Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

“It’s an ill wind that bears nobody any good” sounds like it belongs right up there with “A third time pays for all” and other proverbs Bilbo quotes his father as saying in The Hobbit and, in my case, this one was true.  Covid-19 finally did away with my trypanophobia (fear of needles, based upon two Greek words, the obvious phobia, “fear” and the very graphic verb, tripao/tripo, “to puncture”!).

(how my vivid and terrified childhood imagination saw such things)

I begin my class on monsters asking my students about their fears and I get the usual, everything from heights (acrophobia)

to fear of enclosed places (claustrophobia)

to a fear of clowns (coulrophobia—but a debated term—perhaps bozophobia would be better?)

and I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone suffered from this one, as I find clowns disturbing, too.  Perhaps it’s the often sad makeup but the attempt to be comic? Or the suggested distortion of facial features, like exaggerated mouths?

Also among the items on the list was arachnophobia:  the fear of spiders.

(by herrerabrandon60)

I never think of this particular phobia without remembering a song by Michael Flanders (1922-1975) and Donald Swann (1923-1994) on the subject:

“I have fought a Grizzly Bear,
Tracked a Cobra to its lair,
Killed a Crocodile who dared to cross my path,
But the thing I really dread
When I’ve just got out of bed
Is to find that there’s a Spider in the bath.

I’ve no fear of Wasps or Bees,
Mosquitoes only tease,
I rather like a Cricket on the hearth,
But my blood runs cold to meet
In pyjamas and bare feet,
With a great big hairy spider in the bath.

I have faced a charging Bull in Barcelona,
I have dragged a mountain Lioness from her cub,
I’ve restored a mad Gorilla to its owner,
But I don’t dare face that tub …

What a frightful looking beast –
Half an inch across at least –
It would frighten even Superman or Garth!
There’s contempt it can’t disguise,
In the little beady eyes,
Of the Spider sitting glowering in the bath.

It ignores my every lunge
With the backbrush and the sponge;
I have bombed it with ‘A present from Penarth’.
It just rolls into a ball,
Doesn’t seem to mind at all,
And simply goes on squatting in the bath.

For hours we have been locked in endless struggle,
I have lured it to the deep end by the drain.
At last I think I’ve washed it down the plughole,
But here it comes a-crawling up the chain!

Now it’s time for me to shave,
Though my nerves will not behave,
And there’s bound to be a fearful aftermath.
So before I cut my throat,
I shall leave this final note;
Driven to it – by the Spider in the bath!”

(Two glosses:

1. “Garth” a British superhero character, first appearing in The Daily Mirror in 1943—see:

2. “a present from Penarth” a Victorian seaside resort in southern Wales, so this would suggest a souvenir with an inscription—there is a very detailed account of the town here:

You can hear Flanders and Swann singing it here: )

Arachnophobia gets its name from Arachne, a character from classical mythology, whose history is wonderfully described in Ovid’s (43BC-17/18AD) Metamorphoses, Book 6, Lines 1-145, where we see the human weaver who makes the huge mistake of claiming that her brilliant work is all her own and challenging the goddess Minerva, who clearly inspired her, being the patron of weaving, to do any better.  Minerva first appears as an elderly woman to warn her to remember who her patron is, but, upon receiving a boastful reply, appears as herself and the two settle down to a contest, Minerva depicting scenes of impious humans, Arachne scenes of male gods seducing human females.  At the end, Minerva can only admire the work(wo)manship, but is also so angry that she tears Arachne’s weaving apart and smacks her three times on the head with her shuttle.

Arachne is so humiliated that she attempts to hang herself, but Minerva saves her by turning her into a spider, with legs and abdomen

…de quo tamen illa remittit

Stamen et antiquas aranea telas.

“…from which that one, a spider, still sends out and back

Thread and [her] traditional weavings/webs.” (Book 6, Lines 144-145—if you’d like to read the whole story, or even the whole of the Metamorphoses, start here: )

For all of Minerva’s anger and Arachne’s fate, this conclusion seems so gently domestic that it might be hard to see such as threatening—unless you have very large ones,

(By johntylerchristopher)

who wait in the trees to drop down and seize passing dwarves,

(a particularly disturbing illustration by Ted Nasmith)

or are even larger ones who attack hobbits.

(by the Hildebrandts)

So, with such creatures in two of his major works, did their creator suffer from arachnophobia?  Let him tell us:

“…and I knew that the way was guarded by a Spider.  And if that has anything to do with my being stung by a tarantula when a small child, people are welcome to the notion (supposing the improbable, that any one is interested).  I can only say that I remember nothing about it, should not know if I had not been told; and I do not dislike spiders particularly, and have no urge to kill them.  I usually rescue those whom I find in the bath!”  (to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 217)

But, as Dante (1265-1321)

mentions Arachne twice in the Commedia, once in L’Inferno XVII(16-18) and then in Purgatorio XII (43-45), I wonder how he felt about spiders?

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Be kind to things which fall into your tub,

And remember that, as always, there’s




It seems that the earliest recorded version of the proverb with which I began dates to John Heywood’s (1497—died post 1578) A Dialogue of the Effectual Proverbs in the English Tongue Concerning Marriage (1546)—you can find it on page 93 of this edition:  and this is a fun book just to browse through, with proverbs of all sorts done in a long coupleted form.  Bilbo’s father would have been pleased.

Vivant Reges—et Reginae

Welcome, as always, dear readers.

Last Saturday morning, I was up very early to view pageantry.

If I had written that c.1400AD, you would have understood it to mean one of the plays in a cycle of medieval mystery plays,

like the “Towneley Cycle”, of which this is a manuscript page, c.1500.

(This is from the collections of the Huntingdon Library, one of the many great treasures of the LA area. To see more, go to:  )

And certainly what I was up to see had elements both of drama and religion, besides being some centuries older than that collection of ancient plays.

The main part of the ceremonies took place in a religious building, Westminster Abbey,

along with a certain amount of parading back and forth

and some final waving from Buckingham Palace at the end.

I have to say at the outset that I am neither monarchist nor anti-monarchist.  As I come from a country with a somewhat different governmental system (although directly descended from the British one), I can only be an interested—a very interested—spectator, taking pleasure in seeing such a grand spectacle:  this is a bright bit of ancient history reconstituted in a modern context and it can only help those of us interested in the drama of the past to better recreate in our own minds what that past might have been like, even if only in a small way. 

It therefore also reminded me of an earlier ceremony, not quite so religious as this, but definitely ancient—

“…A hush fell upon all as out from the host stepped the Dunedain in silver and grey; and before them came walking slow the Lord Aragorn.  He was clad in black mail girt with silver, and he wore a long mantle of pure white clasped at the throat with a great jewel of green that shone from afar; but his head was bare save for a star upon his forehead bound by a slender fillet of silver.  With him were Eomer of Rohan, and the Prince Imrahil, and Gandalf robed all in white, and four small figures that many men marvelled to see…

Then Frodo came forward and took the crown from Faramir and bore it to Gandalf; and Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf set the White Crown upon his head, and said:

‘Now come the days of the King, and may they be blessed while the thrones of the Valar endure!’

But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time.  Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.  And then Faramir cried:

‘Behold the King!’ “  (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 5, “The Steward and the King”)

Tolkien was born in the late years of Queen Victoria (1819-1901)

and therefore could only have heard or read about her coronation in 1838.

In his own lifetime, however, he could have witnessed (or at least read about—and even seen images of) the coronations of Edward VII (1902)

George V (1911)

Edward VIII (1937—which never happened, as he abdicated before the crowning)

George VI (1937)

and Elizabeth II (1953)

In the case of Elizabeth II, he could even have watched her crowned on television and seen color photographs of everything in magazines of the period.

So, as I followed the elaborate ceremony which finally confirmed that Prince Charles was now King Charles III, I kept wondering, when Tolkien heard the Archbishop of Canterbury declare, “God save the King/Queen!”, was he also hearing Faramir shout out, “Behold the King!”?

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Imagine what Minas Tirith looked like, even after the brutal attack by Sauron, when Aragorn was crowned and the King returned,

And remember that, as always, there’s



Name of the Game, Game of the Name

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Songs always stick in my mind and sometimes pop up to ambush me.  Recently, I had this appear from nowhere:

“The name game. Shirley!

Shirley, Shirley

Bo-ber-ley, bo-na-na fanna,

Fo-fer-ley, fee fi mo-mer-ley, Shirley!


Lincoln, Lincoln

bo-bin-coln, bo-na-na fanna,

fo-fin-coln, fee fi mo-min-coln, Lincoln!”

It has a tune—really a chant—and you can hear the original here:

This is by Shirley Ellis (1929-2005),

with her collaborator, Lincoln Chase (1926-1980),

and became a hit when recorded by Ellis.  It was said to be based, at least in part, on a game which Ellis had played as a child and it sounds to me like it might have been for a game which uses rhythm and rhyme, as in skipping rope–

“Teddy bear, teddy bear: turn around.              (* Jumper mimes actions *)
Teddy bear, teddy bear: touch the ground.
Teddy bear, teddy bear: tie your shoes.    (* Sometimes 'Ladybug, ladybug' *)
Teddy bear, teddy bear: read the news.
Teddy bear, teddy bear: go upstairs.
Teddy bear, teddy bear: say your prayers.
Teddy bear, teddy bear: turn out the lights.
Teddy bear, teddy bear: say good night.
G-O-O-D-N-I-G-H-T.                                 (* Spell on each jump *)”
(This illustration is from Der kleine Kinderfreund—“The Little Children’s Friend”—an children’s book from 1860.   There are many illustrations to see and—a gentle warning—the text appears to be just jampacked with morals—for instance, how little Ernestine, in a moment of anger, broke her dolls and lived to regret it, so, if you don’t want to be taught behavior lessons, stick to the pictures!  You can see the whole book with its very interesting illustrations here:  The skip-rope/jump-rope rhyme is from  the wonderful Mudcat Café, a site for the preservation of traditional music: )
As the song was all about playing with names, it brought the names of characters in the stories I taught this semester back, with the differences to be seen in the different texts
 The most recent book, in relative time as well as in the span of the semester, has been Dracula, set in England in 1897, where the protagonists have names like “Arthur Holmwood” and “John Seward”, indicating that, not only does everyone have a personal name, but that everyone has a family name, as well.  These can be derived from a number of different sources-- -for example, upon a place—“Holmwood” looks to combine “holm”, a raised piece of land in marshy ground/an island, and “wood”, a grove of trees—and Seward (there’s discussion about this) which may be from an occupation, like all of those people named “Smith”, only Seward may be from Old English su, “pig” and hierde, “herder”.  
 The only character without a family name is the title character, Dracula, supposed to be modeled upon an actual historical person, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia (now part of Romania).  If he is, then we might see that “Dracula” as a family inheritance, as his father was Vlad II Dracula, where I would guess that that second name was originally a grim diminutive, from the root drag-, “serpent/dragon” and the diminutive ending –ula, “little”, so “Little Dragon/Little Serpent”, more like a nickname than a family name. 
 (For an extremely informative article about diminutives in many languages, see:   We might also notice here that Vlad has another grim nickname, tepes (pronounced “TSAY-paysh”), “impaler” from his well-known propensity for treating captives and Ottoman ambassadors in a less than hospitable way.) 
 (Angus Mcbride)
Our earlier works included Beowulf, c.500-1000AD, in which characters had personal names but, for further identification, would be linked to their fathers, as Beowulf is the son of Ecgtheow (EDGE-thay-oh), giving us patronymics (literally “about/concerning the father’s name”). This would change with the generations, of course, and had Beowulf had sons, they would have been identified as “Beowulfson”, although, in formal situations, one might stretch back another generation, so that we might see “Aelfric the son of Beowulf the son of Ecgtheow”.
 Even in the smallest communities, it’s easy to see how the addition of last names begins:  have two or more people in a village with the same first name, like William, and, when referring to one of them in conversation, the speaker might add after “William”, “Richard’s son” just to keep the listener clear.  As villages grew, we may imagine that occupations could be employed to distinguish this William from other Williams, as he might be the owner of the local grain-processor, and could then be “William (the) Miller” vs, say “William the Smith”.  (You can see how this becomes complicated, when you come across a name like “Smithson”, which includes an occupation become part of a name which is then used in a patronymic!)
 As characters in Dracula have last names based upon things like places and occupations, we can see the same for patronymics, in which the use has hardened in modern western Germanic names, producing permanent last names like Madsen (Matthewson) in Danish, and Johnson, in English, just as, we have Mac- and Mc- in Scots and Irish names and Ap- in Welsh (which can lose that A- in names like P-rice or P-richard, once Ap-Rhys and Ap-Richard), where those initial syllable indicates “son of”). 
 Going back one step further in our reading, we’d find that patronymics are also the rule for the Odyssey (difficult to date—our text probably dates from the 3rd to 2nd BC, but story elements are clearly much older), where Odysseus is identified as “son of Laertes”, just as Agamemnon is the “son of Atreus”, while Telemachos, the offspring of Odysseus, would be known as “son of Odysseus”.  There is another significance to this, as well, and it’s all about kleos, a word which, appropriately enough, comes from a verb meaning “to call by name”.   Kleos means “reputation”, sort of, but it’s broader than that, as it’s almost a kind of physical possession, and definitely something which can be passed down in families.  In a warrior culture, it includes all of the warrior’s achievements:   plunder, enemy towns captured, monsters slain, famous ancestors, and certainly famous or at least formidable opponents beaten.  This last almost ruins Odysseus’ trip home as kleos makes him shout to the blinded Cyclops his name and address, which gives the monster a target at which to aim,
as well the identity of the person who harmed him, which he then uses in a prayer to his father, Poseidon, who thereafter causes no end of sea-going troubles for Odysseus.
And finally we come to The Hobbit (date not available on our time-line—but “medieval-ish” in general).  The dwarves use patronymics—Thorin, son of Thrain, son of Thror (along with a nickname, “Oakenshield”),
(the Hildebrandts)
 but some characters, like the goblins and the spiders, have no names in the story at all.
(Alan Lee)
 Others, like the trolls—or the dragon--have only first names, like “Bill” or “Smaug”
(both by Tolkien)
 and then there’s “Gollum”.
(Inger Edelfeldt)
 Gollum, as we know, is a nickname, but, as we learn from The Lord of the Rings, Gollum has another name, “Smeagol”—and this is interesting because Smeagol is, in fact, a Stoor, a kind of proto-hobbit, but the hobbits of the Shire, as we learn from the few names we see in The Hobbit, and the many more in The Lord of the Rings, all have family names, as well as personal names—just think of the brief list given by Bilbo at his birthday party—
 “My dear Bagginses and Boffins…and my dear Tooks and Brandybucks, and Grubbs, and Chubbs, and Burrowses, and Hornblowers, and Bolgers, Bracegirdles, Goodbodies, Brockhouses and Proudfoots.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-expected Party”)
 To which we could immediately add “Gamgees, Cottons, and Maggots” without digging any deeper.  Does the fact that Gollum/Smeagol has no last name suggest something about just how old he is, coming from a time before hobbits had grown to such numbers that they require more complex identification and therefore acquired family names?  (If we compare when Gollum first got the Ring—TA2460s with when Marcho and Blanco crossed the Baranduin—TA1601—perhaps we should imagine that those left behind when the first settlers crossed the Misty Mountains were few and never developed the same levels of society which their cousins/descendants did in the Shire?) 
 If we had to construct a chronology from all of this, perhaps we might say that naming began with single (first) names, then, as communities expanded, a further identifying mark was added—maybe a nickname, like “Oakenshield”—or a patronymic, then the name of a place from which you came (think of all of those “de/di and “von/van” prepositions in the Romance languages and German/Dutch), or occupation—“Hornblower”--and we shouldn’t leave out a physical attribute, as in “Proudfoot” (which might have begun as a nickname—but stuck).  
 But I began with the “Name Game”, so I’ll give a try to a verse from the Shire to end this posting.  The “Name Game” song includes a verse which explains how to play--
“Come on ev'rybody, I say now  let's play a game

I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name

The first letter of the name

I treat it like it wasn’t there

But a “B” or an “F”  or an “M” will appear

And then I say “Bo” add a “B” then I say the name

Then “Bo-na-na fanna” and “fo”

And then I say the name again with an “”f” very plain

Then  “fee fi” and a “mo”

And then I say the name again with an “M” this time

And there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme.”



Bilbo, Bilbo, bo-bil-bo,

Bo-nan-na fanna, fo-bil-bo,

Fee fi mo-bil-bo, Bilbo!

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Think about what the Name Game would do with your name,

And remember that, as always, there’s




I apologize for the weird type face shift. Two possibilities why this happened:

  1. it’s spring and my laptop has decided to go larking
  2. something happened when I copied “Teddy Bear” into the posting

For myself, I imagine that it’s #1.


As ever, dear readers, welcome.

I had just finished lunch last week when I was stopped by a student worker who asked if I minded answering a question.  As I love student questions, I said, “Absolutely!” and he said, “What was that book you were reading?”

It was this book—

I had the sense that he was puzzled because, when we say “Goth” today, I imagine that most of us probably think this first—

But there’s a long, complicated history behind this, and the clothing may provide an immediate clue—

if we see this as a direct descendant not only of later Victorian clothing, but of a specific kind—mourning dress—

like the sort of thing Queen Victoria wore for the rest of her life,

after the death of Prince Albert, in 1861.

(There is another Victorian tradition, associated with Victorian ladies’ undergarments, here, as well, but we will allow others to pursue that.  If you’d like to know more on the subject of Goth culture, there’s a long, detailed article at:  )

This, in turn, is linked to what is often called “Gothic horror” fiction—familiar to us from stories like Dracula (1897),

with its vampire villain

(by Andrew Baker—one of the few illustrations of Dracula which actually follows the description in the novel)

and especially its opening, full of foreboding as its first protagonist, Jonathan Harker, comes to the brooding, semi-ruined castle of Dracula in the wilds of the Carpathian mountains.

(This is Bran castle in Romania, which has been suggested as a model for Dracula’s stronghold.)

But why “Gothic” horror?

And answer to this may lie in Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797)

(with a bit of his own “gothique” castle, Strawberry Hill, in the background.)

 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto, the subtitle of the 1765 edition bearing the words “A Gothic Story”.

It’s clear that, when Walpole chose to add those words as a subtitle to the second edition, he was aware that the idea of “gothic” stories already existed, as the reviewer in The Monthly Review for February, 1765, says of the book:

“Those who can digest the absurdities of Gothic fiction, and bear with the machinery of ghosts and goblins, may hope, at least, for considerable entertainment from the performance before us…”  (The Monthly Review, February, 1765, page 97—you can read it here: )

This tale, which includes murders, haunting, and kidnapping, among other events, all set around an ancient castle in a remote area of southeastern Italy, however, became such a sensation in its own time that it’s usually cited as the ancestor of many such stories to come. 

Although this may link “Gothic” with fiction, we are then left with the question:  why the link?

In his preface to the Second Edition, Walpole has this to say about his work:

“It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of Romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if in the latter species Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old Romances. The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.

The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions.”

That is to say, take a less-than-believable setting from “the ancient”—that is, medieval, world of story-telling, but place within it people from “the modern” with their current reactions.  In fact, the actual story is, to me, as unbelievable as any “ancient” romance, but Walpole’s intent can easily be seen in later novels, Dracula, in fact, being a perfect example, in which a character based upon a late 15th-century border warlord,

infected with vampirism, plans to invade the very realistically-depicted late-Victorian England, using its very modern 20,000 miles of railroads to conquer the country and faced by protagonists who use everything from modern science and medicine to modern firearms to oppose him. 

Attaching “Gothic” to the past appears to have originated in a Renaissance architectural criticism, in the works of Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574),

famous for his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550; 1568),

(the 1568 edition)

in which he suggests that earlier architects had created “buildings of a style which today have been called by us ‘Germanic’ (maniera di edifizi c’hoggi da noi son chiamati ‘Tedeschi’—my translation from the 1568 edition, which you can see here:   He later calls this style barbaric and joins it with the Goths and this is where castles must come in, as, in fact, the “Gothic” style, as he understands it, doesn’t belong to the Goths, invaders and rulers of the later western Roman empire from the later 4th AD century on,

(Angus McBride)

but to the later medieval period, when castles first appeared and in which Walpole wanted to set his story.

Those Goths, in fact, spoke an early Germanic language and that’s the subject of the book about which the student was curious.  I feel like I’m always working on my German and my latest approach has been to seek out the earliest member of the family for which we have significant evidence and to study it to see if it will help to make my modern German stronger, just as Latin has certainly helped with my Romance languages (and English for that matter, as about 50% of English is directly or indirectly derived from Latin).  As someone with a certain amount of German and a lot of experience with ancient Indo-European languages (mainly Latin and Greek), 4th-6th century Gothic feels quite comfortable, as it shares many features.  There is the added bonus that the main surviving text is a large chunk of the Christian New Testament, so that, having grown up in that world, many of the stories told are already familiar.

And, in all of this, I’m following in the footsteps of someone about whom I often write.

As Humphrey Carpenter tells us:

“One of his school-friends had bought a book at a missionary sale, but found that he had no use for it and sold it to Tolkien.  It was Joseph Wright’s A Primer of the Gothic Language.

Tolkien opened it and immediately experienced ‘a sensation at least of full of delight as first looking into Chapman’s Homer.’ “ (Carpenter, Tolkien, 41)

While I am certainly enjoying the study of it, I doubt that I’ll ever have anything more than a general reading knowledge—Tolkien wrote book dedications in it (see Letters, 356-8) and even poems, which were published, along with other colleagues’ work, in a 1936 booklet, Songs for the Philologists

but becoming a scholar of Gothic was never my goal. 

Now as to blue hair, piercings, and funeral dress…

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Refrain, while invading, from damaging the previous owner’s art collection,

(another Angus McBride)

And remember that, as always, there’s



Coffee Break

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

“At never may return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

In later years, there were things in the first edition of The Hobbit, published in 1937,

which the author found less satisfying and wished to change, or actually changed.

The most striking change was the revision of Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”, in which the Gollum of 1937 is moved towards the later Gollum of The Lord of the Rings, in order to synchronize the earlier story of the Ring with its reappearance in the later book. 

A smaller change occurred in Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”, where Gandalf’s “And just bring out the cold chicken and tomatoes!” became “the cold chicken and pickles!” 

In contrast to the need to revamp Gollum, such a change seems so minor.  Why make it?

In a typescript of 1955,Tolkien says:

“ ‘Middle-earth’, by the way, is not the name of a never-never land…And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet.”  (from the typescript of a letter written by Tolkien to the Houghton Mifflin Company, May? 1955, Letters, 220)

In which case, if, by “Old World” he is implying—and the general look of Middle-earth in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings would appear to back this up—that this is a medieval world, then tomatoes would be an anachronism, as the tomato only appeared in Europe after the Spanish conquistadores brought them back from Mexico in the early 16th century, where it was first described in Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s (1501-1577) I Discorsi in 1544.

(This is the 1568 edition, where you can find a description at the very bottom of page 1136 under “pomi d’oro”, which differentiates between two sub-varieties, one being the color of blood, the other golden—hence that name “apples of gold”.  If you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s that edition: )

Once the tomatoes go, there are several other New World plants which have somehow found their way to Middle-earth, all of which would also fall into that category of anachronism.

First, there is tobacco, which is mentioned in a number of early 16th-century Spanish documents, including Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes’ (1478-1557) Historia general de las Indias (1535-), where he describes local Native Americans smoking an herb. (Here is the reference:  Oviedo’s work is apparently a bit of a mess and this version was a mid-19th-century attempt to straighten it out.)

(How could I resist the first known image of someone smoking?  This is from Anthony Chute’s 1595 pamphlet, Tabaco, a document so enthusiastic that it might have been produced by the advertising department of a tobacco company.  Because tobacco was initially an expensive import, early pipes were, in fact, relatively small.  This reproduction will give you an idea–)

It’s seems that JRRT was a little uncomfortable with tobacco, but not enough to remove all of the references to smoking in The Lord of the Rings, where he simply turned tobacco into “pipeweed” and everyone from the Shire to Gondor could then light up on a regular—often meditative—basis. 

(Michael Herring)

(And he even included a section on the subject in the Prologue—“2  Concerning Pipe-weed”.  Of course, when one thinks of how many images we have of him with a pipe in his mouth, are we surprised?)

Then there are Sam Gamgee’s “taters”.

As with tomatoes and tobacco, it seems that it was the Spanish, as they increasingly spread through and occupied the Caribbean and points south, who imported the potato to Europe, possibly as early as the 1570s.  Certainly by Thomas Johnson’s 1633 revision of John Gerard’s 1597 The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes

we find this toothsome recommendation:

“The temperature and virtues be referred unto the common Potatoes, being
likewise a food, as also a meat for pleasure, equal in goodness and wholesomeness
unto the same, being either roasted in the embers, or boiled and eaten with oil,
vinegar, and pepper, or dressed any other way by the hand of some cunning in
cookery.”  (This is from Book 4, Chapter 350, page 54, of a modernized text which you can find here: )

L0064345 Illustration of Potato of Virginia Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Illustration of Potato of Virginia from The herball or, generall historie of plantes / Gathered by John Gerarde 1597 The herball or, generall historie of plantes / John Gerard Published: 1597. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

(as is this illustration)

To these, I add one more item, which, I admit, I only spotted while teaching The Hobbit this spring:

“A big jug of coffee had just been set in the hearth… (The Hobbit, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”)

Coffee’s origins are a little murky, but one thing is clear:  this was not introduced from the New World by the Spanish.  Instead, the cultivated variety seems to come from Ethiopia and was introduced to eastern Europe in the 1520s by the Ottomans and to western Europe somewhat later, perhaps first by Dutch merchants.  The first coffeehouse in London dates from the early 1650s.  Here’s an advertisement from the owner of that first establishment, Pascua Rosee—

and here’s an early coffeehouse, although, by the dress of the drinkers, of perhaps a decade or so later.

From whomever and whenever it first appeared, it certainly was not available in our medieval world and, if we continue the reasoning that Tolkien’s Middle-earth as depicted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings corresponds to that medieval world, then, along with removing tomatoes, tobacco, and potatoes, that jug of coffee should have been dumped out and its contents replaced with ale—which, in fact, Bilbo’s dwarvish guests request—along with cakes–and more of that non-existent beverage:

“ ‘And more cakes—and ale—and coffee, if you don’t mind,’ called the other dwarves through the door.”  

(the Hildebrandts)

But what about that steam engine with which this posting began?  If the replacement of tomatoes with pickles shows that Tolkien himself became aware of the dangers of anachronism, certainly steam engines should have joined them in being replaced.  In fact, we learn from Douglas Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit that:

“For the 1966 revision of the text, Tolkien carefully considered the spacing of a possible replacement line here—‘like the whee of a rocket going up into the sky’—but in the end rejected it.”  (The Annotated Hobbit, 47, note 35)

But why?  Anderson offers the possibility that:

“This usage need not be viewed as an anachronism, for Tolkien as narrator was telling this story to his children in the early 1930s, and they lived in a world where railway trains were a very important feature of life.” (note 35)

And, as Tolkien didn’t change it, I suppose that we might accept this—but a small part of me still wonders, “Yes, but what about that coffee?”

Thanks, as ever, for reading,

Stay well,

I’ll take mine black,

And remember that there’s always




For a cheerful song about coffee from the time of the Great Depression, here’s Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” from the 1932 review “Face the Music”–

Changing Horses

Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Two weeks ago or so, I was working on the posting which I called “Horsing Around”, all about white horses in The Lord of the Rings (uploaded 5 April).

Among the horses which I mentioned was Theoden’s Snowmane.

(Joon Tulikoura)

The other horses, including Shadowfax,

(Angus McBride)

seem to have weathered the last tense moments of the War of the Ring and survived.  Snowmane, however, was a different matter:

“But Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side:  a black dart had pierced him.  The King fell beneath him.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

(Craig J. Spearing)

Because he had fallen in battle, even though his fall had brought down Theoden, Snowmane was honored with a mound, like those of the Rohirric kings which lined the approach to Edoras,

adding to it

“a stone upon which was carved in the tongues of Gondor and the Mark:

Faithful servant yet master’s bane,

Lightfoot’s foal, swift Snowmane.”

And so the association of Rohan, white horse, and death, had stuck with me for the next week or two.  And then I came upon this:

“In Anglo-Saxon times the natives of Worcestershire and Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, and many other counties, would have told anyone who asked that they lived in the Mark, and also their own particular Shire:  names and at once both ancient and modern, indeed unchanging.  As for the white horse this is the emblem of the Mark, like Bree and the Barrow-downs it lies less than a day’s walk from Tolkien’s study, and the White Horse of Uffington,

cut into the chalk a short stroll from the great Stone Age barrow of Wayland’s Smithy.”   


(Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien:  Author of the Century, 92)

(Shippey mentions the White Horse as the boundary marker for the Mark again in The Road to Middle-earth, 132.)

Although he doesn’t draw a direct parallel, I think that the suggestion here is that the Uffington White Horse might have been an inspiration for Tolkien for the emblem of the Rohirrim,

(Matthew Stewart)

as it is for the area of England which includes the counties Shippey mentions in his list (which would have also been included in what is known as Anglo-Saxon Mercia, itself a Latin form of Old English Marc.)

If  you’re not familiar with it, the White Horse is a huge (360 feet—110 metres–long) image cut into a chalky hillside about a 30-minute drive south from Oxford.

The latest dating of the site places it between 1380 and 550BC and it may be linked to the image on pre-Roman coins—

(for a cheerful brief article on the Horse, see: )

This horse appears to have been an inspiration for other horses cut in hillsides, like the Cherhill horse, cut in 1780,

like that at Osmington, created in 1802,

or, at late as 1999, the Devizes White Horse, a celebration of the Millenium.

No one knows why the horse was originally cut into the hillside at Uffington—one theory is that it’s a tribute to the sun-chariot and its horse

(possibly a representation, possibly just a chariot warrior?  2nd century BC)

as seen in the so-called “Trundholm sun chariot” of c.1400BC—

(for a 360 degree view of this and more on the chariot, see: )

One might also wonder about the description of a kingship ceremony celebrated in Celtic Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in his 12th-century Topographia Hibernica:

Est igitur in boreali et ulteriori Ultonite parte, scilicet

apud. Kenelcunuil, gens quaedam, quae barbaro

nimis et abominabili ritu sic sibi regem creare solet.

Collecto in unum universo terrae illius populo, in medium

producitur jumentum candidum. Ad quod sublimandus

ille non in principem sed in beluam, non in

regem sed exlegem, coram omnibus bestialiter accedens,

non minus – impudenter quam imprudenter se quoque

bestiam profitetur. Et statim jumento interfecto, et

frustatim in aqua decocto, in eadem aqua balneum ei

paratur. Cui insidens, de carnibus illis sibi allatis,

circumstante populo suo et convescente, comedit ipse.

De jure quoque quo lavatur, non vase aliquo, non manu,

sed ore tantum circumquaque haurit et bibit. Quibus

ita rite, non recte completis, regnum illius et dominium

est confirmatum.

“There is, therefore, a certain people in a northern and remote part of Ireland, that is at Kenelcunuil [glossed as Tirconnel, modern Donegal], which is accustomed to create a king for itself by a ceremony [which is] extremely barbarous and revolting.  When the whole people of that land has been gathered into one body, a shiny white mare is brought out into the midst.  To which [place] that one to be raised [to the throne] approaching like an animal [probably meaning “on all fours”] openly to all, not less shamelessly than rashly, he confesses himself [to be] a beast, as well.  And immediately, when the mare has been killed and, [cut into] pieces, has been cooked, a bath is prepared for him [the candidate] in the same water.  Sitting in which, with the populace standing around, and sharing with him, he himself eats some of the flesh brought to him.  By law, as well, he drains and drinks from which he is bathed not by any vessel nor with his hand, but only with his mouth from every side.  Thus, when these things have been completed by ritual, not by propriety, the kingship and lordship of that man has been confirmed.”

(Topographia Hibernica, Distinctio III, Capitulum XXV—my translation–if you would like to see the whole chapter in Latin, see: ; in English: )

Could it be that that horse was placed there on that hillside to remind people of a similar British Iron Age ceremony?

(For more on horse sacrifice, see: If you love horses, as I do, this is not recommended reading!)

Then I picked up this, from a WIKI article on “White Horses in Mythology”:

“The white horse is a recurring motif in Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, making use of the common Norse folklore that its appearance was a portent of death. The basis for the superstition may have been that the horse was a form of Church Grim, buried alive at the original consecration of the church building.” ( )

A horse sacrifice is already grim—but what’s this? I wondered.  A “Church Grim”?  if it’s “common Norse folklore that its appearance was a portent of death”, then is that meaning of “Grim” related to the Old English word grima (2), “a spectre, goblin, nightmare”?  If so, where might we find something about “common Norse folklore”?  I went to Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology (3 volumes, London, 1851), where, in Volume II , we find:


Heathen superstition did not fail to show itself in the construction of Christian churches. In laying the foundation, the people would retain something of their former religion, and sacrificed to their old deities, whom they could not forget, some animal, which they buried alive, either

under the foundation or without the wall. The spectre of this animal is said to wander about the churchyard by night, and is called the Kyrkogrim, or Church-grim. A tradition has also been preserved, that under the altar in the first Christian churches a lamb was usually buried, which imparted security and duration to the edifice. This is an emblem of the genuine Church-lamb, the Saviour of

the world, who is the sacred corner-stone of his church and congregation. When any one enters a church at a time when there is no service, he may chance to see a little lamb spring across the quire and vanish. That is the Church-lamb. When it appears to a person in the church yard, particularly to the gravediggers, it is said to forebode the death of a child that shall be next laid in the earth.” (page 102)

(if you’d like to read more, these three volumes are available at the wonderful Internet Archive.  Here’s the LINK for Volume II: )

So, if we put all of this together, might we imagine that, for the Rohirrim, after Theoden’s death, that white horse on their banner may have taken on added meaning:  not only symbol of their land, but also of sacrifice, both of their king and his white horse, in order to protect that land from future invasion, as the Church Grim defends the church and its burying ground?

(Matthew Stewart)

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Churchyards at night?  Probably not.

And remember that, as always, there’s




Just a footnote—another meaning of grima in Old English is “mask”.  Perhaps this is why JRRT chose that as the name for Theoden’s traitorous counselor?

(Alan Lee)



As always, dear readers, welcome.

When I first read Tolkien’s poem “Errantry” (originally published in The Oxford Magazine, 9 November, 1933), as an undergraduate, I loved the slipperiness of it, the way it danced from rhyme to rhyme (something JRRT later confessed that he couldn’t do twice—see the letter to Rayner Unwin of 22 June, 1952 in Letters, 162-3).

Some of the words took looking up, but, as someone who had some Latin and who read a lot of medieval literature, I thought I knew, from these lines:

“So long he studied wizardry
And sigaldry and smithying”

that “sigaldry” had to do with sigils, that is, with little seals, or maybe with the bigger idea of standards  (the word is a diminutive of Latin signum, among the meanings of which is both “seal” and “military standard”—as in the common military expression signum ferre “to advance”—literally “to carry the standard”) and so I thought that it probably had to do with heraldry.

But it turns out that I was completely misled.  In fact, it is listed in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) as “obs. rare” with the meaning “Enchantment, sorcery” and is certainly rare as it has a bare minimum of sources cited, including a circa-1300 poem about Alexander the Great (Kyng Alisaunder) and the 14th-century (?) mystery play, Crucifixion, from the Chester Cycle of Mysteries.   (Appropriately, I looked the word up in the 1933 edition, which is available for free on-line at the wonderful Internet Archive: )

This meaning of the word certainly fits better with the plot at this point in the poem—the protagonist is attempting to woo a butterfly (for the whole poem see:  ) and perhaps sorcery might help—but I think that I assumed that it was related to heraldry not only by the “medieval” quality of the poem’s plot, but also because heraldry turns up so often in The Lord of the Rings.

Heraldry comes from the medieval military world, from a time when, fully covered in chain mail, it would be impossible to identify one warrior from another.

(by Gerry Embleton)

In fact, at the Battle of Hastings, in October, 1066, the Norman leader, Duke William, when there was a rumor that he had been killed, was forced to ride across his forces lifting his helmet so that his men could see that he was still with them.

A system was gradually devised by which combinations of patterns and colors could be put upon armor and clothing and even horses to indicate who was inside that armor.

This is from the early 14th  century psaltery—psalm book–of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, one of my favorite medieval manuscripts.  (For more on this particular marvelous example of a manuscript, see: If you would like to see the manuscript itself, see: )

Depicted is Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345) himself, with his wife, Agnes de Sutton, and his daughter-in-law, Beatrice le Scrope.  His arms—that is, the pattern you see on his horse’s trapper (that big drape of cloth which covers the horse) are “azure, a bend between six martlets argent”, which means “on a blue field, six martlets in silver divided by a band”—like this

Marlets were supposed, at this time, to be tireless birds who are born in flight and never stopped till they died, suggesting to the knowing who saw Sir Geoffrey that he was just as tireless as this imaginary creature.  He might also have wanted to avoid the meaning of his own name, which appears to be a diminutive of the French loutre, “otter”, suggesting that the founder of his family was a pelt-hunter.

Patterns could be taken from current mythology—as in the case of Sir Geoffrey—or could even be rather like visual puns—here’s Sir Roger de Trumpington (died 1289)—

where you can see that his emblem is a trumpet—or Robert de Septvans (c.1250-1306)

whose emblem was 7 winnowing baskets (“van” being related to “fan”, as such baskets were used in dividing the grain from its covering, called “chaff”).

In time, there was so much of this that specialists began to appear, called heralds.

As with many old words, there is discussion over where the word comes from, but, in the later medieval military world, he was an important figure, whose jobs included things like identifying noble dead on battlefields, determining captives for ransom, and acting as messengers, because they were held to be neutrals.  You may remember the French herald, Montjoy, in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll certainly have heard “sigils” being mentioned here and there—emblems like the Stark family wolf

or the ghastly flayed man of the Bolton family.

In The Lord of the Rings, we see a number of these emblems—

the running white horse of the Rohirrim–

(Ted Nasmith)

which reminds me of the emblem of the old Electorate/Kingdom of Hannover—

the silver swan-ship of the Prince of Dol Amroth–

and, of course, the White Hand of Saruman—

(Inger Edelfeldt)

and the Red Eye of Sauron–

(Angus McBride)

and, triumphant over all, the seven stars and white tree of Gondor.

All of the above came from a misunderstanding of an obscure word in a dancy little poem by JRRT—perhaps sometimes “creative misreading” can lead in interesting directions. In which case, if someone proposed a sigil for me, it would be something “azure, mark of interrogation argent”—

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Question everything,

And remember that there’s always




In 1967, “Errantry” was set to music by the English composer, Donald Swan (1923-1994), and you can hear it here: Swan actually set a small series of Tolkien’s poems—with Tolkien’s permission and help—in a volume—and LP– called The Road Goes Ever On.

You can hear the whole LP at:  The series begins at 27:15—but the previous 26 minutes are JRRT himself reading/reciting. I grew up hearing and singing these settings–see if they stick in your memory as well.

Horsing Around

Welcome, as ever, dear readers.

As I was thinking and writing about Icelandic horses, a couple of postings ago, Gandalf popped into my mind—rather like William Morris of that posting—bearded and on horseback,

(a caricature by his friend, Edward Burne-Jones)

(the Hildebrandts?)

although a bit more imposing.

In this illustration, as in many, he’s mounted on Shadowfax, whose name appears to be based upon two Old English words, scead, “shade/shadow” and feax, “hair/mane”, suggesting “Shadowmane” in English, just as Theoden’s fatal horse is “Snowmane” (combining Old English snaw/snawa with feax?).

(by Joon Tulikoura)

Although his mane may be shadowy, Shadowfax appears to be white, with a silvery sheen, as Gandalf describes him:

“The horses of the Nine cannot vie with him; tireless, swift as the flowing wind.  Shadowfax they called him.  By day his coat glistens like silver; and by night it is like a shade, and he passes unseen.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)

These are not the only white horses in The Lord of the Rings.  When Glorfindel appears, his horse, Asfaloth, is also white and, astride it, on the far side of the Ford of Bruinen, as the river begins to rise, Frodo thinks he sees:

“…a plumed cavalry of waves.  White flames seemed to Frodo to flicker on their crests, and he half fancied that he saw amid the water white riders upon white horses with frothing manes.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 12, “Flight to the Ford”)

(Ted Nasmith)

(We later find out that, although Elrond commanded the waters of the river to rise, Gandalf “…added a few touches of my own:  you may not have noticed, but some of the waves took the form of great white horses with shining white riders.”  The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 1, “Many Meetings”)

I’ve always imagined that Shadowfax is white because

1. he’s the descendant of the horse ridden by Eorl the Young, as we see him in the tapestry in Meduseld—

“Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over the wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade.  But upon one form the sunlight fell:  a young man upon a white horse.  He was blowing a great horn, and his yellow hair was flying in the wind.  The horse’s head was lifted, and its nostrils were wide and red as it neighed, smelling battle afar.  Foaming water, green and white, rushed and curled about its knees.

‘Behold Eorl the Young!’ said Aragorn.  ‘Thus he rode out of the North to the Battle of the Field of Celebrant.’ “ (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)

(Alan Lee)

2. he now matches Gandalf, who has become Gandalf the White,

(the Hildebrandts)

as Aragorn hails him:

“Then suddenly [Gandalf] threw back his grey cloak, and cast aside his hat, and leaped to horseback.  He wore no helm nor mail.  His snowy hair flew free in the wind, his white robes shone dazzling in the sun.

‘Behold the White Rider!’ cried Aragorn, and all took up the words.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 5, “The White Rider”)

3. the whiteness of the two is a strong contrast to the blackness of the chief of the Nazgul when Gandalf encounters him at the gate of Minas Tirith—

“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 which 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.  Shadowfax, who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dinen.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

Of course, important people on white horses appear all the time in history.

Here, for instance, is Napoleon, painted on his white Arabian horse, “Marengo”—

(Baron Gros)

and George Washington, on an unnamed horse.

(John Faed—for an interesting article on Washington’s horses, see: )

And how could we forget the Lone Ranger’s horse, “Silver”, both in his 1950s form

and his 2013 reincarnation?

But there’s a more sinister white horse which might also have been in the back of Tolkien’s mind as a long-time Bible reader:

“6 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.

And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.” (The Book of Revelation, Chapter 6, Verses 1-2)


There has been much discussion for centuries as to what this figure signifies, but, at his confrontation with the Nazgul, Gandalf says:

“ ‘You cannot enter here…Go back to the abyss prepared for you!  Go back!  Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your master.  Go!’ “(The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

The Lord of the Nazgul laughs at this, but, soon after, over the body of Theoden and his fallen white horse, Gandalf’s words come true and he who thinks to conquer is himself conquered.

(This is from an older site called “Shadowcore”, where the artist, Craig J. Spearing, presents a very informative picture of himself at work: )

As ever, thanks for reading.

Stay well,

Plan to bluff a Nazgul,

And remember that there’s always



The Scottish Play

As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Although Tolkien taught in the field of English literature, he was not generally enthusiastic about much of anything in it beyond about the 14th century.  In a 1953 letter to Robert Murray, SJ, he wrote:

“Certainly I have not been nourished by English Literature, in which I do not suppose I am better read than you; for the simple reason that I have never found much there in which to rest my heart (or heart and head together).  I was brought up in the Classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer.”  (letter to Robert Murray, 2 December, 1953, Letters, 172)

He further explains this in a letter to W.H. Auden, where he says:

“I went to King Edward’s School and spent most of my time learning Latin and Greek; but I also learned English.  Not English Literature!  Except Shakespeare (which I disliked cordially), the chief contacts with poetry were when one was made to try and translate it into Latin.”  (letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 213)

This dislike made a rather violent appearance at a meeting of the Debating Society while he was at King Edward’s School when

“…in a debate on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays he ‘poured a sudden flood of unqualified abuse upon Shakespeare, upon his filthy birthplace, his squalid surroundings, and his sordid character’. “ (Carpenter, Tolkien, 45)

This is, of course, what in rhetoric is called an argumentum ad hominem—that is, an attack upon the person, rather than addressing the issue of the debate directly and, what we see here is a combination of the adolescent Tolkien’s personal resentment and that strange Shakespeare-denial which seems to date back to the 1850s, a major proponent being Delia Bacon (1811-1859),

who first published her doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship in an anonymous article in the January, 1856 issue of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine (pages 1-19), which she expanded into a large volume in 1857, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare (which you can find here: –and you can find more about doubts here:  For what it’s worth, I’ve never believed that the man from Stratford wasn’t the author.  See Caroline Spurgeon’s 1935 book, Shakespeare’s Imagery here for what would have long ago convinced me, had I had any doubts:  I would also be very wary when reading about Ms Bacon, that she ended her life in an asylum, put there by her brother, who had interfered in her life earlier and, as a Victorian minister and a male, had power over her which, in our century, might have been seriously questioned.)

In time, the grownup Tolkien somewhat changed his mind about Shakespeare, praising a performance of Hamlet to his son, Christopher:

“Plain news is on the airgraph; but the only event worth of talk was the performance of Hamlet which I had been to just before I wrote last.  I was full of it then, but the cares of the world have soon wiped away the impression.”

He then adds an interesting qualification:

“But it emphasised more strongly than anything I have ever seen the folly of reading Shakespeare (and annotating him in the study), except as a concomitant of seeing his plays acted.  It was a very good performance with a young rather fierce Hamlet; it was played fast without cuts; and came out as a very exciting play.  Could one only have seen it without ever having read it or knowing the plot, it would have been terrific.”  (letter to Christopher, 28 July, 1944, Letters, 88—if you’re curious about that word “airgraph”, see: )

Even though he may have enjoyed Hamlet, a play which had early vexed JRRT was Macbeth, and one element in particular:

“And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me…Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’:  I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war.”  (letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 212—a footnote) 

Ents are now a familiar part of our landscape, from Treebeard’s meeting with Merry and Pippin

(Alan Lee)

to the complete destruction of Isengard under his direction.

(Ted Nasmith)

The line which Tolkien quotes occurs in Act IV, Scene I, of the play, when Macbeth, who has gained his throne by a series of murders which have come to trouble him, has returned to the witches who had originally prophesied that he would become king and is told:

“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until

Great Byrnam Wood, to high Dunsmane Hill

Shall come against him. (Actus Quartus, Scena Prima in the “First Folio”,lines 1635-38 in modern lineation—I like period texts, as cranky as they can be to a modern eye, and you can find this of the play at:  )

Tolkien may have been annoyed at Shakespeare’s “shabby use”, but he himself was inspired to create his own walking wood from that annoyance.  Just before these lines, however, there’s another bit of witchy prophesy and I wonder if this inspired JRRT, at least subconsciously, as well:

“Be bloody, bold, & resolute:

Laugh to scorne

The powre of Man:  for none of woman borne

Shall harme Macbeth.” (lines 1619-22)

This sounds like a comfort, but, just like the lines which suggest the impossibility of a forest coming to Macbeth’s castle—and which then come true, as Macduff’s men camouflage themselves with it, so these words are also truer than Macbeth realizes, when it turns out that Macduff was born by Caesarean section (Actus Quintus, Scena Septima, 2453-2456) and Macbeth’s head is soon in Macduff’s hands.

And this reminds me of another scene:

“ ‘Hinder me?  Thou fool.  No living man may hinder me!’

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest.  It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel.  ‘But no living man am I!  You look upon a woman.  Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter.  You stand between me and my lord and kin.  Begone, if you be not deathless!  For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’ “  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

(a second Ted Nasmith)

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Never trust people who collect eye of newt,

And know that, as always, there’s




There is an old theatrical tradition that actors naming Macbeth jinx themselves and performances.  Considering what happens to most of the major and some of the minor characters in the play, it’s not surprising!  See: for more.

Name-changer, But Not Game-changer

As ever, welcome, dear readers.

The Odyssey is full of omens, usually involving birds and one of them a raptor,

(eagle, symbol of Zeus)

(hawk, symbol of Apollo)

the other a victim, usually domestic.

Each time that combination appears, it’s interpreted as meaning that Odysseus is on the way home and bringing vengeance, which, of course, eventually, he does.

In these cases, the future is being graphically—if symbolically—offered.  On one occasion, however, Odysseus seeks out information about the future by visiting the Otherworld and hearing the words of the seer Tireisias.

And this visit symbolizes for me something which was a standard practice in the Classical world:  the pilgrimage to what was believed to be a sacred spot to learn something of what was to come.  Odysseus, in the Odyssey, lying about himself and his arrival on Ithaka, even mentions that he has gone to such a spot—Dodona, where he would have been to the little sanctuary where an oak grove grew.

(eventually whittled down to one tree)

This was an ancient site, frequented as early as the 14th century BC, but which came to a sad end at the end of the 4th century AD, when it has been traditionally said to have been closed by the order of the emperor Theodosius (347-395AD),

along with religious sites all over the Greco-Roman world.  (In recent years, this view of Theodosius and his actions towards paganism have been contested, both by historians and archaeologists.  If this interests you, there are a couple of useful WIKI articles here: ; )

The main reason for closing such places as Dodona and the more prominent Delphi, shrine of Apollo,

whenever it happened and by the order of whom, was to remove competition from what was, increasingly, a Christian empire, but another, lesser reason, I suspect, was that the future was believed to be a closed book, its events known only to the incoming deity, and attempts to find such events out were to be considered blasphemous, at best. 

Certainly the most famous Judeo-Christian attempt, that of King Saul of Israel, who tricks the Witch of Endor (even after Saul had exiled wizards and “those that had familiar spirits” from Israel) into bringing up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, ends very badly, with Saul being told by Samuel that his army will be defeated and that he himself will be dead (he kills himself after the defeat—see 1 Samuel, Chapters 28, Verses 7-20 here: )

This attempting to learn the future from the dead came to be called necromancy, from a combination of two Greek words, nekros, “corpse” and manteia, “the art of prophecy” and therefore its practitioners were necromancers (in the Middle Ages this necro- root became confused with Latin nigro-, “black”, creating nigromancy, “prophesying from dark things”, which, considering what happened to Saul, is not surprising).

Necromancer brings us to The Hobbit, which I’m about to teach again this spring. 

Gandalf is initially very vague about leaving the dwarves and Bilbo, finally saying only “I have, as I told you, some pressing business away south…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 7, “Queer Lodgings”).  In fact, it’s only by accident that Bilbo ever finds out what this business was:

“…but every now and again he would open one eye, and listen, when a part of the story which he did not yet know came in.

It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to; for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond.  It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood.”  (Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”)

As he himself confessed, JRRT was at first unclear as to the identity of this figure, as he wrote to W.H. Auden, explaining the genesis of The Lord of the Rings:

“That of course does not mean that the main idea of the story was a war-product.  That was arrived at in one of the earliest chapters still surviving (Book I, 2).  It is really given, and present in the germ, from the beginning, though I had no conscious notion of what the Necromancer stood for (except ever-recurrent evil) in The Hobbit, nor of his connexion with the Ring.” (letter to W.H. Auden, 7 June, 1955, Letters, 216)

It was quickly clear, however, that readers were intrigued by the mention of such a figure.  As early as October, 1937, not a month after the date of the original publication of The Hobbit, Tolkien can write to Stanley Unwin:  “One reader wants fuller details about Gandalf and the Necromancer.”  (letter to Stanley Unwin, 15 October, 1937, Letters, 24)  And, in 1939, he is still commenting about “the readers young and old who clamoured for ‘more about the Necromancer’” (letter to C.A. Furth, 2 February, 1939, Letters, 42)

Although much about who this character might turn out to be may have been vague to JRRT in 1937, it’s also clear that he early made a connection between him and Sauron, as he says in this letter to Stanley Unwin:

“Mr. Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s [sic] fairy-tale dwarves, got drawn into the edge of it—so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.”  (letter to Stanley Unwin, 16 December, 1937, Letters, 26)

But this still leaves us with a bit of a puzzle:  if a necromancer is one who obtains knowledge of the future from the dead, when do we ever find out that Sauron does this?  The simple answer is that we don’t—but, this earlier incarnation (his last, in fact, once he loses the power of the Ring), is not his first. 

The long structure and chronology of his creation is far beyond the scope of this posting, but, working backwards from what Christopher Tolkien called “The Second Version of The Fall of Numenor” (I’m guessing post-1936—see CT’s introduction, “The Early History of the Legend” in The Lost Road and Other Writings, 7-10), we find this passage, where refugees from the ruined Numenor have migrated to Beleriand (“…that land in the West of the North of the Old World, where Morgoth had been overthrown…” 31):

“And they came at last even to Mordor the Black Country, where Sauron, that is in the Gnomish tongue named Thu, had rebuilt his fortresses.” (31)

Now, taking that name “Thu”, we can move back to 1928, when Tolkien was working on a long poem, “The Lay of Leithian” (to be found in The Lays of Beleriand, 183-392).  In Canto VII, we find this stanza:

“Men called him Thu, and as a god

In after days beneath his rod

Bewildered bowed to him, and made

His ghastly temples in the shade.

Not yet by men enthralled adored,

Now was he Morgoth’s mightiest lord,

Master of Wolves, whose shivering howl

Forever echoed in the hills, and foul

Enchantments and dark sigaldry

Did weave and wield.  In glamoury

That necromancer held his hosts

Of phantoms and of wandering ghosts,

Of misbegotten or spell-wronged

Monsters that about him thronged,

Working his bidding dark and vile:

The werewolves of the Wizard’s Isle.” (Canto VII, lines 2064-2079)

As Christopher Tolkien comments in his notes to this canto, Tolkien kept shifting the name of Thu, replacing it with “Gorthu”, but also with “Sauron”, suggesting that, even 8 years before the appearance of the name in the second draft of The Fall of Numenor, he had the name available as a substitute for Thu.  (278)  And here we see not only the name, but that word, “necromancer” (line 2074). 

Sauron in The Lord of the Rings is frighteningly powerful, but one power he doesn’t seem to employ is the ability to raise the dead to learn the future from them.  Could it be, however, that, in 1937, although Sauron can call upon no ghosts, the ghost of an earlier power haunted his creator, even as his creation’s name remained the same?

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Stay well,

Avoid those with unstable nomenclatures,

And, as ever, remember that there’s




I’ve been thinking about the rhythm and rhyme scheme of this “Lay” and I wonder if JRRT had been required to memorize S.T. Coleridge’s (1772-1834) “Christabel” at an earlier time in his life?  Take for example, this stanza—although you’d have to add the next to get one of Tolkien’s length:

“The lovely lady, Christabel,

Whom her father loves so well,

What makes her in the wood so late,

A furlong from the castle gate?

She had dreams all yesternight

Of her own betrothèd knight;

And she in the midnight wood will pray

For the weal of her lover that’s far away.”

(In that same letter to Auden, mentioned above, JRRT claimed that he hadn’t learned English literature at

school, but this was such a well-known poem by the time of his childhood and memorizing poetry for

public performance was so common—you can see the ghost of it when Sam produces his “party piece” on

the Oliphaunt—that I would suggest that Coleridge might have been an unconscious influence.)