On Time (2)


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

Some years ago, we visited the Strong National Museum of Play, in Rochester, New York.  (Highly recommended!)


There, we had found this in one of the display cases–


It’s a reproduction of the first page of a chronology of The Lord of the Rings by JRRT, covering the end of September and the beginning of October of SR1418, from the Marquette University collection.  Looking closely we could see just how detailed it was and, recently, we looked at the page again and it made us wonder just how visible such detailing was in the actual work:  do we really see each day portrayed?  Are there moments when days—or more—go by unmarked?  If so, when?  And why?

To answer our questions, we turned first to The Hobbit, as a kind of test case, and, in our last posting, had, by the end, reached the western edge of Mirkwood.


This, as the caption says, is a work by Ted Nasmith, one of our favorite Tolkien illustrators, but here’s JRRT’s version.


(As we’ve pointed out some time ago, Tolkien’s version would appear to owe something to the work of the early-20th-century Swedish illustrator, John Bauer (1882-1918).)


As Gandalf waves a good-bye and shouts a final warning, the company plunges in—and immediately time seems to blur:

“All this went on for what seemed to the hobbit ages upon ages…days followed days, and still the forest seemed just the same…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 8, “Flies and Spiders”)

They reach a dangerous stream, one of their company falls in—and immediately drops into a deep sleep, forcing them to carry him as they move away from the stream and, although their journeying continues to seem endless:

“About four days from the enchanted stream they came to a part where most of the trees were beeches…A few leaves came rustling down to remind them that outside autumn was coming on…Two days later they found their path going downwards.”

Soon after that, Bilbo is sent up a tree to see where they are—and, it appears the next day they are tormented by visions of feasting elves.  The next morning?  the scattered dwarves and Bilbo are attacked by outsized spiders.


As we said, this is all rather blurry—not many time words are used and, like the forest itself, the passage of time appears almost featureless.  In the confusion around the elvish torment and the spiders, however, Thorin has disappeared, only to be made captive by those very elves and taken to the palace of their king.


And then time moves forward—a little:  “The day after the battle with the spiders Bilbo and the dwarves made one last despairing effort to find a way out before they died of hunger and thirst…Such day as there ever was in the forest was fading once more into the blackness of night, when suddenly out sprang the light of many torches all round them…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 9, “Barrels Out of Bond”)

The other dwarves are captured by the elves, but Bilbo, using his ring, escapes–and then manages to slip into the elves’ underground world—and into what appears to be another nearly-timeless place:

“Poor Mr. Baggins—it was a weary long time that he lived in that place all alone…Eventually, after a week or two of this sneaking sort of life, by watching and following the guards and taking what chances he could, he managed to find out where each dwarf was kept.

He found all their twelve cells in different parts of the palace, and after a time he got to know his way about very well.”

The chance discovery of the use of an underground stream as a method of shipping goods—and wine in particular—provides Bilbo with the final means to escape the elves, but how long does all of this, from the capture of the dwarves to that escape, take?

“For some time Bilbo sat and thought about this water-gate, and wondered if it could be used for the escape of his friends, and at last he had the desperate beginnings of a plan.”

If you are familiar with the story, you know that the plan entails escaping in barrels,


bobbing and rolling all night down the river till they were snagged and collected and, the next morning, moved on towards Lake-town, which they reached in the evening (“The sun had set when turning with another sweep towards the East the forest-river rushed into the Long Lake.”).


(This reminds us to mention crannogs—lake houses—of which there is a very convincing reconstruction on Loch Tay, in Scotland.  Here’s a LINK if you’d like to know more.)


The dwarves and Bilbo had stayed in Lake-town two weeks when:  “At the end of a fortnight Thorin began to think of departure.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 10, “A Warm Welcome”)  When they actually departed, however, is unclear:  “So one day, although autumn was now getting far on, and winds were cold, and leaves were falling fast, three large boats left Lake-town, laden with rowers, dwarves, Mr. Baggins, and many provisions.”

They land “On the Doorstep” (the title of Chapter 11) of the Lonely Mountain.  It has taken them three days to get there by boat.  (“In two days going they rowed right up the Long Lake and passed out into the River Running…At the end of the third day, some miles up the river, they drew in to the left or western bank and disembarked.”   The Hobbit, Chapter 11, “On the Doorstep”)


But how long do they spend on that doorstep?

We know, from Elrond’s reading of the moon runes on Thror’s map, that there is a kind of deadline:

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks…and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

Thorin himself is hard-pressed to say exactly what day this is, but the dwarves and hobbit continue their journey to find the hidden back door.

After camping where their supplies have been left, they begin their actual explorations the next day.  (“They spent a cold and lonely night…The next day they set out again.”)  Bilbo and several of the dwarves make a brief expedition to the front door and back, seemingly within a day.

We now enter into another blurry period, for, as the dwarves and Bilbo search for the hidden door, all we read is “day by day they came back to their camp without success” until:  “ ‘Tomorrow begins the last week of autumn,’ said Thorin one day.”  And the next day—which is, in fact, the Durin’s Day of the map—they find and open the door.


Thorin sends Bilbo down into the dark, which, we presume takes some time because we are told that “It was midnight and clouds had covered the stars” when Balin carried him out. (The Hobbit, Chapter 12, “Inside Information”)  He has taken a cup from Smaug’s hoard, however, and this rouses the dragon, forcing the dwarves to take shelter in the tunnel within the hidden door where they remain as Bilbo returns a second time—the next day—to visit Smaug again. (“The sun was shining as he started…”)  That same day, they take shelter within the tunnel and Smaug seals them in.

How long they are sealed in isn’t initially clear:  “They could not count the passing of time…At last after days and days of waiting” Chapter 13 begins, but, with the addition of “as it seemed”, suggesting that not much time—perhaps even only hours—had actually passed.  (The Hobbit, Chapter 13, “Not at Home”).  This is made clearer, however, when we are told:  “As a matter of fact two nights and the day between had gone by…since the dragon smashed the magic door…”).    After Bilbo makes another foray—followed by the others—down into Smaug’s lair, they find it empty, press beyond it, and, eventually, the same day, move their camp to an old watchpost on the southwest corner of the mountain.


(We presume that the post is at the left-hand edge of this JRRT illustration.)

Smaug, of course, has gone off to destroy Lake-town and is killed there


and soon a combined force of forest elves and men from the ruined Lake-town set off for the Lonely Mountain (“It was thus that in eleven days from the ruin of the town the head of their host passed the rock-gates at the end of the lake and came into the desolate lands.”  The Hobbit, Chapter 14, “Fire and Water”)

The narrative then moves back once more to the dwarves, who, by means of an ancient raven, have heard what is approaching and begin to fortify the main door of the Mountain when:  “There came a night when suddenly there were many lights as of fires and torches away south in Dale before them.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 15, “The Gathering of the Clouds”)  Presumably, this is some days after the invaders have reached the desolate lands, though how many is not said, but, “The next morning early a company of spearmen was seen crossing the river…”

Thus begins the last big event in The Hobbit:  the siege of the Mountain by elves and men and the following Battle of the Five Armies.  With the arrival of the besiegers and the stalemate caused by Thorin’s stubbornness, time is blurred once more:  “Now the days passed slowly and wearily.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 16, “A Thief in the Night”)  It is suddenly marked, however, by news:

“Things had gone on like this for some time, when the ravens brought news that Dain and more than five hundred dwarves…were now about two days’ march of Dale…”

This sparks Bilbo into attempting to use the Arkenstone as a bargaining chip and “Next day trumpets rang early in the camp” (The Hobbit, Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”) as the allies try to deal with Thorin and here we see time, from being blurred, begins to be more clearly stated:  after the “for some time”, we see “the next morning” and then, with the parley discouraged by dwarvish arrows, “That day passed and then the night” and, that following day, everything falls apart:  Goblins and Wild Wolves appear and the allies, Dain and his Iron Mountain dwarves, and Thorin & Co, are all involved in a massive struggle which only ends when the Eagles arrive—and Beorn–, Bilbo is knocked unconscious, and Thorin is mortally wounded.


(This is by Justin Gerard—here’s a LINK to a really interesting website dedicated to fantasy illustration where we found it.)

The story hasn’t ended, however, though time goes back into its biggest blur yet.  The dragon dead, the Mountain recovered by the dwarves, Bilbo “started on his long road home” .  Long it is, as “by mid-winter Gandalf and Bilbo had come all the way back…to the doors of Beorn’s house: and there for a while they both stayed…It was spring, and a fair one with mild weathers and a bright sun, before Bilbo and Gandalf took their leave at last of Beorn…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 18, “The Return Journey”)  We see them reach Elrond’s Last Homely House “on May the First”, though “after a week…[Bilbo and Gandalf] said farewell to Elrond” (The Hobbit, Chapter 19, “The Last Stage”).  It is June, however, while the two are still on their journey (“for now June brought summer”) and, in fact, we are told that it is precisely the 22nd of June that they arrive at Bag End, as, on that day, “Messrs Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes” are about to auction off “the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins, Esquire”.

The book goes on a little further, into Bilbo’s future, but this seems like a good place for us to end this posting.  What have we discovered with our investigation?  We guess we would say that, in The Hobbit, time comes in two forms:

  1. there is passing time—those blurs when people are traveling or waiting—this can be simply marked as time passing, or it may be described in weeks
  2. there is slowed time—this is around important events in the narrative and is always specific to days

And, unless one keeps a very detailed journal


perhaps this can be seen as a kind of imitation of everyone’s life:  long stretches of just “doing things” broken up by short patches of intense, memorable activity.  What do you think, readers?

And, while you’re thinking, thanks for reading.




On Time (1)


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Welcome, dear readers, as ever.

Our last two postings were all about calendars of various sorts and, as we thought about those, it brought us back to something we’d seen some years ago at the wonderful Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.


In the part of the museum called “Reading Adventureland”,


there was a small exhibit on JRRT, and, in the middle, was this:



This is a reproduction of the first page (from the collection of JRRT’s papers at Marquette University) of a highly-detailed chronology of Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring, covering, day by day, the movements of major characters from the end of September, SR1418, through the first half of October.

It doesn’t surprise us that there would be such a thing—considering how many names there are:  Frodo, Tom Bombadil, Aragorn, Gandalf, Elrond, and Glorfindel (not to mention the Nazgul)—and all are potentially in play in this short time, something almost like a train schedule would seem necessary.


This made us wonder if, when reading the text, we’re always as aware of time passing as the author.  Are there moments when we can almost literally hear the clock ticking (there’s one on Bilbo’s wall—but I don’t think we ever see another)?


Are there times/places where it seems to move at a different speed or we forget time completely?

And what about The Hobbit?  Is there the same sense of time there as in The Lord of the Rings?

On the very first page of the latter, we’re given a date:

“Bilbo and Frodo happened to have the same birthday, September 22.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)

And this date then forms a central point in that first chapter.  In contrast, The Hobbit presents us with:

“By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world…”  (The Hobbit, Chapter One, “An Unexpected Party”)

So how is time then marked, say, from that moment


to the first real incident on the way to the Lonely Mountain, the adventure with the trolls?


To begin with, Gandalf gives us a hint at least as to the month Bilbo left the Shire with the Dwarves, saying to Thorin:

“And Thrain your father went away on the twenty-first of April, a hundred years ago last Thursday…”

It is the end of April, then.  The next suggestion of a date comes as they are about to come upon those trolls, when Bilbo says to himself, “To think that it will soon be June!” (The Hobbit, Chapter Two, “Roast Mutton”).  This makes us think that they’ve been traveling east for about a month.  How long, then, from there to their first stop, Rivendell?

Here, things become vague.  The next chapter, “A Short Rest”, begins:

“They did not sing or tell stories that day, even though the weather improved; nor the next day, nor the day after.”

And then the text says, “One morning”, though no day or month is specified.  Presumably, they are now at the beginning of June.  It seems that, that same day, “Morning passed, afternoon came…”, then “Tea-time had long gone by, and it seemed supper-time would soon do the same.  There were moths fluttering about, and the light became very dim, for the moon had not risen.”  At this point, Gandalf discovers the way down to Rivendell.


In a mocking song which the elves sing to Bilbo and his companions, they confirm that it’s June:

“No knowing, no knowing

What brings Mister Baggins

And Balin and Dwalin

Down into the valley

In June…”

How long do the travelers stay in Rivendell, now that they’ve reached it?  Here we have a bit more concrete information:

“They stayed long in that good house, fourteen days at least…”

And we also know when their stay ended:

“So the time came to midsummer eve, and they were to go on again with the early sun on midsummer morning.”

In Tolkien’s England Midsummer’s Day is the 24th of June, so we now know that Bilbo and the Dwarves have been on the road at least a month and a half.

On Midsummer’s Eve, we are given a more fixed point to their journey when Elrond reads the “Moon-letters” on Thorin’s map.

“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks…and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” (The Hobbit, Chapter 3, “A Short Rest”)

This would mean that, at the end of the expedition to the Lonely Mountain, the Dwarves, to enter the back door, must be at a specific location at a specific time.  Unfortunately, though Thorin can identify what “Durin’s Day” is, he then says, “But this will not help us much, I fear, for it passes our skill in these days to guess when such a time will come again.”

Without that knowledge, they still set out on Midsummer’s Day and we wonder if we will be told how long it will take to reach their next adventure, capture by the goblins?


Unfortunately not.  Instead, we are only told:

“Long days after they had climbed out of the valley and left the Last Homely House miles behind, they were still going up and up and up.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

We know that the summer is passing, however, because Bilbo says to himself, “The summer is getting on down below…and haymaking is going on…They will be harvesting and blackberrying…”

This is a little uncertain.  Wheat planted in September, our sources tell us, is usually harvested in August of the following year and blackberrying in England begins in August.  If the travelers have set out from Rivendell on 24 June (Midsummer’s Day), have they been climbing into the Misty Mountains for a whole month?

Our first bit of concrete data for this part of the journey comes from Gandalf, who tells them, as they stand on the far side of the Misty Mountains:

“You lose track of time inside goblin-tunnels.  Today’s Thursday, and it was Monday night or Tuesday morning that we were captured.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter Six, “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire”)

Thus, although their flight from the goblins has been “miles and miles” and they’ve come out on the eastern side of the Mountains, they’ve taken between two and three days to do so—but we still don’t know what month we’re now in.

From their current location, it seems like a quick trip to Beorn’s house.


Rescued from goblins and Wargs by eagles, they have an overnight stay in the eagles’ nests before being dropped at the Carrock, a huge rock set in the river Anduin.image11carrock.jpg

It appears to be no more than a day’s walk from there to Beorn’s, so the question is, how long do they stay?  Counting by wakings and meals, it appears that they were at the shape-shifter’s house, basically two days and left on the morning of the third, then, when leaving, they traveled for three days to the edge of Mirkwood:

“That third evening they were so eager to press on, for Beorn had said that they should reach the forest-gate early on the fourth-day, that they rode still forward after dark and into the night beneath the moon.” (The Hobbit, Chapter Seven, “Queer Lodgings”).

They camp overnight at the edge of the forest and we’ll camp here, too, before continuing to investigate the measurement of time further in the second part of this posting, next week.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Thirty Days Hath…


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As ever, dear readers, welcome.

Our last posting, which involved, among other things, the French Revolution, made us think of calendars.

The traditional Western calendar has been with us a long time, beginning with the Romans.


They believed that the calendar had originally been devised by the founder of Rome, Romulus.


(Romulus is the one on the right.  If you don’t know Roman mythology, this is part of the legend of Romulus and his twin, Remus, who were, at one time, raised by a she wolf.  Romulus eventually clashed with Remus and killed him.)


Romulus produced a yearly calendar divided into 10 months and it was his successor, Numa Pompilius, who revised it by adding two months.  Romulus and the rulers who followed him were traditionally believed to be seven in number (like the seven hills Rome was built on—or maybe just because 7 has been thought of as a magic number—to read more—maybe too much!—on this, see this LINK).


(If you’d like to improve your knowledge of early Rome—at least as the Romans believed it–here’s a neat way to remember these mythological kings in order.)


When the last of these kings, Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquinius the Arrogant”) was overthrown in 509BC (as always, according to Roman tradition), he was replaced by two consuls, who were elected annually.


Because of the annual nature of their election, the consuls in time became the marker for each year—the year being designated in documents by their names.  In Latin, this was written as, for example, “L. Sulpicio et M. Canonico consulibus”—“Lucius Sulpicius and Marcus Canonicus being the consuls”—that is, “in the year during which LS and MC were the consuls”.

In time, two events complicated this time-keeping to the point where it was a mess.

First, this calendar was based upon the lunar year of 355 days.  Set against the 365 ¼ days of the solar year, there was always a gap and so the months and the seasons could begin to separate.  To close this gap, an intercalary month of 27 or 28 days was sometimes inserted, but, seemingly, without the strict regularity the marking of time really needed.  Second, the chief priest of Rome, the Pontifex Maximus, with his assistants, the College of Pontiffs, had the legal (and religious) right to change the calendar and, if you think about this in political terms (and the Romans did), you can see what a less-than-neutral Pontifex could do:  add days to the term of consuls he favored and subtract days from those he didn’t, potentially making the synchronization of lunar, solar, and consular years fall apart completely.

When Julius Caesar (100-44BC)


came to power, he ordered the reformation of the calendar, but retained the old lunar calendar of 355 days, dividing the year into 8 months of 29 days and 4 of 31, plus adding an intercalary month of 27 or 28 days every two years.  This meant that, every 4 years, the total number of days, divided by 4, would come to 366 ¼–which meant more regularity, but trouble to come, in time (literally), especially because the College of Pontiffs was still in charge of maintaining things, which it doesn’t seem to have done with the necessary diligence.

In fact, the story is more complicated yet than this, but this at least gives us the so-called “Julian Calendar”, which was in use in the West from Caesar’s time until the Renaissance.  In 1582, by the direction of Pope Gregory XIII,


to correct the seasonal drift which had gradually occurred over the centuries, the Julian calendar was reformatted, adding a full day to the month of February (February 29th) every fourth year.  The first year with such an addition to February was the next year, 1583, but, to help the calendar and actual year rejoin, Gregory ordered the addition of 11 days to October of 1582, so that October 4th became October 15th.  We hope that all of this is clear?

For people who grew up with all of this adding here, changing there, it’s left us with a sort-of rhyme to remember what months now have how many days:

“Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

All the rest have thirty-one—”

And then the thing breaks down into something like “Except February, which has twenty-eight, except every fourth year, when it has twenty-nine.”

So, why did the French Revolution remind us of calendars?

One of the main bases of the French Revolution, the thinkers of the Revolution would say, was the idea of REASON.  In fact, for a short time, some revolutionaries attempted to replace Christianity with the worship of a goddess by that name.


Reason brought about the initial attempt to convert France by law to the metric system in 1795.  Even before that, however, there had been a program to decimalize everything possible, including the currency and the time of day—here’s a watch from 1795 with both kinds of time marked on it.


Of course, the calendar would be a target and, between 1793 and 1805, France would mark its years by it in 12 months of 30 days each, each month divided into 3 decades.  To keep the balance between months and seasons, five or six extra days were added to the end of the year.  To remove any trace of the old royal (and religious) past, the new months were renamed—here’s the calendar.  As you can see, the renaming was meant to reflect seasonal weather.


The committee (one major feature of the Revolution was that seemingly everything was created by a committee) even came up with the names for every day, the names being something ordinary to which the day was devoted.


If you look at the column marked “Nivose”, you can see that the first four days are “neige/glace/miel/cire”—“snow/ice/honey/wax” (although those first two make perfect sense in a month called “Snowy”, we’re a little unclear about “honey” and “wax”).

Napoleon participated in a coup which ended revolutionary government in 1799 (18 Brumaire, Year VIII-9 November, 1799).


He tolerated the revolutionary calendar for the next 5 years, but, after he made himself emperor, 11 Frimaire, Year XIII–2 December, 1804,


a decree was issued that, beginning 1 January, 1806, the old Gregorian calendar would be reinstated.

During the days of the Terror


and the Scarlet Pimpernel, however,


when Sir Percy Blakeney put down a rescue date on his calendar in Paris, he would have written January 1, 1794 as “day 2 of the second decade of Snowy, year II, “ a day devoted to “Argile”—“Clay”.

Thanks, as always, for reading.



Death, Within 24 Hours


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As always, dear readers, welcome—and please forgive the rather forbidding title!

It’s just that, recently, we’ve been rereading Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870)


novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities (1859), which first appeared in serial form in Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round


before being published in book form the same year.


Dickens was inspired in part by Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881)


three-volume History of the French Revolution (1837, second edition 1857).


What Carlyle wrote about and Dickens novelized was a very complex event.  France, before the beginning of the Revolution in 1789, was in desperate straits, beginning with its social system.  All of French society was divided into three “estates”.  Here’s a “nice” picture of them.


Here’s a chart to show you what these divisions meant in terms of the economic structure.


And it’s easy to see, from this, why such caricatures as these typified, at the time, the truth of how the estates system worked for the benefit of the top two and very much against that of the third.



(The labeling of the rock in this last image points to some of the elements of the heavy financial burden on the Third Estate.  Taille is a land tax levied upon all land-holding non-nobles.  Impots might be translated as “income tax”, but more complicated (if possible!).  Corvee went back to feudal times and was a system of unpaid labor for a certain number of days per year, to the state and to lords who rented land to tenants.)

This meant that a great deal of the Third Estate, both in towns and in the country, was desperately poor and often on the edge of starvation.


A major problem was that such a tax base, though broad, was always being squeezed beyond its limits, meaning that the royal government (in 1789, this meant Louis XVI–1754-1793) was always struggling to find the money both to pay off back debts and to keep itself in funds in the present.  Then, when there were added expenses—such as the American War for Independence (1775-1783), in which the French played a major role from 1778 to the end—


new loans and new debts were created.

And the expenses didn’t stop there as the French, anxious about the power of the British Navy


and the closeness of many of its ports to Britain,


embarked upon a building campaign to further strengthen its harbor defenses.


(We’ve cheated a little with this last image—it and the previous one are actually from a series of paintings of the major ports of France by Claude-Joseph Vernet—1714-1789–commissioned by Louis XV, the grandfather of Louis XVI, and done between 1753 and 1765, but it gives you the idea of busy French ports in the 18th century.)

(And an interesting little sidelight—if you read us regularly, you know we can never resist these—this Vernet may be a direct ancestor of Sherlock Holmes, who tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”–1893 —“My ancestors were country squires, who appear to have led much the same life as is natural to their class. But, none the less, my turn that way is in my veins, and may have come with my grandmother, who was the sister of Vernet, the French artist. Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.”)

Finally, in the 1780s, the whole system began to collapse.  Louis’ government (meaning the King and its ministers—there was no elected element in the royal government) tried to call a meeting of representatives of the Three Estates, the Estates General, in the late spring/summer, 1789,


but it was a flop.  Louis had the Third Estate locked out and, instead of going home, they, with a few members of the First and Second, went down the street to an indoor tennis court and founded their own government, the National Assembly.


They soon produced a document, entitled “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”,


their second step towards changing the whole government and social structure of France.

Meanwhile, the people of Paris carried out their own form of changing things, assaulting the King’s fortress on the eastern side of Paris’ defenses, the Bastille.


You can tell that things are really crumbling when you realize that the men in blue coats and fuzzy hats in the center are actually members of the one of the units of the King’s bodyguard, the Garde Francaise.


Events quickly begin to speed up:  the King gradually lost his royal powers and became “Citizen King”,


wearing the “liberty cap” patriots wore


and drinking toasts straight out of the bottle—like any good “Sans-culotte”.  Culottes were the knee britches worn by people on the rise—


whereas “honest men” wore workman’s clothes with long trousers and, if they could obtain one, that red cap.


As time roared by, it became clearer and clearer that the previous administration was gone for good and that the Third Estate was now in charge.


Louis, terrified, tried to run away with his family, but was caught,


brought back to Paris basically under arrest and, before he knew it, on trial for his life.


The trial lasted most of December, 1792, and the King was executed in January, 1793,


followed by his wife, Marie Antoinette


in October.


But this was only the beginning of a wave of government bloodshed, now called “The Reign of Terror”, (“La Terreur” in French), in which a part of the state—the “Committee of Public Safety”, under Maximilien Robespierre,


sent thousands of people to their deaths, mainly but not entirely by guillotine, a medieval invention revived and used across France.


People who had done nothing or, at most, had made a passing remark critical of the Revolution could be swept up into a court


in which there was little or no defense and the usual sentence, if arrested, was “Death within twenty-four hours”.


One can see that, in England, with its Parliament and increasing wealth and stability, what went on in France, which many in England originally saw in its first—non-violent—stages as a positive thing, soon became nothing but a hideous cannibal feast.


And it’s into this world that Dickens, in the latter part of his novel, moves his main characters, in a story of family revenge entangled in the bloody days of the Terror.

Dickens is not alone in seeing this as a great opportunity for a novelist.  A long time ago, we wrote a post which included the Baroness Orczy (1865-1947)—say that OR-tsee–


who, beginning with a short story, and then a play (1903)


and then the first of a whole series of novels, beginning in 1905,


created the first wimp-who’s-really-a-superhero in Sir Percy Blakeney, AKA, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”.  In London, Sir Percy is an overdressed, drawling clown, but, in France, he is a daring rescuer of endangered noblefolk.  As early film gradually became more sophisticated, the first Pimpernel version appeared in 1917,


followed by what many believe was the classic version in 1934, starring Leslie Howard.


Although we enjoy that one, our particular favorite may be the 1982 version, with Anthony Andrews as the Pimpernel.


The casting for this film actually takes us back to Tolkien in a funny way.  The villain is an agent of the Terror, named “Citizen Chauvelin”.


Put a long white beard on him and age him many years and who is he?


Thanks, as always, for reading!





If you would like to know more about the French Revolution, we can’t recommend highly enough Simon Schama’s Citizens (1990).


It’s a fat book full of all kinds of histories—cultural, political, social—and, with this volume in hand, you can quickly get a good basic grasp of a very large and complicated—and endlessly fascinating—subject.  (And, if you enjoy history, it’s a page-turner.)


And, if you’d like to know more about the Pimpernel, here’s a LINK to the website.



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As always, dear readers, welcome.

The war around Troy was a very complicated thing, with traditions stretching in all directions.  In one, the Greeks actually sailed to Troy twice, the first time missing it entirely and landing in Mysia, to the east of Troy.


There, the Greeks were met by local defenders under their king, Telephus, who was wounded by Achilles


before the Greeks realized their mistake and withdrew.

After they’d gone, Telephus’ wound simply wouldn’t heal, but, after consulting oracles, he was told that there was a cure:  rust from the spear which had wounded him.  The Greeks had gone back to Greece to regroup and to try again, so Telephus went after them to request that Achilles treat the wound which he had made.  For some reason, Achilles refused, so Telephus grabbed the High King Agamemnon’s baby son, Orestes, and threatened to kill him if Achilles didn’t grant his request.


(This  scene bordered on the edge of hilarious to the Greeks and was the subject of parodies in ancient times—here’s a pot with one, Orestes being replaced by a wineskin.)


The threat worked and Achilles healed Telephus.


This isn’t the only example of the wound which won’t heal to be found in the Trojan material.  Philoctetes, who had inherited Heracles’ bow (given to him by Heracles because he helped with Heracles’ funeral pyre), was on his way with the other Greeks to Troy when he was bitten by a snake.  The wound wouldn’t heal and smelled so bad that the Greeks left him—and the bow—behind (this is one version—there are others).


Later in the story, however, a prophecy told the Greeks that they wouldn’t take Troy without the bow.  (By late in the Troy tradition, there had piled up  a number of these conditions—rather like the horcruxes in the Harry Potter books—all to keep the story going.)  Odysseus and Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, went off to persuade—or steal—the bow (in one version—there are lots of others) and eventually persuaded Philoctetes to come to Troy with the bow, where he was healed and used the bow to aid the Greeks.


The theme of the unhealing wound reappears in western medieval literature in several places.  In the story of Tristan and Iseult,


Tristan is wounded fighting an Irish giant


and, as in the Greek stories of Telephus and Philoctetes, the wound won’t heal.  The theme appears again in the story of the Holy Grail—and like the Troy tradition, it has many versions.  In some, the last guardian of the Grail is a wounded king (sometimes called the “Fisher King”) .


But, if you’re a regular reader, you know where this is leading.  On Weathertop, Frodo is attacked by the Nazgul.


He is wounded with a morgul knife


and the tip of the blade not only remains in the wound, but begins to travel towards Frodo’s heart.  He is saved by Elrond’s healing powers, but, somehow, things are never quite the same and, some time after the hobbits return to the Shire–

“One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange.  He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.

‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.

‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”)

We began with Greeks and the complex epic of Troy, then passed through a pair of medieval stories to The Lord of the Rings, but something in all of these tales interested us in what seemed a common theme:  protecting something, keeping something, can bring long-lasting harm to the protector/keeper, even if done for the best of reasons.  It’s less clear if this pertains to Philoctetes, but Telephus was defending his country, as was Tristan in fatally wounding the Irish giant, who was leading an invasion force to Cornwall, where Tristan lived.  The Fisher King is the guardian of the Grail.

Frodo clearly has come to understand this and, when the time comes, he goes with Bilbo and Gandalf and others to the Grey Havens and beyond, saying to Sam:

“…But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam.  I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.  It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger:  some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”image13grey.jpg


(These are two very different versions of the leave-taking at the Grey Havens—first, the Hildebrandts’, second, Alan Lee’s.)

Thanks, as always, for reading.



On the Horns


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Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Our friend, Erik, once said that one of his very favorite passages from The Lord of the Rings began with this:  “And as if in answer there came from far away another note.  Horns, horns, horns.  In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed.  Great horns of the North, wildly blowing.  Rohan had come at last.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, “The Siege of Gondor”)

Of course this brings on the charge of the Rohirrim, one of our own favorite moments in the Jackson films.


And what is more exciting than a cavalry charge (as long as you don’t think too hard about the fate of the horses)?


Those horns begin blowing because Theoden:

“…seized a great horn from Guthlaf his banner-bearer, and he blew such a blast upon it that it burst asunder.  And straightaway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)

A number of images immediately come into our minds when reading this.

First, when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli initially come to Edoras and enter Meduseld,


(This is a particularly fine possible Meduseld by Inger Edelfeldt.)

they look up to see:

“Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their 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”)


Thus, we’re reminded of an earlier rescue, when Eorl brought the Rohirrim out of the north in TA2510 to aid Gondor in defeating a combined army of orcs and Easterlings.

Second, anyone interested in Western medieval literature would be reminded of the early French poem, the Chanson de Roland (c1000AD),


in which Roland, a young warrior and leader of the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, refuses to blow his horn for reinforcements when his men are ambushed in a pass, saying that to do so would be cowardice.


Rather than his horn exploding, Roland’s head does, from the exertion, but the broken horn makes us think of Boromir’s last stand, where he blows his horn, but no help comes until it’s too late.


All that we know of the horn which Theoden blew was that it was “great”—that is, big—but perhaps it looked like Boromir’s?

“On a baldric he worn a great horn tipped with silver that was now laid upon his knees.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”)  Here’s a medieval one from the British Museum.


It should be remembered, of all of these horns, that they have a military use, both in Middle-earth and in our world, as a method of transferring commands from officers to soldiers, both in and out of battle, and what Theoden is actually doing is the musical equivalent of shouting CHARGE! to his 6000-man eored.  Nowhere is the military use of horns made clearer for earlier warfare than in the writing of the late Roman (4th c. AD) author, Vegetius.  In Book II of his De Re Militari (“Concerning Military Affairs”) he describes the use of such instruments:

“The music of the legion consists of trumpets, cornets and buccinae. The trumpet sounds the charge and the retreat. The cornets are used only to regulate the motions of the colors; the trumpets serve when the soldiers are ordered out to any work without the colors; but in time of action, the trumpets and cornets sound together. The classicum, which is a particular sound of the buccina or horn, is appropriated to the commander-in-chief and is used in the presence of the general, or at the execution of a soldier, as a mark of its being done by his authority. The ordinary guards and outposts are always mounted and relieved by the sound of trumpet, which also directs the motions of the soldiers on working parties and on field days. The cornets sound whenever the colors are to be struck or planted. These rules must be punctually observed in all exercises and reviews so that the soldiers may be ready to obey them in action without hesitation according to the general’s orders either to charge or halt, to pursue the enemy or to retire. F or reason will convince us that what is necessary to be performed in the heat of action should constantly be practiced in the leisure of peace.” (This is taken from a 1944 digest of the 1767 translation by John Clarke—if you would like to see the Latin original, here’s a LINK to a text.  The relevant passage is:  “XXII. Quid inter tubicines et cornicines et classicum intersit.”)

The three Latin terms translated as “trumpets, cornets and buccinae” are actually, “tubicines cornicines bucinatores”, meaning “players of tubae, players of cornua, players of buccinae”.   In this ancient relief, we can see, on the left, tuba-players, and, in the center, either players of cornu, or the buccina, as the instruments appear to be rather hard to distinguish in shape.


And here’s a modern reconstruction, by Peter Connolly.


We live in a world of such rapid electronic communication


that it might be easy to forget that, for centuries, any order beyond the sound of a general’s voice had to be transferred by other means.  Like Greek trumpeters,


or Roman


or medieval mounted messengers (the Latin says “messengers of William”).


Drums might be used—


and the early 18th-century British general, the Duke of Marlborough even had his own foot-messenger squad, wearing distinctive clothing (one, in blue, with a jockey cap, is just to the left of the Duke in this tapestry).


But what, we asked above, is more exciting than a cavalry charge (we once did a posting devoted specifically to them)—and what makes that more exciting than the trumpeter at the front, sounding the charge?



Thanks, as always, for reading.



Ring Composition


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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

The title of this essay is derived from a technique in heroic literature, in which, in some way, the story/song ends, more or less where it began, just like a ring—or the Midgard Serpent, which encircles the earth in Norse mythology.


Thinking about ring composition made us think, of course, about the Ring


and to ask ourselves a question about the composition of The Lord of the Rings:  where did the idea of a powerful ring come from?

There has been a lot of scholarly work about what influenced JRRT, some of which he himself agreed with, some he did not.  For instance, the suggestion that Richard Wagner’s  (1813-1883)


huge 4-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen,   “The Ring of the Nibelung” (1848-1874)


might have provided a spark was vigorously dismissed by Tolkien—although, to our minds, there is a certain similarity—the ring of the title is a magical one, after all, whose power would allow the owner to rule the world—but it’s accursed and only brings unhappiness—or worse– to anyone who possesses it.  And yet characters in the four operas which make up the cycle struggle over its possession.   There, however, the similarity ends.  The maker of the ring isn’t a semi-divine figure who’s attempting to rebuild his kingdom through a combination of his magical powers and his political abilities, but, rather, a dwarf, named Alberich, who has stolen the gold from which the ring is made from the Rhine Maidens, and, in return, Alberich must give up love, which he renounces.


He soon loses the ring and there is no parallel with the Shire, or with hobbits:  this is a world with gods and heroes, all larger-than-life, and Sam, in particular, would feel very out of place here.  Just contrast the Hildebrandts’ Frodo and Sam meeting Faramir with this children’s theatre character sheet depicting the figures from the last of the four operas, Goetterdaemmerung, “The Gods’ Twilight”.



We would suggest that a stronger influence might be found in JRRT’s interest in Old English literature.  In that literature, Anglo-Saxon kings and lords are known as “ring-givers” and “gold-givers”,




who reward their followers—as well as singers—with precious decorations–as the poet in the poem called Widsith tells us:

Likewise I was among the Eatula with Ælfwine,
he had the lightest hand of all mankind, as I have heard,
to perform his praises, the most generous in the sharing of rings,
the bright bracelets, the child of Eadwine. (68-74)

(translation by Prof. Aaron K. Hostetter of Rutgers University, Camden—here’s a LINK so that you can read the whole poem—and much more—at his website—he has a wonderful project to translate a mass of Old English literature and has done a great deal to make it all accessible in one place.  As for Widsith, there’s a very useful Wiki article, if you’re interested.  Here’s a LINK to it.)

Whereas there might be some distant influence in the making of a powerful ring in Wagner’s operas, the giving of rings makes us think of Sauron, when he reappears in the Second Age.  At that time, he comes in the guise of “Annatar”, “Lord of Gifts” and, to gain power over the Elves, encourages them to make rings, all the while creating his own to overpower and master them.  As his power grows, he collects all of the rings he can (he never succeeds in getting the last three Elven rings) and doles them out, like those Anglo-Saxon kings and lords, to attempt to control dwarves and men, as well:

“But Sauron gathered into his hands all the remaining Rings of Power; and he dealt them out to the other peoples of Middle-earth, hoping thus to bring under his sway all those that desired secret power beyond the measure of their kind.” (The Silmarillion, 288)

The theme in both Wagner and The Silmarillion is that of supernatural control through what appears to be a rather ordinary object, a ring, something which, when Bilbo first finds it, is described as nothing more than “a tiny ring of cold metal” (The Hobbit, Chapter 5, “Riddles in the Dark”).  Tolkien may have been influenced by its appearance in opera, and more likely, by the use of rings in Old English, but there is an older possibility:

“Outside school-room hours his mother gave him plenty of story-books…The Arthurian legends also excited him.  But most of all he found delight in the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang, especially the Red Fairy Book, for tucked away in its closing pages was the best story he had ever read.  This was the tale of Sigurd who slew the dragon Fafnir:  a strange and powerful tale set in the nameless North.” (Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien, A Biography, 31)

Andrew Lang (1844-1912),


who might be considered a perfect example of the Victorian literary figure, having  written novels, poems, criticism, travelogues, and early anthropological works, had also begun publishing a series of collections of stories for children, each one of the series being bound in a different color.


His wife, Leonora Blanche Alleyne (1851-1933), did most of the editing after the initial volumes, publishing, in all, a dozen volumes between 1889 and 1910.  The Red Fairy Book (1890) was the second in the series


and it was in this volume that a little boy


first discovered dragons—and perhaps magic rings, as well, as in the story of Sigurd, we find:

“Now there was at that time a dwarf called Andvari, who lived in a pool beneath a waterfall, and there he had hidden a great hoard of gold. And one day Otter had been fishing there, and had killed a salmon and eaten it, and was sleeping, like an otter, on a stone. Then someone came by, and threw a stone at the otter and killed it, and flayed off the skin, and took it to the house of Otter’s father. Then he knew his son was dead, and to punish the person who had killed him he said he must have the Otter’s skin filled with gold, and covered all over with red gold, or it should go worse with him. Then the person who had killed Otter went down and caught the Dwarf who owned all the treasure and took it from him.

Only one ring was left, which the Dwarf wore, and even that was taken from him.

Then the poor Dwarf was very angry, and he prayed that the gold might never bring any but bad luck to all the men who might own it, for ever.” (Lang, editor, “The Story of Sigurd”)

And this is not the only ring to be found in The Red Fairy Book.

In the “Draft of a letter to ‘Mr. Rang’ ”, dated by Tolkien as “Aug. 1967”, JRRT has this to say about the origin of the name Moria:

“In fact this first appeared in The Hobbit chap.1.  It was there, as I remember, a casual ‘echo’ of Soria Moria Castle in one of the Scandinavian tales translated by Dasent.  (The tale had no interest for me:  I had already forgotten it and have never since looked at it…)” (Letters, 384)

The “Dasent” mentioned here is Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817-1896), lawyer, civil servant, and sometime professor of English Literature and Modern History at King’s College, London, who, in 1859, had published Popular Tales from the Norse, a translation from the Norwegian of a series of pamphlets and books by Asbjornsen and Moe under the general title “Norske Folkeeventyr” (“Norse Folktales”), published between 1841 and 1871.   By the third edition (1888), Dasent had added, among other works, a story entitled “Soria Moria Castle”.  Tolkien may have seen any one of the several different editions of this work as an adult, but, as a child, he would have first read “Soria Moria Castle” in the same Red Fairy Book in which he had encountered Sigurd and the dragon.  (Here’s a LINK to the Lang if you would like to see the two stories as JRRT would have.)

Beyond the title and its hint of Dwarfish mines, however, there is also a magic ring to be found in this story, given to the hero, Halvor, by three princesses whom he has rescued from trolls:

“Then they dressed him so splendidly that he was like a King’s son; and they put a ring on his finger, and it was one which would enable him to go there and back again by wishing, but they told him that he must not throw it away, or name their names; for if he did, all his magnificence would be at an end, and then he would never see them more.” (“Soria Moria Castle”)

JRRT was born in 1893.  We don’t know exactly when his mother may have handed him Lang’s collection, but it was in childhood, according to his own recollection.  Thus, the Ring—disguised as a ring—may have entered his life long before he heard an opera, or studied an earlier form of his native language.

The Lord of the Rings has a ring in its composition and we began this posting with talk of ring composition, but now we’re going to conclude by breaking loose from that ring by suggesting that perhaps that was the ultimate purpose in the original choice of the Ring for JRRT:  to symbolize completion not by circling back, but by the breaking of a seemingly unbreakable circle.  Sauron, once the servant of Melkor, but having great power of his own, has used that power not only to return and return through the ages from defeat, but to fashion a master ring, one which controls all others, giving him even more strength.  At the same time, it had required such strength to make such a ring that, at its destruction:

“ ‘The realm of Sauron is ended!’ said Gandalf. ‘The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.’  And as the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky.  Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast, threatening hand, terrible but impotent:  for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen”)


(Another wonderful illustration by one of our favorite Tolkien illustrators, Ted Nasmith)

As Gandalf has said of the Ring:

“If it is destroyed, then he will fall, and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again. For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 9, “The Last Debate”)

Thus, after the Ring was destroyed, so was the ring of Sauron’s return in age after age, bringing about what we might then call “ring de-composition”and the story ends not where it began, but going towards old places—the Grey Havens and beyond—for some, and new places—the Fourth Age—for others.

Thanks, as ever, for reading.




Can we resist saying one thing more?  JRRT couldn’t—but was he thinking of a teaser for a sequel when Gandalf added to what he’d said above:

“Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary.”?

A Little Ring, the Least of Rings


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Welcome, readers, as always, and, if it’s part of your culture, Happy New Year!

We’ve recently been reading a book about Napoleon


and his first fall, in 1814.  He was forced to abdicate,


thereby losing the massive empire he had built up in the early 19th century.


His many enemies had a number of possibilities as to what to do with him.  They could, for example, have imprisoned him, as Edmond Dantes is in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (serialized 1844-46), in a fortress like the Chateau d’If.


Or, more radically—but certainly very effectively—they could have permanently removed him by the same means by which revolutionary France removed his predecessor, Louis XVI.


Instead, they allowed him not only to live, but even to continue to be a kind of monarch—although only of a tiny island, Elba, off the west coast of Italy.


They thought they’d seen the last of him, leaving him to spend the rest of his life as a sovereign of a ragged collection of fishermen and farmers.


For Napoleon, however, who always saw himself as destined for only the greatest things, being king of Elba must have felt to him rather like the way the genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) expresses the contrast in his life–


That being the case, Napoleon lived on Elba for less that a year before he planned and accomplished his escape.


Back in France, he was welcomed by the very soldiers sent to stop him,



raised new armies,



marched north to deal with his nearest enemies, Prussia and England, and was finally—and permanently—defeated at Waterloo, 18 June, 1815.



This time, his enemies, having learned their lesson, sent Napoleon as far away from Europe as they could and to a much less hospitable place, the island of St Helena, in the South Atlantic,


where he died in 1821.


From his first success, at the siege of Toulon in 1793,


Napoleon had climbed and climbed until, by 1801, he was the real ruler of France (as “First Consul”)


and then, in 1804, Emperor.


And yet, it was never enough, which reminds us of so many of the “great conquerors” of history, from Alexander,



to Jinghiz Khan and his successors,



to Hitler.



In every case throughout history, no conqueror has ever had enough and, if we move out of this earth to Middle-earth, we find Sauron, a figure in many ways like all of these earthly conquerors, who, although defeated by an alliance of Elves and Men in the past, has returned and, in time, reacquired immense power.  To begin with, he has the entire realm of Mordor.


He has also somehow gained the means to create giant fortifications (sometimes based upon older constructions), like the Barad-dur


and the Morannon and all of the other inner and outer works of Mordor.


He also controls the Nazgul,


massive armies of orcs,


as well as allies from the Harads and Umbar.


All of which he has done, it seems, by whatever innate powers he possesses—without the Ring.  And this made us wonder:  what is it that the Ring actually does for its wearer that Sauron wants it back?

Certainly, the only power Gollum appears to have gotten from the Ring is that of invisibility (and the side-effect of longevity).


This is true for Bilbo, as well,


and for Frodo–


although, when Frodo puts on the Ring on Weathertop, he is plunged into a kind of alternate dimension, seeing the Nazgul as they really are


and, again, on Ammon Hen, he is put into direct contact with the Ring’s real owner.


Does this suggest that the Ring’s power is only as powerful as the Ring’s current wearer? Galadriel confirms this when Frodo asks her about the other rings: “why cannot I see all the others and know the thoughts of those that wear them?”

To which she replies:

“Did not Gandalf tell you that the rings give power according to the measure of each possessor?”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)

This then accounts for Gandalf’s almost violent explanation when Frodo offers it to him:

“’No!’ cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.’ His eyes flashed and his face was lit as by a fire within. ‘Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.’” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)

Or when Frodo offers it to Galadriel:

“You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)


Sauron has been able to accomplish so much without the Ring—what would happen should he ever wear it again?  In “The Shadow of the Past”, Gandalf tells Frodo that it controls the other rings—even the three long-concealed from Sauron:

“The Three are hidden still.  But that no longer troubles him. He only needs the One; for he made that Ring himself, it is his, and he let a great part of his own former power pass into it, so that he could rule all the others.  If he recovers it, then he will command them all again, even the Three, and all that has been wrought with them will be laid bare, and he will be stronger than ever.”

And, just as important—maybe even more so—Sauron has based his place of power and refuge, his sure foundation in Middle-earth, upon it, as Elrond tells the council:

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

So, then, just as Napoleon, exiled on Elba, could plot and accomplish return, given the Ring, Sauron, defeated before, could return and, with a greed for conquest as insatiable as that of the French emperor, reappear again and again in Middle-earth, where there was no St Helena to keep him for good.


Thanks for reading!






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Welcome, as always, dear readers.

At the end of Star Wars 1:  The Phantom Menace, the Gungan leader, Boss Nass, raises a large crystalline globe and shouts, “Peace!”


After all of the chaos which comes before, including the death or capture of many of the Gungans in battle with the forces of the Trade Federation,


this declaration, including that mysterious globe, sounds a happy and satisfied note.

As a young man, just finished with university, Second Lieutenant Tolkien



saw a great deal of the effects of war upon western Europe




and must have rejoiced as both soldiers and civilians did at the news of the armistice, 11 November, 1918.



He then went on with his life, having married during the war, eventually produced four children, and worked his way rather rapidly up the academic ladder during the 1920s and 1930s.


Along with various scholarly works, he published, in 1937, The Hobbit.


The Great War (the First World War to people in the US) was supposed, in HG Wells’


1914 book title,  to be “The War That Will End War”.


Instead, combined with everything from financial disasters in the 1920s and ‘30s to the rise of dictators during that same period,


there was a Second World War, with even more destruction.



The end of this brought more relief and rejoicing.


It did not, however, bring an end to war, either, and Tolkien’s England—along with much of western Europe—had suffered horribly through the six years of this second war, damage which lasted for years after its end.


During the same period, however, he continued both his academic and creative work,


and, of course, the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings appeared in the mid-1950s.


Since then, the world has suffered war after war—so many that we would have difficulty listing them all, even if we wanted to—and massive destruction by weapons which are increasingly more effective.


It is so in the Star Wars galaxy, of course.  Boss Nass’ cry would be a short-lived one.  The victory on Naboo was only the beginning of a massive war between the Republic and the Separatists.


This was then succeeded by the First Galactic Empire,


during which at least one planet, Alderaan, was destroyed.


But, when the Empire was eventually defeated,


the cycle seemed to begin all over again with the rise of The First Order.


None of this, fictional or real, would, we think, have surprised JRRT.  After all, not only had he seen the real horrific destruction of two World Wars, but he had imagined and depicted scenes of similar violence and destruction, especially in The Lord of the Rings.  We have only to remember the ruin of Isengard,


the wreckage at Minas Tirith,


and, of course, the decimation of the Shire.


But what cure—even temporary—would he have suggested for such savagery and waste?  We would suggest that, although as a firm believer, he would assume that a return to the Garden of Eden


was permanently out of human reach—


yet gardens and the trees within and around them were not.  And we remember Galadriel’s gift to Sam:

“For you little gardener and lover of trees, …I have only a small gift… Here is set G for Galadriel,…but it may stand for garden in your tongue. In this box there is earth from my orchard, and such blessing as Galadriel has still to bestow is upon it. It will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril; but if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there. Then you may remember Galadriel, and catch a glimpse far off of Lórien, that you have seen only in our winter. For our spring and our summer are gone by, and they will never be seen on earth again save in memory.”

(The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 8, “Farewell to Lorien”)

For Tolkien, who loved trees more than almost anything,


perhaps this would have been enough.


Thanks, as always, for reading.  At the turn of the Western year, we wish you peace and prosperity in the year to come.



Hands Down


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As always, dear readers, welcome.

Recently, we quoted the leader of the Uruk-hai, Ugluk:

“We are the fighting Uruk-hai!  We slew the great warrior.  We took the prisoners.  We are the servants of Saruman the Wise, the White Hand:  the Hand that gives us man’s-flesh to eat.”  (The Two Towers,  Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)

That White Hand is, of course, Saruman’s


special badge (in our contemporary world, we might say that it was his “logo”), which we see for the first time on the shield of a dead orc:

“There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands.  They were armed with short broad-bladed swords, not with the curved scimitars usual with Orcs; and they had bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men.  Upon their shields they bore a strange device:  a small white hand in the centre of a black field… (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”)


We can imagine why Sauron has that red eye


for his emblem—fiery to indicate Sauron’s turbulent nature (and perhaps relation to Satan—another fallen angel/Maia), plus unblinking, to show that, like Big Brother,


he’s always watching—a fact rather broadly expressed in the Jackson films, where the eye has been turned into a searchlight—or, at best, a lighthouse beacon.  (And yes, this is a Barad-dur desk lamp.)


But why does Saruman use a white hand?  And which direction should it face?  In the films, it seems to be applied upside down


which, to us seems like the wrong way up—besides being more difficult to apply as face paint.  What is the meaning of the symbolic use of that hand?

This put us to thinking about hands in The Lord of the Rings in general.  We considered the Ring on and off various hands and even those who lost a finger wearing it, but these all seemed rather passive and, thinking of what Ugluk says, we imagine Saruman’s hand as active.  That being the case, the first prominent hand we could think of was that of the Barrow-wight:

“[Frodo] heard behind his head a creaking and scraping sound.  Raising himself on one arm he looked, and saw now in the pale light that they were in a kind of passage which behind them turned a corner  Round the corner a long arm was groping, walking on its fingers towards Sam, who was lying nearest, and towards the hilt of the sword that lay upon him.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-downs”)


This is certainly a menacing thing and reminds us of something from the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, where to indicate the deaths of the first-born of Egypt (from the Book of Exodus, Chapter 11, in the Hebrew Bible), the film makers showed viewers this—


a kind of spindly green hand, which can still creep us out as its function is to grasp things—in this case a sword which will be used to sacrifice the hobbits.

Our next hand—or hands–were those of Galadrielimage8galadriel.jpg

when she takes Frodo and Sam to her Mirror and tells them about the struggle with Sauron:

“She lifted up her white arms and spread out her hands towards the East in a gesture of rejection and denial.”  (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 7, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)

Long ago, we did a posting on that gesture, which comes right out of 19th-century rhetorical and theatrical practice.  As this plate illustrates, such gestures were stylized and memorized for their effect on the speaker’s platform, as well as the stage.


We were reminded of our final hands by Galadriel’s gesture:  the Argonath,


described as:

“Upon great pedestals founded in the deep waters stood two great kings of stone:  still with blurred eyes and crannied brows they frowned upon the North.  The left hand of each was raised palm outwards in gesture of warning; in each right hand there was an axe…” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 9, “The Great River”)

So far, we’ve seen hands which grasp, hands which reject, and hands which warn and perhaps we can imagine that all of these might be part of the message of Saruman’s white hand.  Saruman, in taking up the role of “Mini-Sauron”, has rejected the West he was sent to protect.  In his desire to build his own empire, he has allied himself with Sauron and made war on Rohan, attempting to grasp more and more territory while sacrificing his honor and purpose as one of the Maiar.  That he is not now what he seems to have been in the past should also be a warning of what he intends in the present and what, even maimed, he might be capable of in the future, as the Shire will learn when Saruman becomes Sharkey.

Is there more to this image?  We wouldn’t be surprised:  Sauron is intentionally kept off-stage, we believe to make him that much more menacing, so the real evil we see is, literally, in the hands of Saruman.


Thanks, as ever, for reading.