an actual battle, he chooses to be less a participant than an observer.  He passes the sword on to Frodo, who uses it aggressively only once, before it comes into the hands of Sam for the rest of the story.  And we can understand that, even offered it, Frodo will never touch it again.  Instead, he will be as Saruman then says:

“You have grown, Halfling…Yes, you have grown very much.  You are wise—” but Saruman goes on to add “and cruel” and this shows how little Saruman himself has grown.  “You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness in debt to your mercy.  I hate it and you!”

Saruman’s bitterness is not long-lasting, however, as, a moment later, his now-lackey, Grima Wormtongue, uses another blade to cut his throat, dying a moment later himself, pierced by several hobbit arrows.

From what we can tell, at this final stage, unless it’s in Sam’s hands—and even if it is–Sting has completely disappeared from the story.  Considering how Frodo has changed into the wiser, non-violent, person whom Saruman recognizes, we suppose that it’s not surprising that it has.  And, with Sauron—and his Ring– gone and the King reestablishing control over much of western Middle-earth, we expect that there will no longer be any need for such weapons.

Then again, Sauron has been defeated before and returned…

Thanks, as always, for reading and



One World, Two Wars

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.  In this posting, we are taking a break from fictions about wars among the stars to look at wars a little closer to home…

In 1871, there was a new power in western Europe:  the first German Empire.


Until 1871, this had been the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies, a series of small and large German states.  In the late summer and fall of 1870, this coalition had plowed through the armies of Napoleon III’s France, forcing Napoleon to abdicate and capturing Paris.


Such a near-sudden change in the world and especially the rapid defeat of what had been considered one of the major players in western European politics alarmed the rest of Europe:  what would this new German Empire do next?

A fictional answer came almost immediately in a serial first published in the same year in Blackwood’s Magazine.  Written by a British Army Engineer officer, Captain George Tomkyns Chesney (1830-1895)


and entitled “The Battle of Dorking”, it was so popular that it soon appeared in pamphlet form


and then as a novel.


Dorking is a town to the south of London


and, in the story, the site of the climactic battle in which Britain is defeated by those same Germans who had so quickly defeated France.


This never happened, of course, and Britain had suffered invasion jitters before—during the Napoleonic Wars, when the soldiers of Napoleon I sat at Boulogne and the emperor planned an attack


and at the beginning of the 1860s, when there was a fear that Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon I, might be about to try his own version of his uncle’s plan.


Somehow, however, the idea of a German invasion caught on and persisted, spawning a whole generation of such books, such as this, from 1897—


Not everyone believed in this, as this 1910 cartoon suggests—


(Once the Victorian train network was in place, people went crazy for seaside visits in summer, but, for the more modest, that craziness did not extend to exposing themselves to public view while dipping in the sea.  The invention to save people’s modesty was this, a “bathing-machine”, as they were called.


You climbed into this fully clothed at one end, changed into bathing attire (still ridiculously overmodest by modern standards), then, when attendants had rolled the device into the water, you stepped out into the water (presumably up to your neck, to continue to preserve your modesty), splashed about, then climbed back in, were rolled back onto the beach while drying off and redressing, then stepped out again with, at most, damp hair to show that you’d been in the sea at all.  The obvious joke here is that the German invaders would be landed somehow in the ocean already in bathing dress, then climb into bathing machines to disguise the attack they would then launch on the beach.  This cartoon is by W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944), who was popular then and beyond for the wackily improbable inventions he regularly contributed to the press.)


In that same year of 1897, however, one author took the idea of invasion in a somewhat different direction.  First appearing that year in serial form in Pearson’s Magazine,


this is the first book printing (1898) of HG Wells’ (1866-1946)


The War of the Worlds.

The idea that Mars might be able to support life—or had supported life—was popularized with advances in the development of telescopes, brought about in part by a mistranslation.  In 1877, the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910),


had observed on Mars what he believed to be canali.  What he meant by this was “channels”, but, when the word appeared in English, it was soon (mistakenly) understood to be “canals” and, once one has canals, the next step is canal builders,


which quickly leads to the idea of civilizations and soon there were all sorts of speculation—including detailed maps—of who—or what—might inhabit the Red Planet.


In his novel, Wells took this one step farther:  suppose those canals were drying up—what would a sophisticated civilization do?  One answer—and we can suppose that the rapid expansion of the still-new German empire, now attempting to become an international power,


along with what was now a quarter-century of invasion fiction (this is Louis Tracy’s 1896 novel on the subject—you can get your own copy at:  https://archive.org/details/finalwar00tracgoog/page/n13/mode/2up)


might have supplied some of his inspiration—was the invasion and conquest of a nearby planet, in this case, Earth.

Although Britain in 1897 was at its peak as a world manufacturing power, when confronted with the Martians and their array of machines,


heat rays,


and “black smoke” (clearly a forerunner of the Great War’s poison gases),


it appears that the Martians will be victorious—until they are suddenly defeated, not by armies and their weapons, but by our diseases, of which they have no knowledge and to which they have no immunity.


(This is an illustration by Henrique Correa from a 1906 French translation of the novel.)

This is hardly the end of invasion fiction, which will continue to be published and popular up to the Great War, one of the most popular works being William Le Queux’s (1864-1927) The Invasion of 1910 (1906).  (And here’s the LINK for your copy:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51905/51905-h/51905-h.htm)


If we consider that all of this may have started at least in part because of the success of the Prussians and their allies in 1870, it doesn’t surprise us that Wells’ story should gain a new level of, if not popularity, then at least notoriety, in 1938.

Throughout the later 1930s, Hitler’s Germany, brought back from its total defeat in the Great War, was beginning to stir again on the international stage.  On March, 12, 1938, its Eighth Army invaded Austria


and, on March 15, its Third Army invaded Czechoslovakia.


Although some of the Western allies had signed a kind of peace agreement with Hitler at the end of September, 1938, one can only believe that the uneasiness was still strong:  could Hitler be trusted when he seemed determined to acquire more and more of central Europe?

Then, on October 30, 1938, at 8PM (Eastern Standard Time), the CBS broadcast network put on a version of The War of the Worlds dramatized for radio by another Wells, the young actor/director, Orson Wells.


In his dramatization, Wells had updated the story to 1938, setting it around New York City, and turning it into an ordinary radio program interrupted by a series of bulletins about some sort of strange landings and subsequent events in nearby New Jersey.  Anyone who had tuned in at the opening knew, of course, that this was simply fiction.  Anyone who came in later—and seemingly many people did—had no idea and took it for the real thing:  an invasion, of the US, not by a European power, but by those Martians who had nearly conquered Britain in 1897—in fiction.  Needless to say, even in a pre-internet age, this turned into mad rumors and spread through the telephone network, frightening people across the entire country.


Calm returned fairly quickly, but it made us wonder:  with worldwide communication so much faster and easier in 2020, and in a world so prone to violence (alas!), what would happen now, should the fiction of HG Wells return in some new form to disturb us once more?

Thanks, as always, for reading and—barring a Martian invasion—




For your own copy of The Battle of Dorking, go to:  https://archive.org/details/battleofdorking00chesrich/page/n8/mode/2up

For a first-class website on such things as early invasion fiction, there’s:  http://www.theriddleofthesands.com/the-historical-background/

And the Hobbitry-in-Arms

As always, dear readers, welcome.

Just what does JRRT have in mind when he says “The Thain was the master of the Shire-moot, and the captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms”?

The “Thain” had appeared in the Shire as a title at a time of political upheaval, when the last king in the North, Arvedui, had been lost and the hobbits “chose a Thain to take the place of the King”.  (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, Section I, Part iii)  Tolkien derived the title from the Old English word thegn, a kind of lesser nobleman, perhaps—and this is a guess we’ve seen elsewhere–with the idea that the Thain would act as a kind of stand-in for the missing monarch.


The “shire-moot” is another Old English term for a kind of assembly held in a shire, a kind of province or county (from Old English scir).  “To muster” is “to gather together” and can be used either as an intransitive verb, meaning it doesn’t need a direct object:  one can say “the Shire mustered”; or as a transitive verb, one which takes a direct object, as in “they mustered all of the armed hobbits.”  And the adjective “armed” is appropriate since, commonly, the verb is used in a military sense.  This leads us to the last term, “Hobbitry-in-arms”.

In the period before the Norman conquest in 1066,


the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms could, by law, call out freemen (as opposed to slaves of various sorts) for a temporary army.  This was called the fyrd (say the y like the u in French tu).


The Normans brought the beginnings of feudalism to England.  Feudalism was all about control, with the armed, mounted man in charge, just below the king, the nobles in this chart being mostly armed, mounted men, as well,




but, to fill out his backup, that man could call on those who lived on his land, freemen and peasants/villeins, to serve for a time.


By the Elizabethan period, these part-timers were required to serve in towns and counties as militia.


This was a tradition carried on in their North American colonies, as well,


and, at the beginning of the American Revolution, these were the first men to face the soldiers sent by the government in London.


At the end of the 18th century, there were fears that the Revolutionary French planned to invade Britain, and many volunteer units were raised to flesh out the small number of professional army units available in the UK.  The cavalry regiments of these volunteers were called “yeomanry” and we imagine that Tolkien derived his “hobbitry” from those “yeomanry”.


For a time after 1815, when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, some units were retained and used as a kind of police force, mostly to put down the unrest which came from poor labor conditions and the general lack of political power for most people.  The most infamous act of suppression was the so-called “Peterloo” massacre of 1819, when some demonstrators were killed and many more wounded by a yeomanry unit which made a charge into a peaceful crowd.


Yeomanry units remained part of the volunteer establishment throughout the 19th century, gaining a new prominence with the raising of the Imperial Yeomanry in 1900,


part of the eventually very large armed forces sent by Britain to defeat the Boers


in the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Tolkien, who had been a cadet at King Edward’s School,


joined a yeomanry unit, King Edward’s Horse, when he reached Oxford in 1911,


before eventually being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, in 1915.


But what was the “Hobbitry-in-arms”?

And now we step into complete guess-work.

If it resembled the yeomanry, it was an organization of volunteers, raised to defend the Shire against invasion.  We know that something like this must once have existed, as we have several mentions of armed groups of hobbits, the archers who were sent off to aid the last king of the North Kingdom, Arvedui (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, Section I, Part iii), as well as those who fought at the Battle of Greenfields “In which Bandobras Took routed an invasion of Orcs.” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, I, “Concerning Hobbits”)

From the very beginning, British yeomanry units were uniformed and uniformly armed, often being patronized by upper class gentlemen, who then became the senior officers of the units.



The only uniformity we have any knowledge of in the Shire comes from this:

“The Shirriffs was the name that the Hobbit gave to their police, or the nearest equivalent that they possessed.  They had, of course, no uniforms (such things being quite unknown), only a feather in their caps…” (The Lord of the Rings, Prologue, Section 3)

As for weapons, as that same section of the Prologue says:

“So, though there was still some store of weapons in the Shire, these were used mostly as trophies, hanging above hearths or on walls, or gathered into the museum at Michel Delving.”

(We also remember that Bilbo had sent his mithril coat to “a museum”, which we presume was this one.  The Hobbit, Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”.)

With no uniformity of dress or arms, what’s left of our definition is the idea of volunteers raised to defend the Shire against invasion.  And, thus, as in “The Scouring of the Shire”, we see the hobbits in two battles defeating Sharkey’s “big men” , we imagine that this must have been what JRRT had in mind when he created the “Hobbitry-in-arms”:

“When Sam got back he found the whole village roused.  Already, apart from many younger lads, more than a hundred sturdy hobbits were assembled with axes, and heavy hammers, and long knives, and stout staves; and a few had hunting-bows.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”)


Thanks, as ever, for reading, and, of course,





Wait—isn’t that “Halloween”—or, as it used to be spelled “Hallow E’en”, rather old-fashioned English for “Holy Evening”?

And a second wait–isn’t this a little late–or a little early?  When we realized that this 2019 Halloween edition was never posted, we wondered where we should put it.  With a slip of the keyboard, we had posted the last part of our review of Star Wars IX for last Friday, rather than this Wednesday, so we took that as a nudge from the Force and are (temporarily) declaring an early Halloween, 2020 and posting this.  We hope you enjoyed last Halloween and this will add to your happy memories!

And yes, dear readers, “Holloween” is not the correct spelling, but it’s a common US (mis)pronunciation.  And an inspiring one, too, as we thought about it.

It’s a “Holy Evening” because it’s the night before November 1st, All Saints Day in the western Christian calendar.

But, for us, it’s also hollow—because, in the calendar of an older religion,


it marked the end of SAM, “summer”, and the beginning of GAM, “winter”—an emptying of one season before the beginning of the other.

If you lived in a Neolithic


to Iron Age farm


in the Celtic world, now–late October–meant crops were already gathered and now it was time to bring in the herds, especially of pigs (who were allowed to roam forests full of nut trees in the late summer),


choose a few to continue the herd, and slaughter the rest, smoking or salting the meat for the winter.


Because the summer was dying along with the herds, somehow the belief arose that this was a time when the wall between the living and the dead, and between this world and the Otherworld, was so thin that it could no longer act as a barrier.  The spirits of the dead might come to visit the living—



and the Aes Sidhe (AH-es SHEE-thyeh), the people of the Otherworld,


might leave their dwellings and enter our world through the portals of “fairy mounds” (actually tumuli—graves–from earlier peoples)


in later belief, or simply step through the open doorways of the time of the feast of SAMHAIN (SA-vuhn, in older pronunciation) in the older stories.

These are the people who, already miniaturized in Shakespeare’s time, became a staple of children’s book illustrations and sentimental paintings in the Victorian era.


In older times, however, they were seen as looking just like the humans they could move among,  powerful, even menacing, stealing children, enticing away girls and young men who, if they ever returned, would come back hundreds of years later, but think that they’d only been gone a night, as in the story of Oisin (OH-sheen) in the Land of Youth (the basis of WB Yeats’ early “The Wanderings of Oisin”, 1889).




Here, we see Oisin in one version of the story, having returned and turned into the ancient man he really is, talking with St Patrick.

The Scots ballad of “Tam Lin” shows us a young man rescued by a young woman from his ultimate fate:  abducted earlier, he is to be the victim in a sacrifice to Satan.


It being a time between worlds, it seems like a good moment for those who can see between times—which brings us to witches, who are very much part of Halloween.



Well, not this one.


Or these—somehow we can’t imagine witches having afternoon tea—unless there is eye of newt for dessert.

We mean those three witches who surprise Macbeth with a greeting, that, although he doesn’t know it, he is already Thane of Cawdor and, even more astonishing, he will be “king hereafter”.


In an earlier posting, we suggested that the witches are three in number because they might represent the Celtic figure of the Badb (BAHTH-V), who appears in three forms, including a crow,




and who was drawn to fighting and to battlefields, the very place where Macbeth and his comrade Banquo, have just been.


In early stories, she was the mortal enemy of Cuchulain, the great Irish hero, and caused his death by tricking him into undoing the magical spells which protected him.  In this famous sculpture (in the old General Post Office in Dublin), there she is, sitting on the dying Cuchulain’s shoulder.


As well as the Badb, we could see them as the ancient Greek Fates, the Moirai, each having a role in an image based upon likening life to the making of cloth:  Clotho, who spins a person’s life thread, Lachesis, who marks out the length, and Atropos, who cuts that thread.


And here we see a set of three magical figures, like Macbeth’s witches, all associated with time (we’ll come back to that), to which we would add another possibility, which takes us to a different form of Greek goddess, the Muses, inspirers of art.  They are three times three in number, and, when they first appear to the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod, to announce to him that he will be a poet,



it is said of them that they speak of “the things [now] being, the things about to be, and the things being before” (Hesiod, Theogony, line 38—our translation).  So, they are also associated with time.




To which we add a third possibility, the Norns, Germanic figures rather like the Moirai.



In the Voluspa, the first poem in the Icelandic Poetic Edda (10th century?), there are three of these, with names which appear to indicate, like the Muses, their link to time:  Urd (Old Norse “urdr”, “the past”), Verdandi (Old Norse “verdandi”, “the present”), and Skuld (Old Norse “skuld”, “it will be”).

Imagine, then, that Macbeth’s witches are three in number because, speaking as they do, they, like the Moirai, the Muses, and the Norns, all represent time.  And, like the Muses and Norns, the witches are the stages of time:  one witch is Macbeth’s past (he’s already the Thane of Glamis—said “GLAHMS”), a second is his present (he doesn’t know it yet, but the king, Duncan, has made him Thane of Cawdor to replace the rebel thane, just defeated), and the third is his future, that he will be king of Scotland.  (See Macbeth, Act I, Scene 3)  [Here’s the LINK for the First Folio, the first printing of the play, in 1623.]

Hallow E’en, then, is the perfect moment for witches to appear.  After sunset, we are in the hollow of the old Celtic year:  summer is done, winter will begin tomorrow, but now, being in neither, is a good time to think of what’s happened in the year past, where we are currently, and where we will be in the next year.  If three witches appear to us and hail us as future kings, however, we’ll try to remember another quotation from Shakespeare, from Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2 (again, from the First Folio), in which that word “hollow” is a warning:

For Heauens sake let vs sit vpon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the death of Kings:

How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,

Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,

Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,

All murther’d. For within the hollow Crowne

That rounds the mortall Temples of a King,

Keepes Death his Court, and there the Antique sits

Scoffing his State, and grinning at his Pompe,

Allowing him a breath, a little Scene,

To Monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with lookes,

Infusing him with selfe and vaine conceit,

As if this Flesh, which walls about our Life,

Were Brasse impregnable: and humor’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little Pinne

Bores through his Castle Walls, and farwell King.

And so perhaps it’s best if we stick to a witch we can melt with a pail of water before we begin to think too hard about her vision of our future.


Happy Hollow—Halloween.  The candy corn is on us






This was just too spooky—and inventive—not to add!


Three Times Three (4)

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

In this posting, we come to the end of what we’ve been calling our slow-motion review of Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker.


If you’ve been following along, you will know that we began with Stars Wars:  The Phantom Menace,


and have worked our way through all the films in the first trilogy


and then the second.


In this approach, our main idea was to try to trace what the original creator, George Lucas, intended to do in what, in time, became a duology of trilogies



but has now, with the release of IX, has become a trilogy of trilogies.  In a brief summary from the conclusion of our last posting, we would say that, by the end of VI:

“But that new hope, promised in the first episode of the trilogy, has come true, it seems.  The Emperor is gone, Anakin has been saved, and, with the general celebrations throughout the galaxy, the suggestion is, at least, that the Empire is gone, as well. “

We then asked the question:  “What more is there to do?”

Over time, George Lucas produced several answers.  One was a complete negative:  VI is the end.  Then there was the implication that there might be more films, but not with the characters we knew from the second trilogy.  And then there has been, through interviews over a number of years, the idea that, in a third trilogy, we would see a kind of back-story to the back-story, in which we would learn that the “midi-chlorines” of the first movie—that something in the bloodstream which seems to be involved with the Force and which the boy, Anakin, is so full of, as Qui-Gon reports to Yoda—are actually the agents for something else, a group of entities called the “Whills”.  The little bits about this scheme have, in our experience, received reactions from critics which have ranged from vague interest to sweaty condemnation and, when Lucas sold his company to the Walt Disney Corporation in 2012, the Whills simply sank from sight.

This brings us back to our question:  “What more is there to do?”

That Lucas himself once considered that six was the magic number would suggest that his answer might be, “Nothing.”  And yet, more recently, he has lamented the fact he didn’t get the chance to make that third set.  Someone else did, however, and this could lead to real difficulties with the approach.  As we hope that we have shown in our last two postings, Lucas had gradually developed several main ideas over the first six films:

  1. that there were two elements to a power which somehow stood behind the Galaxy, the Force and the Dark Side, and that, at least at the beginning of The Phantom Menace, this power was out of balance
  2. in the physical world, these powers were represented by the Jedi and the Sith
  3. at some point, the Dark Side had won, the Jedi were nearly exterminated, and the Galaxy was being ruled by a Sith
  4. the chief agent of that ruler, Darth Vader (originally Anakin Skywalker), was a Jedi who had been seduced to join the Sith
  5. unbeknownst to Vader, his children, fraternal twins, had survived their traumatic birth and had grown up on different worlds, both unaware of the other
  6. in time, however, they would join together and, with other characters, bring down the Sith and save their father from what we might imagine was a kind of eternal damnation (although this last is never directly stated)

From what little we know about what might have happened if Lucas had been in charge, the next step was something to do with the midi-chlorines and the Whills.  As Lucas produced six adventure features in which the Force always appeared, but only as part of the background, we don’t believe that the final trilogy would have been a series of animated lectures on the spiritual science behind the Galaxy.  Rather, we imagine that there would have been the usual adventure element, combined, as in the case of the Force, with the Whills.  At the moment, at least, we know nothing more.

Lucas was not in charge, however, of this third trilogy, so we are left to try to understand:

  1. did the creators continue the themes of the first two?
  2. or did they head in other directions and, if so, how might they be understood in relation to those first two trilogies?

This brings us to VII, The Force Awakens.


With that title, no matter what else happens, there is clearly some link with the first two trilogies.  And a great deal happens, the central focus of which is that a young girl, called Rey,


who looks to be a kind of scrap-metal scavenger on a desert planet called Jakku,


and who rescues a small droid


which turns out to be carrying secret information.

So far, this has a very familiar ring and we’re suddenly back in A New Hope 


There is a switch, however.  Instead of plans for the Death Star, the information is part of a map to where Luke Skywalker has taken refuge.  As we haven’t in the past postings, we don’t intend to do a plot summary here (but here’s a LINK to one, in case you need it:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars:_The_Force_Awakens).

We would briefly say that other characters participate, both new, like Poe Dameron and Finn,


and old friends, like Chewy and Han.


The opposition, something called “The First Order”, is led by a mysterious figure named “Snoke”,


who has for his enforcer a Darth Vader-wannabe, Kylo Ren,


who is actually Ben Solo, son of Leia and Han.

The main story then becomes a quest for Luke, the protagonists, with Rey in the lead, vs the antagonists, led by Kylo Ren.  In the process, Rey gradually discovers that she is strong with the Force, which will lead her, by the film’s end to meeting a hooded figure on a distant world.


And so we see certain elements which appear to be built upon the past:  Luke and the other characters from the second trilogy, a no one (or a seeming no one, as we’ll eventually see) with the Force, the Dark Side and its followers, all about 20 years after Return of the Jedi and the destruction of the Empire.

Nothing has really been resolved in VII, although this new version of the Empire has suffered a set-back when its new Death Star—now an entire planet—has been blown up, and so VIII


begins with another echo from past, this time from The Empire Strikes Back:  the evacuation of a rebel base.  In this case, however, there is no ground assault and the rebels appear to have escaped, but, with a tracking device involved, they are pursued and a driving element of the plot is the rebels’ dwindling fuel supply.  (Again, if you need a plot summary, here’s a LINK:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars:_The_Last_Jedi)

Meanwhile, Rey’s hooded figure is, indeed, Luke, but a Luke who rejects anything to do with the Jedi and refuses to train her, which presents us with another echo, but this time a mirror opposite:  Luke and Yoda.


When he reluctantly relents, she has moments of contact with Kylo Ren, who explains to her why Luke has gone into self-exile—at least, his version of events.  In time, he captures her and brings her to Snoke, who attempts to turn her to the Dark Side, but dies instead, killed by Ren, who then declares himself Snoke’s replacement—and here we see another opposite:  Darth Vader killed the Emperor, but, instead of claiming Palpatine’s power for himself, dies, becoming Anakin Skywalker once more.

By the film’s end, the rebels have escaped once more, Kylo Ren distracted in a duel with what is rather like the astral projection of Luke (who dies peacefully at its end), and the scene is set for a final confrontation of Ren vs Rey (who believes that Ren can be redeemed—and, once more there is an echo, this time of Luke and Vader).

So far, then, what we’ve seen in this third trilogy has continued the story into the next generation with Kylo/Ben and Rey and the Force and with a number of echoes and mirror moments from the previous trilogy.  The first trilogy ended with disaster for the protagonists, the Emperor having won and the Jedi nearly destroyed.  The conclusion of the second trilogy showed us the opposite:  the Emperor gone and the Jedi—at least one Jedi—restored.  How will this third trilogy—the ultimate part of the story—conclude?


With all of the previous films, we’ve had the advantage of owning dvds and therefore seeing them all a number of times.  We’ve only seen The Rise of Skywalker once, several weeks ago, in a movie theatre, so we’re going mostly on a first impression and a summary (LINK:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Wars:_The_Rise_of_Skywalker).

With that in mind, using VII and VIII, we would say that the writers/directors have, as Lucas did when he finished the first trilogy, set up the following problems:

  1. is Rey now to become a Jedi?
  2. if so, should we presume that she will confront Ren?
  3. and, that being so, is Rey the ultimate “chosen one”, come to bring “balance to the Force” at long last?

All of the above, if we replaced the names with those from the second trilogy, could be questions we might have asked after The Empire Strikes Back:  1. Luke; 2. Vader; 3. Luke.  As long-time watchers of the series, we could take this in at least two directions:  a. not really knowing what to do, the writers have fallen back upon the very successful second trilogy; or, b. because they are trying to give the third trilogy the kind of closure such an elaborate series requires, they draw upon the strength of the narrative of the second trilogy as a basis, but then add to it—as perhaps we shall see.

As The Force Awakens had, as a major theme, the search for Luke, so this final film has its own search, for the revived Emperor Palpatine, who lets Kylo Ren know that he’s been behind everything, from Snope to the drawing of Ren to the Dark Side.  Recognizing that Rey is the only real opposition, he orders Ren to remove her.  In the process of searching for her, he makes the same kind of contact we had seen in the second film, but this time he reveals that she is, in fact, the Emperor’s granddaughter.  There is no explanation of who her parents were and only a flash of a scene in which they were murdered, so we know no more than what Ren tells Rey at the moment.  We also know that there have been some negative critical reactions to this, but we have tried to remain neutral, under the idea that, if Rey is really the “chosen one”, then her ancestry could be an important and powerful part of the rebalance of the Force.

The confrontation between Rey and Ren takes place


and Rey, whose experience with the Force has grown and grown since her original encounter with Ren in the first film of the trilogy, actually kills him—but then, in something we haven’t seen before (but Palpatine had once implied something about it to Anakin as a  power of the Dark Side, in fact), she brings him back.  Instead of then continuing with the search for Palpatine, however, she returns to the island where she had found Luke at the end of The Force Awakens.  There, Luke’s spirit sends her off once more on her quest and, in the last big scene of the film, she meets her grandfather, who tells her that she must kill him in order to inherit his power.  She refuses and, joined by the now-reformed Ren, is nearly drained of her life force by the increasingly-powerful Emperor.  Ren brings her back, however, in the mirror of the previous scene in which she does so for him, and finally she defeats and destroys her grandfather, only to kiss Ren as he dies from the effort to revive her (and we might wonder why she doesn’t try bringing him back again, but that might turn the serious to the silly).

We’ve given a bit more summary here than we would like, but we’re trying to make this as clear to ourselves as we can, seeking to understand just what the creators were attempting to do in this final episode.

In answer to our earlier questions:

  1. Rey has clearly become a Jedi
  2. she has not only confronted Ren, but, through her actions, actually rescued him from the Dark Side
  3. is she the ultimate “chosen one”? that, we can’t answer. It’s true that she appears to be the Last Jedi, of the second film’s title and that she has great powers and even that she’s defeated and destroyed the Emperor at last.  As Yoda would say, “Unclear!”,  but, in the final short scene of the film, we are left with what is perhaps a clue.

Rey is seen returning to Tatooine, where she reverently buries not a person (Luke and Leia have disappeared into the Force, after all), but two light sabers, Luke’s and Leia’s.  Then, when asked by an old woman who’s been watching her, for her name, she says “Rey”, but then adds “Skywalker”, thus explaining the title of the film, but also suggesting a kind of continuity:  granddaughter of the Sith, but taught by the final Jedi, Luke, and, for a little while, Leia, and now on the rise…


And, with that, the film ends and we end this extended review.  We hope that you found it interesting and we’d be glad for any and all comments and questions.

In our next posting, we’re returning to JRRT—but more about that next time.  In the meantime, thanks again for reading and




Has anyone else noticed a passing resemblance between Kylo Ren and a major figure from another epic?


Three Times Three (3)

Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

We had been progressing through our big review of the final Star Wars film, The Rise of Skywalker,


when we paused to post a brief elegy for one of our heroes, Christopher Tolkien,


who died, age 95, earlier in January.

We continue now with the third part of our review.

We began with the idea of literary trilogies, like The Lord of the Rings,


although, as we know, it wasn’t conceived as such, it has come to be considered so.

In such groupings, the pattern tends to be that a situation is set up in the first, is developed in the second, and is resolved in the third, in a pattern familiar throughout the western world, from wishes to fairy tales.

The first Star Wars trilogy–The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith—


has brought us several situations, in fact:

  1. a galaxy in turmoil—revolt which becomes civil war


  1. a turmoil secretly created by a figure who originally posed as a defender of order, Senator Palpatine, who, in reality, is the evil Sith, Dark Sidious,


  1. and who has done this not only to achieve power, but to destroy the opposite of the Sith, the Jedi.


In the process, he has turned what some of the Jedi hoped was their savior, who was to bring “balance to the Force” (the mystic power which forms the universe), Anakin Skywalker, into his monstrous apprentice, Darth Vader.



So, we begin the second trilogy, the original trilogy and, in some people’s opinion, the most successful.


For ourselves, as we’ve already expressed, we are very reluctant to be judgmental.  Huge amounts of creativity and just plain hard work went into the whole process, and, because it’s meant to be seen as a series of nine films, we will continue to try to understand it as just that:  a trilogy of trilogies.

So here we are, at the opening of the second trilogy, with IV, tantalizingly subtitled, A New Hope.


The third of the first trilogy, The Revenge of the Sith,


ended with what seemed like the total success of the new galactic emperor, Darth Sidious.


He was now sole ruler (although the Senate still seemed to exist for the moment), had almost totally destroyed the Jedi, and had turned the hope for balance into his enforcer.


At the same time, that enforcer’s children have survived, unbeknownst to him, or the emperor, growing up to be, on the one hand, a princess, Leia,


and, on the other, Luke, a farmhand.


Their paths cross when Leia, a spy for the rebellion against the Empire, hides a message in a droid, R2D2,


and, while she is captured, the droid escapes to the home planet of the farmhand, Tatooine, along with another droid, C3PO.


Luke is intrigued by the message (cunningly broadcast by R2D2)


and the story sets off on a rescue mission, picking up, along the way, one of the few surviving Jedi, Obi-wan Kenobi,


as well as two smugglers, Han Solo and his friend, Chewbacca.


Obi-wan reveals that Luke is, in reality, the son of an old friend, a Jedi, who was “murdered” by his apprentice, and gives Luke his father’s light saber.  And, at that moment, we see the beginning of the prophecy suggested in the title:  if Leia, the princess and spy, and Luke, the farmhand and possible Jedi, can be brought together, they may then become the basis of a turn in the plot and the emperor and his minion, Darth Vader, may not be so secure as they believe.

The princess is rescued, of course, from the technological threat to the galaxy, the Death Star,


and Luke sees Darth Vader for the first time, apparently striking down Obi-wan.


The story does not, however, now bring Luke and Leia into direct confrontation with Darth Sidious and Darth Vader.  Instead, we see Luke, feeling the effects of the Force, become the agent of the destruction of the Death Star.


And so we see, as well, that that subtitle may be true.

In the second film of this trilogy, however, The Empire Strikes Back,


although the Emperor’s plans have been pushed back, the rebellion has not yet succeeded.  Instead, its forces, hunted by imperial fleet elements, have fled to a tiny planet on the edge of the galaxy, in the area called the Outer Rim.  Their hiding place is discovered, however, and, in a desperate rearguard action, they’re forced to flee.


As they do so, Luke doesn’t join the retreat, but, instead, heads off to Dagobah, where he is to be trained as a Jedi by Yoda, one of the tiny number of surviving Jedi.


This would seem to continue the pattern of the previous film:  Luke will be the “new hope” which will successfully confront the Empire.  Then, in mid-training, Luke has a vision of his friends in trouble on another planet, Bespin, and he leaves Yoda to rescue them.  It’s a near-disaster, as, although with the aid of a new character, Lando,


some of his friends are rescued, Han is captured


to be sent off to his one-time employer, Jabba the Hutt,


and Luke is faced with Darth Vader, who not only defeats him in a duel, cutting off his right hand, but reveals that he is Luke’s actual father.


And so, the promising build of the first film has come nearly crashing down at the end of the second.  This is a trilogy, however, so that “new hope” is still there.  After all, although Han is a prisoner, Luke has been rescued and given a bionic hand, and, in the third film, The Return of the Jedi,


we see that new hope once more as Luke works out the retrieval not only of Han, but of all his friends, as well as the destruction of Jabba the Hutt.


When Luke attempts to return to Yoda to complete his training, however, he finds a dying teacher


and, soon, a resurgent Death Star.


The conclusion of this trilogy isn’t so predictable as its destruction and the eventual death of Darth Vader, however.  Luke, unlike his father, doesn’t suffer from the same flaws of fear and anger.  Instead, he confronts his father in a scene in which, ultimately, his insistence that there is still good in him comes true and Darth Vader turns back into Anakin Skywalker while destroying the Emperor, dying in the process.


But that new hope, promised in the first episode of the trilogy, has come true, it seems.  The Emperor is gone, Anakin has been saved, and, with the general celebrations throughout the galaxy, the suggestion is, at least, that the Empire is gone as well.

All of that being the case, what is there to do in the third trilogy?

As always, thanks for reading and




And that second Death Star was destroyed, of course, but by a secondary character.